Sunday, October 16, 2011

Volcanic Ramblings Part 5: Lotsa Lakes

Looking across Odell Lake to Diamond Peak

I have read several times, in sources that look to be reputable, that the rate of ecological change from the Cascade Crest down into central Oregon is one of the most rapid in the terrestrial (as opposed to marine) world. I'm always suspicious of any claim of unique extremity- who says it's the biggest/tallest/deepest/smallest? But if you watch the change in trees and underbrush from Salt Creek Falls to route 97- the N/S backbone of central Oregon- it really is quite amazing how rapidly and thoroughly the forest changes, not just once, but multiple times. Just west of the crest, I would guesstimate annual precipitation is around 150 inches per year; by the time you get out onto the east side apron, it's closer to 25. The dominant trees grade from enormous DouglasFir, with lush and abundant undergrowth, to Ponderosa Pine, Lodgepole Pine, then sagebrush and juniper scrub.

Geology? Oh, my, yes! The presence of the Cascades creates a barrier to moisture coming in off the Pacific; not only do the mountains catch a large proportion of that moisture, but air descending the eastern slope is, well, descending. It warms adiabatically, with the result that air masses moving into central Oregon are most often capable of holding more moisture than when they went over the pass. Which means they don't drop any more moisture. In this case, the mere presence of all that geology has a profound effect on the types of vegetation that can grow, compete, and reproduce in different parts of the east side.

As an aside, much of central and eastern Oregon is referred to as "High Desert," both colloquially and technically; it bears pointing out that strictly speaking, "deserts" receive 10 inches or less of precipitation per year. My understanding is that the Alvord Desert, on the east side of Steens Mountain, does meet this criterion, but little if any of the rest of Oregon does. More accurately, most of the High Desert is semi-arid grassland, but that just doesn't have the same ring, does it? So High Desert it is.

Not to rain on the parade, though, I think one of central Oregon's best-kept secrets is that there's much more water than I think most people realize... which means, in turn, more vegetation and wildlife than they might guess, as well. Yes, there are stretches that can seem barren (to the unaccustomed eye), and there are lots of glorious "dear gawd, look at all those nekkid rocks" vistas, but there's water, too, and lots of birds.

I had planned to spend the first night in the Chemult area, and had used the old Google machine to check that were indeed hotels in the little town. Oops. Without paying very close attention to where, exactly, said lodgings were, you know, located. There were a couple of ramshackle sorts of huts, members of the Bates Chain of Fine Accommodations, if you catch my drift.

So we put in an extra hour of driving to get to Klamath Falls.

As we rounded Modoc Point, we had a grand view of Upper Klamath Lake... ...and a short distance later, took advantage of a pull-out for a more lingering view.
Don't let all that sparse eastern Oregon water distract you from the fact that it's beginning to look a lot like basin and range. If I were asked to stick a tack onto a US map at the northwestern-most corner of that physiographic province, it's fun to imagine an enormous steel pillar suddenly splashing into existence somewhere out in that puddle.
Our diversion to K-Falls had some downsides and caused some later logistical problems, but also led to some fortuitous stops which we otherwise wouldn't have made. (Dana has already posted on one of those from the next day.) All in all, things worked out well; it was a good first day.

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