Columbus Day backpacking – Can I burn the map now?

Mt. Jefferson in snow-capped loveliness
Mt. Jefferson in snow-capped loveliness, as we hiked out on Monday.

After the Goat Rocks hike, Arno asked me to pick a future weekend to squeeze in one last hike. My schedule is often full, and the first date that looked promising was Columbus Day weekend, which would be three days off due to the federal holiday. I planned not to work overtime, to give us three days in a row to play in the mountains.

Since then the government shut down, and though I had to continue working, the mandatory overtime policy was temporarily canceled. Shut downs don’t allow a holiday off, so we were all furloughed for one day on Monday. Ha, ha, the stuff the government comes up with in order to conform to its own silly structure. In any case, the weekend arrived with all three days still available.

We picked Jefferson Park as our destination, because Internet photos showed it to be beautiful, and because neither of us had been there. Jefferson Park includes the area surrounding a group of lakes at the base of Mt. Jefferson, Oregon. The hike from the trailhead is an easy climb – only 1800 feet – in 5.2 miles.

I assumed the weather would be cold.  The forecast was for a chance of rain/snow showers Saturday, then dry the next two days. With Arno’s help I have collected a decent amount of cold weather gear. He brought his super-duper winter sleepingbag for me. I indulged and brought the thick, full-length sleeping pad which is heavy & bulky for backpacking, but I expected it would be worth it to get myself off the cold ground.

Maybe I haven’t told you, but I am a fair-weather camper. I like hiking in shorts and a tank top. I like jumping into snowmelt lakes for a refreshing swim. However, to get fabulous fall foliage views, I was prepared to be be cold for a few days. As long as I was warm at night, I could take it. With a fire to warm my hands in the evening, even better!

This is the trail we followed to Scout Lake.
This is the trail we followed to Scout Lake. Click the image for the source.
Information boards and no available permits at the Whitewater Trailhead
Information boards and no available permits at the rainy Whitewater Trailhead

DSC_0199 -1It was raining when we arrived at the Whitewater Trailhead. I went to fill out a mandatory camping permit, but all the blank permits had been used and were jammed into the box for collection. I went to use the outhouse and there was no toilet paper. Seasoned traveler that I am, I noticed this the moment I stepped in the door, and went back to the truck for paper. Coming back to the outhouse, I noticed the sign on the door, which explained the source of the problems.

We reasoned that if Rangers had been furloughed, then no Ranger would be on the trails checking to see if we had a permit. After gearing up in the rain, we headed up the trail.

The trail was in good shape because it wound across mostly rocky areas and wasn’t muddy from the rain. In a short while, the rain switched to snain, and then full-on snow. We had one creek crossing that wasn’t too much trouble. I was not concerned about the snow falling. What caught my attention was that as we climbed higher, there was an increasing amount of snow already on the ground, from the previous week of heavy precipitation. Arno had hiked Mt. Hood the week before, and saw that snow level remained above 6000 feet, and we guessed that it would be the same here. We had guessed wrong.

Snow starts to come down hard as I realize our destination is a much higher elevation.
Snow starts to come down hard as I realize our destination is a much higher elevation.

We passed three women and an older couple coming out of the park after day hikes. They confirmed for us that there was a lot of snow around the lakes. The man said he sank up to his knees. It was still a little hard to imagine the depth of the snow they were describing, since I had my mind set on fall colours. Luckily we were well-dressed and stayed warm as we climbed higher.

Soon our trail merged with the Pacific Crest Trail, and we followed that famous border-to-border trail for the rest of our hike.

The first lake we spotted was Scout Lake. It was beautiful and inviting and I pressed Arno to leave the trail and investigate for signs of a place to camp. I was still sort of hoping for a clear patch, but gave up hope rather quickly.

The trail we made from the PCT to get to our camp.
The trail we made from the PCT to get to our camp.

We were the first people to leave the packed down PCT since the snow had fallen. It was about two feet deep at the point where we left the trail. Arno suggests 1 1/2 feet deep. Either way, it’s a lot to break trail through.

