Treasure of the Last Great Places

Somewhere in the vast reaches of the unknown, time and space collide. You find yourself lost in a magical moment that is both nothing and everything — in one of those rare places where everything that was, still is — and you become a part of it. Here nature is raw and powerful, just as it was created, and everything carefully orchestrated in the minutest detail.

The stark face of rugged mountains, deeply carved valleys, and wild scenic rivers tumbling through steep canyons surround you in this secluded world where one can glimpse the untouched soul of nature.  You feel engulfed by great mystery and beauty, as one small and insignificant in the presence of the Keeper of Ancient Secrets.  Gently the wind brushes your face and whispers of the mystical past, an elusive song that strikes a vibrant chord deep within your being. You become aware the silence around  you is not silence at all but life – a quiet hum of bees, drumming of woodpeckers, scolding of jays, and the nasal “yank! yank!” call of the Red-breasted Nuthatch. Liquid notes of the hermit thrush blend with the soft bubbling of a mountain stream.  Somewhere above, the air is pierced by the wild scream of a Red-tailed Hawk etched against a cerulean sky.

In the northwest corner of the region, the coastal range of the Siskiyou Mountains runs through the heart of the rugged Kalmiopsis, then curves into the steeper peaks of the Siskiyou Crest, oddly running east-west. The Marble Mountains and the Trinity Alps form the centerpiece of this jumbled mass, with the Yolly Bolly Mountains lying to the south.  All are joined together in what has often been referred to as the Klamath Knot – a bewildering tangle of sharply defined peaks and ridges.  They stand blue and purple in the distance, gilt with edges of rose and gold as the late evening sun in a giant ball of ruby fire slips slowly behind them. Early dawn awakes to find only the highest peaks rising from a far-flung sea of endless clouds and swirling mist.

A persistent refrain impresses itself upon your being as one varied landscape suddenly changes into another, a world of wonder that keeps on surviving despite harsh challenges.  From the smallest ecosystem to the largest, one turns upon another, each with its own boundless array of diverse species, intricately orchestrated, adapted to survive against impossible odds.  Beauty emerges from chaos.  New life springs up in the face of death and destruction. Life is not what is perfect but what is real. And what is real is to accept the whole, to catch the indomitable spirit that endures, that blooms in spite of adversity.  This then, is biodiversity – from the ecological biodiversity of the many different plant and animal communities, to the wide array of species within each of these communities, to the genetic diversity of each individual species, all in perfect synchrony.

From the heart of the earth the mountains speak, revealing haunting echoes of long past cataclysmic events which brought them into being, some dating back to as long as 450 million years ago.  Collision of tectonic plates, folding and buckling along fault lines carried away chunks of ocean crust and sediment.  These in turn gave rise to noble mountains, pushing along the volcanic range of the mighty Cascade Mountains to the east.

Much of the Kalmiopsis was formed from uplift, folding and faulting and is underlain by an antiquated geological formation known as the Josephine Opheolite.  Though ravaged by the largest lightning caused fire in Oregon history more than a decade ago, its tenacity is palpable. Still, amid the blackened trees, you may wander past fens, bogs and seeps dotted with the mysterious greenish Cobra Lily, or Darlingtonia rising up delicately poised like the head of a snake about to strike.  It is not a lily at all but a carnivorous plant which feasts upon the insects it lures to feed upon its nectar.

New young shoots spring from hardwood trees such as madrone, tanoak, chinquapin, and maple, which are able to resurrect themselves from their burls and deep root systems.  Solitude surrounds in this lonely place, so clearly scarred by nature’s violent chaos. Yet the heartbeat of the Kalmiopsis is plainly heard by those who will listen, its voice one of strength and survival.  Brewer’s Weeping Spruce, a  relict species of primordial days, with its curious and graceful drooping limbs, was the last tree to be discovered in North America.  Found only in Klamath-Siskiyou Region it is growing back abundantly.  Knob-Cone Pines which need the heat of fire to release their seeds, are also growing through the burned area.

