Category Archives: General

Random musings that do not belong anywhere else find a home here.

Hunchback Mountain: Hey ma, I found a stray hiker!

May 6, 2012.

Hunchback Mountain Trail > up, down, up, down…repeat

about 16 miles | 5000′ (?) ele. gain | 8.5 hrs

I’d earned a nice long walk in the woods after having a productive grading session on Saturday, so I chose an ambitious route to Devil’s Peak via the Hunchback trail. Sources estimated the mileage to be about 18 miles and over 6000′ of elevation gain. I wasn’t sure what the trail conditions would be like, so I packed snowshoes and a good amount of water and got an early start.

The Hunchback Mountain Trail was no joke: sections varied from very steep to ominously flat and very steep again. There were lots of ups and downs, which was nice for me because it required the down muscles to jump in and do the job when my up muscles got worn out. The trail was mostly in the woods, with a few mediocre viewpoints. The air was surprisingly cold for the forecast, and I’d wished I would have brought some warm gloves with me.

Within a couple of miles, I began seeing patches of snow on the trail and before long, the ground was completely covered. I got flashbacks of my last trek in the woods and felt prepared since I brought my snowshoes! The snow never ended up getting very deep, but it was wet and soon my Gore-tex shoes were saturated. As the sun rose higher, snow bombs dropped from the trees. I found my sun hat worked nicely; it deflected the bombs from sliding down my shirt or beneath my glasses.

I walked along in quiet solitude, following the occasional bit of pink tape, dreaming up a story to explain the snowshoe tracks in front of me. Someone had been up here recently; probably yesterday. The tracks all pointed uphill so I’d guessed a solo backpacker had come up to camp for the night. I imagined I’d run into the tracks’ owner once I got higher. A male, most likely. I’d figured between the ages of 35-55, in pretty good shape for hoofing it up here alone. I couldn’t explain why this person had worn snowshoes in what couldn’t have been more than an inch or two of snow underfoot. As the miles passed, the story in my head became more filled in with detail.

As I entered a small, open meadow, the tracks suddenly left the trail and headed to my left. Weird. I continued along, thinking that this must be near the person’s campsite. But soon, I came across snowshoe tracks facing in the opposite direction. Hmmm…

Cruising along, I revised the story unfolding in my head. My eyes glanced up from the ground and fixed upon a figure. It was a man in his late twenties, standing just ahead on the trail, eyes open wide. I said hi, smiled, and he shouted “Oh My God! I’m lost! Can you help me?”

Bewildered, I thought for a minute that he must be joking. Great, all the times I harass people about giving me a hard time about hiking alone and here I am, face-to-face with the one in a billion chance of running into a psychopath in the woods. Surely it doesn’t go down like this.

But the fear in his eyes and in his voice assured me that this poor guy was truly disoriented and in need of help. I calmly asked him some questions and pieced together the real story. He had hiked up Saturday with plans to stay at the Devil’s Peak fire tower. He got confused in the meadow and lost his way trying to find the tower. Fortunately, he had a tent (and about 30 pounds of extra gear) so he tent-camped overnight. This morning, he had been walking in circles for hours and had recently texted his girlfriend that he needed help. She had contacted search and rescue.

Yikes. I made sure he was set on food and water. He wasn’t injured, and appeared to be capable of walking back out to the ranger station, where we had both started our respective journeys. I accompanied him back down the trail about 5-10 minutes, past the meadow of confusion, to the point where both our tracks overlapped. I said goodbye when we were both comfortable that he could make it back safely, then I turned around and continued towards Devil’s Peak.

I couldn’t get the look on his face out of my mind. Before we parted ways, he gave me his girlfriend’s number to call to let her know he was okay. There was no signal in the forest but up at Devil’s Peak, we thought I’d be able to send a text. I did my best to ignore the labyrinth of snowshoe tracks and stay right on the trail. It became more difficult to navigate as the snow got slightly deeper. I lost the trail in a moderately sloping hill littered with blowdown so I bushwhacked up to a high point where I was sure I’d be able to get a better perspective. No luck. I wandered back into the woods, crossed a stream, meandered across another side slope leading to the ridge and was foiled again. At least this time I reached an open area with a phenomenal four-volcano view, cell signal, and a peek at Devil’s Peak. I decided to call it a day and unpacked my lunch.

I texted the number in my phone and within two minutes I received a call from the sheriff. A SAR team had been mobilized and they were waiting in the parking lot for the lost hiker. I gave them as much information as I could, then began to doubt my decision to leave him behind.

I begrudgingly said goodbye to the only nice view of the day and to Devil’s Peak, which lay probably less than a half mile away (plus a huge drop and re-gain in elevation). I carefully made my way back to the trail, fearing that I’d get myself lost. The snow bomb landing areas looked an awful lot like footprints, making it difficult to simply retrace my steps. I breathed a sigh of relief when I found the meadow and then booked it down the trail in hopes of catching up with the other hiker as soon as possible.

The snow made quick and efficient movement easy in some areas and challenging in others. The hill climbing back up to the Great Pyramid Junction felt agonizing. At the top of the hill I ran into two other hikers, taking a break at their turnaround point for the day. We shared some information about the situation and I was glad to hear that the hiker was still trucking along safely. On the way out I passed two other groups of hikers who also reported that he was moving along.

Now practically at a run I raced down the flat portions of trail and stepped carefully over the steep, muddy slopes. At about 2 miles from the trail head I crossed paths with my friend and was happy to see him walking and in relatively good spirits. We chatted for just a short time before running into the SAR team, taking a rest on the trail.

The 6 members of the SAR team offered him food and water, took his pack, and had him sit down on a foam pad to rest. We all took a breather and talked for awhile as they radioed back to base and got ready to haul back downhill. With just about 1.7 miles to go there was still a significant amount of elevation to lose. They were all carrying overnight packs to be prepared for any situation.

We both walked out with the SAR team, which moved VERY slowly and methodically. Walking that slowly made the steep downhill feel like nothing 🙂 So this is how out-of-shape people do this, I thought…

We arrived at the parking lot around 4:30 pm, and I was relieved to be back at the car. It was quite a surreal day. I am sure that if I hadn’t randomly been up there that this man would likely have spent another night camping since it would have taken the SAR team several more hours to hoof it up to where I found him. I am glad that I was at the right place at the right time.

What lessons can be learned? I think the hiker did some things right and some things wrong. He did realize the gravity of his situation and called for help once he thought he was unable to rectify the problem on his own. He did not stray too far from the existing trail, and he was ON the trail when I found him. He was just so mentally out of it that he didn’t know where he was.

