Perry & Travis: A Scouting Adventure in Oregon
Perry and I recently journeyed to the central Cascades in Oregon for our annual scouting trip. After 2018's epic TVOP adventure in Maine, including Baxter State Park and Acadia National Park, we were ready to plan our 2019 Experienced Trip. It seems that every year we start scheming ideas for future trips and this year was no different. We decided that for 2019 we wanted to get back to our roots – backpacking!
Three Finger Jack
With help and suggestions from previous PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) thru-hikers, we decided to scout a section of the PCT from Santiam Pass, OR to Olallie Lakes, OR for a total of 45 miles!
Santiam Pass lies between Oregon’s Mount Washington, and Three Fingered Jack: two majestic Cascade Peaks. In 2003, this area was ravaged by a giant wildfire started by lighting. Fifteen years later, it is a gorgeous silver forest.
The PCT, unlike the AT, is known to be a generously wide and well graded trail (at least in this area). We meandered through this silver forest which eventually brought us around the western side of Three Finger Jack. Its peaks looked like the sand drip castles of our childhoods, as if wet drippy sand had been drizzled atop an already glorious sand castle. We marveled at the mountain, one of the tallest in Oregon, while sweating profusely in the hot sun.
Just after noon, we arrived at Wasco Lake at Minto Pass. We were shocked by how fast we were traveling as we'd originally thought we'd reach Wasco Lake in the late afternoon and make camp there for the night. After a glorious swim in the aquamarine water, and a good long bask in the sun, we decided to press on.
We arrived at Rockpile Lake around 4pm. It was another spectacular and rather small mountain lake sitting literally on the trail. As we set up camp, we struck up a conversation with a thru-hiker who was taking a rest at Rockpile as well. In the middle of our conversation about the trail, we caught the thru hiker saying, “wicked.” With obvious excitement Perry asked, "Are you from New England!?!" “Yeah," she replied, "I’m from Maine! How did you know?” Perry said, "I'm from NH and Travis is from Maine; the wicked was a dead giveaway!" Moments later we talking about my hometown of Bucksport, how her boyfriend lives in Belfast where my father used to work and about how she used to spend time in Northampton, MA the location of TVOP's headquarters. What a small world the trail is!
After a hearty dinner and some fun lakeside chats we settled into our tents even before the sun went down. Perry and I agreed that we'd wake up at 5am so we could hit the trail at 6 in order to get in a few hours of hiking before the sun's rays beat us back. We were already ahead of schedule so we didn’t exactly know where we’d end up the next day. We knew we'd need to travel at least 15 miles and that if we made it to 20 we'd be rewarded with a lakeside campsite at the base of Mt. Jefferson.
The next morning, we hit the trail just as the sun was rising and enjoyed a few miles of hiking in the cool morning air. Jefferson Park (where we had originally planned to stay on night 3) our stretch goal, was 20 miles away. We were slightly intimidated by the miles, but enticed by having been told, "it is the holiest of all holy places to camp." We made it to Milk Creek by 11:30 and enjoyed our lunch by the flowing water as we prepared ourselves for a 1500' climb to our first potential camp. The Oregon PCT book I had downloaded on my phone described the next section as, "tree covered and lush green" and suggested that there were many great camp sites and creeks along this next stretch.
I noticed right away something was not right. Nothing on the trail was green at all - not even the little pine scrub we'd seen in our first 20 miles. The trees were dead, dark, and charred. It was depressing. Like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. We made our way to the top of an incline and stopped at the intersection. Despite the book telling us we'd see majestic vistas featuring Mt. Jefferson, we could barely make out the outline of Jefferson. It was obscured not by the lush greenery as suggested in the guidebook, but by smoky haze from the fires in British Columbia and California. Breathing was hard and our eyes itched and burned from the smoke. We knew the fires were far away, but still took comfort that there are several other PCT hikers on the trail and beyond it being a talking point, no one else seems concerned about the intense smoke. I reassured Perry that the fires were far away, but were they? Was there a new one? The spot we currently sat was our potential sleep spot…but we couldn’t stay here. No water source, and honesty it looked like death. Without even much discussion, we agreed we’d move on to the next possible camp site - Russell Creek.
Running low on water, and our lungs filled with smoke and dust, we both collapsed at the top of the ridgeline, about a half-mile south of Russell Creek. In very atypical fashion, Perry ripped his shirt off to try to cool down and we both sank into the soil trying to breathe through the thick air. The trees were still burnt, and unlike the pretty silver ones we had seen the previous day from the 2003 fire; this land looked in pain.
