Backpacking Solo in Eagle Cap Wilderness
When to go?
The fires in western, central, and northern Oregon were raging, fueled by a 3 month drought. One of my favorite times to hike is after Labor Day, but before hunting season. Usually the fire season is over by then but not this year. The Eagle Creek Fire in the national scenic area of the Columbia Gorge, which is practically in our back yard, had grown to 33,000 acres. We had 26 forest fires, and 16 of them were still out of control.
Timing is important
So I postponed my fall hike until Sept. 12th. We had gotten a little bit of rain on the 9th, and there were no reports of fire in the Wallowa Mountains in northeastern Oregon. Fire danger was still listed as extreme, but the weather report called for cooling temperatures and a chance of some rain.
The hunting season for mountain goats was already opening. It was time to hit the trail, while I had the chance. There are never any guarantees anyway.
I left Portland at 6AM.
I-84 was closed because of the Eagle Creek Fire.
Driving a different way
The alternate route 35 around Mt. Hood through Government Camp would be heavy with truck traffic that normally took I-84, which is one reason I started so early. Instead of going all the way to Hood River, I took a shortcut, leaving Rt. 35 and taking Rt. 44 across the Mt. Hood east slope foothills to Dufur and then Rt. 197 to The Dalles, where I got on I-84 East. In Pendleton, where the Pendleton Roundup Rodeo was going on, I took Rt. 11 northeast to Weston, and then Rt. 204 to Elgin, then Rt. 82 to Joseph, Wallowa Lake, and the trailhead.
This was 320 miles.
The agony of carrying a pack uphill
I started hiking on the W. Fork Wallowa River Trail at 1:30. My pack was about 9 lbs heavier than usual. I sure felt the difference in my gluts on the uphill parts, and in my shoulders after a couple hours. I guess I'll never get completely used to carrying a pack, even though I thought I was in good shape.
Met a pack train of 2 wranglers and a mountain goat hunter and his wife on horseback along with 5 pack mules, coming down from a successful goat hunt.
Met a young lady trail runner – not carrying a pack seems like a great idea – but she said she came up the E. Fork Trail; over Hawkins Pass, and was looping down the W. Fork, which would make a total of 25 miles! Seems impossible for the rest of us mortals. That would probably take me 3 days, so without a pack, I’d probably starve if I didn’t freeze overnight first.
Not me - I'm talking about a solo middle aged hiker that was heading out. He said he had gotten terrible blisters; he hadn’t been backpacking in quite a while. It’s no fun if you overdo it. He obviously went too far the first day. It also helps to stop and put something like duct tape or bandaids or moleskin on 'hot spots' and change your socks, before blisters form.
Warm first day
The weather was warm. The trail was dusty in some places, very rocky in places, and muddy in a few places where snow melt was still trickling down from the heights to the east of the trail. The trail follows the river, rising about 1200’ in 6 miles. The junction for the Ice Lake Trail #1808 starts at the 3 mi point.
For much of the way, the sound of the river is music for the soul.
6 mile meadow
At 6 miles, there’s a big meadow and several campsites. Many of the wildflowers had finished their bloom and were going to seed. The birds were busy filling up on those seeds.
I got to 6 mile meadow about 5 PM, refilled and filtered water from the river and made camp. After a freeze-dried supper of chicken teriyaki, I chatted until dark with 2 nice ladies who had an old dog. Their dog got tired before we did and went into their tent. I thought it was funny- the dog being “dog-tired”.
The 2 ladies told how they had heard shots fired earlier when they were in Lakes Basin, and they found out that hunters had gotten a mountain goat. That’s when I figured out what that pack train was about.
The desire for solitude
There was one other solo hiker that tented at 6 mi meadow, but she had pitched her tent quite a ways off, and didn’t seem inclined to be interested in socializing, so I didn’t disturb her. I appreciate solitude, too, although I also like people and like to talk to them and share impressions and experiences. Which is why I’m writing this in the first place!
The next morning, after an oatmeal breakfast with raisins and brown sugar, I packed up and put sandals on to wade across the river. It was less than knee deep at this crossing this late in the year. I suppose it’s much rougher and colder right after the spring melt.
The weather had turned pretty cold overnight, so I dried my feet and put on socks and boots.
Trail #1810 to Lakes Basin climbs about another 1200’ to Horseshoe Lake. I met 3 hikers with 2 dogs who were planning on going to Ice Lake and climbing the Matterhorn from there.
The Matterhorn is now listed as 9826’, but it used to be listed as 9845’. Maybe both measurements were correct – it’s not hard to imagine the peak losing 19’ when you look at the awesome amount of talus that has tumbled from the heights. Since Sacajawea Peak is 9838’, it is now called the highest one.
