(By Terry Richard, Originally published in the Oregonian, Sunday, September 24, 2006)
In one of Oregon’s most special places, you can contemplate 500-year-old trees and experience a retro way of life
Almost nothing happened on my most recent visit to Opal Creek — or at least that’s how it seemed at the time.
I didn’t talk on the telephone because there was no phone.
I didn’t listen to talk radio because there was no reception.
I didn’t watch television because there was no TV.
I didn’t receive a single e-mail because there was no computer.
And I didn’t drive anywhere because my car was parked three miles away.
But I didn’t miss any of that, even though I was hardly roughing it.
I stayed two nights in a 1930s cabin that had a king bed, full kitchen, refrigerator, electric lights and modern plumbing with hot water for the bath and shower. A wood stove would have kept me warm, but the temperature was too mild to need it.
And I came away realizing that hardly anything has changed in the decade since Opal Creek was saved. Which is just fine for those who seek out the solitude and beauty of this old-growth forest in the Cascade foothills east of Salem.
Opal Creek, in the Willamette National Forest a 100-mile drive from Portland, is the name of the virgin valley that was the setting for one of the nation’s most contentious land conservation battles of the 1990s. With prodding from his constituents, Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield capped his career by getting Congress to protect Opal Creek as a scenic recreation area and wilderness on Oct. 3, 1996, the final legislative triumph of his 30-year Senate career.
As a result of that legislation, chain saws will never take down the 500-year-old trees. And the heavy equipment used to dig the mines at Jawbone Flats, one of Oregon’s most remote villages deep inside Opal Creek, won’t return now that the heavy-metal-laced mine tailings have been removed.
Opal Creek is both a place and a state of mind.
The place is 34,500 acres where heavily timbered valley bottoms and ridges harbor some of the clearest-running water in the world.
The state of mind comes with the understanding that here people chose long-term environmental values over short-term profits. (Most of Oregon’s other congressionally protected wilderness areas are in high-altitude zones with minimal commercial value.)
The journey to this special place begins at Mehama, 25 miles from Salem on the way to Santiam Pass. During my trip in August, Oregon 22 still didn’t have a sign noting Opal Creek, so the roadside pointer to the Little North Fork and Elkhorn Valley was the directional key.
The Little North Fork is the farthest-north branch of the Santiam River. It begins deep inside the Opal Creek area at Jawbone Flats, where Opal and Battle Ax creeks merge. The road follows the Little North Fork up into the forest, passing a string of riverside parks managed by Marion County and the Bureau of Land Management.
During warm summer days, after the river level has dropped and the water warms, the parks swarm with youngsters shouting and splashing in the shallows. The only campground in this section, the BLM’s 24-site Elkhorn Valley, was filled early on a Friday — and who would leave such a beautiful spot until they had to on Sunday?
The road continues past Elkhorn Valley Golf Course, one the state’s beautiful mountain courses, and Elkhorn Valley Inn, a B&B that is one of only two accommodations in the valley.
Switching from pavement to gravel at the national forest boundary, the road then comes to a Y intersection. The right branch leads to Three Pools, one of Oregon’s most popular river swimming holes, continues to a small campground and eventually reaches Oregon 22 near Detroit. The left branch ends at a locked gate, 21 miles from the highway and still three miles to Jawbone Flats.
The old mining town
Only service vehicles are allowed beyond the gate. Private vehicles park outside, where staff from the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center pick up gear and those few guests who want a ride; most prefer to hike the three miles through the ancient forest to the former mining town.
I kept my backpack with me and began hiking into what, in the winter, is one of the rainiest places in the Cascades. But this was summer, Oregon’s dry season, so I had left my rain gear at home. (Rain likely will begin in October, but autumn is especially gorgeous as the vine maples turn scarlet in the forest’s understory.)
The hike along the road climbs only 200 feet, but with a 40-pound pack I didn’t lollygag looking at trees. I would have plenty of time for that the next day
When I walked into Jawbone Flats, the 1930s mining town looked deserted. One group had left that morning and another was due the next day for multiday ecology seminars at the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center, the nonprofit educational foundation that owns the 27 buildings in the old town.
