Tag Archives: thanksgiving

Thanksgiving 2016 off the beaten path

November 23-27, 2016.


It’s become something of a tradition, the annual Thanksgiving trip. There are a few important components:

  1. Get away from humanity. It’s not that I don’t like you guys, it’s more that it’s nice to get away sometimes. Like, really away.
  2. Adventure. There must be some places to hike and explore nearby.
  3. Dessert. Pie, ice cream, and maybe some dinner foods and even vegetables. But, clearly dessert is the highlight.
  4. Desert. Yes, drop the “s” and you get another essential. In winter, being in the desert is akin to being on the moon. It’s cold, desolate, barren, and almost guaranteed to be free of people. It’s the perfect place for me (and Aaron) to experience solitude on this crazy holiday.

Planning for Thanksgiving is almost as fun and anxiety-inducing as undertaking the trip itself. I dug out some hiking books and pulled out the Oregon Gazeteer to scout some locations. Now that we’re in Bend, we’re three hours closer to the dry side, and that opened up a world of possibilities.

As you read the story, check out the photos.

Arriving in Eastern Oregon

The day finally arrived, and we loaded up the car with supplies. Heading out of town on a late Wednesday afternoon, we quickly angled south and east, driving past Fort Rock, Silver Lake and Winter Rim. A quick stop in Paisley for dinner and our bellies were full for the last stretch of the drive. Our travels took us nearly to Nevada, then we turned off into a maze of gravel roads for 20 miles to our camp.

In the pitch black night sky, we swerved and skidded to avoid literal hordes of jackrabbits who were apparently meeting for a star party. There were SO MANY of them. I was relieved when we pulled off the road and didn’t find any pelts flattened on the car tires. We quickly set up camp under brisk 20-degree evening skies and fell asleep.

A four mile tour

I had acquired some rough hiking information for this area from books and websites. Today’s jaunt would be a 4.5-mile loop with about 1500′ of elevation gain. Pretty mellow by the numbers. But we discovered yet again that theory and practice are often very different beasts.

We began walking up a dirt road in the direction of a spring. When we arrived, we found a spot with slightly more vegetation than the surrounding area, suggesting perhaps there was water nearby. A small, fenced in area prevented us from walking straight towards our destination, so we veered left into a jumble of rock pinnacles, canyons and brush.

Making our way through, over, around and down the rocks took a lot more time than the “as-the-crow-flies” distance would suggest. But it was a fun little scramble. We found caves, interesting rock formations and lots of animal sign. The gray clouds above set a moody tone across the vast desert. We had all day to ramble, and so ramble we did.

The mountain we were ascending was more like a rolling plateau with several highpoints. We walked over one of them without even registering it as a destination since we were so focused on the higher point in our sights. Atop that high point, we sent a SPOT check-in to the family back home and continued towards the next peak ahead.

A barbed wire fence blocked our passage to the actual high point, so we sat on a pile of rocks out of the wind and finally ate lunch.

Coming down was an adventure, too. We aimed for a broad gully between the two peaks. The seemingly straightforward slope was a medley of tangled sage and loose rocks. Slowly we plodded downhill. It was nice to finally reach a dirt road and briskly hike out the rest of the way.

Thanksgiving dinner

Six miles and 4.5 hours later, we made it back to camp. A couple of hours relaxing in the tent killed the remaining daylight. Then it was time for the real festivities to begin.

I’d learned a lot about preparing a massive holiday dinner on a camp stove in the last seven years. This year I streamlined the menu and the prep, and making an incredible meal was a cinch.

On our plates:

  • roast turkey
  • gravy
  • mashed potatoes
  • green beans
  • cranberry sauce
  • bread and butter
  • meat stuffing

And of course, dessert. We had a delicious apple pie from Newport Market. Our campfire provided warmth and ambiance on that long night, and we marveled at how dark the skies above were. We’ve been to some pretty remote places, but it felt especially dark here. No moon, just some stars through the clouds. With no fire or headlamp, and no light pollution on the horizon, it felt like being in a cave. Pure darkness. And pure silence. No air traffic overhead. That particular combination of darkness and quiet was something I’d never felt before.

Another day, another hike

On our second adventure from camp, we walked back up the road we drove in to try and find a “trailhead” for a second mountain hike. This one started at an alleged road that would lead past a watering hole to a gate. We walked right past the road’s location, as confirmed by checking my GPS app, so we walked cross-country in the general direction of the aforementioned road.

Upon finding the watering hole, we kept climbing uphill until a gate came into view. The “road” was so overgrown it was barely even noticeable, so it didn’t help us walk faster or stay on course. The mountain was visible from camp so the route was very simple. The only obstacle was the barbed wire fence in our way.

Aaron figured out how to open the gate, thankfully, as I alone probably would have just climbed over the rock pillar to pass over it.

On the other side, we just walked uphill, avoiding the occasional boulder and the very frequent animal den. The rabbits were very busy digging holes in this hill.

As we neared the summit, the wind started blasting full force. When I stopped to catch my breath I was nearly knocked to the ground, so I just kept moving. On top, we again sent a SPOT signal and had a little snack as we tried to protect ourselves from the battering wind.

My hike directions mentioned that you could do a ridge walk over several other little highpoints, terminating on a pointy bit a couple miles away. Sounded like a plan to me, so we fought through the wind over the broad, rocky ridge, wondering exactly which of the many highpoints we were aiming for.

Along the way we encountered another fence, but found an easy place to cross it. As we ambled down the ridge, the wind began to die down a bit and the walking almost became enjoyable again. The remoteness of the region was so beautiful. With the exception of the fence and one dirt road, there was hardly a sign of human presence here.

Atop our final highpoint of the day we surveyed the area, trying to identify the valleys, peaks, mesas, and other features we could see from there. And, in the back of my mind, I was quietly scheming the next trip.

We set a bearing to our camp and headed in a straight line, cross country, to our destination. We knew there would be two fence lines in our way, and decided we’d just figure out that bit when we got there.

The first fence crossing had a conveniently placed board that allowed us to push the wire down and cross over. Easy. On we walked, crossing a field filled with golden grass. Aaron spotted a coyote in the distance, the first thing besides a rabbit that wed seen. Keeping right on our compass bearing, we continued over undulating valley hills. In the distance, I saw the fence. As we got closer, I saw a gate. Right. Where. We. Needed. One. It was kind of ridiculous. We passed through the gate and had nothing but time in between us and our camp. It turned out to be a glorious day.

Another restful afternoon in the tent, and then dinner. Chili, if you were wondering. It’s not only delicious, warm and hearty, but pretty easy to make in camp. But the highlight of this evening was ice cream ball soccer. We were a bit too full last night to have ice cream with our pie, so we saved the festivities for tonight. Ice cream ball soccer has been part of the Thanksgiving tradition for the past few years. It’s fun, and a great way to generate some heat on a cold winter camping trip.

Nevada-bound

The next morning, we packed up the car and had a quick breakfast: banana, ice cream and chocolate almonds (that’s all the food groups, right?) before heading out. We cruised over the gravel roads easily, this time in the daylight and without rabbits everywhere. Back on the highway we continued into Nevada with our destination in sight: Sheldon National Antelope Refuge.

I’d tried to find some information on sights to see in the refuge before we left on our trip. But information besides the basic logistics was hard to come by. The official refuge brochure states:

“Hiking is encouraged throughout the refuge where open terrain provides ample cross-country hiking options. No designated trails are maintained, but game trails may be followed up many drainages and onto plateau tabletops.”

The refuge overview map indicates some places, but there’s no information on how to get there or what there is to do/see there. I found a few newspaper articles mentioning hiking, but again there were no directions or recommended places to go. We would be on our own.

So we began at the Virgin Valley Campground, the only campground that was maintained for year-long use. The campground was nice, but really windy. On our way in we’d noticed a beautiful canyon and were curious if we could check it out. A road behind the campground led uphill towards a purported viewpoint. We drove up the road until we felt like stopping, then walked about 2 miles to an overlook above the canyon.

It was jaw-dropping for a number of reasons. Glorious views, check. Dizzying heights, check. No guard-rail or signage to prevent you from free-falling to your death, check. Just nature in all her raw beauty. And we’d just kind of stumbled across it. There’s real value in adventure, something that is lost with astonishingly easy access to information.