What decisions could have been different? For starters, he appeared to be inexperienced at backcountry travel, especially alone. I think he could have picked a shorter and more obvious goal for a solo overnight trip. Secondly, at the first sign of losing the trail he could have stopped and reassessed his objective. He didn’t have a GPS and I am not sure if he had a map. Since he was prepared for overnight tent camping, he could have set up camp and done a quick search for the trail to Devil’s Peak in the morning, with more sunlight and more energetic legs. Third, keeping your head is so important in these situations. He was not mentally there when I found him. He was likely dehydrated and not eating enough food. He was tired, stressed, and out of sorts. After initiating SAR he might have hunkered down in a sunny spot and relaxed, took his pack off, melted some snow, and let his brain re-focus.

I am so glad there’s a happy ending to this story. Devil’s Peak, I’ll get you next time.

Mt. Lady Washington

March 27, 2012.

Longs Peak Trail > East Slope of Mt. Lady Washington and back, give or take
about 8 miles | 3880′ ele. gain | 6 hours

The low snow year in the Front Range made this hike accessible to a couple of travelers who didn’t pack for mountain climbing. Sue and I left the empty trailhead in trail shoes and all the clothes we had in our carry-on luggage. I had brought a compass and first aid kit in anticipation of getting out on a hike. We borrowed some handwarmers and one set of hiking poles from Sue’s mom, and felt we were ready to take on this 13,000 foot peak.

The trail was immediately snow covered but the surface was hard-packed. Sue and I split up the hiking poles so we each had one and hoped the traction of our shoes would be good enough. In less than an hour we reached the start of the alpine tundra, as designated by a handy sign. It reminded me of being back in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We followed the trail as best we could, then retraced the steps of the last folks who came up this way and were nice enough to pack the snow down. We finally left the last tree behind and came out into a wide expanse of rock and snow. The wind was blowing consistently at about 10 mph but the sun was warm, which made the wind bearable.

The route description on SummitPost said to go up the boulder-strewn east slope to the top. This was going to be the easiest navigation ever. We left the trail where it became lost in intermittent snow and vegetation patches, tracing a straight-ish line through the massive boulders towards the top of the peak. To our left towered Mt. Meeker and Longs Peak, which we could barely see over the broad slopes of Mt. Lady Washington. My whole world was now filled with boulders. Bits of snow lingered between them; I zig-zagged back and forth among the rockpile, avoiding snow, and looking back to make sure I hadn’t lost Sue. As we ascended, the wind got steadily more noticeable and the air temperature dropped. I stopped every now and again to add another layer or cinch down my jacket’s hood, until all my layers were on and no more adjustments were possible. My legs were getting cold but my core was toasty warm.

Finally, I could see more sky than rock and I knew the summit ridge was close. I yelled down at Sue that we were almost there, but she had to come up really close to hear me since the wind was blowing so hard. We topped out on the ridge and were immediately blasted with a wall of fiercely blowing wind. Based on NOAA’s wind speed estimation chart, I’d say the average wind speed was about 35-40mph with gusts another 5-10 mph more. It became difficult to walk and my face felt frozen.

Sue and I made slow progress along the top. I could tell that this was not Sue’s favorite place to be but I was loving every second of it. Soon she made some hand signals to me that she would not go any further. I gave her a huge smile and big thumbs up as I continued along into the wind. I had to walk sideways with my hands against the rock and my back to the wind so I wouldn’t get blown off my feet. Occasionally I needed to stop and let the gusts die down a bit before taking another step. It was SO AWESOME! I could see the top of the peak, and I knew once I descended a bit I would be out of this hellish wind. As I pushed on I felt incredibly alive and present in the moment. I remember briefly turning into the wind to get a different view and it literally took my breath away–the wind was whipping so hard I couldn’t breathe. Another few sideways steps and I found myself just below the summit boulder, which is where I stayed to take some photos, scream into the wind, and check out the most amazing view of the Diamond on Long’s Peak. WOOHOO!!!!

Sue was probably freezing her butt off waiting for me, so I retreated as fast as I could back to where we parted ways. We decided to follow the north ridge down, since it was less steep than the eastern slope. The downside of this route was that we were not buffered from the forceful winds blowing in from the west. I utilized the crab walk technique to descend into less windy terrain. I had to stop for a bathroom break on the way down and noticed the skin on my legs was bright red from being assaulted by the wind. Nuts! We were both happy to make it back to the trail and into the more predictable 10mph wind, where we sat, de-layered, and ate some snacks.

I was absolutely amazed that we hadn’t seen anyone so far this entire day. The mountain was peaceful, enjoyable, and majestically scenic. A short walk along the trail brought us back to the junction where the trail went down to Chasm Lake. From there we had excellent views of the three peaks: Lady Washington, Longs and Meeker. It was really hard to turn around to go home. Sue led us out along the trail, or long staircase built into the moraine, until we lost the trail in snow. We followed footprints through deep snow that led us into the woods a very different way than we came up. Luckily, the prints brought us back to the trail proper and we made it back to the car in no time at all. The snow was packed pretty hard and was very slippery, so Sue took the poles and I used a fallen branch as a stabilizer during the last segment of our walk.

There were only a few cars in the lot when we returned. We passed two dayhikers as we descended into the forest. I still can’t believe that we were able to find solitude near Long’s Peak. Everything I’d read about this area mentioned the popularity and the crowds.

I’d say that, by far, this hike was the highlight of my Colorado trip. Having beautiful weather, some excitement from mother nature, spectacular views, a great hiking partner, and solitude made this trip one to remember. I can’t wait for another opportunity to explore the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

See the photos from the entire trip on Picasa.

Garden of the Gods

March 26, 2012.

About 7 miles of casual walking through the park…trails ? ?

On day 3 of my Colorado vacation, Sue and I drove down to Colorado Springs to have lunch with my grandmother and then explore Garden of the Gods Park.

This free city park has 15 miles of hiking trails, rock climbing, a visitor’s center and extensive “Trading Post” as well as gorgeous desert scenery in all directions. We left the car at the Visitor’s Center and walked along the Gateway Trail to the popular central area of the park. From there we joined up with the Central Garden Trail, which was teeming with visitors. Red, orange and white rock formations rose into the sky around every corner. Rock climbers scaled these vertical walls while casual tourists slowly ambled beneath them. We escaped the crowded loop and continued southwest along the Scotsman/Buckskin Charlie Trail with the intention of traversing the park.

