This September was the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, and to mark the occasion, my friend Zach Urness, an outdoors journalist for the Statesman Journal, published a fantastic article on the Devil's Staircase proposed wilderness. It was one of many articles to celebrate the milestone of federal foresight being commemorated this year, but it was definitely one of my favorites. I was struck by the intersection of beauty, ruggedness, and inspiration that Devil's Staircase had to offer. Many a group searching for the hidden waterfall that gives the proposed wilderness area its name had found themselves lost and disoriented in the dense, trail-free forest surrounding Wassen Creek.
Devil's Staircase Waterfall is easier to reach in the summer. The breathtaking waterfall sends Wassen Creek down a series of stair steps, each about 5 feet high. It's called Devil's Staircase because getting there means bushwhacking for 4 miles through old-growth and frequently dense understory. The grueling experience includes scrambling over logs, getting on hands and knees to push through tree limbs, and falling on your butt too many times to count as you descend steep ravines. The short distance in is misleading; it takes a full day to get there, even if you know the way. Traveling there in the summer may mean extra daylight for the trek, but it also means a lower water level. Wassen Creek is fed entirely by rainfall, and in the summer, the waterfall slows to a trickle. Hoping to see the waterfall in it's full glory after the start of fall rain, I assembled a group of people just crazy enough to make the trip with me. Together with Anzelina Coodey, a map maker for Outdoor Project, and her husband Nathaniel, we were joined by Chandra LeGue and Marielle Cowdin from Oregon Wild, and Vik Anantha, an Oregon Wild board member. Cameron Derbyshire, a Physician's Assistant living in Florence, Oregon, had visited the falls many times and offered to serve as our guide.
We met up with Cameron at a small campground along the Smith River, a short drive from the logging roads that would take us to our trailhead. Cameron's story, as he related it to us on our hike into the waterfall, is one of critical import for those of us who work to promote the benefits of exploring the outdoors. He grew up in Cottage Grove on Oregon's I-5 corridor. The town of roughly 10,000 people is just south of Eugene, Oregon's second largest city. Nearly a decade ago, Cameron signed up to hike into the Devil's Staircase on a trip planned by Oregon Wild. The trip was unsuccessful; they never made it to the falls. But, with a goal in mind, Cameron wasn't dissuaded, and he found some friends to try a second time. This time they were successful, and he began exploring the area in earnest. Cameron joined the expedition group with Oregon Field Guide that hiked into the waterfall in 2009 to feature the area on the television show. When a job opportunity later opened up in Florence, Cameron made the move to be closer to his beloved forest wilderness. This hiking trip was, by his count, his 39th time exploring the wilderness area and his 10th trip to see the waterfall. While many people go into a four-walled building for weekend religious ceremonies, Cameron makes his trips back to the misty forests of Devil's Staircase, and he freely shares his love and knowledge of the place with those he takes in with him.
Much has been written about the history of the area, and why Devil's Staircase proposed wilderness hasn't been logged. It sits in the northwestern quadrant of Douglas County at the southern end of Siuslaw National Forest. This part of Oregon was sustained by logging for much of the 20th century, but because of the steep, difficult access along Wassen Creek, approximately 20,000 acres of pristine old-growth forest remains in its original state. It's a place of huge Douglas firs, western redcedars, hemlocks, rhododendrons, countless ferns, and at this time of year, a panoply of mushrooms littering the forest floor.
This area is not currently protected from logging. It has come close to being logged many times, and it has also been close to getting the wilderness designation that would ensure it remains in its current state for a long time to come. A walk through the dense forest is a wilderness experience in its purest form.
Oregon has 47 wilderness areas comprising roughly 2.5 million acres, four percent of state lands. I've had the opportunity to visit many of these areas, hiking along their trails and sleeping under the stars in backcountry campsites. And yet, as incredible as all of those areas are, nothing felt as wild as the hike to the Devil's Staircase. Howard Zahniser, author of The Wilderness Act, defined wilderness as:
an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.
Point for point, each defined characteristic captures the essence of the Devil's Staircase to perfection. Through a combination of luck and challenging terrain, it has never met the pull of humanity's hunger for resources. In a place with a history that can be told through centuries of logging and settlement, this area remains pristine.
Wilderness protection for Devil's Staircase is around the corner. Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkeley, and Congressman Peter DeFazio, have all taken the time and made the effort to get to Devil's Staircase Waterfall. It's one of areas on the top of the list to receive federal protection, depending on congressional approval. With Cameron's help, we made the trip in and out with the drenched clothing, sore muscles, bumps and bruises to show for it. We also left with smiles on our faces and hugs all around, and a knowledge that the Devil's Staircase in particular, and more areas like it, need our voices to broadcast its message: "leave me as I am and I will be here for you, your kids, and your kid's kids."
Lastly, we won't be adding Devil's Staircase Waterfall to Outdoor Project. Too many people have gotten lost and disoriented in this area free of trails to risk providing everyone with a map of the route. Experience wayfinding and off-trail hiking in dense forest is a must, even with a map and compass. However, we are happy to point you to the folks like Cameron who take visitors into the area. Cascadia Wildlands and Oregon Wild both lead trips into the proposed wilderness area, or feel free to contact us at Outdoor Project for more information as well.