Scouting the Trails
Our 3 week stay in LaPine, which was the kick-off for a summer season that would largely be spent in Central Oregon, got off to a rough start. The primer hiking trails that drew Bill to this area were in the Newberry Caldera area around Paulina Lake at 6300’ and they were still buried in snow when we arrived on May 3rd.
We tried hiking towards Paulina Lake from La Pine on our first day but after less than 2 miles, we turned around because of the snow. It was possible to go on but post-holing, or having your foot break through the snow and dropping it 1-2 feet, was slow-going and not our kind of fun. Snow shoes were intermittently needed for the upper parts of the route but we weren’t keen on putting them on and taking them off every few minutes.
On the 2nd day, we exited the closer, flat, trails at the lower elevation LaPine State Park to discover the skies were filled with smoke. We eventually learned that it was a controlled burn but its smoke was equally hard on our lungs as smoke from a wildfire. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a one-off and we had several other smoky days from prescribed burns while there.
Paulina Lake on opening day: we were focused on the wading fisherman.
We learned the hard way that the road to Paulina Lake in the Newberry National Volcanic Monument was still closed due to snow when we arrived but, luckily, it would be opening at the end of our first week. Coincidentally, the road opened on a nasty day with plummeting temperatures and high winds, so we relegated it to a driving day to explore what we could of the Caldera.
We parked at the best of the few view points available at the lake’s edge and noticed the couple smoking in front of us had their gaze fixed towards a distant beach instead of the wading fisherman we’d watched. They must have noticed the skinny-dipper when he was in the water but he didn’t catch my eye until his towel was flapping in the wind while he dried-off on the sand.
We were dumbfounded: it was 33° at 6300’ with a brisk wind that convinced us to eat our lunch inside our truck. Skinny-dippers are a motivated crowd but this was crazed. The best I could imagine was that he was in it for the bragging rights, something like “I’ve gone skinny-dipping in Paulina Lake every year on the first day that the road opened since….” It was notable that he was alone.
Once dried and dressed, he made his way up to our parking lot. I urged Bill to lower his window so we could eavesdrop after the neighboring car’s passenger engaged him. The big, shiny-bladed shovel over his shoulder was to dig-out the muck and algae the best he could. He reported that there were hot springs near the lake’s edge, both in and out of the water, which is where he had been dipping, though we hadn’t seen him then. Suddenly, things had gotten interesting and unimaginable in the forests around sleepy LaPine.
Bill had booked us in LaPine because the RV parks in nearby Bend were full but staying in LaPine presented its own challenges. We awoke after the first night to a morning low temperature of 25° and a frozen water hose—not the 40° we were expecting. In hindsight, the weather forecast appeared to be written by the tourist bureau.
Fortunately, our sense of time pressure for the day was less than usual and we busied ourselves with our exercises and other waterless, indoor activities for 3 hours, until the sun rose and warmed the air. Our orientation to the sun was exceptionally good and it was the quickest ‘self thaw’ we’d ever had. Bill’s new, high-end water pressure regulator was destroyed, but nothing else was. Our “4 season” rig has all of its plumbing safely stowed in the interior, underbelly of the trailer, unlike the usual designs, so none of our pipes were frozen.
Post-holing & still smiling.
Our camping situation in LaPine was less than ideal but we were determined to make it work. LaPine, with its 1,600 people, was historically a strip city that evolved to quickly re-supply travelers and outdoors people with the basics, like food and gas. Given that history, our RV park was conveniently sited right on the busy highway, which was right next to the railroad line. Out in the middle of nowhere, but hardly spacious, secluded, or quiet.
Fortunately, the heavy vehicle traffic diminished at night and the flat road didn’t trigger noisy accelerating or braking. Mercifully, the rail bed was quite new and the engineers usually only blasted their horns in the distance. I’m a light sleeper but my silicone ear plugs shut out almost all of the noise. The diesel truck in the park that began warming at 4:30 am ensured that we’d be awake for our 5:00 am alarm. The sun still being up when we went to bed at 8 pm always made us feel silly but we managed to go to sleep anyway.
