Sunday, June 22, 2014

Polar Bear Gap

Leaving the small eccentric hamlet of Takilma, I drove up a rough and rickety road to a rocky ridge above the East Fork Illinois River. Silently grateful Dollie was home and blissfully unaware of what her jeep was doing, I drove around Crazy Peak before arriving at the trailhead. If the last half of the previous sentence doesn't sum up my recent run of  hiking weekends, nothing else will.

Evening, from my tent
The drive to the Black Butte Trailhead is about 3 1/2 hours from Roseburg so I threw in some camping gear and headed out late Saturday afternoon, timing it so I'd arrive in the early evening.  My tent was hurriedly set up on a flat rocky patch of earth about a quarter mile up the trail. Black Butte loomed over me as the sun set and it was nice to camp without having to lug a heavy backpack full of gear. 

I woke up at day break with the eastern skyline glowing red through the trees. Fortified with a quick breakfast, I set out on the trail, snapping a picture of Black Butte at the outset. Later at home, I would notice the time stamp on the photograph, it turned out this hike began at the improbable hour of 5:55 AM. Yet, somehow it is exceedingly difficult to get to work by 9:00 AM. I wonder why that is. 
This, before coffee

If the Siskiyou Widerness was located anywhere near a major population hub, the wilderness would be world famous. However, this California wilderness area is accessible mostly through Oregon and the remoteness means one is likely to have the place to one's self. Hiking in the Siskiyou Wilderness is challenging, to say the least. The mountains are incredibly rugged and the trails equally so. As a measure of how challenging the hiking is, I offer without shame or embarrassment that I hiked at a 55 minute per mile pace. The Black Butte Trail basically stayed high on the east side of the East Fork Illinois River canyon but even so, the trail went up and down and was rarely level. The rocky path was sketchy at times and potentially treacherous to inattentive ankles.

Mountains and deep valleys
Ah, but the views are amazing! Tall pointy peaks abound everywhere up and down the East Fork's canyon. Prominent to the west were craggy Sanger Peak and nearer Young's Peak. On my side of the canyon was Polar Bear Mountain and its offspring Bear Cub. Looming above and forever keeping the two polar bears in order were the jagged peaks of The Lieutenants. Due south and down the Clear Creek valley was a partial cone looking like a molar whose filling fell out; that would be Bear Mountain whose crater is the repository of Devil's Punchbowl which is on "the list". Black Butte, whose slopes I was walking on, is also prominent but I was too close to see it, if that makes any sense.

The trail was sketchy, at times

Polar Bear Gap is a fairly short hike, so at a trail junction I continued on the Black Butte Trail for some extra exploratory mileage. I had some vain notion of hiking the 5 miles to Young's Valley but this was some really tough hiking. From the junction, the trail dropped rapidly down into the East Fork canyon, sometimes not even pretending to switchback. The path was faint and overgrown and at times, was pretty hard to follow. The tread was uneven and full of rocks and I spent a lot of time scrambling over fallen trees. 

A small creek crosses the trail

The Black Butte Trail crossed over a couple of small forks of the East Fork and there were backpacking campsites at each of the streams. The thought of lugging a backpack down and up this rugged terrain nearly made me want to cry with empathy for the abject human misery that particular labor had to have entailed. After crossing the second of the two East Fork forks crossed on this hike, the trail followed an extremely rough roadbed and I made the decision to then backtrack to Polar Bear Gap. 

The impetus for the decision was that I could see the path charging down towards the East Fork itself, still several hundred feet below. Above me, the headwall of the canyon loomed several hundred feet above and I was painfully aware the trail would then have to climb up and over that to get to Young's Valley. Trail designers will not go to heaven! 

California lady's-slipper
So the steep knee-straining descent now became a thigh-burning ascent. But frequent rest stops allow one to stop and smell the figurative roses. Feathery plumes of beargrass were abloom and insects were grateful. Other spring flowers spotted along the trail were columbine, starflower, windflower, paintbrush, and thimbleberry. However, this is the Siskiyous and there were plenty of Siskiyou-only plant specimens such as luina, Sadler oak, and California pitcher plants (also known as darlingtonias). Next to the darlingtonia bog was a patch of California lady's-slipper, an attractive orchid of note.

