Monday, July 30, 2007

Hiking in the Wallowas

Mike and I returned triumphant from the "woods" to find the world over-run by some wiz-kid with a jagged scar on his forehead that won't wash off.

Our trip was amazing. We left Thursday afternoon and drove east through the Columbia River Gorge and into Oregon's drier interior. The land changed from rugged cliffs and peaks covered in lush vegetation to flat or rolling plains covered in sage and cut with basalt canyons. Hours later, we drove through the hilly Blue mountains, with their open forests of lodge-pole and ponderosa. As we dropped into the Grand Ronde valley, we saw the Wallowas rising between the fertile plain and the Snake River bordering Idaho.

Our first night was spent car-camping in a state campground. We were greeted by Hank Hill, the park host. He was a strange old man in love with the power and knowledge he held. He asked what our plans were, and when we told him, he said that part of the wilderness area was closed due to fire. He went into his motor-home and grabbed a USFS map showing the closed area—thankfully, nowhere near where we wanted to hike. I wish his wife's name was Bobbie, because he was exactly the type who would have gone into his motor-home and said, "Damn it, Bobbie, now where'd you put that map..." We set up a simple camp by the side of Catherine Creek and drank beer around a small fire until well after nightfall.Then the real fun began.

We hit the trailhead early the next morning and promptly turned up the wrong trail by crossing a bridge and following a trail to an old abandoned mine shaft. After we turned around, we hiked into the correct valley and for the next 6 miles, we climbed steadily alongside a stream winding through stands of fir and wide meadows blooming with acres of wildflowers: magenta Indian Paintbrush, purple aster, and yellow, white, blue, and red flowers of every shape and size. Ridges rose thousands of feet above either side of us. When we reached an intersection in the trail, we crossed the creek and climbed over a thousand feet up a slope that evolved from forest to open avalanche meadows filled with lily and white granite boulders. After passing picturesque Moon Lake, we topped a ridge and looked down into a broad cirque containing Hidden Lake. Jagged peaks towered overhead, draped in snowfields reflecting in the water. Swampy meadows stretched between hillocks studded with pine. We camped on one of the hillocks and as night fell, the sky grew indigo, then black, and filled with a depth of stars you can't imagine. Deer after deer after deer came out into the meadows, and we spent the night listening to them walking through our camp to forage.

I should interject and say that the climb tired us out—first day, hard to get used to hiking with a full pack at 7,000 feet elevation. Also, the weather was great—which meant hot afternoons, but really very comfortable and clear. It stayed that way the whole trip. And finally, alpine lakes in July are breeding grounds for legions of mosquitoes and biting flies. But that's the price of admission to God's country...

In the morning, we broke camp at 8:30, dropped back into the valley, and climbed our way up to the cirque at the head of the valley, where Horton Pass crosses over into the Lakes Basin. The cirque was beautiful, with a tiny winding stream, a few spindly pines, and towering cliffs with talus skirts and wide granite shelves glowing pink in the afternoon sun. The deep green krumholtz pines were blasted by wind and winter's snow-pack and looked like bonsai trees; in fact, the entire scene, with the trees against the white granite, looked very Japanese. We had our land-legs, so to speak, and we cinched our packs tight and switch-backed up above the heather and boulder fields to the pass, where we had our first glimpse of the most stunning place I've ever seen in Oregon: Lakes Basin.

The pass is a small saddle on the shoulder of Eagle Cap, a mountain that serves as a hub for 5 radiating, glacially carved valleys. Eagle Cap towers over Lakes Basin, a large area snuggled at the top of the valleys and filled with meadows and lakes, lakes, lakes. So many lakes, so many colors of blue, so many colors of vibrant green vegetation, shades of stone, flowers, rippling brooks and streams, all surrounded by ridges and peaks. Oregon's Matterhorn stood like a sentinel to the north: a brownish-red granite mountain with a spire of white marble rising thousands of feet like a vertical canine thrusting into the sky.

