By RICH GRANT
Sept. 2, 2017, started off wonderfully in the Columbia River Gorge. It was the beginning of Labor Day weekend in one of the nation’s most beautiful scenic areas. Located just an hour east of Portland, Oregon, this was a busy time for the area’s $100 million-a-year tourism industry. They had been hurt that winter with 8 feet of snow falling in an area that usually gets just inches. Interstate 84 was closed and schools and businesses had to shut down for as long as two weeks.
But now on Sept. 2, the weather was beautiful, people were hiking, biking, wind surfing, eating locally sourced foods, drinking craft beer at outdoor cafes and just enjoying the incredible beauty of a wilderness area along a river lined with cliffs, thick forests and waterfalls.
Eventually, nearly 30 square miles of forest would burn.
And then at 4 p.m., a fire was reported in Eagle Creek. Near the village of Cascade Locks, some teenagers had been throwing fireworks off a waterfall into the dry forest below. By morning, the fire they started grew to 3,000 acres. With favorable winds, over the next two days it blossomed into a raging inferno, so huge that at one point it leaped across the Columbia River, sending tongues of flame into the wooded hillsides on the other side of the waterway in the state of Washington.
Eventually, nearly 30 square miles of forest would burn. The entire town of Cascade Locks had to be evacuated, along with hundreds of other residents throughout the gorge. Surrounded by flames, 153 hikers were cut off by the fire and had to be rescued. I-84 was closed. Clouds of smoke closed schools in nearby Portland, where more than an inch of ash fell on the streets. Fighting the fire rang up of a bill of $20 million.
And then the fire raced to Multnomah Falls, the highest waterfall in Oregon. A national icon, the 611-foot waterfall had at its base a famous lodge built in 1925 that attracted 1.5 million visitors a year. Dozens of volunteers came and heroically fought the blaze throughout the night, wetting the building’s roof and soaking a 100-yard perimeter around it. By morning, though the fire consumed a wood bridge below the falls and many trees, the historic lodge was saved.
The Gorge Today
So how much damage was done in the end? Amazingly, the Columbia River Gorge is today a triumph of both nature and man.
On a trip through the gorge in early November 2017, barely two months after the blaze, there is hardly much sign of the catastrophic event. Sadly, Multnomah Falls Lodge and access to the falls is closed indefinitely, mostly because of damage to the roads. You can still see the falls, as beautiful as ever, as you race by a vantage point on I-84. Some other viewpoints and hiking trails are temporarily inaccessible, but compared to the vast amount of wilderness recreation available here, it is very small. The towns are completely open, I-84 is open, and the burn area is hardly noticeable compared to the rich forest land surrounding it. In fact, many environmentalists are saying the fire, which burned up the trees rather than torching the ground below, is just part of nature’s evolution. So here’s a review of just some of the many pleasures open and available in the gorge and Mount Hood areas, starting with ground zero where the fire started.
Cascade Locks and the Bridge of the Gods
The village of Cascade Locks is where the 2,659-mile long Pacific Crest Trails crosses the Columbia River over the very pretty Bridge of the Gods. A poignant scene in the Reese Witherspoon movie “Wild” was filmed on the bridge. During the fire, all residents of the town were forced to evacuate, crossing the bridge as flames approached the village from both directions. You’d never know it today. The bridge is as beautiful ever, and all businesses are open. The Best Western Plus Columbia River Inn at the base of the bridge is a pleasant place to stay with balconies overlooking river traffic of barges and pleasure craft.
Indian legend says there was once a bridge of land here over the Columbia with a huge lake behind it. Well, for once, an Indian legend actually makes some sense and is backed by geologists, who say there was a land bridge here that eventually washed away, helping to create the spectacular gorge. You can walk over the manmade Bridge of Gods to Washington, but there’s no pedestrian path on the road. Better is to have a beer, while you still can, at Thunder Island Brewing on the banks of the river. They’re moving into town, unfortunately, but their craft beer will be just as good in the new location.
A visit to the gallery and studio of Heather Soderberg is worth a journey. You’ll be hearing a lot about her in the near future. She’s the first woman to own a bronze foundry and is currently working on a 55-foot-long, 12-ton cast bronze statue of an eagle that will be the largest eagle sculpture in history. Bits and pieces of it currently fill the studio, and when finished, it will tour the country. In the gallery, they’ll explain how bronze casts are made, but good luck understanding it. Enough to say, it’s impressive to look at.
The Cascade Locks Ale House across the street is a cozy place for dinner with pizza and salmon chowder. It’s a favorite hangout for people walking the Pacific Coast Trail. It must be lonely on the trail. The hikers we met were a talkative bunch. As an ice-breaker, ask them what their “trail name” is and how they got it, but make sure you have a beer first. It’s liable to be a long story. You’ll certainly want to see the movie “Wild” before visiting the pub.
This colorful little village is the western gateway to the gorge and a good base for touring the area. Stop by the historic Barn Exhibit Hall, which is actually not historic at all.
