Journey to the Dark Grove: One of Oregon's Wildest Unprotected Places

It was a little over a year since I’d moved to Oregon from DC, and a little over two months since my last hike, when my husband and I decided to join Oregon Wild’s staff on their excursion into the proposed Devil’s Staircase Wilderness to the Dark Grove. I had recently joined the Oregon Wild board and consequently knew about this hike the staff would be going on. Jason Gonzales, Oregon Wild’s Coast Range organizer, had sent a description and a quick google search on the wilderness appealed to me immediately. I was in. No shorts or jeans; carry gloves if you have them; and hiking boots instead of shoes, were instructed. This should have hinted at what lay ahead… 
The drive to Devil’s Staircase wilderness took us through some rugged, unpaved forest roads. It was beautiful, and at some places when sunlight dappled through the trees, it transformed the forest into a magical place, where a fairy might appear from behind a tree stump. 
My husband and I met the group and we drove to the location. We all parked and piled into the 3 cars that could navigate the last couple of miles to the “trailhead”. There, geared with food, water, gloves, and ignorant excitement, I started down a shrubby, overgrown path, following Oregon Wild staffer Chandra LeGue. It quickly became clear this hike was going to be difficult. As we started, the trail was barely visible under the arching shrubs. It was obvious that this wasn’t like hikes I had been on. However, so far it wasn’t too unexpected. 

Chandra stopped, fourteen (including Molly the dog) of us collected around her, and after basic hiking instructions from her we crawled under a portal…or in lay speak, a thick low leafy branch, into the Wilderness! The trail, which I didn’t realize until we were much into the hike, was an elk trail! Barely visible to amateur hikers and with no regard to the bipedalism of humans, this trail progressed down an extremely steep hill, refusing to alleviate the nearly vertical declines with switchbacks. I progressed downhill, first on my legs, eventually, giving in to the gradient and my inexperience in exploring untouched wilderness, I lowered myself and sat while navigating the especially steep bits. 
All around us, old-growth trees rose up, towering. To be in the presence of such magnificence overpowers any hiking discomfort. Thick underbrush covered the forest floor and the trail we were following. Even with people in front and behind me, I lost my way more than once. I turned my eyes away, from the person ahead, to take in the beauty of the trees and forest that had absorbed me. As I turned back to follow the trail, the person and trail had both, faded into the forest. “Which way do I go? It looks identical!” I sit here, writing this post, so I made it out. Those behind me could see the trail. I’m convinced the staff at Oregon Wild has superpowers. 
When we made it to flat land, among a collection of old–growth trees and fallen trunks, we relaxed and refueled. With the comfort of stability, we were able to really take in the diversity, beauty, and incredible power of the wilderness that surrounded us. Navigating over, under, and around tree trunks, roots, and branches had brought us here. How unfortunate would it be to lose such raw, rugged, diversity rich areas of old growth to the financial greed of timber companies? 

Rested, we proceeded to our next stop, along the banks of Wassen Creek. Our hike to the creek was relatively flat and allowed us the energy to go off course when some people in the group spotted bones. Part of an elk skeleton lay on the leafy forest floor and we gathered around it with fascination. A broken arrow by its side suggested how the elk met its end. 
As we proceeded down the trail, the soft babbling of the creek greeted us. We explored around the creek, settling into peaceful enclaves on rocks and branches, to let the calm and beauty flow over us. While we could have stayed there for hours, we still had to get to the Dark Grove.
Most of the way to the Dark Grove was regular, as regular as Devils Staircase Wilderness permits, that is. For the final stretch, Chandra gathered all of us and explained what lay ahead. We had to climb a fallen tree trunk that had probably been 300 years old when it fell. Once on the trunk, it served as a bridge. While walking across it, I noticed there were trees growing in the shallow ravine under it. At the end of the trunk, its root cluster was about 15 feet in diameter! At the cluster, we had to navigate our way down about 10 feet, with no foot holds, and then, we’d be in the Dark Grove! Navigating off the trunk was by no means dainty. I, however, didn’t navigate it. I just slipped and bounced my limbs off tree limbs, eventually finding a hold and stabilizing myself. I would do it again, for the magnificence that we saw in the grove. 
Surrounded by trees that seemingly reached the heavens, we explored by the light gently dappling through the thick foliage. Here, in the middle of the forest, we looked around in awe of nature. Trunks so wide, five of us could easily hide behind one tree. On the fern draped forest floor, fallen moss-carpeted trunks lay creating spaces to rest, play, and explore, as one might desire. Standing there, once again, I was reminded how little and insignificant we are, in the face of the strength, majesty, and endurance of these trees. 
It was hard to leave the grove, but the rest of the journey lay ahead of us, back to our cars and back to the banality of paved paths and living beings under 100 years of age. As we ascended back to the trail head, I started to feel gratitude for the opportunity to explore such beauty, and started thinking about how I got here. One year ago, when I moved to Oregon, I knew I wanted to get more involved with the protection of the environment. Oregon Wild was the first organization I encountered through their Wild Ones events. As my network grew in Eugene, I only heard wonderful things about Oregon Wild. So, when the opportunity for being recommended to be a board member at Oregon Wild came up, I was at once, on ‘board’. Sometimes in life, your paths and directions converge, and you get to get lost in a forest.