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Exploring Oregon’s forests: A wintry waterfall hike

Tucked in the deep western side of the Oregon’s Cascade Range is a world that can be described as “clamorous serenity,” at Sahalie and Koosah falls. 

The falls are in the Willamette National Forest off Highway 126, about 75 miles east of Eugene. Known as the McKenzie Highway, 126 runs parallel to the McKenzie River, all the way to its source at Clear Lake. A visit to Sahalie and Koosah – spectacular waterfalls nestled in a lush Douglas-fir forest – is one of the many highlights along the route that showcase Oregon’s natural beauty.

Wooden sign on tree that reads "Waterfall Trail."

On a recent winter Saturday, I hiked through the forest to view the magnificent falls. There are more than 70 miles of road from Eugene before you get to Sahalie and Koosah. It’s worth every mile. After leaving the industrial strip of Springfield, the road mellows. Low, verdant Willamette foothills nestle the communities of Walterville, Leaburg and Vida. The scars of the 2020 wildfires still permeate the higher foothills. Patches of reforested saplings trim the evergreen horizon as the hills ripple in the background. The tumbling McKenzie River alongside the road reminds visitors of the inclining journey. The town of McKenzie Bridge is the last stop before the true climb into the Cascades. 

As I approached the mountains, cars bound for Central Oregon followed the highway’s curve to the north, tracking on pavement peppered white with fresh snowflakes. The forest slowly swallowed the space flanking the road as I hit an elevation of 2,000 feet. Out the driver’s-side window, a brown and yellow sign signaled my first destination: Sahalie Falls.

Snowman in the forest.

The metropolis of Douglas-firs that awaited me was bustling with life. Entering the forest from the highway requires cautious tiptoeing to reach the trailhead. Smiling faces returning from an adventure with star-struck eyes ascended the trail to the busy parking lot. The water’s rush became audible as I stomped down on the icy snow and grabbed the mossy railings. Then, following the camera flashes beyond the snowy cliffs, I saw Sahalie Falls. The behemoth roar was inescapable as the whitewater ripped through adolescent trees and scalloped cliffs, misting the slick green rocks below. Undisturbed, decomposing fallen trees hugged the moss and snow in the shallow river valley. It was hard to imagine what else could hide in this winter wonderland. 

Waterfall with snow-covered rocks surrounding it.

Sahalie Falls is an exciting start to the Waterfall Trail hike. “Sahalie” is a Chinook word for “high.” Navigating the snowy path required stepping into the foot-size impressions and grabbing the thin trees for balance. It would be easy to become a victim of gravity on the icy layer of snow covering the trail. It felt like a narrow busy street, with the rush of the McKenzie River like rush-hour traffic and the towering trees like skyscrapers. I stomped down the center of the trail, occasionally stepping too far to one side and finding my lower leg swallowed by the snow. Luckily, the younger trees along the trail guided my direction. Trees filled with heavy clumps of snow escorted me along the trail of muddy rocks and hemlocks. Eventually I saw the familiar sight of a mossy banister. 

Waterfall with split flows surrounded by trees.

After drinking in the majesty of Sahalie, I continued until I recognized the echoes ahead. I eased around the corner to see Douglas-firs projecting from the cliffs. I assumed any root damage might cause a long drop into the pool below. The evergreen facade eventually faded and revealed Koosah Falls. The Chinook translation of “Koosah” describes the heavenly descent of the water from the sky. The twin falls flooded the mossy river bottom. The double-trouble mist caused cloudy turbulence, as if to shield what hides behind. I reflected, perched on a damp wooden bench as the smell of conifers filled my nose. The tumultuous river and the immovable forest in this world of serenity contrast with the natural clamorous environment. There’s peace in the balance of chaos and tranquility. I took a moment to pause and reflect on this symbolism. Breathe in, breathe through, breathe deep, breathe out. This was the good life.

Sign that says "Willamette National Forest viewpoint Sahalie Falls

Oregon’s forests are amazing. To check out this breathtaking hike for yourself, learn more here

Trey Pokorney
Social Media & Outreach Intern 

Get to know our new intern

Hello! My name is Trey Pokorney. I’m the Oregon Forest Resources Institute’s new social media intern. I help with managing and creating content for our accounts on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and TikTok.

I grew up in rural Minnesota, in a small town of 2,500 people. With not too many diversions, I spent most of my childhood playing in forests, snowbanks and rivers. I helped my family on the farm, and it taught me the importance of hard work and how we’re interconnected with our environment. There was one thing I felt especially connected to: trees. I would go on walks and identify every type of tree I found along the way. Trees are like living monuments; there’s something so spectacular about them.

