I remember writing that foolish risks are not a measure of worth. More recently, I collected some thoughts I had up at Triple Falls about evaluating risk. I was totally sincere. And then I decided to climb over the logjam at Oneonta Gorge.
The Oneonta Gorge is a tiny wonder: a narrow half mile stretch of clear water and tumbled stones, enveloped by straight canyon walls weeping with maidenhair ferns. You access it just where Oneonta Creek drops to the level of Old Highway 30, well below Triple Falls, but not far in terms of walking distance. ‘Hiking’ it isn’t a hike at all, but rather a wade – or sometimes, depending on the water level, a swim.
The creek is low today, late in the season, and it’s (barely) warm enough to slosh up it in shorts. My friend Michelle is with me, as keen as I am to experience the remembered magic of this place.
We’ve forgotten the logjam. Or rather, we remember it as a little thing, an easy obstacle. We’re thinking of a large pile of sticks; something like a beaver dam, maybe. What’s actually before us is a snarl of felled trees easily twice our height, cracked and splintered and only temporarily at rest, polished smooth and slick with moisture, backed up like Seattle traffic behind several car-sized boulders. I don’t know whether to fault the misty gloss of memory, or the lack of maintenance over the last several years.
It sounds simple enough on paper, but a log jam live under your feet is slippery, treacherous, and unforgiving of mistakes. The other day I watched a group of teenagers climbing it, shouting and whooping encouragement to each other at the top of their lungs. I was on the edge of asking them to turn down the volume when I realized: this is a fear response. They were laughing in the face of danger, shouting their war cry at fate. They had good cause. At least one person has died here in recent years.
I’m balancing on the first stripped trunk, 20 feet of thin air and pointy sticks below me, when Michelle calls a halt. This isn’t such a good idea. She’s right, and I back down. We stand on top of a sloping boulder and point out angles of approach, talk about how it’s wise to walk away from something so dangerous and unnecessary. We convince each other to let it go. And then we change our minds and cross anyway, crouching and sliding and picking our way, very slowly, keeping three points of contact. We’re not proud – just determined.
Because the other side is where the magic happens.
Imagine walking in clear, chilly water to your waist among spotted troutlings. Unless it’s midday, the canyon walls block direct sun, but slanting beams strike the maples far above, and the their glow fills the narrow space, gold like fairy dust. Your destination: one of the world’s sacred dead ends. Fifty feet of water pours out of silk-slick black rock. To really feel it, you have to brave its weather and wade into its jade-colored pool, where you crane your neck back and focus alternately on your awe and your balance.
I’m using words like “magic” advisedly. There really is so much that is other here, something special, or maybe – it’s a loaded word – holy. I speak of the Columbia River Gorge in general, but particularly the watershed of Oneonta Creek, and especially this lower canyon. In the few miles of trail that traverse this watershed, the pilgrim may experience three entirely stunning waterfalls – one of which you can walk behind – and this small exquisite slot canyon that’s inimical to cameras, but ravishing to the human eye and heart.
Michelle and I discuss all this unselfconsciously.. It doesn’t feel weird to say “sacred space” in her presence. We take turns wading into the pool, giving each other room for communion. I fill up slowly, steadily; feeling myself recharge is like watching a gas gauge rise. When the energy overflows, it spills out as a manic grin, and I’m compelled to turn and share it with Michelle. She’s got one, too.
I was up at Triple Falls last week with another friend, Rachel, sitting on a rock mid-river and talking about forest goddesses and faeries and mysterious experiences. Rachel is practical and put-together and competent; her mystical side, when it flashes like the sun on a leaping Chinook, surprises and delights me.
This is one of my favorite aspects of spending time in the wild with a single good friend: this ease with a sort of casual mysticism. You can feel it by yourself, but get back indoors and you start thinking you made it all up, how silly, it’s just trees. Sharing your experience aloud seals its legitimacy. You can change your mind about what it meant or what caused it, but you can’t deny that it was.
It doesn’t matter whether we process our outdoor encounters with the sacred literally. For me, half of it is what David Oates called “things I have experienced but do not believe.” A human being in the wild sees differently from one in a boardroom, or a theater, or car speeding down the freeway. Out here, we remember that humanity is not alone. It gets a body thinking, and paying attention. And saying things that feel uncomfortably earnest when you repeat them indoors.
So I’ll go ahead and say it: Oneonta Gorge is a holy site. I’ve always assumed people climb that log jam “because it’s there,” but maybe there’s more to it. Perhaps it’s an act of devotion, conscious or otherwise. A small sacrifice of safety (accompanied by the risk of a much larger offering), as a way to prove our worth for the reward.
Certainly the way we behave here indicates awe – the old school sort, where you’re also feeling slightly small and afraid. We seem frivolous pilgrims at first: the teenagers with their war cries; a 20-something couple languidly passing a joint back and forth; a woman stripping off her jeans to wade the deep pools in her lacy purple underwear, whooping at the cold. But even the brashest among us only start off that way. Pretty soon we’re all exclaiming quietly over tiny fish, and pointing out fern spores lit by the slanting sun. Slowly, we go silent, just smiling at each other, united by the experience as awe transforms into belonging. And now we’re true believers. We’ll carry this place with us, and we’ll always want to return.
I don’t suppose this happens to everyone who comes here. But it did to me, and I’ve seen it happen all around me, more than once. It’s magic.
Just maybe, it’s worth the risk.
From Portland, Oregon, access Oneonta Gorge from I-84 Eastbound, using exit 28 for Bridal Veil. Turn left on the Historic Columbia River Highway, and drive past the grander attractions of Wahkeena and Multnomah Falls. (Need a mocha? You can get one at the kiosk at Multnomah. Go early.) When you see a sign for Oneonta Gorge, park on the side of the road before the bridge, or, if that’s full, drive a little past it and park on the other side of the pedestrian tunnel (pictured above.) You don’t need a permit of any kind. The “trail” is of at least moderate difficulty: between that tricksy logjam, sharp rocks for footing, and the possible swimming, it’s no stroll in the park. It’s also not very long: maybe half a mile each way. Give yourself a couple of hours to fully enjoy it. Don’t forget shoes with excellent tread that don’t mind getting wet, plus a sweatshirt, a change of clothes, and a towel. The water is cold, even in summer.