The sound of an engine revving below our Paulina Creek Trail was the last thing we expected to hear on that cold, windy day after enjoying a leisurely picnic lunch wind sheltered in the sun. It had been a mellow day, doing an out-and-back hike on the other side of the familiar creek, and we had thought that the memorable event of the day would be photographing an unusual white meadow flower at our turnaround point, a sand or star lily. But the racket was an unmistakable pattern: the distinctive pulsations of a stuck vehicle struggling to free itself.
After a few more moments of walking, the source of the commotion came into view near the water’s edge of the creek. There were no roads, no bridges nearby and it could only be a hoodlum frolicking in the forest on a Saturday afternoon. There were 2, not one, bad boys tearing up the forest slope and both were stuck. It made sense that they traveled in pairs when illegally off-roading but they had failed to coordinate so as to have a rescue vehicle.
The pick-up truck driver we spotted first that was aimed towards the creek finally freed himself, crossed the water, and took a tiny victory lap on our side of the creek. He then headed back about when his companion in an older Suburban-like rig freed himself from the soft soil. They got out to confer, then headed upstream on land, with the Suburban banging down a 15’ tall conifer sapling just for the fun of it—he could have gone around. They hadn’t gone far, stopped again, and 4 to 6 small kids and a dog spilled out of the vehicles. It was a chaotic scene before us while I switched from snapping photos to dialing 911.
Bad boys banging down a tree.
While I was on my phone, Bill was finally able to get the clear shot of one of the license plates that had eluded me. A fellow hiker in the pair behind us went down to the creek to have a word with the drivers. We guessed that the bad-boys thought we were a 4-some, which added a bit to our sense of safety. Then we heard them shout “The police are coming!” Bill assumed that the other hiker said he would call the police though we didn’t see either in the couple whip out a phone.
Literally a minute after I hung-up from my second call to the dispatcher with Bill’s plate information, a sheriff called me and he already had the license plate number before him. I was relieved and gratified that both the dispatcher and officer were very appreciative of our initiative and the sheriff said he’d be right there to hopefully nab them. He was quick to explain the law about taking photos and that the kid was wrong. I had had no concern about the issue but appreciated his sensitivity to the hollow threat and that he clearly was doing his best to encourage me to call again if we saw such reckless behavior in the future. The dispatcher was surprisingly concerned for our safety and though we didn’t feel threatened by the drivers, we felt like the law had our backs.
The jerks cleared out of the area and we could hear their engines fading after they made it up the slope to the logging road. Fortunately, that was the last we knew of them and the authorities didn’t follow-up with us.
We were disheartened by the repeated bad-boy culture in our chosen hiking area near LaPine, the McKay Crossing Campground trailhead. The most egregious was these off-roaders romping in the creek and bashing down the tree but then there was the orange peel guy on another day.
We were sheltering from the cold in our truck for a mid-hike lunch when a couple who had inexplicably parked right next to us in the deserted campground returned. A lean, 30-something, outdoorsy couple with a dog looked at home in this forest. Their oversized truck was outfitted to haul an in-bed truck camper like we had had and it also had a light hitch for towing a boat or snowmobile. So far, so good but as the guy fired up his truck, he threw his orange peels out his window onto the ground of the campsite. We were stunned. He surely camped in similar places and he was still being a jerk. I suspect he didn’t notice us until he pulled out. And then there was the other guy we never saw, the one who dumped a car tire in the same closed campground while we were out for a hike one day. Really? Was this the Trump grievance crowd that despises all things governmental, or were these just the next generation of obnoxious local people with chips on their shoulders? Our experiences conflicted with LaPine’s published statement that it is “characterized by people being good to each other”.
Star or sand lily in a mountain meadow.
Once the snow began receding on the trails and the road opened, Paulina Lake became the focus of our outings while in LaPine. By scouting the trail on both sides of Paulina Creek to the lake, we established which side would be passable first and we made it through on a 12 mile, 1600’ gain hike twice. The first time, we had a lovely lunch sitting on a closed, private boat ramp admiring the peak; the second time, we hurriedly put on our rain suits and sheltered in the deep doorway of the Visitors Center that was not yet open for the season.
We made the 30 mile, 2200’ round trip ride to the lake on our bikes twice; again enjoying warm, lovely weather on one day and struggling in the cold on the next. On the second ride, we skipped the view of the lake or the peak in favor of wind shelter for lunch and stopped multiple times on the descent to warm ourselves. We wore the pile of ‘descent wear’ that we’d loaded into our panniers but it still wasn’t enough to stay safe in the cold without stopping periodically to shake the chill.