In high school I volunteered as a camp counselor with the University of Minnesota 4-H Extension. I loved camp counseling, because it gave me opportunities to pass along my appreciation for connecting to nature to the campers. I also taught outdoor programs focusing on wildlife, outdoor skills and exploration. These life experiences shaped my personality and the work I want to do. 

I’m currently a college junior, majoring in business administration and marketing, and minoring in multimedia, at the University of Oregon. (Go Ducks!)

Since moving to Eugene for college, I’ve really enjoyed my time here in Oregon. Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascades, Eugene and the surrounding Willamette Valley have amazing natural beauty and a diverse array of forests. Exploring is one of my favorite activities in Oregon. My favorite area I’ve explored is the Cascades. Between the steep snowcapped mountains and the towering Douglas-firs, there’s truly no other place like it! I believe there are always new places, people and activities to discover.

Besides spending time in nature, I’ve always loved creating visual and video content. When I was a kid, I would create movies and slideshows on Windows Movie Maker, about the most random things, and make my family watch them. Then when COVID hit, I created TikToks, Instagram posts and YouTube videos documenting my stuck-at-home hobbies. During my freshmen year at U of O, I joined an improv team called Absolute Improv. Eventually I took an opportunity to manage the club’s social media. I create promotional content advertising the shows, rehearsals and other activities for our comedic club. This gave me the groundwork for social media management and how to market an organization.

My goal after graduation is to work in social media management and marketing for a nature- or outdoor-focused organization. I’d love to work for a state travel agency, or become a travel influencer myself.

I’m looking forward to merging my love of nature with my skills and passion for content creation. I’m beyond excited to be a part of the team here at OFRI.

Please email me with any ideas you have for social media content you’d like us to share, at [email protected]

Thank you!

Trey Pokorney

Social Media & Outreach Intern


Teachers connect in person once again

Teachers as a group are great at sharing ideas and networking. When they attend a conference or training, they often use the time to compare notes on education trends, get support from more experienced colleagues, and brainstorm lesson ideas. The conferences the Oregon Forest Resources Institute’s (OFRI) K-12 education program held for teachers via Zoom during the pandemic made this important professional connection difficult at best. 

After two years of holding our Natural Resources/Career Technical Education Conference for high school teachers over Zoom, we once again held it in person in December at The Oregon Garden in Silverton. The presumption that teachers missed being together was supported by the attendance numbers. Usually about 60 teachers attend, but this year more than 100 from all over the state were there. 

Because we recognize the importance of teachers making connections with each other, getting the most current information and helping their students see the real-world application of the concepts they teach, we applied a new model we hoped would better achieve these objectives.

Traditionally, the conference agenda is driven by whatever session topics are received from a “request for proposals.” For the 2022 conference, we instead asked researchers from Oregon State University to pair up with community college faculty members to deliver a session together. The researcher would present their findings, and then a community college faculty member would model a lesson that aligned with the research. The idea was to give high school teachers the latest information on current issues and research trends, as well insight into how to apply that information in their classroom to support student learning. 

Here are some examples of these sessions that were held during the 2022 conference:

-    A presentation called “Forests According to Pollinators” was about research indicating high pollinator abundance and diversity in intensively managed forests and forests burned by wildfires. The accompanying lesson was on how to do plant and woody-debris surveys, analyzing the data to evaluate the quality of forest habitat for bees and other pollinators.

-    A presentation called “Wildlife of the Forest: Black Bears Denning” looked at results from denning research recently conducted by tracking black bears throughout western Washington and Oregon. The accompanying lesson was on how to use motion-activated cameras to teach the principles of wildlife biology. 

-    A presentation called “A Douglas County Case Study: Archie Creek – A Story of Reforestation, Restoration and Community” examined the impacts of the 2020 Archie Creek Fire and the resulting challenges the community faced with forest recovery. The accompanying lesson was on wildfire recovery in the Douglas-fir forests of western Oregon, and how the tree species is impacted by fire.

Teacher evaluations of the conference were overwhelmingly positive. Most teachers said they were very satisfied with the format of the conference, and their main challenge with the sessions was that they could not attend all of them. They appreciated getting the current research and then learning techniques to use with their students in the field. One teacher noted, “I like to sit and absorb information, and then do an activity.”

OFRI worked closely with the Oregon Natural Resources Education Program in designing and delivering the conference. The conference is a requirement of the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) for schools that have an accredited Natural Resources Program of Study. These schools must meet specific ODE requirements, including providing at least two high school credits specific to natural resource education. 

The conference also attracts teachers from other content areas, including those who focus on biology, agriculture and environmental science. While their attendance is not mandatory, it’s a great way they can learn about forests and other natural resources, as well as ways to integrate those topics into their curriculum.  

