Trekking the Siskiyous
Modified from the Willamette Chapter Newsletters, July 1999 and July 2001
Cave Junction is the primary point of access to the Oregon Caves National Monument. Again, as in prior years, on Memorial Day weekend 2001, it was the meeting place for a group of plant enthusiasts bent on exploring the unique flora of the area. The site of the Oregon Caves National Monument is in the Siskiyou Mountains, 20 miles (32 km) east of Cave Junction on State Road 46. Its access road winds through the dense forests that are southwestern Oregon's trademark. In the marble heart of Mount Elijah pillars arise and stalactites hang in the canyons of calcite of the cavern's many galleries. Cave Junction was once known for its nearby rich gold fields. Most of the deserted mining camps have become overgrown by forest.
Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area Cave Junction is also a point of access to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area which contains more than 180,000 acres of terrain in the rugged Siskiyou Mountains of Southwestern Oregon. The area is located west of Cave Junction and includes the headwaters of the Chetco River (Chetco is a name that Howard Slonecker used for one of his deciduous azalea hybrids) and the Illinois River. The original Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area was created from 76,900 acres in 1946 to preserve the very rare Kalmiopsis leachiana, a miniature rhododendron-like plant that is a relic from before the ice ages. The area has several access points in the Illinois Valley, one of the most popular being Onion Camp at the end of Eight Dollar Mountain Road.
For several years Wilbur Bluhm has led treks in the Siskiyous (officially the Klamath Mountains). Wilbur is a retired Marion County (Salem, Oregon, area) extension agent. He has virtually an encyclopedic knowledge of plants with a special interest in native plants. Our visits have included both members of the American Rhododendron Society and the Native Plant Society. He has warned us about poison oak, ticks and rattlesnakes. We did not see any rattlesnakes. We did encounter some ticks and plenty of poison oak. Wilbur provided lists of plants that we were likely to see along the trail each day. Donald Eastman in his book Rare and Endangered Plants of Oregon lists 312 species. Of that group 90 grow in the Klamath Mountain region. So we have seen many plants completely strange to a new visitor.
One of our visits was to Rough and Ready Creek. What a strange name, Rough and Ready Creek! Rough and Ready Creek rises in the Siskiyou Mountains and flows eastward to join the West Fork of the Illinois River. Rough and Ready Creek was named in the mining excitement of the 1850s when the Illinois Valley was a boom area. "Rough and Ready" was the affectionate nickname given to General Zachary Taylor. A veteran of the Mexican War, who admired General Taylor, probably named the stream. General (later President) Taylor died just a couple of years before the Josephine County goldrush began.*
Photo by Herb Spady
Several of us, especially Jason Ashford and Bob Grasing, are particularly interested in Rhododendron occidentale. We saw R. occidentale growing in serpentine "hanging bogs" in and associated with Darlingtonia californica (California pitcher-plant or cobra plant). "Hanging bog" is a term applied to seeps along hillsides. Mike Anderson, an author with a love for and an intense interest in the area including the native plants, successfully negotiated permission for the group to gain access to a fen through private property. How is a fen different from a bog? According to the experts, a bog has no outlet whereas a fen does. The plant life in the serpentine bogs and fens are the same. The fen was very interesting with large areas of Darlingtonia californica, some Rhododendron occidentale and several beautiful clumps of Cypripedium californicum.
Photo by Herb Spady
In the area one of the "new" rhododendrons was seen along the trails. The taxonomists have moved genus Ledum into genus Rhododendron. So now in addition to R. occidentale, R. neoglandulosum (Ledum glandulosum) grows here too. You might ask, "Why is it not R. glandulosum? The answer is because in genus Rhododendron that name is already used.
The Story in the Rocks
What makes the plant growth so interesting in this area is the underlying geology. The photo below dramatically illustrates the boundary between serpentine rock and non-serpentine rock. Scrawny bushes and struggling trees are illustrated on the right side and foreground of the picture. On the other hand, the left background shows typical western Oregon forest. It is the serpentine which gives the Klamath Mountains some of their interesting botany and geology. We have seen a great deal of this rock during our visits to the area.
In the Siskiyou Mountains of Oregon, the boundary between serpentine rock and
non-serpentine rock is illustrated by the divide between scrawny bushes and struggling
trees on serpentine rock on the right side and foreground of the picture and the typical
western Oregon forest on non-serpentine rock on the left background.
Photo by Herb Spady
Serpentine is a mineral consisting mostly of hydrated magnesium silicate. In the area that we visited it was mostly green in color. It is described as a shiny-greasy looking rock that may be soft enough to cut with a knife. On the other hand when subjected to great pressure it can form serpentine marble used for pillars and ornamental work. Because it is soft it has been squeezed by tectonic events and oozed into weak spots in other rock. The rock in the Klamath Mountains is a chaotic mixture of seafloor bedrock (serpentine), igneous intrusions and seafloor sediment, all which have been pushed together and upward to form the mountains. Worldwide serpentine is rare and here it is the oldest rock in the state and can be expected to support some unusual plant life both because of its age and varied mineral content. During our walks belts of serpentine were easy to see. Green rock faces were exposed in road and trail cuts. The weathering of the rock produces an impoverished orange soil that does not support vigorous or abundant plant growth. It is characterized as covered with "distinctively scrawny bushes and struggling trees with very little grass growing between."
