Sunday, August 2, 2009

In which we are seduced yet again by the Wallowas

You'd think we'd have learned after the first time: the Wallowas do not kid around.

Being the suckers for granite, alpine lakes, and green trees that we are, Charlie and I decided that, rather than blow things up for the 4th of July, we'd hit the trail for a two-night 14-mile backpack up into Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness area.

You may remember our previous trip there - what with the September first snowfall and all.

This time, we were on the run from a storm front that was scheduled to pummel Idaho's mountains with some nice thunder, lightening, hail, and rain over the long weekend. Looking at the weather forecast, we determined there might be better opportunities for visiting the "Frank Church/River of No Return" wilderness (like, you know, when there was a better chance of us returning).

So back we went to our beloved Oregon. We were delighted to discover that the in-point for the trail was just outside of Baker City - just a 2.5 hour drive from Boise. We'd be at the trailhead in a scant three hours. Definite striking distance for a weekend hike.

Things started off great. We reached the trailhead at about 1:00 on Friday. Already it was stuffy and warm, with big puffy clouds gathering above the mountains. Undeterred, we loaded our packs. Just .6 miles in, we were already stopping (and posing!) for a photoshoot.

Charlie looks cool and calm as usual (he knows how to look good in pictures!), Ariel, on the other hand, had a different "face" in mind:

Little was I to know that this face would re-appear, in various forms throughout the rest of our adventurous weekend. One needs to start practicing early on in the trip for any real success, right?

After a mosquito-rich slog up-hill through some pretty dense brush, our hike opened up into a series of lovely meadows.

Though difficult to see in the picture, the wildflowers were just starting to bloom on this hike, and we were surrounded on the trip by purples, blues, yellows, and pinks. At points along the trail, it looked like people had planted them especially for our enjoyment.

In this picture, you can see the clouds starting to gather in earnest. The sky was darkening, and we didn't want to be caught out in a downpour. This was about half-way through our first day's intended mileage. We consulted, and made the, in retrospect, rather foolish decision to postpone lunch until we hit camp. It was only a few more miles! In the hot weather, we weren't noticeably hungry, and the gorp seemed to be doing the trick.

Of course, anyone who's been on a backpack or two, knows that this is exactly what NOT to do. We pushed through to Eagle Meadows, and fell into a heap at the campsite. Aching legs, headaches, the gamut. And, adding insult to injury, all the campsites in the meadow appeared to be taken. Ditching the packs, we set off in opposite directions in search of a private (ie: off the trail) spot to camp. Eventually, we stumbled upon what appeared to be a campsite in the trees close to the creek. A little dark, and apparently unused yet this season, it nevertheless fit the bill.

Charlie threw a nice campfire together, and after a snack and a short nap, life was looking just peachy again. We even had a nice granite fireplace, to boot!

We had a peaceful night in camp, and the next morning dawned sunny and bright. We packed up camp and headed up the short (yet steep!) trail to our second campsite: Eagle Lake.

Saturday was even hotter than Friday, and the day's climb was on a good, study trail, up a rather exposed slope. The views back down the valley were incredible and we racked up elevation with every switchback.

As we climbed, snow grew more prevalent along the trail, and near the top we came across this neat snow-bridge above the trail. Decided it was wise not to climb inside it for a more up-close view, but the cool air blowing through it felt amazing. It was hard not to want to curl up for a nap inside.

Shortly after the "cave" we arrived at the lake. In retrospect, July 4th is quite early in the season for Eagle Cap trips, so it should have been no real surprise to find it almost still completely frozen.

The lake itself was a beautiful spot. It was dammed by people in the region early on to help with irrigation for farming in the valleys below. The dam itself is a quite impressive work of backcountry engineering.

We goofed around up at the lake for the next couple hours, and set-up camp. Despite the existence of a spectacular campsite out on a rocky bluff at the end of the lake, we elected to pitch our tent in what appeared to be a more sheltered location on the shoulder of the hill, amongst several large granite boulders.

Even though it was more protected, as you can see, the view left nothing to be wanted:

Unfortunately, though, bluebird skies gave way to dark clouds, and a decent thunderstorm rolled in. Charlie was a pro (all those years living in Iowa, perhaps?), but I was quite the wimp--repeatedly wondering aloud why we'd chosen to camp at this $#%@^$ lake, and why we hadn't just stayed in our safe little spot in the valley and made a day hike out of it??

As the rain (and hail) hammered down on the tent, we also noticed something about our nice, protected little site: it was a bowl for catching runoff. So much so, that there were little rivers running down the sides of the hill right into our campsite. Fantastic.

We found ourselves with an inch of water evenly divided between the ground, the ground tarp, and the bottom of the tent. We waited out the storm floating in a puddle on our thermarest matresses.

The good news about our site was, even though it accumulated water quickly, it also drained almost just as fast. The picture above was shortly after the storm ended, and already we were seeing progress on our little houseboat situation.

Once the storm had passed, the rest of the evening progressed without incident. We cooked up some instant backpacking food, watched the sun go down on the mountains, and tucked into the tents for the night. It was a somewhat sleepless night, what, with the deer traipsing through camp and schnuffling through our backpacks (hurrah for hanging food high!), and the silent flashes of lightening that illuminated the sky (I nervously counted in my head, "Mississippi-one, Mississippi-two..." by the time I got to "Mississippi-twenty-one" with no thunder, I decided that I was being somewhat ridiculous.).

We awoke the next morning to bright skies, and clean air. We had a long hike ahead of us, so got started early, said goodbye to the lake, and set off for the valley.

The hike back involved some useful adventure skills such as fording frigid creeks in sandals, balancing across logs, and keeping one's feet under one's legs on steep descents.

In all, it was a great expedition into the backcountry, and, while the Eagle Cap Wilderness always has something new and adventurous in store for us, it also never dissapoints. We always leave yearning to go back next weekend, and the weekend after, and the weekened after that....

If you're still antsy for more pictures, there are a bunch more up on Flickr (as well as the ones here).

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