Remembering the gorge: Life, death, and a new begining.

“I’m home” -Returning to eagle creek, July 2018.

For those who have experienced the gorge before the fire of 2018, have seen a tragedy. And to those who sauntered around among the trees and waterfalls, have lost a home.

The columbia river gorge is the crown jewel of oregon, it attracts millions of visitors each year to experience it’s yosemitie valley like wonder. Not only is it’s scale so grand, but extremely accessible even to the most crippled adventurers. The historic highway 30 from troutdale takes you over a delightful countryside, dotted with wooded areas and charming little farms. Soon after, the view of the mighty river opens up right before your eyes, leaving you speechless and in awe before dropping into the most prized piece of oregon, the waterfall world. I call it waterfall world for a reason, that reason being is depending upon the season, you can see hundreds of waterfalls in a single day if you dare get your boots and rain coat a little muddy. The waterfall world extends from crown point out over to mitchell point, the core of it being from crown point to the PCT, and undoubtedly the most popular place in oregon and continuously attracting more and more visitors each year.

 The gateway to the gorge

The gateway to the gorge

Now when i say easily accessible, its because it is ridiculously accessible! you don’t even have to leave your car to see some of the most popular waterfalls as you drive along the highway. Latourell (the gateway to waterfall world), Sheppards dell, The queen of waterfall world Wahkeena falls, The king of waterfall world Multnomah Falls, and finally Horsetail falls! I’m not even mentioning the dozens of seasonal waterfalls, but that gives you a little window into what just the 4.5 mile drive lets you see. However, if you do want to stretch those legs then there are hundreds if not thousands of waterfalls just waiting beyond the basalt cliffs.

Now enough chatting, you know why it’s so popular now so lets get to the life of the gorge.


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Can you hear that? what do you hear? Absolute silence? maybe it’s the breeze gently blowing through the trees above, or how about a creek and a waterfall thundering just around the corner. Birds are chirping and chipmunks running around the forest floor. How about the smell, a sweet sweet mix of earth, moss, and fir needles soaking in the spring time sunshine after last nights rain. If you’ve ever taken a hike in the gorge, you know the sounds and smells all too well. Even though you are so close to such a large city, this feels like pure paradise.

When the columbia river highway was built, the people who once never imagined such a place to exist ventured out and find a piece of beauty like no other. This was the beginning.

As time goes by, more and more visitors start coming from throughout the state, the the country, and soon… The world. The gorges hayday really begun in the 60’s when I-84 was built, providing more access to the gorge than ever before! from here on out, the gorge will never be without a human soul again.

When the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area was signed in to law, the future of the magnificentwonder was sealed. Plans to develop a neighborhood on the washington side were scrapped before it was too late. A new era has begun, beginning oregons transition away from an industry state, to a scenic state.

The designation of a scenic area has shown the world of the greatest thing the US has to offer, preservation of land for scenic and recreational use. No other country before the US ever set land aside away from development. It has shown us, that even in the 80’s, magnificent wonders can still be set aside for future scenic enjoyment. Not only that, the gorge was so impressive that politicians have fallen for it, and seen it to be more special than anyone else may have thought it to be.

The enchanting rain forest brought peace and wonder to millions of saunterers in the last century. Inspired thousands of artists. Created countless friendships, and ended the lives of a few.

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The gorge was such a large part of our lives, we just forgot how fragile it really is. It’s always been there, always accessible, always within reach. But when death knocked on the door, everyone’s heart had sunk sunk.




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The night of september 2nd, 2017, every portlander will remember. It’s impossible not to.

I didn’t even get more than a few words in writing this and i’m already having a hard time keeping my heart from sinking. The impact this has had on my life is immense, i can’t imagine the impact it has had to those who lived within feet from the fire. But anyway, this is about the gorge.

When the fire roared through, we have experienced nature doing it’s thing, but to us, our home was being burned down to the ground. It’s hard to accept the fact that this was bound to happen eventually, but unfortunately this has happened at the worst (or best) possible time depending on who you ask. The benefits far outweigh the cons, but those who used to play in the gorge, just have a hard time accepting the fact that this needed to happen.