Most of the forest center’s lodging is in large cabins, expensive to rent because they handle 10 to 19 guests overnight. But there is one cabin, Cabin No. 1, which goes for $110 per night and is perfect for an individual or a couple. (I made my reservation in April for this late-summer stay.)
After a few minutes, someone appeared and showed me to my cabin. I dropped my pack, changed clothes and began exploring the village. It didn’t take long to see pretty much everything in town strung out along a single gravel street.
The north side is mostly cabins used by the staff, plus the company “store,” which was closed for the day. It’s main inventory is Opal Creek memorabilia, but outside on the porch is a soft drink machine that looks as though it could still serve a cold one. It’s one of those old-time machines where, after you put in a dime, a plastic cup falls down and the drink is mixed from two spigots. Unfortunately, it is for display only.
Public cabins line the south side of the street. My cabin was at the east end, with a view from the deck onto Battle Ax Creek. The melodic stream of water tumbling from a wooden shaft into the creek powers the turbines that give the town its electricity.
The main building, a three-story lodge, was next to my cabin. Its lower floor is used as a dining hall and for meetings, with rooms upstairs to sleep 17.
Two large cabins next to the lodge were built a few years ago as replacements for others destroyed by fire. They match the 1930s motif from the outside, but are modern and well-appointed inside. Their four bedrooms each sleep four guests.
Other buildings include a two-bedroom cabin and a building currently surrounded by a heap of rubble. A carpenter installing a new roof said his goal was to be finished with the reconstruction before the rainy season, then get another 75 years out of the building.
The industrial end of town across Battle Ax Creek is lined with the working water-driven power station, plus rusty old vehicles, some filled with thriving fern colonies. Old mining equipment is arranged neatly, no longer needed after the copper, zinc and lead ore failed to turn a profit.
Too few guests were in the village that night for the staff to prepare dinner, so I cooked stir-fry in my cabin and went to sleep when it got dark.
Too relaxing to work
I had thought I would hike the next day, either climbing 2,700 feet to the summit of Whetstone Mountain, or taking another trail that leads into the surrounding wilderness. Wrong. I found it so peaceful at Jawbone Flats that I could barely stir from my cabin.
I slept in late, took a two-mile loop hike to Opal Pool and Sawmill Falls, came back to take a nap, made lunch, took another nap, then hiked to Opal Creek’s scenic gems again.
Opal Pool, a quarter-mile upstream of Jawbone Flats, is where Opal Creek carves a slot in the bedrock before collecting into an aquamarine pool. Named not for the color of its water, but for the wife of a ranger, Opal Creek is all of five miles long from its wilderness headwaters at Opal Lake to its union with Battle Ax Creek at Jawbone Flats.
The 30-foot high Sawmill Falls, on the Little North Fork one mile below Jawbone Flats, is another busy summer swimming hole. The falls is also called by a Spanish name, Cascada de Los Ninos (Waterfall of the Children), in honor of Opal Creek’s sister forest in Costa Rica.
The falls is near the site of Merten Mill, an ill-fated 1930s logging attempt that ended after two log-hauling trucks fell from the road down the cliff. Rusty old equipment is scattered about the site’s one remaining building.
That evening, the staff served dinner — vegetable stir-fry and tossed salad — to a new group that was settling in for a week’s stay. Native Americans from the Portland area, they were welcomed by Agnes Pilgrim, 82, a great-great-grandmother who serves as a world ambassador for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz.
She spoke for nearly two hours, to seminar attendees and other visitors who wanted to sit in.
Among her many fascinating life stories was a meeting with the Dalai Lama, who commented on the three tattoos she recently had painted on her face — the first female member of her tribe to carry such marks in 104 years.
As a member of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, a global alliance dedicated to preserving the Earth, Pilgrim has traveled recently to Nepal, Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, Brazil and Opal Creek. She is planning to attend council meetings in India in October and in Gabon in 2007.
Pilgrim wears her life philosophy on a T-shirt: “It’s never too late to save this world.” I thought about that philosophy as I hiked out of Opal Creek the next day, and I realized that something very special did happen during my short visit: I was inspired by an extraordinary person in an extraordinary place
I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Terry Richard: firstname.lastname@example.org