While the Cooper Spur summit route is notoriously loose and dangerous, the well established and safe trail to the base of the snowfield is a set of long winding alpine switchbacks culminating in a gorgeous ridge line traverse. Never one to skimp on adding some climbing, I parked at the Cooper Spur Resort and took the Tilly Jane Trail that intersects the Timberline Trail and continues up the Cooper Spur (you can also cut off the forest climb and start from the Cloud Cap Saddle campground). The Tilly Jane Trail climbs through a fire scar from 2008, and as wildfires burn throughout the Pacific Northwest raining down ash and filling the air with smoke, the trail served as a reminder of the important ecological role fire plays in the forest and rate of post fire growth was impressive.
As an avid backpacker and trail runner, it’s hard not to view wildfires from the point of view of trail closures and loss of aesthetic landscape qualities. Yet, forest fires are natural and necessary disturbance that are part of a healthy forest succession cycle that contributes to a healthy ecosystem. Further, climate change, forest management practices including long periods of fire suppression and fuel buildup, and human development patterns have contributed to a changing wildfire season (see Nine Things Oregonians Should Know About Forest Fires). Fire season is trending earlier and some fires are burning hotter, faster, and larger while increased human development in the urban-wildland interface has greatly complicated the risk analysis when deploying wildland fire fighters to evacuate residents and protect houses and structures.
While it is easy to blame careless individuals whose actions lead to forest fires, concentrating solely on these actions fails to place the current wildfire regime within the broader context of climate change, forest management, and human development in the urban-wildland interface. Throwing fireworks or parking on dry grass are reprehensible actions for which individuals need to be held accountable. But to use an appropriately themed expression, concentrating only on these individuals risks missing the forest for the trees.
The trees alongside the Tilly Jane Trail gave way to alpine shrub as the trail gained elevation. Having checked the webcams at the Timberline Lodge and Hood Meadows, I was pretty confident that the smoke layer from The Gorge was capped at about 6,300ft. Sure enough, as the trail climbed and crossed the Timberline Trail it ascended higher into cleaner air and Mt. Hood revealed itself. The Cooper Spur separates the Elliot Glacier, to the North, from the Newton Clark Glacier to the South and the trail switchbacks up the loose and rocky spur between them. The winds picked up and a smell of sulphur began to replace the smell of smoke. The final ridgeline trail section ends with a plaque affixed to a large boulder at the base of the permanent snowfield; “Walk gently, friend. You are walking in the path of those who went before.”
Although the plaque serves as a warning to the dangers of alpine climbing, it is also true that the path of man and fire have been long intertwined. From Native Americans starting wildfires to clear land, to the mid 1900s fire exclusion policy that strived for complete fire suppression, and to modern thinning, fuels reductions efforts, and controlled burns – the path of fire has not been without the influence of man. What that path looks like in the coming decades will depend not only on educating those who travel in the forest on fire prevention, but on our societal response to a changing climate, increasing development, and differing forest management practices. I filled my bottles from the melting snowfield at the terminus of the trail and turned 180 degrees to face the smokey haze. The West is facing is an increasingly uncertain fire regime and the weather for the next months is not promising, but for now my car is 5,000 feet down back through the old burn zone and fresh smoke.