Backpacking to High Lake

I hadn't set the tent up yet, but that's my camp, just above the water.
I hadn’t set the tent up yet, but that’s my camp, just above the water.

{as always, please click an image for the original size version}

If you were here, you would have to shake my hand and clap me on the back. I crammed a bunch of gear into my old pack and hauled that baby into the mountains yesterday. For the first time in 8 years.


I used to head out several times a summer. Since then, I’ve moved twice and don’t know the area, switched from summer parent to most-of-the-year parent, I’ve been sent on long-distance and long-term work trips the last two summers, and otherwise have found ways to fill my weekends so full that an overnight in the mountains just didn’t seem feasible.

This weekend I made it back home: to the woods.

My destination was High Lake, in the Mt. Hood National Forest (you recall the name of my favourite volcano). I chose the trail because it scored high on difficulty and high on solitude. The key idea here being: no people. The harder the hike, the less folks try it.

An example of the size of some of the blowdown over the trail. Egads.
An example of the size of some of the blowdown over the trail. Egads.

I left work early Friday and spent the time preparing my gear. You can’t believe how many dead spider carcasses I cleared from my pack. Dust, cobwebs, you name it. Arno had been kind enough to re-seal my waterproof Raichle boots while we watched Kinky Boots on Netflix a couple weeks ago. (It’s a great movie, you should rent it, then go see the Broadway show.) I found everything I wanted to have with me:  headlamp, compass, first aid kit, whisper lite stove, water filter, down sleeping bag rated to 0° when I bought it, but 12 years of lost down later, it’s probably only good to 15°.

Rhododendrons surrounded me nearly the entire length of the trail.
Rhododendrons surrounded me nearly the entire length of the trail.
Decadent pink extravagance
Decadent pink extravagance

I had a blast preparing food. With my daughter gone for a while this summer at her dad’s house, I am trying to clear the cabinets of food. I’ll eat pretty much anything, and I don’t require a balanced meal. I challenged myself to find backpacking food without going to the store. I grabbed angel hair pasta and a packet of powdered sauce, and a packet of tuna to add to the pasta for protein. I emptied a can of green chilis into a snack-sized ziplock for spice. (Don’t need the snack bags so much, now that Miss T is out of school).

For lunch I brought a tortilla to make a wrap, and coiled it into a cone and tucked it along the back of the pack to keep it in one piece.  For the filling, I cut a wedge of cream cheese and put that into a snack bag and added lots of dark meat from a leftover slow cooked chicken. I caramelized onions and garlic and put that in the bag. As I returned stuff to the fridge, I spotted a half-empty jar of sun dried tomatoes, and added some of those. Then double-bagged the snack baggie to prevent leaks. I hard boiled and peeled a couple eggs for a protein breakfast, and added home made oatmeal, walnut, and cranberry cookies. Then I mixed a little trail mix, with some of the amazing dried fruit and nuts I recently purchased from (yes, an endorsement!)

Exposed rock beside the trail. You can see the trail, bottom right.
Exposed rock beside the trail. You can see the trail, bottom right.

The most important thing to bring on any outing of mine is coffee! So I filled (yet another) snack baggie with Peets Sulawesi Kalosi. For the lowest possible backpacking weight, I can’t go wrong with a plastic cone-shaped funnel and a couple #4 biodegradable filters. I chose the cheapest bottom-of-the-shelf wine I had, and poured it into a Nalgene bottle, since I love a fireside drink after a hard day humpin’ a pack. Why the cheapest? Because, if you are a camper or backpacker you will know, anything you eat or drink in the woods tastes twenty times better than it would in your kitchen.

Sadly, this is what most of the "views" consist of. I could tell there was a view out there somewhere.
Sadly, this is what most of the “views” consist of. I could tell there was a view out there somewhere.

I filled the fuel canister, filled my water bladder, collected some clothing, and packed it all into my pack. Dug my sleeping pad from the coat closet (I’ve been using it for a yoga mat) and strapped that opposite the tent on the outside of the pack. Testing the weight, I struggled to lift the whole contraption off the floor. And then decided to get a good night’s sleep and leave in the morning.

