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The Greatest Story Never Told

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Last winter, I compiled a list of outdoor adventures that I wanted to experience. Oregon is such a beautiful and wondrous state. I wanted to seriously devote some time to explore more of it. More specifically, I wanted to load up a backpack and venture deep into the wilderness. I wanted to get as far from human civilization as possible, and I wanted to visit those places that I had only read about. This passing summer was spent going through that list.

Starting in early March, until the end of September, I spent every weekend in the woods. I used vacation time effectively in maximizing my time in the outdoors as well. Recently, a friend asked me what my favorite adventure was now that this year’s hiking bonanza was finished. He was curious to know which one stood out in my memory. After a long pause, I broke my silence and shared with him the adventure that will instantly come to mind for years to come.

I had been doing my research on a hike along the Salmonberry River. This is not an official trail, but an abandoned railroad line. Due to a series of landslides, the railroad company abandoned one of their lines in the 1990’s. It lies in the northwestern part of Oregon in the Coastal Range, west of Portland. This area is considered Oregon’s rainforest. It is a rugged mountain landscape, heavily forested and sparsely populated. What draws hikers to the Salmonberry ‘trail’ are the train tunnels and two trestles. Both trestles were built in the early 20th century and stand as a testament to the solid construction and engineering of that era. The beautiful views are only matched by the thrill of being so high above the river. In doing my research, I also learned of other places that were also abandoned when the railroad line closed. I added one of these areas to my list.

14881769_10154173884662833_2115065865_oI scheduled the time off work and set off to spend a week along the Salmonberry River. I was filled with excitement and wonder as I started down the railroad tracks. Several other people were hiking to the trestles, but it was far from being crowded. Since the railroad closure, no maintenance on the line has been performed. The disrepair is evident as the earth beneath the tracks has washed away in many places. This makes for some interesting scenes as it is not uncommon to see railroad tracks seemingly floating in the air. Some of the railroad tunnels were collapsing and starting to fill up with small boulders and tunnel debris. The river valley is steep on all sides and heavily forested.

Hemlock and Douglas Firs are the dominant trees here. Some sections of the railroad were like a time machine. You could see old pieces of equipment or telegraph poles still standing. One gets an understanding of what a feat it must have been to build a railroad line through the river valley with the tools available over 100 years ago.  And nothing highlights this as well as the main attraction: Big Baldwin trestle and Wolf Creek trestle.

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Big Baldwin is the first railroad trestle you come to. Built in 1916, it sits 167 feet about the Salmonberry River. It is primarily constructed of timber, with a small iron bridge that spans the wooden trestles on each side of the river. The many articles on this hike always warn people with a fear of heights. It spans a deep, but narrow, chasm. While being an awesome piece of history, it was no comparison to the Wolf Creek trestle. The Wolf Creek trestle is not as high as Big Baldwin, but the experience is more exhilarating. Instead of walking on sturdy wood planking, the walking surfaces are steel grating. One has an easy view of the creek below their feet. The solid construction is more visible on the Wolf Creek trestle. It was definitely the more photogenic of the two. The history behind the area is fascinating. Along the tracks you will find old water tanks and workmen sheds, used when the trains were running. Sadly, their condition is deteriorating quickly.

In a short period of time, many articles were published by people who hiked the abandoned railroad. The Salmonberry River ‘trail’ went from being a little known adventure, to being a must-see attraction. With the increase in traffic came the vandalism, graffiti, and litter. It’s always disappointing to see how little people care about the treasures around them. This was the reason for adding a more isolated spot to my list. I wanted to spend my vacation in a place that was not often visited. So, after my time on the trestles, my trusty backpack and I headed off to the next destination.

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Along the Salmonberry trail, the railroad tracks did a decent job of keeping the plant growth down. The hiking was easy and unobstructed. This new section was not like this. In many areas the forest was slowly reclaiming the land the railroad occupied. Tracks were being overgrown and covered up. The earth itself was flowing over the tracks (covering them up in mud and rock) or washing away from beneath the tracks (causing the tracks to fall apart). Part of the tracks were so overgrown with a native tall grass, that I attempted to machete my way through it. This was the point at which I started to question my wisdom about travelling the road seldom used. It was obvious that I was not going to be seeing another human being for quite a while. Nothing around me suggested that anyone had been in the area recently. And I was excited about this.