We found a beautiful spot on a hill above Scout Lake, with Park Butte to the north and Mt. Jefferson to our south. There was an area large enough for a tent, and Arno showed me how to tromp down the snow into a hard-packed surface so that we could pitch our tent on top of it. I have never camped ON snow before. I recalled hunting camp as a kid, when sometimes we’d wake in the morning to a couple fresh inches of snow on the tent. But this was an entirely new experience and I had some anxiety. I am finding that Arno pushes me outside my comfort zone on a pretty regular basis, but so far I’ve come away better each time, so it’s ok.

The snow had stopped, and as the darkness fell, the setting sun dropped below a cloud deck and struck beams out across the water for us to marvel at. (In case you’re wondering, the sunny photos from this post are from Monday, when we hiked out, since the first photos I took on grey, foggy, snowy Saturday are not as nice.)

Tent on snow. Brrr!
Tent on snow. Brrr! That is Scout Lake, and you can barely see Park Butte.

Arno began making dinner and I tromped through the snow gathering firewood. It was hard to find anything dry, since the previous week had been so very wet. I gathered the sticks with the most potential, and made a heap on top of the snow. I am the pyro of the family, and my record has been so far unblemished. But this time my skills failed me. The wood was sopping wet and I had nothing dry to start with. Even the lichen, that I typically use to get everything going, was soaking wet. I had brought a new box of matches, and thought to myself I will sacrifice the whole box of matches for the cause. The matches were dry wood, after all. I thought if I could hold a match flame up to a stick for a long enough time, it would have to dry it out enough to burn it. One after another match burned till I used the entire box, successfully burning the branches I aimed for, but nothing else. Then realized I now had a dry paper box to burn! I borrowed Arno’s lighter, carefully placed the cardboard matches box and pressed tiny branches all around it and burned the box to no avail. Every so often, I could eek out a couple minutes of flames, which would heat the nearby branches and burn them up, and set my hopes soaring. Like the effect of slot machines, those tiny near-victories kept me coming back. My competitive nature, my pyromania, my pride, kept me at it for 30 minutes. I just KNEW if only I could get a decent burst of flame, I could get it all going properly. But fuel…. I needed paper!

Before we left home, Arno had photocopied the big map to get just our trail onto one 8 1/2 x 11 sheet that I could carry while he had the big map. It was paper. But a little voice in my head squeaked Isn’t burning your map kind of crazy? I asked Arno, “Can I burn the map now?” He looked dubious, but agreed. We had found our destination, after all, and we had a second map. Again I carefully prepped it all, placed the driest lichen, the best tiny branches, and the paper charred and smoked and sparked a little, and burned up without doing me a bit of good. Then the lighter ran out of fluid. It had to be a sign. I quit for good. To help me resist the temptation to go after the last book of matches (Look, I’m not stupid enough to use up ALL our flame, ha ha), I carried away all the dry branches I had gathered and scattered them in the heaps of snow away from camp.

By this time, dinner was nearly ready. We were cold and the bacon carbonara with sun dried tomatoes was warm and delicious. Whiskey Jacks (grey jays) showed up to see if we had any food to share yet. We got to talking about the ingredients for mulled wine and got the idea to heat our evening’s wine on the stove. Brilliant! Hot wine in the snow: one more “first” to add to my list.

Before we went to sleep, the moon became visible in the clearing sky. I had not brought a tripod, so I leaned against a tree to get a few night shots of the mountain above us.

{Read my post for Day Two and Day Three here.}

The moon waxing over Mt. Jefferson, as viewed from camp.
The moon waxing over Mt. Jefferson, as viewed from camp.

4 thoughts on “Columbus Day backpacking – Can I burn the map now?

  1. Pitch…

    It is Mike’s answer to the fire starting problem when the branches are wet and ornery. When we run multiday Whitewater trips finding dry wood along the shore can be a challenge especially during the early or late season. The weather can be unpredictable but not enough to cancel the draw of, oh lets say my favorite … Rogue River Wilderness.

