Mountain to Mouth!

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Exploring the Hood River Watershed from Mt. Hood All the Way Down to the Columbia River

The inaugural Hood River Watershed Ecology trip, planned collaboratively with the Columbia Gorge Ecology Institute, provided students with the unique opportunity to explore the land surrounding the Hood River, south of the Columbia River Gorge and southeast of Mt. Hood, from multiple perspectives.

In addition to classic outdoor trip highlights such as learning to use an ice axe and crampons for the first time, glissading down snow fields on Mt. Hood, camping in Elk Meadow surrounded by wildflowers and Mt. Hood smiling down, flying down hills on our bikes alongside small tributaries to the Hood River, making s’mores by the campfire, and paddling down Class III rapids in inflatable kayaks, trip participants also learned invaluable lessons about the complexity of the Hood River watershed’s ecosystem and the ways in which humans rely upon and interact with it.

Here are some snapshots of each day of the trip:

Day 1: Water Quality at the Source, Eliot Glacier, Climate Change and Mini-Snow School

We drove up to Cloud Cap early Monday morning and met Kelly Nokes from Columbia River Waterkeeper right away at the headwaters of the Tilly Jane Creek. She taught us how to measure pH, temperature, turbidity, and more, all of which indicate the health of the water and its capacity to sustain life.

We then hiked up onto Eliot Glacier with Darrel Lloyd, a glaciologist that has been photographing Eliot and surround glaciers for thirty years. He showed us photos of changes over time, and the shrinking ice astounded us. He also talked at length about the science and ecology of glaciers and their importance to the overall health of a watershed. For example, the more a glacier melts, the more rocks and debris slide down the mountain into rivers, thereby destroying habitat and fish spawning grounds.

Finally, George taught everyone how to safely walk with crampons, how to use ice axes for self-arrest, and how to glissade down the snow fields—a fun change from the serious academics earlier in the day. Many students said they definitely want to try climbing Mt. Hood when the chance arises later this year.

“Until this trip, I always though of Mt. Hood as just a place for snowboarding. That’s it. That’s all I did there. Now I have a whole new way to look at it…it’s where our water comes from, it’s a good place to hike, forest fires have come through there…there’s just a lot more to think about.” –Andrew

Day 2: Backpacking the Timberline Trail, Wildfire, Coniferous Forest, Alpine Wildflowers, Gnarl Ridge, Elk Meadow

On Tuesday we began the first leg of our backpacking trip, heading southeast and traversing the timberline of Mt. Hood’s northeast side. We quickly climbed above the timberline and looked down upon it for much of the day, with Mts. Rainier, St. Helens, and Adams behind us to the north.

We crossed countless snowfields and ridges, and eventually came to a good resting spot. Alan Horton, a thirty-year veteran of the US Forest Service, accompanied us on this portion of the backpacking trip so that he could help us to better understand wildfires and forest ecology. Peter and Andrew both read articles about wildfire in preparation for the trip, and they contributed good background information to the discussion.

“We sometimes think that whatever we do to stop forest fires is helping nature, when actually nature has its own way of stopping things and has a plan for how everything works, and we’re just interfering and usually making it worse.” –Peter

Alan spoke not only of the complexities of managing fires and forests, but also of the challenge of maintaining his conservationist philosophies in a system that often values economics above ecosystems. Four students cited conversation with Alan as the highlight of the day.

 “I come away from this very brief, touching experience with you all with a renewed hope in our future, because you are so attentive and you have such great attitudes. I know you’ve got some great ideas that are going to be good for the earth. Thank you for letting me part of your experience.” –Alan

After our discussion and some off-trail navigation due to higher-than-normal snow levels, we descended onto Gnarl Ridge just below Lamberston Butte and felt awed by the sweeping views of grey sediment and rock alternating with snow patches all the way down the gorge below the Newton-Clark Glacier. We ate lunch on top the ridge, and while eating heard what we mistook to be thunder…but without a cloud around! We turned around and saw a dramatic rock fall way up high near the summit of Mt. Hood, as clouds of dust plumed up into the sky.