Brilliant splashes of delicate pink flowers with lacy stamens and dark evergreen foliage appear among the rocks in low-growing cushiony mounds or mats. Kalmiopsis leachiana, the rare flower for which the Kalmiopsis was named, was discovered by Botanist Lilla Leach when hiking through the Siskiyous with her husband and two burros near Gold Basin in 1930.  At first, she believed it was a new species of Kalmia, a rhododendron in the Ericaceae or heath family.  This large family includes the Madrone tree, Arbutus menziesii; as well as several species of rhododendron, huckleberry, and manzanita, all of which may be found in the Kalmiopsis as well.  However, the rare flower was at last determined to be not only a new species, but a new monotypic genus, an obscure relic of the heath family.

The flower is believed to have once grown on an island in the Pacific Ocean some 100 million years ago before the collision and subduction of the tectonic plates which began the early formation of the primitive Siskiyou Mountains. Since then, only one other member of this genus has been discovered, Kalmiopsis fragrans, another rare endemic species in taller shrub form with slightly different pink flowers, which grows only in a small strip along the North and South Umpqua Rivers.

Rushing rivers, Wild and Scenic – the North Fork of the Smith River, headwaters of the Chetco River, and part of the Illinois River run through the Kalmiopsis. These provide important habitat for Threatened and Endangered Steelhead, Chinook, and Coho Salmon.  Rough and Ready Creek, a tributary of the Illinois River, has the greatest botanical diversity of any watershed in Oregon. Translucent emerald waters run through jumbled serpentine rocks of reddish hue, in a landscape unlike any other.  Known as “The Redrock Rainforest”, it carries elements of both forest and high desert, interspersed with wetland bogs and seeps.  Rare flowers such as the beautiful red-speckled Bolander’s Lily and the California Lady Slipper Orchid are among the treasures to be found here.

Near the Oregon-California border, the mountains of the Siskiyou Crest run west to east, forming a bridge from the Siskiyou Mountains to the mighty Cascades. Mt. Ashland, 7533’is the highest peak and Dutchman Peak, the second highest point on this range at 7415’, and offers the most commanding view. A variety of unique plants and wildflowers grow in this region, including two very rare plants.  These include the lovely Henderson’s Horkelia, a lavender and white flower with silvery green foliage, with only a few populations along the Siskiyou Crest in Oregon and California; and Mt. Ashland Lupine, a dwarf lupine with intense lavender-blue flowers and silver green leaves covered by soft silky hairs. Only a single population on the summit and west flank of Mt. Ashland is known for the Mt. Ashland Lupine. The rare Franklin’s Bumblebee, found only along this narrow range of southern Oregon and Northern California has the most restricted range of any bumblebee in the world, and was last seen on Mt. Ashland in 2006.  None have been found since.

The Siskiyou Crest divides the watersheds of the rushing Rogue River to the north, and the mighty Klamath River to the south. From whitewater crashing through carved canyons to tranquil jade pools, they are important habitat for salmon and steelhead. South of the Siskiyou Crest, the Klamath Mountains continue into the subranges of the magnificent Marble Mountains and Trinity Alps.  The steep face of Marble Rim rises sharply above verdant alpine slopes dotted with wildflowers.  Composed of gleaming white marble metamorphosed from limestone and polished by glaciers, calcite crystals cause it to sparkle in the slanting sun, illuminated with its own mystical aura.  Numerous mountain lakes, most carved by glacial activity, their pure translucent waters glimmering like jewels, flash a greeting far below as you gaze from a high vantage point, while mysterious caves may be glimpsed among the marble walls, hinting of far-reaching hidden tunnels.

A bewildering array of conifer species surround you, more than you have ever seen, and somehow you feel each has its own story to tell. The Trinity Alps and Trinity Mountains continue southward from the Marbles as another sub-range of the Klamath Mountains.  The Yolly Bolly Mountains are the southernmost sub-range of the Klamaths, also wonderfully diverse with montane and mixed conifer forest types.  Isolated populations of rare western juniper also grow here, which surprisingly have more genetic diversity than populations where it occurs more commonly. The North and Middle Fork of the Eel River, and South Fork of the Trinity designated, as Wild and Scenic Rivers, offer some of the most spectacular whitewater rapids.  Winter runs of steelhead and spring runs of Chinook salmon make their way back from the ocean through these formidable waters to spawn.

