Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Enchantments, Day 3 - Deep Play

"There is a deeper form of play, akin to rapture and ecstasy, that humans relish, even require to feel whole… In its thrall, all the play elements are visible, but they're taken to intense and transcendent heights…

Deep play always involves the sacred and holy, sometimes hidden in the most unlikely or humble places… the physiological goal is to impel the initiate into a higher state of consciousness that kindles visions and insights, in a locale where survival may depend on a combination of ingenuity and nerve." *

Finding a suitable spot to pitch a tent isn’t always as easy as it might seem, and I’d slept poorly for the third night in a row. Morning came early, with a bright sun shining above Snow Lake. We broke camp, slathered on DEET, shouldered packs, and headed out on what was, on paper, a short, easy 6.5 mile day-hike with 2600’ of elevation gain, and 2200’ of elevation loss. But this wasn’t a well-graded, wide National Park or Forest Service trail – this would be a gnarly, rock and root filled climb into snow, across boulders and granite slabs, down loose scree and avalanche rubble, and into tangled thickets and swiftly darkening forest.

The hike to Viviane felt easier than the day before, despite the lack of sleep and other ailments, and we ate lunch before crossing the log bridge and hiking up above the lake. The trail climbed a steeply sloping granite slab, dangerous because the snow hadn’t fully melted out and covered the rebar supports embedded in the face, and the rock was wet from snowmelt.

From Viviane, we followed tracks in the snow to Leprechaun Lake, half-covered in turquoise-blue ice and surrounded by melting meadows, granite covered in snow, and spindly alpine fir. One at a time, we crossed a large snow bridge over the stream between Leprechaun and Viviane, and pausing to reflect, Derek pointed out our first mountain goat on a distant snowfield above the lake. The clouds built into frothy masses of white and gray and McClellan Peak became a blade, serrations marked by avalanche shoots filled with sun-brightened snow.

The outside world fell away. Suddenly there was nothing but raw experience and immediacy, nothing but sensory input, a perfect conjunction of thought and action and feeling, a complete immersion into the real and a disappearance of anything superfluous or unrelated to the experience. When I’m outdoors, hiking or backpacking, I often think about work, about the bills I have to pay, about my family and friends, about weighty relationship issues. Occasionally these thoughts fade into the background. Sometimes they disappear completely, only to resurface when it’s time to head back, or when I see or do something I’ll want to tell someone about. I’m rarely entirely focused on my activity. There’s almost always something in the way.

Not this time, not now. This time there was no outside world, nothing but what was in front of me – McClellan’s serrated ridge, Leprechaun Lake’s dark waters reflecting the mountains, steep scree and snowfields. Under my feet, snow, and on my face, sun and wind. Mike and Derek were present, of course, but they belonged there, as did the twisted firs, the rushing stream, the dance of light and shadow. My movements were unplanned but exact, as though my body knew exactly how to balance, where to step, when to stop and when to start. And my thoughts were calm like the lake water, even when the wind blew across its surface. You can enjoy something until you realize your enjoyment will end, and then your enjoyment is tempered or sweetened by sadness; I only saw what was in front of me, but I knew it fully, and I imagined the next several miles of lakes and mountains and snow and I was at peace with the immensity around me.

Buddhists talk about “Being-Awareness-Bliss,” and almost all the way to Aasgard Pass, I embodied “Being-Awareness-Bliss.” I felt like I was walking in a Chinese scroll, where the mountains and waterfalls and pines recede into the void, and where man is an impossibly small figure placed in the corner for scale, and for a balance and harmony between nature and life. I felt necessary, exactly the right size.

I felt right – acting naturally without thought, sensing without the need to reflect, knowing without doubting. Everything was more real, more vibrant, more genuine - not just what I saw, but also the wind on my face, the snow and earth under my boots, the weight of my pack and the movement of my limbs, the warm blood in my muscles. Later this sense of completeness would fade as the weather changed and I grew accustomed to my surroundings, but for long stretches of trail I moved in a state of peace.