That’s one thing that drew me here: the surprising lack of information. No trails, no hike descriptions, no step-by-step maps. As our parks and wild places become enticing destinations for more and more visitors, they appeal to me less and less. I don’t want to share the trail with 500 other people just to see a view I’ve seen posted all over the Internet thousands of times before. It’s just not that much fun anymore. When you venture off into places unknown, there’s greater potential for more memorable experiences. You run the risk of encountering duds, making wrong turns, and problem-solving obstacles, but isn’t that the whole point of exploring?

Now, our appetites whet for more we retreated down the road to find our way to the mouth of the canyon. Before heading in we warmed up some soup for lunch. The sun was reaching its afternoon peak and we’d appreciate that for our exploratory walk into the depths of the canyon.

We started up a game trail that led up into the jumbles of rocks beneath the canyon’s steep but crumbly cliff walls. Not good for rock climbing. Besides, every crack, hole, crevasse, and depression looked like an animal condo. I’d never seen so many middens, dens, and piles of animal scat in one place before. We hoped to see some critters in there, but they were safely tucked away for the duration of our hike.

Aaron led the way, and as the game trail petered out we hopped across talus fields, scrambled down to the water and tramped along the dry, cracked mud at the edge of the stream. We hiked to a sunny patch in the canyon, where we plopped down on a boulder and lay out like a couple of lizards, absorbing heat before continuing on.

We had planned to turn around there, but Aaron was wondering what was around the next corner…

That’s a dangerous road to travel in a twisty canyon. There’s always another corner. But it was so hard to turn back. Eventually we did, picking a different route and making new discoveries along the way. It was one of the highlights of the whole trip.

Last camp, and a surprise

Since the roads were clear, we decided to drive west through the refuge on one of the auxiliary roads to scope out a few more camping options. We drove through expansive sagebrush hills, looking hopefully for a herd of antelope, but to no avail. We saw about 8 deer near the Virgin Valley Camp, and that was it.

When we got out of the car to explore, we were met with bitter winds and cold that sunk right into our bones. It became more and more difficult to leave our cozy, mobile cocoon.

As the sun was threatening to go down, we pulled into the Catnip Reservoir Camp. A few haphazard fire rings sat near the lake. There was a pit toilet, but no other amenities. We chose our favorite site and began assembling our camp. The wind was constantly reminding us that we humans are not built for this. My frozen fingers set up the tent as quickly as they could while Aaron worked at getting a fire started. In my makeshift kitchen I squatted by the camp stove with wind pouring up my backside through the gap between my sweatpants and my five upper layers. So that’s why Patagonia sells onesies, I thought. I used the rest of our turkey gravy in our pork stir-fry, which was a warm and welcome addition to the meal.

We grabbed a chocolate bar and retreated to the tent soon after dinner to warm up. The wind would continue to blow all night.

And then, it began to snow. Icy pellets of snow pounded into the tent fly for half the night. I didn’t know what to expect the next morning, or how awful the roads would be. We still had many, many miles of unknown gravel road to get back to Oregon.

Homeward bound

We waited for a break in the weather before bursting out of the tent. We moved efficiently to get a fire going, make breakfast and tear down camp. The snow relented enough so that we were only battling the cold and the wind. Only. I admit I was a little grumpy this morning, as I fought with cold hands, a finicky stove, and snow-covered everything.

After getting some cocoa and eggs in my belly I felt a little more human and rallied to pack up the tent and load up the car. The roads were totally driveable, and the whole scene covered with a blanket of fresh snow was nothing short of magical.

My photos do nothing to paint the picture. Thick clouds and filtered sun made everything on camera seem much darker and flatter than they looked in person. Score another point for actually being there instead of living through pictures. You really need to be in a place to truly experience that place. Even if I had a pro photographer documenting this trip, the pictures do little to communicate the wholeness of the experience.

Choose your own adventure

This year I’m signing off with a plea. Go out. Just go. Explore. Find a new special place. Be there, in the moment. Prepare to be astounded. Prepare to be frustrated. Prepare to learn a lot: about yourself, about your travel buddies, about your world.

But here’s the key: prepare. Here are some tips to planning and carrying out your next adventure in the wild unknown:

  1. Do your research. Find out what you can about an area. Buy or borrow guidebooks. Pore over local maps. See what you can locate online. Find recent trip reports, if possible. Or at least look for trip reports around the same time of year you anticipate going on your adventure. A trip to Sheldon in July is going to require different planning than a trip in December.
  2. Anticipate and plan for problems. If you’re heading into the desert, bring more than enough water and an extra can of gas. Have the tools and knowledge to take care of possible car problems on the road. There’s no cell service and no amenities for many, many miles.
  3. Have a plan, and be flexible. Communicate your plan to at least one responsible person back home. Let them know where you’ll be and when. Let them know when you’ll be back in town, and when to sound the alarm if they don’t hear from you. Have a backup plan, or two, in case what you want to do just doesn’t work out. Make sure they know your backup plans, too!
  4. Carry a communication device. I’ve used the SPOT messenger for several years. And while I’ve never had to call for a rescue yet, I know that I’ve got that option if the you-know-what hits the fan. By far the most important feature is that I can check in with my contacts back home to let them know that all is well. They get an email with my GPS location and an “OK” message.
  5. Keep a positive attitude. You know all those epic photos from National Geographic and pro adventure athletes? There’s a lot of pain and suffering behind each one of them. Adventuring off the grid and into the unknown can have its ups and downs. It isn’t a totally blissful experience from start to finish. Stay positive, be ready to be challenged, and face each one with a smile. It’s all part of the experience. You’ll be tired, cold, hot, achy, and irritated. But you’ll also be joyful, curious, exhilarated, and awestruck. And these are the feelings that keep us coming back and pushing the envelope.

Hart Mountain Thanksgiving

November 26-29, 2015.

Photos on Google Photos (no captions) or Picasa (captions).

Since 2009, Thanksgiving weekend was an excuse to bail out of social engagements for a few days and retreat into the forest. For six years, I hosted this personal retreat at a cabin in the Willamette National Forest. But this year I decided to do things a little differently. Looking for solitude, we pushed eastward and headed toward the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge.

The long road

We broke up the drive and camped at Marster Springs Campground outside of Paisley. The road was very snowy and it was a miracle that we could actually drive to the campground in the car. We set up camp in the dark, ate a quick meal and turned in for the night.

We woke up and looked at the frozen thermometer: it was a few degrees below zero. The air was frigid, and we only began to feel human again once the sun crested over the nearby peaks.

On we drove, taking a quick stop at the Warner Wetlands to use the restroom and practice some handstands. You go a little loopy sitting in a car that long. Then began the long and winding ascent up to the Hart Mountain plateau, until we eventually crested the top of it and chose a campsite.

Happy Thanksgiving


It felt like such a treat to set up camp in the middle of the day. The sun felt warm, we could see without the aid of a headlamp, and we had lots of space to spread out. We dug out some paths in the snow, set up the tent and kitchen area, changed clothes, and greeted our chukar neighbors. Then, we scoped out the hot springs and took a little walk around the camp area before it was time to make dinner.

Thanksgiving dinner is a spectacle, whether I’m in the city or the backcountry. I had 2 pots, a skillet, a camp stove and a fire pit. It was time to get to work. I strategically warmed up our feast, which included:

  • turkey (white and dark meat)
  • gravy
  • mashed potatoes
  • mashed carrots and parsnips
  • bread stuffing
  • meat stuffing
  • bread and butter
  • cranberry sauce (jellied and whole berry)
  • green beans


I’d like to say we savored each bite, but it was so damn cold outside we wolfed it down and ran over to the hot springs. We even left most of the dishes for the morning.

The hot springs was magical. We sat and soaked, watching the nearly full moon rise over the stone walls of our little enclosure. The water temperature was perfect. The worst part was getting back out. Emerging from a hot pool, water dripping down your skin, entering the -20 degree air was an experience I hope never to repeat again. We toweled off and jogged back to our campsite, where we dove into the tent and settled in for a cold night.