For nearly a century, the gorge has been a very beautiful jungle like rain forest. Thick brush has lined the streams, moss grew on anything it could cling on, and millions of trees stood tall and proud. A single spark from a firework has changed everything we ever knew of the gorge. Once the smoke gad finally cleared, the once green ridge tops now stand black and dead, rock faces once green and vibrant now brown and exposed. This is either the biggest loss oregon has ever seen, or the reset button the gorge desperately needed. But it is undeniable that this is one of the greatest reminders of how fragile even the toughest ecosystems can be.


Once all the smoke has settled, and winter has come and gone, we get our first look into our playground. The trails we all knew and loved, are unrecognisable in many places. Washed out, covered with rock, or in need of a lot of love.

The ecosystem it self has started recovering by this time. New moss has begun to cling on to newly exposed cliffs, young little ferns started to spring up out of the blackened ground, and wildlife has made their way back into the burn area. The next few decades will be some of the greatest years to ever witness! We will finally get to see how such a unique ecosystem recovers. The forest service, oregon state parks, PCTA, TKO, WTA, and many other state, federal and private partners have come together, for the very first time as one team, to help with the recovery of our most prized possession.

The following spring, PCTA has held their annual trail skills college. This year, it was all about the recovery. I have never seen so many people come together, excited and so eager to help in any way they can to help get our beloved trails reopened, all for FREE! the first time seeing our blackened trails, we shared stories of what once was. Some were speechless, some were emotional, and some were powering through it all, but all of us shared one thing, we love this place with all our hearts. No matter how much it changes, we will continue to love it more than ever.

At this time, many trees that were clinging on to life in the fire began either dying off for good, or sprouting new life. All over the forest floor, new growth was coming in. Although countless blackened trees can be seen, there was an impressive amount of green coming out of the ground.

The gorge was recovering faster than anyone had ever originally thought! by august, everything east of the PCT was open. By september, many trails are getting their final touch up before getting ready to be opened. By october, the volunteer effort tripled from that in 2016 (Don’t take my word for it, just what i heard) For 6 months, nearly every single week, there was at least one crew going into the burn area for recovery purposes.

As of writing this, the season is winding down, but there are still well over a dozen crews scheduled for the remainder of october. Waterfalls are getting greener once again, new growth is sprouting up, and life in the gorge is gradually returning to normal.

The summer of 2018 was a magical time in oregons history. So many, i mean so so many people were so eager to help with the recovery that finding a spot in a crew was next to impossible simply of how quickly they filled up. I've found this the most heartwarming, and possibly one of the greatest things about oregon. No matter what their condition, or their limitations, they wanted to help in any way. I don’t think we’ll ever see such unification at this scale for our trails ever again. It was just, beautiful.

The Eagle Creek Fire of 2017, for better or for worse, will undoubtedly affect the way our forests are managed. It will affect everyones outlook on nature, and how we have taken it for granted all these years. We now realize, that all we ever knew and loved can be changed by one mistake. Although it is too early to tell, but i have a feeling many of us will take much better care of our wonderful public lands.

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Eagle Creek Fire: My story

The eagle creek fire. One of the most influential natural disasters in Oregon's history. Started by a single firework thrown in by a teenager, spreading to over 50,000 acres in a matter of days. Fueled by thick underbrush let to collect for decades, dry late summer conditions, and right in the middle of a wind tunnel.

Most of you reading this already know the story of the fire. So, I will focus purely on what I have witnessed, and how it affected me personally. I apologize for my spelling and grammar mistakes in advance. This is my mind, unfiltered.

 

So, who am I?

My name is Nathan Zaremskiy. I have been born and grew up in the Portland metro area. Rarely if ever leaving sight of Mt. Hood until recent years. Early on, I was extremely interested in aviation and have wanted to pursue a career as a passenger airline pilot. That quickly changed when I've spent a few summers in eastern Washington. Slowly getting more and more interested in landscape photography, admiring the lovely fields of Palouse and the snake river canyon itself. Over the years my love of nature has grown steadily, photographing just about anything I've seen. But, there was still one very important link I needed to connect. Until one day I've decided to trek out on my first hike into Oneonta Gorge. There, the missing piece has been welded and my love of nature sealed forever.

Welding the link

 

Oneonta Falls

The first trek

The photo viewed here is my first time seeing the waterfall, on my first true hike.