Aasgard Pass would rob me of that, but there were miles to go before then.

We continued from Leprechaun through snow and meadow to Sprite Lake. Darker clouds began to move in from the southwest. The trail gradually turned to snow near Perfection Lake, but each stream crossing was manageable and the trail easy to follow. We wore yak-traks from here on, rarely slipped, and rarely post-holed much more than past an ankle. We didn’t have crampons or ice axes, but I never felt like I needed them, maybe because I was foolhardy, or maybe because I just didn’t need them.

In the Enchantments, every lake seems more incredible than the next. Photos and words can’t do justice to the color of the ice and water, or the contrast between snow and stone, sky and meadow. Rounding Perfection Lake, the trail became mostly snow, and a quick drizzle of rain rippled the edges of the lake where the ice melted into a clear turquoise. But unlike the snow, the rain let up, and we took our packs off to rest like hermits by a boulder shaded by an ancient pine. The basin stretched out behind us, snow lying under bright green trees, and rocky hillsides arching below Prusik’s arrow-like summit. Then, just before Inspiration Lake, I walked to a small viewpoint to look out over Perfection Lake and the glacial valley that drops below Little Annapurna to Crystal Lake and falls from the basin into deep forests. Something moved in my peripheral vision and I turned to see a mountain goat walk out of a stand of trees and approach within several feet of me.

There is something inherently likeable about mountain goats - their dark eyes and beards give them a sage-like appearance, and their sureity on rock and slope is reassuring. They're in control, comfortable in their environment, and steadfast and solid as the mountains. As this first goat passed me, though, I was immediately nervous and didn't think any of this. You just don't usually get this close to wild animals, and goats are tough, compact creatures. The goat's winter wool was peeling, and two short, black horns jutted from his head. Black eyes watched me carefully as he passed, climbing up the rock in a clatter of sharp hooves. The goat looked back one more time, then disappeared into the trees.

I was shocked – I think I said, “Oh my God” and as I turned to watch the goat, I pulled out my camera. Mike and Derek did likewise. We expected to see mountain goats in the Enchantments, and we’d already seen one at a distance, but I didn’t expect to see one so close, behaving so casually around people. I thought this might be the only one we’d see so close. I was wrong.

At Inspiration Lake, filled with thick cracked ice and surrounded by steep granite walls, we ran into two older hikers exploring from their base camp. We’d met them before, at Leprechaun, Lake, and together we watched another hiker descend a steep trail in a snow slope above the lake. Above the slope, a notch led higher into the upper basin. Coming around a corner, we encountered the hiker and his family watching a mother goat and her kid.

The human family was the same we’d met at Viviane the day before, and they were taking a break at the edge of a rocky open area with expansive views of Perfection Lake, Prusik, and McClellan. The goats were near the cliff edge, but they soon ambled towards us. Like the previous goat, the mother’s coat was shedding, and the kid was an incredibly cute ball of wool.

Mike climbed atop a low ridge of stone and the mother and kid climbed up to meet him. Standing a few feet away, Mike and the goats posed for the camera before all three animals ambled over to join Derek and I at the snow-free rocks at the edge of the cliff. The family of hikers left us to climb up the notch, and we relaxed with the goats, watching and taking pictures as they ate the flowers off penstemons. It felt unreal to be so close to wild animals, especially a mother with a baby. They were wary – they kept us in sight with their big black eyes – but neither goat showed fear and both came within just a few feet of us. Goats in the Enchantments are obviously used to people, and in an environment with little salt, the goats have learned that backpackers are an excellent source of nutrients. Campers are advised to keep boots and packs in tents to prevent goats from chewing up gear in search of salt, and the wilderness permit instructs bearers to urinate on “huge” flat rocks so that goats won’t dig up the fragile meadows.

