Saturday, May 29, 2021

Yellow Jacket Loop

Mrs. O'Neill and I have long had a fundamental philosophical disagreement about meadows. We both agree that meadows are a totally worthy destination for a hike, and that the combination of vibrant green vegetation and bright blue sky appeals to humans almost on an instinctual level. But she strongly disagrees with my assertion "Since meadows are so cool and awesome, what's wrong with having one in the back yard?" To the accompaniment of theatrical sighs and glowering looks, I was summarily issued an edict (with a menacing "Or else!" tacked on to the end of it) to mow that backyard jungle immediately upon my return from the hike on the Yellow Jacket Loop.

Michael and Chuck slog through a small grassy patch

Meadows are never mowed on the Yellow Jacket Loop and are the raison d'ĂȘtre for the hike. You'd never have known that on our first Yellow Jacket outing many years ago on a gray November day, where the erstwhile lush meadows were as brown and dry as a mummy's skin. No views, no green meadows, and not even any remaining autumn color; basically that hike was just six miles of exercise. While we both agreed the hike was just a tad bit better than doing six miles on a treadmill in the gym, overall we really weren't impressed with the Yellow Jacket. 

It was not uncommon to hike through patches of melting snow

We just needed to hike the Yellow Jacket at the proper time, which would have been either spring or autumn. Once our current backyard jungle dispute was resolved by my empty promise to mow it first thing upon my return, I revisited the Yellow Jacket with the Friends of the Umpqua Hiking Club. On a gorgeous spring day with nothing but blue sky overhead, we set out from Hemlock Lake by walking into a forest whose floor was carpeted with stately trillium flowers and patchy snowdrifts, both guaranteed to slow down a certain hiker armed with a camera.

There were trilliums by the trillions

Good thing the trilliums were so profuse, for they provided a nice distraction from the task at hand, which was chiefly walking up a brisk uphill trail for the first couple of miles. The forest was shady and large patches of snow dozed between the trees and blanketed the small creeks flanking the path. The snow was not very deep so we had no issues with trail-finding, and the snow did provide a modicum of refreshing refrigeration as we slogged ever upward.

A dilapidated trail sign near Dead Cow Lake

After a couple of miles, we hiked past a stagnant swamp that is overly dignified with the name of Dead Cow Lake (don't drink the water!). In hikes past, the swamp-cum-lake was easily visible but on this day, I did not see the grotty little mosquito hatchery. That means that either the "lake" has dried up, become overgrown with vegetation, or I am about as observant as a tinder fungus; all of which are distinct possibilities.

The rugged topography of the South Umpqua River basin

Whether the fetid body of water is seen or not by passing hikers, Dead Cow Lake marks the easing of the trail grade, and the next phase of the hike was an up-and-down ramble atop a forested ridge circling above Hemlock Lake. Meadows began to appear among the trees with increasing frequency, the open areas providing nice views of the Rogue-Umpqua Divide overlooking the rugged terrain of the South Umpqua River drainage. Beyond the Divide, the tip of snowy Mount McLaughlin presided over all its lesser peak brethren and sistren. Union Peak, Crater Lake Rim, Mount Bailey, and the peaks of the Seven Lakes Basin all made an appearance at different junctures of the hike.

Mild route-finding was required because of snow

As mentioned, snow did cover the trail but never impeded navigation. On the other hand, a fallen tree lying across the trail did. We walked around the tangle of broken branches, limbs, and tree trunks and resumed hiking on the path leading through the woods. It didn't seem right though and after a short 10-yard walk, I turned around to get my bearings and spotted a trail sign further in the woods in totally the opposite direction. The tree had fallen on the exact intersection of the Cavitt Mountain Tie-in Trail and the Yellow Jacket Loop. When we went around the tree, we picked up the (wrong) trail heading to Cavitt Mountain. I'm glad I caught that when I did!

Flat Rock presides over a strategically sited meadow

The aforementioned trail intersection was basically the highest elevation point of the hike and from here on in it was a steady descent through the famed meadows of the Yellow Jacket. Snow had mostly thawed out and just recently, so the meadows were as stubbly as a three-day beard on an unshaven chin. White-ish avalanche lilies and yellow glacier lilies flowered in the thawing snow's wake, aided and abetted by pink Oregon bleeding hearts and deep purple larkspurs. All of this reposed under a cobalt sky with views of the distant Cascades peaks. This is why we hike, boys and girls!

Boardwalk through the largest meadow of them all

The largest meadow of the bunch was also the last one, spanned by a wooden boardwalk. The melting snows of this meadow are the headwaters of Hemlock Creek and just past the boardwalk, the Hemlock Creek Trail forked ever so invitingly to the left. The meadow was gorgeous and if Mrs. O'Neill were here, she'd probably tell me to mow it. 

In about three weeks, the vegetation will be waist high or better

Speaking of mowing meadows, I lucked out. Turned out Mrs. O'Neill couldn't stand looking at flourishing Mother Nature in the backyard any longer and took it upon herself to raze it all down in my absence. Works for me, although it'd be nice if she would let me come inside the house anytime soon.

Trillium with bloodshot eyes

For more photos of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

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