Sunday, September 28, 2014

Rigdon Lakes Loop

In 1996, the Charlton Butte Fire swept down its namesake butte and went on a southerly rampage and several days later, over 10,000 acres of trees had been dispassionately vaporized like so many humans caught in a Martian death ray. However the happy evaporating of the forest came to an abrupt end when the fire ran into the impassable and watery barrier of fire-killing Waldo Lake. It was game over with final score being: Waldo Lake 1, Charlton Butte Fire 0.

Feel the burn!
Eighteen years later, the scar from the burn is still a large part of the Waldo Lake experience on Waldo's north end. The conflagration must have burned hotter than Hell in a heatwave, for there exist no live trees (other than young saplings and seedlings) for miles and miles. However, since the view is no longer cluttered by the forest, the Waldo Lake trail nowadays offers sweeping views of the lake and surrounding peaks. The flat lands north of Waldo Lake contain millions and millions of lesser lakes, it must be a rule that there be at least one lake for every million billion mosquitoes. And speaking of lesser lakes, the Rigdon Lakes loop sampler happens to be one of my favorite hikes despite the burn, or maybe even because of it.

Waldo Lake, in the early morning
After the Friends of the Umpqua hike the day before, Kevin and I both spent a damp and chilly night camped at the lake's north campground. The following morning, we parted ways and wished each other a good day's hike. He was off to explore Broken Top and I was doing a car-free hike as I was just going to walk from the campground to the Rigdon Lakes. It had indeed been a cold night and I started hiking with about 17 different layers of clothing to keep warm.

Waldo Lake panorama
The 22-mile Waldo Lake Trail circumnavigates the lake but generally stays in the thick forests surrounding the lake. Views of the lake are far and few between once out of the burn zone on the north end. However, there is a shoreline trail running from the North Waldo Campground to the Waldo Lake Trail just short of the Rigdon Lakes Trail junction. I grabbed the shoreline trail and enjoyed constant views of Waldo Lake while those using the Waldo Lake Trail just experienced dense forest. The Twins, Maiden Peak, Mount Ray, Fuji Mountain, and distant Diamond Peak were all eminently visible from the shoreline trail.

Surrounded by death

After the first half-mile or so, the trail left the green forest and entered an otherworldly moonscape, with the right side of the trail consisting of rocky outcrops and dead trees strewn about like giant toothpicks. On the left side was Waldo himself, the calm waters of the lake reflecting the early morning sky. Canoers and kaykers paddled by, the sound of their paddles carrying far in the still air. Death and destruction on one side, a happy lake on the other: it's a thin line between life and death and apparently the Waldo Lake Trail is the line of demarcation.

Mosquito hatchery
The Waldo Lake Trail does double duty as a mountain bike epic and I regularly had to step aside for the bikers. The bikers were cycling cautiously due to all the dead trees laying across the trail so there was no frantic diving for safety on my part. As I was taking pictures of a small pond next to the trail, a young lady cheerily came walking up the path and we exchanged pleasantries. She was hiking the entire 22 miles around the lake as a day hike! Up until then, I had been pretty proud of my 10 mile route.

A bridge crosses the mighty Willamette
At the 3.5 mile mark, the trail left the burn zone and entered a live forest that had to have been pretty nervous back in 1996 when the Charlton Butte Fire was doing its thing. The forest was pretty and all, but beautiful Waldo Lake was not at all visible, being totally obscured by the forest. At the very northwest corner of the lake, a wooden foot bridge crossed over a small stream. 

As I was walking, I saw a fair Maiden (Peak)
From small streams, mighty rivers flow and the small creek with a large name was actually the North Fork Middle Fork Willamette River which starts where Waldo Lake ends. At the lake's outlet is a backpack camp known as Dam Camp and I just had to go see the Dam Camp. In all my hiking, I've visited many a Dam Camp but this was the first Dam Camp that actually was officially named Dam Camp. Alright, that pun's been worked to death, let's move on.

The dead zone
After a lunch and laze at Dam Camp, I backtracked to the Waldo Lake Trail and then headed north on the Wahanna Trail. As previously stated, the relatively flat terrain north of Waldo Lake is dotted with small lakes, scattered there by some ancient finger flick of the gods. Here the destruction was utter and complete because even after 18 years, there are very few live trees and I was the tallest living thing within several parsecs.

North Fork Willamette River valley

To the left of the trail was the deep valley carved by of the North Fork Middle Fork Willamette River. There were a couple of small meadows in the valley and my map shows those meadows as actually being lakes. Obviously, by summer's end the lakes are as dry as an ex-wife's kiss. A small creek snaking through the meadow was the Willamette's small fork with the really long name. I had to have been looking directly at the Edeeleo Lakes but they remained hidden by the surrounding forests. It was an impressive vista.

Going in circles 'round Rigdon Butte
To the right of the trail was the craggy and tree littered rocky knob of Rigdon Butte. The loop trail I was on basically perambulated around the butte, touring past all the little lakes huddled at the butte's base like goslings under a mother goose's wings. The first of these lakes was Ernie Lake, sited and sighted about a half mile off trail, I won't even mention all the numerous other unnamed ponds and lakelets. Oops, I just mentioned them. The amount of standing water was astonishing and would certainly explain the prodigious amounts of mosquitoes devouring hikers in early summer. I speak about the mosquitoes from personal experience, as several of us had backpacked here several years ago. That was Dollie's very last backpack trip too, that might have something to do with the thick clouds of ravenous insect vampires encountered on that infamous trek.

Beautiful Lake Kiwa
Lake Kiwa is simply one of my favorite lakes in all of Oregon. The lake is long and slender and numerous peninsulas just invite hikers to pitch a tent on them. I really must come back with a pack and do a more extended lake tour in this area but that'll have to wait for next year as winter is quite near. Steep and rocky slopes surround the lake and the trail follows the shore for about a very scenic half-mile or before peeling uphill towards Lower Rigdon Lake.

Huckleberries, as red as an angry face 
Lower Rigdon Lake sits in a rocky bowl right below Rigdon Butte and the absence of trees only add to the drama in the scenery. There was a stillness about the lake, the absence of animal life indicating the fauna have headed elsewhere for the impending winter just like retirees overwintering in Arizona. The air was full of feathery fireweed seeds floating on the slightest breeze and I made sure to hike with my mouth closed.

Clouds reflect on Upper Rigdon Lake
Upper Rigdon Lake is virtually Lower Rigdon Lake's identical twin, its only distinguishment being a forested island bobbing in the lake. Again. the air was preternaturally still and the lake's surface was mirrorlike, reflecting quite nicely the surrounding snags and the incoming clouds.

Trail, as the rain clouds arrive
Ah yes, the clouds. A storm clearly was blowing in and the day darkened as the gray clouds scudded over. I fully expected to get wet before I reached the car but thankfully, the rain held off. At the trailhead, both I and a mountain biker entered the parking lot at the same time, but from opposite directions. We had previously exchanged pleasantries in the morning as we started our trail day pretty much at the same time, he had cycled his 22 miles pretty much in the same amount of time I had hiked my 10 miles. I'm not as slow as I feel, apparently.

Upper Rigdon Lake
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

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