The day was growing later, so we left the goats and began to climb up the notch into the upper basin. The trail below the snow probably switchbacks a few times one or two hundred feet to a cluster of boulders, but the trail in the snow did no such thing, heading up in a straight line above the lake. The yak-trak’s coils dug in as we stepped in footprints, one foot after another, using trekking poles for balance and focusing on every step. The footprints ended near a boulder. Lifting a foot to bridge the gap where the snow had melted away from the stone, I slipped off the granite and fell, stopping myself before the long slide to the lake.

As falls go, it wasn’t bad. We all made it off the snow without further incident and broke for a snack, and we were soon joined by another inquisitive mountain goat that circled the boulder we used as a table. After eating, Mike felt the call of nature and stood up on a large nearby rock. As soon as the goat heard the sound of liquid, it ran over, hooves clattering. Derek and I shouted and Mike barely had time to zip up before the goat was up on the rock, licking at the fresh urine.

Mountain goats are cool but this was a little gross, and we decided to keep moving. Packs cinched up, we ascended the pass at a more moderate slope, and very soon we stood at the edge of the upper Enchantment basin, staring at a landscape forged in ice and shaped by wind and snow.

Introductory quote from "Deep Play," by Diane Ackerman

Good Graces

I woke up this morning to thoughts of fire.

Outside it is gray and the air smells of rain. A few leaves skitter in the street. My apartment is cold and I’ve pulled on a favorite old sweater. It isn’t raining yet, but the wind blowing through the trees makes it sound like it is. Fall is coming soon, and I’m looking forward to it.

Last night a friend of mine equated autumn with grace, with the need to live gracefully as summer ends and the seasons turn towards winter cold, shorter days, and stormy weather. For both of us, autumn is our favorite season. For me, it’s time for cool, blustery walks in colorful woods and mountains, time for crisp days and flashing nights full of stars, time for harvest celebrations and afternoons spent with books and beer at rainy pub windows. Autumn suggests the holidays, companionship, and turning inward and inside.

Autumn also suggests wood-smoke and heat, the crackle of sap and the glow of embers, a tidy campfire reflecting the cold and darkness.

Summer is ending and I spent only six nights around campfires, most in the mountains and one at the beach. Accompanied by friends and sometimes deer, each was a blessing. Every fire is alive and unique, from the setting and circumstance to the species of wood and the patterns of grain. The voice of the flame and the architecture of logs and coals are different every time. To start a fire is to begin something that creates its own designs.

I’m looking forward to enjoying a few more campfires before November’s storms arrive. In the meantime, rain falls in long gray dresses. I’ve missed it and needed it. Like a campfire, and like autumn, it reminds me to take the days as they come with their graces and calm equanimity.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Alone in Paradise - August 24th, 2010

(More photos)

There are multiple ways to get to Paradise, and none of them are easy. The routes from Ramona Falls and Hidden Lake are long, with several thousand feet of elevation gain. The trail from Timberline Lodge – the route I took last weekend – is also long, though the easiest, with a descent and climb out of Zigzag canyon, and a return trip that is moderately, yet consistently, uphill through open sub-alpine forest.

It all pays off, in the end. Even when the end is the next day at work, with sore calves and bright memories.

Hiking, alone or otherwise, is as much a mental exercise as it is physical. How you deal with fatigue, with biting insects, with heat and sun or inclement weather – it adds up to what your father told you when he assigned you chores; it builds character. I got bit by a deer fly on my adam’s apple, of all places, and it itches like hell, and I consider it the price of admission. Four miles away from the trailhead, what do you do with negative thoughts? I’d love to be at my truck, drinking hot coffee from my thermos and replacing wool socks and boots for sandals and a clean shirt, on my way home to a shower and a beer. But there are four miles to cover, including a big canyon and a mountain stream to cross, and an uphill slog through late afternoon heat.

Man, I can taste the coffee now.

Hiking alone means no one hears me complain. But it also means I get fed up with the complaining. It doesn’t get me home any faster. It doesn’t matter if I’m retracing a trail I was on earlier in the morning, with the same scenery and my own boot-prints in the dust. The sweat in my eyes and the ache in my shoulders isn’t going to go away. What I do about it isn’t going to win me points or cost me friends. All I can do is keep going.