Norie Dimeo-Ediger
Director of K-12 Programs

Gimme shelter

The three basic elements required for animal survival are food, water and shelter. Like us, wild critters need protection from the elements, and a place that provides a bit of safety and security in an otherwise tough world. 

The truth is, wild animals are more often than not living their lives on a razor’s edge. Whether carnivore or herbivore, if the daily requirements of those three basic survival elements are not met – even just once or twice – it can be game over. All this sobering information is intended to highlight the importance of animals having access to quality habitat on a given landscape. Fortunately for both wildlife and landowners, supplementing habitat in the form of pile structures is simple, and it’s one of the top management tools available, according to the Woodland Fish and Wildlife Group

A habitat pile is often referred to as a “brush pile,” although there’s ideally a bit more technique involved than just piling brush. It’s a structure made of woody material that’s designed and built to provide effective and long-lasting refuge for wildlife in a place where the natural habitat features they’d normally use may be lacking. Habitat piles can be as basic as piled brush, piled stumps or piled logging debris (“slash”) that’s retained, but there are a couple suggested pile designs that allow just about anyone to provide their resident wildlife with a high-quality structure to rest, roost, nest and nap for years.


A "wild and messy" forest with plenty of natural down wood habitat


It’s important to state that there is no single correct way to make a habitat pile; here we’ll follow the guidelines suggested by the Northwest Natural Resource Group. The first design is for a habitat pile that somewhat resembles a messy log cabin once it’s completed, and its function is similar as well. Aim for a structure that’s about 10 feet wide and 6 feet tall. This pile will be a safe haven for any brush or wood-loving species. Chipmunks, rabbits, weasels, elk, deer, bears, coyotes, grouse, towhees, thrushes, woodpeckers, snakes, lizards or just about any critter in the woods can make use of one of these structures.

Starting with the largest-diameter logs or limbs (4” across or larger), build the base of the structure by laying wood pieces on the ground parallel to one another, with gaps between them. Gaps allow wildlife to enter and exit. Next, take another set of similar pieces and lay them on top of the base, perpendicular to those first logs. Repeat that pattern until the structure has close to six feet of height to it, then top it off with a roof of smaller limbs and brush at least 18” deep. Remember to think “log cabin.” 
The resulting habitat pile will have a sturdy build with lots of interior space and a brushy roof to keep it cozy inside. Try to build at least two or three of these structures per acre, spacing them out about a hundred feet from each other. Place them near water and food sources, or where a little extra warming or shade might be beneficial.


A habitat pile built in the "log cabin" style with logs stacked on top of each other and sticks piled on top.


Keep in mind that these structures are flammable, so don’t place them close to anything valuable in case of a fire. Also, keep an eye out for pest activity, though it’s unlikely these piles will have a major impact on pests. In this article the Washington State Department of Natural Resources recommends not piling green Douglas-fir or ponderosa pine, especially larger pieces, between January and August, to avoid potential issues with bark beetles. As long as these safety tips are heeded, there’s no real wrong way to build this pile. Use what you’ve got! Pallets could work as a base, or even stones. Try a triangular frame instead of a square, if you’re short on logs.


Different species of wildlife captured in front of the habitat pile, including a bear, coyote, deer and elk.


The second suggested design is meant to simulate a large log lying on the ground. Large down wood is important to ground-dwelling animals that need moisture, such as amphibians, mollusks and arthropods. Plants and fungi thrive on them, exploiting the nutrients as they decay. These log surrogates are simple structures that use smaller logs brought together to help fill the gap left by the absence of large natural logs.


A large natural down log next to a surrogate log made up of smaller logs held together with sticks on either side.


Aim to create a log structure that’s at least 20 feet long and 2 feet wide. Start by building a crib to hold the individual wood pieces in place, by vertically driving in stakes or branches on both sides, positioned to accommodate your desired length and width. Once the crib is built, fill it with smaller logs stacked together. That’s it! The same safety guidelines noted above apply to surrogate logs as well as log-cabin-style piles, and you can use similar spacing on a surrogate log pile.

There you have it! Two easy structures that can be built out of on-hand material that will provide shelter to wildlife for years, or even a decade with a little maintenance. If the suggestions here aren’t doable, don’t be afraid to simply make a pile, and instead of burning brush or slash, pile it (at least the largest pieces and stumps) a safe distance from structures and just leave it. For tips on what to set aside from slash piles, see this publication from OFRI about managing logging slash piles. The critters will thank you… in their own way, of course.

For more information on habitat piles and other management tools for wildlife habitat, see this article by Northwest Natural Resource Group, as well as this publication about managing wildlife leave trees and this publication about enhancing wildlife habitat on managed forests, both from OFRI.

Jon Cox

Wildlife Technician

Cafferata Consulting, LLC

Photos by Cafferata Consulting, LLC

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