Wandering the Ghost Road in Whychus Canyon

May 16, 2011
USFS Ecologist, Maret Pajutee, returns to Whychus Canyon in search of ghosts and natural history. What did she find?


Sunday in Sisters... We decided to skip our favorite “Tight Cowboys” Yoga class, fuel up on Eggs Benedict at the Depot Cafe, and go looking for ghosts and wildflowers.  Whychus Canyon has it all... those warm rocky soils the early flowers love, and traces of the old Willamette Valley and Cascade Military Road built in the 1860’s.  History books say it was partly a scandal and certainly a land grab.  Cleon L. Clark’s small red book (History of the Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Wagon Road) has more to say about the endless law suits than the road, but luckily Rod knew exactly where to start looking.

We begin near the parking spots at Whychus Canyon Preserve and head off into groves of old growth juniper and pine.  Spring gold (Crocidium multicaule) still lays a golden carpet a month after it first appeared, but here is sparked by the contrast of the lime green Wolf lichen (Letharia vulpina).  They say in Europe it was rolled up with fat and nails and the poisonous vulpinic acid (or the nails) dispatched poor hungry wolves.  Here it adorns twisted big junipers, wild color year round.

Sand lilies
Sand lilies
Sand lilies

But I’m after ghosts and sand lilies and there has been an explosion. At a distance they always remind me of dozens of Kleenex dropped across the desert, but up close they are exquisite.  Fragrant little lilies (Leucocrinum montanum), fragile and ephemeral, singles and huge clusters. Snuggling up to lavender Lomatium in the powdery soil. 

We are on an old path but time has smoothed the tracks.  We look for wagon ruts in the rocks or trees old enough to have been big enough to etch 150 years ago.  I like to think about the “traffic”: wagons, horses, cattle, Civil War era soldiers, and homesteaders slowly shuffling across the arid landscape east of Camp Polk.  It was so very far from the civilization of the Willamette Valley, at a time when Camp Polk was the hot spot of action for mail and supplies.  Where were they going?  Prineville, John Day, Camp Gibbs, Camp Logan, Camp Harney, Camp Colfax or all the way to Fort Boise in Idaho. 

The old wagon road.
The old wagon road.
The old wagon road.

The eerie quiet was broken by the croak of a raven.  Slowly the old road appeared. I can almost smell the dust and hear the creak of the wagon wheels struggling across huge rocks.  We start finding ruts and places where someone long ago, carefully piled clusters of small rocks to ease the passage  across brutal basalt ridges.  The flowers appear too.  Cushion Phlox (Phlox hoodii) fading from pink to rainbows of lavender and blue, the beginnings of Larkspur (Delphinium sp.), and the insanely cheerful Tidy tips (Layia glandulosa).

We find a few rusted buckets. But its hard to believe they would have been discarded so easily back in the day.  Bottle clusters under the juniper look promising, but the Bartle and James Tropical fruit flavor is a sure sign of “High School Party Night 1978”.  

Botanists can be so cruel.  A bright cluster of False Agoseris (Microseris troximoides) was already a mouthful, but has now morphed thanks to some PhD to the totally unwieldy Nothocalais troximoides.
Blond morels.
Blond morels.
Blond morels.

 
Strange to find a couple of mushrooms in the rocks.  Blond morels.  What are they doing here so far from the burnt pine forests they love?  

The day suddenly turns gray and the spring chill returns with a shiver.  The soldiers aren’t talking, they have a long ways to go and I watch them fade into the shadows, with a final creak of a loaded wagon and the whinny of a thirsty horse.  We leave the ghosts of the homesteaders in the grove of old junipers, a good place to shelter for the night, and circle back towards the modern comforts of Goodrich Road and the glide path of Highway 20.  Fort Boise will have to wait.