In the morning I hefted the pack again and was dismayed by the weight. I pulled out a few things, including a nalgene bottle, thinking “Now why would I need an extra bottle of water when I have the bladder?” The last thing I did in the morning was brush my teeth, and I took off in high spirits. Only remembering somewhere along the trail that I forgot the wax for my braces, when I began noticing how raw and snagged the inside of my mouth was getting…

Now, when I say I followed the ridgeline, I mean...
Now, when I say I followed the ridgeline, I mean…

The first thing I noticed on the trail was that it was high season for rhododendrons to blossom. They are among the most delightful things a person can find in the Oregon woods. These lush, gorgeous, pink explosions were along the entire trail. They inspired me to begin photographing wildflowers. Check out my set of wildflowers on flickr. I did get many, but not all, of the incredible smorgasbord of flowers.

A mess o' indian paintbrush and larkspur
Dazzling mix of Indian paintbrush and larkspur
What a beautiful cairn
What a beautiful cairn

Thank goodness for the flowers because the trail did not offer views I am accustomed to in the mountains. I remained below treeline and beneath canopies. The views, I could tell, were out there. Just not available to me. It was frustrating to see the glistening snow on a nearby volcano, with a view not even clear enough to identify which volcano.

I had Thrift Shop playing in my head all dang weekend. I kid you not. There’s this bird who, in a cranky elderly lady bronchitis voice, goes “whatwhat what what. whatwhat what what.” And, obviously, my brain filled in the rest of the song. “I’m gonna pop some tags, only got $20 in my pocket…” Crazy song to be hearing in my head in the woods.

There were many ginormous anthills seething with trillions of ants!
There were many ginormous anthills seething with trillions of ants! I had to walk right through them. shuddder.

I climbed steeply at first, then followed the ridgelines for a long time. My ascent continued steadily up, rising 2000 feet after 3 ½ miles. Then a quick drop of 300 feet to the lake. Dare I be snobbish on my first trip out? The person who wrote the guide must be catering to city people. It was not a difficult trail. I will earnestly agree that I stopped for breath. A lot. But it was a nice gradual up, up, up, up. No skill required other than fortitude.

The trail down to the lake still had a little snow
The trail down to the lake still had a little snow

There were many brushy areas where the trail was obscured by the gentle fingers of wild roses and gooseberries. Their little green claws brushed the bugs off, scoured down the first couple layers of epidermis, and gave me a pretty close shave as well. So that was all good.

Oh, and tons of scrambling over logs across the trail. That’s the downside to getting an early start on the hiking season: trails haven’t been cleared yet. I grabbed and flung branches when I wasn’t gasping for breath. But those logs. There must have been six of them chest-high to me. I just mooshed myself and my backpack onto them and toppled over the other side as ungracefully as any 43-year-old would. Passing a young, attractive couple who had stepped aside to allow me to negotiate a large area of downed trees and branches, the woman remarked, “Yes, the pack does change your center of balance, doesn’t it?” I thought, bless you beautiful child for not calling me old.

High Lake, looking up toward Fish Creek Mountain
High Lake, looking up toward Fish Creek Mountain

So yeah. The author nailed it for solitude about as accurately as he described the difficulty. That lake – a beautiful little 2.5 acre lake – was the busiest mountain lake I have ever seen. Is it always like this in Oregon? I have been so spoiled. I got the last available space to set up a tent, and thankfully it was far away from the others. While futzing around camp the rest of the day, I saw a steady stream of visitors bringing their dogs and dropping lines into the lake hoping for one of those gorgeous trout I saw. There were guys alone, guys who brought their buddies, and guys who brought their girlfriends. They were all younger than me. Even the dogs. In dog years.

To get myself in the mood for setting up camp, I went to get a cup of wine and …slapped my forehead. The nalgene bottle had WINE in it. Damn.

The tent beside the water, and also beside an outflow creek that provided a lovely gurgling sound to go to sleep to.
The tent beside the water, and also beside an outflow creek that provided a lovely gurgling sound to go to sleep to.
The "view" of Mt. Jefferson (I think) from my campsite
The “view” of Mt. Jefferson (I think) from my campsite

After I set up my tent and ate my wrap (ooh! It was incredible! Did it sound delish above? Well, it was even better.), I laid down in a sunny spot and didn’t quite doze, but was pretty much devoid of production of any kind. I came to life again to splashes and shouted profanity burst (unbidden, I am certain!) from the mouths of a dad and teenage son who wanted to flush the top layer of hike grime from their bodies, and had jumped into the lake.