Cool rocks beckoned off-trail visitation. One of these rocks had a piton shoved into a small pocket. I am sure the local climbers have explored every inch of the rocks out here. As the sun shone and the wind blew, we continued our journey with the Siamese Twins trail. The Siamese Twins was a rock formation that contained a small window; on a clear day we would have gotten a view of Pikes Peak through there. But, the haze from the wildfires blurred any distant vistas today.

A little more walking brought us to the Trading Post. We went inside to look at all the trinkets and treat ourselves to ice cream. We hung out in the sun for awhile, wishing we could store the Vitamin D for our inevitable return to gray Portland.

The last stop was Balanced Rock, which we drove past on our way into the park. This place was under attack by tourists big and small. Sue patiently tried to get a person-free shot of Balanced Rock while I explored the features on the other side of the street. I discovered an old stairway built into the adjacent rock feature, which must have led to some old view point or gift shop. The bottom of the staircase must have been removed to prevent people from climbing up there. Nearby was a sign warning of the dangers of climbing without knowledge or gear, referring to the fatalities that have occurred at the park. With all sorts of tasty rock so accessible to the average person, it’s not surprising that many accidents happen there.

We’d now seen all the major features of the park and simply had to make our way back to the car. We took essentially the same way back, except that we followed the other side of the Siamese Twins Loop and took the trail to the west of the driving route to connect back with the Central Garden. We got slightly different scenery and a bit more shade this way.

The crowds had died back a bit so it was slightly more comfortable to weave our way through the main rock features and take pictures.

Although it seems the park encourages people to drive from parking lot to parking lot in order to see all the sights, Sue and I had a wonderful tour of the park on foot. We actually got quite a large stretch of trail to ourselves once we walked away from the major points of interest. This is a gem of a park that I would love to visit again if I find myself in this part of the world in the future.

See the photos from the entire trip on Picasa.

Go West

December 27, 2011.

Deschutes National Forest > Glass Buttes > Horse Ridge Natural Area > Portland

* Click the map above to zoom in *

A couple more checkmarks

The snow never came down during the night, so I didn’t need to make a dramatic escape. I rose just after the sun did, planning to backtrack 50 miles before heading home for good. One of my goals of the trip was to tick off several “Unique Natural Features” listed in the Oregon Gazetteer that I had not yet visited. Glass Buttes was listed as a site rich with obsidian; this was the traditional obsidian warehouse for American Indians. They collected the precious rock to make arrowheads. I was excited to visit this place, since I was actually this close. I’d never had any reason to travel this stretch of road before.

I followed my scrawled directions to Glass Buttes and was greeted by a barbed-wire fence with an equally uninviting gate. I got out of the car and looked for an alternate entry point, but nothing was obvious. I was rather disappointed in all the extra driving to get here, but I didn’t want to be accosted by some angry landholder accusing me of inappropriately accessing private land. The wind was blowing, hard, and the cold morning air was being driven right through me. Hungry, I busted out my camp stove and whipped up a steaming batch of oatmeal. In the comfort of my car I polished off my warm breakfast while squinting through the sunlight at the beautiful butte rising up from the flat desert.

Defeated, and with many miles left to travel before reaching Portland, I turned and left. Nothing stood between myself and home, 200 and something miles away. Or, so I thought.

Horse Ridge Natural Area was my last shot at hitting a “Unique Natural Feature.” Located not far out of Bend on highway 20, I would be driving right past it in an hour. The familiar brown sign greeted me as expected, letting me know I had a patch of public land to investigate. At the Horse Ridge Trailhead, there was a map of the roads and hiking paths leading to, but not inside, the Horse Ridge Natural Area. That was good enough for me. I packed a very light bag and set off at a good clip up the trail. I walked for about 30 minutes before swinging around 360 degrees to take in the views and then returned the way I came. It was a pretty area, but I was set on getting back to town at a reasonable hour, and before the working crowd was heading home.

I was surprised to see, as soon as I hit the road again, there was a pointer for Oregon Badlands Wilderness. What! I had no idea this place existed! As my car careened into the lot, I poked my head out the window to read the trail signage. Damn. There were many miles of hiking paths there. Had I known, I definitely would have spent a day slogging around these trails. Luckily, the Badlands aren’t too far from Bend, making it not so hard to get back here. Endless adventures await me…

Reflecting upon this trip, I have made a few observations.

1. Traveling alone gives me precious detox time, where I can free my mind from work responsibilities and life’s other obligations. It provides an opportunity to reconnect with what’s important, and lets my mind filter out thoughts that do not serve me. As “dangerous” as some people think it is to camp and travel alone, I find this time critical for my own happiness and well-being.

2. Leaving some space for flexibility in a travel schedule affords time to take advantage of opportunities that come up. Scheduling every last detail hampers curiosity.

3. Adapting to the hand dealt by nature is a great way to utilize and develop problem-solving skills. I was not expecting the temperatures to drop as low as they did on this trip, so I had to pull many of my old winter camping trips out of the bag, and I discovered a few new ones. Being confronted with challenges is an enjoyable way to forge new connections in the brain and keep the mind sharp.

4. Most importantly, I absolutely love everything about these trips: experiencing solitude, feeling connected with nature, practicing survival skills, learning new things, and seeing new places. I am distressed that most people don’t understand why I need to get out there, and I am sad that many folks will not have these experiences out of fear. I hope that by telling my stories, I will inspire someone to try something new, and push him or herself just out of the warm, cozy comfort zone for the sake of personal growth and learning.

Read previous entries…
Dec 22: Small Town Oregon
Dec 23: Chasing Ghost Towns
Dec 24: Breathtaking Desert Hikes
Dec 25: Lava Landscape
Dec 26: A Hodgepodge of Delights
Dec 27: Go West

See the entire photo set on Picasa.

A Hodgepodge of Delights

December 26, 2011.

Antelope Reservoir > Charbonneau’s Grave > Pillars of Rome > Pete French’s Round Barn > Diamond Craters > Crystal Crane Hot Springs > Burns > Deschutes National Forest

* Click the map above to zoom in *

I didn’t have much on my agenda for today, so I pulled out the Oregon Gazeteer and the bible as written by William Sullivan to look for places to visit. I came up with a couple of notable sites on the way to Burns. Along the way, I also followed interesting-looking brown signs. It ended up being quite a full day.

First I detoured to Charbonneau’s grave in Danner. This middle-of-nowhere homage to Sacagawea’s son is graced with an American flag and treasures laid out around the gravesite. In the distance, cows mooed and dogs barked. There was a nice little sign explaining the life of the man, and a groomed walking path tracing a circle around the site. It was a charming way to start the day.

