Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pacific coast watersheds

It's been an unfortunate year for water-related news in the U.S. There were floods up and down the Missouri River this summer. Hurricane Irene swamped the Eastern Seaboard. Tropical Storm Lee may have been less ferocious and covered less territory than Irene, but she wasn't much kinder. Associated Press reported last month that "The Army Corps of Engineers estimates it will cost more than $2 billion to repair the damage to the nation's levees, dams and riverbanks caused by this year's excessive flooding, a sum that dwarfs $150 million it currently has to make such repairs and that doesn't account for damage from Hurricane Irene or Tropical Storm Lee."

My road trip last week into Northern California and Oregon -- to Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with detours -- provided a welcome reset to the hustle and hassle of workaday life, as road trips tend to do. I'm not usually the blogger playing Polyanna, but a lot of the places we visited featured water in its less destructive -- if no less powerful -- and stirringly beautiful aspects.

So I thought I'd share some pictures.

A neighbor recommended we stop in Redding to take a look at Santiago Calatrava's Sundial Bridge over the Sacramento River (thanks D--!). None of our photos are as comprehensive as the one included here, shared by Chad K via Flickr and used by Wikipedia, but the bridge was breathtakingly beautiful from any and all angles. The Sacramento River ran fast and strong the day we visited, giving a sense even in our (usually) summer-dry state's late September how wet a year it was even on the relatively unscathed west coast of the country.

From Redding we headed west up 299 toward MacArthur Burney Falls State Park. This recommendation came from a colleague (thanks P--!), and while we could have made it to Ashland on that first day, taking our time to make this detour was well worth it. Beyond the sheer loveliness of the falls, its mechanics render the site both a wonder and an education. Here's the thing: the watershed that feeds the falls seeps into a series of subterranean river channels beneath the forests at the foot of Burney mountain, some fifteen miles upstream. The water flows through underground layers of fragmented volcanic rock, and some of it rises to the surface less than a mile upstream of the falls. The rest of the water continues to flow underground. What you see at the falls, and in my photo at the right, are the main cataracts at the center, by which the resurfaced water cascades into the pool; and water sheeting from the cliff face on either side of the cataracts, where water that has filtered downhill through the underground basalt emerges and reunites with the surfaced stream. It's better than magic...

On our way to Crater Lake, a day-trip between 2 Henry IV and Julius Caesar, we stopped at Ashland's Noble Coffee on E. Main St. just off the plaza (looking for great coffee in Ashland? this is the place for a quickie, and their cafe & roastary on 4th St. @ A is even better if you're a lingerer). When she heard where we were headed, the barista recommended we stop on our way up at a place called Natural Bridge, along the Rogue River. The suggestion turned out to be as excellent as the espresso that fueled our day trip. Natural Bridge is a lava tube along the Rogue River, into which the river takes a dive, travels underground for about 200 feet, then emerges again to the surface. The photo at left is the lava tube outlet, which spews 335,000 gallons of water per minute at its peak according to Forest Service signage. Fast. And cold.

Crater Lake is another wonder of water and earth. The deepest lake in the United States (1,949 feet at its maximum depth), this five-miles-across body of water was formed by the accretion of rainfall and snowmelt over the course of some seven hundred years, following a spectacular volcanic eruption about 7,700 years ago. There are no streams running in or out of the crater, the caldera in volcanic-sciences-speak. In geological time, of course,7,700 years a heartbeat ago ... which leads a visitor to muse on the fact that this titanic event, in which a vertical mile of Mt. Mazama vanished into ash and a vacated magma chamber, occurred not in some distant Precambrian eon, but while human beings looked on. From a distance, one hopes... At 150 times the quantity of ash produced by the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980, some 5,000 square miles were covered six-inches deep by the Mt. Mazama eruption. The adjacent Pumice Desert was buried in fifty feet of ash. Big 'splosion. The lake is spectacularly blue ... photos can't do it justice. That's me, silhouetted in the foreground.

There was lots more water in the course of our six days away: a stroll along Ashland Creek, a drive along the Klamath River, a stop to hang with the pelicans at the Crescent City marina, a loop along the coast through Ft. Bragg and Mendocino, a drive up Rte. 128 through the Navarro River watershed and the Anderson Valley's rolling wine country, then the stretch that got us home, across the bay on the Richmond-San Rafael bridge.

A far cry from Vermont in the wake of Hurricane Irene. We may worry about 'The Big One' here on the Left Coast, but in the meantime we're living in a spectacularly lovely part of the world...

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  1. When I was little we lived near Burney Falls and visited several times.

  2. @Glenn -- It's a majestic part of the state, and I don't know it very well at all. The falls are among the most beautiful I've ever seen.

  3. This is a lovely spot for sure. I posted some pictures and videos I took there as well:

    Sundail Bridge at Turtle Bay, Redding, California