Foiled by ice in the Columbia River Gorge

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I would have loved the waterfalls. At least that’s what my sister Laura told me as we turned around less than a mile into our hike on the Eagle Creek Trail in the Columbia River Gorge, 40 miles east of Portland. After crossing several patches of black ice over a 60-foot drop into a rushing river — and listening to a string of turned-around hikers describe the trail ahead — we joined the parade of bundled up people and sweatered dogs heading back to the parking lot.

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Laura on a vigorous hike

Good thing, too. On the descent, my right foot slipped on a patch of ice, sending me hurling toward the ground. Rather than busting, though, I caught myself in the deepest lunge I’ve ever done. My left knee hovered a mere centimeter from the ice for a few seconds before I pulled myself up and recovered my composure.

“Not the Eagle Creek Trail you’re used to, is it?” asked a member of the Forest Service crew working on the trail, passing us by with a chainsaw balanced over his shoulder.

Under less-icy circumstances, it would have been a great hike:  The Eagle Creek Trail climbs 13 miles to Wahtum Lake along the wall of the gorge, passing through forests of moss- and fern-covered conifers and by a number of waterfalls, including Punchbowl Falls (15 feet high, two miles from the trailhead) and Tunnel Falls (100 feet high, six miles in). We’ll definitely go back  when it’s warmer.

On the way home, Laura and I stopped at Multnomah Falls, a 620-foot waterfall along the side of Interstate 84 — the second-highest year-round falls in the United States and one of 77 falls on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge.

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The scene wasn’t much better. We hiked a quarter mile up a paved path to take in the view from the arched bridge beneath the falls, and upon arrival, found a chaos of people sliding around the icy structure, holding onto fence posts, trash cans, anything that would keep their legs under them (the highway signs are true, bridges DO ice first). I clobbered a 12-year-old while trying to make my way past her along a fence. People clung helpless to the handrails as they tried to secure their footing. Grown men bowled over their children. Laura caught the tiny woman who came flying at her.

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Fortunately, everyone present thought the situation was hilarious. And the falls was spectacular as well.

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