The Historic Columbia River Highway

Rowena Crest, June 2016

Rowena Crest in the Columbia Gorge. I shot this shortly bfore I injured my left knee in the Oneonta Gorge. Sometimes, it’s OK to shoot in the middle of the day. Camera: Hasselblad 500CM Lens: 50mm Carl Zeiss Film: Kodak Protra 160.

The Old Gorge Highway is still closed between Bridal Veil and Ainsworth due the aftermath of the Eagle Creek fire.  It’s  been a heartbreaking 9 months since the fire started.  Parenthetically, a small part of the fire re-ignted earlier this month.  It’s not out yet.  The deep places can smolder for a long time.  Multnomah Falls is open, and they opened the Pacific Crest Trail near Cascade Locks last week.

The HCRH has been the lifeblood of my photography since the mid 1990’s.  It’s been my little roller coaster in the Gorge, depending on how bad my brakes were.  Many times, I started at the Corbett exit, and stopped at the Portland, Women’s Forum viewpoint.  From there, I hit Latourell, Sheppard’s Dell, Bridal Veil, Wahkeena, Multnomah, and Horsetail before turning back toward Portland.  I didn’t understand at the time that the HCRH doesn’t end at Ainsworth.

Sections of the highway still exist, and are open to car traffic all the way to Biggs Junction.  I’m not talking about the ones opened up recently for bike traffic.  A section continues from Ainsworth to the John B. Yeon Trailhead.  From there, it mostly doesn’t exist apart from short stretches going through Cascade Locks and Hood River.  Starting at Mosier, however, it opens back up in earnest., and continues through The Dalles, and on to Biggs Junction.  From Biggs, you can drive East for a short way before a line of gravel blocks the roadway.  At one time, you could drive to Pendleton on that road.

It was only when I “discovered” Mosier about 10 years ago that I started to drive up to Rowena Crest.  A few years after that, I learned that it was actually a segment of the HCRH.  There are no tall waterfalls on this stretch.  There are, however, views as stunning as there are farther west.  Rowena Crest is one of those.  Dry Creek Canyon is another.  A little farther west is the Memaloose Overlook, and a short walk from there you can see the Columbia River’s Mosier Gap with its synclines, anticlines, and the Coyote Wall on the Washington side (you can see it from the overlook, but I like the view better from a few hundred feet west).

It’s the dry side of the Columbia Gorge beyond Hood River, so the vegetation changes.  Oregon White Oaks are the dominant tree, and the hills become grassy, and less rugged.  After June, the grasses turn golden, and the creeks run low, or even dry.  Below is the view from Rowena Crest.

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The Eastern Columbia Gorge.  

Windmills, Maryhill Loop Road


I’ve been falling in love with the eastern Columbia Gorge for about a decade, so one would think that the falling would be done by now.  I grew up in the deciduous forests of central Pennsylvania, where summers were lush, and the thunderstorms rolled in at the end of the hottest days, and the grass there stayed green until the cold of December made the landscape white.  The great, arid expanses of the American west, specifically Oregon for me, are like an alien planet.  I’m fascinated by the undulating hills, devoid of trees, and teeming with grasses that turn golden in mid June.  There’s a stark beauty that dryness creates.  It’s alien to me because I’m an an east coast boy, but it’s familiar and evocative as a “Roadrunner and Coyote” cartoon (yes, it’s in my blood because of Looney Toons).  The old west beckons from the 19th century in the American Psyche via western movies, but the windmills are ushering in the 21st century.  I’ll take both centuries.  I’ll take the landscape.  I’ll take the dry grasses and White Oak trees.  Throw in Google, wind power, and a camera from 1946, and I’m in heaven.   

The Oneonta Gorge and 5 Feet Down

There is a smaller gorge within the Cokumbia Gorge called the Oneonta Gorge.  It’s more of a slot canyon, but we’ll stick with “gorge” for now.  I’ll start by saying that I have no pictures of it.  Here’s why.

The Oneonta Gorge lies just east of Multnoma Falls (Oregon’s most popular natural wonder), and cuts perpendicular to the Columbia River.  Through it flows Oneonta Creek: a small stream that picks it’s way over waterfalls, around boulders and through log jams on the way to the Columbia.

I had wanted to hike it for years.  I finally had the chance one day after work.  I parked along the Historic Columbia River Highway, and walked to the gorge.

