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Chasing Waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge

By Matt Gross
May 19, 2009
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"A few years ago, I had an epiphany," Joe Rubenstein was explaining. "Just because you're camping doesn't mean you can't eat well."

Coming from Joe, that meant something. My sister's boyfriend's brother, he'd hiked all but 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail at the age of 17, and in the ten years since had camped everywhere from Utah to right here in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge. In other words, he had way more wilderness experience than I had.

And so, on our first night on the Eagle Creek Trail, as Joe, his friend Tim Hancock and I broke out three juicy rib-eye steaks and grilled them over a campfire, I didn't mind that we weren't exactly roughing it. And besides, I thought as I slathered smoky Mexican chili sauce over my perfectly medium-rare meat, there was still the rain - a yucky, persistent drizzle that beat against our tarp and our hoods, threatened our fire and permeated our tent with damp.

There is no escaping water on the Eagle Creek Trail, one of the most scenic and popular paths in the gorge. Indeed, water is the reason the trail attracts visitors from all over. It is chock-full of waterfalls - keyholes and cascades and cataracts. Major ones pop up every mile or so, and minor ones are so numerous many don't have names.

The desire to watch water move is a primal one - I once met a Missouri man who drove his RV all over the country solely to visit falls - but it's a desire I never fully understood. So, after a day of golfing in the Portland suburb of Troutdale, I set off for Eagle Creek, where I planned to spend three days hiking, camping and watching water fall - just about the most frugal activity there is. All you need are good shoes, snacks and rain gear.

Oh, and a car. Portland may have excellent public transportation, but it does not extend beyond the metro area. Greyhound runs to points east, but not to the smaller towns like Cascade Locks, the closest to the Eagle Creek trailhead. So I caught a ride with Joe and Tim. We drove 25 miles east on I-84 to Exit 41, where Eagle Creek connects with the Pacific Crest Trail, and parked in a large lot ($5 a day).

Our goal was to hike about 13.5 miles - to the 3,232-foot-high Wahtum Lake if possible - knowing full well that in early April we'd likely encounter snow that would block our progress at around 2,500 feet, and that our late start this Thursday afternoon would not help.

At the trailhead, however, snow seemed like a fantasy. It was sunny and mild, with the creek rushing past us. For once, I was traveling light, with just a change of clothes, my sleeping bag and food in my pack (plus my kazoo). Joe seemed the most weighed down, with the tent, various tarps, a grill and a Frisbee hanging off him.

A couple of miles in, we almost missed our first big falls; Metlako, which spouts off a high cliff on the far side of the creek, was obscured by trees. But we spent plenty of time with the next ones, Upper and Lower Punch Bowl Falls. To get there, we dropped our packs by the trail and descended to the creek's wide, rocky bank, where the canyon wall on the other shore was alive with mosses that shaded from yellow to green to deep purple. Smooth grooves were carved into the rock, the handiwork of two million years of hard-flowing water.

Scrambling up a steep, muddy hill, we finally spotted the Upper Punch Bowl Falls - named for its shape, and its dumping of serious froth into the creek - which supposedly inspired the cover of Styx's 1976 "Crystal Ball" album.

The going from there was easy, with occasional tricky patches where a slope was covered with rocks or tree trunks, or partly washed away by snowmelt. (Rangers begin upkeep in May.) The trail offered few wide-open vistas, but the dense forest had its own beauty. Trilliums bloomed by the trailside, and boulders stood out dramatically from the Douglas firs, and pale-green beard moss blanketed the branches of leafless trees. Three and a half miles in, a high bridge crossed a narrow gorge, 80 feet deep and cut through with silver water.

Daylight was beginning to fade, so we made camp at one of the designated (but unpopulated) campgrounds, got the fire going before the rain set in and indulged in our carnivorous megafeast, supplementing it with snacks from our larder. Along with the steaks, Joe and Tim had brought instant oatmeal, apples, oranges, Stumptown coffee and yogurt-coated raisins, while I'd picked up rice, macaroni-and-cheese, granola, crackers and a two-pound "baby loaf" of Tillamook Cheddar from a Whole Foods in Portland - $24.44 after $7 in discounts from the Chinook Book (www.ecometro.com), a local compendium of coupons.

