Oregon is spectacular in general, but my heart lies in the Willamette Valley, especially the last 10 miles. I-5 shoots like an arrow through the middle of the decreasing flatland, low hills of two ranges joining south of Cottage Grove and ending the range of the Bretz Floods’ southerly impacts.
I grew up feeling sheltered on both sides. Foothills of the mighty Cascades to the east and of the subdued and mossy Coast Range to the west are gentle, forest-covered hills rising from the valley floor. The valley floor, flat by contrast, is maybe 10 miles wide near my hometown, Creswell. The forest felt like geographical harbingers of comfort and safety to my childish mind. The green, velvety slopes, the furthest gaining a blue cast, stood on either side of us as if to presage other worlds beyond, as if gate-keepers and watchers of human tides. An hour takes us to the ocean, and a little more than that provides views of lava fields and snowy peaks in the other direction, and in all directions are lakes, rivers, trails, forests, meadows. The advent of the automobile suddenly saw us able to travel on newly-civilized asphalt roads by 1922 in this part of the Pacific Northwest, and the first thing the lucky mobile were doing was heading to the coast or the mountains and reporting back to the rest of us by the mile. News articles in those days chart the adventures of moneyed people eager to document the previously-impossible. In these modern times we have forgotten just how hard it is to get to the coast from the valley, or up and down the coast on the shoreline during low tide. The few miles between Florence and the Haceta Head lighthouse took nearly a week, and wheel ruts worn into also-dynamited rocks along the sand are still visible at low tide.
Many roads take us in all directions, but we still manage to not go places nearby that we hear about, that we know are special and unique but somehow take it for granted, swimming in an amazing environment as we are here. For me it was Clear Lake, the source of the McKenzie River, a cold, clear, shallow, fast, pure, waterfalling and spectacularly pooling stretch of water that falls out of the western slope of the Cascades to join with the Willamette River near Eugene and Springfield. World class fly fishing, whitewater rafting, camping and scenery make the McKenzie River valley a desirable location for tourists and locals, and Autumn brings leaf-peeping to rival that of any other location in the world. This was a bright, glorious year of trees choosing reds, oranges and yellows all at the same time, a slow-moving kaliedescope of seasonal expression, a last act before the hibernation of Winter.
A rented row boat in cold winds took us around the north end of the lake, and we did see one tree beneath the waves. It was black with a bright white side where the sun shone on the trunk through the clear, pure water. Waves prevented us from seeing more than shadows, but we enjoyed the three or four kinds of dunks sharing the lake with us, and admired the old cabins at the year-round humble resort, a throw-back to a simpler time.
Friends took my cameras and I to Clear Lake (and other amazing new spots) yesterday. These valley dwellers were surprised when we made it up past the typical elevation for deciduous trees and lots the last bits of color remaining on the forest we’d just gone through. The Willamette National Forest did not come close to disappointing us. Our back yard is amazing.
Clear Lake is the source of the McKenzie River. Google the lake and you might find video of scuba divers floating through a forest of dead trees, left in place despite the volcanic blast that formed the lake. The ash on the bottom of the lake allows water to seep into an aquifer of porous lava, holey like a sponge. I’ve heard that two years is how long it takes for the water to emerge at the surface as the gorgeous McKenzie River!
Out on the water for 45 minutes, we felt brave and intrepid, and really cold. The wind from the west made the 62-degree Fahrenheit feel like -30, and the brutal shock of the elements were nearly too much for the valley dwellers. Snow was going to happen soon, you could just feel it!
The drive home on Hwy. 126 was filbert-lined and gorgeous, of course. A stop I’ve been wanting to make for years at a little town on the way resulted in the picture below of an event center back yard that you can barely glimpse from a passing car. Long out of business, the art and structures behind the shuttered shop paid homage to a dream someone had, and to heart being put into the locale. I just know I’ll be dreaming of this place, and of Clear Lake, someday, when my mind needs to wander off to a verdant world of natural laws and inspired imagination. I just love Oregon.