Unfortunately, this is one of the very few photos that I have left of my first trek. Due to my phone suffering a little water damage from an unrelated source soon after. This trip has sealed my fate of respecting, protecting and preserving nature. The incredible high walls blanked in vibrant green moss, the cool air gently blowing through the canyon caused by the waterfall at the end, the sense of belonging in nature was extremely strong here. Walking in the creek, within a narrow slot canyon no wider than 20 feet in most places. With a thick canopy above, for the first time, I have felt I was a part of nature. Since this day, Oneonta has been extremely special to me and has helped me with depression on a few occasions. Buying me time to rethink and regroup.

Of everything else in the gorge, losing access to Oneonta Gorge has been the hardest hit for me personally. This was my 2nd home.

The calm before the storm

Saturday, September 2nd, 2017. Noon. I worked as Campground Maintenance staff for Lost Lake Resort just one ridge over from the eagle creek drainage. We've had smoke lingering around for nearly two months from the Indian Creek fire started on 4th of July of that year which closed a few trails on Eagle creek already.

The day went on as normal. I was part of parking staff that day helping out with the usual weekend crowds. By noon most of the crowds have calmed down and are enjoying a beautiful late summer pacific northwestern day with friends and family.

No one around ever expected it. Little did we know, our lives were about to be changed forever.

 

Eagle Creek FIre 2:23pm

2:20 PM

At this point I've been just outside of the campground entrance assisting with overflow parking, then I see it. A large white plume of smoke begins to rise above the trees, I haven't thought about it too much thinking it was just the Indian Creek fire. Oh, boy was I so wrong.

The chase

5 PM. I've gotten off work around this time, can't remember the exact time but close enough. Most of the visitors have left, and now we're closing up shop for the day. Sitting in the breakroom in the lodge, I've overheard some guests talking about a new fire. Curiously I've quickly tried to look it up on my phone. Sure enough, my fear has come to pass. A major fire in the gorge. Not just any part of the gorge, but the oldest, most beautiful, pristine part of the gorge. My heart sank.

Quickly, I've packed anything I needed into my car, being a Sleeping bag, some food, water, and of course my camera equipment, and set off to Cascade Locks.

 

Lost Lake road view of fire

5:53 PM

The drive down Lost Lake road has given me the first idea of how severe the fire is. Seeing as this was just a few hours after the first report and completely engulfed Hood River, it became clear to me that the gorge was in huge, huge trouble. By the time I've reached Hood River, the air was extremely hard to breathe, visibility was low, and nervousness has settled in.

 

Driving down I-84, getting closer and closer to cascade locks have offered some incredible, bet terrifying views of the fire. A plume of smoke was rising higher and higher as if it was a volcanic eruption. Eagle Creek has become the epicenter of one of the most influential natural disasters in Oregon's history. Threatening thousands of homes, threatening businesses that rely on tourism. If they do survive the fire, will they survive the coming years? Multnomah falls alone receives 2 million visitors every year. Hikers from around the world drop by restaurants and shops in cascade locks before or after a hike on near by trailheads. It is the lowest point on the PCT, what will this mean for next years Thru-hikers? There are many questions to be asked. No one knows the answer to either of them.

Eagle Creek Fire

7:17 PM.

When I arrived just outside of cascade locks, I was horrified. A giant plume of smoke rising over one of the most pristine forests in Oregon, with some of the most spectacular waterfalls around. This was not going to be an easy fight; this was going to be historic, I said to my self. "I will document this fire to the end"

Night 1

As the sun went down and darkness settled in, a faint red glow was constant overhead from the growing eagle creek fire just above us. Locals, visitors, news crews, photographers, firefighters, policemen, everybody was out; cascade locks was THE place to be on Saturday night. Everyone wanted to get the first look of the flames, as they slowly crept up higher and higher up the canyon. Nearby places began evacuations as it became clear the fire will not stop. The storm has begun.

First sight

Behold! the fire is visible!

The very first view of the fire as it peaked over the ridge. viewed from the Eagle Creek fish hatchery.

 

The fire is coming! Little did I know that tonight was going to be the last night I'll be able to drive this close to the trailhead. As of writing this in late March 2018, the exit is still closed.

