The second to last day of my spring break was by far one of the most interesting and action-packed days I have ever experienced. It was truly an adventure. I felt that is was more important to tell this story than it was to summarize my week, because quite frankly this one day defined my entire trip to Oregon.
Before I dig in, I need to give some backstory:
There is a place called Tamolitch Blue Pool in the Western Cascades that I hiked to with a friend of mine. It’s a beautiful natural spring of crystal clear extremely blue water. It also has a seasonal waterfall and it feeds the McKenzie river. Below are some photos for reference:
The day I hiked here with my friend, I was three hours late to bring her home. Her parents were irate and grounded her. I apologized to them in person, but feeling blue, I brainstormed a way to remember what was honestly an amazing day and make everyone feel better. The product of this brainstorming was to hike the two mile trail at night, shine a flashlight underwater in the pool, and get a long exposure wide angle shot of the pool with the stars at night. I will explain more details later, because it was far more complicated, but I specifically picked this Saturday because of the clear weather. In addition to this, I had spent the week researching the Oregon Slender Salamander and the places to find them. Good habitat for them happened to be in the Western Cascades very close to the blue pools, as well as lots of other cool herpetofauna that I wanted to find. As a last ditch effort to find cool herpetofauna, get out exploring, and help my friends emotional health, I decided to go out with my friends from camp, estuary field instructor, Indusium, and Alpine cabin area leader, Gecko to accomplish my goals. They had offered earlier to help me with my project and expressed interest in going out together. So we all piled in my Ford and listened to the same two CD’s I had in my car on repeat.
The starting point for my adventure was Silverton, OR, about a 45 minute drive from Salem, OR, where I was staying. Our first stop (aside from the gas station) would be an interesting bog research site about 2.5 hours south deep within the Cascades. It was here that the northernmost population of Foothills Yellow-legged Frogs resided.
I had to take the highway to get there obviously, so I hopped on I-5, quickly made my way over to the left lane, and sped up to about 70-75 to catch up to the cars in front of me. I then noticed an oddly parked car under a bridge. “Hey, that’s a strange place for a car to park!” Then I realized it was a highway patrol car. A few seconds later and flashing blue and red lights were behind me. I pulled over and was informed of the speed I knew I was going, and then the speed limit. 60 miles per hour! Insane! Everyone on the highway was going between 65 and 75 miles per hour, with most cars driving a hair under 70. I had no idea the speed limit was 60. I thought it was 65, but apparently Salem I-5 is a famous speed trap where the speed limit lowers by 5 mph and cops pull over people at will. For whatever reason, Oregon invested a large amount of money in a fleet of unmarked Ford Mustang GT cop cars, and they literally camp around near on ramps or in the shadows of bridges, just waiting to pull people over. I had actually seen one pull over a US Postal Service truck earlier because apparently the mafia uses them to smuggle drugs. Whatever. Oregon speed limits are dumb, and I got my first speeding ticket! This all occurred with my friends in the car, which was actually quite helpful.
After an absolute killjoy in the first 30 minutes, I drove past a monotonous expanse of rolling green hills, and eventually made it to the foothills of the Cascades. I passed by covered bridges, beautiful mountain views, a lake, and a river! Like most of Oregon, the sites were awesome. Then I got to my turnoff (and missed it at first, making a dangerous U-turn shortly after). I pulled into the forest service road, and no more than 30 seconds later I was met with a six foot wall of snow. A six foot wall of snow that continued for the entire duration of the road to the bog. There were no frogs out. Not in this. So all I could do was go to the next stop…
Which proved rather difficult. I planned this entire trip so that each stop was within around 20 miles of each other. This first one was the most south, and afterwards I would continue north, stopping at the next stop, and then finishing at blue pools at night. I was correct in my planning, each site was roughly 20 miles apart. It would be able 26 minutes of driving to the next stop.
EXCEPT IT WASN’T. Not even close.
Due to the fact Oregon is terrible at building roads (they are all dangerous with very little markings at night, plentiful potholes, intentionally poor rough patches, not enough lanes, and slow speed limits), there was no route through the mountains going North. There were plenty going all of the other directions, just not North/South. So we had to drive around the entire damn mountain, 2 and a half hours worth of driving, all the way to the next road junction, and then back in again. It was a colossal waste of time. Despite being out of Old Growth Forest, the only habitat in which Oregon Slender Salamanders are found, we decided to stop anyways at one of the nearby streams before getting back into the car for 2.5 hours and listening to the same music again.