It’s the price of admission.

I wandered through wildflower meadows full of butterflies. I crossed picturesque creeks running down from glaciers. I stood in the shade of a huge rock and marveled at the power of nature to move stone and carve deep chasms. If all it takes is an uphill walk, it’s worth it.

Where I ate lunch, there’s a block of dacite erupted from Mt. Hood, with a wide curve to it that invites lying down and spending time staring at meadows and the mountain. The boulder is covered in bright green lichen. The lichen is probably centuries old. It was there when the first climbers reached Hood’s summit, there when Robert Gray first crossed the Columbia Bar, there when the Columbia was dammed by an earthquake in 1700, giving rise to the legend of the Bridge of the Gods. How many eruptions has this lichen survived? How many seasons of wildflowers? How many lifetimes of man?

One foot after another, I walked back from Paradise.

Distance: 12 miles roundtrip (est)
Elevation Gain: 2300ft (est)

Region: Mt. Hood Wilderness
Information: Afoot & Afield: Portland/Vancouver, 2nd ed., by Douglas Lorain; portlandhikers.org

Distance from Portland: 1.5 hours
Directions from Portland: Take Highway 26 just east of Government Camp and turn left on Timberline Lodge Road. Drive 5.5 miles to the lodge and park. The well-marked Timberline Trail passes just above the lodge. Head west.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lake Viviane and the Wilderness Life - The Enchantments, Day 2

When you hike with water tainted by dead goat, you get thirsty fast. When your fellow hikers have a head cold and sore feet, you have a recipe for big arguments and raging tempers. It was a blessing and a wonder that none of that happened when we set out to day hike in the Enchantments.

Mike and Derek and I followed the Snow Lakes trail towards the head of the valley to find a small stream cascading through boulders and underground tunnels, and splashing through pools on the forest floor. We refilled and treated our water, and made our way to the inlet where the stream draining the entire upper basin entered Upper Snow Lake.

The water was aquamarine and deep, clear to the bare granite bottom. Trout swam in the shadows cast by a few drifting logs, feeding on whatever the current carried down from the heights above. A few yards upstream, two logs with sawn crosshatches for traction spanned the wide stream, and the trail began to climb, first through forest and then through alternating stretches of gnarled root, bare granite, and rocky ground.
At times, the trail was shaded by trees, and the footing was a mix of earth and root. The higher we climbed, the more rugged the trail became. First came easy granite bedrock, with cairns marking the way to the next section of trail. Then the granite began to build a slope, and the route followed natural fissures and gaps between outcrops. These gave way to staircases and pitches of stone marked with cairns, with some that almost required scrambling. There were other backpackers heading up, and our pace slowed to accommodate them. With Mike’s cold and Derek’s increasingly sore knee – he’d aggravated an old strain – we weren’t in a hurry. After one hard stretch, we took a break at a huge flat boulder overlooking the cascading stream as it fell over a hundred feet in the same amount of yards.

Mike and Derek cooked up ramen while I laid on my back, listening to the water and looking at the sky and jagged ridge across the valley. If we were all healthy, we’d consider the climb fun – but we weren’t, and I was doing my best to contain my excitement while Mike and Derek were admirably biting back complaints.

One of the things I’ve come to appreciate most about backpacking is that it teaches self-reliance, while valuing sharing and teamwork. Each of us carried our own weight – everything we’d need in the wilderness was in our packs, on our backs, and in our hearts and heads. We shared food, insect repellent, water purification, sunscreen. We set up our own tents, cooked our own meals, carried our own loads. Whatever stresses we encountered were our own. Though there were complaints, they were not bitter, and though there were obstacles, we supported each other. This was Derek’s first extended backpacking trip and he asked a lot of questions, learning as he went. All three of us shared our past experiences, enthusiasm, and good humor, teaching as we went.

