Final Outing of 2017

With the continued warm weather of late October, I made one final trip to the Rigdon area south of Oakridge to look at another interesting spot. During my many trips up Coal Creek Road 2133 to get up to high elevation sites in the Calapooyas, I had often caught glances of an open slope on the far side of Coal Creek. I’d wondered for years about this intriguing spot, so it seemed like the right time to figure out how to explore it.  On October 31st, I followed the route of my previous trip (see http://westerncascades.com/2018/01/27/further-low-elevation-meadow-exploration/previous post) but turned south off of Road 200 onto Road 210. I’d never been down this road before, so I wasn’t sure whether it was even driveable. It actually was in good shape for a while, and a gate across it was open, but I decided to park at the gate anyway as it didn’t look as though it was well driven. As it turned out, there was a tree blocking the road farther along, and there were other spots where it was clearly growing over from disuse. But it made for a pleasant enough walk until the road was bisected by a creek. At this time of year it wasn’t too hard to ford the creek, jumping from rock to rock, but when the water is higher in the spring, it might be necessary to head upstream to find a narrower crossing than I took. Not too long after traversing the creek, the slope on my left went uphill, rather than downhill toward Coal Creek as it had done until then. I knew this meant I’d come to my destination at last!

Looking north across the rocky slope.

I had to cross a log in the road before heading up through the woods to access the top of the bluff. As I went to step over it, I was startled to find a young deer, lying on its side on the other side of the log. At first, I assumed it was dead, maybe killed by a hunter as, regrettably, hunting season had started. But it was still alive! It struggled unsuccessfully to get up, no doubt scared of me being so close. I couldn’t see any wound, but again, I made an assumption there must have been one on the hidden side of its body. I had no idea what to do—really there was nothing I could do, and even if there was, I was alone and over 2 miles from my car. I felt utterly helpless to alleviate the poor creature’s misery. Leaving it alone seemed like the kindest thing I could do. I’m always a little apprehensive when I’m out by myself in places I’ve never been before, and I’m a pretty emotional person on my best day, so this pushed me over the top, and I burst into tears. In fact, I cried for at least 15 minutes as I left the deer and headed up to my destination. Being out in nature is usually such an uplifting and nurturing experience. But, of course, nature has a darker, crueler side that I don’t usually have to experience, and I simply wasn’t able to handle it.

The view of Moon Point to the north. You can see a little of the Jim’s Creek restoration area lower down.

Reaching the open top of the bluff took just a couple of minutes. I emerged from the open woods onto a lovely, east-facing, rocky slope. There was a spine going down the left side, creating a north-facing slope with a view of Moon Point and Youngs Rock. I headed downhill along the spine, dutifully cataloging the plants I saw. My heart really wasn’t in it, though. I couldn’t stop thinking about the poor deer nearby. I made my way to the bottom of the slope where I could see that Coal Creek wasn’t much farther. The map shows the creek to be 300′ lower than the ridge. I decided to check it out, having never actually touched the creek in all the times I’d driven by it. Just above the water, the trees gave way to lush, moss-covered rocks. It seemed like the perfect spot to have lunch. The sound of the running water really helped soothe my nerves—I could even hear (and sort of see) some waterfalls upstream. Eventually, I calmed down and started to enjoy myself. 

The west bank of Coal Creek below the bluff

There were a number of plants growing in the moss, especially where it was quite wet just above the creek. Among the newly emerged leaves of California mistmaiden (Romanzoffia californica), there was a saxifrage that seemed strange to me. While I certainly can’t name every plant in the Western Cascades, I can usually spot something unusual. This species was vaguely similar to the common rustyhair saxifrage (Micranthes rufidula), but it was definitely not that species. Its gestalt was far looser and more stretched out, and the teeth were more triangular. I had just seen the same leaves a few days before in a trickle of water winding through one of the “Shy Creek” meadows along 034 (see Further Low-elevation Meadow Exploration), just a mile and a half to the north, but never before that. Perhaps this is another species that is found only at much lower elevations than my usual haunts—both sites are under 3000′. Without flowers, I won’t be able to identify it, as there are a lot of similar species in Oregon. Hopefully, I’ll be back in time to see it bloom, but, in case I’m not, I took a cutting in hopes of growing it on to see what the inflorescence looks like.

This unusual saxifrage (Micranthes sp.) has more elongated leaves with longer petioles and in looser rosettes than the common rustyhair saxifrage. It was abundant on the wet rocks by the creek.

I was surprised but not shocked by a bright green chorus frog. It isn’t the first time I’ve seen them in a dry, rocky habitat you wouldn’t expect a frog to enjoy.

My first interesting plant—now I was getting my mojo back! I climbed back up to the meadow along some of the numerous crisscrossing animal paths. It was quite rocky but not too steep to wander around. There were scattered madrones (Arbutus menziesii) and hoary manzanitas (Arctostaphylos canescens). As I’d seen earlier in the week, there was some very late-blooming fall knotweed (Polygonum spergulariiforme).

There was quite a variety of rock-loving fern species, with Indian dream (Aspidotis densa) being especially abundant. I made my way up the south side of the meadow. When I was nearly to the top, I was stunned to see my favorite rock fern, Sierra cliffbrake (Pellaea brachyptera)! I’ve written about finding this uncommon species a number of times (see previous Pellaea posts). Since being taken to see the site on Huckleberry Mountain where it was first found in Lane County a number of years ago, this was the sixth additional site I’d discovered in Lane County, and I’ve only found it in two other spots in the Western Cascades, both south in Douglas County. This was the lowest elevation I’d found it at, but perhaps this is again because I’ve spent the last 20 years exploring subalpine elevations in the Cascades.

The blue-green tufts of Sierra cliffbrake growing along the upper south edge.

I carefully surveyed this area to count the number of plants—I tallied about 18. Like most small populations I’d seen before, the plants were together in a fairly small area. My unsubstantiated theory is that these sites have only recently been populated by this species. Their tiny spores can spread far and wide, and perhaps with the warming climate, they are finding southern Lane County more suitable. The populations also seem to be on the south-facing edges of their sites, growing in partial shade. This is not too surprising for a fern whose normal range is down in California. I was pretty thrilled about finding another interesting species and satisfied that this beautiful site was more than worthy of a return trip to see it in full bloom. But my excitement was not done. As I was searching for more cliffbrake, I spotted some dried stalks on the ground—purple milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia)! With everything else I’d seen already, I’d totally forgotten one of the main reasons for exploring this area was to look for milkweed—and here it was! I was only able to locate three plants, but at this stage of decay, especially growing among bleached out cedar branches, I was surprised I’d spotted them at all.

Milkweed! It doesn’t look like much in this state, but it will be quite beautiful when it blooms again.

Well, now I was in a really good mood, but with the shorter days of fall and a bit of a hike back to the car, I really had to get going. Only I was dreading one thing—I had to pass by the deer again. I tried to steel myself for finding that it had died—or perhaps worse, that it was still suffering. I went back down through the stretch of forest to the road. The deer was gone! I felt a hundred pounds lighter. I can’t be sure it survived its trauma—whatever it was—but clearly it was not in as dire shape as I thought it was. Perhaps, it was just clumsy and fell after jumping over the log. I’d like to imagine it is okay now and enjoying the special spot I’m going to call Coal Creek Bluff.

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