Monday, September 1, 2014

Eagle Cap Wilderness Lakes Basin

This Labor Day I was able to go on an amazing backpacking trip with Anna and her boyfriend Nate to the Lakes Basin are of the Eagle Cap Wilderness in far Eastern Oregon.  We had at first planned a very ambitious 40 mile loop but instead cut out one pass and a lake to make it a more relaxing 30 mile loop over 4 days.  I decided to climb up Eagle Cap one early afternoon so I totaled out at 34.5 miles for the trip.  We didn’t see too many animals but I agree with everyone else that has been to the Wallowas, that it might be the most beautiful place in all of Oregon.  Read on to see more photos and details.

Anna and I were able to take Friday off of work but unfortunately Emily could not.  This prevented her from joining us on the trip.  Instead, she headed to Pamelia Lake with Eric and others for a few nights of leisurely camping with Leo.  I ended up really missing her on the trip, especially with two people still in the very early stages of a relationship.  Next year for sure as I plan to make this a yearly adventure.  

We left work early on Thursday to meet up
with Nate and grab his brothers dog Tesla for the weekend.  Anna had offered to drive so she picked me up from work on Thursday so we could leave directly from there.  After picking up Nate we hit the road for the long drive out to Joseph, OR, only stopping a few times for gas and for dinner at La CabaƱa Mexican Restaurant in the Dalles.  Nate drove the whole way out so I offered to drive on the way back.  

We ended up rolling into the Wallowa Lake Campground around 11:30pm where we paid the $20 fee for a spot and set up our tents.  I had my Bibler bivy for the trip and was settling in for the night when I heard rustling all around me.  I woke up and noticed about 6 deer about 15 feet away.  Unfortunately, I had taken out my contacts and was fumbling with my iPhone and camera so I never really got a good shot of them despite them being about 10 feet away!

We woke up early around 7am and drove into town to get some breakfast at the Old Town Cafe.  It was great and felt good to head into the woods on a 4 day trip with a full stomach!  We also stopped at a hardware store to pick up some spare batteries.  We had a beautiful drive back around Wallowa Lake which was clearly created by a massive glacier because of the tall glacial moraines on either side of it and at the end.  After gearing up and putting Tesla’s cute backpack on her we hit the trail just before 9am.  

We headed up the North Fork Wallowa River Trail which was very well maintained.  The further up the valley we walked the more towering peaks around us began to show themselves.  I was surprised to see how many flowers were still in bloom this late in the season and was shocked to also see red raspberries still available.   I let Anna and Nate set the pace while I held back to snap photos of flora and fauna, including a cute little Pika that squeaked at me as I walked by.  

We occasionally stopped to rest hear and there at viewpoints over the river below us but when we got to Six Mile Flats around noon we stopped for a longer break.  This marked the start of our lolipop loop up into the Lakes Basin.  From here we would head up to Frasier Lake and would return via Horseshoe Lake from the west.  This was also where we would start really gaining some elevation so the rest break was well needed.  

Past Six Mile Flats we quickly gained elevation and started to leave the valley forest behind, entering into the alpine area of the Lakes Basin.  We had several stream crossings we had to negotiate and encourage Tesla to cross but for the most part it was pretty easy.  We also passed a big snow field at the head of a small river draining down a steep slope from Frasier Lake.  It had been a hot day so Tesla definitely enjoyed rolling around in the snow to cool off for a bit.  We reached Frasier Lake just after 3:30pm.  We had been hiking for nearly 7 hours and had gained about 2500 feet of elevation over 10 miles with heavy packs.  Anna’s feet were pretty beat up from new boots so she was definitely happy to finally be at our first camp. 

We relaxed in the early afternoon sun on the shore of the lake.  We saw a big hawk soaring along the cliffs towering above the lake as well as a couple really cute, and big, ground squirrels that kept a watchful eye on our activities.  Then, when Nate and Anna went to grab more water with Tesla I had a very inquisitive deer visit our campsite.  It certainly was used to humans in the area as it wasn’t shy about coming very close to our campsite looking for any leftovers.  

When Tesla caught wind of it she chased it away.  At first I was a little concerned about having her off leash chasing animals but the deer didn’t seem too concerned as it came back multiple times despite the dog being there.  Tesla did however love chasing chipmunks and for the rest of the trip she made it a goal to catch one, a goal that sadly, but mercifully, was never attained….

That evening we relaxed in camp, cooking up our various meals and enjoying some bourbon that we had packed in.  We also had a nice sunset to watch before clouds moved in.  I had brought the iPad so I watched a movie while the rain started.  In the middle of the night I was awakened to very loud thunder.  Counting the seconds I could tell it was approaching and being in the middle of a field I was getting a little nervous when it got to about 1-2 seconds away.  
Thankfully, I didn’t see any crazy bright flashes nearby.  What I did hear was one of the loudest rock falls I’ve ever heard.  It sounded like a quarter of the mountain had broken off and was sliding down the walls towards the lake… again, unnerving but I knew we were far enough away for it to be safe!