Hazy & Smokey
Russell Creek could be overhead from where we rested. From the sound of it, it was clearly way more than a creek. We approached and could see the roaring and raging river coming down off the melting glaciers of Mt. Jefferson. I became quiet, the way I get quiet when I’m scared. I’ve had intense river crossings before, mostly around Mount St. Helens and Mt. Hood so I knew how to brace myself for this crossing. Luckily we fell in step with a thru-hiker right in front of us. Together, we approached the river where the trail was intercepted by the river. We could see where the trail continued on the other side, but how would be possibly get there?
Looking up the river, I could see hikers climbing down from the other side. The hikers pointed to keep going up the river. Words were useless against the sound of water. And so, I kept going, trying to catch up with the thru-hiker ahead of me, without him knowing, that his crossing would save me from this river. But soon, he either saw the desperate look in my eye, or realized that we were having a shared fear. We finally reached the rock cairn that marked, THIS, is the place we cross. His long legs made the crossing look easy and terrifying all at once. He hopped from the rocks to the small island in the center before reaching the other side. After having already hiked 17 miles, I was stumbling up the bouldery river bank. I was terrified.
To my relief, after the thru-hiker crossed, he stopped and turned to wait for us. If I thought too long, I wouldn't be able to cross, and since the raging river started on the flanks of Mt. Jefferson and ran for miles, there was literally no other choice than to cross. Even though I’d unbuckled the hip and chest straps of my pack as a safety measure, I decided to take the pack of off entirely and hurl it across to the small island. It made it safely. Planting my poles in the water, I felt like I was being pushed over, but finally, I made the leap of faith and was reunited with my pack on the small center rock island.
Perry, also scared, made it across the rocks and we were both on the island. I put my pack back on and had one more section to cross. My thru-hiker buddy was still there, patiently waiting for us, sharing the look of “you’ve got this, and I’m going to watch just in case.” I had to get out of my own head so without much thinking, I willed myself to cross. We both laugh out of fear about how scared we were. Perry made it across as well and on the last rock took my hand as I helped pull him through the last big section and safely ashore.
Finally reunited and safely across, we took a few minutes talk to our new friend who we learn came to the US from France to hike the PCT. He said he was loving his thru-hike of the PCT. I noticed a small Olaf (the snowman from Disney’s Frozen) dangling from his pack and wonder if it has something to do with his trail name or if just a cute personal item. We wish each other well and he pressed on, at a blazing thru-hiker's pace, back down the bouldery river bank to meet back up to the PCT. Perry and I crashed on the rocks below us, and said, almost in unison “We’re not taking a TVOP trip across that!"
With that, the concept of this hike as a TVOP scouting trip ended, and our journey transitioned to being a grand adventure for just the two of us. The adrenaline from the crossing was just what we needed to help us power through the three additional miles that would lead us to Jefferson Park. We dropped our increasingly heavy packs at the first lakeside campsite we found and gave each other a huge high 5 for making a 20 mile day and winding up in the shadow of giant Mt. Jefferson. Though the mountain was still covered in a smoky haze, I could imagine how amazing it would look had it been clear.
After dinner, blister damage control, and a cleansing swim, we were horizontal before the sun went down.
We woke at 6am, and were hiking by 7. The wind was fierce that morning and had blown the smoke away enough so that we finally had the amazing view of Mt. Jefferson I’d be hoping for.
Olallie Lake, our end point, where my truck was parked was now a mere 12 miles away. The 1600' hike up and over Park Butte Ridge, undoubtedly my favorite part of this PCT section, was gorgeous. Our blisters burned and burst, but we kept our feet moving. Finally, we were surrounded by green trees, glaciated peaks, volcanic rock, wildflowers and had clear views of the Cascades that for days had been obscured by the haze and smoke.
We arrived at Olallie Lake and went straight to the store that we had been reading about in the guidebook for days. We both bought Gatorade, Pringles, and a celebratory IPA. We sat by the lake, had our snacks, and silently appreciated how lucky we were to have taken this trip. Though this section of the PCT is not to be a TVOP trip (safety first!), we loved the journey and look forward to getting back to the drawing board as we scheme up another possible TVOP adventure for 2019. Stay tuned to see what we come up with!
Post-Hike Blister Care