The North Umpqua River slides over a basalt cliff and descends 165-feet in a braid of white, water and mist mingling on a mossy face. The water that feeds this stream originates on the slopes of Mt. Thielsen and in the northern forests of Crater Lake National Park. As it cuts its Cascade path down towards the Coast Range and eventually the Pacific, the Umpqua has many grand descents over precipices and many series of rolling rapids that beckon rafters to join in. Here, though, nearer to the source, it makes it greatest drop. The North Umpqua rushes over the brink at the back of an amphitheater, thus creating Lemolo Falls.
It’s been a grand hike to get to this spot. Our path along the North Umpqua River rolled up and down through the verdure of this cool June morning as it led us downstream to this point where the river loses elevation with haste. The original trail delivered us to a point above the falls on the opposite side of the river. The views were lovely, but we sought a clearer vista. The 20-year-old guidebook mentioned a log crossing upstream, and I couldn’t resist the tempting call of bushwhacking our way over. Across the current we went, then picked a path upslope through the rhododendron til we met a proper trail. That new trail brought us here, and it’s clear that the destination was worth the effort.
Like waterfalls throughout the Pacific Northwest, Lemolo Falls is pulsing with the melted snows of an above-average Cascade winter. Sure, the river here is regulated by a dam upstream, but that reservoir is filled nearly to the brink and the current courses mightily over columnar basalt here at the North Umpqua’s greatest drop. This waterfall’s name, Lemolo, is an old Chinook jargon word meaning wild or untamed. In a cruel twist, the river today is in some ways neither of those things. Its power has been harnessed and its flows controlled by our electrified desires, but glimpses of that original lemolo remain.
The thunder of the falls fills this densely vegetated amphitheater with a soundtrack that has played here for a very long time. Spray from the foot of Lemolo radiates out and coats every tree, rock, and slug in a beaded mist of cold, fresh moisture. A dipper lands on a rock downstream an commences with the movements that gave him his name, bobbing up and down as he spies for insects. Across the Umpqua a 200-foot and nearly-vertical slope rises steadily above the watercourse. We were up there just a while ago, and from that height I had wondered if there was an easy way down over there. From my new view, it’s clear that there is not.
We have this pacific northwest wonderland all to ourselves. We were alone at the trailhead, and we have encountered no other mammals, let alone humans, as we have trekked downstream. This is what my dreams are made of: solitude in the presence of inescapable beauty. The dam seems far away from this wild enclave, and I can dislocate this place from time as I stare into the mist. Take away the trail and there is no indication of when we are; there is only where we are. Where we are is in a thriving conifer forest. Where we are is on the banks of a lively and transparent river. Where we are has a view of spectacular waterfall pouring forth from a mighty range of volcanic peaks. Where we are still feels lemolo.