It rained into the early morning hours so we simply stayed in our tents until it stopped.  We had an easy day ahead of us of only about about 5 miles to our next campsite at Moccasin Lake.  Around 10am the clouds quickly cleared and the rain stopped.  Everything seemed fresh and green and the mountains with the morning sun shining on them looked amazingly colorful.  As we started along the trail towards Glacier Lake and I was again blown away by how many wildflowers there still were so late in the season.  With views opening up all around us as we ascended I gave in to my uncertainty and agreed that this area was the most beautiful place I’d been to in Oregon.  Tesla clearly agreed with me with a big doggy smile.  

Sentinal Peak, and a spire of Cusick Mountain, towered above us from Frasier Lake but as we climbed we seemed to level out with them.  Soon we saw bigger peaks ahead of us such as Glacier Peak and Eagle Cap, the centerpiece of the wilderness that I would climb the following day.  We followed the valley alongside a beautiful mountain stream until we crested an ancient glacial headwall to top out at Glacier Lake.  Honestly, the area around this lake is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to.  Tesla waded out into the water to cool off her feet as I took MANY photos of the area.  

I was glad had stopped at Frazier Lake last night as Anna’s feet were in pain and we all pretty tired, but next time I might just push for us to make it to Glacier Lake and then maybe just take a day off from there after… The views were just that good and there were plenty of places to camp.  We took the time here to have a nice lunch and sit on the rocks along the shore.  What I thought had been Eagle Cap was now clearly Glacier Peak towering above the lake of the same name.  So many peaks I’d like to climb, but so little time here and the Wallowas are just so far away from us in Portland.  

From Glacier Lake we climbed up over Glacier Pass which topped out at about 8,500’ which would be the highpoint for Nate and Anna on the trip.  From the pass we finally got a great view of Eagle Cap Peak towering above us, as well as the colorful Matterhorn and Sacajawea Peaks to the north in the distance.  We had some amazing views back down towards Glacier Lake but we said goodbye to that area and crossed over the pass down towards the Lake Basin to the west.  On the descent we came across our first horse party in the mountains.  Thankfully, the horses didn’t appear to be doing much damage to the trail as I normally see with pack animal wilderness areas.  

We didn’t quite make it to our next camp before the rain hit us.  It had begun to sprinkle a bit and we picked up our pace but by the time we rolled into our tent site it had become a full on deluge of water.  I chucked my bag down under some branches and yanked my waterproof gear out of the side to put on as well as my pack raincover I had thankfully remembered to bring.   Tesla wisely found her own spot beneath some branches to get out of the rain.  The rain didn’t last too long and within an hour we were all once again sitting in the sun on our little peninsula of land jutting out into Moccasin Lake where we would spend our 2nd night.  

It was 4pm and we had several hours to absorb the warm sun laying on the rocks around the lake.  There was a perfect ledge out into deep water that I convinced Anna and Nate would be perfect for a swim.  It took some encouragement from all of us to actually jump into the frigid water but we all did.  Throughout the evening ours we watched as several groups with horses passed by our large campsite that we had all to ourselves.  We could also see the smoke from a large forest fire rising over the hills around the lake.

Sunset from the our campsite was beautiful and with the temperature drop it was cool to see all the mist floating above the water of the lake.  Tesla had been wet in the afternoon and with the rapid temperature drop I noticed she was shivering so I through an extra layer on and wrapped her up in my puffy to stay warm.  I then set about preparing the camera for some great star photos during the first clear night of our trip.  Thankfully, there was no moon and the Milky Way was directly above us.

On Sunday morning we awoke to beautiful weather despite some clouds clinging to the summit of Eagle Cap.  We had a relaxing breakfast in the sun and at 9am I headed off towards Eagle Cap, hoping that the clouds would clear before I summited.  Anna’s feet were still pretty sore for her so the two of them followed me past Mirror Lake to the base of the summit climb before taking off to explore other lakes on their own.  

On the way over we rounded a bend and I saw a girl up at a campsite that looked like Sara Mikulak, now Sara Messier from Grad School.   I wasn’t sure and kept walking but then decided to take a chance and asked, “hey, are you Sara?”  Confused she answered “yes” hesitantly because it had been years since we’d seen each other.  Her husband Mike came out of the tent and we caught up for few minutes before continuing on.  They had come up the Lostine Valley the day before and were deciding whether to chance going up Eagle Cap or not.  I urged them to and then continued on myself. 

