August 15, 2012

My vote for the most spectacular scenery in all of Oregon

Glacier Lake
It was 1992 when Shifty, Paranoia (names changed to protect the innocent) and I first stepped into the Wallowa Mountains.

We had arrived at Wallowa State Park about 3:30 a.m. and made various sections of my pickup our beds for the rest of the morning. We managed to sneak in a couple hours of sleep before awaking to a couple of raps on the canopy door. A park ranger, no more wanting to tell us of our park violations than we wanted to hear about them, asked what we were up to, and then, apparently satisfied with our explanation, left us alone. We figured it was as good of a time as any to climb out of our bags and shoulder our backpacks.
As we made our way up the Wallowa River on that cool, crisp morning, talk was of an excited nature and remained continuous for quite some time. We each were looking forward to an eventful week and talked as if we were embarking on the greatest adventure since man stepped on the moon (or did he?). Personally, I had looked forward to this trip for months. It was now finally coming to fruition. I sensed my companions were no less stirred by the impressively rugged territory the trail was leading us into.
            Wallowa River

A few miles into the hike we came to a trail junction. It was there we stopped to take in the pristine waters flowing from the mountains' lakes and streams, along the bottom of the steep valley and into the giant cirque containing Wallowa Lake. No words could ever describe the clarity of that river's water. Where it was calm, you could count each stone on the river's floor. We had each grown up in a town surrounded by rivers, creeks and brooks, but none of them had the look of this one.       

Wallowa mountains and lake
Wallowa mountains and lake (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the river crossing to our first destination at Ice Lake, the map looked like the readout from a seismograph – with too many switchbacks to count. Of course, any destination worthy of such a climb would need to be heaped with grandeur – at least we hoped so.

