Memories of the Columbia River Gorge

Photo: Sandor Lao

We were extremely saddened by the fire that raged on through our beloved Columbia River Gorge starting in early September. The trails, waterfalls, foliage, and fauna in the gorge are significant to the Mazamas and to our community. Every year we collectively hike thousands of miles in the gorge—exploring its beauty, relishing in its lushness, and training our legs. Last year alone thousands of people participated in Mazama activities and classes in the gorge and hiked more than 10,000 miles on the trails.

We have heard from so many of you already about your deep personal connection with the area and the strong emotions you are feeling as this fire continues to burn. Here are some of your stories of what the Gorge means to you.

The Gorge Brought Me Back

Photo: Marti McCleskey

by Marti McCleskey

For me the Gorge was a place for emotional healing after a divorce that ended my 28-year marriage. I had been told for a long time all the things that I could not do. I decided to take up hiking, hoping the exercise would help me feel better. I was at an extreme low point and searching for hikes. I looked at the description for Eagle Creek. I must mention I was terrified of heights then. Maybe it was the description of the “Vertigo Mile” that made me decide to challenge myself, or maybe at that point I really didn't care if I did fall off of it. I can't really remember which, but I do know that on that particular day in Eagle Creek I came to several realizations.

The first was, “Wow! Eagle Creek is really, really beautiful!” The second was, “It is really cool to be standing on the edge of something that drops off like this.” And third, “I really want to find more hikes like this one.” Finally, “I can do this by myself.”

Something awoke inside of me that day, a growing sense of adventure that has since grown to climbing mountains, rock climbing, and even traversing the entire Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness and bagging most of the peaks in it along the way in one 75-mile, 17,000+ foot of elevation gain, four-and-a-half day through hike. I am thankful for that experience, all of my hikes I have done in the Gorge since that day, and the memories and photos I have of it before it was ravaged by this fire. I am thankful to the Gorge for bringing me back to life.

The Gorge Gave Me Plenty

Photo: Darrin Gunkel

by Darrin Gunkel

Summer of 2015 wasn’t a great year for Gorge waterfalls. Record low snowpack meant streams petered out early. So, not expecting a much beyond a fine stroll, my wife Karin and I set out one July afternoon on the Wahkeena-Multnomah Loop. We were in for a pleasantly palatable surprise. Who knew such a dry year could produce the bumper crop of huckleberries and thimbleberries we stumbled into! With all the dawdling to graze on the fruits of the forest and take pictures of wildflowers, we did the loop in a record (slow) three and a half hours.

The best moment, after watching Karin jumping to pick not-so-low hanging huckleberries, was her creation of the Woodland Amuse-bouche: thimbleberry wrapped in an oxalis leaf. The tart leaf and earthy berry combination opened for us a whole new dimension in forest nibbling. Too bad morel season was over; a few of our favorite mushrooms to accompany this treat would have landed us in Iron Chef territory, for sure.

The Gorge is Part of Me

Photo: Carmen La Macchia

by George Cummings

My love affair with the Columbia Gorge and the Mazamas began on July 26, 1959 when I joined a club hike on Observation Peak north of Carson, Washington. I had moved to Portland six weeks earlier and was working in a lab at what was then the University of Oregon Medical School (now OHSU). Two of my co-workers were Mazamas who, on finding that I liked hiking, told me that the club had a hiking program I might enjoy. So on that July Sunday morning at 7:30, I met up with a group of hikers in front of the Pacific Building on SW Salmon Street and got a ride with the Sazlow family. I don't remember anything about the hike itself, but I do remember that, instead of returning the way we had driven on the Oregon side, the Sazlow's chose to give me a better view of it—the best side they said—from the Washington side.

I hiked frequently with the club during the fall and winter and became a Mazama after taking Basic Climbing School in the spring of 1960 and climbing Mt. St. Helens. I have no idea how many times I have hiked on the best side in all seasons with friends, family, students, and alone in the 58 years since that first hike, but I know that its trails, streams, forests and hills are part of me, and I am grateful for that.

The Gorge Feels Like Home

Photo: John Leary
by Jenny Dempsey Stein

As a college student in New York in the early 90s, I worked at the library returning books to the shelves. While I was pondering my future, I found the tiny section of books about Oregon, and two stood out. One featured a black and white photo of Multnomah Falls, which I gaped at open-mouthed. The other featured a story about female forest rangers.

 My imagination took off, and soon I landed a Student Conservation Association position in the Gorge with a U.S. Forest Service team and was based at Multnomah Falls visitor center. I also did campfire talks, paraded on July 4th wearing a hot Smokey Bear outfit, sold items from the bookmobile, and traveled on the interpretive Lewis and Clark Amtrak train.

 While discovering hot springs, huckleberries, old growth trees, and eventually my fear of heights too, I “fell in love outward” as poet Robinson Jeffers coined the term, and my life, now to be lived out west, was never the same again.

The Gorge is a Place for Adventure

Photo: Trapper Sutterfield
by Thomas Gibbons

No picture, just memories: In the summer of 1940 when I was sixteen I hitchhiked up the old gorge highway to Tanner Creek. Several of us found rides with the construction workers building Bonneville Dam. This trip I was alone and planned to find the “trail” leading above the main waterfall of Tanner Creek that my friend Bill Lenahan had told me about.

At a point about one hundred yards below the falls I crossed the creek on a log jam and scrambled up a scree slope. Low and behold it ended at the opening to a gully that led steeply up to the left. The gully ended at approximately two hundred feet above the creek. A scramble left brought me out to the cliff face!
Now I was on a narrow trail, with a cliff below and above. It was so narrow I had to turn sideways to avoid my pack brushing the wall. As I proceeded upstream the narrow trail became more like a game trail, and wandered through a steep forested hillside. Passing another waterfall the canyon opened up and nice pools invited me to fish for native cutthroat.

With enough fish for dinner I looked for a bench on which to make camp. Around a bend in the creek was just the spot; but someone had erected two large cabin tents and built a nice fire pit. While debating where to make camp three adults walked into camp and said “Where did you come from?” When I told them they could hardly believe it was possible. They were engineers surveying for the main power line and construction road on the east slope of the canyon.

One of them knew my parents and suggested it might be wise to join them the next morning, a Saturday, to hike out. Upstream we connected with a trail that led about two miles to a road heading west to Larch Mountain. About fifteen years later I did the hike with my young bride, later Mazama President Lois Gibbons. When we got to the game trail we turned up slope to Munra Point ridge and down the rough trail to I-84.

A few years later I led a Mazama hike up the route. Unfortunately the trip is no longer possible. A crack in the gully over time widened from erosion and expansion from ice and the whole wall on the creek side fell into the creek and created a partial dam. But a few of us have great memories of a beautiful, and adventurous, trip!

The Gorge Will Rise Again

Photo: Sandor Lao

by Reena Clements

Every winter, AYM is invited to visit the Trails Club of Oregon's Nesika Lodge for an overnight backpack trip. Nesika, nestled near Multnomah Falls and Larch Mountain, recently lost both dorms to the Eagle Creek Fire, while the main lodge appears to be standing. A longstanding winter tradition, the annual Nesika trip is the perfect way to introduce our members to backpacking and to both our group and a sister hiking organization.

We have many fond memories and traditions at Nesika, both exploring trails, finding an old Buick deep in the Gorge and making new friends through board games, a potluck, trying to bake bread in the oven, and watching the Empire Builder go by on the opposite side of the Gorge. AYM feels deeply for the buildings Nesika has lost and will be there for Trails Club when the time comes to rebuild.

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