Yearly Visit(s) to Rowena Crest’s Grass Widows

Rowena Crest

Is one of my favorite places in the world

In the spring of 1998, I was the organizer of classes and outings for a small non-profit. My volunteers directed me to lead a series of hikes, including one to Rowena Crest on the third Saturday of April. I explained I was still too new to Oregon and felt uncomfortable leading. They said they’d bring help, they were simply too tired dealing with the logistics. In the end, our group included:
– Russ Jolley (author of the book, Plants of the Columbia River Gorge),
– Jack Poff (gardener for Mrs. Berry, Mrs. Leach, and the garden where I worked),
– Dick Thoms (Emeritus Professor of Geology at PSU) and his wife,
– Chris Thoms (herpetologist).
– and multiple old-time Native Plant Society of Oregon plant enthusiasts including Molly Grothaus, Louise Godfrey, and Betsy Becker (also a gardener)

I was excited and nervous at the Troutdale truck stop, our meeting location.

I knew it was going to be a good day;
I had no idea how good.

A truck came in to the truck stop, covered in snow. One of the participants loudly complained to me  that I needed to re-schedule the trip or refund everyone’s money for I was leading the group on a dangerous and insane mission:  “it’s snowing in the Cascades!”

I was dubious, but also knew my place in the group as the youngest and least experienced with Oregon. I’d lived in Oregon about 1 year; up until then my experience was 100% Michigan–where an April snowfall was never more than a last parting gift from Jack Frost, amounting at most to some fun slushy flakes and then a quick melt to mud. Gardener Jack Poff called his friend Annie, (for those of you who know the scenic highway, you’ve probably seen the sign “Annie’s Apricots” 2 miles east of Mosier on the way to Rowena) and soon reported, “there are a few flakes at Cascade Locks; in Mosier, it’s sunny and warm.”

So off we went.
Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow.

It was a walk that opened my eyes to the plant diversity of the Gorge. And the balsamroots and lupine weren’t even out yet. The diversity and beauty was mind boggling. True, the biggest hit with the crowd was when Chris found a tree frog (hard to compete with charismatic fauna when you’re a plant), but I still came from the day back walking on air. For days. And it was only April (!). The wildflower season was just getting started.

Ever since, I’ve visited Rowena Crest at least 3 or 4 times a year. Sometimes with a camera. Sometimes with a notebook. Sometimes just me and a bicycle (left locked at the trailhead). Often it’s so windy, it’s nearly impossible to take sharp plant photos with any depth of field.

My main message today is this:

Every spring, when the mega flora (balsam root and lupine) are blooming, photographers tromp out, trampling the “grass” and “meadow” of “lawn” and spread their gear, dig up plants, scrunch up the earth and lie on top of the amazing tiny plants that have already bloomed and are trying to store up energy for next March and April.

Please don’t be that photographer.

Stay on the trail. Every year, the trail gets wider and wider and wider. And when you go off trail to take that perfect shot of Mt. Hood, the river, and the flowers, you’re trampling really cool plants under your feet. It’s like you’re so focused on the sky scrapers, you’re killing the pedestrians, cyclists and downtown traffic. If we all walked off the trail out into the “grass” like you are doing, these little guys will be killed.

Many of these flowers are tiny. They bloom before the balsamroot and lupine. Unfortunately, when they’re not blooming, people who don’t know any better probably think they’re just “weeds” or “grass” or turf-like plants that can take compaction.

I was lucky. I was introduced to this site and its diminutive treasures by generous, kind, patient folk who passed their knowledge on to me, a young enthusiastic transplant. We literally crawled along the trail. Delighting in these minute flowers, their pollinators, their colors and fragrance and uniqueness.
Many of those who accompanied me that day have passed away. I am lucky to have known them briefly and to have spent that day with them in a place we all treasured. It’s great the megaflora shots get people interested in Rowena Crest; but we can really honor the legacy of the people who fought to save the Gorge by fighting now for the little plants. The ones that you need to lie on the ground to really see.

On the trail with us that day – a generation of native plant advocates

Molly Grothaus died May 10, 2000 – it was her idea to create a seedbank of rare and endangered plants — the first in the world — here in Portland, OR
Chris Thoms died October 4, 2002 – the co-author of Amphibians of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia: A Field Identification Guide
Jack Poff died, April 9, 2011 – his troughs and gardening hand can still be seen today at Leach Botanic Garden and at Bishop’s Close.
Russ Jolley died August 24, 2011. – he knew the gorge better than anyone. Ever.
Others who were on that hike are getting up in years or may have also passed on. What I do know is that they were an amazing generation and I don’t think we’ve come close to filling their shoes.

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