While hiking this stretch of trail, the question as to why our list of supplies included some added conveniences popped into our heads. Fairly indulgent as to what luxuries we brought along on the journey, we were now shouldering the burden of those excesses. "Aren't you glad we brought that frying pan," was a typical utterance every half mile or so.
On such a hike, thighs burn, calves ache, but if one is able to focus on the destination and pure enjoyment of their surroundings, the inconvenience of pain can be eliminated from their thoughts. This is easy to state and much harder to endure, but the mind truly can be used to manipulate what the body is feeling.
Let me tell you, Ice Lake, perched at the top of the steep climb, was worth the effort. In fact, if we had bushwacked up the side of a canyon twice the distance to see this lake and its setting, it would have all been worth it.
The cirque surrounding the lake was still holding onto patches of snow. Exposed greys of granite and greens of dwarfed flora combined with white to make up the scene's background. Above all this stood the mountains called Sacajawea and Matterhorn. At the fore, at our feet, was the deep, green lake itself, presenting the cirque in its waters as if it were a mirror.  
Ice Lake, Brook Trout and Matterhorn
It was quite some time until we ventured to do anything besides admire the spectacle that was our destination. We agreed without any deliberation at all that this was indeed the most picturesque place the three of us had ever seen.
It appeared as though we were the only people at the lake, until a couple of forest rangers on horseback rode up and struck up a conversation with us. We learned from them that our timing was impeccable - the lake had just thawed the week prior to our arrival. News of the recent thaw gave Paranoia and I the notion that fishing could be hot. After the rangers departed, we grabbed our poles and cast our lines into the depths of the deep green waters.
We soon caught our first fish, using lures, and quickly concluded we were catching Brookies at a rate of one every 4 or 5 casts. We were soon releasing fish back to the lake with regularity after keeping enough for dinner.
So far, the trip had turned out to be more than we could have ever hoped for, and it was still only the first day. We had the entire lake to ourselves and were like three kids in a toy store. High fives, yelps, and good old ritualistic male bonding filled the time before another fish was caught. 
           Ice Lake
Evening came quickly, and cocktail hour got into high gear. That is when we noticed someone else appear along the lake. Paranoia, with his keen sense of detection, noticed right away that the someone was a female. As we continued with happy hour and our continual praise of the lake and its surroundings, Parania watched as what appeared to be a lone nymph set up her tent.
As Paranoia kept his vigil over the gal's doings, Shifty and I noticed another female delicately walking into our camp. How she had gotten so close without us noticing was beyond our comprehension. Now that I think of it, it might have had something to do with our uninhibited indulgence in spirits concocted from treated lake water, powdered fruit juice and 190 proof alcohol.
The doe watched us with a curious, yet cautious demeanor, inching closer to our perch along a fallen log. Shifty and I, also curious, wanted to see just how close we could get to the dainty doe. By now, Paranoia had meandered over to the campsite of the lone nymph. While the doe inched closer, so too did Shifty and I toward her. Finally, when it became obvious to her that about 15 feet was close enough, she slowly waded back into the trees and eventually disappeared.
Paranoia returned and filled us in on his visit to the other camp. The mountain nymph was Australian, something Paranoia seemed to admire a great deal, and was to stay for only the night before returning home. Paranoia said he had asked her over for dinner but wasn't sure if the invitation had been answered with a yes or no. I can't say I could much blame her for giving an ambiguous answer, especially after likely getting a whiff of the alcoholic vapors emanating from Paranoia's mouth. As we figured she was likely not one to make a habit of hiking into a wilderness and introducing herself to three intoxicated men, we all agreed that it was highly unlikely that she would grace us with her presence. But, being the gentlemen we professed to be, we prepared to make some extra potatoes and dressing, just in case she showed up.
After dark and to our complete surprise, Janet, the Australian mountain nymph, did show up at our camp for our fish feed. Our conversation began with the hike into the lake and extended for some time, until I accidently knocked the fish into the flames of the fire. Apparently this was her cue to exit the camp, surely after she presumed we had drank an overly indulgent volume of hootch. Because the fish had been wrapped in foil, there was nothing wrong with them, so we proceeded to eat like barbarians and enjoyed the remainder of the fine evening without the Australian mountain nymph.       
The next morning we got up early without any nasty effects from the previous evening and began trudging up the lake's cirque wall. It was a cloudless morning and the azure sky grew bluer as we gained in elevation. Around 500 feet up we turned around to take in an aerial view of the lake. As green as the lake had been when we left its side, it was now just as blue.
On Matterhorn's summit
After a climb of nearly 2,000 feet, we found ourselves standing on the summit of the 6th highest mountain in Oregon, 9,845 foot Matterhorn. What a view! To the west was Hurricane Creek Canyon. To the east was Wallowa River Canyon. To the south was Eagle Cap at 9,595 feet.
Looking down on Ice Lake from Matterhorn

After crossing a saddle below Matterhorn, we once again climbed a brief grade and found ourselves atop the 7th highest mountain in the state, 9,838 foot Sacajawea. We spent the entire morning atop and between the two mountains, shooting pictures and enjoying the spectacular views. It appeared as though the mountains extended forever. We now understood why some folks call these mountains America's Alps.

During our descent of the mountains, we saw the mountain nymph making her way up the cirque, but didn't pay much heed. We did, however, give her a friendly wave. She waved back.

Once back at camp, Paranoia and I once again nabbed our poles and shot back to the lake.  As we were bringing fish to shore like we knew what we were doing, the Aussie mountain nymph stopped by to apologize for leaving so abruptly the night before. We told her we weren't too upset over the snub and couldn't blame her for not staying in a camp with three lit up men.
Some of the strangest things happen while out in the wild, and what was to happen next was a coincidence of astronomical proportions. As soon as the Aussie mountain nymph had left our company, we spied another gal walking toward us. It appeared she was also alone. But that isn't what was phenomenal. What was is the fact that when she stopped to ask us how the fishing was, she said it with an Australian accent! And she was not with the Australian mountain nymph. What were the chances of us meeting two Aussie mountain nymphs 8 hiking miles inside a wilderness in Oregon? The odds are infinite.

