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

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