Next I traveled to Rome, where a lonely cafe was open for breakfast. I walked in and took a seat among people who all appeared to be related to each other as well as the man working the counter. I was served some weak coffee and, eventually, a decent breakfast. Tom and Jerry played on the TV overhead. Folks stopped by, said hello to everyone at the counter, then proceeded to serve themselves coffee or walk back into the kitchen. It turned out everyone in this town was related to each other.

Pillars of Rome

My next stop was the Pillars of Rome. These tall, beautiful rock walls were easy to find with the directions I’d printed from the Internet. There’s no official pullout or trail for viewing, so I thought I’d find a good place to park the car and then wander around once I got close. It turned out that I was trespassing on private land, which I figured out as soon as a beat up, old, yellow pickup truck came driving down the gravel road where I was walking. A gritty old man in the truck asked me what I was doing on his land as I humbly explained that I thought I was on public land. The map labeled much of this land as belonging to BLM, i.e me, and it was really confusing for me to figure out what was and was not okay to be exploring. I apologized and turned back towards my car. I was disappointed, since it was such a beautiful morning and I was enjoying a pleasant walk.

A little flustered, I hit the road again to drive for another long stretch. I noticed a marker for Pete French Round Barn, which sounded dreadfully boring, but it was another excuse to get out of the car. As I approached I noticed a sign for a Visitor’s Center, and it was open! Hooray for human contact (and a cold beverage).

I was welcomed into the gift shop by an old man who turned out to be a font of local knowledge. We talked about all sorts of things: the Barn, Diamond Craters, ranch life, government bureaucracy, his family’s heritage, and the education programs at the Visitor’s Center. I was enthralled. I walked around the Visitor’s Center to see the historical collectibles on display, then flipped through the myriad of books for sale. I had to force myself to buy only one. This place was great! On my way out I asked for some pointers before driving to see the local sights and he was extraordinarily helpful. If you’re ever out this way, be sure to say hello to Dick Jenkins.

The Round Barn awaited my visit. It was an impressive-looking structure, with rustic wooden planks and stone walls. The barn was used to train horses back in the day. They say this barn was one of the first with this unique circular design. While I didn’t know the first thing about training horses, I still thought it was a mighty beautiful building.

Onward to Diamond Craters. There would always be more lava to be seen on these trips. With my Diamond Craters Auto Tour booklet in hand, I drove to stop #5, where I began my tour. At each stop, I got out of the car, walked around a bit and read aloud the geological description printed in the booklet. I had fun being my own tour guide, weaving down more gravel roads and hiking through Oregon’s past all laid out on display.

Just like the day before, the cloud cover made it nearly impossible to get a decent picture of the lava. Plus, the features at this site were so enormous, I thought the best way to experience it would be from the air. Nonetheless, I stopped dutifully at each viewpoint, read the text, and looked around. It would be one of the last opportunities to experience such a quiet, desolate location before heading back towards civilized life.

But the day only got better from here; next stop: Crystal Crane Hot Springs. These springs were developed but not resorty. There was tent and RV camping available in addition to rental cabins. The natural pool outside was available for a nominal access charge of $3. I opted for the private room with a tub for just a few dollars more. The outdoor pool was swarming with kids and I knew that would not be a relaxing time for me. Inside the room was a long aluminum tub with a faucet pumping in water from the hot springs. I got it to a nice, hot temperature, stripped off all the disgusting camp clothes I’d been living in for the past 5 days and got in the water.

It was the most relaxing hour of the trip. I emerged from the tub refreshed and excited. My admission fee also included access to a shower. Squeaky clean, I hit the road for a dinner stop in Burns.

I’d read somewhere that Burns was slated to be the next Bend; an old working-class town turned resort destination. A short drive through town proved that this prediction would not likely come true in the near future. Most everything was shut down, and I daresay some tumbleweed likely blew across the road as a lonely banjo played. There were a few chain restaurants and banks, plus some local shops scattered here and there. I couldn’t find any sort of downtown strip, so I parked and walked into the only store that had lights on, Gourmet & Gadgets. Inside were shelves full of unique and handy kitchen gadgetry, from stand-up cookbook holders to colorful wire whisks and top-of-the-line cookware. There were jams, baking mixes, fancy chocolates, and hot sauces. There were cookbooks, knife sets, and decorative kitchen kitsch. It was like walking into heaven. It was almost closing time, however, and since I knew I wouldn’t be buying anything I didn’t want to waste the proprietor’s time by browsing the aisles after 5pm. I made one purchase, a packet of candy cane hot chocolate powder, and then departed. I knew that would come in handy later in the evening.

At the local bar, a dive for sure, I ate an enormous burger and fries and then split town. The sun had set long ago, so I was left to find a suitable campsite in the dark. My first stop was no good, so I set my sights on a faraway gravel road that led into the Deschutes National Forest. I figured it would take me at least 2 more hours to get there. Fortunately I was making my way through a 10-disc audiobook; that kept me company for the long haul.

It felt like forever, but finally I made it into the depths of the forest. Wood was abundant; it took me 5 minutes to round up enough wood for two nights of campfires. The wind picked up as I started the fire and intermittently, light snow drifted down. Surprisingly, the temperatures were in the low thirties and it felt like summertime. I was melting in the multiple-layered cold weather suit I was wearing. I sipped my minty hot cocoa anyways, as the wind brought with it a bit of chill. I was worried that I’d get stuck here, trapped in a web of snow-bound gravel roads, and so I slept in my car that night. That way, I thought, I could leave at a moment’s notice.

Continue the story!
Dec 22: Small Town Oregon
Dec 23: Chasing Ghost Towns
Dec 24: Breathtaking Desert Hikes
Dec 25: Lava Landscape
Dec 26: A Hodgepodge of Delights
Dec 27: Go West

See the entire photo set on Picasa.

Lava Landscape

December 25, 2011.

Leslie Gulch > Jordan Craters > Antelope Reservoir

* Click the map above to zoom in *

Christmas morning. As a kid I remember anticipating rushing downstairs to see the lights blinking on the tree, shiny presents piled up under its branches. My brother and I were allowed to dump out the contents of our stockings before my parents woke up, so we ate candy and played until the sun rose and my parents awoke from their slumber. We’d open presents and then wait for the cinnamon rolls to come out of the oven. There was a mad sugar rush that started early and lasted for the entire day.

On this Christmas morning I awoke with a different excitement. For breakfast, I snacked on the various dried fruits and other treats my parents mailed me the day before I left Portland. I didn’t want to fiddle with the stove on yet another subzero morning. I drove back out to the cabin and parked at the entrance to Dago Gulch for one last hike before leaving this pristine canyon wonderland.