News crews were out interviewing the evacuated campers; firefighters are going in to rescue the stranded hikers, policemen are watching the fire in horror, no one could believe their eyes. How can this happen? A beautiful clear late summer day is turning in to a hellish nightmare. I've overheard someone who came over from the Bridge of the God's saying the view is better. Naturally, I've packed up and rushed over. I was a little late, so I've driven out to North Bonneville. There I've witnessed something I thought I'd only see from volcanic eruptions, something I couldn't believe. A plume of smoke is rising higher than any surrounding walls as if eagle creek had a secret volcano that has finally erupted.

Eruption

"Like a volcanic eruption"

These photographs were shot in a span of 4-5 minutes

By midnight, the fire has calmed down. Being awake for nearly 20 hours at this point, I have decided it was time to get some sleep and returned to the lake for the night.

 

Night 2

September 3rd was a Sunday, so I was again part of the parking crew for the lake. However, unlike yesterday the lake was entirely blanketed by smoke and made it difficult to breathe. Work was terrible, but everyone made it through the day. No significant fire growth has happened today, but there were concerns about the fire's potential to spread to the lake. I've kept the evacuation plan firmly in the back of my mind just in case we got the order from the forest service. Overall, today was relatively tame.

The lake

Lost Lake Smoked In

September 3rd, 2017.

Night 3: The big game

Monday, September 4th, 2017. Monday's and Tuesday's were my days off, so I happened to be relaxing at home. Following news stories closely in case anything significant started to go down. Around 10 PM, it happened. The wind tunnel has become alive! The fire has spread over 10,000 acres in a matter of hours. The fire primarily jumped from ridge to ridge, climbing quickly then slowing down as embers fall into the canyon, and repeating the process. Munra Point was the last hope of stopping the fire in its tracks. But unfortunately, no defense was in place. Once the fire jumped munra point, which was the last major ridge it had to jump, there was no way of stopping the fire. When it did, its all over. So I've quickly got in my car, refueled and headed out to North Bonneville via SR-14 after hearing the news that I-84 is shut down. Driving down SR-14 was frightening due to the amount of traffic and curious visitors wanting a glimpse of this historic fire. Passing beacon rock, I look across the river. The fire has already spread to Elowah Falls. Arriving at North Bonneville, all I see are smolders. I have missed the peak of the fire here, realizing it is spreading at an incredible speed, I turn around changing my destination to Cape Horn, Driving by beacon rock again less than a half hour later, the fire is already long gone.

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The late arrival

Arrived at North Bonneville a little late. The fire has moved on west.

Reaching cape horn, I see the fire on the horizon, slowly making its way toward me and other photographers gathered at the overlook. Within a half hour, the entire Oregon side of the gorge was in flames; the fire has spread at around 10-25mph in some places, engulfing anything it can. Looking out towards where Multnomah Falls should be, I wonder if the lodge is on fire or being saved by the incredibly brave firefighters. The smoke began getting thicker and thicker, not being able to find a smoke mask due to incredible demand. Ash from once tall strong trees landing in my hair and up my nose. I can feel the heat coming from the other side of the river; the sky is glowing bright red, something you should never see in the gorge at this time of night. If hell looked like anything, this was it.

 

Peak of the fire

"Is that a fire in on this side!? No, that is totally a fire! Look!" A woman shouted, at around 1:50 AM on September 5th. Being the one with a camera, I instantly directed my focus on a tiny glowing dot what looks to be near beacon rock. A couple of long exposure shots later, I may have been one of the first to confirm the new fire, and possibly taken one of the very first photographs of the eagle creek fire jumping the mighty Columbia River. Immediately dialing 911 to report the new fire, which turned out to later become the Archer Mountain Fire, caused by an ember of the eagle creek fire. This is the Yacolt fire repeating itself. I've realized that this fire now has the potential to burn hundreds of thousands of acres over the next few days if they don't control it in time. The Gorge as we know it will be gone for decades.

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"The fire jumped the Columbia!"

1:51 AM. This photo was taken and to me has confirmed that the fire has jumped the Columbia River. Immediately calling 911.

Corbett, a small town just across the river was being evacuated at the last minute. The fire is spreading so quickly it was hard to believe! Vista house was a huge subject among other people around me, how the fire might be at the viewpoint already, shattering the stained glass windows as we speak. Everyone was choking on smoke; eyes are watering as if we were crying, ash in our hair, feeling the heat of hell. By 3 AM, the fire died down to a smolder. Upset, worried, tired, confused, overwhelmed, I've decided to head home. I was unsure how the gorge would look once the smoke cleared. After seeing such a blaze, I expected there to be nothing but black snags throughout the Oregon side. As for the Archer Mountain fire? I didn't even want to think about it, not knowing if it's spreading quickly or under control.

