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.

Friday, May 14, 2021

PCT (West from Soda Mountain TH to livestock pond)

Some niggling little health problems (I'm fine, thanks for asking!) predestined this overnight backpack trip in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument to be a short one. However, despite the diminutive mileage, this hike was big in forests, scenery, and hugely epic (but not in a good way) when it came to weather conditions. Still, two out of three is a passing grade and I could have always stayed home to file my crusty old toenails. 

Look, a hiker, let's get him!

When I hoisted my backpack onto my shoulders at the trailhead, the sky was blue, the temps were mild, and all was bathed in bright sunlight despite a looming bank of baby thunderhead clouds parked several safe miles to the east. Perfect conditions for hiking in and you'd never suspect bad weather could become an issue on this hike, but such is Oregon weather and keep on reading, dear readers of mine.

Not all the snow had yet melted off

May is, in my humble opinion, the optimal time to visit the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. The small mountain range of the Monument bridges the gap between the Siskiyous and Cascades mountain ranges and the whole vibe is at turns, either or neither or both Cascade and Siskiyou in terms of vegetation, climate, and geology. In about a month or so, the terrain will brown out due to the aridity of the area, the dried out hellebore meadows then rattling in the summer breeze like thousands of cackling witches. But in May, the snows have not completely melted, the forests are damp, the mountains are cloaked in a green blanket of lush vegetation, and wildflowers put on a show for camera-toting backpackers.

After the storm

The Pacific Crest Trail bisects the Soda Mountain Wilderness, a wilderness preserve set within the Monument's boundary. In the Wilderness, the forest was cool, dark, and shady while a virtual army of marching trilliums bloomed on the forest floor, if thousands of elegant flowers could be accurately described as a marching army. Maybe that's not an apt descriptor but it would not be the first time I babbled or dabbled in inept metaphors. At any rate, there were lots of white trilliums blooming, with bluish Oregon anemone and nodding glacier lilies playing a significant supporting role.

Avalanche lilies were everywhere

Periodically, the trail would break out of the forest and onto open slopes that tended to be somewhat on the rocky side. On either side of the trail sprawled huge meadows with nubs of sprouting hellebore being just a few inches tall. A byproduct of the open meadows or rocky slopes were expansive views of Bear Creek Valley with Mount Ashland dominating the skyline and crest of the Siskiyou Mountains. Snow had been here until just recently, evidenced by the sprouting hellebore and rampant patches of avalanche lilies, the dangling star-shaped flowers pointing face-down toward the ground, which was still wet and muddy thanks to the recently thawed snow.

The water pond and yes, I drank the water

In one of the meadows, there is a small livestock pond that is an important water source for PCT hikers as water gets to be in very short supply in August, when the through-hikers pass through Oregon on their way to Canada. Camping near the pond was a little problematic because the soil was wet and mushy during my initial search for a camping spot. However, a long and broad meadow extended north and I set up camp on the meadow's edge, with an awesome view of the valleys and mountains dropping and rising from my campsite as my reward.

Larkspur inhabited the meadows, too

The low grasses were chock full of short flowers, notably those of larkspur and the ever plentiful avalanche lily. When not crawling on my hands and knees in my never-ending quest for the perfect wildflower photo, I spent time at the edge of the meadow, admiring the view as the day waned into late afternoon. But clouds rolled in overhead and the day went dark while a gusty breeze began to shake trees and tent alike. Yet, looking north and west, Medford, Ashland, and Mount Ashland were enjoying a sunny day while I was having to unfairly contend with ever increasingly belligerent weather.

Rain cometh, it has been foretold

The weather continued to turn and the light clouds turned as dark and oppressive as a pessimist in a bad mood. The breeze increased in velocity and I was having to restake my tent every now and then as bellicose air currents worked the stakes loose from the very soft soils of the meadow. Soon a nonstop pitter-patter of raindrops on my hat brim announced the change from intermittent shower to out-and-out rain. Yet, the sky to the north was tinting yellow and orange as sunset drew nigh while I was stuck on my meadow having to endure the elements.

Strange weather over Emigrant Lake

Tired of getting wet, I retired early, listening to the soothing sound of rain on my tent. Not so soothing however, was the rumble of distant thunder. In short order, I could see flashes of lightning and discerned the lightning was fairly far away, for I could count up to five before the thunder arrived. Pretty soon though, I couldn't even count up to one and if I closed my eyes, I could see the veins in my eyelids every time the lightning flashed. And that thunder was loud too, each boom starting in the left ear and finishing in the right like an Airbus A380 from Hell dive-bombing my puny tent from east to west.

Sunset at the same time as the hail
storm was pummeling my tent

The staccato noise of the rain on my tent fly suddenly changed in tenor and intensity. Those raindrops were now fat and heavy and I stuck my head outside of my tent to see the latest weather wonder. What fresh new Hell was this? Instead of rain, my tent was being pelted by heaviest hailstorm ever. I almost said "Well, at least it's not large-sized hail!" but managed to catch myself before that thought was uttered out loud. Because the wind insisted on working my tent stakes loose, the tent's roofline sagged a bit and the hail began collecting in the dip. Removing hail off of the tent was added to my list of weather-related duties. Yet, while hail accumulated on and around the tent, light from a beautiful sunset over Mount Ashland was slanting into my eyes. Weird.

