Two years ago, a wildfire that swept the western Columbia River Gorge appeared to be a disaster. Instead, it turned out to be a miracle.
On Sept. 2, 2017, a teenager tossed a firework off the popular Eagle Creek hiking trail 32 miles east of Portland, accidentally starting a blaze in the adjacent canyon. By Sept. 6, the inferno had burned more than 30,000 acres of forest in the Columbia River Gorge and forced nearly 700 people to evacuate their homes. In Portland, ash smeared the sky and collected in spider webs.
The damage was also spiritual. The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is one of Oregon's treasures—an emerald forest climbing upward into the clouds, capped by severe crags and iconic waterfalls. Even in winter, the Gorge's defining colors are blues and greens: cold waters, deep moss and swaying firs. The images of those sacred places in flame—looking like a medieval painting of the Last Judgment—felt like an irrecoverable loss.
Two years later, Kevin Gorman—who runs Friends of the Columbia Gorge, the largest nonprofit dedicated to protecting the area—was standing with a group of hikers atop a cliff on the Mount Defiance Trail.
His verdict? "This was a good fire."
Gorman pointed to a blackened Douglas fir snag and said matter-of-factly, "That one is gonna serve the forest as much, if not more, than any of these living trees."
In the months following the 2017 fire, social media and local news all shared similar sentiments: The Gorge that Oregonians loved was irreparably destroyed.
But that's not true. In fact, as WW spent the past month with the crews who work in these woods, nearly all of them agreed the calamity had actually improved the biodiversity and sustainability of the Gorge.
The fire was, in fact, overdue. The Gorge, born of volcanic eruptions, shaped by glaciers and scoured by gargantuan floods, had in recent years been pampered like an overprotected child: artificially shielded from fires that would give it a new skin. The 2017 blaze incinerated a glut of dead tinder and left behind a new landscape—allowing young conifers and wood warblers to thrive where they couldn't live before.
What's more: The wildfire drew public attention to how fragile the Gorge is, and Oregonians responded.
Friends of the Columbia Gorge saw its donations double. The Portland Timbers and Thorns soccer teams raised $100,000 from the sale of Gorge-patterned scarves. The money poured in so thick that Friends of the Columbia Gorge could launch an entirely new department: one that protects the land from invasive species as it recovers.
"My worst-case fear," Gorman says, "was that the news cycle would die down and people would move on. I don't think that's been the case. I think it opened the door to a much richer way of thinking about how we manage this place in the years to come."
Nothing shows Oregonians' dedication to the Gorge like the volunteer efforts to restore its trails. Since of the start of 2018, 2,666 volunteers with Trailkeepers of Oregon have spent 16,470 hours repairing 227,841 feet of paths blocked by fallen trees and made treacherous by loose boulders.
It is delicate work in dangerous places. Volunteers inch basalt stones down precarious scree slopes. They hike for hours to reach places no longer accessible by the old paths. They carry tree trunks and collect branches. They often have to do the same work twice—because the land was less stable than they thought.
For the past month, WW has joined them.
This is the best time of year to hike the Gorge: The colors are striking, the weather is crisp, and the crowds are gone. It's also the season when the weather can become too wet or freezing to continue consistent trail work. So the volunteers can pause and reflect on what they've accomplished in two years.
Below, you'll meet three of the people who are building a new Gorge, and see places where the new marvels left in the fire's wake shine brightest.
"You guys are making this look like Disneyland!" one of two hikers in raincoats hollers to a group of eight volunteers in boots and hardhats on a drizzly morning.
"That could be good or bad," chuckles Guy Hamblen as the hikers continue up the Horsetail Falls Trail. The steep trail's first couple of switchbacks are today's work site for the Trailkeepers of Oregon crew. Hamblen, 72, estimates they will have invested nearly 300 volunteer hours into this 15-yard section of basalt staircase and retaining wall by the time of its completion.
"You realize that what you see as a hiker," he says, "is hundreds of hours of effort, in most cases by volunteers."
On jagged scree fields above and below the stone staircase, pairs of workers are "rock shopping." This entails scanning the talus slope for the perfect stone to fit their needs, billy-goating up the slippery incline, and either hauling the rock down the slope with a sling, or levering it loose with a 7-foot pry bar until it tumbles down.
Some of these pieces of volcanic basalt weigh over 200 pounds. Occasionally, the blood-chilling shout of "Rock! Rock!" cuts through the rain. This means a rock is caroming downhill.
The rocks are then lifted into a motorized dolly, which wheels them up the trail to the staircase. There, volunteers shape the basalt with chisels to ensure a snug fit with neighboring stones.
