- Associated Press - Saturday, August 22, 2015

OPAL CREEK WILDERNESS, Ore. (AP) - Michael Donnelly’s legs were laced with cuts and bleeding, Daniel Dundon had been attacked by a swarm of hornets and I had hiked through enough devil’s club to make my backside feel like a pincushion.

The first two miles of our off-trail bushwhack down Opal Creek - from its headwaters at Opal Lake to the confluence with the Little North Santiam - had been slow, painful and occasionally confusing.

But then it happened.

After following the creekbed through jungle-thick forest, we arrived above a waterfall and looked down on an emerald pool shimming in the sunlight, a pristine swimming hole unknown and untouched by all but a small handful of Oregonians.

“Now we’re in the heart of Opal Creek Wilderness,” said Donnelly, diving into the cool glassy water. “This is what Opal Creek looked like in the old days. Total wilderness and nobody else for miles.”

In some ways, the trip was a return home for Donnelly. One of the original activists in the fight to protect Opal Creek from logging, he’s watched the area transform from ground zero in the so-called Forest Wars into one of the most popular recreation destinations in the state.

Hot summer weekends bring overflowing crowds of hikers and backpackers onto the wilderness trails. Jawbone Flats, the old mining town and hippie nerve center during the conservation fight, has been recast as an environmental learning center with yoga-in-the-forest getaways.

“Back when we were trying to save this place from being clear-cut, the logging guys would always say stuff like, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to keep this as your own personal playground,’ ” Donnelly said. “Now look at it. The problem isn’t logging, it’s people loving the place to death.”

The crowds were one reason Donnelly, Dundon and I headed off-trail on a boiling day last week to explore a part of Opal Creek that remains wilderness in the truest sense.

We started at Opal Lake and followed the creek downstream, bushwhacking around cliffs and below old-growth trees, rock-hopping across the creekbed and jumping off waterfalls into emerald swimming holes.

The trip took almost 12 hours and covered 10.4 miles. We were bloodied, bludgeoned and stung along the way. Yet the chance to experience Opal Creek at its most primeval, away from the masses, helped me understand the spell this area cast on a generation of Oregonians.

HEADWATERS

The headwaters of Opal Creek feel just about right.

Opal Lake is a deep-blue pool at 3,400 feet, surrounded by old-growth cedars and Douglas firs just below French Creek Ridge. It has a few campsites and a few brook trout but doesn’t get too much use.

After leaving one car at the Jawbone Flats/Opal Creek Trailhead, we hiked into Opal Lake just as the day was getting hot.

This is where the trip would get challenging.

With no trails to follow, we planned to rely on a map, compass, handheld GPS and Donnelly’s memory to guide us through the trail-free wilderness.

“The last time I did this trip,” Donnelly said with a laugh, “was about 27 years ago.”

After a quick swim in the lake, we headed into the wild.

BUSHWHACK

Opal Creek begins life by falling down a series of waterfalls - known as Opal Falls - making the first part of the trip the toughest.

In dense forest, you have to swing away from the creek to find a route downhill. Every once in a while, we’d arrive above a cliff and adjust our route, always moving left, banging through a dense understory and downed logs.

“Ahh! Bees!” Dundon yelled, crashing ahead through the forest. Despite getting stung three times - once in the butt - the former caretaker at Jawbone Flats added mud to the welts and continued without complaint.

After an hour of bushwhacking, we found Opal Creek, barely more than a trickle and choked with downed trees. We followed the creekbed, climbing over piles of logs and doing our best to avoid sprawling groves of devil’s club, as layers of titanic trees rose overhead.

We stopped for a snack in a particularly large grove, home to massive cedars and Douglas fir rising like skyscrapers overhead.

In that quiet moment, it seemed hard to believe the noise caused by this trickling little stream three decades ago.

A BRIEF HISTORY

Entire books have been written about the fight over Opal Creek, so we’ll keep this brief.

In the earliest days following the 1964 Wilderness Act - the landmark bill that grants the highest form of environmental protection - Opal Creek was considered for protection due to its old-growth forests but didn’t make the cut.