The drab and nondescript snow plant
There were so many different kind of flowers a second paragraph is merited. So, also seen were bog wintergreen, azaleas, stonecrop, lupines, and an odd yellow-colored coralroot orchid thingy. I also spotted a couple of snow plants, colored bright red among all the greenery. Lots of pictures were taken which may have, in combination with the rough trail and steep climb, had something to do with 55 minute miles.

Once back at the trail junction, I continued uphill, switchbacking through a shaded forest with a couple of boggy springs where fairybells bloomed. Oh, and I found some yellow-colored broomrapes of some sort. So many odd little flowers that they have spilled into a third paragraph. Anyway, back to the hiking: eventually the trail left the shade and spit me out onto a dry grassy slope where I got a neck strain peering up at very close and craggy Polar Bear Mountain.

Lookout Mountain at Polar Bear Gap
When the trail leveled out shortly thereafter, the flatness of the grade was my cue that I had arrived at Polar Bear Gap, situated right between Polar Bear Mountain and Lookout Mountain. While Polar Bear Mountain dominated the near scenery, a nice view was had to the southeast where a ghostly Mount Shasta was faintly visible in the wildfire smoke from mostly likely the Bryant Fire, near Bonanza. Oddly enough, I saw no polar bears.

Black Butte at the trailhead
After a fly-swatting lunch 'n laze in the warm sun, it was time to head back, carefully leg-braking on the way down. I got to enjoy the views all over again with the big difference being the hiking in warm sun versus the cool shade at the early morning start. This hike just barely scratched the Siskiyou Wilderness and I promised myself a return visit to sample further the rugged delights in this little corner of the Siskiyou Mountains sandbox. As I reached the end of the hike, Crazy Peak loomed right in front and I was hiking straight towards it. Somehow, that seemed fitting.

Polar Bear Mountain
For more pictures of this rugged and unique gem of a wilderness, please visit the Flickr album.

Lurker in the beargrass

Friday, June 13, 2014

Alta Lake backpack

"Hey, take off your cap, there's something on your forehead"

Because Ray was so concerned as a trustworthy and loyal friend, I obliged and he peered closely at my forehead. Smack! The sound of his hand slapping my head carried through the trees, totally at odds with the profound hush that only a snow-covered forest has. "WHY DID YOU MAKE ME COME HERE WITH YOU?" he roared. I could only reply in that whiny high-pitched voice of a child desperately trying to convince a disbelieving parent of  his innocence " was in the 90's all week in Roseburg!"

Smack! It was not a winning arugment.

Snow delerium

Two things led us to this head-smacking point: It had indeed been summery warm in Roseburg all week and snow was not part of last hike on Abbott Butte. The butte topped out at around 6,100 feet and logic would dictate there'd be no snow at similar elevations in the nearby Sky Lakes Wilderness. So the plan was to backpack in on the Pacific Crest Trail to the Snow Lakes followed by some day hiking and mountain climbing because after all, it had been hot in Roseburg all week.

On the climb to Alta Lake in the rain
Of course, by Friday morning the weather had turned and the forecast called for a 20% chance of showers with temperatures a little on the chilly side, especially at night. However, the reality was more dire than the forecast as the showers had morphed into out and out rain. And as Ray and I hoisted our packs, wet snow was falling along with the rain in that mix we affectionately call snain. So, naturally, we did what Ray and I do: we started hiking anyway and fie on the weather!

Airing my wet laundry
At least the trail was uphill. Yes, I'm being sarcastic. The trail charged straight up through a forested slope, gaining over 1,000 feet in the first two miles. At least we had heavy packs on. At least it was snowing and/or raining. And at least it was cold. And that is enough syrupy sarcasm to give my readers literary tooth decay, assuming I have any readers other than my mom.

Frog Lake
Because it was chilly, we wore several layers of so-called waterproof gear. Because of the exertion of hiking uphill, we were soon perspiring under the waterproofs which meant it was like raining under our jackets and we were soon soaked anyway. However, despite the wetness of our clothing, both of us were warm from the physical toil of hiking.