Looking south. The larger campsite that held two groups of campers is out of view to the right. My camp site is out of view to the left.
Looking south. The larger campsite that held two groups of campers is directly ahead on the far side of the lake. My camp site is out of view to the left.
granite reflection
granite reflection

My rest had rejuvenated me. My muscles cried, “We feel great; let’s go on an adventure.” I answered supportively, “Great idea! What’s your plan? Hike to the top of nearby Fish Creek Mountain? The lookout? Find a trail around the lake?” “Find a place to go to the bathroom!” the muscles cried. “And after that?” I asked. “We need to take a whiz now! Whiz! Whiz!” So I scrambled through the huckleberries and gooseberries, over the hill, cushioned from any theoretical falls by thick layers of bark and pine needles. Business accomplished, I asked my muscles, “OK! Now for the adventure! Where was it you wanted to go?” And they answered, “Oh, we thought that was the adventure. We’re good now. Thanks.”

So I stayed at the lake.

The forecast had called for rain to arrive sometime in the night, and it was spot on. I had the rain flap on already, but I typically use it in the mountains for heat, even when there is no rain expected. My yoga mat was warm and comfy (and only 4 ounces), my sleeping bag was perfect, and so was the little hike pillow I have, that was a gift from a friend I hiked with once. I bounced out of the tent at 6am and brewed a delicious cup of coffee. I ate breakfast with my second cup of coffee, and said goodbye to the darling little newts in the lake.

cute newt
cute newt

<aside>These Rough Skinned Newts are wonderful. Either they’re blind or have no fear; they didn’t mind my hovering over them. They look like the last stage of water-dwelling creature before that virgin trek onto land: four well-developed limbs and eyes in front. They eat insects, gobbling them out of the water and blowing a little bubble with each gulp. When they meet, they touch

that face!
that face!

each other before moving on. Sometimes it was just one arm out against the body of the other, but I saw a group of three take turns hugging each other (just the two top limbs pressed on the shoulders of the other – a quick press – then off again). Ok, I obviously supposed it could be related to mating, but all of them did it: a quick touch, then move on. Whatever it was, I was happy to imagine it an innerspecies “hello.” </aside>

The trip back to the car took almost as much time as the trip in, because I kept lollygagging. Then I got the idea to take the empty ziplock that had held my pasta, and fill it with the delicate green pine tips of new growth on all the trees I passed. I’ve meant to try to make pine needle jelly my whole life, the way my Pa used to make it, and now I am going to try it.

In no time, the trip was over, and I zoomed back home to see if I could find time to do some laundry, pay bills, catch up on email and maybe do a blog post before it was time to go to bed and get ready for Monday.

5 thoughts on “Backpacking to High Lake

  1. I aspire to just pick up and go alone like this– it sounds just so perfectly relaxing. Need a little more experience going with others first though, I think.

    1. Agreed. I started the same way. A girlfriend of mine was doing guided backpacking for women and I went on a couple trips with her first, and borrowed all my gear. That, added to my background of growing up camping with my dad was a good start. I spent about six hours at an outdoor store one day (after hours of research) and bought, one by one, all the things a person needs to backpack. I asked a bazillion questions. Then, after my first trip into the mountains, I went back to the outdoor store and got the things I missed.

      It’s “relaxing” in a work-your-butt-off kind of way. No, really, it’s hard. But no stress whatsoever. Just put one foot in front of the other, and keep going. Then at the end: major payoff! I wish I lived closer to you, Fish, and I’d take you along.

  2. I fear my backpacking gear would be similar to yours (dust, cobwebs, etc) and really need to see what all I’ve got in there!
    Your photographs are beautiful and l loved the story! I said Damn out loud when I learned you left the wine at home … and laughed because that was the word you used as well.
    Good for you for getting out there!!! Many consider it; fewer do it!

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