It’s about six hours into our hike to Jawbone Flats, and I’m openly groaning every time I have to hoist my aching body and 35-pound backpack over yet another downed tree on the trail.
“How much farther?” I ask Auggie Gleason yet again. He’s facilities director for the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center.
We had entered the footprint of the Beachie Creek Fire hours ago, so it seems like we should be getting close. But Gleason’s GPS unit tells us we’re still a couple miles away on a trail that’s riddled with fallen trees and washouts.
There aren’t many people who have been allowed to return to the Opal Creek Wilderness after wildfire burned through the area last Labor Day.
The forest is still closed to the public for safety — in part because last year’s wildfire was still burning underground well into June. So, we had to get permission from the U.S. Forest Service to hike in on a relatively safe trail that hasn’t been maintained since the fire.
The only reason we’re allowed in is because we’re hiking with leaders of the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center, an educational nonprofit that hosts visitors and programs in the historic mining town of Jawbone Flats. It’s a private inholding within the Willamette National Forest, which means the group has access to the area that others don’t.
Dwayne Canfield, the group’s interim director, says this is his first hike into the property since the fire forced his staff to evacuate their homes at the facility.
“That was the first time the place had ever been empty of people since the ‘50s,” Canfield says. “It’s a special place to work, and it’s also a very special place to live and to have both of those things be gone in a flash was super emotional.”
Like OPB photographer Todd Sonflieth and me, Canfield wants to see what’s left of his group’s educational center and what has become of the enchanting forest surrounding it. And like us, he’s moving slowly and painfully toward that goal.
The Opal Creek Wilderness covers more than 20,000 acres of the Willamette National Forest in the Cascades east of Salem. It’s home to the largest stretch of low-elevation old growth forest Oregon has left.
The massive, 800-year-old trees and luminous blue pools in the unlogged Opal Creek watershed have lured “Oregon Field Guide” back again and again.
We were there in 1998, sharing the delight of children catching newts and staring up at giant old trees after the land was first set aside as wilderness. We went back again in 2007, as Opal Creek was building a reputation as one of the best places in the Northwest to learn firsthand about ancient forests.
Then, in August of 2020, lightning sparked the Beachie Creek wildfire in the heart of the wilderness — just 2 miles away from the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center. A historic windstorm sent the fire racing through the forest and into neighboring communities up and down the Santiam Canyon.
Altogether, the Beachie Creek Fire burned nearly 200,000 acres of land, destroyed homes in the nearby towns of Detroit, Gates and Mill City, and killed five people. The fire was just one of many tearing through the state during an historic windstorm last Labor Day. The devastating fires burned a million acres and thousands of homes. A year later, much of the state is still sorting through the wreckage and inching toward recovery.
Hiking into burned forest
As hard as it is for us to get to Opal Creek this time around, we know it’ll be even harder to see what the fire did in a place so many Oregonians know and love — and can’t visit right now.
So, we’ve invited Oregon State University ecosystems ecologist Boone Kauffman to hike with us, and he brings some much-needed optimism as we enter the burned forest.
He scurries among the charred tree trunks, pointing out all the trees and shrubs that either survived the fire or sprouted up afterwards: Western red cedar, morel mushroom, huckleberry, twinflower, bear grass. Tiny new Douglas fir trees dot the ground with bright green spikes and grow out of pine cones.
“So you see that as quickly as the forest is destroyed, the seedlings come right back. It’s magnificent, isn’t it?” Kauffman says.
Fire is part of the ecosystem in the Northwest, he says.
“Virtually all of the plants and animals of these forests evolved to survive and even thrive and quite often even depend upon fire for their survival and for their reproduction,” Kauffman says. “It was flaming here. It was probably a thousand degrees at this site. Yet so many of the plants survive even those harsh conditions.”
A heartbreaking scene
As we get closer to Jawbone Flats, we start seeing evidence of the old mines and the miners who used to live here. We pass the charred rubble of what had been the last remaining cabin in an abandoned mining camp.
It’s a harbinger of things to come at Jawbone Flats, where at last we arrive to find a heartbreaking scene of destruction.
The fire leveled all of the original 1930s mining camp buildings and almost all of the newer buildings, too, including the lodge and commissary.
As we walk through piles of twisted metal, it’s hard to tell the difference between the rusty old mining equipment and things the fire only recently destroyed.
The fire wiped out many of the places “Oregon Field Guide” filmed on a tour in 2007. The Pelton wheel where the Forest Center used water from nearby Flume Creek to generate hydropower is in ruins, and Gleason says he doesn’t know whether that water source will still be usable after the fire.
Out of all the buildings at the educational center, only one newer cabin, Cabin 4, survived. The good news is it was untouched by the fire, so our crew has sleeping quarters for the night.
“There was of course the sadness of the loss, and not just the loss of buildings,” Canfield says. “We can build new buildings, but the buildings were touchstones or memories for people.”
