Friday, March 25, 2016

Illinois River Trail (to Silver Creek)

On Easter weekend, everybody became consumed with the yearly ritual of searching for tinted eggs in tall grass before they show up months later when the lawn mower runs over them and sprays a putrid multicolored mess on sandals and shins. But Lane and I instead eschewed the Easter egg hunts and used the holiday weekend as an opportunity to sneak in an early season backpack trip, weather permitting. The only eggs we would encounter on Easter Sunday were the freeze-dried powdered variety which constitute a putrid multicolored mess of a different sort. 

We saw the Easter Froggy
The weather was predicted to be overcast, cool, and often rainy: in other words, it was perfect weather for hiking. Good thing it was cool too, this was the first backpack trip of the year and our poor little pee-pee legs were rusty from the winter layoff. We both felt the strain and pain of lugging packs uphill on a rugged trail. If it had been sunny and warm, we'd have been dripping more sweat than a high school student taking a calculus final.

Day 1

Nancy Creek
The Illinois River Trail spends all of its miles inside the boundary of the catastrophic Biscuit Fire burn area. In 2002, the fire incinerated a half million acres of wilderness forest. Initially, the Illinois River Trail pleasantly ambled in a shady forest where the tree trunks had been just lightly toasted by the Biscuit. However, a mile later, the lovely forest transitioned to ghostly snags and barren hillsides scoured clean by the fire.

Feeling the burn
However, despite the harsh appearance, the area is in healthy recovery. Madrone and laurel trees thrive in the open sunlight and all the dead trees make the woodpeckers happy. Also very happy because of the increased sunlight were thick stands of poison oak, the ostensibly pretty red leaves disguising the odious nature of Satan's favorite shrub.

A herd of fawn lily
Spring was in full song along the trail with millions of fawn lilies claiming the hillsides. Not to be outdone, brook wakerobin, azalea, larkspur, siskiyou iris, red currant, snow queen, and wedge-leaved violet were all putting on a floral clinic. Much photography abounded. Also competing for camera attention were the numerous creeks tumbling down the slopes in photo-friendly cascades. 

View down the Illinois River canyon
One good thing about a disatrous fire is that all that annoying clutter previously referred to as "the forest" no longer impedes views. Accordingly, there were superb views of the Illinois River heading north to join forces with the larger Rogue River. The turquoise color of the water flowing through the dark mountains was astounding. The low clouds occluded much of the surrounding topography but did allow intermittent signs of Horse Sign Butte. We saw no sign of horses, though.

Silver Peak looms over Frantz Ranch and the Illinois River

Buzzards Roost, a prominent rocky pinnacle right next to the trail, offered perhaps the best view of the Illinois River. There was another extended photo shoot at the roost before commencing the gradual descent to Indigo Creek. From the trail, a green pasture next to the Illinois was spotted and that would be Frantz Ranch, our camp spot for the weekend. Above Frantz Ranch rose the formidable Silver Peak which I will hike someday when I feel like punishing myself. However, on this weekend, my legs were sufficiently taxed by the climb to Buzzard's Roost. By the way, if you visit Buzzard's Roost with your wife, don't tell her you found her ancestral home. Just sayin'.

The ticks lie in wait
Here, the hills had been scoured clean by the Biscuit and the sun made a weak appearance. The brush flanking the trail harbored a healthy population of ticks and de rigueur tick checks were performed every quarter-hour or so. There were always a few crawling up our pant legs but I'm glad to report that no tick made it into the tick holy ground of warm human flesh.   

Shadow Man visits Indigo Creek
Indigo Creek flows in a narrow chasm and the water flow, the color of the creek, and the scenic trough rival that of the Illinois River. You could almost call Indigo Creek the Illinois River Jr. A well constructed bridge spanned the boisterous creek and we took pictures of our shadows in the late afternoon sun.

