It’s never coming back. That was my first thought as I, and millions of others, watched live footage of the 2017 Eagle Creek fire race through the area that is home to one of the Pacific Northwest’s most beloved hiking trails, the Eagle Creek trail. I felt the chances of ever stepping foot on that enchanting, vertigo-inducing footpath again were bleak. Yet last week, the Eagle Creek trail, along with several other Gorge trails, reopened to the public, bringing a symbolic close to the fire that impacted so many of us. (UPDATE: As of Jan. 14, 2021, the Eagle Creek Trail has been indefinitely closed again, this time due to damage from heavy rains over the previous week.)
The Eagle Creek fire was a rollercoaster of emotions. Images and stories of the heroic rescue of the hikers trapped overnight on the Eagle Creek trail were juxtaposed with images of the Gorge aflame and communities like Cascade Locks and Hood River under threat. Federal, state, and local officials all came together with first responders and community leaders. Thanks to their combined efforts, the fire was finally contained in November 2017. Efforts to survey the fire's impact on the health of the forest, damage to trails, and toll on Gorge communities began immediately.
Trails can sometimes recover quickly from wildfires and patient hikers are able to witness the rebirth of a forest, landscapes beginning new lifecycles. Walking through a burned forest is a stark reminder that the one constant in nature is change. But the Eagle Creek trail is different from most trails. Forged over a century ago, the trail was built with sticks of dynamite as much as pulaskis and buck saws. Shelves were blown out from sheer basalt cliffs and a tunnel was carved out behind a waterfall. Such a trail would never be built today as we’ve learned how to work with nature rather than against it. Watching the blaze, I was sure the wildfire would compromise those basalt cliffs and what dynamite had created extreme heat would take away with the fire destabilizing those cliffs and precarious ledges.
But I was wrong. Shortly after the fire was extinguished, I flew in a plane over the Eagle Creek area and was startled to see…green. While the ridge were burned to a crisp, the closer I looked at the land surrounding the creek, the more I saw a mosaic of living and dead trees. Hovering over the Columbia River and looking up Eagle Creek, I felt the first tinge of hope for this century-old pathway.
While the fire is forever embedded in my conscience, it was the remarkable response to the fire that stays with me. Thousands of people donated money and thousands more offered to volunteer to rebuild Gorge trails and support Gorge communities. The U.S. Forest Service and Oregon State Parks partnered with four non-profit organizations (Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Trailkeepers of Oregon, Pacific Crest Trails Association (PCTA) and Washington Trails Association (WTA) to create the Gorge Trails Recovery Team.
The Pacific Crest Trail Association got going early on the PCT and within months began assessing the Eagle Creek Trail. Trailkeepers of Oregon, which had been an all-volunteer group just six months before the fire, added staff and began rebuilding numerous fire-damaged trails. Washington Trails Association also added staff and worked on numerous Washington trails, including our Lyle Cherry Orchard trail. And with all these trail-building organizations, Friends put its resources into land stewardship in a post-fire world. We created a new position and soon hundreds of volunteers were removing invasive weeds and planting native plants alongside rebuilt trails.
Our public partners also took extra steps in working with Gorge Recovery team members. Forest Service biologists helped lead stewardship crews; state rangers work worked closely with Trailkeepers, WTA, and PCTA to safely organize trail work parties; and volunteers from all around the Pacific Northwest pitched in. All of this was occurring as the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon State Parks faced budget shortfalls. In early 2018 Oregon Kitchen Table launched a special fundraising campaign to support trail restoration efforts ("Be There for the Gorge") in partnership with the National Forest Foundation. In total, the effort brought in an additional $149,000—including $30,000 donated by Friends on behalf of its members—for Gorge trail repair and restoration efforts. Gorge trails, like Angels Rest, came online quickly and it appeared that Eagle Creek and others might be back up by spring 2020.
But COVID changed all that. Work parties went on hiatus and government actions slowed to a crawl. But little by little, progress continued, bridges were purchased and flown in and as 2020 was coming to a close, a new urgency developed. Lynn Burditt, the Forest Service’s National Scenic Area manager, announced she was retiring from her post as of January 1. If she could not lift the Eagle Creek closure by then, the Forest Service might have had to wait for her replacement, which could have delayed the opening to the summer of 2021. But Forest Service staff pushed hard and even a landslide that temporarily closed the Eagle Creek exit for a few days could not stop the reopening on New Year’s Eve.
Since that time, the crowds have reappeared. The photos people are sharing are beautiful and online comments have the wistful undercurrent of people reconnecting with a long-lost friend. But we’re also seeing what we hoped to not see: early morning full parking lots, limited mask wearing and few opportunities to social distance. Lots of dogs are now on the trail, both on and off leash. The desire to reconnect is bringing out the best and worst of us. As we return, we also must recommit to protecting and responsibly stewarding the places in the Gorge we love. And we all have a role to play.
Eagle Creek is a dear, old friend of mine and I desperately want to reconnect with it. But I will bide my time and wait for the moment when we can both revel in each other’s company.