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Hiking Pipe Fork Creek and the Ancient Forest

by Chas Rogers

As I walk along the sparkling waters of Pipe Fork Creek the refreshing cool air gives way to giant old fir and cedar trees that dot the streamside and fill my vision with awe. Deep grooves in the bark hide the holes where woodpeckers must have dug out a meal. The mound of earth at the giant base rises up from the ground like an eruption into the tree’s trunk over 6 feet in diameter and the feel of the massive weight of this behemoth is breathtaking as it reaches its canopy to the sky over a hundred feet above the stream. Just below, the waters of Pipe Fork Creek lazily flows over rocky step pools and fallen logs on its way to the Williams Valley and the Applegate River. 

Pipe Fork is an ancient canyon that rises from the valley to the flanks of Sugarloaf Peak where numerous springs and wetlands feed the clear waters that flow consistently through the deep green forests. Incense, red and Port Orford cedar, fir, oak and maple fill the landscapes, growing along with madrone, Pacific yew, valley live oak, chinquapin, and alder, finding their place amongst the giants. This family of trees covers the landscape and supports the vibrant growth of ferns, Oregon grape, ocean spray, vine maple and a rich variety of rare and endemic florae. Home to the easternmost range of the stately Port Orford Cedar, Pipe Fork lies adjacent to the Pipe Fork Research Natural Area established by BLM to protect the headwaters and ancient Port Orford Cedars found growing there.  

The struggle to survive is great and the giants dominate while the young trees take their place among the scattered hillsides and streambanks. The forest floor gives way as I walk, like a sponge that has grown into a carpet of moss and lichen. Fallen logs lay everywhere, losing their ability to stand and search for the sky, as they decay into the ground to build the base of the soil that gives the forest life. This is the struggle of the forest that is so important in the cycle of life here.

Jon above falls

Hiking upstream is a delight and a challenge and the going is slow. Climbing and slipping along wet rocks and fallen logs, I encounter the first of the falls that cascade over the lip and pounds the base below. Deep pools are formed in the rock ledges and grooves. Bands of quartz and feldspar cut across the stream channel in what seems like a lightning bolt swallowed by the torrent of water. Scrambling upstream there are more falls and pools, each larger than the last, in a line of giant steps climbing the mountain as the water from Pipe Fork Creek forms ribbons and chutes with the sounds of splashing on its way down.

Giant yew on rocks

Pipe Fork is in danger of clearcutting by the Josephine County Forestry Department and this ancient habitat could be heavily impacted. If the forest canopy is opened, the summer heat waves would dry and bake the south facing slopes and the land would die slowly, resulting in increased fire danger, erosion, landslides and the loss of vital habitat and streamflow reducing the water quantity and quality for the future. 

Ferns in creek

The Community of Williams has taken this threat seriously and the Williams Community Forest Project and the Williams Creek Watershed Council have mobilized to save this amazing environment. After submitting over 500 letters and holding numerous community meetings with the County Commissioners we now know that the only way to save the Pipe Fork is by purchasing and acquiring the land. We are seeking conservation groups to join with us in protecting our watershed by purchasing the Pipe Fork property until we find a permanent land holder.

Clear cut

Pipe Fork is a beautiful place to behold and the fresh clear waters, the falls and pools, the magnificent giant trees and lush undergrowth call to us all. This is a sanctuary  for human visitors and home for the native wildlife of bears, mountain lions, fishers, elk, and deer. Fish and salamanders in pools and gravel bars abound, as well as the magnificent ferns, understory plants and the giant trees that tower above them all. We must save this landscape for its beauty and atmosphere that soothes the soul and relaxes the mind and for the precious water that flows from the mountains and feeds the salmon bearing streams and fills the aquifers downstream for the farms and people of Williams.