Warner Peak


We slept in, waiting for rays of sun to reach our camp. While making breakfast I encountered some fun new barriers: all of our food was frozen solid. Eggs crystallized as they came out of the shell (if they hadn’t frozen through already). I had a tough time keeping my pancake batter fluid. These were serious problems that I was kind of glad to have. I enjoy the challenges of making camp life tolerable in below freezing temps.

We got off to a late start for our big hike. At 10:30, we finally stepped out of camp ready for an adventure. The last time I’d hiked Warner Peak was on a hot and mosquito-infested day in July several years ago. The challenges then were much different than the difficulties we faced today.

Instead of following the bushwhack suggested in the Sullivan guide, we walked up Barnhardi road two miles to Barnhardi basin. From there we followed a path to the cabin and had a snack. The air was cold, but the bright sun warmed our skin and contributed to a pretty comfortable hiking temperature. The snow on the ground was light and fluffy, but it was already starting to make walking a bit difficult, especially where it formed deep drifts.

From the cabin we made our way up a thickly vegetated gully towards the ridge. This was slow going. It was walking uphill, through the snow, with loads of roots, branches and other traps buried out of sight. Eventually we crossed the stream and wandered up the other side of the gully, ridge in our view. On paper, the mileage looked really short and do-able. On the ground, however, it felt as if we were moving at a snail’s pace. The late start made us feel even more like slackers. The sun had already crested and we had miles of uphill travel to go. At one point, Aaron asked me to set a turn-around time. I had summit fever, so I estimated a time that would get us back to the road before dark. “3 pm,” I said, ” and that’s conservative.” The last part was to make sure that Aaron would agree and not spend too much time overthinking the math.

As we trudged along the ridge, each little up and down was like torture. A slight breeze began to blow, ominously foreboding a very cold night ahead. We reached the last false summit and caught a glimpse of our prize: a concrete building with some sort of antennae on top, like Mt. Defiance or Marys Peak. Aaron put his foot down here, convinced it was still too far. I glanced at the time: 2:15. “We’ll be there in 30 minutes at the latest. We can do this.”

As is often the case, that last hill looked way bigger than it actually was and we were on top in less than 15 minutes. We ducked behind the concrete building to get out of the wind, bundled up and got the heck out of there. Now, it was a race against the sun.

Much of the hike back was in the shade, and it was savagely cold. The hand warmers I’d opened up at breakfast time were beginning to lose their heat. We trucked downhill as fast as we could. It took a little over an hour to hike the 3 miles back to the cabin and another hour or so to get back to camp. It’s amazing how much ground you can cover when you’re going downhill and scrambling to generate heat.

By far, the highlight of the day was the incredible sunset we saw as we walked down the snowy road to camp. I stopped dead in my tracks to look up and take it all in. The pictures don’t even come close to capturing the beauty of that sunset. It was a fleeting, top ten moment, that made the late start totally worthwhile.

A couple short hikes

In the morning I came up with the best camp breakfast ever: cast-iron scrambled eggs and meat stuffing over a hot campfire. After breakfast, we were fired up to break camp and start making our way back towards civilization. As we were packing up, we both took off our down jackets and looked at each other as if to say “ugh, it’s really warming up out here!” The temperature: 18 degrees. How quickly one adapts to life below freezing.

We drove out to the visitor’s center to use the heated bathroom. A curious coyote came out to say hello, and then we went on our way. Partway down the road, we stopped to hike a 0.5 mile interpretive trail on the edge of the rim. The sunshine was brilliant and the air was so still. It’s amazing that such quiet places still exist in the world.

Further down the road we pulled off to hike DeGarmo Canyon, which was listed in a hiking brochure we picked up at the refuge. The road was unmarked and split into a few other roads, leading to some confusion and false starts. We eventually hiked to the mouth of what we thought was the right canyon. But there were no signs of a trail. We were thwarted by snow-covered slabs and thick trees choking off any reasonable path up the canyon, so we turned right back around. But our time wasn’t wasted; we watched a massive golden eagle fly gracefully along the dramatic rock formations in front of us. We again marveled at the open space and quiet, then jogged back to the car. Did I mention it was cold?

Hole-in-the-Ground


After a wholly disappointing stay at the Summer Lake Hot Springs, we started the long trek home. On the way, we stopped to stretch the legs at Hole-in-the-Ground, a volcanic crater somewhat near Fort Rock. Aaron read his book in the car while I bounded down the steep, snow-covered trail to the bottom of the big hole. I followed a couple of sets of human tracks, and then deer tracks, and then no tracks to the large, flat basin in the center of the hole. The sun illuminated the landscape, making the snow sparkle. It was a worthy stop, much unlike the less dramatic Big Hole (skip it).

And alas, our weekend of adventures came to a close. The one thing I really wanted was solitude, and we found it. As cities continue to grow and spill into our natural spaces it gets harder and harder to get away. But for now, there are many special places left in Eastern Oregon that only the most determined traveler will make the effort to visit. Especially when temperatures drop into the minus double digits.

Sixth annual woodsy Thanksgiving retreat

November 26-29, 2014.

Gold Lake Sno-Park > Gold Lake Shelter > Maiden Peak Cabin > Maiden Peak summit

Photos from the trip on Google+

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The night hike

Six years ago, I stumbled upon this gem of a trip, and I have been returning every year on Thanksgiving weekend. I rarely hike the same hike twice, but this journey has been something really meaningful to me. I was excited to come out with Aaron for his second trip to the Maiden Peak cabin.

The day before Thanksgiving, we left the deserted parking lot around 10:30 pm and walked up a dark and slushy Gold Lake Road to the three-sided shelter. At the time I looked at the tiny accumulation of snow and sincerely thought it was a terribly low snow year; but as I re-read the last 3 trip reports, I noticed that I said the same thing from 2011-2013. So I guess the snow levels were indicative of a normal snow season.

At the shelter, we made a fire and set up our sleeping bags for the night. It wasn’t all that cold, so we slept comfortably until sunrise the next morning.

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It was dreary, cool and rainy the next morning. We were in no hurry to pack up and move out. Raindrops drizzled down from the shelter’s roof.

On to the cabin

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Decked out in rain gear, we left the shelter for the three mile uphill walk to the cabin. The trail was mostly bare ground, with occasional patches of snow, all the way up to the PCT. That hill climb to the trail junction was brutal with a 50 pound pack on. But I knew the value of the weight on my back, so I trudged ahead.

As we approached the cabin, the snow finally began to fill in the trail. But we made it all the way without needing the snowshoes tied to our packs. At the cabin, Aaron split firewood and I got our gear organized.

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After a long afternoon of reading, solving word puzzles, and counting down the minutes, we decided it was time to celebrate Thanksgiving. I used the one cooking pot I had to heat up all the menu items we had. We feasted, as usual, on roasted turkey and all the fixins. I washed it all down with a can of beer. And just as we finished our meal, we saw a couple of headlamps marching towards the cabin.

The visitors

The door creaked open and a dog poked its nose inside. Oh, great, I thought, that’s the worst possible addition to the cabin. My dog allergies would ensure a miserable remainder of the trip. Then another dog entered, followed by their two human companions. I went from happy to grumpy in the course of 5 seconds.

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I scrambled to make some space for the newcomers and plopped back down in front of the fire. Aaron, a stickler for tradition and lover of dessert, excitedly asked if we could make ice cream. We did that, and served it up with a couple of slices of pie. Then, we went off to bed.

Summit or bust

The weather was awful all night, damp and rainy. The same was predicted for today. Initially I thought maybe we’d save our summit trip for the nighttime and catch the sunrise the next day. But the thought of being holed up in a cabin with two dogs all day was discouraging. We had to do our Maiden Peak hike today, despite the weather. I hoped that the rain would turn to snow as we hiked up.

We left the cabin during a little break in the weather, dutifully following blue diamonds up the Maiden Loop Trail. Shortly we reached the junction with Maiden Peak trail. Although this junction gives me trouble every year, Aaron was quick to find the first couple of diamonds and we were on our way.

The trail from this point marched pretty much uphill to the summit. I’ve never been able to follow the trail all the way to the top. Each year I find a new variation on the same theme. Anyways, going up is the easy part. Just keep walking til you can’t go up anymore.