Much of the recovery is focused on trail infrastructure built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s—requiring permission from Oregon state archaeologists before any work begins. Hamblen's aim? To do work of a quality "as good if not better than what the CCC folks did," he says. "We fully expect ours to be around a hundred years or more."
Riley McManus spent much of September on Franklin Ridge.
Twice a week, she led parties of Trailkeepers of Oregon volunteers to the remote trail—sometimes hiking 8 miles out and back because the fire closed easy access. "We kind of rebuilt it from scratch," says McManus.
On this day, McManus, 24, is in a much more crowded place: Multnomah Falls, among the most-visited tourist attractions in Oregon. In the parking lot, she organizes tools in the yawning hatchback of her gray Subaru: loppers, rakes, saws and shovels.
As McManus and her three volunteers wind up the switchbacks next to Multnomah Falls, groggy hikers step aside and thank them for their work.
"Working on those super-popular trails helps people realize this work doesn't do itself," McManus says. "I always want to remind people: 'We're volunteers, and you can come out with us too. No experience necessary!'"
A few miles up the Larch Mountain Trail, they emerge from under a dark, moist overhang in the cliffside and begin work near Wiesendanger Falls.
McManus tasks Josh Thomas with digging soil from the uphill side of a rocky slope and dragging it to the downhill side. He assumes a precarious pose, straddling the knuckle of a steep slope to the creek, and carefully pulls the gravelly soil toward him, to reinforce the trail's edge.
Another volunteer, Lee Rosenbaum, saws down a 20-foot sapling covered in vibrant yellow leaves, so hikers won't have to crouch to get by. McManus tosses the sapling down the cliffside. Rosenbaum then gets busy digging a drainage ditch around the outside of a switchback, so winter's inevitable rains will flow into trailside vegetation instead of eroding the trail.
When the group returns to the parking lot at 2 pm, McManus bids farewell to her crew—and heads west toward Wahkeena Falls to check out a fallen tree a hiker reported to her earlier in the day.
"We always say trail work is never done," she says. "It takes five to six years after a fire for all the dead trees to come down. And so there's always going to be new logs, always new slides. Always some work for us to do."
Like many Oregonians, Mika Barrett saw the Eagle Creek Fire and felt an overwhelming loss. She's taking it out on Himalayan blackberry bushes.
Barrett, 29, is stewardship volunteer coordinator for Friends of the Columbia Gorge. Today, she's leading a group of 10 volunteers from Holst Architecture—and feeding them Clif energy bars donated by the snack company.
Their task? Remove as much invasive plant life as they can yank out.
This is the reality of the Gorge two years after the fire. A huge amount of corporate support is being channeled into an unglamorous task: pulling weeds.
The U.S. Forest Service warned just weeks after the fire that invasive species were "the most serious ecological threat" in the burned areas. Friends of the Gorge established a new division dedicated entirely to keeping those plants and animals out.
Nearly every habitat in the Gorge is fighting an uphill battle against one invasive species or another. Himalayan blackberry, herb Robert, and garlic mustard are examples of non-native species with aggressive growth patterns that compete with native vegetation. It takes three to five years of consistent clipping for the blackberry plants to die.
Soft sounds of rustling underbrush and intermittent clipping cloak the hillside. Barrett says volunteers always feel gratification at the end of the day when they can see the areas they've been toiling on, free of invasive species. "But I remind them they're going to come back, that we have to be here for the long term. The battle of invasives is an uphill battle."
After a wildfire tears through a densely wooded area, like that along the Larch Mountain Trail, what's left behind is called an early seral forest.
Shrubs, herbs and young conifers emerge in areas that were inhospitable before the fire, and the lack of foliage in burnt canopies provides this new diverse undergrowth with ample rain and sunlight to thrive. A seral forest floor covered in deciduous brush and young wildflowers is prime real estate for rufous hummingbirds and wood warblers. And a stand of charred trees will cater up to a decade of sustenance for wood-boring beetles. The abundance of beetles, in turn, attracts species like the black-backed woodpecker, which flock into burnt conifer forests to feast until their time comes to relocate to the next seral forest.
"I hiked some of the trails within a few months after the fire," says Kevin Gorman, executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge. "I was ready for it to be a very somber and sad situation, and I was surprised at the beauty I found in a landscape that truly felt different but you could tell was coming back. Life was always popping up."
GIVE: Learn more about Friends of the Columbia Gorge in this year's Give!Guide, launching Nov. 1. More details at giveguide.org.