We then continued to descend into the coniferous forest and eventually made our way to the spectacular Elk Meadow, with all its wildflowers and small creeks. We sketched the mountain, wrote journal entries, napped, feasted on macaroni and cheese, and fell asleep on the edge of the meadow.

Day 3: Backpacking the Cold Spring Creek Trail, Salmon Habitat and Lifecycle, Old Growth Forest

We awoke to a layer of frost on our sleeping bags and tarps on Wednesday morning—a reminder of our relatively high elevation (around 5300 feet) sleeping in the meadow. The Cold Spring Creek Trail, running alongside its namesake through a second-growth forest, proved much easier to navigate than the previous day’s Timberline Trail.

At one point we sat down on the side of the trail and learned from Genevieve and Emily about old growth forest, climax forests, the spotted owl debate, and other interesting ecological tidbits. We felt lucky to have such resident experts! We made good time on the eight or so miles to Tamanawas Falls, where we ate lunch under the mist of the waterfall.

“Little things, such as species becoming endangered, are really indicators of a larger problem, and we should look at it from a larger perspective—which can be frustrating for people in their own [non-interdisciplinary] careers sometimes.” –Genevieve

We then hiked about two miles down to Cold Spring Creek’s confluence with the East Fork of the Hood River, where we talked with Emily about salmon and salmon habitat. Soon we were joined by where we met Jurgen Hess, an alpine ecologist and retired Forest Service employee. We talked more about wildfire, old growth forest, and salmon habitat, and then hiked the rest of the way to the Tamanawas  Falls Trailhead. We camped in Nottingham campground that night, alongside the east bank of the raging East Fork of the Hood River.

 “I learned a lot about nature in Oregon since I just moved here [two weeks ago], and how it’s different from the East Coast. It’s bigger.” -Lucy

Day 4: Farming, Irrigation, Salmon, Wendell Berry, Biking the Back Roads North of Hood River, Interdisciplinary Innovation

We began our day at Tollbridge Park, where we met our bikes and Jerry Bryan and Jer Camarata from the Farmer’s Irrigation District. Jerry’s introduction left us a little confused, but undeniably curious. As we rode away from his recitation of Wendell Berry’s poem, “A Farmer’s Manifesto,” we wondered how such an outspoken, almost-retired, theology degree-holding atheist could possibly be doing anything useful for salmon and farmers alike.

“I liked what Wendell Berry said about how everything is connected and some people don’t realize that. If something [a fish] dies, people don’t realize that the fish are connected to the forest [for nutrients].” –Libby

We kept Jerry and Jer in our minds as we biked through perfectly manicured orchards of cherry, pear, and apple trees, with Mt. Hood looming over us the whole time. We eventually made our way to a fish hatchery operated in cooperation between the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Warm Springs Confederated Tribe. Albert, the hatchery assistant manager and a tribal member, and Jim, the hatchery manager, gave us a tour of the facility and helped us to understand the role of fish hatcheries in the broader context of managing the watershed and maintaining the health of Columbia River Gorge salmon populations.

Our next stop was Punchbowl Falls, as the confluence of the East, West, and Middle Forks of the Hood River. We ate lunch above the water, and afterward watched several salmon attempt to jump up a smaller nearby waterfall. None made it while we stood nearby.

We hopped back on our bikes and once again met up with Jerry and Jer. We followed them down a little-used gravel road to one of the Irrigation District’s innovative horizontal water diversion fish screens. We learned that the Irrigation District, whose job is to provide irrigation water for over 5,000 acres of Hood River farmland, hired Jerry twenty-five years ago because of his experience advocating for fish. Over the course of his tenure with the District, Jerry developed a knack for figuring out ways to satisfy the needs of both fish and farmers. He said, “I’m the guy they [farmers] love to hate!...As soon as we started thinking from the point of view of the fish, we actually figured out ways make the farmers more money than they’d made before, when they were ignoring fish health and habitat.” He helped develop an innovative screen that allows water to be diverted for irrigation without harming fish. People have come from all over the world to learn about this invention:

“The Farmers Irrigation District developed a screen technology that keeps fish from entering irrigation and hydroelectric canals. The Farmers Screen is a horizontal, flat-plate diversion screen that harmlessly moves fish over the screen and back to the river while safely diverting water for irrigation and hydroelectric use.”