I stepped out of the car, already forgetting how cold the air was. I stuffed my head into a balaclava, put on the obligatory Santa hat, zipped up the pink puffy and walked quickly up the old road. It was so cold I had to walk quickly to stay warm. I had heard about the bighorn sheep population that resided in Leslie Gulch but I very much doubted I would be able to see any wildlife at a pace like this. Oh well, I was happy to be able to walk around a bit, knowing that today would be a crazy driving-down-gravel-roads day. I never liked walking on roads, so after about 15 minutes, I called it good and turned back towards the car. I’d realized that I’d forgotten my camp chair back at the campsite, which meant nearly 10 miles of backtracking and two more trips over the worst part of the road in my car. Poor Scion. My head wasn’t in it. As I was furiously marching along the road, I heard something big flush out of the bushes to the right of the trail. Startled, I looked up to see two coyotes booking it up the side of the canyon. I stood there, frozen, as I watched the graceful beasts get as far away from me as they could. There was no time to take a picture, since I knew they’d be gone before long. I watched them disappear into the brush, and then continued marching back to my car.

I drove for a couple hours, swinging through Jordan Valley for gas, then spending more time with my good friend the gravel road on the way to Jordan Craters. Jordan Craters is a BLM site that includes a relatively recent basalt lava flow. The only notable feature on the tour brochure is Coffeepot Crater. The last mile of the road to Coffeepot Crater is recommended for 4-wheel drive vehicles but the Scion rose to the challenge again. In the parking lot I fired up the stove to melt what little ice I could extract from my Camelback so I would have enough water for a hike. After knocking the pot over and spilling half of my precious supply, I ended up with about a half-liter to ration throughout the day.

The official marked trail system at Jordan Craters is one mile long. I decided to spice things up a bit by doing some cross-country travel. The landscape was mostly flat, with the one large hill near the parking lot serving as a landmark. I started to the right of the hill, walked along the edge of the lava, then turned to walk across the lava’s surface. It reminded me of a long-forgotten asphalt basketball court that had buckled and cracked through years of disrepair. I stooped to look at the shapes created by the ancient lava flow: streams, holes, bubbles, clamshells, ribbons, pockets, and waves. Hopping from one fold to the next I found myself feeling much like a little kid, exploring this alien landscape.

When I had my fill of the lava field I veered back towards Coffeepot crater. The Sullivan guide mentioned a way to get down to the bottom of the crater, but it looked sketchy from every angle. I jumped the gun and began following what looked like a faint footpath into the crater. All the rock was loose and slippery; even the vertical rock walls looked like they could crumble at any second. I’d wished I’d had a helmet with me, although if any rockfall hit my head I’d probably be in big trouble with or without a helmet. Once safely at the bottom of the crater, I walked around on the shifting piles of gravel, rock and debris. It was really cool down there; the video doesn’t do it much justice. In my exploration I noticed what looked like a moderately sloping path up the talus to the crater’s edge. So, that’s the trail, eh…

At the surface I took two more detours: one path led straight back into the lava field along another swath of grass, and another path led towards a row of spatter cones visible from the road. The cones made interesting shapes as they jutted up from the black waves of lava. They were colorful, too: red minerals were much more vivid in these amorphous projections of lava. The footing was not as nice near the cones, and I’d pretty much had it with my adventure. After taking some pictures I made a run for the road and walked back to the car.

Lots more driving brought me to Antelope Reservoir, where I’d camp for the night. A small BLM campground sat perched on the edge of the beach, with three open campsites available. I was really excited to have a lake full of fresh water to resupply my empty bottle, but my excitement dimmed as soon as I stepped out of the car. I could hear that the lake was frozen. Hoping I was wrong, I grabbed two bottles and walked across the rocks to the lake shore. Crap, I was right. The whole thing was frozen solid.

I walked back to my campsite with a new plan. I emptied out a nylon shopping bag and went back to the lake to gather ice. In no time I had smashed enough ice along the frozen water’s edge to fill up the bag. Back at the picnic table, I fired up the camp stove and began the mundane task of melting ice, then pouring it through my high-tech bandana filter to extract the pebbly bits from the water.

While all that was happening, I scoured the area for wood. Dried, sun-bleached sage branches lined the beach. There wasn’t much big stuff to gather, but after some creative harvesting I managed a reasonable pile of fuel for the evening.

Continue the story!
Dec 22: Small Town Oregon
Dec 23: Chasing Ghost Towns
Dec 24: Breathtaking Desert Hikes
Dec 25: Lava Landscape
Dec 26: A Hodgepodge of Delights
Dec 27: Go West

See the entire photo set on Picasa.

Breathtaking Desert Hikes

December 24, 2011.

Lake Owyhee > Owyhee > Succor Creek State Recreation Area > Leslie Gulch

* Click the map above to zoom in *

Remote gravel roads

I left my spot along the Owyhee River and began the long, dusty trek back to town for gas. Not knowing exactly how large Adrian was, I drove slightly out of the way, to the town of Owyhee to fuel up. Soon after, it was back onto gravel roads as I disappeared into the vast desert.

I drove and drove among sagebrush, dust, and cattle. Here and there a large ranch would dominate the landscape, but even the largest of these would be dwarfed by the rolling hills and canyons. My route took me through Succor Creek State Recreation Area, which wasn’t really a destination as much as a scenic drive. As soon as I entered, it was clear why this area had been designated as such. It was absolutely stunning. Sheer rock walls bolted straight up from the riverbed, shading the narrowest parts of the canyon. Small pullouts here and there were wedged between the road and the river, providing much appreciated shade in the summer months but dreadful cold in the dead of winter. I kept driving. At the far end of the area, the canyon widened and a gravel spur led to a larger picnicking area with a restroom and several picnic tables. I stopped here and walked around a bit, trying to coax the scenery to imprint a little more strongly in my brain.

The desert has a way of making me feel very insignificant. The landscape goes on forever. Gravel roads, unmarked, branch off from the main road in every direction. I can only hope I’m following the correct path. Road signs can be several miles apart, and at a rate of 20-25 mph, quite some time passes before seeing another road sign. Getting lost out here would be a nightmare.

I was relieved to find a pointer for Leslie Gulch in the middle of nowhere. Only 15 more miles of gravel and I’d be at my nighttime destination. There would be a couple of hikes along the way as well. The gravel here went from bad to worse and then back again. The washboarded sections were so insanely bone-rattling I had to slow down to nearly 5 mph just to prevent all the bolts from wiggling out of my car frame. I felt a little nauseous after passing over each rough section.

