The Ancient Forest of Oxbow

The Ancient Forest of Oxbow

Is not the smell of forests delicious? It seems to ascend like the smoke of incense.Henry James Slack (1818-1896) from The Ministry of the Beautiful: The Oak-wood, 1850 

The weather was warming, and the sun was out in full.  In the mountains, it felt more like April than January.  It seemed like a good day for a hike.  Our opportunity was now, for tomorrow, the weather would shift bringing a cold, strong East Wind, and snow to our doorstep.  I don’t like hiking in the woods when it’s windy.  Trees can fall, and branches can be thrown.  It just isn’t safe.  

Our destination was close to home, only 24.4 miles to a place called Oxbow—a one thousand-acre regional park in the Sandy River Canyon, a place named for a bend in the river that resembles the U-shape of an ox yoke.  The Oxbow area was shaped by floodwaters and volcanic eruptions more than 200 years ago.  Mount Hood eruptions sent mudflows (lahars) 38 miles and beyond that buried low-lying forests 40 to 50 feet deep.  In recent decades, Sandy River flooding has scoured the riverbanks exposing “buried forests.”  One of these buried forests is visible by boat a short distance downriver from Oxbow.  

Oxbow Regional Park is no park once you leave the pavement.  It is a wild place with wild animals ranging from bear, cougar, raccoon, flying squirrels, mink, black tail deer (we saw a doe) and Roosevelt elk; there are frogs, snakes, newts, and salamanders.  And for Pete’s sake, don’t forget the binoculars.  Approximately 150 species of birds, including the rare spotted owl, calls these woods home.  The Sandy River is never far.  Its current tugs and swirls across hard bedrock and shifting the sand.   This untamed river is the spawning grounds for Chinook and Coho salmon and steelhead and is a popular fishing ground.  The forest is damp.  Moss and lichens cling to everything.  It is a place steeped in green, rich with plant life.  Fifteen miles of trail leads across floodplains, along creeks and waterfalls, and through an ancient forest where trees have stood for more than 700 years.  It is the ancient forest we had come to see.

The road to Oxbow shrouded in fog.

In the lowlands, much to our surprise, the blue sky vanished, consumed by dense fog.  The temperature, a balmy 45 degrees Fahrenheit, had dropped to 40 degrees.  In the Sandy River Canyon along steep, winding roads, the air got colder; Northwest Oregon in known for its diverse micro climates.  When we had reached Oxbow, the temperature was 36 degrees.  This winter had been exceptionally warm and mild, and we had dressed for spring.  As native Oregonians, we should have known better.  

A boot brush at the trailhead.

We scraped our boots at the trailhead on a provided Boot Brush so not to transfer invasive seeds.  The air was sharp and damp, and within minutes, I felt the sting on my face and hands. But, my thoughts quickly turned from cold to wonderment as we walked beside big Douglas-firs and western hemlocks whose tops vanished in the fog.  Western red cedars smelled deliciously woodsy, and bigleaf maples, their limbs as large as trees, were lavishly dressed with mosses, and ferns.

A banana slug eats a mushroom.
Toothed Jelly Fungus (Pseudohydnum gelatinosum) on a conifer log.

We saw some big trees along the trail, and some that had fallen from recent storms.  The fallen will become nurse logs, and yield decades of habitat for plants and wildlife.  On an old nurse log, mosses grew thick, three-inch mats where ferns and mushrooms sprouted that provided a meal for a banana slug.  Also, was a small colony of toothed jelly fungus (Pseudohydnum gelatinosum).  Said to be edible with no flavor, but I wasn’t here to collect, but to admire.  The fungus is somewhat translucent having a gelatinous body.  Slightly fuzzy above, there are soft spine-like teeth below that resemble a cat’s tongue.  This was my first look at them, and I found them quite beautiful.

My new favorite photography backpack, the WANDRD PRVKE 21L along the trail.

This place offers so much that to see it all would take months if not years.  The chill overcame us.  We could barely feel our face and fingers.  Our hike was short, but sweet.  How quickly an hour passes, when overcome with wonderment.  Back at the trailhead, inside the truck, heat poured from the dashboard while Metallica played. 

Here are some additional photos taken at Oxbow. Enjoy!

Something wonderful happened here! Pileated woodpecker holes on red cedar.
Young red belted conk polypore (Fomitopsis pinicola) on Douglas-fir.
Overhanging the trail, licorice ferns (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) on a bigleaf maple branch (Acer macrophyllum).
Skeleton leaves in the branches.
A path of ancient trees.
A black tail doe in a construction zone.
Along the cliffs of Oxbow.
A huge fir tree along the river.
A leaning red cedar along the Sandy River at Oxbow.
A path through grasses across the floodplain to the river.
The floodplain of Oxbow.
Happy Creek Waterfall.
The road through Oxbow.

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