The cleverly built “barn” museum is brand new, but designed to look like it’s been there forever. Currently, there’s an exhibit on the history of the 75-mile-long Columbia River Highway, the first highway in the United States built as a scenic road, and amazingly, the first road to have a white stripe down the center. You can see why they took such care to divide the road when you drive on portions of it as its twists and turns with sheer cliffs alternating from side to side. It’s scenic and scary. When it was built between 1913 to 1922, it was also an engineering marvel. It still is.
Though it was replaced by I-84, bits of the historic road are still open. Sections between Troutdale and Hood River have been closed temporarily by the fire, but there is no impact from north of Hood River to The Dalles, our next stop.
Mosier is picture postcard of a little place with a scenic park overlooking the river, the Rack & Cloth cidery and, most important, Route 30 Classics, which has ice cream, espresso and electric bike rentals.
And what a place to rent an electric bike! A six-mile stretch of the historic Columbia River Highway here has been turned into a paved bike and hiking trail and heads west to the town of Hood River, passing through forest, along cliffs, and burrowing into tunnels on one hell of an exciting bike ride. It’s hilly and up and down, but on an electric bike? No worries. You toggle the bike from one to four on a power scale, change gears and never pump more than you would on a flat stretch of road. The famous Oregon rain is also no problem. Winds gush through the Gorge at this point, swirling clouds and dragging in squalls. But the winds also bring bursts of sunshine. Just when you think, well, it’s raining, do I want to be on a bike? Out pops the sun and a view of unbelievable beauty. If you get wet, dry off in the Rack & Cloth, a cute little place making their own hard cider from apples grown in their own orchard. They’ll walk you through a cider tasting of four hard ciders. Even if you’ve tried commercial hard ciders and don’t like them, give these ciders a chance. They are a completely different, tasty product, unlike commercial ciders, and paired with handcrafted pizzas and locally sourced delicacies like squash soup? Delicious.
Hood River to the Dalles
Both Hood River and The Dalles are cool and quirky little towns worth a visit. Hood River is home to Full Sail Brewery and a sloping main street lined with shops, galleries and pubs. This is the ground zero, recreational central of the Columbia River Gorge, and everyone is biking, hiking, sailboarding or doing something else to make you feel guilty if you’re just hanging out drinking craft beer. Well, not that guilty. This is Oregon, after all, and there are plenty of other people just hanging out.
There’s a little more history at The Dalles, which has an 1856 fort (just a house is left, but nice grounds) and Klindt’s Booksellers, which has been hawking books since 1870 and is worth a journey to explore their maps and local recreation guidebooks. Both towns, in keeping with this area of Oregon, have breweries and wineries and, increasingly, distilleries. And did we mention marijuana is legal?
And Now for Something Completely Different
The weird geography of this area creates microclimates that could not be more different. It’s barely a 30-minute drive south from the misty, swirling clouds of Hood River or The Dalles into Mt. Hood territory, where you come into fruit orchards, rolling hills and, incredibly, 300 days of sunshine. Dufur, just south of The Dalles, is a tiny old farming community on the historic Oregon Trail with a few shops, a heritage museum and a real gem called the Historic Balch Hotel. This historic building has been transformed into an elegant spa and countryside retreat with gourmet food and an idyllic setting.
South of Troutdale takes you on the western fringes of Hwy. 26, which (along with Hwy. 35) is called “The Fruit Loop,” as it curves and twists around the base of 11,249-foot Mount Hood, passing dozens and dozens of orchards, forests, rain forests, timberline, snow-covered mountains and rivers. The Resort at the Mountain just east of Sandy is one of Oregon’s premier lodges with a 27-hole golf course, luxury spa, hiking trails, two restaurants and bars, and, best of all, fireplaces in the rooms. On a November afternoon at twilight, with a fire going and college football playing, we noticed someone on the patio peering into our floor to ceiling glass door. It was three baby deer.
For a true Oregon evening, head to the nearby Skyway Bar and Grill, a real mountain roadhouse (the address is Zigzag Mile Post 43) that was built by hand in 1972 and is today filled with art, antiques, live music, craft beer and the smell of barbeque and smoked meats.
And don’t miss the most exciting photo op of the region – Boring, Oregon. They make the most of the odd name choice with a Boring Brewery and Boring Winery (in the same building!) and lots of opportunities to take photos of the word “Boring.” It’s cute.
But nowhere cuter than at the blacksmith shop Red Pig, where for 30 years Bob Denman, a semi-retired advertising executive, has been hand-forging gardening tools. Bob, a lifelong gardener, will tell you, there’s only one rule for weeding and that’s King Harrod’s rule: “Kill them while they’re babies!” He has researched old garden tools and found that any modern tool that does two tasks is half as efficient at each. In his blacksmith shop, he hand forges old forgotten tools for special tasks (like weeding between cracks of patio tiles). The tools are beautiful (if somewhat medieval looking). Bob has been dealing with customers and perfecting his comedy-set for 30 years and if he’s in the shop, he has a 15-minute routine that is perfect, fun, educational and worth a journey. At a time where “fire” is not exactly a friendly word in Oregon, you’ll have a lot of laughs around his flaming forge and come away with a lifelong tool and memento of this slightly wacky – but gorgeous – part of the state.