The next day was like "Rainstorm? Lightning? Hail? Really?"

The hail lasted about an hour and a half and the whole storm about five hours in duration. But eventually and for no reason at all, all went quiet as if the Supreme Storm Master had capriciously flipped the "OFF" switch just because she could. The peace and quiet were most welcome and I then fell into a relaxing slumber that was probably more exhausted stupor than sleep. The next day dawned bright and near cloudless, making for a nice and easy hike out while at the same time, reminding me I had definitely picked the wrong evening for my first backpack trip this year. 

Right outside my tent door

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

Friday, May 7, 2021

Bandon Beach (Face Rock to New River)

Late one night, I found myself mindlessly perusing YouTube videos and somehow got onto the subject of sneaker waves. I sort of consider myself somewhat of an expert on the subject because I've had the dubious pleasure of running from the sly surf many a time, with the outcome being uncertain in several of those mad sprints. I can state from experience that sneaker waves really are that sneaky, they look just like normal waves until you realize too late that what looks like a normal wave just keeps coming and coming. Anyway, watching videos of people getting chased by sneaker waves made me want to go hike at the coast. Weird, but then again, that's me.

The coast is calling and I must go...

The basic plan was to hike on Bandon Beach from the Face Rock Viewpoint to the New River and back. High tide was cresting at the start of the hiking festivities, so from here on in the tide would be waning and I'd be less likely to have to flee any would-be sneaker waves like a lumbering pregnant rhinoceros. Despite it being high tide, it was not overly high, leaving me plenty of beach available to hike on.

The still formidable remains of the morning storm

I had driven to Bandon in a miserable rainstorm which did not augur well for today's outing. However, the storm broke up shortly before my arrival at the trailhead and it wound up being a mostly sunny day on the beach. But a large wall of clouds, remainders of the morning storm, piled up menacingly above the town of Bandon all day. Likewise, a cute little cloud bank formed and re-formed just out over the ocean but never migrated from that spot. Both cloud banks were a favored photography subject throughout the day.

Rock gossip "She thinks her barnacles make her SO special!"

Bandon Beach is spectacularly adorned with islands, rocks, and sea stacks piled up in acute jumblage and the scenery attracts beachgoers the world over. But hike south for a bit, you then pretty much have the beach to yourself, not counting gulls, oystercatchers, and twittering flocks of sanderlings. Once you hike past the end of Bandon, then it's nothing but a beach in its natural and wild state for the next 20ish miles, of which I'd only be hiking about 4 of those miles.

China Creek weaves its way to the ocean

After the first mile or so of hiking, Bandon Beach showed me its Johnson. The first of three creeks requiring a wet ford across was Johnson Creek, well engaged in every creek's quest to join forces with the ocean. Next up and maybe a mile further was Crooked Creek, which really was crooked as it sashayed across the beach. Last but not least was China Creek, which was likewise snaking its way across the sands. Needless to say, boots got wet on this hike.

Haystack Rock and island friends

Just past the Devils Kitchen area, whose name reminds me I need to brew up another batch of salsa, the fantastic island scenery recedes behind as one hikes south, with looming Haystack Rock being the last of the islands large enough to have a name. Flocks of seagulls floated around the imposing monolith topped with green vegetation while waves broke against the island in futility. These islands are part and parcel of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge and no doubt serve as rookery for the oceanic waterfowl population. 

Nothing but empty beach lies ahead

Once past Haystack Rock, it was just a handful of much smaller rocky islands stranded on the beach by the receding tide, with each island or rock formation being smaller than the preceding one. And then just like that, it was nothing but soft sandy beach with no rocks at all, just miles of wet sand glistening in the mid-day sunlight. Lane, Dale, and I backpacked this stretch of wild coast several years ago and came to hate hiking in the soft sand but loved the coastal scenery.

The New River gracefully curves across the sands

At just under the four-mile mark, the New River hove into view. The river looked more like creek as it was roughly the same size as China Creek and was an easy splash across. While the river was not that large, the vast expanse of bare sand at the river's mouth was an indicator that this river does carry plenty of water in winter. The mouth of the river is migrating north and was about three miles from where the map said it should be. In fact, when I've been here before, the New reached the sea at the confluence of the New and Twomile Creek. However, today Twomile Creek was nowhere to be found so presumably the New has migrated further north since my last visit, proving that a large river can go anywhere it wants to.

The tide was quite low on the hike back

After lunch on a large driftwood log at the river's edge, I went upstream (searching for Twomile Creek) along the graceful bends of the sinuous river. I ran into one lone hiker and we were both a little surprised to have company at this lonely place. And from there, it was a 4'ish mile walk back at waterline toward the rock formations of Bandon Beach and the relative throngs of admirers thereof. The ocean had drawn way back because of the low tide, creating a maze of sandy walkways between the islands, allowing for exploration of tide pools and such.

Kind of hard for waves to sneak up on me today!

Well, because of the waning tide, I did not have to make any mad dashes to safety, as there had been no sneaker waves sneaking up on me. I was most grateful for that, as well as for hiking on our beautiful Oregon coast on a sublimely beautiful day.

A small bank of puffy white clouds float just offshore

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