October 19, 2012

Learning its all about the quest in the Southern Oregon Cascades

Rainbow over Fourmile Lake
My bride and I set up camp at Fourmile Lake, located 6 miles off Highway 140 along the crest of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. Monday morning, unforgiving winds whipped up waves and sent them crashing against fallen tree snags lining much of the shore. Gathering strength as the day progressed, the gales stirred the water into a sea of whitecaps. Later that evening, I paddled out into the calming waters in search of trout, but caught nothing. If not for the fantastic view of Mt. Mcloughlin and the commitment to meet my parents at the lake later in the week, we would have packed up and camped elsewhere. I had one big goal that week, and it didn't matter where in the Cascades it occurred, just as long as it happened.

Monday morning I began the 5 mile hike and climb to the summit of 9,495' Mt. Mcloughlin. The trail meandered through the forest for awhile and gradually steepened, snaking along the mountain's east ridge. Eventually, the number of trees along the trail thinned and the summit of the mountain could be seen. At the top, I stood alone, save for a couple water bottles carelessly left behind by some hikers. The only other hints of anyone else were spray painted rocks and the ruins of a lookout. High clouds hovered above, affording me a view of Mt. Shasta; Fish, Fourmile and Klamath Lakes; Lake of the Woods, the Mountain Lakes Wilderness; and to the north Three Sisters.

Fourmile Lake from Mt. McLoughlin

After snapping some pictures, I reluctantly started back down the steep ridge. Out of all the mountains I had climbed, this ascent had proved to be one of the toughest on my legs, especially my joints. I knew my knees would take an even worse pounding on my descent. The mountain wasn't any more challenging than any of the others I had hiked. I was just getting older.
Ridge near summit of Mt. Mcloughlin
The trail was somewhat hazardous, filled with variations of both loose and stable rock. At times my legs wanted to let go, propelling my body down the mountain in a breakneck sprint. But, as what happens when descending any steep grade, the mind keeps telling the legs to hold up, maintaining control the body despite gravity's force.
Klamath Lake from Mt. Mcloughlin

Tuesday morning I got up at 6:30 and hiked a loop starting along the southern shore of Fourmile lake, continued past Squaw Lake and onto the PCT, east to Center Lake, past Badger Lake and back to camp. The least attractive part of the hike was the PCT. In my travels across the mountains, I have come to the conclusion that the PCT is the Interstate 5 of trails. Just like the freeway, the PCT takes you near destinations,(lakes, mountain tops,etc.) but it rarely takes you directly to them, bypassing much of the most breathtaking scenery. In the PCT's defense, it would be one hell of a lot tougher to get to many of these destinations without this "great connector."
Fourmile Lake
By the time I returned to camp, ominous gray clouds had collected over the top of Mt. McLoughlin. A half hour later they had spread over the lake and it began to rain. The next day we decided to pack up and move camp after we crawled from the tent and couldn't see the lake. Clouds had rolled in overnight and engulfed the area. My bride's description of Tuesday night was perfect: like sleeping on the beach with the waves pounding at the door.

We quickly unpacked our supplies at Lake of the Woods. I hopped back into the pickup and drove back to Fourmile Lake where I met my folks just as they were making a loop in the campground, looking for my bride and I. They set up camp next to us at Lake of the Woods.

Dad, always eager to put a line in the water, was looking forward to fishing, but the fish weren't biting anywhere that week, so the boat remained dry for the week.
Mt. Mcloughlin
Thursday, I  hiked up the Varney Creek Trail  into the Mountain Lakes Wilderness. The trail meanders through a second growth forest and into larger fir and Ponderosa pines. After a mile or so the creek is reached and a series of canyon floor meadows accompany one along the trails easy grade.  I hiked to Lake Como, one of the area's 20 or so small lakes, and promised myself to make it back to this small (only 36 square miles) but picturesque wilderness.

My bride, mom and dad had all crept into their sleeping bags as I sat at the campfire that evening. My thoughts again turned toward the next day and the goal I was on the verge of attaining. Surely, I thought, I would jump for joy when I reached my destination.
Mt. Mcloughlin peaking above the fog over Lake of the Woods

The next morning,  my bride, Dad, and I drove to the trailhead at Lost Creek at the edge of the Sky Lakes Wilderness, which holds over 200 ponds and lakes, and hiked to Island lake. I chose this destination because it was an easy hike, and I wanted my father and wife to be with me when I reached that goal I wrote about at the beginning of this post. Of course, I wanted mom there too, but she was never much of a walker.

When we arrived at the lake, I stood along its shoreline, waiting for euphoria to envelope me, but I just couldn't muster the self-congratulatory fanfare I expected to bestow on myself now that this occasion had finally arrived. I had finally reached the 1,000 mile mark on Oregon trails, mostly in the Cascades.

After all those late nights and early mornings packing gear, driving thousands of miles to trailheads, accumulating blister upon blister along the trail, I expected myself to break into, at the very least, a mildly boisterous celebration. But instead of jumping up and down and pumping my fists through the warm mountain air, I stood calmly along Island Lake's shallow waters, contemplating my accomplishment, putting it into perspective.

From the beginning, I realized this goal wasn't some unattainable placard, destined for its own distinct place on Adventure's mantle. So many folks had hiked so many miles further - some of them blind and some of them barefoot. While numerous hikers had covered 1,000 miles in a few months, this personal feat was taking me nearly half of my lifetime.

 But like most folks who spend time on the trail - whenever time allows - I was never fortunate enough to take 3 months away from my work to bag the Pacific Crest Trail in a single trek. My steps were taken predominately on day hikes and weekend backpack trips. Some were only a couple of miles. Some were considerably longer. Most exceptions were an occasional week long vacation that allowed me the opportunity to cover 50 or 60 miles.

My bride and dad at Island Lake
I also then realized that the quest, not the accomplishment, was the heart and soul of my endeavor. Those miles in between my first step on that trail leading into the Table Rock Wilderness and my last at Island Lake were filled with experiences that will last my entire life. I celebrated virtually every stride. My 1,000th mile was simply the final pearl in a lovely string.

The mountains became my retreat. While others strolled through galleries, eyeing art from a distance, I surrounded myself in the beauty of Oregon's peaks. While music lovers attended concerts, I went to the mountains to hear the winds howl, the trees rustle.

 Standing there, with 1,000 miles at my back, I felt no more excited than each and every time I had driven to a trailhead over the years. There was no more of a sense of accomplishment than when I had trudged up steep mountain slopes, unearthing the will it takes to get to the top. The highs felt while standing on these mountain summits were no less. Along the way,  I learned to adapt. My senses sharpened. The connection between mind and body became so intertwined I sometimes discovered myself in what I can only describe as another realm. Runners say they get a high from running. Hikers get a high from hiking.

Standing along Island Lake, my attention turned toward the future and the next thousand miles I would hike through Oregon's mountains. There is so much left to see; so much yet to experience - one step at a time.


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