September 11, 2012

Eagle Cap's magnetism a strong pull

Moccasin Lake in the Lake Basin area of the Eagle Cap Wilderness
Something magical radiates from northeastern Oregon's Wallowa Mountains. Viewed from surrounding fields and farmland, their rugged walls rise abruptly in the distance, forming a jagged skyline nearly 10,000 feet high. Even while gazing down into Wallowa Lake's reflective waters, one can feel the outer fringe of these rugged mountains hovering above. And finally, it is when you walk among these granite peaks, within the Eagle Cap Wilderness, you truly discover the secrets to their allure.

Several years had passed since my two friends and I first felt the magic of these mountains. Sitting around a crackling campfire near Ice Lake, Shifty, Paranoia and I had pledged to return, but each year our busy schedules kept us from going back. After years of promising, Paranoia and I finally returned to experience the magic of this alpine wonderland. With us was another trail traveler. I'll call him Lou Karacha.
All good things seem to come with a price. Our dues were paid while traveling the 7 1/2 hour stretch between Oregon City and the Wallowas. Although scenic, I-84 absorbs some of Oregon's hottest August temperatures. Travel this stretch accompanied by 100 degree temperatures and a suddenly dysfunctional air conditioner and you have the makings for three unhappy campers. But despite the inconvenience and several pit stops to rehydrate ourselves, we finally arrived at Two Pan Campground and the East Fork Lostine River's cool waters.
Glacier Lake from Eagle Cap summit

From here, the East Fork Lostine River Trail enters the Eagle Cap Wilderness and follows the river's canyon 6 1/2 miles up and into aptly named Lake Basin. The deep blue waters of Mirror Lake and several other lovely pools lie amongst the basin's granite slabs and sparse lodge pole pine forest. The trail gains about 2,000 feet in elevation, most of it within the trails first few miles.
After trudging up the dusty path's somewhat steep and heavily forested lower elevations, we arrived at the upper reaches of the East Fork Lostine River Canyon somewhat haggard. The day's intense heat was not letting up, and that barely tolerable warm breeze blowing into our pickup cab earlier in the day as we drove I-84 was now a distant wish.
Eagle Cap from East Fork Lostine River's Canyon
We stopped within what looked to be our last shade of the day and peered down the length of the U-shaped canyon toward Eagle Cap, crown jewel of the Wallowa Mountains. At 9,595 feet, Eagle Cap's half-dome summit isn't the highest mountain in the Wallowas, but it is arguably the most picturesque. Knowing that somewhere near the foot of this mountain is where we would set up a base camp from which to explore the Lake Basin and beyond, we continued down the trail toward the heart of the wilderness, our legs suddenly rejuvenated from the spectacular view.
Paralleling the trail, the East Fork Lostine River lazily snakes its way along the lush canyon floor. Stunning wildflower and granite boulders the size of cars dot these meadows where deer and elk feed on the tender vegetation. And as shadows grow longer, a summertime ritual begins along the surface of the Lostine's meandering waters. Insects from a recent hatch, cast in the setting sun's vivid light, begin their dance inches above the peaceful stream. As they dart about, hungry trout lurking below the surface take notice. Soon, the silent river becomes a percussion instrument played by the trout, as they slap and splash at the surface, gorging themselves on the winged morsels.
Again we stopped, this time mesmerized by the feeding frenzy along the stream's surface. Talk of fishing had crept into our conversations several times throughout the day, and now the topic was surfacing again. Faced with the dilemma - to fish or not to fish - we decided to continue up the trail, even though we now realized it was unlikely Mirror Lake could be reached before darkness slipped into the canyon.
Lush meadow in the Lake Basin

Within an hour our flashlights and headlamps were out, guiding us along the well-worn trail. Even if we were to reach the Lake Basin that evening, finding the perfect camp would have been nearly impossible, so we laid out our sleeping bags a few hundred feet from the trail and bid the long day adieu.
Morning greeted us adorned in deep blue sky. We packed up, and within a half mile were skirting Mirror Lake. After crossing its outlet we climbed a few granite shelves above the lake, searching for a place to call camp. High on a ledge overlooking both Mirror and Moccasin Lakes, we shed our backpacks and peered out over the basin, as the mountains' early morning shadows projected across delicate, heather-filled meadows below. We had found our base camp.
Our little shelf of granite basecamp

