John & Diane Cissel: Old Growth Forest Hikes

June 25, 2004

Have you ever wondered how to give your friends from out of state the quintessential Oregon experience? Could it be breakfast at the Morningstar Cafe, dining on big biscuits with cashew gravy in the company of local anarchists? Or could it be a hike to a “tree sit”, bearing gifts of vegan chocolate and other Sundance goodies (I think they have enough granola up there). My house guests have been treated to both, but perhaps the best way to treat your guests, and yourself, is to take a walk in one of the nearby and surprisingly accessible old growth forests. Nothing could be easier if you have a copy of the Cissels’ book, “Old Growth Forest Hikes — Washington and Oregon Cascades”.

At our most recent potluck, the Cissels presented a fascinating look at several of the hikes in the book, as well as an overview of forest biology and ecology. Illustrating with slides, John explained how the Doug firs evolved to live with fire, and how it can renew itself over centuries, putting out epicormic branches, new shoots underneath the canopy, when it needs to regenerate the canopy. He calls the crown a photosynthetic factory, which supplies energy to the roots. And we saw how the canopies provide variable environments for animals, insects, mosses, lichens, murrelets; all kinds of creatures call the canopy home. The lichen which grows on the outer portions of the branches are rich in nitrogen and when they fall to the ground provide an important source of this soil nutrient. Snags, the standing dead trees, provide homes to many birds and small mammals and insects. The down trees form runways for animals to travel on, and break down slowly all the while providing homes for other creatures such as salamanders, which need the moisture provided in the rotting wood. Indeed, every part of the forest, even the dead and dying parts is necessary for the health of the forest. A wonderful web of life.

But back to our guests. A local hike that would be suitable for even a city slicker is the nearby Andrews Experimental Old Growth Forest, located about seven miles from Blue River Reservoir. The hike is also known as the Lookout Creek hike. Very gentle elevation changes make this hike easy. Many trees here are 400 years old or more. That makes sense because there were many intense fires in the 1500s, allowing the Doug firs to reseed themselves in the newly opened forest. This trail runs along Lookout Creek, and has many examples of interesting old-growth phenomena, such as a downed log with at least 40 small mountain hemlocks taking off from its nutritious body. This log is down but still above you as you walk along the trail. There is abundant bird life here; many talented songsters but hard to spot.

Some of the hikes reveal different types of forest. For example, a Noble fir forest can be found in the Three Pyramids area. It can grow at a higher elevation than the Doug fir, and can tolerate snow. And in Echo Basin, you will find a pocket of Alaska Cedar and diverse habitat including wetlands, meadow grass, rocks and forest. For an old growth Mountain hemlock forest, take the Island Lake loop south of Waldo Lake. And on Mount Scott, near Crater Lake, there is an old growth stand of White Bark pine, a high elevation species. Not huge trees, but very old, craggy fellows nevertheless. On the Pleasant Valley hike you will see Western Larch, our only deciduous conifer, some big old cottonwoods, and perhaps some giant thatch ant mounds whose residents are trying to keep the budworm population under control.

If you get this book, which by the way has great maps and lots of natural history, you will find many wonderful ways to enjoy our great northwest forests, and share them with friends. Summer is cool in the forest, so take a break from the heat, and walk along a creek in a cooling forest.

John Cissel is the BLM Science Liaison for Western Oregon and director of the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. Diane is a cartographer and graphic designer. They live in Eugene.

— Anne Hollander

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