Trail, in the near dark
The crossing of Indigo Creek was followed by a rather rigorous climb up a forested ridge with creeks running across the trail as the sun sank behind the mountains. But once up and over the ridge, a short downhill plunge delivered us to the grassy pastures of Frantz Ranch (an old homestead site that is no longer a working ranch). Camp  was pitched in the sunset and sleep soon followed, accompanied by the soothing tap-tap-tap of rain on tent walls.

Day 2

Sunrise on Day 2
Morning dawned wet and drizzly and Lane and I donned our Hikpro's and wandered briefly around the ranch, searching for the continuation of the Illinois River Trail. There were a couple of other backpackers nearby, eating breakfast under a tarp and they told us where they had found a trail that continued on to parts unknown. Sounded like our trail! Turned out, the Illinois River Trail does not actually go to Frantz Ranch, we had unwittingly taken a side trail to the ranch in the semi-darkness the evening before.

It's a jungle out there
There was a faint use trail leading away from our campsite and after a short walk and an even shorter jump across Forest Creek, we were back in business on the Illinois River Trail proper. The Biscuit Fire had visited the forest here too, but had just singed the trunks and probably cleared out the undergrowth. Fourteen years later, the forest was as vibrant as ever with undergrowth thick and lush. We hiked through a veritable jungle, just like Tarzan and Jane and I'm not saying which one of us was Tarzan and which one of us was Jane. Maybe we hiked more like Tarzan and Lane, but I digress.

Satan's favorite plant

The day before, we had hiked on slopes open and barren, courtesy of the Biscuit Fire. On the bare hillsides, poison oak grew everywhere, leading me to conclude poison oak particularly thrives in open sunlight. However, here in the dense forest south of Frantz Ranch, poison oak also grew in equal profusion. So the conclusion that one can draw from all this is poison oak is just happy to grow anywhere and everywhere. Unfortunately, poison oak just had to poke its itchy little head into my Illinois River experience. I had laid my hiking poles down so I could take some pictures and when I picked up the poles, a frond unbeknownst to me had strategically placed itself between arm and pole. So when the pole was picked up, the pernicious plant frond raked my inner wrist just like a thorny bramble would. So very rude, and I sported a good sized itchy souvenir for the next two weeks. 

Black Rock Creek
The trail rolled gently up and down and alternated between dense forest and exposed trails above the river. The river water was colored a rich turquoise hue that really stood out on a grey and dreary day. A number of small creeks full of water crossed the trail and pictures were taken of the mini-waterfalls on each creek. All the creeks were just a bit too wide to hop across dry-footed so I'm happy to report boots did get wet on this hike.

Silver Creek runs into the Illinois River
Silver Creek was our destination and up ahead was the chasm where Silver Creek met the Illinois River. Closer to the narrow canyon, the rather large creek flowed right below the trail and under a well constructed bridge spanning the chasm. We really couldn't take in the scene just yet because the sketchy path crossed over the face of a landslide. Concentration was required as the soil shifted under boots while rocks rolled down the slope and into the creek below.

Trail across a landslide
I was taking a picture of Lane crossing the landslide when I noticed the narrow defile containing and constraining Silver Creek. I actually uttered out loud an awestruck "Wow!". Lane reached safety on the bridge, looked up, saw the same thing and uttered an equally awestruck "Wow!" There was simply nothing else to say.

Silver Creek
Silver Creek flowed out of a narrow canyon of dark rock covered with moss and the view was stunning. The former bridge (since destroyed) had been sited much closer to creek level and the old trail remnant allowed us to perch closer to the creek's edge and much photography ensued. The creek is almost large enough to be a river, being much too wide and deep to wade either across or upstream. What a pity, because a spectacular canyon like that just begs for upstream exploration.

The colorful Illinois River
After checking out a backpack campsite just beyond Silver Creek, we turned around and headed back towards Frantz Ranch. The pace was leisurely, full of gawk-stops at all the small creeks waterfalling into the turquoise waters of the Illinois. A rather large herd of deer was spotted in a meadow next to the trail, causing me to hiss in loathing as I sincerely detest the hiking-pole stealing antlered larcenists.

