Sunday, August 03, 2008

Oversized postcard for Ted

Around noon, midway up the cliff, I thought my last words were going to be the ones I uttered at the bottom of Cascade Head: “Oh, how cool! A native herd of Roosevelt elk! Look! They’re all over the place….” Clad in thick woolen sweaters, we had just hiked about a mile through the Siskyou National Forest en route to the top of a 1,000 foot rise which begins at the Pacific Ocean. After witnessing the elk herd, listening to their alarm calls from the base of the enormous grass-covered rocks, we decided to sally forth the rest of the way, another mile and a half to the top, thinking my mountain goat skills would serve me well.

I try to take very good care of my health. I run, swim, bike, lift weights. I hike around rugged terrain. I can run burn lines in the Ozarks while slinging a driptorch with a full waterpack on my back. I eat properly, but I have consistently low blood pressure and blood sugar levels, both conditions that require me to ingest calories every couple of hours and lots of water to keep my blood pressure at an almost normal level. I am driven by a deep-seated fear of being left in the dust by field staff who may laugh if they lost the girl from the office in the woods, wondering if she could subsist on unripe berries, roots, soil, and twigs. I never, ever, want to utter to my 40-something year old boss, “hey…(pant, pant)…hold on…(huh) I can’t…(pant)…keep up,” so I ramp up the incline on my treadmill with every daily session.

So it came as no surprise that I found myself wondering, angrily really, “where has my workout failed me?” as I sat in the middle of the muddy trail, high above the elk, attempting to catch my breath. We had hiked at a fast clip the whole way through the woods, stopping for pictures of moss, big fir and spruce trees, and the stunning understory of truly enormous ferns. When we reached the grasslands of TNC’s Cascade Head Nature Preserve, we agreed that what it gained in interesting topography and great views of the Pacific, it lacked in biological diversity: lots of red fescue, patches of goldenrod, swathes of native grasses, all uniformly golden in the wind-whipped dry climate. Rather than spending time on each plant like I do in Missouri’s managed prairies, I decided to test my endurance by racing up the slope.

I sweat at the gym. I breathe heavily in the first part of my run, but my breathing patterns turn into a mere pant by the 4th mile; by mile 4 I can talk comfortably to that really skinny guy with wide eyes who rides a bike with a little cart all around Columbia. But rushing up Cascade Head? I felt blood pulsing into little places I never knew had blood vessels. My back, I felt blood pulsing through my back, a strange sensation I can honestly say I’ve never felt before. I wasn’t in pain at all, my legs were fine, my muscles were fine, but my lungs, clear, clean, healthy things, couldn’t keep up. I don’t stop in the middle of my daily run to catch my breath, but keep my pulse racing full steam ahead. I’ve never held the universal time out symbol with my hands to a tennis partner to catch my breath. But my body simply stopped. I was livid, almost steaming. Oh, my legs could go for miles, and I wasn’t even near the top. It was my lungs. I must need more swimming, more biking. No more dark chocolate covered hazelnuts but more White River Hills. Fieldstaff, at the least the ones who ask “what does a little girl like you know about timber?” would have smirked at me, Schadenfreude, what with my head held in my hands.

Down the cliff was my trusty native Oregonian who used to bike the hills of Portland everyday. An avid cyclist, he’s biked Hwy. 26 from Salem to Cannon Beach, a road that -in a car- requires regular downshifting into 3rd to climb the hills. Slow and steady wins the race, he proves, as he admits on his ascent, barely panting, that no, he was not dying, that’s just me. As a child, he was given a t-shirt with a turtle on it with “Slowpoke” underneath the image. A little disappointed about possibly being considered a slowpoke, he surely realizes box turtles outlive rabbits by about 80 years. Anyway, he’s deliberate, not slow, and I was the one who was sweating. I was the one satisfied with the view from where we were: Big! Vast! The whole Salmon River floodplain! Waves crashing against big rocks! “You’re not about to die, are you?” he asks, almost sincerely....