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As the trees began to thin and dwindle in size, we lost our buffer from the wind. We stopped to layer up before the final push. My route, arguably more interesting than the actual trail, leads up to a pile of rocks, then follows a softly undulating ridge to the false summit and then the true summit. Here we passed small trees exposed to all sorts of weather. Each needle and branch was covered in layers of wind-sculpted ice. The frozen arboretum provided spruced up the otherwise gray, drab and windy surroundings.

We spent just enough time up there to scarf down our leftover turkey sandwiches before retreating along our  tracks, back into the forest. With zero visibility, there wasn’t much for us to see up there anyways.

The weather had warmed a bit since we’d left the cabin in the morning. It rained on us during the last quarter of a mile to the cabin. We were happy to be able to dry off by the warm fire once we got inside.

Waking up to winter

The next morning I sat up hacking and coughing and gasping for air. My dog allergies had caught up to me. I bundled up and stepped outside to catch my breath. But the scenery quickly took it away. Overnight, several inches of snow had fallen. The vista before me was more like the picture perfect winter postcard of years past.

I couldn’t have gotten out of there too soon. There’s nothing like hauling a heavy pack around when you’re wheezing and trying to breathe. The less time I spent in the cabin, the better. So we ate breakfast, assembled all our things, and hit the trail.

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The new snow made the walking a little more strenuous, but the added beauty more than made up for the extra effort. Aaron and I enjoyed the crisp, dry, and cold air as we plowed through fluffy snow and admired the spectacular place we were in. I quickly forgot about the breathing; I figured the slowness of my pace was due to the frequent stops to photograph nature and do silly things. We had some great conversations about nature and life and risk, inspired by all that surrounded us.

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Even the road into Gold Lake looked pristine with its fresh coat of snow. Numerous animal tracks zigzagged across the road, leaving fleeting evidence of last night’s activities. Being in the forest made me appreciate the opportunity to be out in the woods, even if it didn’t completely go the way I’d planned.

Will we return next year? I haven’t decided. It was miserable to be around the dogs. To be fair, they looked miserable too. I felt bad for them. At least I made the choice to be there, they didn’t. Maybe it’s time for me to look for a new adventure and begin a new chapter in my Thanksgiving hiking tradition. Who knows, I have a year to figure it out.

Five years of Thanksgiving Maidens: 201320122011 | 2010 | 2009

Thanksgiving at Maiden Peak, 2013

November 27- 30, 2013.

Gold Lake Shelter | Maiden Peak Cabin | Maiden Peak

Photos from the trip are on Google Plus

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I anxiously watched the weather forecast and snow levels for weeks. It had been an unusually dry and sunny fall. As much as I enjoyed the blue skies and cold, starry nights in Corvallis, I worried that my annual Thanksgiving snowshoe trip wouldn’t require snowshoes. Snow or no, I was going to embark on my pilgrimage as scheduled and Aaron was coming with me. We drove out of town after a hearty dinner on Wednesday night.

By the light of our headlamps

The trek began from the Gold Lake Sno-Park, which was completely empty. We trotted across highway 58 to begin the 2 mile road walk to the snow shelter at Gold Lake Campground. The gravel road surface was apparent, with little patches of snow and ice covering up small bits. We inched along, and I felt every ounce of pack weight on my back. See, in order to make sure my hiking partners want to go hiking with me again, I feed them very well. And since Thanksgiving was tomorrow, I filled up my pack with all the traditional Turkey Day accompaniments, plus the heaviest pie I’ve ever seen.

Although the road follows a mellow, declining grade the entire way to the shelter, it felt like an arduous uphill walk. I obviously hadn’t carried that much weight in a long time. I was thrilled to catch sight of the campground sign, meaning we were just a hop, skip and a jump away from the shelter.

As expected, the shelter was empty. We built a fire, unpacked, and hung out for a bit before calling it a night. A chilly, chilly, night.

Turkey day

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The next morning began with a warm fire, an oatmeal breakfast, and a casual start to the hike. We strapped our snowshoes to our packs and walked through the depressingly intermittent snowpack up to the cabin. The trail surface ranged from frictionless ice to hard snow to bare dirt. As we trudged uphill, we stopped to identify the occasional animal track left behind in the snow. Some big cat had walked here before us. Deer, rabbits, and other small critters had also traipsed through the forest.

We crossed Skyline Creek on a narrow log, then continued up the trail. Here we found clear snowshoe tracks, left some indeterminate time before. They looked fresh, so we mentally prepared for having to share our space in the cabin with another party.

A short, two hour hike brought us right to the Maiden Peak Cabin. Boy, was I happy to throw my pack off. The cabin was just as I’d remembered, but much less wood was cut and stocked for this year’s trip. The old log book was gone and replaced with a new one just last month, so there were only a few entries to read. The last group had left behind a pot encrusted with some sort of bean soup. It was pretty icky.

We sat outside on some uncut logs and ate lunch in the bright, warm, sunshine. It was cold inside the cabin. Aaron stepped away to split wood for the fireplace and I sat outside doing crossword puzzles until the sun sunk down below the trees for good. Now we just had to twiddle our thumbs until dinnertime.

Each year, there’s a new twist on the Thanksgiving meal. For dinner, all the usual suspects were there. But for dessert, there was a fabulous surprise. The main course consisted of:

  • roasted turkey and gravy
  • garlic butter mashed potatoes
  • black olives
  • cranberry sauce, two ways
  • toasted baguette and butter
  • meat stuffing
  • mixed carrots and peas
  • bread stuffing
  • and for me, a can of Two Towns hard cider
thanksgiving spread1.JPG

Using both the hot woodstove and my camp stove, I quickly reheated all the meal components and we sat down to dinner. It was typical in that there was way too much food and we ate until our bellies were creaking and splitting at the seams. Aaahhh. But wait, we haven’t had dessert yet…

After dinner settled down a bit, I pulled out the ice cream ball and ice cream-making supplies: cream, sugar, and vanilla. I poured these ingredients into the chamber in the ice cream ball and sealed it tight. Then, we packed the other side full of snow and rock salt, then proceeded to kick the ice cream ball back and forth on the floor, soccer ball style, for the next 20 minutes. At the end, we had freshly made vanilla ice cream to put on top of the berry pie we’d been eyeing for days.

Summit day

The next morning, somehow, we still had room for a big breakfast. I laid out the morning’s feast and put a game plan to get everything cooked and warm at the same time for a nice meal. I put the two house skillets on the wood stove to heat up as Aaron scrambled the eggs and I read the directions on the carton of dehydrated hash browns we found in the cabin free-for-all bucket. I put butter in each of the pans, one for eggs and one for potatoes—just then remembering I had packed in bacon for breakfast, too. And so, butter-fried bacon was born.

bacon and pie warming.JPG

We gorged on eggs, hash browns, buttery bacon, and warm pie.  It was delicious.

The weather outside looked delightfully bright and clear. I was excited to continue the tradition of hiking to the summit of Maiden Peak post-Thanksgiving day. Aaron and I repacked for the 6-mile dayhike, knowing we had plenty of time to get up and down the mountain by the early afternoon.

We headed out on snowshoes today, mostly because they offered some traction on the hard snow and slick ice. Previous human tracks made route-finding easy; this was the first year there was any hint of human presence before my arrival. Aaron led the way as we walked through the trees up the gentle grade of the snowy trail. Soon we were again treated to numerous animal tracks imprinted into the snow. We found what looked like wolverine tracks that were as big as Aaron’s hand. For years I’d seen the wolverine sign in the cabin thinking, yeah, whatever, wolverines… But these tracks were like nothing I’d seen before. We took a ton of pictures, then wandered back to the trail.

looking towards summit.JPG

We walked nearly non-stop until we reached the summit. That big, hearty breakfast offered a nice mix of slow-burn and fast-burn fuel to maintain our energy for the two hour uphill snowshoe. Although we lost the trail in the trees nearing the top, we picked it up again past the false summit. We followed the trail as it contoured along the north side of the conical mountain and doubled back towards the highpoint. Beautifully windswept snow decorated the mountaintop. At the summit, bare ground peeked out in places. I’d never seen Maiden Peak with this little snow on top!