Wilderness is not something to anthropomorphize. It is not static; it follows its own rhythms. It does not care if you live or die, or how you live or die. Wilderness simply exists, independently of your physical or spiritual attachment to it, and how you interact with wilderness is a reflection of your approach to it, and a measure of what it means to you. When immersed in wilderness, when living in wilderness, you must treat it with respect, because only in that way will you treat yourself with respect. How we dealt with the hardships, the trials, and the changes of plan – all symptoms of what we brought with us – were emblematic of our respect for the wilderness we were in, and for each other.

That’s why it was so damn relaxing to lie back on a slab of granite and soak up the sun, listening to the rush of falling water and the quiet voices of my friends as they prepared a simple meal in the shade of the Enchantments basin.

The rest recharged us, and up the trail we went, into a more open country where the views were magnificent and the route more difficult.

Scattered pines cast crooked shadows over granite bedrock and blooming pink and white heather. The sun shone brightly on the lakes below, and McClellan Peak towered to the west, a serrated blade notched by chutes filled with shaded snow and tremendous fields of rockfall. The landscape didn’t lend itself to a trail – in some places, small steps and edges had been cut into the bedrock to help hikers balance. Sheets of granite lay exposed and sloped precipitously down, with nothing to stop a hiker if they fell. Between the granite sheets were stairs of stone at a steep pitch and high enough that it was hard to raise my foot high enough to step up. And then we arrived.

The trail lost elevation, rounded a corner, and opened up to Viviane where the outlet coursed through a granite channel and fell down the mountain side. Viviane was beautiful, with walls of granite holding two sides of the lake and Prusik Peak looming above. The western slopes were covered in snow and above them the Enchantments basin rose under McClellan Peak’s ramparts. At 6785ft, the lake still had ice floating in it, but we set our packs down and splashed cold water on our faces, necks, and hands. Backpackers reclined along the shore, included several we recognized from the ascent.

After taking photos and relaxing, Mike and Derek wandered down to an overlook above the valley and Snow Lake. I unloaded my day-pack and refilled my water, and right after I joined Mike and Derek, one of the backpackers by the lake ran down to say that chipmunks were getting into our food. I knew it had to be my fault, and when I ran back I saw that it was. I’d left food out when I pulled out my water bladder. Embarrassed, I packed everything up and decided to test the sketchy log bridge over the outlet stream.

Several small logs had been jammed between the bank and a boulder to make a surprisingly sturdy bridge. The gap between the boulder and the elevated bank opposite was no problem for agile, confident backpackers, but I proved it was possible to cross by hikers with other attributes. The trail wound around a large outcrop and I climbed up to see an elevated view of Viviane and the little shore crowded with backpackers.

When I returned, we watched seven or eight backpackers – two couples and three teenagers – cross the bridge. I’m always envious of kids that get to backpack; I wish I’d been able to go hiking or backpacking more often as a child, but at the same time, I recognize that I might have hated it, subsequently avoided it, and never have the opportunity to experience wilderness again. It worked out okay, but I wish I had those kid’s energy.

At 4:30pm we hoisted packs and began the descent, which, steep as it was, stressed Derek’s knee even more. Our downhill pace was still quicker than our uphill, and we passed a number of backpackers heading up or resting on the way. One group of guys had hiked all the way from the Snow Lake trailhead, with packs, and they were beat after a 5485ft, almost 9 mile day. They may have been the only hikers on the trail who wanted to reach camp more than we did.

The sun was bright but low over the headwall when we walked in to our own camp. Mike crawled into his tent to rest, and I joined Derek at the lake, soaking sore feet in the clear, cold water and leaning back to watch the sun set over the bottom lip of the Enchantments basin and trout jump in the lake. Those trout could feast all night long, I thought, and not make a dent in the mosquito population. We were just two days in, with two more to go, and our supply of DEET was running low. I thought the mosquitoes at Crater Lake two weeks before had been worse, but these were just as plentiful, and for whatever reason more annoying to Mike and Derek than to me. I’ve never heard more creative swearing than on this trip.