The going was easy at first.  A pair of large boulders presented the initial challenge.  I met a couple of women-of-a-certain-age there who were trying to get over them.  When I was young, these boulders would not have presented the slightest obstacle.  At age 52, I found myself wishing that I had done more yoga.  The women and I picked a path over, and made it with only minor damage.

Next came the log jam.  That was just a matter of balance.  I traversed the 20 or so feet of jumbled logs easily.  So far so good.  This was where I found out that the hike would be through the creek.  I tried to roll up my jeans, but they weren’t cooperating.  I started trudging through the water in increasingly wet and heavy clothing.  I clearly wasn’t dressed for it.  Still, I made it a quarter mile in, until the creek became too deep.  I decided to turn back.

I had been talking with one of the women, both of whom turned out to be Girl Scoutmasters.  I had stuck close to the older of the two in case she got hurt. I said goodbye when we caught up to her troop, and started back.

I was wet, but the air was warm.  I decided to use a fallen log to cross a section of creek.  At the other end, I was presented with a choice.  I could attempt to jump down to the ground, about 5 feet, or step down to a lower log and then down to the ground.  Both logs were wet.  My shoes were soaked.  Gravity made the choice for me, because I slipped, and fell off. I landed with both knees locked.

My left knee went to the right.

So, the woman with whom I had stuck close to be of help, came to my rescue with her Girl Scout troop.  They found me a stout stick, one of the Scoutmasters kep thold  of me while I hopped on one foot through the creek.

The going was hard. I’m grateful for the help I was provided.  My good leg got very tired.  Every slightest pressure on my left leg caused it to dislocate.  We finally reached the log jam after about a had an hour.  One of the Scoutmasters’ husbands shows up, and had the girls scout a path over the logs.

In a sitting position, with my bad leg held up, I lifted myself over, or sidled along, massive and rotted trees until I reached the boulders.  The girls had scouted well, because I had little difficulty getting to the others side.

Next came the final trek back to the road.  I was exhausted, and my good leg was giving birth out.  Another stroke of luck happened along: an Army medic on leave appeared on the scene.  He and the Scoutmaster’s husband fireman’s carried me the rest of the way.

After thanking everyone, I drove to the hospital.

After over four weeks on crutches,  I took my first steps on my own this morning. They weren’t graceful, and it hurt, but I’m on the mend.
Relegated to small cameras for the summer, I’ve shot mostly digital and 35mm since the incident.  I had the Hasselblad out once, but not being able to carry a tripod, I put it away for the immediate future.  Needless to say, the 8×10 camera is staying home too.

Thanks to all the Girl Scouts out there, and especially to the ones who came to my rescue.  Buy cookies.

Moving to the Columbia Gorge. 

The house is sold.  Part of the selling process was the Dismantling of the Darkroom.  It was a very sad day.  I tore apart the 7′ sink that I built, tore down the shelves, painted the walls white, and installed a carpet.  Another part of the selling was packing up the computer and scanner.  I have no way of producing work for display on the Internet for the next few months.  

  The Columbia Gorge offers not only a wealth of photographic opportunities, but also a chance for my wife to heal.  

This picture was taken near Goldendale, Washington, on a dusty back road to nowhere in particular.  We were driving out of Goldendale, when, from out of the dog-eared western songbook, this barn and wheel presented itself to us on a bone dry August afternoon, and we stopped to take a few pictures with infrared film.  

Wahkeena Falls, May 2014. Developed in coffee.

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I made an interesting experiment with this picture. I deliberately overexposed it to bring out the detail in the shadows, and, instead of my initial intention of reducing development to tame the highlights, I used a formula known as Caffenol CL, and stand developed the negative for 70 minutes.

This is a scan of the negative. I altered the curve a little to darken the deep shadows, but no other adjustments were necessary. In the darkroom, it should print fine on grade 2 paper.

Angel’s Rest Trail, Part 2

Adam Robins, a friend and fellow photographer, and I made it to the top of the Angel’s Rest trail today. I didn’t take as much gear, and I took more water. The trail was shrouded in mist, and a light rain fell at times. We heard thunder on occasion.

When we reached the top, there was very little to see, as we were inside a cloud. It was raining below us. Very odd. I took a few pictures with my Nikon F3, and we headed back down. Then, we celebrated our victory at McMennamins Edgefield.

It was a good day.