Oh, to stretch the legs

I’d read that a four-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance was recommended for driving the last 8 miles to the campground. I had hoped that wasn’t true as I approached the road in my little blue Scion. At the cabin located about 4.5 miles from the campground at road’s end, a shallow, nearly dry streambed cut right across my path. I was afraid I would bottom out and get stuck so I got out of the car to check it out. It looked like if I stayed to the far left, I could make it. Fortunately I was right, and so I continued along the road until my first hiking stop.

I deferred to William Sullivan’s Yellow Book for descriptions of where to go hiking in this spectacular canyon-tastic area. My first stop was Juniper Gulch, a 0.8 mile out-and-back style hiking trail with its own parking area and sign. I put a bar, some water, and layers of clothing into my backpack for this quick little jaunt. I also carried binoculars in hopes of spotting some of the resident Bighorn Sheep herd.

I followed the trail up a dry wash as it darted in and out of the shade. It was freezing cold under the shadow of tall, rock walls and blistering hot in the sun. I hadn’t felt warm for days so I took my time strolling through the sunny spots. This place reminded me of Canyonlands in Utah. It was gorgeous. At the end of the line, the trail petered out and so many choices lay before me. I was faced with a maze of rock outcrops, sandy slopes, slot canyons, hills, and brushy patches. I scampered around a bit before recognizing how incredibly easy it would be to get lost if I went much further. Plus, I’d only packed for a 1.5 mile hike so I had few supplies. Oh well. I dropped my pack on a wide swath of rock, took my down jacket and shoes off and did some kickass desert yoga underneath the full force of the afternoon sun. It felt glorious to be able to move around so freely. I was so enamored with the place I took a video to try and capture the beauty and quiet of that moment.

Next stop: just a mile up the road, unmarked Timber Gulch awaited my arrival. I parked at the single-car pullout and followed the dry streambed according to Sullivan’s directions. There is no official trail here, but it is easy to walk along the drainage as it ascends to a cirque of tall rocky cliffs above. I climbed higher and higher, getting a sweet view of the landscape around me, until topping out beneath a massive, orange wall. Here I sat and basked in the sunshine just a little bit more, knowing I had another long, dark night ahead of me. I looked and listened for any sign of life, but I observed nothing. Before leaving this place I scrambled up just a little bit more to a viewpoint that allowed me to see across the other side. Armed with a map, time, and some more supplies, I could have wandered around this area for days without running out of stuff to do. But my current level of preparation set me up for just a couple of short jaunts and I retreated to my car.

Please, sir, may I have another?

I drove the remainder of the road to reach Slocum Campground at the far end. This was one of the most picturesque car-camping spots I had ever seen. Several of the sites had picnic tables covered with metal canopies, an excellent respite from the hot, summer sun. Being December, I chose a site sans canopy to settle in for the night. I had just a few hours of daylight remaining and the two short hikes I’d just completed left me hungry for more. I knew I could sneak one more in before resigning myself to camp chores. A path wore through the brush behind my campsite, leading into a canyon just in the distance. This hike was also listed in Sullivan’s book, although the single-sentence description wasn’t all too helpful. I hiked up the broad valley along another dry streambed. A grassy hill rose to my right and more vertical rock formations appeared on my left. I continued along until the left-hand side narrowed into a steep, impassable V and the right-hand side opened up to another broad valley. I chose to go up the slope in between the two in a dual effort to get a view of the narrow canyon and to chase the sun-kissed ridgetop. It was cold in the shade.

Climbing uphill quickly took the chill away and I found myself stripping off layers as I clumsily clambered up the loose rock and slippery grass. I stopped frequently for breath and water as I haven’t had to work very hard for days; my body was out of practice. Once atop the ridge I saw many more opportunities for exploration, but my time was short. I piled the layers back on, waited for SPOT to send a locator message, and snacked on the enormous bag of sesame sticks my parents had sent me for Christmas (yes! no reindeer sweater for me!).

Going back down the steep hill was the hardest part. My ankle protested the entire way, ignoring my angry pleas to “suck it up.” I was glad to reach the dusty river bottom and cruised the mile or so walk back to camp from there.

Dead or alive

I scrambled to gather firewood as the daylight waned. There were really no trees in sight, but there were plenty of sage bushes everywhere. The problem with sage, I found, was that it’s not that easy to tell if it’s living or dead. I scoured the area, yanking on branches here and there to find material to burn. Over 50% of the time, I ran the same dialogue in my head:

Sage: “I’m not dead!”
Me: “What?”
Sage: “I’m not dead!”
Me: “Yes, you are.”
Sage: “I don’t want to go into the cart!”

Damn. So it went on like this for the next hour, walking to fill my arms with mostly dead sage, depositing it into the growing pile near the firepit, and walking further still to find another crop of fuel. The pile looked huge but the gnarled and twisted branches provided only the illusion that I had collected quite a bit of material. I knew I’d burn through it in no time.

Soon after I started my evening campfire I grabbed a huge log stump, that someone must have been using as a seat, to throw in the fire pit. This was my last-ditch effort to trap some heat and prolong my sorry burn pile. It was a great decision because that sucker eventually got burning and was releasing heat for much of the night.

It was this night that I perfected the sleeping cocoon. I used the same set-up as the night before, but tossed an old army surplus wool blanket over the cocoon, including my face. This kept the frost off my sleeping bags plus it kept the cold air off my face. The hood of the 15 degree bag puffed up just tall enough to create a shelf for the blanket to rest, therefore keeping the blanket just a couple of inches off my skin. I let the yipping coyotes lull me to sleep.

Continue the story!
Dec 22: Small Town Oregon
Dec 23: Chasing Ghost Towns
Dec 24: Breathtaking Desert Hikes
Dec 25: Lava Landscape
Dec 26: A Hodgepodge of Delights
Dec 27: Go West

See the entire photo set on Picasa.

Chasing Ghost Towns

December 23, 2011.

Granite > Whitney > Bates State Park > Unity Lake State Recreation Site > Vale > Ontario > Snively Hot Springs > Lake Owyhee

* Click the map above to zoom in *

When is a ghost town not a ghost town?

I awoke to morning temperatures below freezing; a pink-blushed sky illuminated my forested surroundings. Driving into camp in the dark, I had no visual of my location. I couldn’t have been more surprised if I’d woken up in the midst of a theme park or a sandy beach. I had trouble getting my camp stove to function well at this temperature, but I was able to keep it running long enough to boil my oatmeal. After a quick breakfast I broke camp and drove into Granite.