We dallied here for over an hour, taking pictures, eating lunch, and wandering around the summit area. Lunch involved a variation on the traditional day-after-Thanksgiving-turkey-sandwich: crackers spread with cream cheese, whole berry cranberry sauce, and slivers of cold turkey. We were really slumming it on this trip.

three sisters.jpg

The bare ground revealed signs of an old lookout tower and a USGS benchmark. Views extended to Diamond Peak, Thielsen and Bailey to the south and the Sisters, Bachelor, Broken Top and Jefferson to the north. The longer we stayed, the more ominous the gray clouds appeared over the north central Cascades. Weather appeared to be moving in for the night. Click to see a 360 degree photosphere taken from the summit.

We walked back to the cabin, where we spent another relaxing evening eating lots of food and playing games. A light drizzle fell as the night pressed on, and we went to sleep hoping to see fresh snow in the morning.

That’s all, folks!

Instead of fresh snow, we awoke to clear, blue skies and a pretty sunrise over some fleeting, low clouds. Breakfast consisted of hot cornmeal mush with coconut milk, dried apricots and mixed nuts, plus bagels toasted in bacon grease and butter, then spread with cream cheese. I could barely get it all down. After breakfast, we packed up all our gear and kept waiting for the rain clouds to move in. They never came. We swept and cleaned up the cabin, leaving it in better shape than we found it. Another stay had come to an end and it was time to haul the last 5 miles out.

Miraculously, the weather held, and we enjoyed a sunny but brisk morning walk. Once we reached Gold Lake road, the snow was all but gone. It was ugly and brown, and much unlike any other road, it went uphill in both directions. While the road walk felt uphill on the hike in, it was actually uphill on the walk out. Ugh.

But the final slog was broken up with beautiful ice formations created by the freezing and thawing of puddles on the road. As we walked, we stopped frequently to observe and admire the unique shapes and structures created by the ice. Pointy stars, long struts, arching walls, and delicate crystals created striking patterns in the frozen puddles. It was like walking through a natural art museum.

ice crystals.JPG

We hadn’t encountered another visitor in the entire trip, making two years in a row of solitude at the cabin. And while I’ve seen the same, exact trails on roughly the same dates for five years in a row, each year has proved to be a distinctively special trip. I can only guess what excitement and adventure awaits me next year.

Ghosts of Thanksgiving past: 20122011 | 2010 | 2009

A Very Backcountry Thanksgiving, Year 4

November 21-24, 2012.

Gold Lake Sno-Park > Gold Lake Shelter > Maiden Peak Cabin > summit and back again

Sue on Maiden Peak

See the photos from this trip on Picasa.

The Beginning

This year would be different, I thought.

I left the madness of my teaching job for a simpler existence as a college student. Thanksgiving break would not provide the same respite of solitude from the fast-paced life of a high school teacher that I so desperately sought in years past. No more would I crave a break from the drama of being surrounded by crazy teenagers all day. Life was actually sort of sweet, calm, and fulfilling. So I was thrilled when my friend Sue asked if she and her husband could join me for my annual Thanksgiving tromp in the woods.

On Wednesday evening, we headed for the Gold Lake Sno-Park near Willamette Pass. We emptied out of the truck and packed our gear in temperatures just below freezing. A very light snowfall drifted down from the sky. Under the illumination of headlamps, we began to follow the road.

It was a very low snow year. Scott and Sue opted for cross-country skis and snowshoes, respectively, while I just barebooted it. There were only a few inches of unconsolidated snow on the ground that was easy to walk through. We made good time to our first destination: the 3-sided Gold Lake Shelter. We built a fire in the stove, slipped on our down booties and warm outer layers, drank some beers and chatted into the wee hours of the morning.

Thanksgiving Day

Gold Lake Shelter

The next day, we arose to sunshine and hungry gray jays lurking about the shelter. We prepared hot breakfasts, drank tea and coffee, and lazed about the shelter. At about 9:30 am, we rolled out of the shelter and headed back up the road to the trail splitting off towards Maiden Peak cabin. Again I chose to eschew snowshoes and walk in my bare boots.

The sun felt glorious. Rays of light penetrated breaks in the treetops and gave the melting snow a soft glow. We followed the blue diamonds as they wove a fairly flat path through the forest. Eventually, the trail rose gently and offered up some views of snowy ridges to the west. As we turned back into the trees, the elevation gain began to feel more evident and the weight of Thanksgiving dinner on my back began to make my hips groan and ache. No worries, though, a 3-mile day is hardly anything to complain about.

I’d been traveling fairly well in my boots. Only occasional deep snow drifts slowed me down. But as we rounded the last few switchbacks to the cabin, I began wallowing through thigh deep snow. Sue strode smartly behind me in her snowshoes, while I kept saying to myself “I know it’s just a little bit further.” Curse you, MSR, for making the least user-friendly bindings EVER.

Maiden Peak Cabin

At last we found the cabin and I was happy to give my legs a rest. With three people to split chore duties, we got settled in pretty quickly. There was already a pile of split wood by the fire, so we had a running start. In just a short while, we doubled our wood supply, melted a giant pot of snow, and got our gear settled into the cabin. Socks hung to dry behind the wood stove, foam pads and wood stumps were set up for seating, camp stoves were assembled and snacks were arranged on the table. Aahhh…the creature comforts of stylish backcountry living.

snow art

With an entire afternoon to kill, Sue and I decided to get busy making snow sculptures. Sue began with a classic snowman, then proceeded to craft more artful pieces scattered in front of the cabin. I went to work crafting a massive snow bear, which was much more involved than I anticipated. Scott went about doing his man-business, like chopping wood and whatever else men do in the forest.

Really, we couldn’t all hardly wait for Thanksgiving dinner. When the time came, we each buzzed about the cabin preparing our contributions to the feast. Stoves were raging, bowls of steaming food were covered to stay warm, and eating utensils were carefully laid out. The eggnog was cracked open and before long most of the bourbon was gone.

Thanksgiving dinner

At last we sat down to enjoy our Thanksgiving meal. We had: turkey, tofurkey, gravy, meat stuffing, bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, butternut squash, green beans, cranberry sauce, bread and butter. It was a huge challenge to get it all down but we pushed through and made sure not one morsel went to waste.

We had to sit and breathe for several hours before we could even think about pie.

Maiden Peak Hike

The weather forecast for Friday was pretty ominous. The freezing level was high, and we expected to wake up to rain at the cabin–at 6000′. Although it was warm, in the low- to mid-thirties, the air was clear and it looked like our hike to the top of Maiden Peak was a go. After breakfast (how are we still hungry?) we put on skis and snowshoes and set off in the untracked snow.

The journey from the cabin to the summit was always an adventure in years past. Wandering from one blue diamond to the next, alone, until the diamonds disappeared altogether, was mentally challenging. One year there was so much fresh snow that it was very physically demanding as well. But following my companions’ tracks through familiar terrain felt very safe and somewhat dull. It’s amazing how changing one variable can create a completely different experience. I was still happy to be outside, working hard, and sharing my time with good friends.

Snowshoeing to Maiden Peak

The boredom subsided, as it always does, when we approached treeline. This has always been my favorite transitional area. The anticipation of vast views and exposure to the elements got my heart racing and my legs moving more quickly. As Scott searched for the best ski terrain I veered off his path to the ridge, where there would be fewer tree wells and other hazards, as well as the awesomeness of being on the top of the ridge. Sue and I traced a route along the spine of the mountain’s subsummit to the true summit. All the while we enjoyed sneaking a look at the massive Diamond Peak to the south and then to the other Cascade volcanoes to the north. From the summit, we could see the Three Sisters, Broken Top, Bachelor, Jefferson and everything in between. The wind was blowing up here, but my big pink puffy coat kept me toasty warm. The thermos of soup I’d packed sure helped as well.

Skiing to Maiden Peak summit

Group shot on Maiden Peak

Leaving the summit was the hardest part of the trip. Scott took off on his skis while Sue and I walked down the mountain together. There was much more talking on this leg of the trip, since each breath wasn’t dedicated solely to fueling muscle contraction. It was a pleasant walk, and before I knew it we had arrived back at the cabin.

