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Oregon's New Site To Explore: Valhalla


With all the street guides and smartphone apps out there, it would seem that most of the Earth's landmass has been mapped. But there's one natural wonder, a mere 60 miles from the city of Portland, Ore., that had never been documented until now. It's known as Valhalla, a deep and narrow canyon in the wilderness. Jes Burns of Oregon Public Broadcasting has the story.

JES BURNS, BYLINE: The forest is lush green, tangled with downed logs and whips of vine maple.

MIKE MALONE: Watch out. There's devil's club right here. See it?

BURNS: The clear and swift mountain stream...

M. MALONE: It's ice cold.

BURNS: ...Runoff from Oregon's Mt. Jefferson. Mike Malone is leading companions through miles of old growth and stream crossings to show them his discovery. After hours of hiking, they finally arrive at a narrow canyon in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness.

M. MALONE: Wow, there's the Valhalla.

SEAN MALONE: There it is.

BURNS: Malone calls this place Valhalla after the enormous, awe-inspiring hall ruled over by the Norse god Odin. In the narrowest part of Oregon's Valhalla, Mike and his son, Sean, can link hands and touch both walls, which rise 100 feet above them.

M. MALONE: Isn't that cool?

S. MALONE: Yeah, finally. It's been a long time coming.

M. MALONE: Wow, what a view.

BURNS: Mike Malone is a retired forest service employee who happened upon the canyon by chance. He was a helicopter crew leader working a wildfire in 2010. His team got orders to do a pickup in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness, but the fire blocked their way.

M. MALONE: As we were flying along, the smoke was really thick. So we had to drop down and fly up this canyon, just above treetop level.

BURNS: Usually in Wilderness, aircraft aren't allowed to fly low. But there's an exception for wildfire operations. As the helicopter flew upstream along a riverbed, Malone happened to glance down.

M. MALONE: And I see this stream. And then all of a sudden, it just disappears into this dark crevice. And then a few seconds later, it opened up again.

BURNS: When Malone got back to base, he immediately grabbed maps of the area, which he was sure would mark something like the slot canyon he saw - but none did. He started looking for any reference to his Valhalla - nothing. The forest service, which has managed the land for about a century, says it didn't know about the canyon either. Malone's obsession was real, says his son Sean.

S. MALONE: Believe me, it's all he's been talking about. He's referred to this as the biggest thing of his life lots of times.

BURNS: At the entrance to Valhalla, the river fills the canyon floor. The only forward for Mike and Sean is wading through the icy water. But soon, a series of waterfalls blocks their way. They consult Jared Smith, a professional climbing guide who's helping them explore the canyon.

JARED SMITH: That's what makes it so spectacular is just these waterfalls are just one after another.

M. MALONE: Yeah.

SMITH: And that's what makes it so dangerous and hard to navigate. There's places in there that we're lucky to get through.

BURNS: But even with Smith's expert guidance, Valhalla can be treacherous.

M. MALONE: Wow, it's really slippery.

BURNS: Mike Malone survived that fall unscathed, but now that the canyon is on the map, so to speak, there's concern that adventure-seekers from all over will come here. Still, he wants to share his discovery and hopes the forest service will build a trail to Valhalla.

M. MALONE: It would be a trail to probably the most spectacular feature in the whole Mt. Jefferson Wilderness, if not one of the most spectacular features in Oregon.

BURNS: But the forest service says part of what's special about these protected lands is the remoteness. And even if it were possible, building a trail could present a different kind of danger - it would take some of the wild out of the wilderness. For NPR News, I'm Jes Burns. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jes Burns
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