August 8, 2012

Base camp - Lava Camp Lake

View of North and Middle Sister from Four-In-One Cone
One of the best ways to hike the most miles on a weekend or week long vacation is to find a campground located within a short distance of a trail system and make it a base camp. From there, you can hop out of the tent, down some coffee and be out on the trail in a matter of minutes. If you want to hike in the morning on one trail and then hike another trail in the evening, a base camp is the way to go.
One of my favorite base camps is Lava Camp Lake, located on the McKenzie Highway near the pass, roughly 17 miles west of the town of Sisters. This small lake and campground among the pines lies one mile above sea level and is an excellent base camp for several outstanding hikes in the area.

Shelter at Lava Camp Lake

An approximately one mile long trail beginning a short drive from the campground starts at Craig Lake, named after a mail carrier who froze to death here in 1877. From the lake's roadside shoreline, the trail is a relic dirt road that winds through hemlocks and a small meadow before reaching tiny Huckleberry Lake. Shaped similar to a half moon, the pool's concave shoreline consists of an ancient lava flow, while the convex shore meets the hemlock forest.

When I hiked into this lake I wanted to try my luck at fishing, not knowing if the lake even contained any trout. With fishing rod in hand, I crept slowly around the lake and onto the lava flow, scanning the still water for trout. What immediately drew my attention, however, wasn't fish, but a large, alien-like object in the shallows at one end of the lake. From my lava perch, the black blob didn't appear to move, but as I walked closer, I noticed this "thing" undulating ever so slightly. Upon closer inspection, I discovered the largest collection of large, black tadpoles I had ever seen. I figured the little buggers were probably clustered to trick predators into thinking they were a much larger and more intimidating - uhh - oil slick? I had seen small frogs hopping along the shorelines of mountain lakes before, but never in their tadpole stage in such numbers. 
Just a few of the thousands of tadpoles
at Huckleberry Lake 

I wasn't even looking at the pool, rather each step, so as not take a spill on the sharp jumble of lava rock. That is when I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. Sure enough, when I turned my head toward the lake, three trout darted across the pool. I watched them until they settled in what looked to be about five feet of water. It was probably deeper, as lake water tends to be deeper than it looks. Chances are they were the only decent sized fish in the entire tarn. Hiding behind a small tree precariously rooted at the lake's edge, I cast a lure around it, landing the shiny spinner in front of the trout. They were in no mood to leave their digs in pursuit of the lure after seeing me, no matter how tantalizing the spinner might have looked.

Later in the afternoon, after returning to camp for awhile, I drove further west to the Linton  Lake trailhead. This lake was created when lava pouring out of Collier and Four-In-One Cones flowed across Linton and Obsidian Creeks, impounding the waters.

It was on the way back from the lake, along the trail, when my curiosity was aroused by a strange sound. Walking at a brisk pace, I came up behind a rather large fellow carrying a backpack the size of a large coffee table. Not only was the pack the largest I had ever seen, but its bulging, and by the looks of it, quite burdensome contents appeared ready to rip through its seams.

Why was he carrying such a large pack along such a short trail? He might have stayed at Linton Lake for several days, but for some reason I doubted it.

Like most new endeavors pursued over time, what was once unknown gradually becomes commonplace. Hiking in the mountains is no different. Over time you become aware of what to expect, but must be prepared for the unexpected. Your mind acts as a screen, sifting through all that you perceive, with the common falling through the screen's tiny openings. Sometimes, what is left is a huge, blatantly obvious chunk of uncommon that refuses to fit through the mesh.

While the surrounding forest sifted quite nicely, the man and his bulging backpack did not. Something was strange about this situation and it was about to get stranger.

I stopped in my tracks when a strange sound suddenly emanated from the forest. Scanning the forest floor, I saw nothing.  The man carrying the enormous backpack continued up the trail without any hesitation. I heard the sound again, this time perceiving the sound of a cat. Not a mountain lion, but that of a house cat.

Continuing up the trail, I again gained ground on the giant backpack with legs, when suddenly the mysterious location of the cat's meow became clear. A tiny head popped out from a side pocket of the backpack, looked around, and then let out a "meow." It was a kitten. Evidently it wasn't too happy about its situation and was letting its ride know about it. I have seen numerous dogs on the trail, but that was the first and only time I have ever seen a house cat.