The Final Chapter

The afternoon and evening time was spent finishing off our meager stores of alcohol, playing card games, reading and listening to Radiolab podcasts. We also made some inventive culinary treats, like egg nog slushies with snow (tasted like ice cream) and pumpkin pie topped with roasted marshmallows.

Pumpkin pie with roasted marshmallows

It rained all night long. In the morning we woke up to a typical Western Oregon hanging mist. Typical, except it was almost December, and we were over 6000′ above sea level on the east side of the Cascades. This just wasn’t right.

We got decked out in light clothes and rain gear for the 5 mile trek back to the truck. We kept our snowshoes on for maybe a mile before we hit patches of dirt and meager accumulations of snow. The lack of snow on the ground was thoroughly depressing. By the time we hit Gold Lake Road, the ground was mostly covered in a thin layer of water and slush. Considering I had to walk 2 miles through that stuff, my boots and gaiters did a remarkable job of keeping my feet dry.

Walking out in the drizzle

Slush road

After four years of the same trip, it’s still not getting old. I neglected to mention that we didn’t see anyone out there for the duration of the trip. I love that. Visiting this special place makes for a wonderful holiday tradition that I hope to continue for years to come.

Archives of my previous Thanksgiving adventures: 2011 | 2010 | 2009

My Only Tradition: Thanksgiving at Willamette Pass (Year 3)

November 23- 26, 2011.

While others dream of spending time with family, watching football, and spending hours in the kitchen, I dream of putting 30 pounds on my back and setting off into the woods.

Photos from the trip are on Picasa. Can you find the two videos in the report below?

Day 1

It’s my only tradition; I leave town right after teaching my last class, my car already packed. I sit in traffic for hours, arriving at the Gold Lake Sno-Park well after dark. While carefully loading a Thanksgiving dinner into my backpack, I think, is this going to be boring this year? After all, I’ve done this exact same trip twice already, on the same weekend each year.

I navigate by headlamp along the gated road, noting that the snow level is really low this year. I cruise ahead at a relatively fast rate, wondering what I had forgotten to pack. After all, my load feels awfully light this year. Maybe I’m stronger. Maybe I’m used to carrying a rope and trad rack. Maybe I’m just so ready to be here that it feels like my bag is filled with feathers. Wait, my bag had better not be filled with feathers.

I arrive at the three-sided shelter, excited to get a fire going. It’s not that cold outside, in the upper twenties, maybe, but the ambiance of a fire in the wintry backcountry can’t be beat. I search the shelter for an axe. Although there is a season’s worth of wood stacked at the shelter, none of it is split. There’s always an axe here, I think, maybe I’m just not seeing it. Sure enough, no axe. Most of the wood is so big it can’t fit into the stove. I start shaving curls of wood off a large chunk with my 3″ hunting knife. An hour later, I have a fire. Just in time for bed.

Day 2

In the morning I make a leisurely cup of coffee and pot full of oatmeal. Once I’m fueled, I set off among the trees towards Maiden Peak Cabin. Little blue diamonds show me the way. I walk at a moderate pace, not mired by feet of fresh snowfall as I was last year. I blast up to the cabin in no time at all. I quickly make myself at home, finding places to set my gear, filling a huge pot with snow, taking out a tasty sandwich for lunch, and relaxing on a comfy wooden stump. Here, wood-cutting tools are aplenty; and someone was kind enough to leave a huge stash of split wood ready to go behind the stove. There would be no axe-wielding today! I make an award-winning video of the cabin interior.

I get a fire going, and then fall in and out of consciousness while sprawled out on a foam pad by the woodstove. It is surely bliss. Snow falls gently outside the window. I bide my time until dinner.

Once the sun sets I spring into Thanksgiving mode. Water must be boiled. Bread must be buttered and toasted. Multiple courses need serving bowls. Where’s my spoon? It’s time to get down to business. I lay out the spread: Roast turkey (white and dark meat) and gravy, mashed potatoes, bread stuffing, cranberry sauce, olives, bourbon-spiked soy nog, oh what am I forgetting? The spoon. I dig in, and gravy flies everywhere. That’s it! The meat stuffing! I heat it on the stove as I dive face first into the other courses. I don’t think I’ll have room for it all, but the next thing I know there are four empty bowls in front of me. And then there’s the pie and cookies…

Day 3

I wake up from a sugar coma the next morning fired up and ready to go. The sun is shining and it looks to be a good day. Temperatures are low, so I start a fire and again enjoy a warm, casual breakfast. Where do those calories go?

Heading out along the trail I connect the blue diamonds to weave a path through the untracked snow. Scouting out the diamonds proves to be hard work as many of the trees appear to be spray-painted with snow. As the terrain begins to steepen, the diamonds become harder to follow, so I set my own path zig-zagging through the woods. My eyes focus on the crystals glistening on the blanket of snow and I wonder if anything could be more perfect than this.

I move slowly, methodically, as I hunt for diamonds, break trail, and manage my body temperature. Twenty degrees is comfortable for hiking, so I think. As the trees become smaller and more twisted, I anticipate the excitement of navigating to the summit. The diamonds are long gone; I make my way up the mountainside, angling around the oddly shaped snowdrifts and fallen trees. I am almost completely swallowed up in a tree well but I manage to extricate myself after some cursing and digging. At last, the false summit appears and provides an awesome view across to the actual mountain top. A view for me! Three years I climb this peak and only once will I be able to see beyond my outstretched arm!



On top of the peak the wind blows, but I don’t care. I can see it all (and you can too!); to the north stand the three Sisters, Broken Top, and Mt. Bachelor. I think that’s Mt. Jefferson, but it may be Washington, or some other dead president. To the south is Diamond Peak. All around are large, blue lakes and tree-filled valleys. It is a tremendous view and I have it all to myself. I add layers to salvage my plummeting body temperature and sit down to have some baguette with cheese and hummus. Would I rather be shopping, like all the little lemmings at the mall today? Uh, no thanks.

I dally as long as I can before the stinging wind forces a retreat. Still, I slowly meander back through the parts above treeline that I love so much. Each step brings a new angle for viewing the surrounding landscapes. Every tree is sculpted in a slightly different way by delicate rime projections. Surely, this is bliss.

Once I dip below the trees, my pace quickens. The way is steep, and it is quicker to break new trail than to follow my old, short, footsteps. I giggle as my eyes trace the wildly meandering snowshoe tracks heading uphill; it is clearly obvious where I lost the diamonds. My new path takes me directly back to the marked trail and I am able to zip through the trees back to the cabin in half the time it took me to get up here.

Now, it’s time to get down to business. I strip down to a t-shirt, grab the axe, and head outside to hack up some wood. The stumps are enormous, and heavy for their size. They don’t give in easily. Lots of swinging, picking up tipped over wood chunks, and muttering under my breath results in a re-stocked wood supply that will last me all of tonight and tomorrow morning, plus there should be some left over for the next group that wanders up here. Feeling satisfied, I settle back in to the cabin for a snack and the comfort of more layers.

Shortly after I begin shaving wood to start the next fire, a group of three U of O students enter the cabin. They’ll be spending the next couple of days here so I have company for the night. They gladly helped eat some of my food so I didn’t have to carry it out, and they provided entertainment for much of the evening.

Day 4

As I lay in dreamland I anticipate waking up to a warm cabin filled with the bustle and laughter of my new companions. I awake, however, to a cold and quiet loft with just the soft rumbles of snoring to my right. Great. I tiptoe downstairs and set to work on getting another fire lit, while dumping out my food bag to survey my breakfast options for the day. Oatmeal and butter, a cup of Via coffee, and a few bites of marionberry pie make the cut. As soon as my fire begins to blaze I hear a squeaky “Good morning” behind me. As I set about my morning chores the three travelers come downstairs, one by one, each having gotten between 11-16 hours of sleep the night before. I am happy to leave them and sink back into my own thoughts so I load up my pack and head out of there.

The sun is doing a number on the snow outside, sending heaps of the white stuff down off of the tree branches to splat on the ground below. Even though it is warm, I am wearing my soft shell jacket to keep myself from getting soaked. I am in no rush to get home, so I take my time walking back to the road. The other group came up from Rosary Lakes so I am temporarily lulled into following their tracks until I realize I am off course. Turning around for a bit I find my junction and notice the soft indentations of my 2-day old snowshoe tracks heading back the way I came.