Follow the link to watch live fish screen webcams and read more about it:

 “I’m going to take away knowledge about the horizontal fish screen process because…when they showed us the diagram and the movie and then we actually saw it, it brought to life how much thought goes into this whole process, with the physics of it all and it made me realize that you can pull different ideas from different fields to solve one problem, and that makes teamwork sound a lot more important.” –Margaret

After our inspiring final meeting with Jerry and Jer, we continued down towards Hood River through the farms. We stopped to buy some cherries and enjoy them under a tree, and then made our way to Tucker County Park—our last campsite of the trip. Students waded in the river and sunned on rocks before a final delicious Pad Thai dinner, marshmallows, an impromptu performance by a fellow nine year-old camper, and sleeping under the stars. 

Day 5: Inflatable Kayaks, the Hood and Columbia Rivers, the Former Powerdale Dam Site, Salmon Bake, Putting It All Together

Our final day of the trip proved to be the most refreshing and adrenaline-producing. Ben, Zack, and Sylus taught us how to safely navigate in inflatable kayaks, and we set off down the Hood River just below Tucker Park like a line of baby ducks. Students quickly adapted to paddling and adeptly maneuvered around rocks and rapids like veterans.

About two miles downstream, we pulled out to meet with Jeremy from the Department of Fish and Wildlife and Steve Stampfli, who’s helping to manage the habitat restoration process after the local power company decided to tear down the Powerdale Dam last year. We saw photos of the habitat restoration process and learned about the complications of providing power for local residents while also paying attention to fish habitat, air quality, farming needs, forest health, water quality, and cost.

“There are complications behind complications—for example, the decision to let a forest fire burn out or to put it out. Also, taking out the [Powerdale] dam means that more people’s energy might come from coal, but if you leave it there the fish can’t get through. There are a lot of trade-offs.” –Siobhan

We ended our day and trip at the mouth of the Hood River as it meets the Columbia, where we cleaned up and loaded the kayaks, and then enjoyed a delicious meal of grilled salmon caught that morning by a local Native American, local greens, and watermelon. We invited all the stakeholders we met throughout the week, and though most were too busy with work obligations to come out, Alan and his wife, Sharon, joined our group for our final meal.

We spent several minutes reflecting on the week’s experiences:

“I learned so much…everything from the meaning of the word turbidity to the best way to get a kayak off a rock. There’s so much middle ground we covered…There’s a lot to think about.” –Walker

 “I’ll take away how connected everything is—much more so than I’d imagined. Every action has a reaction…If you take some fish out of a stream, that has a big impact.” –Alex

Siobhan and Genevieve ended with a closing poem that expressed our gratitude toward the salmon, our guests, and our experience of the week:

Once upon a time,

the sun swept slowly over Timberline.

The glacier slowly melted down in size,

As earth’s temperatures began to rise.

Extreme weather events increased

And glacial freezing began to cease.

Boulders and debris came down

Causing salmon to frown.

Thought the rivers’ health declined

And many forgot to keep fish in mind

People such as those gathered here

Worked hard to improve the earth’s atmosphere.

So hey there smoky salmon!

You have a future that’s worth saving.

We’re grateful for this meal we’ll take.

And thankful for all the fish for heaven’s sake.


The Columbia Gorge Ecology Institute plans to take local Hood River County students through a similar exploration next summer, and Catlin Gabel students may be back as well. Thanks to all the students, special guests, and leaders that took a risk and went for it this year--you are true ecological pioneers!