One can wonder why Rhododendron occidentale grows in this mineral in wet areas and yet thrives in our gardens where this mineral does not exist.
Eight Dollar Mountain
One of our visits was to Eight Dollar Mountain. If you thought Rough and Ready Creek was a strange name, what about Eight Dollar Mountain? Eight Dollar Mountain, elevation 4001 feet (1200 m), is one of the prominent features in the Illinois Valley. There are several stories as to how it got its name, the most probable being that it came about as a result of the discovery nearby of a gold nugget worth eight dollars. Another version is that a man wore out a pair of shoes worth eight dollars walking around its base. Its sides are excessively rough, and inasmuch as the distance is about 12 miles (19 km) it is quite possible that the latter story could be true. The battle of Eight Dollar Mountain, a skirmish in the Rogue River Indian War, was fought in the locality March 25, 1856.*
Our walk that day was a little more strenuous. We descended from the paved road down a very rough road along Cedar Gulch to Star Flat and a small tributary of the Illinois River. Although the road seemed impassible to vehicle traffic, one four wheel drive pick-up passed us. The descent was about 400 feet (120 m). After lunch we took the road along the Illinois River to the south of Eight Dollar Mountain. Why a river named Illinois in Oregon? McArthur* indicates that the river was named by three pioneer brothers (1847) who came from Peoria, Illinois, and mined for gold on the Althouse Creek and the Illinois River. The Illinois River is recognized as a national treasure and afforded protection by the federal Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. The river is fairly difficult for whitewater enthusiasts. It is remote and yet beautiful in the extreme. The canyon is steep and narrow. The true wilderness grandeur of the steep forested canyon delights the soul.
It was at the bridge crossing the Illinois river that we saw Indian rhubarb (Darmera peltata) growing in a rather inaccessible site on the water's edge. It was here that Wilbur demonstrated his determination to obtain great pictures of native plants by lying prostrate on a rock at river's edge. Those who have seen his programs know how excellent the pictures and commentary are. As we drove away from the Illinois River we went up in elevation to about 3200 feet (960 m). Near the end of that drive we spotted a pink ladyslipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa) almost hidden under some shrubbery.
At high elevations one enters an area of typical Western Oregon forest dominated by Douglas fir. There were certain plants that were frequent and common. One of the most attractive was showy phlox (Phlox speciosa). Other plants, such as tanoak, although not in flower are still very attractive in new growth. On the way up to Bigelow Lake at about 5700 feet (1710 m) multiple wild flowers were encountered. Slightly downhill from our highest point we encountered a mountain meadow. There were numerous blooming flowers including the Dodecatheon alpinum and Ranunculus populago. Charlene Simpson, Wilbur Bluhm and Veva Stansell puzzled over the species of ranunculus that was growing there. Like many rhododendrons the differences lie in the minutiae. On the basis of the position of the ovary they settled on Ranunculus populago. On the trail up to the meadow we encountered many interesting plants. Some of us were surprised to find that the area had several different species of ribes (wild current). Ribes lobbii was very attractive.
So, along the trails what was the best foliage plant? We all admired the shinny green foliage of Toxidendron diversilobum but meticulously avoided touching it! Not only is it beautiful in the spring but also has lovely fall foliage. Too bad! Not recommended for our gardens. We saw so many interesting plants in bloom and in new growth. Long lists are not too interesting to the reader. Wilbur's lists were multiple pages of tightly written names and we saw most of the plants.
At the magic height of 3000 feet (900 m) we expect to see Rhododendron macrophyllum. Sure enough, someone looked up and above on the shady bank was a deep pink flower and buds just waiting for one more warm day before blooming. Another few bends of the road and a bank of lovely erythroniums caught the eyes. Just a few feet away was a large purple-wine petaled trillium. We thought it was Trillium ovatum until Wilbur realized that the pistil and stamens were fresh and white and the petals rich-colored and not just faded purple. A mystery! Wilbur's assignment: identify both trillium and the erythroniums. There are new things to find in these mountains. The road climbed steadily and with the increasing elevation we moved earlier and earlier into the spring. At this height light green new leaves of Acer macrophyllum were just unfolding against a deep blue sky. Madrones hung out their urn-shaped clusters of flowers, showing their family resemblance to the pink blooming urns of the manzanita, both members of the heather (Ericaceae) family.
Mishaps do occur. On one trip Jason learned that he should have listened to his family. They had advised him that he should have new tires for his truck. He had left a little early so the caravan encountered him waving at the roadside. The problem was that he did not have a wrench that would remove the nut holding the spare. All's well that ends well. There was a satisfactory tool in the group.
* McArthur, Lewis A., Oregon Geographic Names, Oregon Historical Society Press, 1982.
Herb Spady, a member of the Willamette Chapter, is a past president of the ARS, a Gold Medal recipient, the publisher of the Rhododendron and Azalea News, and the current chairman of the ARS Hardiness Committee.