The vegetation, unlike hikers, liked the rain
We did get a temporary respite from all the uphill hiking at Frog Lake and while we were resting at the small body of water, the sun came out and lulled us into thinking things would get better. Smack! No sooner had we made the decision to continue on, the rain, sleet, and snow became a constant and the sun pretty much took the rest of the day off.

Um...I can't find the trail 
About a mile of more climbing past Frog Lake, snow drifts began to cover the trail. The drifts then increased in frequency, size, and depth, in direct proportion to our elevation gain. At a pass atop Violet Hill, the trail disappeared for good under a chilly white blanket of unbroken snow. Ah, the irony of not being able to reach to the Snow Lakes because of snow.

Let's camp at Alta Lake!
Because both of us had been to Alta Lake before, we were able to get to the lake without benefit of trail, navigating by dead reckoning and hopefully not with misplaced faith in our tracking abilities. The basic plan was to reach Alta Lake, assess the situation, and then decide if the weekend could be salvaged by camping at the lake. Of course, we could have right then and there retreated back to Frog Lake in shame and ignominy. But I'm glad to report we did the right thing and continued on, slogging in the snow to Alta Lake.

Camp Cold
Alta Lake is a long and narrow finger of a lake that fills up a fault-line crack on top of Violet Hill. The waters of the lake were black and colorless as tendrils of cloud cover wove misty strands through the skein of surrounding trees. We set up camp above the lake as the rain continued to fall and it was frigid cold. Both Ray and I crawled into our separate (pay no heed to all those vicious rumors) sleeping bags at 3:30 in the afternoon to dry off and warm up.

Part of Devil's Peak
At about 6:00 in the early evening, the pitter patter of raindrops on my rain fly ceased and the fog rolled in, as thick as a proverbial London pea soup fog in a horror movie right before the first innocent victim gets slashed. Emerging from our tents, we enjoyed occasional views to Grass, Cliff, and Middle Lakes in the basin below Violet Hill. Above Cliff Lake, the dramatic wall of Devil's Peak loomed, the top of the peak hidden in the cloud cover.

C'mon in, the water's freezing!
I slept wearing three pairs of socks, three layers of pants, four shirts, one down jacket, woolen mittens, and a ski cap in a semi-successful attempt at warding off the cold. Neither one of us had a thermometer but we both agree the temperature on this fine June evening dipped into the mid-20's, earning me the aforementioned head smack from Ray. All things considered, things were relatively comfy and I actually got a good night's sleep in.

Dawn comes to Alta Lake
I woke up with my tent walls glowing orange. Sun! In the middle of the night, the nasty clouds had departed and morning at Alta Lake was simply glorious. It was still cold, though. The lakes below Violet Hill reflected the blue sky as they reposed beneath Devil's Peak and we could see all of the impressive mountain this time. Such a perfect morning invited a post-breakfast hike so Ray and I followed the lakeside trail as best we could.

View above the Middle Fork 
We lost the path under snow at end of the lake so we bushwhacked to a view point above the Rogue River's Middle Fork canyon. I seem to recall reading somewhere the prominent defile is Oregon's deepest glacier-carved canyon. Perched above the headwaters as we were, the view predictably impressed. Above the canyon rose a series of volcanic cones with the higher snow-covered peaks of Crater Lake topping off the scene. I asked Ray if he would take that head-smack back and he said no.

Heading the wrong way
We didn't want to chance another cold night at Alta Lake, so mid-day we packed up our gear and retreated to lower and warmer Frog Lake. As we were climbing out of the Seven Lakes Basin, we went astray a bit as navigation was difficult due to the snow cover. We wound up on the ridgecrest a bit south of where we needed to be but were able to find the Devil's Peak Trail which led us back to our snowy pass.

