22-Oct-2009 -- After 7 years of confluence expeditions, the one place in the USA that had remained a blank void on my confluence map was the Pacific Northwest. Therefore, while in the Portland area for a conference for the Geological Society of America, I was determined to attempt a visit to fill this void. It was all the more fitting as we had operated an exhibit in the exhibit hall for ESRI focused on Geographic Information Systems (GIS), conducted a 2-day GIS workshop, and had hosted a poster on how to teach and conduct research using GIS, GPS, and remote sensing. The only problem was fitting the visit in amongst all of these activities. On the morning after the end of the conference, and before my airplane took off from the Portland airport, I had a few precious hours. Would it be enough to visit a nearby confluence? Another message rang true again: Most confluence trips end up being more difficult than what is first believed.
It would definitely be enough time had I chosen the easiest confluence to visit, that on the on-ramp of Interstate Highway 5 to the south, in Salem. But I wanted to get out into the wonderful forests of the region and also to see the Columbia River gorge. Therefore, off to 46 North 122 West I was bound. First, I awakened at 5:45am, checked out of the Shilo Inn, and took the Max, the electric train in Portland, to the airport. I wish every city had such a wonderful transit system. Once there, it was a simple walk of 100 meters to the rental car, and after tossing my suitcase in the trunk, I was soon eastbound on Interstate Highway 84. The night became a gray fog as I passed wonderful sights such as Multnomah Falls but had no time to stop. Nevertheless, the sun's rays among the lifting patches of fog afforded lovely views of the river valley, making me think about Lewis and Clark and crew canoeing down here 200 years ago. At Cascade Locks, I crossed over the river into Washington State. I tried to find a place to pull over to take a river photo, but could not. I missed the turnoff to Wind River Road to the north, and doubled back after trying again to find a river viewpoint. I was wasting time trying to find these viewpoints. I drove north into the Carson River Valley community, again trying to find a viewpoint. Finally giving up, but seeing some pleasant images of kids being dropped off to school in the early morning sunlight, I set off to the north.
I climbed through the dense and beautiful forest, taking a few photographs of fog against the hills and changing leaves of gold. At the top of the pass, things became interesting. I was operating with a GPS, true, but had no base map aside from the simple sketch I had made on the pad of paper at the Shilo Inn. I was trying to find Forest Service Road 31. However, unlike in other forests, the few roads in this forest were unmarked. I drove into a cross country ski parking lot, then north a bit more, and finally west on developed road 5110 toward Ape Cave. I knew I was too far north but found a dirt road leading southwest toward the confluence. It was along this road where I received my first view of the day, and as the clouds descended later, what would be my only view, of Mt St Helens. I took a photograph and continued onward. The road was passable in a rental car but I had to proceed slowly over the numerous water-filled, severely deep potholes. After 15 minutes, the road suddenly ended. I made a U-turn and asked the people camped there if they knew where Road 31 was. They looked at me quizzically and I moved on. So close and yet so far: About 5 km from the confluence, but the dense forest meant that I might as well be 500 km away. One could not proceed more than .5 km per hour on foot in these trees, and the GPS would not pick up signal in such forest anyway. A dangerous thing it would be to be wandering aimlessly out here.
I had lost about a half hour by the time I made it back to the paved road, and continued back south the way I had come in. I thought about getting out my laptop and connecting to the Internet with my GIS and GPS out here to find the right road. I decided to descend the pass back down Wind River Road. I came to a road that angled in the same way as my crude sketch map had indicated, and took it to the west. Just as I was beginning to think that I would run out of time and log this as an attempt, rather than a success, my hopes lifted. This surely had to be the correct road. I made slow progress to the west due to the potholes until I was due north of the confluence by about 1 km. I doubled back, a difficult task on the narrow one-lane road, and came to the fork northeast of the confluence that I had marked on my map. I knew from the previous visitors that a trail/road led just about to the goal, and took this road south. I passed a gate, which was fortunately open, but the road became narrower. I arrived at the next fork with about 1 km to go, and filmed a movie while creeping along through the brush. The branches parted as I drove slowly along what was surely the worst road I have ever driven in a rental car. I wondered if a passenger car had ever been here. The road was fairly smooth but it was barely more than a trail. I could have parked and walked but I was running very short on time.
The road rose, hugged the base of a cliff, and I came to a fork. Here it became truly impassable in a car and perhaps in a Jeep as well. I parked at the three-way junction and found that I had lost GPS signal. I took the middle trail to hike, to the west. I proceeded down a slope, found signal, and realized I was on the wrong road: I was due south of the confluence. I could either hike back to the vehicle and take another fork, or proceed cross-country due north to the spot. I chose the latter and immediately became soaked hiking cross-country, through waterlogged bushes and grasses, until I came to a stand of tall trees. Not Colorado tall trees like the ones back home, but enormous, silent, Washington trees. It was a special moment. I hiked through the stand until I reached the other side with a good view of the valleys to the west. Here, some downed trees made for extremely difficult progress, and I fell a few times, once onto my back. Careful! It would not do to get hurt out here with nobody around for miles. I hiked to the east, and found the end of what was surely the correct trail that I should have taken. Unfortunately, I also found a campsite with a few discarded beer cans. It pains me to see litter in a place like this. I took photos as I was not sure if I would be able to regain GPS signal in the trees beyond.
I then hiked a bit north of the trail and to my surprise, my GPS zeroed out in the latitude coordinate. The confluence is therefore just north of the trail, near a set of downed tree giants. The temperature was a pleasant but damp 55 F (13 C) under foggy skies. I spent 10 minutes at the site taking photographs but mostly enjoying the forest. Time being short, I hiked up this road and arrived at the vehicle in less than 10 minutes. Gingerly turning around, I bade farewell to the site. It had proved much more difficult to find the vicinity of the confluence than I had thought it would be. Still, the confluence was much easier to visit than where it could have been, given the wildness of this terrain, traversed only by loggers, hunters, and hikers. This was my first confluence in Washington, but I have been to 46 North previously in Montana, North Dakota, and in Michigan before. This ties for the farthest north I have been along a line of latitude outside of Europe. I have stood on 122 West three times in California. Still, this had to be one of the most beautiful confluences, up here in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Pinchot was the first chief of the US Forest Service and governor of Pennsylvania. I wonder what it sounded like at this spot when Mt St Helens erupted in 1980. I drove out the way I came in, and passed men in two separate trucks; they looked like hunters, judging by their yellow reflective clothing.
When I reached the paved road, I could have turned back toward the Columbia River or travel the road that skirts the reservoirs along the south side of Mt St Helens. Curiosity won out, along with the desire to make my journey a circular one, which is my favorite thing of all. I had to make haste, but I did take some photographs along Swift Reservoir and Yale Lake. I reached Interstate 5 at Merwin and then drove south to the Portland airport with about 60 minutes to go until my flight departed. I sat at the gate in my soaked socks, shoes, and pants, but it was worth it, most definitely. It was indeed a fitting end to the Geological Society of America conference, and I was able to practice what we preached there: Get Thyself Out Into the Field.