I’d checked out a “Ghost Towns” book from my local library before departing on this trip. Today was intended for exploration of these lost towns. As I drove into Ghost Town #1, Granite, I found several modern buildings with smoke coming out of many of them, and a person or two milling about outside. Some ghost town, I thought. I drove on to Sumpter, where I’d eaten last night, also listed as a Ghost Town. This was obviously inaccurate as upward of 100 people were currently residing there, and it had a range of services available for locals and visitors. My search for a real ghost town took me ultimately to Whitney, which fit my vision much better than the previous two towns. I parked at a signboard explaining the history and demise of the town. I walked up the gravel road, half frozen, taking pictures of the buildings in various states of collapse. I was disappointed, however, to come across a home with a solar panel array and a Direct TV dish! Clearly there was at least one part-time resident here. Two other homes showed some sign of occupation, although I saw no one else at the time of my walk.

Oregon’s newest state park

Back in the warmth of my vehicle, I pressed on to Bates State Park, just opened this summer. The park was closed for the winter, but I parked outside the gate and wandered in. I vaguely recalled looking at a trail map online, seeing a small network of hiking trails that would make this a worthy stop. I regretted not printing the map, however, because there was no trail map or useful signage to be found anywhere. I wandered over to a frozen body of water and spotted a trail sign to my left. Following this trail brought me to several other trail junctions in less than a quarter of a mile. I tried to make the largest loop possible, but the terrain I covered was always in view of the road and the forest wasn’t terribly remarkable. Before long I was back at the car and I headed out of there. Yet another disappointing “new” park. Why spend the money, Oregon, if it’s not to create something worth visiting? I certainly would never pay to go there.

Echoes in the ice

I had no plans to stop before Vale, 88 miles away. I have always tried to keep an open mind on these trips, however, and my eyes constantly scan the road for brown signs. I noticed a pointer for Unity Lake State Recreation Site and decided to take a detour there. It was a large, flat, lake, and there didn’t appear to be any trails, so I almost ended up just getting back in the car. Instead, I found a set of steps leading down to the rocky beach beside the lake so I walked down to the edge of the frozen lake. Immediately I was bombarded by a strange sensation of noise that filled the air and that seemed to be coming from the lake. It reminded me of whale recordings, no, video games, no… I couldn’t pinpoint the quality of the noise.

I continued walking along the edge of the lake, keeping my ears tuned to the chaotic music traveling through the winter air. Later I would read about this phenomenon on the Internet, and although my attempts at recording the noise failed, this guy succeeded.

As I proceeded, I found natural treasures that kept me exploring. Gorgeous, giant ice crystals grew on the lake. A massive oyster shell lay on the beach. Cliffs along the edge of the lake were striped with ancient soil layers. Cliff swallow nests made of caked mud clung to the striped walls. The lake itself kept coming up with novel sounds that surprised me. This was a magical place. In the past, I’ve made plenty of impromptu detours that turned out to be a waste of time; this was unexpectedly an excellent choice.

Hot springs…and a quest

Looking at my rough itinerary, I found a free hot springs located close to where I hoped to camp tonight. Realizing I hadn’t brought a towel, I made it my day’s mission to purchase one before heading off into the boonies. The next “major” city on my route was Vale, a community of just under 2,000 people. I had hoped to pop into a few shops and parks just to stretch my legs and get a feel for the place, but most businesses were closed. There was a Dairy Queen and a drugstore open. I walked into the drugstore and asked the clerk if there was any place to buy a towel. He looked confused and asked a coworker, and they didn’t have any ideas. I gassed up and hit the road again.

Next I stopped in Nyssa, at a grocery store, to see if I could procure a towel. Nope. All I saw here were sugar beet and onion fields, and not much else. I asked the proprietors of a coffee shop where I might be able to get one, and they recommended Ontario, about 15 miles away. With over 11,000 residents and all the usual chain stores, this was my best and closest bet. Upon arriving in town I was overwhelmed with the choices, but I was unable to find a large department store. I stopped to ask for directions to K-Mart and the only person who could direct me tried to explain, in broken English, how to reach the store. I politely thanked her but the information was so garbled I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Frustrated, I blasted back up one of the main roads and veered into a Rite-Aid parking lot. Unbelievably, they had a supply of bathroom supplies that included full-size towels. Perfect.

Endless driving, it seemed, took me down a winding road along the Owyhee River and finally to Snively Hot Springs. There was only one car there, and no one in the water. I was excited to sneak into the springs just before sunset, then head off to camp. I loaded up a backpack with water, snacks, clean clothes, and a towel. I could see steam rising from the inlet stream that fed the pools by the river. It looked like there was some attempt to corral the warm water into small pools bordered by stones. I reached into the pools with my hand to find one of suitable temperature, then waded in. I tried and tried to find a location that was deep enough to sit in and that was Goldilocks-perfect, but to no avail. The water went from skin-melting hot to ice-cold in a matter of millimeters. Soaked from the waist down, watching the sun and air temperature fall, I admitted defeat and retreated from the springs. I quickly toweled off and put warm layers on before getting back into the car and completing the drive to Lake Owyhee.

The campground there, of course, was closed. Even in the pitch dark it looked ugly and unpleasant. I backtracked along the road until I found a roadside pullout that appeared to have enough space to set up camp. I gathered what I’d hoped was enough dead sage to build a fire for the evening and hunkered down. The sound of the river rushing by was pleasant and I was happy with my lodging choice. I read by firelight as long as I could, then rigged up my sleeping cocoon. This time I took my big down jacket and wrapped it around my feet, since my feet were still a bit cold last night. Cozy.

Continue the story!
Dec 22: Small Town Oregon
Dec 23: Chasing Ghost Towns
Dec 24: Breathtaking Desert Hikes
Dec 25: Lava Landscape
Dec 26: A Hodgepodge of Delights
Dec 27: Go West

See the entire photo set on Picasa.

Small Town Oregon

December 22, 2011.

Portland > Cove > Union > Hot Lake > Sumpter > Granite


* Click the map above to zoom in *

You can take the girl out of the city…

It was about time for another road trip. I planned a loop that would cover over 900 miles, not including side roads to destinations of note, taking me from Portland to some of the remotest parts of Oregon. Not surprisingly, folks weren’t knocking down my door to join me so I loaded up the Scion and took to the road on my own.