Soon, yearning for a twitch at the ends of our fishing rods, we raced down a nearby trail with tackle in tow. Because Moccasin Lake was closer to camp, we chose its waters to dip our lines into first. Within a few hours, we returned to our granite perch high above the lakes with enough trout to make a hardy lunch. I took a few moments to set at the cliff's edge and watch a mule deer graze in the heather laced meadow below. In the Wallowas, it is common for deer to stroll into camp around dinner time.
View of Moccasin Lake from campsite

My eyes left the deer and traced the undulations of the basin's granite forms until they finally settled on the towering 9,845' Matterhorn. From our camp at Ice Lake years earlier, we had climbed this peak along with nearby 9,838' Sacajawea. From their summits, we realized why this mountain range is referred to as "America's Little Switzerland."
Sacajawea and Matterhorn from near camp

That evening, we fly fished from Mirror Lake's shoreline while bookies dined along the lake's shoals. The trout were small, yet feisty. Even though the high lakes of the Wallowas will not yield large fish, their numbers are phenomenal. These lakes contain trout populations too high to allow fish to gain much size. But from what we learned earlier in the day, it doesn't take many 9 and 10 inch brook trout to fill up a skillet.
Mmmmm - Brookies on the frying pan

The next day, upon our return from a successful fishing trip to nearby Douglas Lake, we noticed a lone tent pitched near the trail. Hearing us talk about the tent's uncomfortable position atop a granite slab, a ranger poked his head out and told us he was awaiting the arrival of other rangers to the area. Within the next few weeks, their aim was to restore some of the basin's delicate vegetation trampled by backpackers and horses. From what we had seen, the area was in need of a little TLC. With rock making up the Wallowa's foundation, the landscape appears rugged, but the delicate alpine meadows nestled between granite are extremely fragile and easily damaged by foot and hoof traffic. The ranger was doing his part by not placing his tent on any vegetation.
Tuesday morning we loaded our day packs with water and cameras and set out on the 2,000 foot climb to Eagle Cap's summit. Zigzagging our way up the mountain, we crossed melting snow fields and circumnavigated tarns along the trail's 2.5 mile length. As the elevation increased, warm air gave way to frigid winds buffeting the mountain. Outfitted in shorts, we scurried about the summit, but took enough time to study its incredible vistas and snap pictures of the many canyons and ridges branching from the peak. 
View from Eagle Cap summit toward East Fork
Lostine(L) and Hurricane Creek(R) Canyons

The next day's destination was Glacier Lake. Lying at an elevation of 8,200', the lake's setting is one of Oregon's most picturesque. Several small islands dot the Lake's shallower, northeast section, while granite cliffs rise from the lake's opposite end to form a jagged ridge extending from Eagle Cap's flank. And like all the other lakes we had fished earlier in the week, Glacier provided us with yet another banquet of fresh trout.
Glacier Lake

Paranoia and Lou Karacha stayed in camp the next morning while I hiked past Minam Lake, along the Minam River and up Frazier Pass. While ascending into Eagle Creek's broad canyon, my attention turned toward a strange sight along the lower canyon walls. Entire blocks of forest were leveled as if heavy winds had taken their toll on the area. Looking closer, I discovered the culprit to be spring time avalanches that had rushed down the steep slopes with enough force to level several acres of trees.
As I reached down to grab my camera, a strange movement suddenly caught my eye. A cinnamon colored black bear, oblivious to my presence, was standing along a small, rocky butte a few hundred yards away, frantically scratching its side with its hind leg. After taking a few pictures of the furry critter, I decided to get a closer look. I crept cautiously from tree to tree toward the bear. Then suddenly it got a whiff of me. After I was obvious the bear had spotted me I stood up. Curiosity got the best of both of us for a few brief moments, as we stared at each other, both perfectly still. Finally, the bear decided to scramble away and ran up and over the rocky butte.
Bear in the Wallowas
The next day, the three of us broke camp. Our time in the Eagle Cap Wilderness had ended too soon. But before leaving Mirror Lake, we stopped and peered into its clear water. This time we made no promises, but I have a hunch that someday we will return, drawn by the magical allure of the Wallowa Mountains.
Lake basin
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