We caught our breath, stashed our back-packs, strapped on tiny packs filled with water and energy bars, and started up the trail to the top of Eagle Cap. After two miles following a ridge and switchbacks in the sun, with views growing ever more incredible, we reached the wide summit and looked out over the entire range from 9,572 feet high.

Below us, the valley where we entered the wilderness area; Hidden Lake in its cirque; Lakes Basin, the Matterhorn; the radiating valleys; Glacier Peak looming over ice-blue Glacier Lake; and every horizon a jagged expanse of mountains and ridges, peaks and horns, arretes and cols and clouds. I have never seen such a thing in my life, even in Switzerland, where the weather was rainy. This was magnificent. Above Mt. Hood's tree-line, the view stretches for miles, from Mt. Rainier in the north to Mt. Jefferson in the south, but Hood is an isolated mountain peak above lower, forested ranges and ridges. The Wallowas, on the other hand, contain something like 70% of Oregon's highest peaks, and from above, as a stand-alone range, it was filled with incredible sights.

After an hour of taking photos and soaking in the killer views, we went back down to our packs and hiked into Lakes basin to spend the night at Mirror Lake. Granite outcrops formed mini "camps" filled with soft heather and grass, and twisted pines grew from cracks in the slabs and spaces between stone. From our campsite we could see Eagle Cap across the lake, and almost 4,000 feet above us. We crashed early, even before the stars came out. Fires were prohibited in the basin due to dry weather, and the insects annoyed us in our exhaustion. It was a well-deserved rest.

There were a number of other people in Lakes Basin, and we met two guys from Portland while climbing Eagle Cap. We call them "The Ryans" because they were both named Ryan. But the following morning, we met the last people we would see for the next two days.

Another early start, and we hiked through Lakes Basin, past large Moccasin Lake (which you cross by a strange, small boulder hop where the lake narrows like a waist between two deep, clear pools, the upper lake draining into the lower), and climbed a thousand feet up Glacier Pass overlooking Glacier Lake. This is the most beautiful lake in the world, I think.

Glacier Lake sits in a cirque under Glacier Peak, a massive block of granite with a huge, smooth snowfield that drops right to the lake. The lake is turquoise, indigo, sky-blue, rimmed with green heather, wildflower meadows, and small pines. At the outlet, it falls away into a crescent valley forming one side of the unusual cirque; the stream then drops into Frazier Lake, barely visible around the valley wall. As we passed by, arcing down and following the stream, we were passed by a couple climbing up from Frazier Lake. We were alone from then on.

We reached Frazier Lake at noon, lunched, and headed up Hawkins Pass. Frazier Lake is beautiful in its own right, but considering what we'd seen already, it paled in comparison. Hawkins Pass was tough: treeless and exposed, we ran out of water—and it was high up there, a tough climb. The descent into the Imnaha valley was hard as well. The trail led in wide arcs down to the creek two or three miles away, and that's where the first shade was. The trail was rocky, steep, and, in one place, not much more than 6 inches wide, barely visible as it crossed a wide stretch of crushed rock falling like a skirt towards the valley floor. It was beautiful, but terribly so. Not so bad, however, as what was to come.

When we reached the creek we discovered we were both out of water purifier; as I write this, I do not know if I will end up sick with giardia or cryptosporidium. We drank our fill in the icy creek, and half a mile down the trail, we found a campsite under a stand of fir. It was three in the afternoon.

We set up camp, washed our faces and feet in the stream, and took a nice siesta. Meadows opened out in almost every direction, all filled with wildflowers, and the stream burbled and splashed while we napped. Towards evening we drank Makers Mark and hot tea, ate dinner, rolled one up and relaxed as the sun painted the surrounding ridges various colors of yellow, pink, and white. When darkness fell, we realized that we had the entire valley to ourselves that night. The fire sent sparks skittering and the burning wood popped and crackled in syncopated beats alongside the gentle rhythm of the water.