I tried a few casts at Horseshoe Lake with a small spinner but didn’t get any bites, so went on about 1.5 mile to Lee Lake. There’s a loop; if you stay to the right, on the main trail, you’ll miss Lee Lake. There are little humps between the lakes. Each time you climb over another glaciated granite hump, you find another lake. It’s really neat.
At Douglas Lake, there’s a junction with trail # 1810A, which goes south.
I went on from the junction, a little over a mile to Moccasin Lake. Actually, it was a pretty big hump – I guess I should call it a mini-pass. The trail goes along closely to granite cliffs where you can see how fractured the rock is – probably from the heat and up-thrusting of massive earth movements in the past.
Made camp right off the trail where it crosses over a shallow spot near the west end of Moccasin lake. In the picture, it looks like I pitched the tent right on the trail, but actually, the main trail is down close to the lake - it's just that this is such a good campsite that it has its own little trail to it. Did a little fishing, and got several bites, but didn’t hook any fish. It was getting colder, so I was glad I’d brought the flannel liner for my sleeping bag.
I did luck out with a couple really nice pictures of the beautiful, short-lived sunset.
The geology theories
This hike made me really curious about the geology of the area. Some of the peaks are granite, nearly white, or white with flecks of black, like salt and pepper. Then there are pure white marble chunks that have come down with the granite. But some of the peaks are dark brown, and some reddish brown. I’ve since done some research. The dark rock is Columbia Basalt, which covers about 60,000 square miles in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Some of the basalt came from volcanic eruptions, and some was extruded as hot molten lava coming up through cracks and fissures and faults in the granite. But according to geologists, the granite itself sometimes came from 10 miles below the earth’s crust! So it’s pretty confusing. I’m not sure how certain the geologists can be about all of these catastrophic events of the past, and of course there’s no way they can know exactly how long ago these things happened. It’s all theory and conjecture, and they don’t all agree. There’s also some circular reasoning in their writings – dating the rocks by their fossils and the fossils by what rock layers they’re found in!
Thursday morning, it was cold. Before making breakfast, after a couple casts, I went 0.7 mile up to Mirror Lake to see if I could catch a trout there. Got a bite, but didn’t hook him. I’d wanted to see Mirror Lake anyway, because some people say it’s the prettiest one in the Lakes Basin. Can’t argue with them. It is beautiful.
In the little pass between the lakes, the trail goes close to a cliff with huge slabs broken off, and trees growing right out of the cliff.
Back to Moccasin Lake, I cooked up some oatmeal, then broke camp, packed up, and headed up trail #1806 to Glacier Pass.
Classic mushroom shape
Just a short distance up from the lake I took a picture of a beautiful mushroom. It was about 6” in diameter, on a north slope of grasses and wildflowers and small alpine fir trees. Looked a little like a Panther Amanita, except it was too white.
Trail to Glacier Pass
The trail to Glacier Pass follows a roaring, fast dropping creek that comes down through a fault in the granite that was filled with basalt. There are lots of little waterfalls along the way. About halfway up to the pass, I saw a pika in a rock slide, which seems to be their favorite habitat. I watched him for a while. He was busy gathering grasses for the winter. They don’t fully hibernate; they have to stock up food for the winter. On sunny days they’re even smart enough to lay the cut grass on the rocks in the sun to dry it like hay.
Here's a video of a pika that I found on youtube. Turn your speakers on to hear his call.
Are pikas endangered?
There seems to be a debate going on in conservationist circles about whether the pikas are endangered or not. They say about 25% of the pika colonies in the Great Basin (mostly Nevada and Oregon) have disappeared fairly recently. The theory is that global warming is hurting them because they are sensitive to temperatures in the high 70s and above. However, the average global temperature rise in the last few decades only amounts to 0.6 degrees, which hardly seems significant enough to harm the pikas. I suspect there’s another cause for their decline in the Great Basin – perhaps some imbalance of predators, or something cyclical, or disease, or?? Regardless, I’ve seen plenty of pikas this year, everywhere from Mt. Hood to the Wallowas to Wyoming – so I’d hardly consider them endangered as a species.
Water follows basalt fault line
Big basalt talus field
Glacier Pass is about 8400’. The trail traverses a huge basalt talus field near the pass. By that time, you’re looking down on some good sized patches of snow, but they're in granite! It's quite a geological mixture.
On the way up to Glacier Pass, I met some other hikers. They seemed in a hurry to get somewhere, while I was lollygagging, enjoying all the sights.
