I didn’t go far that first night, 4 or 5 miles to a nice little campsite next to Lower Rosary Lake. The pain in my shin was almost gone.
The next day wasn’t anything too special. More winding trail through the woods and around the mountains. I got to Charlton Lake around 4PM and cooked a meal. There was a road nearby, and a slow stream of people came to check out the lake. Most of them walked the trail around the shore… maybe 2 miles total. A trio of elderly folks slowly walked by me – getting a full day’s workout in only 100 yards. Every step they took appeared difficult, but they were out here doing it anyway. It was that important to them.
As I was leaving, I came across a hiker called “the Mayor”. He was hiking Oregon southbound, and had passed a lot of people I knew. I got some information about the trail ahead: the snow was heavy but not impassable. Since I’d left the border of Mexico, I had been hearing horror stories about the snow in Oregon… “You’ll never get through”, “There’ll be a lot of people quitting early this year”, “you’ll be lucky to make 10 miles a day & not get lost in the process”. I had already learned not to listen to the “nay-sayers”. There are so many factors which go into snowmelt, that it’s virtually impossible to predict conditions months in advance. Still, I was happy to see the Mayor… if he made it here from Cascade Locks, I could make it the other way. If anything, there’d be less snow when I passed through the same areas.
I hiked north from Charlton Lake into a burned-out area (which offered a temporary reprieve from the mosquitoes), then down to the start of the gauntlet. I had already passed by hundreds of lakes on the PCT, but the section ahead was the “lakiest” of them all. The maps were dotted with little specks of blue – all shapes and sizes. It promised to be a mosquito heaven… and conversely, a hiker hell. I got to the first lake, Irish Lake, and set up my tent. As I had expected, I was besieged by the little buggers. By this time, I had perfected my mosquito armor – not a piece of flesh was exposed. Still, it wasn’t any fun to sit around in my hot clothes.
While I was there, another hiker came by to get some water. He was wearing nothing but shorts and a T-shirt. “Tell me you’re covered in DEET”, I led. “Naw, let ’em feed… I got lots of blood”, was his response. He was dealing with the mosquitoes through denial. He was getting sucked dry. I don’t know how long his method of mosquito control worked.
Elk lake was only about 25 miles ahead, definitely within reach that evening. I started down the trail. I discovered that the maps only showed a small fraction of the water ahead – thousands of shallow ponds filled the spaces in-between the lakes. The mosquitoes were in full breed-mode, attacking anything that moved… or stood still. I had to hike with my mosquito head-net on, and even then I got a ring of bites around my neck, where the headnet ended. The lakes and ponds rolled by. I lost track of which was which. It was impossible to distinguish any landmarks in the area. Still, for all the mosquitoes and wetness, the area was beautiful. Tall thick trees, clear reflective ponds, streams of sunlight highlighting the occasional glade of flowers, and a trail which took me everywhere – it was an enchanting world. Part of the beauty of the PCT was its diversity. I’d walked through deserts, alpine meadows, miles of snow and rock, the list went on forever. The wooded lakes of central Oregon were just another natural wonder to behold.
I finally made it to Elk Lake Resort. It was like a less-stuffy, cheaper, more fun version of Shelter Cove. The place was run by a bunch of scrappy 20-somethings. I ate two dinners while being treated to some cool tunes pumping on the stereo. This was definitely a good place to take a day off. There were about 5 hikers in town that night, we all slept at the nearby campground that night.
I spent most of the next day lounging on the deck, ordering milkshakes and soaking in the slow pace of vacation life. Gordon and Scott had arrived in town, and we managed to get a deal on a tiny log cabin – perfect. Toward evening, I headed back down to the resort. I was greeted by a familiar face. Nathan had just arrived in town. I hadn’t seen him since Lone Pine, CA. We’d hiked much of the first 6 weeks of the trail on & off together. We’d shared a lot of great times and some sad ones too. He had skipped a section of trail down in California due to scheduling problems. He’d just returned from a side trip to attend a wedding and go hike the section he’d missed. We spent the evening joking and catching up on stories. Another hiker, Yosemite John, was also in town. The 5 of us had a great dinner and slept back at the cabin. True to form, Nathan had friends meeting him at Elk Lake the next day.
