High Desert Winter: Hager Mountain, Chewaucan River and Fort Rock

January 1, 2009.

In order to ring in the new year right, Brad and I piled into the car for a 300 mile drive to south central Oregon. Our plan was to get a taste of the desert in winter with a car-camping trip and endless possibilities of daytime exploring. Since there wouldn’t be as much snow here as there was at Crater Lake last week, we thought we’d have more options than, say, sleeping in a sno-park.

After a long and tiring travel day, we arrived at the lovely Marster Spring Campground along the Chewaucan River. At least, we thought once the sun arrived tomorrow morning, the campsite might be lovely. After we set up camp in near 40-degree night time temperatures, we wandered around our new home A cougar had passed through recently, leaving prints throughout nearly every site. We listened to the river flow past and tried not to dream of cougar attacks as we retired for the evening.

January 2, 2009.

Our first planned hike was Hager Mountain. At 7,195 feet, Hager Mountain’s bald summit houses a Forest Service Lookout which is rentable in the winter months. These humble structures are reserved months in advance, so we didn’t have a shot at staying the night.

On the way to the hike, we stopped at the ranger station to check out some maps and get the scoop on trail conditions. It turns out the ranger had no idea what the trail was like (it sounded like she didn’t get out much) but she did recommend a hike not far from where we were camped. Good info for tomorrow.

Brad’s truck was barely able to make it through the snow to the trail head. We put on snowshoes right away, and started following the evenly spaced blue diamonds that led into the trees. The weather was pleasantly cold with breaks of warm sun when the tree cover wasn’t too dense. Eventually our blue diamonds petered out and we decided to make our own way towards the summit. This route, the Direttissima, was steeper and much more direct. Eventually we got out of snowy tree-slog mode and into open air galloping mode. I felt a fresh injection of energy once the strong stands of Ponderosa pine gave way to stunted, gnarled, rime-covered, nameless evergreens. The sky overhead was gray and eerie, but we did not expect any precipitation to come from it.

The final push to the summit involved walking up a short stretch of exposed terrain. A thin crust of snow sat atop powder-covered shrubs. Our snowshoes frequently punched through. Wind blasted across the summit area, making me wish I’d have added another layer for the last hoorah. I raced across the frustrating snow to the summit tower, where Brad and I were welcomed in by the couple who had been staying there for the past few days with their gigantic dog. We took a short break from the elements in the safety of the fire tower and scoped out the accommodations while we chatted and ate lunch.

Eventually we packed up and headed back the way we came. In order to avoid unnecessary elevation gain on the way down, we skirted around a bump we had scaled near the summit on the way up, bringing us within sight of the blue diamonds. We followed the trail all the way back to the truck.

On the way back to camp, we treated ourselves to a hot meal at the Lodge at Summer Lake, then stopped at the Summer Lake Hot Springs. This was a great decision. We soaked in the warm water and let our muscles stretch and relax. It was difficult to extract myself from the water, walk across the cold floor, and change back into warm clothes. It was so cold outside that they had shut the water off–no hot shower, just towel off and jump in the car. Wet hair in freezing temperatures…

January 3, 2009.

This morning was even colder than the last, and we seemed to take an even longer time getting breakfast going and getting packed up than we did yesterday. Fortunately we only had to drive a half mile to the Chewaucan Crossing Trail head that dumped us smack in the middle of the Fremont Trail. The Fremont Trail runs 135 miles through the Fremont National Forest. It is graded easy to moderate along its length and is popular among horseback riders. Apparently it does not see much use this time of year, as we had to break trail from the very beginning.

The trail was well built and easy to follow, even under large stretches of snow. Tracks crossed the ground in every which direction: coyote, rabbit, cougar, mouse, and many others I couldn’t begin to identify. The sun shone brightly, illuminating the glitter-like surface of the snow. We walked briskly through the dry, yellow landscape admiring the hardy desert plant life clinging to life through another tough winter. We gradually climbed up and away from the river, gaining ever more impressive views of the surrounding area. The snow gave way to mud, then back to snow again. There were some horseshoe prints frozen into the ground that appeared where snow had melted away. I wondered when the last person had stepped foot across this path. It seemed so far from everything.

We continued to follow switchbacks through the snow for a few miles before deciding on heading for a high point that would serve as a lunch destination and turnaround point. We made one last uphill push and came to rest on top of a snowy bump. Although the sun was warm, the air was cold. Quickly, my core temperature dropped and my fingers began to get cold as I ate my sandwich.

With a mouthful of chocolate covered almonds, I quickly escaped my down jacket and started down the hill. Brad decided it would be fun to make our own trail back, and although I disagreed, I obliged. To make a long story short, we arrived back at the truck before dusk and drove back to camp where we built an enormous fire that temporarily kept the chill away.

January 4, 2009.

After a long and uncomfortably freezing night, we awoke and tried to hurry out of camp. The frozen ground had all but swallowed the tent stakes, so Brad exerted quite a great deal of effort to extract them. Meanwhile, I paced around uselessly, cursing my numb fingers and my inability to aid in the stake removal.

We drove to the small town of Paisley, where we ate a big, warm breakfast at a friendly little restaurant. I listened to the neighbors chat with each other and wondered how many out-of-towners a place like this actually gets. Everyone in the place knew each other by name, it seemed, and were quite chummy with each other. On the wall, handwritten classifieds advertised guns and ammo for sale. Hand-woven potholders and colorful aprons made locally sat on a dusty table, waiting to be purchased. A flyer on the window announced a family dance held in the next town, 50 miles away, the previous weekend. An overflowing woman served us plates of homemade food that we gratefully devoured to fuel our cold bodies.

With a whole day of driving ahead of us, we hit the road hoping to find a few distractions along the way to allow us to stretch our legs and breathe the fresh air. Our first stop was Fort Rock State Park, dead in the middle of nowhere. With a mile and a half of trail skirting the inside rim of the ring-shaped rock structure to explore, we decided to stop and take a walk. The sign said that Fort Rock used to be an island in the middle of a huge lake, evidenced by water-worn rock. The oldest sandals ever discovered were found here, beneath a layer of ash deposited by the eruption of Mt. Mazama in approximately 5600 BC. No sign of life remained here, as it seemed we were the only people in the park today.

After walking around the entire park, we scrambled up the rock wall to the top, where we got a bird’s eye view of the joint. A man walking his dog far below us shouted hello and I think he took our picture. We carefully scrambled back down and walked out to the truck. It was a nice place to stop, but it was nothing I’d suggest going out of your way to see.

We continued our journey through La Pine, Bend and Sisters, where we stopped for lunch at the new brewery. It’s a nice, comfy place with a decent menu, although I have yet to try the beer there. Again we swallowed down heaps of food and then continued on our way. It had been an excellent adventure.

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