Sunday, August 18, 2013

Matthieu Lakes Loop

For most of this summer, southwest Oregon had been on fire. We've had to give up hiking along the Rogue River, the Illinois River, and up the South Umpqua River. To a lesser extent, we've also had to give up blue summer skies as a smoky haze periodically filled the Umpqua Basin, depending on how the wind blew that day. But the fire gods have been kinder north of us and on a crisp clear day on McKenzie Pass, I gave thanks for smoke free air. Of course, my thanks were somewhat in vain as fire did eventually become part of my hike, but more on that later.

Gotta love that wilderness solitude

It was a gorgeous day at McKenzie Pass, nary a cloud in the sky, a breeze kept things cool, and the air sparkled with clarity. Of course, a nice day just invited like-minded people and the Pacific Crest Trail parking lot at Lava Camp Lake was full of cars, backpackers, and day hikers. One gentleman with two young boys stopped by to ask for directions to North Matthieu Lake as I was lacing up my boots. Carry a map, boys and girls, your family and your local search and rescue department will thank you.

Happy place!
Entering the Three Sisters Wilderness, the first part of the hike was in viewless forest (with no mosquitoes!) on the Pacific Crest Trail, hereafter referred to as the PCT. There were a number of through hikers on their way to Canada. The through hikers were easy to distinguish from the weekenders due to their athletic builds, light packs, and a certain "air" about them that lingered in the forest long after they passed by. At about 1.5 miles of steady climbing, the PCT left the forest and the fun stuff started.

These are lava lands and rivers of black rock coursed along the trail before emptying into a black rock sea. Small cones dotted the landscape like geological gooseflesh, but it was the larger peaks of the Cascades that commanded attention. Spaced equidistant and arrayed in a row like trail cairns for the hiking gods, were the volcanoes of Belknap Crater, Mount Washington, Three-Fingered Jack, Mount Jefferson, and 80 mile distant Mount Hood.  Truly a vista for the ages,

South Matthieu Lake
At around the 3 mile mark at Scott Pass, South Matthieu Lake lay nestled between the two red cones flanking the high pass.  From the north side of the lake loomed nearby Black Crater, looking more red than black.  But it was the south side view that stole the show as the upper half of craggy North Sister loomed over the blue lake.  A breeze was blowing but the reflection must be particularly beautiful on a calm morn.


I hadn't planned to hike very far as it had been a 3.5 hour drive to the trailhead.  I figured I'd just grab the trail to North Matthieu Lake and then loop back to the trailhead for a moderate 6 miler. But Yapoah Crater, a symmetrical cinder cone responsible for the massive lava flow next to the PCT, called me "Richard...Richard..." My feet began moving and it was futile to resist.

No shade for me

Leaving South Matthieu Lake it was just me and acres and miles of black rock with North Sister looking down at me like the big sister she is. The wind died and I began to bake like a spaghetti squash with the crunch-crunch of footsteps in pumice as my only companion. At the base of of the crater, the PCT snaked its way up and around the cone.

At the base of Yapoah Crater

A tip of the hat to the Yapoah Crater groundskeepers is in order, here. The cone was perfectly conical and the grounds were seemingly raked smooth as a major league baseball diamond. I briefly entertained a notion of hiking to the top of the crater but it was way too hot and I still had to hike around the cinder cone to get to the summit use trail. Saving a crater climb for a cooler day, I turned around and headed back north on the PCT.

Wildfire smoke arrives at North Matthieu Lake
On the return to Scott Pass, I did take the trail to North Matthieu Lake which dropped several hundred feet below the PCT.  A short downhill hike brought me to North Matthieu Lake where I exchanged pleasantries with the weekenders ringing the shoreline. I was glad to see the guy with his two sons had found the lake because of, or in spite of, my directions. As I left I caught a whiff of campfire smoke.

Orange light indicated a fire was nearby

Internally hurling invective at stupid campers willfully ignoring a fire ban in fire season, I continued hiking. However, the weird orange color that happens when sunlight filters through a seine of smoke began to color the air. The forest filled up with thick smoke and ash flakes flitted through the trees like moths of death. And I had no idea where the fire was. The hikers I encountered on the trail had no idea either. I soldiered on quickly, listening for the crackling of flames while plotting escape routes should it come to that. Disconcerting, to put it mildly.

Yapoah Crater's lava flow
As it turned out, 4 miles away, the Hand Lake Fire decided to announce its presence that afternoon. By the time I drove home a massive plume was rising from the lake basin like an ashy tornado. Fire fighters and equipment were gathering at the Hand Lake Trailhead where I found out they don't like cars to stop and take pictures. Despite that failing, a round of applause for the fine work they do as the Hand Lake Fire was fully suppressed after it had grown to ten acres.

For more pictures of this hike, but not the fire (I put my camera away and walked fast to the car, sorry I wasn't thinking about my readers), see the Flickr album.

A time to reflect

1 comment :

  1. As always, a fascinating blog entry and awesome shots on Flickr. Carol a.k.a. albertsville