Dinner was once again dehydrated meals – spaghetti and meatballs, in my case – as well as ramen with a dash of DEET and a sprinkling of dirt. Dessert consisted of sitting back with a hand-rolled cigarette and a nalgene bottle half-full of bourbon, watching the stars come out. We discussed plans for the next day, which depended greatly on Mike’s cold and Derek’s knee. We were low on DEET, ibuprofen, and emergenC, and our aqua mira supply was halved when one of the bottles leaked. The day hike to Viviane was frustrating in that we’d have to do it again, and it had tested us already. There were no answers under the stars, but we were in high spirits and not about to suurender – we all wanted to push through the Enchantments, and while we agreed that any one of us could say “I can’t do this” and we’d reverse course, there was little chance that would happen. Still, I had concerns, though I kept them to myself. After the moon set, it was a dark night - but I had friends I trusted and a wilderness to conquer.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hikes Past: McNeil Point, August 3rd, 2010

Mt. Hood and the Sandy Glacier from the ridge below McNeil Point

McNeil Point is my favorite hike on Mt. Hood. A half-mile from the trailhead, the path curves through wildflower meadows on the south side of Bald Mountain, with a huge view of Mt. Hood sitting high above the deep Muddy Fork valley. From there, the trail climbs steadily through a forest of Noble fir before entering more meadows, with McNeil Point high up on the ridge. Wildflowers line the trail and fill the meadows all the way up: paintbrush, lupine, wild carrot, valerian, mustard, tiger lily, Mt. Hood lily, avalanche lily, bistort, western pasqueflower. After passing a steep spur-trail that shortcuts to the top, you cross several cascading streams and arrive at a series of small tarns reflecting the mountain. Just afterwards, the trail climbs out of the forest in the sub-alpine zone, where snowfields linger late into summer, surrounded by meadows of white and pink heather and more wildflowers, bordered by stands of scrappy fir and rocky slopes filled with scree. After a breath-taking mile, you arrive at McNeil Point, a loft perch occupied by a 1930’s era Civilian Conservation Corps shelter overlooking miles of wilderness all the way past Lost Lake, Bull Run Reservoir, and the Columbia River Gorge to the snowy peaks of Rainier, St. Helens, and Adams. Your route lies beneath you, and above, a trail climbs through higher meadows to a knife-edge ridge between the Glisan and Sandy glaciers. There’s nowhere else to go, no sound but wind and water and the cracking of glacial ice, no sign of life but the bleached and gnarled limbs of whitebark pine groping for the sky, and penstemons rooted in deep cracks in the dark volcanic rock. Mt. Hood fills half the sky, the arete a spine of rock continuing up to bergschrunds and the litter of rockfall above blue crevasses. Yokum Ridge and Barret Spur bookend this tumbled country of moraines and ice, and the Cascades fall away into deep valleys and green and blue ridges disappearing at the horizon.

It’s an epic place that challenges as much as it liberates. I watched a large buck effortlessly flow across the meadows below me, and listened to the glaciers flow. I filled up on ice, sun, and stone, then returned to the long walk back through wildflowers and butterflies, hiking down past the snow and frog-filled ponds and into the forest, where finally I reached my truck and the long drive home. “This is magnificent country,” I wrote in my journal, and “it is peaceful here.”

Distance: 9.6 miles roundtrip (est)
Elevation Gain: 2900ft (est)

Region: Mt. Hood Wilderness
Information: portlandhikers.org; 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland, 3rd ed., by Paul Gerald

Distance from Portland: 58 miles (1.5 hours)
Directions from Portland: Take Highway 26 to Zigzag and turn left onto Lolo Pass Road. Drive 10.6 miles to the pass and take the first right on paved Road 1828 (the sign might only say road 18). Drive 3.1 miles and make a sharp left at Road 118. The trailhead is 1.2 miles up this gravel road.

