12.11.2010,10:35 PM
Oregon, Ho!: Columbia Gorge-eous

This trip back home was a cacophony of many opposing feelings. After being gone for over a decade, after living in Oregon for over a decade (1984-1998), my memories formed expectations for this return. We can't help that; its the way our mind works. Although we know things change over time, and intellectually we accept and expect that many things change in our absence, our expectations and anticipations of how and why things change sometimes elicit unexpected reactions within ourselves. Some of my reactions were stoic acceptance, some sadness, some glee, and a dose of shaking the head. Regardless, there is only one fact that can be relied on in this world not to change, and that is nothing stays the same.

Just like the emigrants on the Oregon Trail, the first, and only time I traveled the Columbia Gorge was when we moved west from Maine in 1984. After spending the entire summer crossing the country in a van, the Gorge and the river were icing on the cake. One can't help but feel awe at the size of that river, the looming canyons it cuts through, and the velvety soft slopes on the other side (Washington). The power of the volume of water that courses through, the forceful winds channeled down the gorge and the majestic hard cliffs bordering the south side of the highway and river are balanced by the more gentle opposing slopes of bunchgrass.

Songs, stories and movies have been made about this river. It served as the iconic example of domination over nature when the Bonneville Dam was built. It was the most treacherous and last body of water the emigrants crossed before landing in the Willamette Valley, the Oasis of the West. It has nurtured thousands of native people and served as home to the most controversial fish species of this nation: the salmon, which itself is the symbol of the Pacific Northwest.

You can't see, hear, or touch this river without some feeling of respect and wonder. It is the Mother Lode of Rivers, younger than the Mississippi, but more impressive. And when I saw it again after all those years, those impressions were just as strong.

But things change, too.

On the descent to the valley and before the Gorge, bunchgrass-covered hills of the Blue Mountains began to soften with less prominence. Many ranches dotted the landscapes.

Just before dropping down to the river side.

In many areas poplar trees have been planted; monocultures of rapidly growing trees for early harvest to supply the pulp and paper mills. Back when I was in college forestry track, this was a common practice in Maine. By that time, the Pacific Northwest and Idaho had gained prominence for timber to supply most of the Nation's lumber needs. Nearly all the virgin forests in Maine were long gone (at one time, Maine was 75% harvested!!), but the PNW seemed to have an endless supply of tall timber to feed the lumber mills. Maine then turned to growing poplar for  paper companies. It was considered a weed tree, rapidly growing and soft wood suited for paper production. So poplar was grown like corn, except harvesting was not an annual thing. (wet poplar wood smells like old cat pee; it was not my favorite tree)

Here you can see staggered plantings, three successive growth stands. And a closer look (these photos, and the subsequent were all taken while driving by and out the window)

Much of the Oregon side (south) of the river is typical canyon face: cliffs of basalt and volcanic rock. The north side in Washington has its share, too, but what stands out is the opposing gentle slopes stretching for miles along the river. As if a face-off between the two sides of the river.

Another difference is the land use: Washington side is dominated by agriculture and the Oregon side, where the terrain allows, is industrial or covered with urban-trend sprawl. Except for the stretch where the river is designated as a National Wild and Scenic River, man has made its imprints.

On the north side of the river were a few vineyards and wineries. The tall trees on the perimeter of the vineyards are a different species of poplar, often called Lombardy poplar (and very popular as a residential specimen tree planted in clumps). Although they are also susceptible to several diseases and bacterial problems, they do make a good windbreak when planted in rows. Their use here is as a windbreak for the powerful gale-force winds that channel down the Gorge.

Driving through the National Wild and Scenic River section.

Although the river is most known for the several dams, as the many electrical lines and poles everywhere attest, it seems silly not to take advantage of another power source (with less impact on the salmon). Texas Sunflowers!



posted by Macrobe
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