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Hope springs eternal at Ranger Springs

Springs in the Sky Lakes Wilderness that feed the Middle Fork of the Rogue River are running low this year
Photo by Lee JuilleratWater is still flowing at Ranger Springs in the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area, but well below usual levels.
Photo by Lee JuilleratA sign marks the site of Ranger Springs.

Normally you hear it before you see it. But this isn’t a normal year.

Ranger Springs, located in the Sky Lake Wilderness Area’s Seven Lakes Basin, is a lush, water-rich area a mile off the Pacific Crest Trail where a series of springs and seeps blend together to create the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Rogue River. It’s usually a noisy explosion of erupting water.

Not this year.

In the area where several babbling watery eruptions usually burst and gush from unseen sources — from underneath tree roots, from rocky ledges and a personal favorite where water percolates like an overflowing, boiling pot — this year several of those outlets are parched, barren and dry. Springs that are usually bubbling with water are, sadly, baked and caked.

On a recent hike, everyone in our small group echoed the same sentiment — the volume of water emerging at Ranger Springs is the lowest they’ve ever seen. The usual sounds of bubbling water aren’t fully silenced, but they are severely lessened.

There is apparently no historical data on average flows at Ranger Springs. In an email, Richard Cissel, watershed program manager for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, said, “the program does not currently monitor spring flow levels, and I am not aware of any historical data — which does not mean there isn’t any.”

As Cissel also noted, “In general, in a drought year such as this, it would be expected that springs that are fed by shallow groundwater tables that respond to seasonal changes in inputs (e.g. infiltration during snow melt and rain events) would flow less water or even dry up. Springs fed by deeper aquifers that don’t respond to seasonal changes in inputs would be expected to respond to the drought less or not at all. I haven’t been to Ranger Spring, but it’s in the volcanic zone where some rock units are able to move water through them quickly, and if the distance from recharge zone to spring is short, some of them may be able to respond to seasonal or annual changes. Not sure if that’s the case here, more interesting trivia unless someone with more local knowledge can confirm or not.”

Lance Sargent, the Rogue-Siskiyou’s district recreation program manager, also said he has no data on the springs, but noted there are several sites, including the Willow Prairie Horse Camp and the Lodgepole and Imnaha Guard Stations, with low water flows. Sargent said all three sites were so low in May that “I had a very hard time priming the systems. Not sure if there’s historical data on those sites either that could tell us if they might dry up entirely this year.”

Like others, I have photographs of previous hikes to Ranger Springs. But they don’t truly reveal the decline in water flow from the upper springs, which I once described as an arsenal of fire hydrants firing full blast. There still is enough water emerging from smaller springs and seeps to send water flowing downstream, and that’s significant because Ranger Springs is the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Rogue River

Normally, Ranger Springs is also a place to wander and explore the several springs and seeps. Some of the usual varieties of wildflowers are still blooming, but not prolifically. Worse, streamlets that normally ooze into spongy, mossy marshes are crusted.

Just as there’s relatively little history about Ranger Springs water flows, there’s limited information about its recent history.

In “From Abbott Butte to Zimmerman Burn: A Place-Name History and Gazetteer of the Rogue River National Forest,” it’s said the area, sometimes shown on maps as Ranger’s Springs, was named by Forest Service personnel about 1910. It sometimes served a camping spot for the summer fire guard and was relatively close to the former Devil’s Peak fire lookout. Based on studies of springs at Crater Lake National Park, it’s theorized that Ranger Springs is at the edge of a pumice-covered catchment area that’s normally fed by the downward percolation of rain and melted snow.

But, again, this is no normal year. Ranger Springs is still beautiful and worth the hike. And, just as hope springs eternal, here’s hoping Ranger Springs spring eternally.

To reach Ranger Springs from Medford, follow Highway 62 past the entrance to Crater Lake National Park and to Fort Klamath. Drive west on Nicholson Road over a bridge and to Sevenmile Road, which continues uphill to the Sevenmile Marsh trailhead.

There are two trailheads — the first is for equestrians while second area at the end of the road is for hikers. From the parking area follow the trail about 2 miles to its junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. Instead of going left (south) toward the Seven Lakes Basin, go right (north). In about an eighth of a mile a sign points to Ranger Springs. The trail ambles about a mile through a mixed forest of lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock and Shasta red fir to the spring.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.