We continue the trudge up the mountain to the final viewpoint (“Come on, you’d never forgive yourself if you didn’t go to the top.”). I remark how noble it is that the Oregon Chapter of the Nature Conservancy never mentioned in their trailhead signage that a. you should really be in decent shape to accomplish the hike, b. native Roosevelt elk thrive here, among native predators like mountain lions, bobcats, and coyotes, c. 1.5 miles of steep elevation is significantly more difficult than 1.5 miles on a treadmill. Having been here over a week, I am reminded that Oregonians are much healthier than we are in the Midwest, what with their affordable produce, clean air (no Ohio Valley coal plants here!), and vast stretches of high quality “green space” for hiking and biking. I was told by not one, but three people that the hike at Cascade Head is “great;” they didn’t add “…but tough,” or even, “wear good shoes.” No, these lovely Oregonians probably wore long linen skirts and sandals with socks on their hike up the mountain. Just another day on the coast, really, followed by an elegant, affordable meal of local Chinook.

At the top, I was struck not only by the obvious fire-mediated topography (north facing slopes covered in dense firs, south and west facing slopes of grassy meadow, interrupted only by scattered, scruffy manzanita bushes), but how this landscape fits into the larger picture of Oregon’s coastal landscape. While interrupted by stretches of clearcuts (more than I’ve ever seen. The Mark Twain NF looks pristine in comparison), Oregon still has the puzzle piece in landscape management that we lack in Missouri: native large herbivores. In fact, elk have been extirpated from Missouri’s woodlands for so long that we don’t even know what impacts they had on maintaining the woodland structure.

The clapboard signs in the Willamette Valley for elk jerky, sandwiched between bright red painted signs for cherries, marionberries, and boysenberries? I thought the elk were farm raised, kept in fences like they are in Missouri, raised for meat or, as in the case of Barton Co.’s elk, reintroduced to perform that vital role of grazer on the prairie landscape. Elk and black-tailed deer thrive in Oregon’s landscapes. Efforts to reintroduce elk to the Ozark Highlands in the mid-1980s were roundly denied by government officials, despite well-researched arguments in favor of elk to help maintain the open character of our historical oak savanna. But you see, native predators are also common here: mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, all keeping the native grazers in check. Of course, Oregon contains significantly larger tracts of uninterrupted woodland and forests than we have in Missouri. While the landscape here is drastically different than it was in the 1800s, while dairy cattle reign supreme in Tillamook Co. and few traces of their savanna exist, I think one could still lose herself in the wooly, wild woods of Oregon, and I wouldn’t have a clue of what to eat.

So, you may be wondering why I’m not posting great pictures of Cascade Head, Roosevelt elk, vast vistas of the Pacific Coast from Neskowin Bay. Just as we turned the corner at the base of the grassland onto the south-facing slope covered in elk, I opened the trusty camera who, then and there, decided that enough was enough. It had endured too many grains of sand, too many drops to the ground, too much river water in the lens. I have composed a letter to the Nature Conservancy lauding them on their recent purchase and praising them for the lovely preserve on the coast. I started with one question (about elk grazing behaviour), and ended with about thirty more pertaining to management, all masked in a series of lengthy sentences. I closed my letter with a short story about the camera, how I really wanted pictures from the various points of the trail, but really, I’d like a photo that shows the whole thing on fire, please.

Heading back up the coast, I felt lost without a working camera. I haven’t even taken pictures of the starfish yet! I haven’t spent as much time on the beach as I need to! Ah! I haven’t even spent a day at the cabin reading and watching the Anna’s hummingbirds gorge on the honeysuckle! Recalling the lovely Maria Sharapova taking pictures of the dog (surely she wouldn’t own a Pomeranian…she’s more of a yellow lab kind of gal) during Wimbledon, I picked up—with no research, no shopping around—a new digital camera, complete with pink brushed metal finishes. I feel like an ultimate sucker, someone who chomped down in a spinner bait because maybe, just maybe, the advertising world will serve me properly. I don’t really know yet, since it’s only been a couple of days, but I’m glad Nadal doesn’t hock cigarettes or fried food during the French Open.