Altogether, we carried less than $20 worth of food per person - but more than enough for three days.

My study of water resumed the next morning, when I walked to the creek's edge to refill my Sigg bottle (adding purifier - I've had giardiasis too many times) and found myself standing at the edge of a nameless 30-foot falls. At the top, the water coursed along peacefully, and yet the instant it went over the ledge, the berserker violence commenced. The contrast was surreal.

Two miles of easy hiking brought us to Tunnel Falls, which plunges off a sheer cliff edge - the rock walls glistening and glowing green with moss and lichen - and continues straight down about 130 feet, a column of frothy whiteness, into a remarkably placid pool. The scene has an elemental purity to it, as if you'd asked a child simply to draw a waterfall, or hired a minimalist architect to design one. The surreal part is the trail: it goes right up to the falls and then behind it, through a dripping tunnel blasted into the basalt, an engineering feat accomplished almost 100 years ago.

After Tunnel Falls, we tackled a scarier section of trail, the so-called Vertigo Mile - where a stumble could plunge you to your doom - before reaching Twister Falls, another swirling cataclysm. By 1 p.m., after hiking for only three and a half miles, we'd discovered a perfect campground - well off the trail, hidden between three streams, facing an elegantly tiered waterfall and stocked with dry firewood.

But amid our delight we realized we faced a dire predicament: We could press on six miles to Lake Wahtum, but if snow blocked our path, we'd have to backtrack all the way here, as no other campgrounds were marked on our maps ($5.50 at REI, 1405 Northwest Johnson Street; 503-221-1938; www.rei.com). But if we stayed, we'd never reach Lake Wahtum and get back the next day - six miles out plus 13 back to the parking lot was overambitious.

The site, we decided, was too good to skip. We pitched our tent, collected driftwood from the riverbank and explored the area, climbing to a point about 2,500 feet above sea level where the trees thinned and we could look out across the valley. The snowy mountains were hazy in the afternoon sun. Somewhere, an animal was grunting. We returned to camp.

That evening, I made a wilderness risotto, with dried boletus mushrooms ($5 at the Portland Farmers Market) and chorizo ($2.49 a pack at Dashen International Groceries, 3022 Northwest Glisan Street, Portland; 503-234-7785). Tim pronounced it the best camping meal he'd ever had. (Recipe below.)

As it got dark, we sat on a log under our tarp, feeding the fire as a sprinkle of rain grew heavier and the temperature fell toward freezing. At some point, I crawled into the tent and fell asleep, waking to the now-familiar sound of rushing water and, somewhere beyond, muffled birdsong.

In the morning, we made our way back to civilization - the 7.5-mile hike was a speedy process (it's always easier to go down than up) and now that it was Saturday, we saw many more day hikers, including a double-amputee bravely descending with the aid of poles. By early afternoon, we were sitting in the cozy Pacific Crest Pub and Hostel (500 Wanapa Street, Cascade Locks, 541-374-9310; www.pacificcrestpub.com), trying to readjust after 20 miles of hiking.

Normally, the first burger and beer ($50 for the three of us, with tip) after a camping expedition are the most delicious, refreshing things imaginable, but they hardly compared with our wilderness indulgences. As we finished our pitcher of Walking Man Barefoot Brown Ale, brewed across the river in Stevenson, Wash., I swore to myself: Next time I'm really roughing it.

The Frugal Traveler's $10 Wilderness Risotto

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 package dry, Colombian-style chorizo (Los Minos or Goya brand), peeled, sliced into ¤-inch rounds

1 clove garlic, sliced

1 ½ ounces dried mushrooms

1 ¾ cup of rice (long-grain cooks faster than short-grain)

Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a two-quart pot over medium coals, heat the olive oil and chorizo until the fat renders from the sausage.

2. Add the garlic and stir for 1 minute.

3. Add the dried mushrooms and stir to coat with oil, then add the rice and do the same, toasting it for 2 minutes.

4. Fill the pot with enough water to cover the rice by 1 inch, add salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. Then reposition it over the coals so that it remains at a low simmer.

5. Cover and cook 10 to 15 minutes, adding more water if the mushrooms soak up too much, until the rice is tender.

Yield Serves 3.

Next week: Biking through Washington's wine country.

Yield Serves 3.