Serious Mistakes
Copyright © 2011 by Richard S. Platz, All rights reserved

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area Backpack
Kalmiopsis Wilderness
Siskiyou National Forest
June 21-23, 2010
Photos by the Author and Barbara Lane Except Where Noted

"Oh how shall I number thy legions?"

"The fire never touched the lake," the voice on the telephone said.

I didn't know whether I was talking to a ranger or a receptionist. Or an answering service in Mumbai. Only that she had answered my call to the Wild Rivers Ranger District in Cave Junction, Oregon, and spoke with confidence.

The lake was Babyfoot Lake, just inside the eastern boundary of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The fire, of course, was the monstrous Biscuit Fire that raged through the wilderness for almost six months in 2002. It burned a half-million acres. Oregon's largest wildfire ever.

"Never touched it," I repeated, surprised. The news seemed too good to be true. "Have you been up there?"

"Well, no, I haven't actually gotten up there yet. But that's what I heard."

"From who?"

"The back country rangers."

Definitely not Mumbai, I thought.

"You will have to walk through some burned areas, though," she added, perceiving my need for some bad news. "To get to the lake."

Barbara and I had been to Babyfoot Lake once, years ago. More than a decade before the Biscuit Fire. We had taken an easy dayhike to the pretty little lake. The trail was slightly more than a mile long, mostly downhill, through healthy old-growth forest and lush, varied flora.

And an easy backpack was what we were looking for as a 2010 season opener. Even if the timber had been scorched by fire. At least the fire had not touched the lake. Whatever that meant. It would be fascinating to see how much the area had recovered in eight years.

The lake is surrounded by the 350-acre Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area, which was created in 1966 to protect the largest remaining stand of Brewer spruce and other rare plants. The Biscuit Fire consumed most of the protected trees. Isolated stands survived. We had read in the newspaper that one seventeen-acre grove near the trailhead was clear-cut by salvage loggers in 2005. Three years after the fire. The Forest Service had mismarked the boundaries of the Fiddler Fire Salvage Timber Sale to include a portion of the Botanical Area. A "serious mistake," they conceded.

We left home early on the morning of the summer solstice and drove north on Highway 101 to Crescent City, California, then northeast on Highway 199 through the Siskiyou Mountains to Cave Junction, Oregon. There we stopped at the Wild Rivers Ranger Station to gather information. When I mentioned Eight Dollar Mountain Road as our route to the trailhead, the receptionist handed us a brochure describing a series of new botanical waysides along the road, now named the "T J Howell Botanical Drive." She turned out to be the woman I had spoken to on the phone.

"You said the Biscuit Fire never touched Babyfoot Lake."

"That's what I'm told," she assured me.

The Kalmiopsis Wilderness is draped atop the vast Josephine Shield, an ophiolite dome of bedrock located in northwestern California and southwest Oregon. Tectonic forces had exhumed and lifted a segment of the earth's upper mantle, emplacing it above sea level. It is one of the most complete and best exposed ophiolites in the world. Lots of peridotite and serpentine. Gabbro, basalt, and pillow lavas associated with the ophiolite sequence. All overlain and entwined with the Galice Formation of metamorphosed sea floor sediment. The unique mix of mafic, ultramafic, and metasedimentary soils support a diversity of trees and plants. Some species are rare. Hence the protection of the botanical area.

Our route from the California coast had taken us counter-clockwise around the southern end of Josephine Shield to approach the wilderness from the east. Through a gorge in this mountainous landscape flows the Illinois River, born in the wilderness of the high Siskiyou Mountains of California and coursing north to irrigate the agricultural fields of the Illinois Valley. Just north of Cave Junction the river abandons its flirtation with civilization and veers west through the uninhabited Kalmiopsis Wilderness, bound for its confluence with the Rogue River beyond and the Pacific Ocean at Gold Beach.

Eight Dollar Mountain Road (Forest Road 4201) leaves Highway 199 to follow the north bank of the Illinois River, crossing the river in three miles on a steel truss bridge just beyond Josephine Creek. Off the paved road folks were camped by the river and in designated camping areas. In another half mile the road turned to gravel and began to climb. There were no more places to pull off and camp.

The T J Howell Botanical Drive brochure described various waysides and vista points, but we stopped only once or twice. At one turnout, we looked down into Mike's Gulch to see the natural contact boundary between two diverse plant communities. On one side a rich, tall, green forest grew on the soils deposited in the ancient ocean basin. On the other was a sparse and barren scatter of stunted trees seeking to survive on exposed rusty peridotite and greenish serpentine. Behind us, far across the Illinois Valley, rose the snowy peaks of the High Siskiyous, including Grayback Mountain and Preston Peak.