More Photos

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Enchantments, Day I - DEET, Dams, & Mountain Goats

Just after six o’clock at the top of Aasgard Pass. Colchuck Lake is a half-mile below. To the west, the sun shines rays behind dark clouds above Dragontail Peak, and to the north, lines of ridges and snowy mountains recede into the distance of the Cascades. The wind blows gently over the pass and despite the snow and an unsettled feeling, it is warm enough for t-shirts and shorts. The lake looks inviting – I wish I were there now – but I remember the words of the wilderness ranger yesterday: “The trail is rocky, sandy, and steep. Go slow. Cross the big snowfield at the bottom, not the top.”

“Typical Aasgard,” she said.

Typical Aasgard – the route drops 2200’ in .9 miles, 5-10° past the typical angle of repose. Most people go up it, and the backpackers Mike, Derek and I encountered in the Enchantments almost universally expressed surprise that we intended to go down. The clouds grew darker, and after several false starts, we found the right trail and passed the first cairn on our descent.

The Enchantments are a series of high alpine lakes tucked in a basin in Washington’s central Cascades. Surrounded by jagged peaks, the lakes necklace through two granite basins filled with waterfalls, pine, snow, and inquisitive mountain goats. It is epic country, difficult to get to, and harder still to forget. Permits are required, and requests must be submitted in February; only about a third are granted, and not all allow camping in the core zone. We drew permits to camp at Snow Lake at the end of July, below and to the north of the core zone, and after a five hour drive from Portland, we arrived in the faux-Bavarian town of Leavenworth. All the official campgrounds were full, but we stumbled across a hidden, “locals only” site and spent the night drinking bourbon and beer around a campfire. In retrospect, that might not have been the best idea.

The next day, we organized our packs and set up the shuttle – one truck at the Snow Lake trailhead, one at Colchuck. We’d decided to enter via Snow Lake; the ascent was longer and gained more elevation, but once in the Enchantments proper, the scenery would get progressively better. From Colchuck, we’d have to climb just as far, and we’d arrive at the best part only to hike down a long haul.

That long haul and the previous night’s partying caught up to us. The Snow Lake gains 4300’ in 6.5 miles. The weather was warm and sunny, and the steepest section of trail, the first few miles, shoots up through a fairly open hillside before entering the valley and thicker forest. Of course, we had heavy, “first day’ packs, and soon broke for snacks to lighten the loads. This was Derek’s first multi-night backpack, and he carried a new pack on broken-in combat boots; Mike also carried a new pack, an Osprey like mine but a smaller model; and I shuffled along with older, battle-tested gear and a few new toys.

The climb was uneventful and tiring, but we made good time and reached Nada Lake and our first look at The Temple at mid-afternoon. Nada Lake was a welcome sight – one little ridge to cross and we’d be at Snow Lake. We sprayed on DEET against the mosquitoes and continued on. The little ridge didn’t feel so little, but suddenly we arrived at the concrete dam between Upper and Lower Snow Lakes, and we knew we were almost there.

Like the trout swimming in Snow Lake’s clear waters, the dam is a remnant from the time before this area became a designated wilderness. Somewhere about 50ft long, give or take, and perhaps 8ft deep on the upper lake with a 10-15ft drop on the lower lake side, the dam allows water to spill over the entire length of its top. The trail crosses the top of the dam. We made jokes about the likelihood of someone falling in, and agreeing that if anyone would, it would be me, I stepped foot on the dam first.

The current wasn’t very strong, and the water was never more than a few inches deep. I shuffled along, using my trekking poles and the logjam in the upper lake for balance. Upon reaching the opposite side, I turned to see Mike and Derek already crossing, and we all made it across with nothing more than damp boots.

A side trail a short distance away led to a small peninsula and a lakeside campsite with a view of Lower Snow Lake and room for three tents. There was an occupied campsite a hundred yards away, and a murky pond that we suspected was responsible for breeding the clouds of mosquitoes buzzing around our ears. We pitched our tents and relaxed for a while before walking down to the dam to draw water for cooking and hot toddies. We watched the sun set and ate our dehydrated meals, smoked cigarettes and swatted at the bugs while the sky turned pink and the hillsides lost definition in deepening darkness. I put on my newest acquisition, a compressible synthetic-down jacket that Mike said made me look like a Jersey girl in the woods. Whatever – I was warm under one layer. At last the stars came out, and the moon shone through the trees behind us. We wandered back to the upper lake in time to watch the moon set over a 7250ft un-named summit just east of McClellan Peak, then we, too, settled in for the night.

