The sun was a half-hour shy of the western horizon when I followed an elk into a grove on a mountainside above Lemolo Lake, in southern Oregon’s Umpqua National Forest. A few steps from the road, the forest dimmed to a cathedral-like murkiness as the canopy, held aloft by tremendous columns of pine, filtered out the angled sunlight. I picked my way through thickets of rhododendron and scrambled over hurdles of blown-down trees whose trunks and limbs, although long dead, dripped with lush life.
I lost the elk just as I came across a perfect camping spot, a flat shelf at the base of a tremendous Douglas fir. Its crown was lost in the darkness above, but its 7-foot-diameter trunk established it as a grand-elder in a forest of old-timers. At this altitude–about 4,500 feet–a Douglas fir needs at least 500 years to get this big. Of course, the only way to verify its age would be to count its rings; an undertaking that would, in the very near future, become all too feasible.
I had come to this grove, at the headwaters of the North Umpqua River, to document the final days of a doomed old-growth forest. I was directed here by Francis Eatherington of Umpqua Watersheds, an environmental group that had pursued lawsuits, advocacy, and lobbying to save this stand of trees. But now, the final appeals have been exhausted; the logging roads have been built; the perimeters have been surveyed; and the trees have been marked for cutting.