On yet another day, we drove to the lake to walk the 7 mile trail around it. There was a hideous amount of snow in the deep shade on the first one and a half miles of trail, which was slow and frustrating to navigate, and then suddenly everything was wonderful. We walked through an obsidian field, on a stretch of trail that cut through a red cinder deposit, and on a enchanting bit of trail that meandered through lava along the edge of the lake. It would be a lovely hike when the snow was gone. Sadly, the roads to the peak and the Big Obsidian Flow were still closed when we left the area, but we’d made good use of the lake as a destination to add interest to our fitness pursuits.
Paulina Lake & Paulina Peak on the first day we could hike to the lake.
On May 13, 2021, almost exactly 14 months from the day that food and other scarcities delivered the gut-punch to us that made the pandemic real, the equally abrupt CDC announcement about ‘unmasking’ blindsided us. It was wonderful news, news that we interpreted as meaning that the pandemic was over for us, but it was so unexpected, it was so sudden and absolute, and as intense as the previous absence of food on the store shelves. As fully vaccinated people with no others in our household and not being immune compromised, the new pronouncement was that we basically could not be infected by or infect others. It was over. We were done with it. Like many, we simultaneously quivered from and cheered the good news. The “Wicked Witch of the West” in our lives had instantly evaporated.
We would keep our masks in the ready to wear in situations were they were mandated and we’d still wear ours when grocery shopping and in laundromats, but that would be about it. No more pulling our double-thickness gaiters over our mouths and noses on the trails and no more wearing face shields with our masks indoors. And our obsessing about viral transfer from surfaces would recede. We would however continue to vigilantly track the emergence of new variants and be ready to pivot if we deemed it prudent.
Willow Lake, Oregon
A Jackson County Campground
We drove south from LaPine in the high desert of Central Oregon into the pastures and then forests of southern Oregon on a cold, drizzly day with classic Oregon “high overcast”. We clutched a bit. It was notable because “high overcast” is less oppressive than a low ceiling but it still means that you won’t be seeing the sun any time soon.
We weaved into the 1950’s, lakeside, county campground and again clutched. Our reception was reminiscent of being on our bikes in Europe, unexpectedly cycling through a Roma (gypsy) camp, and having everyone stare at us. We of course felt much safer in our truck than we had on our bikes and because we knew the language and culture, but it was still uncomfortable. Signs on vehicles and homes along the way reminded us that we were in “Trump country” and the huge “OreGUNify” truck window decal that greeted us echoed the same sentiment.
Forest camping on a 50°, damp, day never feels good and it didn’t look good either. At 2:00 on a Saturday afternoon, everyone was motionless, even the children. Whether they were in a rustic rental log cabin with crushed beer cans and other garbage strewn behind it, in a tent, or traveling with a small trailer, most of the guests stood or sat armoring against the chill. The 30-something, XXXL, gruff-looking men with straggly beards on a cabin porch and the older couple in lawn chairs with blankets all just stared; too cold to move and the uptick in the drizzle was an additional incentive to stay put. It reminded me of what I didn’t like about ‘proper’ camping in the NW: standing around being cold. In contrast, we had reserved a site with full hook-ups so soon we would have our customary comforts of heat, lights, indoor cooking, and hot showers.
I reminded myself that they were staring at us because they were bored. The total lack of internet or cell service, and probably of satellite TV reception, likely put some people at a loss for what to do with themselves. In contrast, we always felt like the Romas were actively staring: E250 for bike, E20 each for the 4 panniers, E5 for the jacket. These campers were likely sizing us up but for our politics, which was clearly on the surface in this area. I half jokingly said to Bill: “We should tone-down our outfits while here to fit in—put on something drab” though I knew our lack of practiced hostility would show through. A couple of smiles and waves from us didn’t improve our reception.
Willow Lake & Mt McLoughlin.
We took our turn staring while we ate our early dinner from our trailer’s dinette that looked out through the trees to the lake and gave us a good view of 2 families below us in tents. There they dutifully sat for hours in their folding camp chairs around their daytime fire, though not quite close enough to it to get warm. Hands in pockets with hoods up, they sat and sat and sat, doing nothing.