I only see one couple walking towards the Gold Lake Shelter once I hit the road. The rest of my 5 mile walk is in peaceful silence. It is a superb finish to another successful weekend trip. The main road greets me with a blast of blinding sunshine. My car is gleaming under a few inches of well-packed snow. I brush off my ride, sit and enjoy a hearty lunch while soaking up sun rays. I already dream of next Thanksgiving.

Archives of my previous Thanksgiving adventures: 2010 | 2009

2nd Annual Thanksgiving Snowshoe Adventure


November 24-27, 2010.

View the complete Photo Album
Evening hike to Gold Lake Shelter

I escaped Portland in the early afternoon to make my way down towards Willamette Pass before the brunt of holiday traffic. This year I hoped to replicate the amazing winter getaway of 2009 on this very same weekend. Due to some recent snow and cold temperatures, tire chains were required for the very last stretch of the drive to the Sno-Park. Since I hadn’t put on chains in a while, I had to beat them into submission to get them on my car and then I was ready to hit the road again at a raging 30 mph.

I pulled into the enormous parking lot and left my car behind, alone, under a cloudy, moonless sky. I loaded up my backpack with lots of gear and goodies, including a whole cherry pie, which I carefully placed beneath the cover of my pack, and cinched the straps tight. With a heavy multi-day backpack on and snowshoes in my hand, I waited for a gap in traffic to cross Route 58 to begin the snowy road walk to the shelter. Here was mistake number one: putting on snowshoes in 4 feet of soft snow with 40 pounds on my back. It was a steep learning curve to get back into the swing of winter travel.

The road had some old ski tracks that I followed about 75% of the way. The tracks were just narrow enough so that I had to plow through fresh snow with my right foot the whole time. I quickly worked up a sweat and de-layered to be comfortable. I kept my water bladder hose tucked into my shirt to keep it from freezing in the chilly evening hours. Eventually the tracks stopped, abruptly, and I had to put new tracks in with both feet. This slowed me down a bit, but I was in no rush. I tried to quiet my breathing and enjoy the still, nighttime air. The snow sparkled by the glow of my headlamp. It was as if I was a giant in a stadium full of eager photographers, snapping thousands of pictures of my epic journey. As the road twisted and turned through the forest I kept my eyes peeled for my sleeping quarters: a three-sided shelter with a wood stove. Shortly after entering the summer campground I spied my destination and happily marched towards it. The feeling of my pack dropping from my hips was wonderful.

I found the shelter to have no axe for splitting wood, so I fumbled with my knife to make a pile of wood shavings for kindling. After struggling with my cheap gas station lighter and wood that didn’t want to burn, I managed to get a blazing fire going to help warm me up. The temperature kept dropping; it was going to be a cold night. I slept in my down bag with a down jacket and booties on too. My dreams were full of snow.

Thanksgiving at Maiden Peak Cabin

I awoke late and spent a leisurely morning cooking breakfast, rearranging my pack and studying the trail map. The sun shone brightly overhead, encouraging me to get moving. I left the shelter behind, excited to follow my tracks back to the Maiden Peak trail. This would be the only stretch of easy walking I’d see today. The trail climbs, somewhat gently, through a beautiful forest. The tree limbs were draped with several days’ worth of fallen snow. Rays of light from the sun permeated the sky, slowly melting the snow clinging to every surface. All of this was wondrous and lovely for about an hour, after which I began dreading each footstep through shin- to knee-deep powder.

About a mile into my walk, I stopped dead in my tracks as a horrible realization shot through my brain: I’d left the cherry pie at the shelter. I had hidden it among the woodpile in hopes that critters wouldn’t discover it as I slept. Of course, I wasn’t going back for it. Bummer. That was a lot of calories to leave behind.

Even without the sadness of a missing pie, this is quite possibly the worst stretch of the trip because it is 2 miles before the first trail junction; that’s 2 long miles of not knowing where you are and how far you’ve gone. It took nearly 3 hours of snow trudging to complete this section. By the time I reached the trail sign, the sun had warmed the snow to a wet mashed-potato type consistency and snow bombs were dropping from the tree tops. More than a few times I got nailed in the face or down the back of my neck with arboreal artillery. As I continued walking, the trail traversed hillsides and climbed gradually up towards the cabin. My legs and my pack grew heavier as I walked. Finally, 5 hours after I’d left the shelter, I arrived at my resting spot for the night.

But the work was not over yet. First, I shoveled out the entry way, which had been covered by recent snowfall. Then it was time to split some wood for the fire. Once I got a fire going, I unpacked and settled in. An hour and a half later, a group of three, towing two sleds, arrived at the cabin. We’d share this space for the next two nights.

My Thanksgiving feast was well earned. I had turkey meat with gravy, mashed potatoes, French bread and butter, cranberry sauce, carrots, cornbread stuffing, and cold beer. I almost couldn’t pack all the calories in. Fortunately, my pie vacuum was filled by a warm piece of pumpkin pie brought in by the other three at the cabin. It was perfectly blissful.

Maiden Peak summit day

Oh, the joys of sleeping in. It had been a sweltering warm night sleeping in the toasty cabin loft. I awoke with the noise of three bodies shuffling about the cabin. It was 9:30.

One huge bowl of oatmeal and slice of warm bread later, I pared down my enormous pack to the bare essentials for the afternoon and headed off towards Maiden Peak. The group assured me they were headed the same way, so I was encouraged that I wouldn’t be the only one breaking trail all day. I walked out under cloudy skies and just below freezing temperatures, which was a little warmer than I would have preferred. It was now that the blue-diamond hunt began. The meandering path up towards the summit travels through a forest with well-spaced trees and nondescript terrain. Without trail markings it would be impossible to stay on route. There were absolutely no remnants of tracks to speak of.

I played life-size connect the dots with the blue diamonds about 80% of the way up to the top, at which point I predictably lost sight of the path. Since I knew I was getting close, I took the nicest looking path up until I couldn’t go up anymore. I reached the false summit and recognized the location from last year. Looking through the clouds I spied my true target and cranked it into high gear. Standing atop the viewless, snowy peak with moisture swirling around my face, I snapped a few photos and barreled back down to the comfort of the trees. I passed one of the other guys heading up on skis on my way down. SURE, how convenient…..

But, it was glorious to be able to follow tracks all the way back to the cabin. It took me half the time coming down as it did going up. My day of solitude continued a little while longer as the group was out gallavanting for a few more hours. I jumped right to splitting a huge pile of wood to last the evening. Once the fire was going, I laid down on a mat in front of the stove and dove into some reading.

Once the troops returned, we ate, drank, and played cards. By 9pm we were all winding down from an active day. And, to think, we’d only been awake for almost 12 hours…life in the winter woods is simply exhausting.

One final mission

The next morning I was intent on leaving at a decent hour so I could make the drive back to Portland without running out of steam. I multi-tasked during breakfast, packing in between bites of cereal and sips of coffee. I tried to finish up the last of my food items; I’d rather carry weight in my stomach than on my back. Just before 10 am I bid my companions adieu and attempted to find my old tracks in the snow. Much new snow had come down in the past couple of days; again I found myself breaking new trail in anything from 3-8 inches of fresh stuff. But now it was mostly downhill walking, which I rather enjoyed. It seemed much steeper than I remembered. I guess it was the elevation gain as well as the weight that made my journey up here feel so arduous! Today the air temperature was a bit cooler, so that meant I wouldn’t be dodging snowballs from above. In no time at all I found myself back at the Gold Lake Road, and I had one easy decision to make.

Just a quarter mile up the road was the Gold Lake Shelter, where I’d mistakenly left my pie. I decided to go back there and recover it. It had clearly snowed judiciously down here, and the only tracks in the snow were deep cross country ski tracks. I had no choice but to plow my own way alongside the tempting-looking rut in the powder. It took me about 20 minutes to reach the shelter, where I found my pie completely untouched! I dug through my pack for a fork and dug in. Just then, a group of three skiiers stopped by the shelter and I shared my pie with them. In return I received a mug of brandy-spiked tea, yum!