Cabin at Frantz Ranch
Once back at camp, we took a short after-dinner walk around the pastures of Frantz Ranch. The ranch is an old homestead site and there was plenty of rusting farm equipment hiding in the grass, all too ready and all too eager to painfully bark unsuspecting shins. Gnarled apple trees bloomed in an orchard that had long ago gone feral. Daffodils, presumably escapees from a former ranch garden, grew everywhere in the grassy meadow.

Day 3

Daybreak on Day 3
Day 3 was mostly all about the weather. It had rained during the night but the clouds were breaking up and leaking sunlight when we slithered out of our tents. Although the vegetation was wet and damp, things were relatively dry on the climb out on a steep trail covered with freshly fallen trees. What goes up must come down and once the forested ridge was crested, a steep drop down a muddy trail brought us to the bridged crossing of Indigo Creek.

Indigo Creek
What comes down must then go up and as we started the 2 mile climb away from Indigo Creek, the sky went dark and it started to rain. Then the rain stopped, the clouds disappeared, and the sky went blue. Periodically, it would still rain even though the sun was out. Weird, but that was our day.

Back to the burn on a temporarily sunny day
As we hiked out, we took lots of pictures of all the flowers blooming along the trail, the magnificent vistas of the Illinois River, and of each other gasping for breath as we hiked uphill. Rounding a crest near the top, we were all happy because Buzzard's Roost (the high point and the end of the uphill hiking) was just around the corner. Except that it wasn't, there was another crest just above and ahead. Buzzard's Roost wasn't around that one either. Or the one after. Or the one after that. After rounding around 25 more crests, the rocky point finally hove into view and we sat down for a rest stop and lunch.

"View" from Buzzard's Roost

And of course, the very second we sat down, the blue sky disappeared, the temperature dropped, the wind picked up, and here comes the rain! So we quickly put on the rain gear, hoisted our packs and resumed hiking. Fifty yards later, the sun came out, the temperature went uncomfortably warm, so we stopped and removed our rain gear. Fifty yards later, the sun disappeared, the temperature dropped, and here comes the rain again! You could practically hear the weather gods chuckling in wry amusement "Oh look, they're putting on the raincoats again!"

Bridge at Nancy Creek

I gave up trying to figure out the weather and just hiked in shirt sleeves and one layer. I was cold and wet half the time but on the other half, I was perfectly comfortable. As the trail continually lost elevation, nice views were had of the Illinois coursing in the canyon below, well on its way to meet up with the Rogue River. More importantly, a large grassy area visible a couple of miles ahead was Oak Flat and our trailhead. Eventually, we left the burn zone and entered the shady forest before reaching a joyous reunion with a car and the return to civilization that the vehicle represented. All in all a great weekend even though we didn't find any Easter eggs or chocolate bunnies.

One giant step for Lane-kind
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.
Wow! at Silver Creek

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Smith Rock State Park - Misery Ridge Loop

The names say it all: Voyage of the Cow Dog, Cocaine Gully, Time to Shower, Phone Call from Satan, Scrotal Avenger, Disposable Heros, Vomit Launch, and my favorite: Bubbas in Bondage. What are these, you ask? Punk rock bands? Mixed drinks? Canceled TV shows? Amusement park rides? Nicknames of ex-girlfirends? The answer is none of the above, dearies. These are simply a colorful smattering of climbing route names at Smith Rock State Park.

Ant on a wall
Now, contrast the climbing flair with the staid and steadfast names of the hiking trails in Smith Rock State Park (Chute, Homestead, Summit, Canyon): boring, boring, boring. One can only conclude that hikers are a much more sensible and safe group than climbers. Of course, we we do sport the Rope-de-Dope Trail and Misery Ridge Trail so maybe we hikers are only just marginally more sensible than climbers. At the base of each climbing route, there are first aid stations complete with splints, casts, and stretchers that speak volumes to me about the mental illness associated with climbing. And speaking of mental illness, today's subject is about the self-inflicted misery associated with doing the Misery Ridge loop at Smith Rock State Park.