For a long time after the Beachie Creek Fire, it wasn’t possible to hike into Jawbone Flats. So, before we arrived on foot, Field Guide arranged a helicopter trip to see the property with Canfield.
From the air, you can see how large and destructive the fire was, but also how Jawbone Flats is actually a bit of an oasis in a landscape that was scorched. Canfield says he was relieved to find some of his favorite stretches of Opal and Battle Ax creeks are still intact.
“I think hope was the thing that we had once the sadness faded away,” he says. “The beauty of the water is the same and it’s running just as clear and blue. The surroundings are torched, but the waterway is still there and there’s still trees around it.”
‘The hardest thing to look at’
After arriving at Jawbone Flats, we make our way to the famously photogenic Opal Pool, which is just a short hike from the mining camp and a major recreation destination.
It’s a chilling sight. The forest surrounding this beloved pool was obliterated, and the iconic bridge we’d walked across on an earlier visit is gone. Piles of burned, fallen trees are blocking the trail that once led to Cedar Flats, a grove of 800- to 1,000-year-old cedar trees.
“This was the hardest thing to look at when I first came here, just the intense devastation of the fire,” Canfield says. “It’s still hard to see. This is one of the main destinations for people that came here to stay with us and also for hikers. There’d be kids jumping off those cliffs into the pool. It was absolutely beautiful here.”
Kauffman says the fire killed almost all of the surrounding trees, many of which were between 100 and 200 years old. And a fierce wind blew them down.
“This would be … the highest severity fire you’ll ever see because of what must have been about the most extreme weather that could have ever occurred during a fire in the western Cascades,” he says.
But even here, where the fire wiped out so much beautiful scenery, Kauffman finds hope and more tree seedlings.
“The last few trees that are still standing are still green,” he says. “You can see the understory starting to sprout. It’s coming back to life. So while it looks devastating to many people, you know, these species have evolved over millennia and now we have the future forest right before our eyes.”
‘I left everything’
For Gleason, this visit to Jawbone Flats is especially personal. As a staff member at the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center, this was his home.
He lived in Cabin 9, one of many that are no longer standing. He walks through the remains, pulling out charred pieces of his life: his rifle, a handmade drum, an expensive saw blade.
A year ago, he watched as the Beachie Creek Fire burned closer and closer to Jawbone Flats, and he says he regrets not taking more with him when he was forced to evacuate.
“I felt like I was coming back, you know?” Gleason says. “I’m an optimist to a fault. I just saw this place being here no matter what, and so I left all my tools. I left everything.”
The death of George Atiyeh was a painful loss for Gleason and many others. Atiyeh led the fight to protect the Opal Creek forest from logging during the timber wars of the 1980s and ‘90s.
Atiyeh died in the Beachie Creek Fire at his home in the nearby Elkhorn community.
In the summers leading up to last Labor Day, Atiyeh would often stay in the cabin next door to Gleason.
“He was in Cabin 8. So, we could always kind of see each other,” Gleason says. “He loved it here.”
An uncertain future
Because of a burned bridge, the Ancient Forest Center still doesn’t have road access nearly a year after the fire.
So, it’s going to take extra time to rebuild, Canfield says. And he’s starting to wonder if rebuilding in the same place is a good idea.
Right now, the Bull Complex fires are burning on more than 10,000 acres in the Bull of the Woods Wilderness, within 6 miles of Jawbone Flats.
“Our biggest worry now is the prospect of another fire,” Canfield says. “You know, it’s hard. It’s essentially the same dance as last year, which is to stay hopeful and try to prepare.”
Gleason recently returned to Jawbone Flats to fire-proof the last remaining cabin as the Bull Complex fires burn closer to the footprint of last year’s Beachie Creek Fire.
“It’s burning in another wilderness with old growth timber in it,” Canfield says. “The thing that we were holding on to is, ‘Well, we still have this old growth forest near us.’ Losing old growth forest in Bull of the Woods Wilderness, that’s the biggest fear.”
Having two dangerous fire seasons in the last two years is raising difficult questions about rebuilding the educational center.
“If we have another fire, you know, is this really a place we want to bring programs back to?” Canfield says. “It’s forcing us to think about the realities that frequent fires would bring. I don’t know what the answer is.”
Time to heal
Over the past century, the Opal Creek forest has been a mining camp, an education center and a celebrated wilderness playground for 20,000 visitors a year.
Gleason says after all that, maybe the forest needs a break.
“There’s a lot of people who come through here every year,” he says. “This is a magical place and it said, ‘I’m done. You gotta get out of here. I need time.’”
Standing among the ruins of the life he once had in an ancient forest blackened by fire, Gleason says he’s glad the rebuilding process is moving slowly.
“I’m happy that it’s taking time,” he says. “It needs to heal. It’s a different kind of way to look at it, and some people might not understand it because they feel that they have lost something, but it’s temporary. Everything is temporary.”