The trail up Eagle Cap was wonderfully maintained, even better than the trail below I thought.  The higher I climbed the more amazing the views.  I think the most beautiful views of course were back towards the lake basin and the colorful Matterhorn and Sacajawea Peaks in the distance.  The north face of Eagle Cap consists of massive cliffs but the backside is broad and gently sloped which makes for easy climbing.  I made it from the base at Upper Lake to the top in about 1hr 15 minutes with about 2,000 feet of elevation gain.  With just my light pack on me it felt like I was running up it!  

At the top I was surprised to find all the trees covered in ice from evening rainstorms the night before.  The first sign of winter for me this year as well.  With the sun high in the sky they were all melting very quickly though and it was interesting to see which side of the tree was clearly facing the morning sun…   At the top I did my usual photography blitz and walk out to the edge of the cliffs.  I had forgotten my long lens at camp so I couldn’t get any zoomed photos of our campsite from above but I could definitely see the location far below.  From the top I could see both sides of Glacier Gap, pretty much our entire approach of the prior two days.  

There were about 6-8 other people on top when I arrived as well as some dogs that had made the hike up.  Leo could definitely do this hike if we wanted to bring him next year.  I even posed with one of them for a summit shot :).  Eagle Cap is definitely the centerpiece of spectacular mountain range.  I could literally see every peak and valley of the entire Wallowa complex from the top, and I started to make mental notes on which ones I wanted to come back and summit.  Matterhorn and Sacajawea are now high on that list.  I stayed on top for nearly 45 minutes enjoying the views before heading quickly back down again to try to catch up with Anna and Nate.

On the way down I was blown away by the hordes of people now coming up the mountain.  I must have passed 50-75 people on my way down, many asking how much further it was :).  I was pleased to pass Sara and Mike on their way up as well and told them it would definitely be worth the effort.  I passed by Upper Lake, then Mirror and had some amazing views down towards Moccasin on the descent.  When I made it back to camp around 1:30pm Nate and Anna were nowhere to be seen.  I quickly ate a trail bar and packed up my gear to hit the trail to catch them.  I doubted they could be too far ahead of me as I was moving quickly.

It didn’t take me too long to cover the 4 miles between Moccasin Lake and Horseshoe Lake.  On the way I passed Douglas Lake as well as Lee Lake where I got a little confused and thought it was Horseshoe Lake.  I had given Nate and Anna the map so was depending on the crude maps of my phone and sense of direction to catch up with them.  I passed a park service person who said she had seen them and had also given them directions to Horseshoe Lake.  She knew who they were because Nate had been wearing a funny fox tail hanging from his pants the entire trip.  By the time I caught up with them they had only been there for about 20-30 minutes.

Horseshoe lake was much bigger than Moccasin and the water was warmer.  This made a hot afternoon swim even more necessary.  I inflated up my sleeping pad and went for float out to a little patch of land in the middle of the lake, much to the amusement of Nate and Anna.  That night we were out of the alpine zone so we spent some time collecting firewood for fire on the last night.  Anna wasn’t too pleased that I welcomed another camp group to camp next to us but our location was huge and they had many so it was the right thing to do.  

Once again we watched a beautiful sunset and even got some great photos of the moon before it set.  The fire kept us warm and I taught them how to write words with headlamps over long exposures of the camera.  I had saved my nalgene of Baileys for the last night and I can’t tell you how wonderful it was after chilling it in the lake water for a couple hours.  We also set about finishing off the delicious sausages and cheese that Anna and Nate had packed in.  The less weight to carry out the better!  That night I set up the camera to take a time lapse of the stars over the lake.  

We awoke our final morning to frost over everything including the DSLR I had left out overnight.  It was quite surprising that it actually dropped below freezing after such warm days.  From there it was 9 miles back out to Wallowa Lake.  We left camp about 9am and made great time on our way out.  We passed a few more horse groups, I ate a bunch more red raspberries but the biggest surprise was bumping into my coworker Tarika and his girlfriend on the way out.  We were 8 hours from Portland and we bumped into 4 people we knew!  The four of us played hopscotch with each other on the way out the trail.  I put on my headphones and had just enough juice left in my phone for music and gps tracking.  

We made it out by 1pm, just 4 hours after we had left our final camp 9 miles back and I only had 3% charge left on my phone.  Good timing!  We packed up and headed out of dodge looking for a place to stop for food and beers.  Joseph only had one place open that was packed so we ventured further down the road to Enterprise, OR where stopped at the Terminal Gravity Brewery for sandwiches and beers and guess who rolls in… Tarika again!  It was a great end to a truly amazing 4 day backpacking trip.  Thanks to Anna and Nate for the invite and I definitely look forward to planning another trip there next year but with Emily and Leo as well.

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