I took off around 10AM the next morning. Immediately past Elk Lake, the mosquito infestation ended. The trail headed up a hill and I had my first views of South Sister… and Broken Top to the east. The Sisters are three 10,000+ft volcanoes in the center of Oregon. The PCT skirts their western slopes on the way north. I headed down the Wickiup Plain, south of South Sister, eager to return to some mountain scenery after hundreds of miles of forests. Day-hikers and weekend backpackers were in abundance in this area. I came across a number of horse-packers as well (even got stuck behind one… ugh!). I didn’t stop to talk to any of them though. They were all busy having their own adventures, trying to get away from it all for the weekend. I kept going down the Wickiup Plain and was curious why I was headed to the east of South Sister… shoot. I’d missed a turn somewhere and was headed down the wrong trail. It wasn’t too big of a deal, there were trails everywhere, I could get back on the PCT. The wrong turn only cost me 2 extra miles.
Soon after returning to the PCT, I saw a hiker off in the distance heading toward me really slowly. He was stopping every 30 seconds and just standing there. I realized why when I passed him. He only had one leg. He was using crutches to help him get down the trail. He said he could go about 5 miles a day. I couldn’t help but think of all the people who had told me “I’d like to go out there, but I could never do that…”. Here was a guy who had the world’s best excuse to “not do it”. I’m sure his experience was that much richer because of it. I wished him well, and headed around the mountain.
I soon passed a group of about 8 people who were building a bridge over one of the streams. They looked like they were having a good time, but I wondered… why? I crossed the stream without missing a step. Did it really need a large wooden bridge? Even during the height of the snowmelt, it didn’t look like this stream could amount to much. I’m sure they had their reasons, I just hoped they were actual good reasons.
After nearly losing the trail in a couple snowbanks, I popped out of the trees into a landscape reminiscent of the Sierras – expansive snowbanks, cool mountain streams, short green grasses… I stopped for dinner at a stream and looked up at South Sister. The north face of the mountain was a rough red cliff, not at all what I had expected. Gordon caught up to me, and we helped each other find the trail through the snow. As the sun went down, it highlighted everything around us. The fiery glow of the setting sun added to the already red face of South Sister, making it almost unreal. The shadows on the snowbanks got longer and more defined. It was beautiful and peaceful, but it was also getting dark. We had hoped to catch up with Scott, but we could barely find the trail through the snow. Finally Gordon had a stroke of genius and bellowed his “unique” hiker call out to the north. A few seconds, and the faint reply came back. We homed in on this signal, then as we got closer, a flashlight. Scott had found a nice ridge to camp on, surrounded by fields of obsidian shards – smooth fragments of black volcanic glass. Native Americans had probably once come to this area to collect raw material for making arrowheads.
None of us were in any hurry to leave the next morning. The snow had frozen during the night, and it would be easier to walk on it once the top layer had started to melt. Soon after leaving camp, I had to cut more steps around a snowbank near obsidian falls. I could have just walked around the wall of snow, but I felt like I had a duty to use my ice axe.. afterall, I was carrying it with me. The rest of the day was phenomenal. Views opened up around every corner. I was hiking on the flanks of Middle Sister, Looking at North Sister and a hill called little Brother in front of me, the jagged black Husband behind me to the left (you can see, there’s a theme to the mountain names in the area). As I got a little higher, the trail ascended through a pumice field, and I got one of the most amazing views I had of the entire trip. Stretched out to my north was a line of pacific northwest volcanoes some 200 miles long. A round snowy hill called Belknap Crater was closest, then a series of pyramids – Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, and just peeking over the north horizon, Mt. Adams (didn’t show up in the photo, but was clearly visible to the naked eye). It was a sight difficult to believe, even though I was looking right at it. The PCT was routed by each of these peaks… to the west of each to be precise. I almost wished I had perfect vision, and could see the string of hikers weeks ahead. Could they look back and see me?
I gave thanks for the perfectly clear air, and continued on my way. The trail slowly wound down through more pumice fields, around some small lakes, into the forest, and finally out to the road.
McKenzie Pass / Hwy 242 is a neat road. It’s a perfectly smooth black band woven through an endless rough terrain of dark pumice boulders. Right at the pass is a building hewn out of the pumice. The Dee Wright observatory looks like a small castle, or medieval outpost in the middle of a wasteland. On top of the observatory is a circular brass disk with lines pointing the direction to every visible peak. It was a neat place to visit. I ate some food on the steps of the observatory, half hoping that a passing tourist would do me some act of unnecessary kindness. My effort paid off in the form of an almost-fresh peach and some extra water (courtesy of a couple nice young gentlemen). Before long, I had keep going, I figured I could make it just past Mt. Washington by that night.