Monkey Face
Monkey Face is an iconic rock pillar at Smith Rock, so I brought two monkey faces with me: grandsons Issiah and Daweson. We left Roseburg in the wee hours of a Saturday morning to make the long drive to Smith Rock. Well,  that's not entirely accurate as we actually left in the middle of the night which meant no repetitive " Are we there, yet?" or "How much further?" as the boys snored away the hours and miles on a dark highway. Arriving at the park in the early morning, we hoisted backpacks and walked about a quarter-mile into the bivouac camping area (there is no car camping at Smith Rock) and set up tents.

Daweson hikes next to the Crooked River
Once our camp set-up chores were done, we headed down the Rope-de-Dope Trail which had an awesome and iconic view of Smith Rock lording it over the wiggly course of the Crooked River. And across the river loomed walls of orange colored rock similar in tone and hue to the unnatural spray-on tan of a certain presidential candidate. The two lads were suitably awestruck as we navigated the switchbacks down to the river's edge on the Canyon Trail.

Rocky color palette
Smith Rock is an incredibly popular place and is quite busy on any given day due to its proximity to Bend. Already, hordes of climbers and hikers were out and about so we had plenty of company on our hike. Crossing the river on a stout wooden bridge, we hung a left and began a several-mile amble along the Crooked River along with half the population of Crook County.

Mental illness at work
The Crooked River is just that, from the air it looks like the squiggles of a spent rubber band. At ground level though, we were relatively unaware we were walking hither and yon, so to speak. Progress was slow as we continually gawked at the orange rock wall looming above, topped only by a deep blue sky. As we walked, a river otter swam across the river and several bald eagles were spotted fishing the green waters of the river. Climbers, looking like ants on a stucco wall, made painstaking progress up the sheer cliffs flanking the river.

A closer look at Monkey Face
Once we were a couple of miles out, Monkey Face came into view. The iconic rock is a tall pillar whose large knob on top has a couple of strategically placed caves that really do make it resemble a giant monkey face. Continuing the monkey metaphor, small  climber "fleas" crawled in Monkey Face's eyes and mouth. Fortunately for the "fleas", Monkey Face did not stick out his tongue.

View from the Mesa Verde Trail
The Mesa Verde Trail is a shortcut from the river trail to the Misery Ridge Trail and the steep climb around Monkey Face's back side was a harbinger of misery and woe to come. Climbing steadily and steeply, views improved to the point we could see a chain of Cascade Mountain peaks stretching from Diamond Peak to the south and Mount Hood to the north. Epic, plus the view did provide an excuse to stop and wait for the pain to subside.

"Let's go climbing!" he said
The Misery Ridge Trail zig-zagged up the steep wall and conversation pretty much stopped as we huffed and puffed and tried to cajole our burning leg muscles to execute one more step. Almost at the top, we stared Monkey Face in the eye as we had arrived at face level. Just 30 yards of air separated us from Monkey Face and we observed some rappelling groups blithely dangling in empty space.  Issiah was quite entranced by the climbers and he asked "Grandpa, can you take me rock climbing?" Sure, Issiah, as soon as my hair grows back, I'll take you climbing!

View from the crest of Misery Ridge
By now, we were cresting Misery Ridge and we were treated to a view for the ages. We were on the knife-edge crest and could observe the Crooked River on both sides of the rocky ridge. The trail, comprised of endless switchbacks and steep stairs, dropped away at our feet. Views of the Cascades and nearby Gray Butte were simply astounding.

Rickety trail 
A steady procession of hikers were coming up the stairways and were silent except for the heavy gasping. We could relate because that was us before we had started to head downhill. At any rate, after carefully picking our way down the rickety trail, we arrived at the river. From there it was a short walk along the canyon rim back to our campsite.

