Eugene Weekly : Outdoors : 11.15.07

Get Wet
Trek to Wassen Creek, Oregon’s old-growth Mecca

It’s tricky recommending hikes in November and December, when there’s a good chance people who take my advice will be soaked by winter rain showers. My solution is to recommend a hike that guarantees you’ll be soaked to the skin and probably also tumble headfirst down an 80-degree slope … thus removing any awkward uncertainty about what you’re getting into.

Wassen Creek

I know of many epic off-trail outdoor adventures to be had in Oregon. I never write about them and rarely even talk about them, except to my closest friends, and only when they’re buying me a lot of drinks. This is because I am extraordinarily greedy when it comes to solitude. I do not want people to go to the remote places I like.

I reveal one of my most closely guarded secret spots in this column only because (surprise, surprise) the Bush administration is proposing to log it. I would be delighted if you would visit. I will even take you there myself (read on). I am envisioning an epic (defined by Webster’s as “impressive by virtue of greatness of size, scope or heroism”) outdoor adventure (picture Marlow’s quest for Kurtz in Heart of Darkness) to locate a fabled, almost mythical Oregon Coast Range landmark — the Devil’s Staircase, down which tumbles Wasseen Creek. Your safe return is anticipated but not assured.

Where is Wassen Creek? Wassen lies between the Smith and Umpqua Rivers in one of the most remote and inaccessible regions of the impenetrable rainforest that is the Oregon Coast Range.

What’s Wassen like? Sherry Wellborn, editor of the Oregon Coast Range Wilderness (published in 1982 and now a collector’s item — thanks Bob, for my copy) says of Wassen Creek: “Rated on a scale of one to 10, for both beauty and hiking difficulty, Wassen Creek wilderness scores 20+.”

Wassen Creek is ridiculously rugged, jammed full of giant trees and lush underbrush. Its numerous tributaries spill over steep canyon walls in a series of silvery cascades. The most outstanding feature of the area is “The Devil’s Staircase,” where the creek spills over a half dozen sandstone benches into deep, bathtub-sized pools.

If there were any justice, or sense, or sense of justice in the world, the 19,000 acres of roadless forest surrounding Wassen Creek would long since have been protected by Congress as wilderness. In 1984, the U.S. House of Representatives included Wassen Creek in the Oregon Wilderness Bill it passed. But our then-Congressman Jim Weaver was forced by Mark Hatfield to choose between Wassen Creek or another equally deserving roadless area in southern Oregon.

“Weaver loved them both,” says Andy Stahl, a local conservationist who brought the first ever lawsuit to stop logging in spotted owl habitat not far from Wassen Creek, “but the southern Oregon tract was at the time under more imminent threat of logging.”

Until recently, Wassen was administratively protected from logging as an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern” (ACEC) in the Bureau of Land Management’s forest plan for the area. But in the Bush administration’s proposed Western Oregon Plan Revision (WOPR), both the ACEC and the spotted owl critical habitat designation that protect the area will both be dropped. Clearcutting and roadbuilding could soon follow.

As I said earlier, I would love to show the area to you in person. I will be leaving from the Kinko’s parking lot on 13th and Willamette at 8:30 am on Sunday, Dec. 2, in the company of Mr. Stahl, the Cascadia Wildlands Project’s Josh Laughlin and other hardy souls. If you’d like to join us (or would like directions to visit on your own), please call me at 484-2692 or email This hike will be extraordinarily strenuous. And wet. It will be worth it.

Wassen should be wilderness. With your help, it will be. Stay tuned.