About that time, the man, who did not know I was behind him, and I both walked into the parking lot located at the trailhead. I unhooked my day pack, put it in the pickup cab and started up the truck. As I pulled onto the road, I looked back and suddenly saw the kitten jump from the stranger's backpack as he set it on the seat of his car. In a matter of seconds, the kitten had scampered into the forest and out of sight. Without any hesitation, the stranger ran after the cat in what was one of the most hilarious sights I've ever seen.   

A brief drive west from the Linton Lake trailhead is where the short hike into Proxy Falls begins. The hike allows hikers to view rare Yew trees, but first you need to know what one looks like. At Upper Proxy falls, one can view yet another rare sight. Here, water cascades from these falls into a pool, just like water running into a bathtub. But while a bathtub fills and eventually overflows, this pool is not rising and there is no outlet - at least no outlet one can see. The water from this basin actually seeps into the porous lava that lines the floor of the pool, keeping the water level of the pool steady.

One of the Proxy Falls

After that hike into Proxy Falls, I headed back to camp. On my way I passed the parking area at the Linton Lake trailhead. The car owned by the man with a cat in a pack was still there. I assumed he was still trying to find his cat. I hope he did!
The next day I loaded Cody into the pickup and drove east toward Sisters to the Black Crater trailhead (see the hike to Black Crater post). It was a momentous day. Cody, a cross between a black lab and Chow, was about to embark on his first climb.

The next day I put on my sturdy tennis shoes, which I prefer to wear over hiking boots, unless the trail is too rocky, and drove to the trailhead leading from Scott Lake, with its outstanding views of the Three Sisters, to Four-In-One-Cone. The intermittent changes in the trails landscape, from forest to lava to forest again, was a nice touch to an otherwise typical hike. I would have, however, been wise to wear my boots. The sharp lava rock was unforgiving to my tennis shoes.
Ridge connecting Four-In-One Cone

From the top of this series of cones there is a good view of the nearby mountains. Lava flows extending from the crater's four mouths starts one's imagination stirring, wondering what the area was like some 2,600 years ago when cinder ejected into the air, forming the cones. Today, you can still see where lava oozed from the craters' throats following the cinder explosions.

During another stay at Lava Camp Lake, I drove west through the lava fields to the PCT, where I hiked 2.6 miles to Little Belknap Crater. Both Belknap and Little Belknap Craters were named after mid-1800s settler who, with Millican (name of a nearby crater) and Scott (where the lake got its name), had an interest in a toll road crossing the McKenzie Pass.

View from Little Belknap Crater

In their younger years, Little Belknap Crater, along with nearby Belknap and Yapoah Craters, belched forth enough lava to help create 85 square miles of jumbled and jagged lava fields. That is roughly the area covered by the cities of Eugene and Salem combined.

View of Black Crater from
Little Belknap Crater

 I decided the next day to hike into Hand Lake, but before arriving at the trailhead, I stopped off at the Dee Wright Observatory to view the vast lava fields.

Constructed of the very lava rock it sits on, this interesting observatory is named after an even more interesting man. Born near Molalla, Oregon, Dee Wright was raised near where the Molalla Indians resided. There, he got to know their language (Chinook Jargon) and their ways. Wright eventually helped build the Mount Hood Lookout, which for years stood atop Mt. Hood's summit. He was also a guide and built trails for the United States Forest Service.

My Bride, Cody the Wonder Dog and
Calvin Cool Edge near Dee Wright Observatory

The hike into Hand Lake is short - about half a mile, but the trail is long on interesting sights. The lake is small, nothing more than a tarn, with one edge butted up to a lava flow and the rest of the shoreline surrounded by a large meadow. A wood shelter stands nearby and views of the Sisters and Mt. Washington complete the outstanding scenery. Knowing the lava flow at the lake contained a surprise, I looked for and found the 19th century wagon trail chiseled out of the rock and used by pioneers to cross the Cascade Mountains.

Three Sisters from Hand Lake Meadow

Next, I drove past Scott Lake to the Benson Lake trail head, where I hiked into the beautiful, rock-rimmed lake. My destination on hikes is often a lake, which I sense is likely a lot of hikers' destinations. My bride has asked in the past about lakes, "Don't they all begin to look the same." No, not when you  begin to distinguish the subtleties between them and find interest in their inlets and outlets, geologic history, and of course, how many fish inhabit them. I told her, in response to her question, "That would be like me asking you whether all the books you read are the same."