Copyright © 2011
by Richard S. Platz, All
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area Backpack
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
"Well, no, I haven't actually gotten up
there yet. But that's what I heard."
"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.
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
"That's what I'm told," she assured
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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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