Eventually it was targeted for logging, and in 1980, Detroit district ranger Dave Alexander vowed to “cut Opal Creek.” Clearcut boundary markers were placed and miles of road planned. Opal Creek would become like countless streams in Oregon - a source of timber and jobs and development - but no longer an ancient forest.

Lawsuits, protests and all the white-hot anger of the Forest Wars ensued. George Atiyeh, nephew of former governor Vic Atiyeh, held the Forest Service off for years from the family mining claim at Jawbone Flats.

Donnelly, Atiyeh and four others built the first trail up Opal Creek in 1988. It was an illegal pathway and became known as the Bear Trail because when asked who built it, Atiyeh maintained that it was the local population of black bears.

“Alexander threatened to have us arrested for ‘felony destruction of government property,’ ” Donnelly said. “We said, ‘Please do. You plan 11 miles of roads and 1,800 acres of clearcuts in there, and we’re the ones destroying government property by creating a footpath?’ It would have been great for the cause.”

To this day, the six builders proudly call themselves “The Bears.”

The trail’s access helped kick-start a public relations campaign of books, films, articles and photography that would bring Opal Creek to national prominence, creating a wave of public support for its preservation pushed by celebrities from Ted Turner to Paul Newman.

In the Santiam Canyon, preservation of Opal Creek became a symbol for the decline of logging and the loss of a lifestyle that had endured for generations. Deep frustration bubbled up among lifelong Oregonians who saw their livelihood threatened. It marked a tipping point, really, in how Oregonians view natural resources.

After multiple attempts at conservation failed, the Opal Creek Wilderness and Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area were designated in 1996.

Today, an area once the realm of heated conflict is filled with families hiking and camping.

CATHEDRAL OF OPAL CREEK

For the first few miles below Opal Lake, the creek is a tangled mess of downed trees and dense understory that made for painful hiking.

But eventually the creek picked up more water, the creekbed widened and we entered the realm of waterfalls and swimming holes that make Opal Creek famous.

Every half mile or so, we’d arrive atop a waterfall and look down on a pristine pool sparkling in the sunlight or shaded below mossy trees. We passed titanic groves, like the Franklin Grove, home to 1,000-year-old cedars. Every time we got too hot, we’d jump into one of the countless swimming holes.

After about 4 miles, we were stopped cold where the creek drops 30 to 40 feet into a gorge of vertical rock.

“This is Bolo Falls,” Donnelly said. “It’s one of the most beautiful spots in all of Opal Creek.”

Unless we wanted to make a sketchy jump down the falls (we didn’t), we’d have to go back into the forest. We scrambled up a steep hillside on the right side of the creek and found a faint trail Donnelly knew about to navigate down to Beechie Creek.

Despite the fact that we were starting to get tired, and the day was starting to get late, we scrambled upstream into what might be considered the Cathedral of Opal Creek, with multiple waterfalls leading up to the base of Bolo Falls.

We took a chilly swim below Bolo before deciding it was time to head home.

After a little more rock-hopping, we hit the official trail system and began passing well-known destinations like Cedar Flats, Opal Pool and Jawbone Flats.

The difference between the wild upstream wilderness and the area below was striking.

“It’s not a bunch of people coming in and being disrespectful,” Donnelly said. “You don’t see trash all over or trees chopped down. It’s just the sheer numbers of people - the pounding of so many feet, the lack of bathroom facilities and camps set up in fragile, special places.

“Opal Creek is such a special place. People fought so hard to save it. Now we just have to remind people to respect it.”

POSTSCRIPT

By the time we reached Jawbone Flats and followed the main trail back to the car, it was starting to get dark. Our legs were marked with scratches and our knees were aching. By the time we reached the Opal Lake Trailhead to retrieve the car, it was 9:30 p.m. - almost 12 hours from the time we’d started.

The trip down the length of Opal Creek is not recommended for inexperienced hikers and should not be taken alone. It would be very easy to get lost, and help would not be soon in coming.

A compass and topographic map are required, and a GPS device is recommended. Make sure you have a good sole on your shoes or boots, and expect to get them very wet, since the easiest way to travel is in the creek itself.

If you’re up for it, though, the trip is a way to see the heart of Opal Creek, one of the few wild places remaining in Western Oregon.

___

The original story can be found on the Statesman Journal’s website: https://stjr.nl/1E3DSMc

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