As it climbed, the steep and winding road slewed back and forth from one landscape to another. From tall mixed-conifer forest to vast burned areas. From volcanic rock to sedimentary deposits. From parched hillside to overgrown ravine.

Fourteen miles from the highway the road abandoned the green forest for good to enter the most intensely burned area of the upper slopes. The devastation was staggering. Stretching from the crest of the Chetco Rim on the west to the horizons north and south, blackened trunks bristled from the barren hills and gullies like mangy hairs on the hide of a dead dog. Gray branches thrust out from the lifeless poles, or else lay criss-crossed on the ground in heaps of weathered pick-up sticks. Around the burned snags manzanita had begun to provide a flourish of green ground cover. New life to shade the scorched soil. The beginning of the long process of reforestation.

What I found most striking, however, were the pockets of unscathed forest still standing. In gullies and canyons, or as inexplicable vertical stripes of green, narrow stands of trees had miraculously escaped the conflagration. Not many. Maybe ten per cent of the original forest. How had any living thing survived the doomsday fire?

We turned down spur road 140 and in a half mile arrived at the Babyfoot Lake trailhead (N 42 13' 28.5", W 123 47' 34.7", 4350 feet). It was mid-afternoon. Five or six vehicles, including a long passenger van, were parked in the blazing sun. No one was in sight. The afternoon was hot and windy. The first day of summer.

We stepped out into the charred wasteland. No living trees and few blackened snags stood for acres around the parked cars. Including seventeen acres of the botanical area. Stumps pocked the landscape. Headstones. Most were the remains of the Brewer spruce that had survived the fire, only to be sawn down by salvage loggers in an ugly, ragged clear cut. The serious mistake. Unbelievable.

Hoisting our packs, we began our hike along the barren trail, which quickly dropped into the blackened snags of the burned botanical area. In a quarter mile we came to a fork in the trail. There were no signs. Thick ground cover obscured both paths. Blithely we took the left fork, which was the more prominent route. It had been freshly cleared, but it led uphill, which should have tipped us off. Fallen logs had recently been cut and cleared from the path. A large rock cairn boosted our confidence that this was our trail to the lake. What else could it be? We continued to climb.

In fact, we were on a new section of the Hawks Rest Trail, climbing toward the Chetco Rim Trail. The new route had been blazed and cleared by industrious volunteers. The fork not taken had been the cutoff to Babyfoot Lake.

I had programmed the GPS for Babyfoot Lake and began to grow suspicious as the arrow rotated past ninety degrees to the right. It indicated the lake was a quarter mile to the west, behind us, while we continued climbing south. Near the ridge top we dug out the map.

Voices. Several men and women in their early twenties were descending towards us down the trail. Bearing day packs and the youthful aura of indestructibility, they too had missed the turnoff to Babyfoot Lake. They had continued up the ridge to an overlook, where they discovered the lake sparkling far below. An environmental class from Southern Oregon University, their group numbered ten, nine students and a middle-aged professor in a folksy straw hat and neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. They were studying botany and geology.

With binoculars one young man had glimpsed a lazuli bunting in the brush. Barbara enthusiastically joined his search and managed to spot the reclusive bird.

With the students sprinting ahead to lead the way, we followed the steep trail back down, taking the lower fork to Babyfoot Lake. Along the path a young woman we had not seen caught up and passed us. She was camped at the lake, she said, and had walked back to her car for something essential. She did not say what.

The trail wound into a canyon where a small rivulet trickled down through brush and grass. The straw-hatted professor was kneeling attentively beside a fresh young female student. To identify some rare flower growing along the water, we supposed. Something unique to the botanical area. Or maybe they were examining a mushroom. Or a cone. We did not interrupt them.

Babyfoot Lake fills a cirque carved by glaciers from the ultramafic bedrock. The combination of north-facing exposure, poor soils, and cold, dry climate had provided a unique environment for solid stands of Brewer spruce, together with Port Orford cedar, Douglas fir, and red and white fir, to survive from the ice age to the present. Well, almost to the present. Those that had not burned. Those that had not been hacked down by salvage loggers.

The lake's waters were impounded on the north by a terminal moraine. From the middle of the moraine westward rose a steep slope of cremated forest. To the south loomed a stark, utterly incinerated headwall. Only a narrow band of unburned trees had survived the fire. They circled the west and north shores, hugging the water's edge. Maybe the Biscuit Fire "never touched the lake," but it sure as hell had burned most of the timber down to the water.

The trail arrived at the northeast corner of the lake, where several campsites hid in clearings on the brushy, half-burned moraine. The first and largest was occupied by the woman we had spoken to on the trail and a silent young man. With them was a dog that did not bark. Good dog.

I explored the adjacent campsites. They were level, and at least one contained a good fire ring. But they were all grouped too close together, like a big slumber party in the bush.