    In preparation for the awe inspiring adventure, Mike begins collecting as much pitch from trees as possible. We let the pitch dry. We then break or mold the pitch into in various size clumps then wrap it in paper to prevent the sticky from getting smeared on everything and anything. I like using anything from paper towel or toilet paper tubes to heavy weight printer paper/construction paper. We then place the papered pitch into baggies. The pitch will slowly burn with a slight flame and will catch most damp stuff on fire such as your lichen. It is easy to carry and with the paper around the pitch it is easy to light.

    If your paper gets damp…no worries the pitch will still light.

    Love your story.

    I am not into cold camping either. I remember one trip down the Rogue when I thought I was going to freeze. Hiking instead of Rafting would have made my day! I could have at least warmed my feet. The weather couldn’t make up it’s mind day one started with mizzle, then rain by nightfall it was snowing. It would only let up to a smacking of mizzle around midday each day around noon then back to snow all three days we were on the water.

    The best of memories comes with pushing the envelope of comfort. I would do it again tomorrow.

    Love you Cousin

    1. You are so right about pushing the envelope, Cuz! The times when I was uncomfortable and had to get creative, are the times I remember. The weekend truly was wonderful. The cold felt good in my lungs, and I never really suffered much.

      Pitch is a great idea and I should pack something in my bag for this future inevitable occurrence of wet sticks. You know, once I got home and unpacked, I saw that I had a fat candle in my pack the whole time. I always carry it for emergencies, and I am just so used to having it, I never thought to actually pull it out and USE it. ha ha.

  2. My dad grew up at Crater Lake National Park, as the Trulove family was one of the few families who lived there year-round. He had a few comments on my facebook page after reading this. His words follow:

    “When i was younger and more flexible, we used to go snow camping in the Crater Lake winters with just a ground cloth and our sleeping bags. We’d find a slope or a mound and tunnel into it, line it with fir boughs, cover it with the ground cloth, and if it was really cold, we’d fashion a door out of a snow block. A single candle would cause you to sleep too warm, if you forgot to blow it out.

    “I didn’t even know they made tents for snowy weather until i was in high school.

    “I was a Com Officer on a big fire in late summer in Montana one time. The other Com Officer had a heavy tarp, so we just laid it on the ground, put our paper us gov disposable sleeping bags on top, then folded the tarp over us and slept very comfortably. The last morning, we awakened to a very heavy tarp, and soon learned that it had gained weight because of the 5-inches of snow that had accumulated on it while we slept warmly. Funny memories.

    “Somewhere i have some photos of Jim and Paul Evens and i, when we took a toboggan full of our camp gear and headed out across the snowbank for a weekend trip.

    “The snow accumulation would vary from 10-16 feet deep or so, so one of our missions when we’d near where we were going to camp, was to find a place on a stream, where the moving water had kept the snow from accumulating, so that we had a water source for our coffee, cooking and washing our dishes. (Yup, we washed our dishes.) One of the photos is of the stream, but looks like a vertical tunnel about 12 feet deep, with about an 8 foot circle of flowing water. We would kick, stomp or shovel steps down to the water if we were going to camp, but if we were just thirsty, we’d pack snow around the basket of a ski pole, then lower it into the water to soak it up like a sponge, then quickly pull it back up and hold it so that we could drink the water that flowed out of the packed snow.

    “Another thing we learned when camping in these conditions is to find a green tree about 6-8 inches in diameter, then cut it down and limb it, then cut it into three-foot sections to build a bed for the fire. The green wood would prevent the logs from burning up too quickly, and would maintain the fire at the level of the top of the snow bank. Not taking the time to prepare the bed like this would result in the fire melting it’s way down through the snow, and eventually be worthless as a source of heat for cooking, or for warming up.

    “I remember using a standing dead, and fairly dry tree for this one time, and when we awakened the following morning, the smoldering firewood was at the base of a pit, about 8 feet below where we’d built the fire. …we didn’t do THAT again.”

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