But just past Lincoln City (due north of Cascade Head on Hwy. 101) is the industrial little town of Tillamook, Oregon, home of my favorite mass-produced cheese: Tillamook Sharp Cheddar. I eat it by the block. A stop at the factory was not only necessary from a tourist’s perspective, but I wanted to find the elusive Roasted Garlic White Cheddar block that Tillamook Co. Cheese Company only sells in select stores in Oregon, only during Christmas.

I felt like a hayseed moving into Columbia from southeast Missouri, impressed as I was with curbside recycling, coffeeshops, a grocery store I could walk to. When I headed straight for the cheese section at my local grocer and saw that Tillamook cheddar was cheaper even than the store brand, I reacted appropriately, buying up as much as I could in the event the store might stop carrying it that afternoon. Haven’t eaten anything but Tillamook since December (excepting the fancy Goatsbeard cheese, made in Columbia, sold at the Root Cellar on Broadway).

Interpretive panels about the Tillamook National Forest fires of the 1930s-1950s reiterated the need to perform prescribed fires in the area, though the Forest Service seems to forget about these needs. Clean, vast viewing windows hovering above the panels into the cheese factory allow the cheese lover to watch as enormous blocks are situated, cut and packaged, ready to be sent to Columbia. I learned from another panel below the windows that the fields surrounding the Tillamook factory that house Guernsey and Holsteins who produce the milk that makes the incredible cheese and (even better) Tillamook Huckleberry ice cream, are sustainably farmed. While I hate cows so passionately that I vowed to never eat them again (knowing what I do about their impacts on the landscape), I can’t give up cheese. I was pleased to learn that Tillamook dairy farmers practice a form of agriculture that supports rather than destroys the watershed, protecting the aquatic invertebrates who thrive in Oregon’s rivers and streams. I still hate the smell of cows, but how dearly I love good cheese. I even bought a bright blue kids t-shirt for myself that reads: “Nothing that a little Tillamook ice cream can’t fix!” I should wear it to work.

A long day on the coastal highway, a decent enough hike that obviates my need for a long run, we ended up in Seaside at the beautifully appointed Pacific Way Café. Erath pinot noir (whose Portugese cork reads: “Erath=Earth”), a great salad with Gorgonzola dressing, fish and rosemary chips with a fennel slaw. But it was the marionberry cobbler, arriving as it did on a platter in a ridiculously large ramekin, marionberry juice bubbling over the sides, made me realize that Oregonians really are lucky. All those articles touting the health benefits of berries? They’re generated here, where impeccably produced marionberries serve as the inexpensive dessert, the chocolate brownie of Missouri. I’m shipping 8 lbs. of Rainier cherries to my mother who will gladly pay 6$/lb. for them in Louisiana, but I’m buying them way less than that—locally grown, fresh, big and much better than those from California. In fact, everything I’m eating, seeing, feeling and smelling is here, locally grown, fresh, affordable, reeking of the incredible state of Oregon, where its customary to go without makeup, where sweaters are worn with shorts, socks under sandals.

Okay, Ted, low tide at Haystack Rock occurs in 20 minutes, time enough for me to slip on a sweater and my Tevas so I can see anemones, sand dollars and starfish nestled among the smooth basalt rocks. I’m attaching a last, parting photo of the only beetle I found in the Siskyou NF, just for you. While most Americans may prefer beaches of palm trees, water you can swim in comfortably, temperatures that allow for bikinis, stores that sell t-hirts covered in cartooned hibiscus flowers, I’ll take the subtleties of the Oregon Coast any day of the year.

1 comment:

Ted C. MacRae said...

What a lovely postcard! Sounds like you're having a wonderful time. Your vivid depictions of the terrain and natural history make me regret not taking the time to see more of Oregon while I lived in California than a quick trip to Crater Lake. Of course, having had so much California to explore, my guilt is not ponderous.

Love the beetle pic - certainly a carabid ground beetle, perhaps one of the snail eaters (Scaphinotus or near) judging by the shape - they have long, slender mandibles adapted for insertion into the shell opening of the snails on which they feed. Snails must be legion in that moist, cool clime!