Ash Tuesday

It was a calm, smoky morning in the Portland metro area. Everything felt odd; everyone was quiet. Checking the news, I see news stories of the fire jumping all over the internet. Eagle creek fire went national. Oregon was put on stage for the entire nation to see.

Still tired, I mentally prepared my self for the destruction I may see, before driving out to cape horn a few hours later. Around 5 PM, I couldn't see the Oregon side what so ever. Not even the little island in the river, it was that thick. I knew I would have to wait a few days before anyone can see the aftermath. However, I was told that Multnomah falls lodge has survived the night, as well as the vista house. This was a significant relief to me, knowing at least something might come out of this! I ended up talking with a few people at cape horn about their experience. One of them being an evacuee of the Archer Mountian fire the night before.

I've also got the word around this time that Lost Lake was closed down by the Forest Service. I was now worried that my season might come to an end way sooner than expected. Not having anywhere else to go yet, I have become a victim of the fire.

 

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Stopping at St Cloud was probably one of the weirdest experiences I've had. It was quiet, too quiet. The ridges are ominously hiding in the smoke from the night before. I've sat on a rock for a good half hour, thinking about the gorge's future, what does this mean for Oregon, what does it mean to me and everyone affected by it? So many questions to answer, but no one to answer them. Out of the silence comes the thundering sound of a helicopter, seeing it come out from the direction of Archer mountain. Picking up a bucket of water, and never seeing it again. Returning to complete silence once more.

How the fire affected me

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Lost Lake Evacuated

September 11th, 2017. 6:50 PM.

On September 11th, the lake was completely smoked in, and void of life. Remind you of anything?

It's hard to imagine that a little over a week ago, the lake was a thriving little destination. Now, it is empty with no signs of visitors.

I wasn't present at the lake during the evacuation, after the few days I've spent chasing the fire, I've returned to an eerily quiet Lost Lake. It turns out; we've closed a month early, Early September instead of the schedules October 1st close date, hoping we will reopen when the smoke clears, which never came.  Meaning, I've lost at least months wages.

The lake was closed off to the public for safety; I now live in a Level 2 evacuation zone. At one point I have seen a soft glowing red sky just above the ridge, a strong reminder that all might be lost.

Fearing the worst, I begin taking what could be the last photos of the inside of the lodge, the lakes lush greenery, and what once was a family getaway for decades. But that wasn't the worst of it; the word was going around between friends and co-workers at the lake that we might be trapped in by the fire if it spreads the wrong way, a fear no one wanted to imagine. Thankfully, the fire showed mercy and held back.

A couple of weeks go by; we are now winterizing the lake. Pulling down yurts, cleaning campsites, last bit of brush trimming, boarding up cabins, a clear sign the season is almost over. Five days a week, for the next month, we finish up the last bit of tasks before heading to a new job for the season. To me, I must rush to find a new home and a new job for the winter. But that is quite difficult considering how short notice the season ended. I've had to seek refuge at my cousin's house until I found work for the winter. This was possibly one of the more stressful times of my life.

In the end, my first season ended with an unexpected early closure that I could've never imagined. Finding a winter job was incredibly difficult due to the way I've been raised, and my favorite place on the planet, being burnt black. I really have lost a home, Lost Lake was my home, and I was forced out over one single misplaced firework.

Be careful out there.

 


I would love to thank all the emergency responders who put their life on the line to save whatever they could, and amazingly saving Multnomah Falls Lodge! These people are made of steel! Thank you to the road crews who reopened I-84 a few weeks later. Thank you to anyone involved in the rescue mission of the stranded eagle creek hikers. All of you deserve to be recognized for your amazing actions.


If you made it this far, thank you very much for reading through my story. I realize there are lots of grammar and spelling mistakes, but the purpose of this was to let my mind blurb out unfiltered thoughts. I will be working on a full, more detailed story, along with more high-quality photographs of my experiences that I will release late 2018/early 2019. Consider this blog post as a small quick preview.

 

*Note* Not all photos are meant to be extremely detailed. Most I've uploaded were just quick color corrections shots just for this post.