Refueled and content, I retraced my steps to the junction with Maiden Peak trail and again set out making fresh tracks. From here the road climbs gradually uphill all the way back to the Sno-Park. I found a comfortable, slow cadence for walking and stuck with it for most of the trek. I began running into skiers and snowshoers coming in from the other direction. There were so many I stopped counting; I imagine there were at least 30 people heading in today. I was immensely glad I was going the other way! The very last stretch was so well tracked by snowshoes I blasted out of there at warp speed.

The adventure wasn’t over; my car sat buried under at least 8 inches of snow, and the plows didn’t even come near my car to clear a way to back out of the lot. Fortunately I planned ahead and put a snow shovel in my car. Some time later, I found myself with a cleared off car and a driveway shoveled out from behind my car to the plowed lot. Perfect.

Year two was a success. This is going to have to become an annual thing for me, I just hope it doesn’t catch on with anybody else! There is nothing quite comparable to being alone in the woods. Nothing is as peaceful, as quiet, and as challenging all at the same time. Every grunt and labored step is merely an entry fee into a pocket of backcountry splendor that few people get to (or, want to?) experience.

The best part about being back home…is not having to put boots and snowshoes on to go to the bathroom.

Willamette Pass Winter Getaway

November 25-28, 2009.

Gold Lake Sno-Park > Gold Lake Shelter > Maiden Peak Shelter > Maiden Peak

Gold Lake Shelter

My plans for a solo overnight in the snow somewhere over Thanksgiving Break came together in this tremendously awesome three night trip. It all began late Wednesday evening when I arrived at the Gold Lake Sno-Park after driving down from Portland in Thanksgiving-madness traffic. I changed clothes, strapped on a headlamp, and put on my snowshoes for a pleasant 2 mile stroll to the Gold Lake Shelter.

The air was cold, still, and refreshing. The moon lit up the sky, poking through gaps in the treetops every now and again, making me think there was a car barreling down the road behind me. The noise of the road dissolved into quiet as I approached the shelter. I was moving slowly, feeling every ounce of my heavy pack on my back, and thankful that I wouldn’t be gaining much elevation tonight. Once I reached the shelter I was happy to ease off the backpack and get a fire going in the wood stove. There was a generous amount of firewood stacked neatly on both sides of the 3-sided structure. An ax lay nearby; I quickly got to work splitting wood to keep me warm for the night.

The next morning I lazily rolled out of bed to the squawking call of some local jays. They were clearly interested in me because I had food. That was okay with me because they provided an hour or so of entertainment, and they didn’t steal any of my snacks. I basked in the glow of a morning fire and committed the trail map to memory for my next outing. It would be a mere three mile jaunt with some minor elevation gain to reach the cabin, located just off the PCT.

Thanksgiving

Lucky for me, there is an incredible troupe of volunteers who maintain these shelters, stock the firewood, and mark the trails for winter travel. I had no trouble at all staying on trail by following the well-placed blue diamonds stuck high up on the trees.

The sun was out, melting the snow and sending little bombs down on my head from the trees. Breaking trail with a heavy pack was hard work, and it was no problem keeping toasty warm. I reached my first landmark after two miles of walking: a junction with the PCT, and turned south towards the shelter. From here it was just over a half mile to go. And it felt like forever. The slope started to steepen slightly, and my belly was yearning for lunch. I trudged on, checking my watch every 5 minutes, to see if I was close to my destination. The sign for the cabin could not appear soon enough. My first glimpse of the cabin settled me immensely, and I bombed down through the snow to get there.

Upon entering the shelter I found it empty. It was time for some chores. Before I unpacked my lunch, I got a fire going and set a huge pot of snow on the stove to make water. The cabin was well supplied, with multiple axes, pans, chairs, foam pads, and miscellaneous doodads. There was even a solar panel array that powered three fluorescent lights downstairs and one in the loft. This was luxiurious. The Forest Service Website said it is built to sleep 15; it would do for me for the night!

I passed the time watching the fire, practicing tying knots, writing in my journal, and snacking on goodies. Once dinnertime arrived I fired up the solar lights and began preparing my Thanksgiving feast. First, the black olives came out for an appetizer. Then I sliced up some big hunks of baguette and set them on the stove, topped with butter, to toast. Then I got my camp stove going to boil water for mashed potatoes and to heat up my turkey meatballs and gravy. With additional sides of jellied cranberry sauce and cheddar cheese my meal was set. I washed it all down with a bottle of oatmeal stout and I was happy.

Maiden Peak

I slept in the next morning, had a breakfast consisting of cherry pie and instant coffee, and was rearing to go. A gentle, steady snow fell outside. It had been snowing all night. The cabin thermometer said the outside temperature was ten degrees so I dressed accordingly. Within minutes of being outside, however, I realized the temperature reading was artificially low so I had to adjust clothing again. No worries, it was only another 3 miles from the cabin to reach the summit of Maiden Peak. I could take my time.

I had to follow the Maiden Loop Ski Trail, which the ranger said was poorly marked, to the Maiden Peak Trail, which led directly to the top. I found the ski trail easy to follow and extremely well marked. Although the trail was unbroken there was a subtle indent in the snow surface that indicated the tread of hundreds of boots, skis and snowshoes from times past. It was sometimes easier to follow the indent than the blue diamonds. When I reached the trail junction I left a confused tangle of snowshoe-prints going in every direction before I found the correct route. Once on route it became easier to follow the markings. The forest was still somewhat enclosed, so often times the path of least resistance was, in fact the path. As the trees began to thin, however, there seemed to be a path everywhere. Whoever follows my footsteps is in for an interesting day. I meandered in a few spots, and eventually left the trail altogether. Once it became evident that I was nearing the top, I figured I just had to go up. This was a typical, conical Cascade Peak with no weird topography to throw me off. Or so I figured. So, as I quickly gained more and more elevation, the temperature dropped and the wind picked up. I wished I’d had my balaclava, but there were enough trees to break the wind that it wasn’t too critical.

Eventually the trees began to diminish in height and I could tell that I was nearing the top of something. A bald, false summit, excellent. Through the clouds and sideways snow I could see a bump not too far away that was clearly higher than where I was standing. I noticed the wind was doing a great job at sweeping the bare ground clean, covering up tracks as quickly as they formed. I promised to move fast so I wouldn’t lose my breadcrumb trail heading back.

Soon I reached the top of the next bump, which dropped off precipitously on the other side. This must be the summit. I took the necessary pictures and hastily moved out of the wind. I noticed my prints had almost completely vanished in that short time. I kept moving until I got back down in the cover of trees. There I stopped to put on my down jacket and eat some lunch. It was so quiet here.

Walking downhill was a pleasure. I took no time at all to return to the cabin. Not five minutes after I arrived I heard voices coming up the trail. Three snowshoers from Eugene had decided to spend the night here. After so many hours of solitude it was nice to have some company. They helped with keeping the fire going and melting snow. We chatted all night, enjoyed lots of food and beer, and shared all sorts of gear tips.

Walking out

The next morning I packed up, said goodbye, and ambled back out the way I came in. It was about 5 miles to the car from the cabin, and it was mostly flat or downhill. I stopped to look at all the animal tracks in the snow. There sure were a lot of them. I wished that I was better able to identify who makes what. They all looked like rabbit tracks to me. The ones that looked different were mutant rabbits. That was the best I could do. The sun shone brightly in the blue sky, but the trees did a great job of blocking the rays, keeping the air cold. Once I made it back to the Gold Lake Road, I noticed fresh ski tracks in the snow. Before long I ran into a couple of cross country skiers, then some others. I carefully made my snowshoe tracks off to the side of the precious ski tracks so as not to irk the skiers. So the last two miles of walking, gently uphill, with a large pack, involved breaking trail. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

This was a Thanksgiving to remember. The peace and quiet, the rustic accommodations, the cold air, the exercise, and the great company surpassed my expectations by a long shot. It was nice to get out during a time when most people are sitting at home, watching football, and telling boring stories. I enjoyed having the trails to myself, even if I had to do a little work for that to happen. I returned home feeling energized, content, and fortunate. And I can’t wait to plan the next trip.