Before the Fire: Capturing the Beauty of Columbia River Gorge

'Mirror' captures the breathtaking beauty of Elowah Falls and was named the grand prize winner of the contest. (Photo: Matt Meisenheimer/Preserve the Wonder 2017 Photo Contest)

The Columbia River Gorge is an 85-mile long river canyon that divides Oregon and Washington state, extending roughly from the confluence of the Columbia and Deschutes rivers in the east and westward to the eastern edge of the Portland metropolitan area.

Brimming with a diverse array of ecosystems and microhabitats, the gorge has temperate rainforests in the west and dry grasslands in the east. There are hundreds of species of plants and birds, and dozens of species of fish.

Hoping to showcase all this scenic diversity, Friends of the Columbia Gorge sponsors an annual photo contest, which took on special significance this year. The majority of this year's entries were taken before the outbreak of a devasting fire at Eagle Creek in early September. Many of the photos depict areas later burned in the fire, which are now closed to the public, but they also are a reminder of the work that needs to be done, as the Friends of the Gorge site addresses:

Now that rains have come and largely put the fire out, we can breathe deeply and look to the forest for what it can teach us about natural recovery systems. It's also a time to look ahead at ways we can increase resilience for the land, communities, and trails that make the Gorge such a special place.

Matt Meisenheimer's grand-prize winner "Mirror," shown above, was taken at Elowah Falls in spring 2017, when he wasvisiting the Gorge from his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin. The image shows both the falls and a symmetrical reflection in a pool of water downstream.

'Hikers' Tunnel Under SR-14,' Cultural Category winner. (Photo: Bill Partin/Preserve the Wonder 2017 Photo Contest)

"The Gorge has so much iconic beauty, and photography is a vital way of preserving and celebrating that beauty. This year's photo contest entries showcased an incredible amount of variety and originality, and it was fun to experience so many familiar places and unique scenes through the amazing collection of images that were submitted," said contest judge Vince Ready.

'Golden Sunlight Over Crown Point,' Scenic Category winner. (Photo: Theresa Peterson/Preserve the Wonder 2017 Photo Contest)

The gorge developed its current incarnation at the end of the last ice age, when the Missoula Floods chiseled through the canyon’s steep walls and turned river tributaries into many dozens of waterfalls.

'Lush Wonderland,' Waterfalls Category winner. (Photo: Sean Estergaard/Preserve the Wonder 2017 Photo Contest)

The gorge has the highest concentration of waterfalls in North America. There are at least 77 in the area that have been discovered and named.

'Balsamroot Rising,' Wildflowers Category winner. (Photo: Margot Kelley/Preserve the Wonder 2017 Photo Contest)

There are more than 800 species of plants in the gorge, including 15 species wildflowers found nowhere else in the world.

'Eagle Family Breakfast,' Wildlife Category winner. (Photo: Linda Steider/Preserve the Wonder 2017 Photo Contest)

The gorge is packed with more than 200 species of birds, including bald eagles, and more than 40 species of fish, including several types of salmon.

'Aurora and Northern Light,' Honorable Mention. (Photo: Sung Choi/Preserve the Wonder 2017 Photo Contest)
'EEP!' Honorable Mention. (Photo: Linda Steider/Preserve the Wonder 2017 Photo Contest)
'Sagebrush Mariposa Lily,' Honorable Mention. (Photo: Don Jacobson/Preserve the Wonder 2017 Photo Contest)
'Smoky Sunset During Indian Creek Fire,' Honorable Mention. (Photo: Linda Steider/Preserve the Wonder 2017 Photo Contest)
'Young American Kestrel at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge,' Honorable Mention. (Photo: Hayley Crews/Preserve the Wonder 2017 Photo Contest)