The Crooked River
The boys played at a climbing wall, perhaps inspired by all the climbers they'd seen on this hike. The next morning, we hurriedly struck camp before a rather vigorous rainstorm began dumping water on our heads. A good time was had by all us monkey faces despite, or maybe because of, the misery on Misery Ridge.

My people
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Lost Creek Lake

In retrospect, it was kind of amazing we even made it to the trailhead, much less doing any hiking of note. It had been raining heavily all week so only 5 hikers (including me) decided to brave the elements and go hiking on the picturesque shores of Lost Creek Lake. But rain really wasn't the issue because that's what rain gear was invented for. So, while we were all prepared to get wet, none of us really expected snow!

Shut up kids and let me drive!

The shortest drive from Roseburg to Lost Creek Lake is on the curvy Tiller-Trail Highway and when the road gained elevation after leaving Tiller, snow began to fill the air. Then it began to stick on the highway, a fact not lost on driver Gary when the car made a surprise skid on the icy pavement. From that slippery point forward, it was us crawling along at 15 miles per hour before the road topped out and began descending into a land where airborne water existed in its more customary liquid state. A tip of the hat to Gary, our lives were in his hands and he was up to the task.

A few small puddles on the trail
The hills surrounding Lost Creek Lake were all dusted with snow but we were hiking just under snow level. We only had to contend with cold rain pelting us with fat drops of water as we set out on the trail. A flood warning was in effect and we had to step through a number of creeks flowing beneath the oaks and madrone trees where under normal conditions, there would exist no creeks at all.

Manzanita bloom
The lake supports a healthy population of water fowl and sure enough we observed some geese and ducks and they in turn observed a small and sad flock of wet hikers. The path ambled up and down with each up and down part serving as a temporary creek bed. It wasn't long before pants and boots were wet and muddy. On one hillside, a fountain of water was spurting from a gopher hole presumably long vacated by its gopher tenant. No doubt, some gopher landlord is being sued for damages, pain, and suffering.

Lost Creek Lake
After a short walk on a trail flanked by flowering manzanita bushes, the path followed the edge of the lake on a rocky shelf, treating us to a moody view of the lake underneath a dark gray sky. Wet clouds cloaked the surrounding mountains, reflecting somewhat on the lake's surface. In its own wet way, the day was absolutely spectacular and a certain camera who was mad at its owner for exposing it to the rain, was nonetheless quite busy taking pictures of the stormy scene.

Trail through the manzanitas
As we hiked, the rain did let up a bit and really, it wasn't anything a raincoat couldn't handle. After splashing along the trail for a couple of miles, we left the trail (formally known as the Rogue River Trail but not the same Rogue River Trail we love and hike so much) and took a side trip to Blue Grotto.

Blue Grotto
Blue Creek was flowing fast and muddy as we hiked along the creek. Blue Grotto is a scenic little bowl where Blue Creek drops over a rock bluff that on a sunny day, is actually an odd blue color not unlike the mold on a month-old English muffin. On this wet day however, the color was grayed out in keeping with the portentous clouds of gloom overhead. No complaining though, because the copious amount of rain made sure to keep the creek flowing fast and strong and the waterfall was absolutely stunning. I've been here before and the creek usually just barely trickles over the drop. So, there was a plus side to hiking on this day after all!

Drip, drip, drip....
We returned to the lake and ate lunch on a forested bench overlooking the large body of water. Naturally, the rain started up again when we sat down so we quickly returned to the trail to hike back to the car. On the way back, we encountered kindred spirits and their canine friends on the trail, all out for a hike in the rain. We understood because hiking in the rain is fun, better than spending the day at home watching TV. Although, we did concede to the bad weather somewhat when we returned to Roseburg by way of snow-free I-5.

Why we hike in the rain
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.