The morning brought surprises.

I slept poorly, using my jacket as a pillow and finding every root and rock under my sore limbs. At 7am I got up when I heard Derek moving around. The sun was bright in the cloudless sky; the day would be warm. We made coffee with Starbucks Via and ate oatmeal, and dodged gray jays as they darted around camp, occasionally dive-bombing us. After a while we tried to goad Mike into rising. A muffled voice rose from his tent; he slept badly too, and felt miserable with a sudden cold. The morning went slowly from there as Mike got up, found the outdoor privy, and climbed back in his tent. Derek and I each paid a visit to the wooden box, which didn’t smell bad but was exposed to the forest, and drew mosquitoes and biting flies from all corners of the valley. DEET was as important as TP.

To pass time, Derek went down to the dam and returned with words I’ll never forget: “Did you guys know there’s a dead mountain goat in the logjam?” Mike started to get up immediately and I followed Derek towards the dam. We were intercepted by a ranger – she carried a full pack and a long-handled shovel, and she wore her hair in pig-tails. Knowing she’d want to see our permit, we walked back to camp and she provided us with information about trail conditions. As soon as she left, we returned to the dam and we looked for the goat, shielding our eyes against the sun and scanning the logjam.

“Where is it?” we asked, looking further and further out. “Right there,” said Derek, pointing to a yellowish, bloated carcass jammed between two logs about 15ft from us, near where we’d drawn water the night before. It had obviously been there a while, with logs backed up behind it outside of the main flow and close to the edge of the lake.

I think we all felt a little sick.

Back at camp, we held counsel. The original plan had been to day-hike to Lake Viviane, the lowest lake in the Enchantments basin and just 2 miles away and 1360ft up the head of the valley. But the dead goat unnerved us; we weren’t certain our water was safe to drink, although it had been treated. Mike was sick, and the mosquitoes were thick, possibly because we were so close to a brackish pond. Derek and I agreed to hike around the lake to look for a campsite closer to the upper basin, and with fewer mosquitoes. From there, we’d figure out what to do next.

It worked out well. Derek and I found a camp next to a granite shelf that gently sloped into green-blue water, and we moved camp, set up out tents, and prepared to hike to Viviane. I stuffed my ultralight day-pack with gear, Mike and Derek reorganized their backpacks, and we set off in early afternoon with a mission: find a cleaner source of water.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Thundering Waters: Toketee Falls, July 6th, 2010

Toketee Falls is one of the most beautiful falls in Oregon, roaring out of a narrow gorge on the North Umpqua River. Toketee means “graceful” or “pretty’ in Chinook jargon, an apt name for a waterfall spilling 80ft over columnar basalt into a deep green splash-pool. An upper tier brings Toketee’s combined height to 120ft.

On the way back from Crater Lake, my friend and I camped at nearby Clearwater Falls, and hiked the quarter-mile trail to Toketee the next morning. The trail leaves a parking lot next to a huge, old, wooden pipe, part of an upstream hydroelectric project. Recently closed to repair storm damage, the newly opened trail follows wooden staircases and boardwalks through old-growth forest, ending at a viewing platform above the pool. The morning light made photography difficult, but the falls were stunning anyway, surrounded by steep cliffs, tall trees, and the roar of the cascade. Toketee, and the rugged beauty of the Umpqua River highway, made a fitting end to a spectacular trip.

Distance: ½ mile roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 200ft (est)
Region: Umpqua National Forest
Information: Managed by the Diamond Lake Ranger District, USFS
Directions: Turn off Highway 138 near milepost 58 onto the well-signed Road 34. Stay left at the fork, cross the bridge, and find the trailhead 200ft to the left.