We woke at 6:30 the next morning and I climbed out of my tent to prepare for our last day hiking. Our goal was the truck 14 miles away, and from there, the town of La Grande, where we could get a "bacon-cheeseburger, steak fries with a side of ranch, and a microbrew."

We hit the trail at 8, got our boots wet three miles later crossing a creek, and then started up a side valley as the sun grew higher and hotter. Thus began several hours of hellish hiking I do not care to repeat again. For two miles, the trail was fairly exposed and hot, and covered in meadows that look beautiful but are, in reality, home to small brushy plants that scratch at your sunburned calves. The next two miles, also uphill, are in the shade of a forest, a forest with no wind and at least thirty fallen trees that must be climbed over, under, or around. Adding to the frustration were fresh bear prints and scat on the trail....

This was tough hiking, but the worst was still to come. We reached the top, with stunningly beautiful Crater Lake, without seeing a bear. A short rest, and we were off on the 6.5 mile, 3,000 foot descent.

The first few miles switch-backed steeply down a very rocky talus slope, with no shade and no solid footing. Our feet, knees, and ankles grew sore very quickly. Then we entered a brushy area that was to continue for at least four miles of constant switchbacks. The rocky trail could barely be seen through the thick brush, and every step meant scratches on my calves. I bled from many cuts, but it was 90+ degrees out, no wind; there's no way I was going to put on pants, not with no water sources from there until the truck. It was maddening, painful, and seemingly endless. In such conditions, you go through stages of mental anguish until you just don't care—then you simply go as fast as is safe to get your ass out of there. The truck was a welcome sight, especially the cooler with the beer in it...

... except Mike had been in front of me, and yet he wasn't at the truck. I waited around for half an hour, applying first aid to the cuts on my legs. The trailhead is close to a lot of cabins, so I knew I could get help if necessary, but I wasn't about to climb the damn mountain again. I figured if Mike was injured, I would've seen him. It took an hour and a half, but he showed up—he'd come down so fast that when he didn't see me after a while, he thought I was in trouble, and he went to look for me. It all worked out, we had our beer, and after freshening up a bit, we drove out to the gravel forest road and promptly took a wrong turn at the first intersection.

Our forest road led the opposite direction from where we wanted to go, so to simplify things, we decided to change where we wanted to go, rather than our direction. After many miles, FR77 led out of the forest onto a barren ridge top. On either side of the smooth, worn ridge, the land sloped down into fertile green valleys, with the road curving and twisting like one of those roads car commercial directors love. We hit the valley and followed Highway 86, the Hell's Canyon Scenic Byway, to Baker City. 86 follows the Powder River through canyons and empty scrubland filled with sage, sagging wire fences, and occasional abandoned farm equipment. It is lovely in an old west kind of way. We listened to live Wilco and drove into the setting sun.

Baker City has a nice downtown, with wide streets and an old-timey western feel. We found a brew-pub and sat outside, people watching. The small town's proximity to two mountain ranges and Hell's Canyon means it has a healthy population of outdoorsy people alongside more traditional residents, like cowboys and ranchers and farmers. The beer was pretty tasty, the giant burgers hit the spot, and a quick wash in the restroom refreshed us a little. I swear we looked like beat poets sitting there dirty, me smoking, ordering beer, with our backpacks in the truck. The young waitress was friendly and we told her all about our hike...

We got back on the road at dark, driving home on 84 with a lightning storm to our left, over the Blue mountains, and with another to our right, over the Wallowas. Flashes lit the sky as we flew down the empty highway between the storms, the moon steadily sinking through a skein of cloud in front of us to the west. The land slipped by in the darkness; in a few hours, we'd be home.

1 comment:

  1. Jason,
    Your writing is very good. In particular, you have a definite gift for descriptive language -- your words convey a vivid portrait of the wilderness. Keep writing!

    Michael C. Morton