It's odd waking up four days into a hike, finding yourself within three miles of the trailhead where you started out and realizing you're still more than twenty miles from the exit point. This is why many people either hike into the Lakes Basin OR hike into Ice Lake. It's basically a fifteen mile side trip. Now was the time to make the right back onto the West Fork of the Wallowa trail and ascend into the Lakes Basin.
As we gradually hiked further up the trail, the deep river valley slowly widened into open meadows with views of Eagle Cap and surrounding mountains. Again and again I was struck by the incredible clarity of the many creeks we crossed. Three and a half miles further on we crossed the Wallowa River for the last time and climbed up out of the valley into the high country. Once again Gary was like an excitable, but loyal, black lab. He stayed with us, but I could have sworn I could hear excited whimpering as vista after vista spread out before him. One of the views climbing into the lakes Basin from The WF Wallowa
After assuring him that Katie and I would be fine, the metaphorical leash came off the collar… and the next time I saw him was at the campsite. In my mind's eye I can still see him running up the trail, tail wagging, tongue lolling, chipmunks and golden mantled ground squirrels fleeing in surprise as he comes bounding around a switchback. Lets just say his enthusiasm is contagious. Katie managed to stop herself from sticking her hiking stick in my ear when I said it was alright if she wanted to go ahead as well. I know now that Katie does exactly what she intends, if she was going to pass she would have. 1200 feet of vertical later Katie and I hiked to the edge of Horseshoe Lake. Gary had gotten there about 15 minutes before us and had scouted sites. Today's mileage had been under 7 miles and it was just shortly before noon, just in time to see the moon disappear behind the unnamed mountain at the head of the lake.
Moon setting over mountains at head of Horseshoe Lake
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring, lazing around the lake and yes, even going in for a short swim. A very, very, short swim. Gary was the first in, followed by Katie and finally myself. It took several minutes of heartless browbeating, taunts, and eventual bribery to get Katie to put her head under water. "Screw you guys!" was her battle cry as she dove under. The sun warmed instantly, but frequent turning was required to keep the shadow side of the body from icing over. Ok, that might be an exaggeration, but the difference in temperature between shadow and sun ensured that frequent moving from one side to the other was required to stay comfortable. Gary and Katie relaxing around Horseshoe Lake
I spent the last part of the afternoon carving a spoon out of a piece of pine, as the marvelously engineered, ridiculously light, and miraculously compact collapsable one that came with my cook kit had proved to be somewhat lacking in the "structural integrity" department. Plastic tabs on ANYTHING are a bad idea in the field. My hastily carved spoon worked well in my beef stroganoff, even if the pine sap from the wood added an unexpected zing to the flavor. Too bad I proceeded to leave it at the site the following morning. A chipmunk decided that something smelled good enough to check out. When he failed to get food directly from us he struck out on his own, exploring where he though the food might have come from, my pack.
Coming to dinner
Horseshoe, Lee, Douglas, Moccasin, Sunshine, Mirror: Day five of our trip started with us trying to remember the order of the lakes we would pass on the short hike that would take us to the base of Eagle Cap Mountain. This is where my choice to take the rest day the second day came back to bite us. Each lake was separated by a short steep climb over a small pass that would reveal a tantalizing view of possibilities surrounding each lake. Days could be spent exploring shorelines, climbing surrounding peaks, but we had to move on. After Douglas Lake, Eagle Cap started to come into view again and the sight quickened our steps.
About a mile from Mirror Lake my cerebrum received a telegram. Here is the text.
To: Higher Functioning Neural Pathways and Cognitive Structures.
Re: State of lower extremities and useful functioning thereof.
Message: Hey, Nimrods. We've been signaling that something is seriously amiss down here for the past four days. Are you even listening!? There seem to be extended periods where nothing goes wrong and then there are several hours of belt sander-like abrasion on both calcaneal structures. The bones are starting to get worried. You see, they're aware of light coming from areas that should be opaque, and the right one in particular swears it actually felt "a breeze" at 11:42 GMT. He might well be exaggerating, however we've decided that our messages aren't coming through loud enough, so we're opening up the pathways a couple more notches. We hope that this will expedite your stopping whatever the hell it is that you, in your "rational" wisdom, are doing. In short, we're THIS far from going on strike and letting you try to maneuver around on numb feet while getting no response from us. See how you like being ignored.
Signed: Your Damned Feet.
A quick check of my feet showed that yes, I had finally worn through both heels and bloody socks were now present. Yippee. I continued on as fast as I could until we reached Mirror Lake. Or at least what I had claimed was Mirror Lake. You see, I had been counting lakes as I passed them and you'd think that, I a college graduate, could count to six without messing up, right? Apparently not. "Uhh. I think this is Sunshine, not Mirror," says Gary as he looks at the map. "What? That can't be right." It was. I'd stopped us a half mile short. Now on top of being the slowest and most injury prone, my navigation skills had been called out. Luckily I'm secure in my abilities, or I had been. One more pass and we were at Mirror Lake. It was beautiful, but it was also by far the most popular place we had been. After a bit of searching we found an unoccupied site just beyond the 100 foot limit that protected the shore line. View from our Campsite.
It was open and beautiful and it acted like a wind tunnel for the late afternoon wind that came blowing up from Sunshine lake and beyond. Everything we owned would be covered in fine dust by four in the afternoon. The winds eventually died down and we sat a short distance away from the site looking back across the range to the peak of the Matterhorn that we had stood upon two mornings prior. View of Sunshine Lake from Saddle to Mirror Lake
Gary and I spent one more evening staying up in order to watch the amazing celestial light show over Eagle Cap. He pointed out that both the constellation "Aquila, the Eagle," and the Eagle Nebula were visible just above Eagle Cap, making for a perfect Eagle Trifecta. A perfect way to spend our last night in the Wilderness.
Aquila, Eagle Nebula and Eagle Cap.
The last morning had us hiking downhill about 8 miles down the East Fork of the Lostine River, an area I had attempted to ascend in June 2011, but I was turned back by heavy snow pack and rising water. This time the trek was worry free, and we descended the open valley along the meandering creek, with pikas, Clark's nutcrackers and other critters biding us farewell. We rested at the bridge crossing the creek
and took one last look into the basin, trying not to contemplate the logistics of the trip home. The last couple of miles descended steeply and as we passed hikers coming up, I recognized the expressions on their faces echoing my own. Discomfort, discouragement, determination, joy, contentment. One guy said that he was tired of his face hurting from all the smiling. That pretty much summed it up. The car came into view at the Two Pan Trailhead. Groups were excitedly gearing up and throwing on packs. Part of me wanted to turn around and just follow, to experience the trail again. My feet said "bugger off."
One more night in Enterprise and then a drive back through the Palouse which honestly deserves a trip of it's own,
and we were in Spokane airport waiting for the six hour flight time back home.
For some reason, I brought an excess of ego on this trip, or maybe that ego was just spotlighted when I didn't hike as well as I though I would. I was hyper aware of my own failings and the perception of those failings by my hiking partners. To my non-hiking/climbing friends I'm something of a bad ass. To my hardcore hiking and climbing friends I'm something of a lightweight. And try as I might, those perceptions sneak into my own perception of myself. Fundamentally I hike because I love it and I always will; peripherally I'm a hyper-competitive person and I want to do as well or better than those around me. Despite that, when I'm outside I exist outside my own perceptions. It's strictly pass/ fail. I enjoy myself or I don't. I find a little bit more about myself or I don't. I haven't failed yet. ;)