Between 1956 and 1980 a remote meadow sanctuary for silver spotted butterflies was also home to a bustling Air Force radar station. The Cold War mission of the 689th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron perched atop Mount Hebo was to scan the skies over the Pacific for Soviet bombers. If an unidentified aircraft was detected, the radar station would notify fighter aircraft stationed in Portland which would then scramble to intercept.
In the early 1960s, Alabama native Lee Edwards served as a ground radar technician on Mount Hebo. He said fighter planes from Portland used to regularly “buzz” Mount Hebo. At the time there were mink farms in the valley and upon hearing the sonic booms and engine noise, the mother minks would kill their young. Edwards joked that, due to restitution payments, that the base commander ended up being a prolific purchaser of mink coats.
One of the 86-year-old Lee Neeley’s jobs in 1956 as a telephone repairman on Mount Hebo was to climb 90-foot poles in the wintertime and chip ice from entombed coaxial cables. When asked if he was afraid that he would be blown off the mountain and he quickly responded, “Then no, but you wouldn’t catch me up their now.” Winter winds regularly topped a hundred miles an hour and snow drifts and blowing fist-sized rocks became such a problem that the base enclosed its walkways in steel tubes.
Maintainers Howard Jeffrey and Robert Fox talked about how lightning, rain, snow and wind conspired to wreck the base’s giant radome. Jeffrey mentioned an incident where sustained high-velocity winds blew fiberglass panels all over the valley. Fox said that even today farmers in the surrounding area can point to chicken coops and sheds fashioned from the dome’s scattered panels.
The winter weather on Mount Hebo was so bad, and the destruction to the radar equipment so frequent, that the unit shut down operations on the mountain in 1980 and moved to the comparatively “balmy” climes of western Montana. Today, the only trace of the base’s existence is a plaque and a kiosk at the summit explaining the radar station’s mission. Despite the lack of physical evidence of the base, if you talk to farmers in Cloverdale and in Tillamook you will find that more than a few of the people in the valley trace their family’s settlement on the coast to service on Mount Hebo.
In early March I foolishly attempted to ascend Mount Hebo from Hebo Lake and I calculated that walking through soft, waist-deep snow in my jeans and flannel shirt wasn’t going to cut it. I returned to the lake at the beginning of April and although there was snow I was able to reach the summit. Late May through the summer and early fall when the trail is snow-free and the flowers are in bloom are the best times to hike Mount Hebo. Due to its proximity to the ocean and its 3,000-foot elevation, be prepared for changing weather. Also, pick up a forest service map at Hebo ranger station before starting your journey.
Fire has played a central role in shaping Mount Hebo’s ecology. Between 1930 to 1950, fires regularly torched Tillamook’s forests. Before those more recent fires, the area east of Mount Hebo was set afire by settlers in the mid 1800s and then again in 1910. Some of the burned areas were planted and some were allowed to recover on their own. Replanted areas are dominated by sun-loving Douglas fir while the unplanted areas are populated by native coastal species like Sitka spruce and Western hemlock with extensive fern and salal ground cover. Some of the fir has been selectively cut, but even in the logged areas there is significant tree cover. During my visit, I spotted several woodpeckers, a red-tailed hawk and a bald eagle flying over the thinned part of the forest.
Visitors who wish to skip the six-mile round trip hike from the lake to the summit can drive to the top and take in magnificent views of Haystack Rock to the west and Mount Hood to the east. Hebo Lake, where the hike originates, has a great little forest service campground, and by the looks of the fishing line- and bobber-draped tree limbs surrounding the lake, it’s a great place to teach the young ones how to fish. This summer, come and see Mount Hebo, where history and nature are one.