Failing to find Mist’s Big Spring

Overlook at Mist luke

The journey can be better than the destination, and not finding what you were looking for doesn’t mean you didn’t find everything you needed.

Our friend Lucas is a budding herpetologist who has been assisting Matt and I in our Columbia County Reptiles and Amphibians project for several months. Last week we made a trip to Mist to fill in some unexplored survey regions. While scouting the area on maps, I saw the name “Big Spring” several miles out in the middle of nowhere.

“Huh,” I thought, “That’s worth checking out.”

On the basis of that random label on a map, I plotted out a path through three different logging properties (don’t forget your Weyerhaeuser pass!), and Lucas and I went off to find Big Spring.

Overlook at Mist luke

The journey began at an elevation of 1300 feet and soon we were up over 1500 feet. That constitutes the high ground, so we had quite a view of the countryside. Clouds rolled up on logged-over hillsides, different shades of green representing different ages of clearcut; a patchwork quilt of forestry history.

Though clearcuts appear as scars on the land, they represent an important stage of forest succession. A healthy forest contains tracts of many ages, each providing habitat for a unique set of plants and creatures. Old Growth of 200+ years, Second Growth of 50-200 years, young Reprod of 10-50 years, and those first clearcut stages each have their role. If the forest was all the same age, it wouldn’t contain as much biodiversity.

The issue with our forests is not that we’ve cut here and there, but that we’ve eliminated the ecosystems on either end of the process. Dumping herbicide on new clearcuts has destroyed native vegetation and the animals that depend on it, while cutting everything before it reaches mature status has eliminated many of the creatures who need those old trees. We’ve become a reprod county, our landscape dominated by the least productive forest stage. To find a native meadow or an aged stand is now a rare occurrence.

Early reprod produces less oxygen, eliminates less carbon dioxide, contains less biodiversity, and even adds board-feet of lumber slower than 50+ year old trees. It’s a necessary evil in the transition from meadow to mature forest, but it shouldn’t be the main event. Yet every hike in our county is awash in it.

And so we moved through.

Just around the corner from the reprod vista, we were surprised by one of our favorite hillside features. A natural spring! Bright green vegetation marked the spot where groundwater was seeping, even pouring out of the rocks. A remote spring at this elevation is always a treat. Might it hold some of our rarer amphibian denizens?

We searched the spring for torrent salamanders and were immediately rewarded. They were all over!

As Matt wrote in The Elusive Columbia Torrent Salamander, this species of salamander is not easy to find. They are limited to mossy seeps and waterfall splash zones, places with clean cold water where they can find refuge year round. Despite extensive searches across Columbia County, to this point we had only found this species in 12 locations.

Past the spring we turned off onto a lesser-used logging road that connected to our destination. It was clear that this road had not been traveled in some time, a “dead road” in surveyor parlance.

logging road to Big Spring, Mist columbia county oregon

I love dead roads. You don’t have to worry about trucks coming up behind you and wildlife is more active when people haven’t been around. Plus there is a certain beauty as you watch the forest reclaim the throughway, making it its own again.

Indeed, soon the road began to look less like a road…

logging road to Big Spring, Mist columbia county oregon

the obstacles got larger…

logging road to Big Spring, Mist columbia county oregon

and landslides began to wipe out the path altogether.

logging road to Big Spring, Mist columbia county oregon

As the journey got tougher, it became more enjoyable. Those restricted to the beaten path don’t know the peace of taking a road that hasn’t been driven for thirty years or more, of traveling routes where you can be sure you won’t encounter another human being so long as you’re on it. The wind whipped, the fog rolled in, whatever village lay on the other side of the mountain might have been Mist or it might have been Middle Earth.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The wetness brought an abundance of growth. Fungi, salamanders, and streams proliferate under the clouds.

Of course we still had a destination in mind, the enigmatic “Big Spring” that had been marked on the map. Two miles from where we had left, GPS showed that we had arrived. It was anticlimactic. We broke out onto an active logging road, located the targeted destination, and found….nothing. Just another logging road on an unremarkable reprod hillside with no water in sight.

big spring logging road reprod mist

Searching the area didn’t reveal any spring or anything that looked like it could ever be a spring. The topography was wrong.

Lucas and I retraced our steps, and about 700 feet away we did find a small stream rushing down the hillside.

big spring stream mist

Was this our Big Spring? Les Watters of the Columbia County Museum Association later told me that the name may have originated with a logging camp or railroad in the distant past. Seven hundred feet isn’t too big a miss on a map that was probably copied from a map that was copied from a map. We could have fought through the tangles of vine maple and devil’s club to see where the spring originated, but it looked like more trouble than it was worth and thus we turned around.

Mist descended as we made our way back on the dead road.

dead road near Mist logging

The return journey was faster than the entrance and passed without incident. Did we find Big Spring? We’re not even sure. But we found a little spring full of torrent salamanders, a beautiful dead road, and an adventure for the day.

Here’s to the next week’s adventure, no matter what the destination.

Published by Jonathan

Educator, Herpetologist, Hiker.

2 thoughts on “Failing to find Mist’s Big Spring

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