SALEM – Salem hiker Alma Wells has the dates circled on her calendar and is anticipating hikes in the Columbia River Gorge to Tom McCall Preserve and to Dog Mountain.
Jim and Jeanette Scott, of Salem, are looking forward to at least five hikes in the same series – those to Seven-Mile Hill, Pierce National Wildlife Refuge, Steigerwald Lake, Oak Spring and to the petroglyphs on Horsethief Butte State Park.
Friends of the Columbia Gorge recently kicked off their 26th year of free, guided hikes that show off the springtime wildflowers, waterfalls and heart-stopping scenery of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.
“The great thing is that a lot of their hikes aren’t even written up in books, so by going on their hikes you can learn ones that you wouldn’t have any other way of knowing about,” said Jim Scott, an avid outdoorsman who hikes several times each week.
Wells, 87, will ascend 2,900 feet on Dog Mountain to witness the vast yellow meadows of blooming balsamroot, and will hike Tom McCall Preserve to hear the birds and to watch wildflowers sway in the breeze.
“I love that one because it’s when the meadowlarks sing, and we get all those prairie wildflowers,” Wells said.
Flowers that will be in bloom include balsamroot and lupine, “and there’ll be a blue flower that comes up with no petals on it whatsoever, naked broomrape. Tom McCall Preserve is a place where we usually see it.”
Friends of the Columbia Gorge outings – 60 of them – will be held each weekend through June 18, with a grand finale July 15.
“It’s a really wonderful array,” said Betsy Toll, a Friends of the Columbia Gorge staff member, just back from exploring Catherine Creek, on the Washington side of the Columbia River.
“The very first grass widows were out, and it was just glorious. It was a fabulous hike, and we have five hikes coming up on Catherine Creek, all on different trails.”
Friends of the Columbia Gorge has earmarked 18 of the outings as primarily to see wildflowers, 13 for scenic value, five for family outings, eight as extremely strenuous, five for mountain bikers and six for members only, although anyone can join by making a phone call and paying the minimum dues of $35.
“That’s how we joined originally,” Scott said. “They have these great draws, like (wildflower expert) Russ Jolley, and we wanted to go on his hike bad enough that we joined. We’ve been members ever since, and it opened our eyes to a lot of great hikes up there.”
Jolley, 83, is author of “Wildflowers of the Columbia Gorge,” considered indispensable in the backpacks of botanists who scour the Gorge for buds and blooms. He is leading four hikes in the series, all for members only.
“One thing people should be aware of is that many of these hikes are well attended,” Scott said. “The first one we went on there were something like 60 people.”
Friends of the Columbia Gorge has alleviated much of that problem in the past two years by offering multiple hikes each weekend and usually each weekend day.
“We thought we hit the right mix last year after having more than 90 people on a hike a few years back,” said Kevin Gorman, executive director of the organization. “We have it spread out now.”
Hike themes cover the gamut from wildflowers to bird-watching, from outdoor photography to places where Lewis and Clark camped.
The Gorge hikes have, for years, been led by an assortment of specialists ranging from botanists such as Jolley and Barbara Robinson, members of Friends of the Columbia Gorge, to leaders from the Mazamas mountain-climbing club, the Sierra Club, the Oregon Natural Resources Council, the Trails Club of Oregon and others.
The trend this season will be toward hike leaders trained by the Friends group, although Wendell Wood of the Oregon Natural Resources Council will lead seven outings.
“Wendell is a legend and he’s just a fountain of knowledge, not only about wildflowers but about forest ecosystems,” Gorman said. “Whether it’s old growth or any area with wilderness qualities, anyplace where nature has a stronger imprint on the land than man has, Wendell can really bring that to life.”
The hikes will be in every region of the Gorge, and in general will follow the bloom of the wildflowers from east to west, from low elevation to high.
“In doing an end-of-season analysis last year we realized that wildflower hikes are our strength,” Toll said.
“If people want an extremely athletic hike there are the Mazamas and other trail clubs. But if people want to learn more about the Gorge and its incredible legacy of wildflowers and flowering plants, that’s been our strength for 20-some years. We’re offering something for everyone, but we decided with wildflowers, let’s play to our strengths.”
“I think it’s the time of year when you get itchy feet,” Gorman said. “You want to get out and enjoy yourself, yet the only place you can hike consistently is the Gorge. The mountains are still snowed in. We’d like anybody who has those itchy feet to get out and join us.”
“If somebody thinks they know all the history of the Gorge, or all the wildflowers, I think if they come on a hike they’re going to be surprised,” Gorman said.
“They’re going to learn things they didn’t know. The Gorge has a lot of secrets.”
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