One pre-teen was unsuccessfully trying to split wood with an axe with light parental supervision. It was a bit dangerous and we lamented that no one knew or coached him on Plan B, which would be using a wedge and a sledge hammer. Papa returned and showed him how it was done. He had a few successful whacks and modeled a strategy to simultaneously split his foot as well as how to irritate his back. Perhaps the cool weather had spoiled a planned fishing day but there appeared to be no other activity than sitting for hours or playing with the axe and a hatchet. At our bedtime, we were disappointed to see that the 2 families had left their campsite with their flickering-flame fire unattended.
A yellow leaf iris (uncommon).
Literally, everything changed the next morning, Sunday morning. We exited our trailer when our end of the campground was largely full and returned from our walk half way around Willow Lake to a nearly deserted camp. The tables had turned: now we were the established guests (by 1 night) though we didn’t assume the role of politicized gatekeepers.
We could see from the reservation tags posted at each campsite that many would not be filled until the holiday weekend crowd began arriving on Friday. Mercifully, it looked like the meager incoming population was shifting to match us: old people without a need to posture, to take a stand against imagined “them.” Like us, the newbies speedily parked their rigs, set up their camp, and disappeared to do their activities, especially boating and fishing. Ah…peace in the shared forest space without the need for banners or boundaries.
Our off-putting experience upon arriving at Willow Lake again had me wondering about getting a bumper sticker to help us fit-in in rural Oregon. In this apparent “You’re either with us or against us” culture these days, it felt like our lack of displayed allegiances marked us as “other” and therefore we were against them. It was an accurate conclusion but seemed unnecessarily confrontative. I kept returning to the idea of getting a “Back the Blue” (police) decal. It was an authentic sentiment and yet seemingly neutral—the alliances to supporting the police didn’t sharply split along party lines. I thought it would be a way to do a bit of requisite flag waving without being devise, which being unknown seemed to be.
An unexpected treat at Willow Lake was the wildlife and waterfowl: there wasn’t anything exotic but it was much more varied than anywhere else we had been for a long time. We saw a couple of coyotes, a heron, 4 or 5 turtles sitting on a log in the water, numerous non-Canadian geese with a few goslings, some ducks, a dozen cormorant, and 4 pelicans were always in sight at our end of the lake. Better yet, was what we didn’t see, which was the bear. Recently, he had strolled through the campground every day for the better part of a week and then was spotted farther down the entrance road.
Adventure Hike on the PCT
Our finale hike in southern Oregon while camped at Willow Lake was planned to be more miles than our recent usual of about 8, something like 12 to 14 miles was in our sights. My capacity was expected to be the wild card. I was finally recovering from an especially bad bout with yet another new antihypertensive medication that I’d had to abruptly discontinue but the shortness of breath, the deep fatigue, and the considerable GI upset were slow to resolve. Even off of the drug, I was taking 5 Imodium in 4 hours to control the pain from abdominal cramping and I’d lost a few pounds because of not being able to finish my meals. Probably not coincidentally, my buttock muscle pain had kicked up as well, so Bill’s discussion of the big hike was always qualified with “If you are up to it.” I’d been improving and was doing everything I could to make myself trail worthy for the event.
Log over the Medford Canal.
We looked at the 2 different logs spanning the fast running Medford Canal, a canal masquerading as a rushing mountain creek, and decided that they were too narrow for us to walk across. Had they been side by side, it would have been easy, but you had to choose one or the other. Wear marks and muddy shoe prints indicated that braver soles/souls were walking what for us, might as well have been a tight rope. Later, I spoke with one younger woman who had slowly scooted across sideways on her butt (in shorts).
We traipsed around, crunching through the thicket of downed trees and branches and, about a quarter of a mile upstream, found a fatter log to crawl across on all fours. That escapade set us back about an half an hour because we also had to fight our way through a similar thicket to the trail on the other side of the canal.
Fortunately, when we hit the steep grades of the Mt McLoughlin summit trail, my body proved to be up to the task. Not quite as fast as Bill, yet given my recent difficulties, it seemed that I was fit enough for the demands of the day.
Bill had been finishing his coffee on the drive to the trailhead and, predictably, was making frequent stops to “return nitrogen to the soil.” At one point he said “You’ll come to a junction with the summit trail and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)—take the straight-right instead of the left.”