As we had earlier made our way down from the mountains, we noticed three inlets to the lake. The small creeks flow from the surrounding cirque and travel through a meadow that had once been a part of the lake before sentiment filled it. From the trail coming off Sacajawea, we could see fish lying in wait where the creeks entered the lake, looking for a morsel to float down stream. That evening, Paranoia and I fished for a few of those fish, getting a kick watching them attack the morsels that were our lures.

The next day we packed up and left the lake for another. None of us really wanted to go, but we needed to push on to experience more of this high country.

Monday morning was again cloudless. As each day went by, the mosquitoes steadily grew in numbers. This made it even more apparent that we had picked the perfect time to enter the area. The lakes had melted off, and the mosquitoes would be in full flight only after we left the area. 
Once again we made our way along the trail that ended at the Wallowa River. But this time it was a downhill hike, hard on the legs but easier on the lungs. After reaching the junction once again, we headed further up the Wallowa River.

After resting a bit at Six Mile Meadow, we once again climbed and eventually arrived at Horseshoe Lake. It didn't take long to set up camp and once again snatch up our fishing poles. We didn't have quite the same luck as at Ice Lake, but the fishing was still great. The fish were also a bit smaller than at Ice Lake.
            Horseshoe Lake
Clouds rolled in that afternoon and a brief thunderstorm had us holed up in the tent for about a half hour. It was then that we realized we had yet to bathe. Our exodus from that tent could not have come sooner. I told my comrades they stunk, and at the same time, assured them that I smelled like rose pedals. We each bathed with lake water gathered in the coffee pot.
By Tuesday we had done quite a bit of hiking. Not that many miles had been covered – roughly 19 - but steep grades had taken their toll. Because I had been hiking quite a bit already that summer, my legs felt pretty fresh. So I set out to hike to Glacier Lake, with the idea of perhaps climbing Eagle Cap if my legs felt up to it.
Moccasin Lake
Along the way I passed Douglas, Fish, and Moccasin Lakes. All were extremely beautiful, but I became partial to Moccasin because of the outstanding view of Eagle Cap from its shoreline. A small cliff overlooking Fish Lake's shore allowed me to observe why the lake was aptly named. Trout, darting to and fro, sucked in winged morsels daring to flitter along the water's surface.
By the time I had made it to Glacier Lake, clouds had rolled into the area. It appeared as though another storm resembling the previous day's outburst was developing. The combination of storm clouds and my now aching legs prompted the decision to save Eagle Cap for another day. I had now stood near Glacier Lake, a magnificent sight, and made a promise to return to the lake someday.
            Still thawing Glacier Lake
When I returned to camp, Shifty and Paranoia were resting on some boulders alongside the lake. It had been a welcome day off for them and they were obviously taking full advantage of it. Tomorrow would be another day of hiking.
Wednesday morning we broke camp and backtracked to Six Mile Meadow, taking an extended break a few yards from the grassy flat. It is here where the Wallowa River's West Fork and Lake Creek meet to form the Wallowa River. We had no particular destination in mind and had all day to do as we pleased. So what did we do? We stood in a wonderful spot beneath a pine tree at the confluence of the two creeks and flung out our fishing lines to see if luck was still on our side.
            Near Six Mile Meadow
As it turned out, we didn't have much luck fishing the Wallowa River, so we shouldered our now somewhat lighter packs and moved back toward the intersection with Ice Lake. There, we decided to set up camp.
I knew we were headed back to my pickup earlier than we had planned, but it felt as though the guys were ready to head home. It had been a great five days in the Wallowas. The closing 6th day was drawing ever closer.
A couple of does visited our camp that night.  These two were even more sociable than the one that welcomed us to Ice Lake. They were almost eating out of our hands.
We hiked out of the wilderness the next morning and returned to our homes that evening. It was a trip I will never forget. 
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