I drove east on 84 and didn’t get out of the car until I hit the small city of Union. Located southeast of La Grande, Union had about 2,000 residents at last count and a very short main street lined with a few small businesses, a school, a library and a park. I left my car at the city park and walked to a bench to eat some lunch. A group of young boys were playing football in the grassy field adjacent to my car. The sun shone, ice glistened on the surface of the partly frozen river, and the atmosphere of small town America engulfed me. I shoveled the food down fast; it was awfully cold outside. I was delighted to find a heated public restroom at the park, which I visited before stopping in the library for some information.

The librarian was very helpful in describing the few local sights to see as well as explaining the opposing viewpoints on the encroaching wind-power development in the area. Upon her suggestion, I walked along the main street, stopping into the few shops that were open on this quiet day, before detouring to the local cemetery. I walked along rows of old grave markers dating back to the 1870’s. I noticed many of these people died young, and there was an abundance of infant gravestones. In the back of the cemetery, some deer were making themselves cozy.

Before leaving town, I stopped in the hardware store for a hot beverage (logically enough) and then set my sights on Hot Lake Resort, another recommendation from the librarian. I hadn’t read about it before hitting the road so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Oregon’s creepiest hot springs

I pulled into the grandiose driveway of the place and gazed up at the massive brick building. I asked at the front desk what types of touristy things were available for day visitors, and I was told a $10 tour of the property was available. I thought that might be interesting so I paid my money and waited for further instruction.

It didn’t seem like they were used to getting many visitors this time of year; in fact, I felt as if I was a minor inconvenience. My “tour guide” set me up to watch a video in the empty restaurant and she walked out of the room. Christmas music played loudly both inside and outside the building, so it was hard to hear the people speaking in the video. The contents of the video made up a bizarre tapestry that included the history of the building, its subsequent purchase and remodel, the marital history of the couple who own the place, and the husband’s bronze sculpture studio. Blatant religious undertones lingered throughout the entire performance. It felt uncomfortable, like watching an episode of “The Office.” I wasn’t sure if I was listening to a sales pitch or a sermon. When the video was over, my tour guide was nowhere to be found. I walked out of the restaurant and into the gift shop, wandering around and looking confused until eventually we crossed paths.

Next she sent me outside to tour the grounds. I walked past the hot springs, various wooden structures, bronze artwork, a shed containing old fire engines, and other miscellaneous artifacts and doodads. It was as if everyone’s misplaced antiques from a 100-mile radius had been lifted up by a tornado and were deposited here. I came full circle and re-entered the building after photographing a nearby collapsed barn and harassing the resident peacocks. Again, I searched for my tour guide. She then informed me that I could walk upstairs and view the remaining floors, and she took off again. That’s it? I thought I would get a guided tour.

The inside of the building was just as unusual as the outside, except I was now getting mental flashbacks of “The Shining” as I walked the long, empty corridors of the old hotel. Christmas music blared over the loudspeakers as I examined the arbitrary antiques and peered into darkened corners of the building. It appeared that no one was staying here, and barely any staff were around. Occasionally, the matronly owner of the place would whisk by in a whirlwind, asking how I was enjoying the tour. She didn’t have a believable smile, and her intense eyes drilled into my skull before she disappeared down the hall. I felt like I was trespassing through a long-forgotten mental ward. The rooms seemed to have decorative themes, but there was little continuity from room to room. Some pieces of decor drew upon the history of the building, while others did not. Most of the rooms also contained a television or other random modern electronic device misplaced among the period pieces. One of the creepiest rooms was set up as if it were part of the old sanatorium. Cheap, stuffed mannequins modeled patients in beds. The room was white, almost too white, with beat up wooden floors and old metal furniture serving as the patients’ beds. Outside, the hallways were lined with articles written about the new Hot Lakes resort as well as clippings from the resort’s glory days in the early 1900’s.

I wanted to get the most for my $10 but I also wanted to get the heck out of there. The museum was closed and the artist’s studio was closed so there wasn’t much else for me to see. I wrangled some lodging information from the seemingly brainwashed staffperson at the front desk before heading out. “I love working here! Isn’t this place great?” She was way too excited about this place…

Burger heaven

Intending on exploring some ghost towns in the morning, I traveled west to Sumpter to try and find some dinner and a place to stay. There were two bars in town located right across the street from each other. The first one I entered was full of cigarette smoke. A two-man folk band was playing music in the corner and two old fogeys sat at the bar. I asked for a menu but all they had available were deep-fried foods, so I went to the bar across the street.

At the Elkhorn Saloon, the air was fresh and the atmosphere was lively. There were several people seated at the bar–locals, I think– and a large group of people clustered around a table. I saw a pool table, football on TV, and a restaurant-style seating area in the back. It looked as if Christmas vomited all over this place; the bar was decorated with lights, stuffed animals, figurines, signs, and other holiday trinkets. I asked for a menu, and was surprised to see no less than 30 different variations of burgers to order. Each menu item offered a different array of sauces and toppings, and each one sounded delicious. I ordered a hickory bacon cheeseburger and a beer and took out my journal to write. That was mostly a cover for eavesdropping, of course, since the locals’ colorful conversations were amusing. One cranky old man’s voice dominated everyone else’s, and he was dropping curse words like a sailor. I ate, drank, schmoozed with the barkeep, and killed a little time so my night wouldn’t feel so long. It looked like I’d be camping somewhere this evening as there was no cheap (or open) place to stay.

I ended up driving to Granite, the next town up the road, which had no services. I drove a bit further until I found a wide gravel pullout that would do for the night. I gathered some wood to build a fire and quickly piled on the layers. It dropped to at least five below zero that night. I was glad I’d brought both of my sleeping bags and my Gore-Tex bivy. I rigged up a warm sleeping cocoon as follows:

I laid down my RidgeRest sleeping pad, then my inflatable ThermaRest on top of that. Next, I rolled out my bivy sack on top. Into the bivy I stuffed a 15 degree down bag, then crammed a 40 degree down bag inside of that. I took some hot water off the stove, filled a one liter Nalgene bottle with the hot water and tossed that into the bottom of the 40 degree bag to keep my feet warm. Lastly I laid my pillow at the top of the whole shebang. I brought my nice shaped memory-foam pillow from home, which was now frozen solid. I didn’t know pillows had a range of operable temperatures. As soon as I burned through my wood I jumped into my cocoon and slept beneath the stars.

Read previous entries…
Dec 22: Small Town Oregon
Dec 23: Chasing Ghost Towns
Dec 24: Breathtaking Desert Hikes
Dec 25: Lava Landscape
Dec 26: A Hodgepodge of Delights
Dec 27: Go West

See the entire photo set on Picasa.

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