The Trinities contain the highest peaks within the Klamath-Siskiyou region. 9025’Mt. Eddy, a former fire lookout site, lies at the north end of the range, just 16 air miles southwest of Mt. Shasta.  Mt. Eddy is surrounded by the deep and clear Deadfall Lakes and a colorful wildflower display including red columbine, yellow lupine, dwarf larkspur, and many more.  The upper slopes are Western White Pine and Sub-alpine Woodland with the uncommon Curl-Leaf Mountain Mahogany just below the summit. Ethereal flowers of periwinkle blue with yellow stamens, Polemonium eddyense was identified as a new species of the Phlox family in 2013, it grows nowhere else in the world.

The Green Trinities are the forest primeval, made up of immense stands of virgin timber on the western slopes of steep ridgelines, carved into jagged canyons with rushing rivers, where it is possible to be immersed for days in utter solitude.   One is struck by the sense that life is fragile and fleeting, enduring but a moment.  The morning lives but a few hours and is swallowed up in afternoon, whose long shadows melt into a brief evening quickly consumed by the dark of the night.  The ancient toil of life is carved upon the cliffs and canyons, the austere mountains touched and softened by the gentle rays of the sun, echoed in the vibrant throats of a multitude of forest birds, casting their silver notes across the crystal air.

To the east, rugged peaks covered with red serpentine rocks rise above the jewel-like mountain lakes, making up the Red Trinities.  In between the Green and the Red are the White Trinities, the very heart and core of the Trinity Alps. With imposing spires of white granite, mirrored in myriad crystal lakes, they stir the wistful melodies of the unknown, the intangible, and the vanished mysteries as fleeting as the mist that rises from the morning mountain meadows.  Here some glaciers still persist, including Thompson Peak, the only active coastal glacier in California.

In this solitary spot, the voice of infinity is heard. One may realize the smallness of oneself and glimpse perhaps the rare vision of nature as the Creator intended before mankind began to appropriate it for his own bounty with no regard for the future. Thundering rivers and secret lakes speak of that which was but no longer is.  Life struggles and persists in the face of that which is not perfect.  Yet, even that which endures for millennia may be suddenly gone in a breath.  Here the story is told of life that is threatened, appearing real and firm yet slipping slowly until one day it is gone from view.  Just as the mighty grizzly was pushed into retreat from his wild haunts by the relentlessness of man.  Even so life is gone in a breath.

The message of the venerable mountains, carried on the voice of the trees, slowly begins to penetrate one’s consciousness, somehow connecting its meaning in multiple realms.  Before us is the last great place.  There may be no more years, or even tomorrows to do what we intended, or speak what is in the heart.  What is before us, we take for granted, never realizing what is temporal, and never recognizing that last precious moment or what might be done to preserve it, until it is gone forever.  Words once spoken cannot be recalled, but they can be amended.  The dawn of realization speaks, as too late we find our steps have turned evermore to seek that which was more perfect or thrilling.  Yet what we truly desired or needed was already here within our grasp and we foolishly cast it away.  Hear the wisdom of antiquity, the voice of a forest primeval forgotten, but not yet lost, and embrace that which is real before it slips away.

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Brenda Tippin

Brenda Tippin earned her B.A. in Biological Science from Northwest Nazarene University, Nampa, Idaho in 1980 and began working for the U.S. Forest Service later that year. She is a Biological Technician and Fire Lookout for the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest and since 1992 has staffed the historic Rustler Peak fire tower which lies on the edge of the Klamath Siskiyou Region. She is also a freelance writer and Morgan horse historian. Brenda has authored more than 50 articles for The Morgan Horse Magazine as well as other equine publications, and is working on a book to compile her articles.

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