Out Our Back Door By Tom Baake
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Guided Walks Lead to Forests and Mountaintops
By Tom Baake
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Hikers take in the view from Rocky Peak near Port Orford.

Every season has its rewards but spring is definitely more showy, what with the bursting-forth greenery, pollen-heavy trees, and of course all the wildflowers. It’s also the season for guided nature walks, with your choice of two hikes this Sunday.

On Sunday, May 20, the South Coast Striders hiking group will return to the Rocky Peak area near Port Orford. At 3,029 feet, Rocky Peak towers above its nearby and better-known neighbor, Humbug Mountain, a mere 1,761 feet. It offers much better views – spectacular, in fact – and is home to big old trees, intriguing slices of geology and some unique high-elevation “prairies.”

A challenging trail takes hikers up to Rocky Peak, passing several impressive viewpoints and threading through stands of wizened tall timber before taking on the final mountaintop ascent. From there, the views range from a vast panorama of the ocean to deep forests to the distant peaks of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Perhaps best of all is the profound stillness of the setting, with only the wind and occasional birdsong to provide a natural soundtrack.

What you won’t find are many visitors. Maybe it’s the drive up to the trailhead, which involves a half-dozen miles of twisting gravel roads. Or maybe it’s the challenge of the trail, which is not only steep in places, but has no signage or directional markers anywhere along the way. Whatever the reasons, they’re part of what inspires hikers to explore the Rocky Peak trail, which some consider to be one of the region’s best.

Among those holding that view is archeologist and local historian Reg Pullen, who will again lead this Sunday’s walk. “Humbug Mountain gets all the press,” he says, “but I think this area has even more going for it.”

Pullen’s family ran sheep up here many generations back, taking advantage of the open, meadowy area settlers called prairies. Such open areas are a relatively unusual phenomenon in the otherwise densely-forested Coast Range. Pullen said settlers followed the Indian practice of burning the meadows to keep them open for grazing. The method fell out of favor with the Forest Service, but efforts are still made to keep the prairies clear of brush and trees, including girding or cutting down trees.

Pullen helped with timber sales and forest fires in the vicinity, which led to his interest in restoring the 1870s-era trail, sometimes referred to as the Asa Carey trail. Volunteer Dave Gray also did a tremendous amount of work restoring the trail, and continues to maintain it.

Call them the keepers of this little gem, and if you’re adventurous and in good shape, check it out for yourself. Those interested should meet at 9 a.m. at Battle Rock Park in Port Orford. Get more details at www.coostrails.com.

On Sunday, May 20, members of the Coast Range Forest Watch will lead a plant identification tour of the Elliott State Forest. On a recent outing, the group had fun identifying “animal plants.” That is, plants with animals in their names, such as horsetail and coltsfoot and cow parsnip and piggyback and foxglove and monkey flower and goosefoot and manroot. Learning to spot stinging nettle may help avoid it, but if you get “stung,” we learned a plant called dock soothes nettle irritations.

There were a couple kinds of edible miner’s lettuce, but beware hemlock – all varieties are poisonous. Huge, moss-covered bigleaf maples dominated the setting, and illustrated the symbiosis between flora and fauna: voles live in the moss, and their feces help fertilize the tree. Spagnum moss also helps regulate an alder’s growth.

Under the great huge hemlocks and maples and lesser alders and cascaras, beneath the towering huckleberries and Oregon grape and salal and oso berries and red currant and willows and vinemaples and elderberries, grew yarrow and broadleaf plantain and yerba buena and wild ginger and yellow dogtooth violet and columbine and skunk cabbage and bleeding heart and lily of the valley and three kinds of ferns along with delicate trilliums – please don’t pick them, they take seven years to grow from seed to flower!

Also on the route were several vertical or incline meadows -- mossy cliffs walls with topsoil only inches deep that supports delicate wildflowers and hardy “rockfast” succulents.

Indians prized certain fern stems and used them as “color lines” in their baskets, and also extracted dyes from roots and bark. Homesteaders found further creative uses for local products, and planted other specimens and trees still in evidence.

Meantime, boomer holes abounded and newts scurried furtively and slugs slimed over the trails, plants, even up in the trees. And as we arrived at our turnaround point at a creek crossing, a kingfisher swooped in right on cue, and gathered from us a collective “wow!”

Those interested should meet at 9 a.m. in the Lakeside McKay’s Market parking lot. Get more information at www.coastrangeforestwatch.org.

(Shopper columnist Tom Baake is author of regional guidebooks.)

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