Large amphibian at Frog Lake
There's a lot to be said for a real trail with no snow on it and it was nice to properly hike on a proper trail with proper dirt again. The rest of the day was spent lazing around Frog Lake. In the late afternoon a backpacking couple walked by and I asked them how their routefinding skills were as they were headed to Alta Lake. To hammer the point home, I showed them some of my photos and they decided Frog Lake was a nice place to camp after all. I don't know who they are but they are probably still married, thanks to me. Their dog enjoyed mindlessly swimming laps in Frog Lake, he might not have enjoyed an Alta Lake dip as much.

Steamy Frog Lake in the morning
So, our three-day backpack trip wound up covering a paltry 10 miles, we certainly didn't get very far. After a robust breakfast on Father's Day in Butte Falls, we headed back to Roseburg and its 90 degree weather. The warm weather has got me planning our next trip already. Smack!

Yes, it was cold.
For more pictures of this Richard and Ray venture, please visit the Flickr album.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Abbott Butte

On the drive on a gravel forest road up from the Rogue River to the crest of the Rogue-Umpqua Divide, a large dog thingy ran in front of the car. "WOLF!" was my first thought. Actually, it takes one to know one and I quickly figured out I was looking at a coyote before my brother creature dashed back into the forest in panic. We normally don't see coyotes in the Cascades so that was a pretty cool start to my hike although technically, the hike hadn't officially yet begun.

Not so moderate, maybe
The weather has been quite summery lately and this was going to be another great day for a hike. Despite the superb weather, I had been housebound the week prior, some kind of flu bug had me spending my time lying on the porch swing all day while various body fluids of indeterminate origin oozed out of me. What a waste of good weather! So, the challenge for today was to resume hiking, moderate being the watchword though.

Vanilla leaf
Abbot Butte fit the bill as it alternated shady forest with open slopes and it's a moderate and well-behaved hike hike with some climbing involved in its 7.6 miles. And the trail (the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Trail, formally) allows hikers to properly warm up by politely losing 300 feet of elevation in the first 1.5 miles.

Awww...they still love me
At the trailhead, a few mosquitoes stopped by to say hello and promptly meet their demise by hand-smash. At first, they were few in number and not a bother. However, that all changed as the trail dropped down through a lush and shady forest. More and more of the winged cretins came to visit and at a rocky outcrop at Windy Gap, I finally broke out the Deet and the skeeters annoyed me no further. If only that worked as well for telemarketers, spammers, and the neighbor kid.

Meadow on Abbott Butte
Windy Gap signaled the end of the easy hike portion and the start of the uphill hiking as the trail steadily gained 1,100 feet in just over 2 miles. The pace was relaxed and slow as I took lots of pictures of all the wildflowers that abound on this particular hike. The forest was thinning out, also steadily, with more and more meadows showing up on the slopes of the Rogue-Umpqua Divide.

Miniature onion
And just like that, all the nice forest ended and I slowly crawled up Abbott Butte like an ant on a brick wall on a hot summer day. The trail, an old road, switched back and forth through dense thickets of bitter cherry fully abloom and buzzing with bees. On the ground were clumps of arrowleaf balsamroot, groundsel, and dense patches of low growing purple larkspur.

Crappy place on Abbott Butte
At the top of Abbott Butte sits a dilapidated and abandoned lookout. With each visit, the lookout looks a little bit more rickety and I wonder if it will still be standing at my next visit. However, the lookout was standing for one more day and I lunched and lollygagged in the tower's shade. The nearby privy was in worse shape than the lookout, the ramshackle one-holer has surely served its last butt.

Crater Lake Rim and dirty air
Normally, the butte offers great views towards the Cascades and in particular, the rim peaks of Crater Lake. However, on this day the view was occluded by the smoky haze, courtesy of the aforementioned Two Bull Fire. The thick air would probably make a Los Angeleno feel at home, but this clean-air breathing Oregonian was disappointed.

Vanilla leaf leaves
Minor quibble though, as this hike was really enjoyable despite the smoke. On the return leg, the wildflower show entertained one camera-toting hiker all over again and a cool breeze blew all the mosquitoes away. I left the wilderness fully sated and happy to return the forest to my fellow coyote.

For more pictures of this hike, please stop by and visit the Flickr album.