“Straight-right” was a household term that evolved from interpreting confusing signs over our years in Italy and was a perfectly clear description for me. As anticipated, I knew when I was at the junction, but there was no straight-right trail.
We’d actually been at the same junction a few days before, but from a different approach, and some part of my consciousness remembered to look up, way up, where there were the faint trail signs I’d seen before. Unfortunately, they were positioned for the downhill hikers, not the assent hikers like us. I looked again for the missing “straight-right” trail and realized that there had been a tree fall in those few intervening days, totally obscuring our PCT trail. I again looked uphill but much farther on, could see the well-worn trail beyond the considerable tree rubble, and proceeded around the first of dozens of downed trees on our route that day.
Cecilia from Walla Walla was in the first days of her PCT adventure. She had spent 4-5 hours crafting her own snow shoes the day before.
We both retreated a bit until we were in sight of each other and quickly settled upon the correct trail. It was yet another little issue early in the day that slowed our progress but it was welcome validation for me that I was recovering from the medication side effects: my brain was working better. It was quite a change from feeling so bad about 10 days before that I literally had been mentally scripting Last Wishes and Final Instructions.
I kept pushing hard on the relentless uphill, hoping to hold about a two and a half miles per hour pace. Every log we had to climb over or navigate around slowed us down but I kept the pressure on myself, pressing against the limit of my still-reduced breathing capacity. Our second trail, the PCT, wasn’t as steep as the summit trail on which we had started, and we picked-up a little speed.
It wasn’t long however, until the speed game was over: we were hitting big patches of snow, some of them 4’ deep; there was no going around them. The priority shifted from speed to remaining upright when we inadvertently ‘post holed’, which is having your foot break through the snow, dropping your leg inches to several feet into soft snow. It’s slow-going, tiring, and potentially dangerous because you didn’t know if your ankle would get caught in a tangle of branches or if your shoe will slide off a hidden wet rock. Hiking in such conditions requires endless concentration and patience, particularly when you are abruptly thrown on to all fours.
Shortly before lunch, while trudging through the increasingly frequent snow piles, a younger local couple with 2 large dogs passed us. They then paused, waited for us to catch-up, and consulted with us about exiting the snowy mess at some little lakes they knew where ahead, then aiming for an access road to the main road where we were all parked. They didn’t have a map but Bill had studied his enough to answer their questions without referring to it. Suddenly, our deteriorating out-and-back hike looked like it might morph into an impromptu loop hike like theirs with 3-4 miles of gravel road at the end. Gravel roads are very low on our list of hiking routes but, on this day, trudging in gravel sounded heavenly.
In no time at all, our trail conditions had degraded further, with lakeside swampy muck and slush being added to the mix. At least the mosquitoes weren’t biting and the sun was out, which staved off the chill from having perpetually wet feet. We could hardly wait to hit the tedious gravel, though it would require persevering through the difficult trail conditions for at least another hour after a break for lunch. None of us were sorry to miss the return trip on a log over the creek.
Freye Lake near the PCT: first winner of the new award “Lunch Spot of the Month” for May.
Heading Back North to Bend, Oregon
We rapidly became weary of the redneck culture during our first month in Central and southern Oregon. A quarter to a third of the shoppers in the southern Oregon, White City Walmart pocketed their masks as soon as they got in the store, defying the many large signs indicating that state and local law required them. The store associates all wore theirs and politely ignored the non-compliant shoppers. I was shocked but was only miffed by the renegade attitude until a woman my age brushed against me at the restroom entrance without a mask. I was angry and appalled by her rudeness and lack of consideration. I didn’t feel endangered but was fed-up with the hostility and general disrespect for others. And 2 days later back around Willow Lake, a man in what looked like summer-weight, camouflage-patterned pajamas, was packing a large pistol across his chest on a popular family trail. Not big enough to deflect a bear, we were put-off by his messaging.
We expected to have instant culture-relief when we arrived in Bend for our scheduled month there. Being too late to book moderately priced RV parks for a long stay in high season, we’d be at a more upscale park than we usually frequented, but it was sounding like welcome insurance for a more predictable ambiance. And we knew that even being the self-proclaimed Capitol of conservative Central Oregon, that Bend’s oasis of affluent liberalness would be comforting, that we should be able to let our guard down and not worry about “otherness” or getting shot.