Tumalo in May

Central Oregon’s signature waterfall cuts down through volcanic rock in a valley that once held a river of water in a different material state. Fed by the water locked in snow and ice high above, Tumalo Creek roars over the precipice and then flows through a flat-floored valley lined with conifers and igneous cliff faces. The 97-foot plunge is a wondrous sight year-round, but access outside of summer requires a bit more walking. Every step is worth it, though, when it leads to Tumalo Falls.

Tumalo Falls

It still gets cold at night. Daytime highs are pressing into the seventies and eighties, but this High Desert climate has no water with which to hold heat once the sun sets. Thus, Tumalo Falls is trapped between seasons. At the brink, it basks in the light of a clear May morning. At the base, an icy rind encases the rocks, moss, and trees that have yet to see this day’s sunshine. On the dark cliff faces, grand icicles dangle, ready to spear the ground below. It’s spring in the light and winter in the shadow. Right now, I’m happy to be in the light.

This valley was entirely under ice 20,000 years ago. Though it may be hard to imagine today, a great glacier once reached all the way down into the valley through which Tumalo Creek winds today. It originated high in the Cascades, swept down from Broken Top, surrounded Tumalo Mountain, and found its terminus not far from here. The vantage point from which I now survey the forest and the falls would previously have been buried under all-encompassing ice with a view of only the till that lined its base. There was no Mt. Bachelor when this valley held a river of frozen water hundreds of feet deep. There was no Crater Lake far to the south, no lava field abutting the Deschutes River south of Bend’s present site, and certainly no Tumalo Falls. An observation from last week strikes me once again: we are blessed and cursed: blessed to see the beauty now, but cursed to know only this beauty.

The falls roar on, storming downslope with their wealth of alpine snowmelt. This is the water I drink in Bend. Snow and ice from Broken Top and Tumalo Mountain flow from my tap, and I am ever grateful to the mountains for their generous contributions. Seeing Tumalo Falls binds me closer to the landscape that I inhabit. I wonder at the falls, marveling at the power and beauty of water and gravity. I look around at the forest that frames this view, a forest of pines, spruces, and firs that shade the manzanita and snowbrush below. Tumalo Creek waters these organisms just as it waters me. All of us rely on the mountains to catch the frozen water, the sun to melt it, and the creek to carry it down to us. What a pleasure it is to have so much in common with western white pines, Engelmann spruces, and grand firs.

Four conifers: ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, and Engelmann spruce

High on the valley’s northern wall, another waterfall glints in the sunlight. I’ve never noticed it before, likely because it isn’t always there. A wet winter has given it life for now, and I am tempted to scramble upslope for a closer investigation. Perhaps another day. Right now, I’ll stay here on the floor, where the manzanitas are blooming pink under the brilliant blue sky. Their urn-shaped flowers dangle among the vertical, green leaves while the spicy smell of snowbrush mingles with the pervasive scent of the dried pine needles blanketing the ground. Though ice persists in corners of this valley, the approach of summer is impossible to ignore.