After a few miles of rough and rugged hiking, it was time to get wet. I was at a point where continuing meant crossing a creek. It was exciting to have to survey the creek for a crossing and strategize a way over. A fully loaded backpack added to the difficulty of this endeavor. Of course, after crossing the creek, I was rewarded with a nice steep ascent out of the creek valley. A few more miles of hiking got me to my destination. It was time to look for a place to camp. It wasn’t long before I found the perfect campsite.

The campsite was a small patch of level ground next to a river. The patch of ground was on the backside of a rocky hill. Across the river was a sheer rock wall. This made the campsite accessible only from one side. It was close to an old railroad bridge and more tracks that needed exploring. I set up camp with plans of hiking several more miles down the tracks the next day. The peace and solitude of that area changed my plans of hiking more the next day. Instead, the second day was spent enjoying the river and the sun. The third day was when I would explore more.

On the morning of the third day, I strapped on my backpack and set off to explore. I had again changed my plans, and decided to stay camped where I was. Now I was just going to explore for the day, then return to camp. The exploring in this area was easier. The landscape was milder and less dangerous. I found more bridges–all made in the early 1920’s. I wasn’t in the shadow of the valley as much here. I was enjoying a nice sunny day.  After a few more miles, I ran into the only person I would see for a few days.

As I followed the railroad tracks, I noticed a pickup truck parked on the tracks and the owner sitting in the bed of his truck. As I got closer, I realized the owner of that truck had set up a steel target on the tracks and was getting ready to shoot his rifle. Being thankful I wasn’t walking up the opposite way, I approached cautiously. When the man noticed me, he smiled and greeted me. He informed me he came out to his ‘quiet spot’ to read a book and sight in a rifle. We discussed both. During our conversation, he told me about a few places he had found and how to get to them. He decided he would just read his book and not worry about me walking anywhere downrange. He wanted me to find these areas he told me about. A short hike later, I was surrounded by history!

The area this gentleman told me about had everything! I walked across old bridges. I found varying heavy equipment from different generations. I found old buildings used by repair crews. This area had it all. There were no signs of vandalism, graffiti, or litter. After a couple hours of exploring this treasure trove, I headed back to camp. I found my new friend sitting in the bed of his truck, still reading his book. We had an enthusiastic conversation about the find. He shared with me that, in 12 years of coming to this area, I was the first person he’d ever seen there. He was more surprised to see me on foot. I shared with him how I love to write stories of places I discover and wanted this adventure to be the next one I wrote. And that’s when his face changed.

He confessed how disappointed he would be if my story was a success, and attracted people to the area. Gone would be the pristine condition of this time capsule in the woods. I started to think back to the sad things I saw along the Salmonberry trail. The more I thought about what he said, the less I wanted to share my adventure. This conversation replayed in my head on the way back to camp. I was also changing my plans for day four.

Instead of doing more exploring, I decided the 4th day would be like the 2nd. I wanted to just sit and relax by the river. And that I did. On the 5th morning, the last morning, I was well rested and nourished. I packed up and started the long journey back to my vehicle. I was grateful for the lighter backpack. The hike back seemed to be much slower than the hike in. I got to re-visit the tunnels and trestles on my return. Being a weekday, I didn’t see any other hikers on the Wolf Creek or Big Baldwin trestles. After several hours of hiking, it was a joy to see my vehicle. I couldn’t help but cheer.

Today, when asked what my favorite outdoor adventure is, I pause. My desire to share my adventure is overshadowed by my desire to keep this other area from being destroyed. It is an area I will explore again. I will also explore some of the other areas my friend told me about. I also want to encourage other people to explore their local places. Take care of those places! I want other people to find their ‘quiet spot’, and be surprised when they see someone else. Now get out there and explore the outdoors!

A resident of Oregon for about 20 years, my passion is the outdoors. I love to share these amazing places and hope you love them as much as I do.