At our quick stop, within minutes of me saying salamanders are often found under rocks, forest debris, and logs, I flipped my lifer Oregon Ensatina. While not uncommon, these salamanders are really awesome. Below are some photos of me setting up for a photo session while Gecko holds the Ensatina for me:
After nabbing some decent photos of the little dude, we left after not finding any additional animals. My next site was a three mile trail along a creek, the end of which had prime old growth forest. It was confirmed to have Oregon Slender Salamanders, but the record was rather old.
To access this site we had to take a poorly maintained forest road littered with pot holes and fallen debris. It snaked across a dammed up valley with a breathtaking lake, and at one point we actually drove past a huge waterfall and an apparently popular hot spring area. Then we got to our road, the final drive to the trailhead! It was mysterious and foreboding. The trees hung over the road on either side, tightly hugging it. It looked like we were driving into the forest completely.
The good news was that there was no snow to block our path!
But that didn’t matter.
Sure enough, within minutes of driving down this road, a giant mound of dirt blocked our path. I did not want to risk getting stuck on it, so I did not try driving over it.
Frustrated and determined to find something, we searched the creek area next to my car for salamanders. There wouldn’t be Oregon Slender Salamanders here, but there was the possibility for some other cool species!
This was the area we were in. I put on my boat shoes and walked through the very cold water looking for Giant Pacific Salamanders, flipping rocks and looking under bark on logs for smaller salamanders. Sure enough, we found something, but it was Gecko that found the salamander this time! I was not sure what he found, but after consulting my field guide, I determined it to be a Clouded Salamander. This was definitely cooler than any Ensatina, and it was a great find! Even though Gecko found it, I was the one who captured it, carefully using my pocket knife to pry open little bits of wood so I could goad the salamander into coming out of its decayed crevice it had been living in under the bark. I had to be careful to make sure I preserved its habitat as well as possible. Below are some photos of me getting the salamander out of the log and posing it on a mossy rock for a photo:
I had to assemble and figure out how to use my new macro flash on the spot, which was definitely difficult with a very small and sensitive salamander in my care. I had to wet it often in order to ensure its skin stayed moist. The animal’s health is my main concern when taking photos. I am fairly proud of how the shots came out with my setup, as these animals are extremely small and difficult to photograph. Refer back to the photo above (look for the little black line on the moss- that’s the salamander) when viewing the photo below to see just how small it was.
In addition to this, Gecko found a Yellow-Eyed Ensatina in the same log, a different subspecies of the same Ensatina I found earlier. All and all it was a successful albeit delayed and greatly inconvenienced trip. I still wasn’t able to find any snakes or Rubber Boas though, something I really wanted to see.
After I finished up photographing salamanders while we had some interesting conversations by the creek, we got in my car and headed up to a restaurant by the McKenzie river famous for its Mac and Cheese. Luckily it was the 26 minutes away I expected it to be, and we got there just before it closed. I had delicious Mac and Cheese, Clam Chowder, and Marionberry Soda, which uses a special type of Raspberry known as a Marionberry that is only grown in Marion County, OR to flavor the drink. After a healthy amount of nazi-tattoo stories and general interesting conversation, we left the restaurant for our night hike to blue pools.
Arriving at the parking lot for the hike is an interesting experience, as a small hydro-electric dam on the McKenzie greets you at the entrance. At night it looks like a steam boat.
After hiking for what seemed like twice as long as it should have taken in complete darkness with no one around, we finally made it to the pool. Only there was one problem.
The water levels had more than TRIPLED within a few nights. The insane amount of snow melt set in motion by a couple of warm days had made the once crossable waterfall above the pools a gigantic several foot deep raging powerhouse of a stream that was literally impossible to cross. I could not get to the other side of the pools to light them from below like I had hoped.
Once we figured this out, everyone laid down next to the raging waters under the starry night sky, and rested while I played around with fairly terrible attempts at long exposure photography. The flashlight stuff didn’t work and only made my hands cold (the water was close to freezing). As a last ditch effort, I got some cool photos of the night sky above me, and rested a bit as well, enjoying the absolutely beautiful sight and sound of a raging waterfall and brilliant starlit sky.
On our way out, I stopped at the cliff-side overlook to try and get a photo of just the regular pool area. It was extremely difficult because of the overwhelming amount of mist the insanely powerful waterfall created. I was lighting up the waterfall and pools with a flashlight from a far, because it was too dark for the natural ambient light to show the surrounding landscape. After combining a few shots together, I was able to get this:
By the time we got back to the car, it was past 2:30 am.
And then my car wouldn’t start.
But thankfully after some ritualistic chanting and about 5 tries, with a little shimmy I got it to barely start.
I got home at 5am after listening to the same album over and over again, and so did everyone else.
It was totally worth it. One of the best days of my life, by far.