Glacier Lake is visible from just over the pass. It’s a couple hundred feet lower. I caught 3 small brook trout in Glacier Lake, and released them. Didn’t need them for food, and they’re such beautiful fish, with their yellow and blue and pink spots.
Snow flurries and mountain bluebirds
It was a windy day, and getting colder. After starting down to Frazier Lake, there were some snow flurries shortly after leaving Glacier Lake.
The trail stays fairly low on a south slope that is mostly open terrain, with few trees and lots of rockslides and boulder fields. There were some huge chunks of granite that had fallen right across the trail.
And down lower, I saw some beautiful blocks of white marble.
Where there were grasses and dried flowers and shrubs, I saw quite a few mountain bluebirds. Their blue coloring really shows up when they’re flying away from you. It’s a beautiful shade of blue.
Image by Alan D. Wilson via www.naturespicsonline.com. image of pine siskin By Menno Schaefer
Other birds seen were dark-eyed juncos, mountain chickadees, northern flicker, stellar jay, and swainsons hawk.
Frazier Lake, rain
Got down to Frazier Lake by 2:30. Only 5 mi this day.
This was about 7200’. It started sprinkling, (probably snowing up higher), so I put the tent up early.
Glad I did, because then it started raining in earnest.
Met a solo lady hiker named Elizabeth, with her big boxer name Packalul, or something like that. She said I could call her dog Lulu.
Elizabeth was very concerned about the cold temperatures, because this was Lulu’s first backpack trip and she was shivering. Elizabeth was also concerned about whether she might have to turn back because she had lost a day and might run out of food. More about that later….
Fly rod needed
I read and napped in my tent for while until the rain slacked off a bit. Tried fishing, but Frazier Lake was too shallow to fish with a spinner; it kept snagging algae and logs on the bottom. I was wishing I’d brought my fly rod.
About that time I met a soil researcher who was working for the forest Service. I asked him a lot of questions about the geology of the area. I had been thinking that granite and marble were the same thing, but he said that they’re different. For one thing, he told me that the grey-white granite that has black flecks in it, like salt and pepper, wouldn’t make good countertops because the black flecks absorb water. That surprised me.
Oh, No..where's the cable for my charger?
I cooked supper during a light rain; went to tent early and read some more. It was getting colder. So I decided it was time to put my long underwear on.
Then I was going to recharge my phone so I could do some videos the next day. But bummer – I couldn’t find the cable to recharge the phone from my brick charger. I could have kicked myself – how could I be so stupid as to leave it in the car? So I decided to go back in the morning, a day early.
Ever give food away?
It was a long night, so I was ready to get up before dawn.
Got all packed up and went over to see if Elizabeth was up yet.
She had told me she wanted to climb Eagle Cap but was worried she might run out of food. She’s from Eugene; said she’d quit her job of 13 years, having had enough of it. She was going back to school next week for a masters in education, to be a teacher. She had somehow squeezed her big dog into that little tent with her. I gave Elizabeth the extra dinner that I would no longer need, and she seemed grateful.
10.5 miles back
According to my map, it was 10.5 miles back to the trailhead and my car. The trail and the river drops very steeply for the first mile or so. There are views of Aneroid Mountain to the east – looks like a mountain of pulverized basalt. But from my side of the W.Wallowa River canyon, large marble blocks had tumbled down from the heights.
Then the trail crosses the river at a spot where I could cross just by hopping rocks, and it goes through a really flat valley floor for a while, before starting up the east massif.
I missed the junction with trail # 1831 and accidentally started up Polaris Pass (“70 switchbacks”). After realizing something was wrong (I was going up when I should have been going down), I turned back and found the junction. It was right at a rocky creek crossing. The trail wasn’t really visible where it was so rocky. Later, I stopped for a drink of water and heard a loud pika call, close. I looked hard until I saw him, sitting on a boulder in a rock and boulder field, quite close. Wish I had a telephoto lens.
Met an old man trail running ¼ mi below 6 mile meadow.
Then I met a Forest Service “solitude” checker. I think that’s what he said. He was going up to spend some time at 6 mile meadow to talk to hikers about what kind of a solitude experience they were having. The Forest Service wants to monitor how heavy the usage is on these trails and in the campsites.
Ate burger and fries at the Glacier Grill. Very nice, knotty pine, nice pictures on the wall, nice maple tables, good food and service. While I was eating, the power went off for some reason, but they stayed open, providing salads and sandwiches by lantern light.
Back in Joseph, I visited the Forest service office and visitor center and bought a book on the natural history of the Wallowas. He who stops learning will rust.