Big Surprises at Fish Creek Valley

I’d been looking forward to going to the Rogue-Umpqua Divide all year, but I just couldn’t seem to squeeze a camping trip down there into my schedule earlier in the summer. Then, in late July, the Whiskey Complex fire erupted east of Tiller, just 9 miles west of Donegan Prairie, one of my planned destinations. So much for that. But last week I was lying awake in the middle of the night, my mind wandering all over the place as it often does in the wee hours, and I thought, to hell with worrying about the smoke, I’ll just go to the north end of the Rogue-Umpqua Divide. Fish Creek Valley is one of my favorite places, and there are lots of late-blooming flowers to make a trip in August worthwhile. Unlike many ideas born in the middle of the night, this one still seemed realistic in the morning, so a couple of days later, I packed up my van and headed south.

Rattlesnake Mountain looms right above Fish Creek Valley. The smoke in the air makes it seem much farther away.

Rattlesnake Mountain looms right above Fish Creek Valley. The smoke in the air makes it seem much farther away.

The deep tubes of explorer's gentian are pollinated by bees. I'm not sure the little spots and stripes are really necessary to guide the bees to the pollen—this little bumble bee seemed to know just where to go—but they sure add to the beauty of these stunning flowers.

The deep tubes of explorer’s gentian are pollinated by bees. I’m not sure the little spots and stripes are really necessary to guide the bees to the pollen—this little bumble bee seemed to know just where to go—but they sure add to the beauty of these stunning flowers.

The smoke was quite evident, especially later in the afternoon, but since I wasn’t going up to any of the summits, the lack of a view wasn’t much of a drawback, and it wasn’t bad enough to sting my eyes or irritate my throat. And I’m so glad I didn’t let it stop me, as I had a great day. The most exciting part of the day—and the whole 3-day trip, for that matter—happened soon after I arrived. As I drove up to the second trailhead, which is how I usually access the creek, I was thinking about the darling one-flowered gentian (Gentianopsis simplex) I hoped to see. It grows in many spots in the valley. Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of blue out of the corner of my eye—lots of blue. I stopped the car and was shocked to see the gorgeous, large blue flowers of explorer’s gentian (Gentiana calycosa). I’d never seen it in the Rogue-Umpqua Divide. In fact, the most southerly site I’d ever seen it was in northern Douglas County on cliffs above Bradley Lake, where I was actually planning to stop on my way home in a couple of days. There is another record of it being found in the Calapooyas a little south of there but none in the Rogue-Umpqua Divide that I know of. I’ve driven by this site a number of times, but without the blue flowers to catch my eye, I never realized they were there. Seeing gentians more than makes up for being too late for most flowers.

Parnassia cirrata (left) has staminodia with little balls at the ends that look like frogs' feet. The staminodia of P. fimbriata (right) have staminodia that look more like hands.

The two species of fringed grass-of-Parnassus: Parnassia cirrata (left) has yellow staminodia with little balls at the ends that look like frogs’ feet and rounded petals. The olive green staminodia of P. fimbriata (right) look more like paws, and the petals are narrower.

The road into Fish Creek Valley was punched into the area just before it was made into a wilderness. Although I had been told horror stories about the road before I ever drove on it, it hasn’t been in the best shape but has always been drivable for a passenger car up to just before the second trailhead, which is how I usually access the creek. A major washout there has always kept me from venturing farther down the road. I was surprised—and pleased—to find that the washout was filled in completely with new gravel. I had worried that since this road was cutting into a wilderness, it would be left to its own devices and eventually be decommissioned, leaving me with a much longer walk to Rattlesnake Mountain, but apparently the road is being maintained. I had planned to spend the whole afternoon wandering along the creek, but curiosity kept me heading down the road past my trailhead. I drove more slowly than usual to keep my eye out for more gentians. There were also still minor ditches where spring runoff cut across the road. No more gentians, but I again did a double take farther up the road when I passed another of several populations of fringed grass-of-Parnassus. I’d already stopped near the beginning of the road to look at some beautiful Casacade grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia cirrata) growing alongside western oxypolis (Oxypolis occidentalis). This species is common here and was at the height of its bloom. Having already photographed them in one spot, I would have kept going, but the narrow petals of the flowers at this spot made me realize this might be the other species, Parnassia fimbriata. I got out to take a closer look and saw the smaller staminodia that confirmed my guess. While P. fimbriata is the much more widespread species, in the Western Cascades, it is far less common, and I’d never seen it this far south. When I checked the Oregon Flora Project Atlas upon my return home, there were no records of it occurring anywhere in Douglas County. Another exciting find, and I hadn’t even left the road yet!

A pretty moth enjoys Hall's goldenweed

A pretty moth enjoys Hall’s goldenweed

I stopped at Happy Camp, a little graveled camping spot I’d heard of but never seen. It looked pretty freshly maintained with a real composting toilet. I guess this area is well used during hunting season. Beyond that were some rocky places along the road that made the road a little rough, but it was still passible. Before I knew it, I was at the dead end, where there is another trailhead. The Rogue-Umpqua Divide trail runs for 26 miles, so there are many places to access it. All through and near the turnaround and parking area were blooming Whitney’s goldenweed (Hazardia whitneyi), a rayless composite that, despite being rare, is fairly common in the Rogue-Umpqua Divide. I noticed a cool rocky knob just up the hill, so I went to see what was growing there. There were lots of interesting drying-up rock plants and some rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa) and Hall’s goldenweed (Columbiadoria hallii) coming into bloom. The view was practically non-existent, but on a clear day, it must be outstanding—definitely a spot worth a return trip earlier in the season.

Starry ladies' tresses (Spiranthes stellata) is readily recognized by its single-spiraled inflorescences.

Starry ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes stellata) is readily recognized by its single-spiraled inflorescences. The tepals on the side spread out to give the flowers a starry look.

Eventually I made it down to Fish Creek and got to spend a couple of hours looking for some unusual willows I’d seen in the past and enjoying the late season flowers. I went along one section of trail to a small boggy area I remembered. The one-flowered gentians were fading, and I couldn’t spot the sundews at all, but it was the perfect time for ladies’ tresses orchids. In the north half of this meadow, all the flowers were the common hooded ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffiana), but at the south end, closer to where a side creek meandered through, they were all the recently-named starry ladies’ tresses (S. stellata), which, along with one-flowered gentian, also grows by the side creek alongside the trail that comes down from the second trailhead to meet the main trail through the valley. In all the spots where I’ve seen them grow together, Spiranthes stellata seems to like it just a little wetter than S. romanzoffiana. I was running out of time, so I didn’t get to explore any more of the creek, but I was delighted with everything I had seen and so glad I’d had the great idea to come down here when I did!

One Response to “Big Surprises at Fish Creek Valley”

  • Thanks to Mike Raschko from Temecula, California for identifying the pretty little moth as Schinia vacciniae. Apparently it is a fairly rare moth found mainly in the Cascades of Oregon and ranging out as far as Washington, Idaho, and northern California. While the host food plants for this species are not known for sure yet, they do seem to be closely associated with composites such as Erigeron and other species present at the site. You can read more about Schinia vacciniae at the Pacific Northwest Moths website.

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