So we carried our backpacks over a bouldery, brushy trail roughly gouged into the abrupt east bank to the south end of the lake, where most of the remaining large trees stood. We passed all five women from the university group swimming and sunbathing off a fat log projecting into the middle of the lake. In their panties and halter tops, they appeared to be more interested in the human mating response than wilderness botany or geology. The four male students wandered the shore in flustered confusion, while the wily old professor sat in the shade, just biding his time.

At the south end we selected a primitive campsite with a fire ring beneath the towering headwall (N 42 13' 28.5", W 123 47' 34.7", 4350 feet). The forest floor was a bowl that rose from the water's brushy edge, steepened through a curtain of tall timber, then ascended into the blackened deadwood, some fallen, much still standing, toward the barren ridge far above. There was only one tent site, not particularly level, but we figured we could manage.

I attached our hammocks between a Port Orford cedar and a giant Douglas fir. Pockets of red and white fir had survived the fire. We counted five Brewer spruce still alive. Azaleas hugged the shore. Vanilla plant and exotic wildflowers grew in the duff among the rocks and boulders. New conifer seedlings were coming up everywhere. We did not see many birds that afternoon. Robins. Hummers. An olive-sided fly catcher.

The university students, complaining that the water was too cold, hiked out. Later four loud young men arrived and jumped into the water from the log, hooting and bellowing like deranged animals. No one stayed in for long, and they too soon hiked out. The couple at the far end of the lake was quiet and hardly visible.

That evening, as I stumbled through the thick ground cover of fallen deadwood, a bit tipsy on amaretto, my feet got tangled in the mat of branches and I fell, painfully tearing something in my right hamstring. A branch poked into my left shoe, anchoring it. Sprawled on my face and in pain, I could not seem to free my feet. Too vain to call for Barbara's help, I lay there staring up at the tangle of downed branches and the devastation of the cirque's upper slopes. I wondered how I would ever get up.

I managed to hobble back into camp just as Barbara was removing a delicious freeze-dried supper from the fire. I related my mishap, and the benefits of having a practicing physical therapist along on an elder trek became apparent. Barbara quickly palpated and massaged the damaged muscle and recommended some cautious stretches. By dinner's end, the pain had receded, but I worried about being able to carry out my backpack.

From our hammocks we watched fish jumping in the lake. Bats came out and zigzagged through the gloaming. The weather was warm and the stars bright. We felt no need to build a fire. In the tent Barbara probed and massaged my hamstring. She advised me to take it easy. Very professional. I inquired about the cost of her services.

"Oh, I'll make you pay," she promised.

Tuesday morning we were up early. My hamstring was a bit swollen and stiff. Throbbing. But moving around limbered it up. The sky was partly cloudy, the day cooler. While we sat drinking our morning beverages, two young men hiked in. Day hikers. They pumped drinking water. Then they jumped into the lake and quickly scrambled out. Even before the sun had reached the shore to warm them. Hearty souls. They did not linger.

After lunch the couple on the north end backpacked out. They had stayed a single night and been respectfully quiet. Their dog never barked. When they were gone, we hiked over to explore their end of the lake. My leg supported my weight, and as long as I kept my strides short, the pain was acceptable.

We found a total of two large and two small campsites, all close together and near the trail. We saw more Brewer spruce around the lake, some young and healthy. The main trail continued down the slope beyond the campsites and across the outlet stream toward Onion Camp. Years ago we had explored that route, when there was still forest to provide shade. Two people hiked in carrying large daypacks. They were from Brookings and did not stay long.

We walked slowly up the trail to an overlook, a rocky knoll covered with outcroppings of lewisia, Douglas iris, and penstemon, with views of the eastern rim and the lookout atop Pearsall Peak. Back at our campsite, we found trillium, calypso orchids, bleeding hearts, some kind of low flowering oak, and many other flowers we could not identify. An odd succulent with tiny white flowers blanketed the top of a mossy boulder. Maybe it was something exotic, rare, and endangered. Then again, maybe not. Where was that professor when you needed him?

I stretched my hamstring in the hammock. We saw Flickers, juncos, a brown creeper, robins, and hummers, and heard winter wrens, an olive-sided flycatcher, and red breasted nuthatches. Fish jumped in the lake, and bats came out again that evening.

Wednesday morning was peaceful. At midmorning we began our hike out, taking it slow and easy. With mincing baby steps I managed alright. My hamstring bore the additional weight of my backpack without serious complaint.

By the time we reached the trailhead, the day had grown hot. No shade. Four vehicles, including our own, were parked there. While we were stowing our backpacks, a small pickup skidded to a halt beside us. Two young ladies jumped out and started down the trail carrying only water bottles. They wore no hats, and both were already sunburned.

Oh Serious Mistakes, how shall I number thy legions?

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