Hey, let’s go for a hike.
We’re a hiking sort, me and Andy. Every year we try to spend at least a week in some mountains, walking around. That’s what they call it in other languages: walking. It takes some of the magic out of it, I think.
Hiking is more than walking–it implies at least a small amount of challenge, an ample dose of isolation, and a great deal of scenery.
We picked The Three Sisters Wilderness area in central Oregon, west of Bend. The highlight of the area, you may have guessed, are three volcanoes called The Three Sisters. Nicknamed Faith, Charity, and Hope, these three volcanoes have been recently active.
Of course, when doing reading, one must consider the source. In geologic terms, these volcanoes have had recent eruptions, the last one being roughly 2,000 years ago. For a volcano, that’s like, yesterday.
Given our somewhat sedentary lifestyle, the heavy packs, the elevation and the heat, we planned for a six-day excursion, circling not only The Sisters, but also the Wilderness area. The loop is a seemingly popular choice, as it is fairly flat, hooks up with the Pacific Crest Trail, and has multiple access points by different trailheads scattered around it.
Our access to the loop was at the Lava Camp Lake parking lot near North Sister (Faith), where we opted to start on the East side before picking up with the Pacific Crest Trail on the West side of the volcanoes.
Well, if you’re us, and you live in a place that doesn’t sport 10,000-foot peaks, you have to fly there. We flew into PDX, rented a compact economy car that managed our two 45-pound packs pretty well, and stayed the night at a friend’s place (Thanks Eli & Arianne!). I have since read there is a shuttle from PDX to the Wilderness Area, but still, I was glad for the rental so we could explore on our own after we walked out of the woods.
We headed out early the next morning, driving towards Bend, because no amount of Googling was bringing up the Lava Camp Lake Campground area.
After reaching Bend (too far), the trusty navigator (that’s me), dug out the waterproof map and old-school navigated us through the town of Sisters and into our designated campground, at Lava Camp Lake, off of State Route 242. The drive into the campground from the town of Sisters is pretty: there is a flat stretch with an alder forest in oranges and yellows before the road begins to climb McKenzie Pass (a nationally designated scenic byway) and as we got closer to Lava Camp Lake, we began to see the fields of lava formations that gave the campground its name.
The parking lot was packed, but after we found a place to wedge our compact car, we filled out the overnight permit paperwork, noting where we would be camping each night. Those decisions had been made from studying both our National Geographic waterproof map and a milepost guide we found on the internet. Spoiler Alert: Only once did we stay the night where we predicted.
Given our travel time, we didn’t start our first steps until 1 pm, which was a little late, but we didn’t plan to hike very far that first day. In fact, we planned only four miles, to a little lake we had read about on the Oregon Hiker’s guidepost.
“Somewhere around mile 4.1 (5400′) is an unmarked trail to Yapoah Lake, which is about 0.3 miles away. Camping next to the lake.”
Before we start the hike, let me say something first about elevation. We live at sea level, elevation effectively 0. Most people who live near a coast live at sea level because, hey, the land has to start somewhere. The Lava Camp Lake Trailhead is at 5300 feet of elevation. So for us, that’s an effective 5300′ elevation change.
According to altitude.org, altitude sickness can occur with as little as 2500′ change. Some individuals get affected, others don’t. The mild symptoms feel like a hangover: fatigue, headache, nausea.
Guess who got affected, and guess who didn’t.
After just over two miles in, we gained about 700 more feet. It wasn’t much, but it was enough that I had to put down my pack. There was a family behind us, a mom, a dad, a dog, and two boys whose constant bickering had put me on edge. Also note another aspect of severe altitude sickness: sudden anger.
I dreaded letting them pass us. I put an Emergen-C packet in my water bottle and sucked it down. The air was so dry–which I had been anticipating, but the area was in a heat advisory as well. I was getting my tell-tale signs of over-exertion: my vision spiraled in, my ears plugged, my heart pounded. I walked in slow and small circles, afraid that if I stopped moving I would fall over.
After spending summers in Savannah, heat was nothing new. Dry heat felt like a luxury because your sweat could evaporate off, cooling the body. I thought maybe I was just dehydrated. We picked at our gorp (trail mix), me favoring the banana chips, Andy favoring the pineapple chunks.
I saw the family break through the trees behind us, ascending up our hill. Turning back towards Andy, I announced that I was fine, shoving my water bottle back into my bag. I was using my father-in-law’s old pack, while Andy was using one he’d had ordered custom years ago. The pouches on the back of his were easier to access, so he used that as the excuse to start taking food from me. Food’s heavy. Each day was in its own zip-lock gallon bag, and each day weighed four pounds.
We shouldered our packs, and the family with the bickering boys took the turn-off to North Matthieu lake instead. I sighed. I didn’t understand why I was so tired. I’d never thought I would have this poor of a showing during a hike.
Andy pressed on in the lead, and at mile 2.9, we stayed left, onto the Scott Trail, #4068. Theoretically, according to our guidepost, we had roughly one mile until an unmarked trail. There was zero cell service available, so GPS guidance was out. Despite years of running, I’m terrible at judging distances. Andy, however has an uncanny ability to measure these sorts of things. At home, I’ll even make him guess how many steps we’ve taken. He’s within about fifty steps every time.
We dropped down from our day’s elevation on mild switchbacks. This seemed like where this unmarked trail ought to be. Both of us had our eyes peeled, but there was nothing that resembled a trail. The trees were thin and sparse, but at least we weren’t in direct sun. I just wanted to be at camp. My head is pounding, but at least my vision had stabilized, and I no longer feared passing out.
Finally, we dropped our packs again. I high-graded banana chips out of the bags of gorp while Andy searched off-trail for the mystical Yapoah Lake trail. By the time he returned, I have found a fallen log to stretch out on. I unsnapped most of my shirt, letting the breeze dry my sweat (what a place!), and letting my arms fall on either side of the log helps relax my shoulders.
He hadn’t found the trail, so he pulled out the map to study the topography. I sat up, trying to be helpful, so I continued to contribute by eating all of the remaining banana chips.
Pressing on seemed like the only option, so we shouldered the bags, hoping that the unmarked trail remained ahead of us.
We hit mile 4.7, which was the junction of the Green Lake Trail #4070. My feet hurt. My shoulders ached. The pack wasn’t built for me, it was a hand-me-down from my father-in-law, with his name and address blazoned across it in several places. We adjusted the sizing again and again during the day, but it didn’t seem to help. It just wouldn’t sit on the crests of my hips no matter how I shifted the weight, so I had to keep carrying my diminishing 45 pounds on my shoulders. But we couldn’t set camp until we found water, so we pressed on.
“At mile 6.8 (5600′) is Alder Creek. This is a good spot to camp and get drinking water. This is the only drinking water between South Matthieu Lake and the Camp Lake Trail. In September the creek may dry up, but there’s still probably water flowing underground-go along the streambed and find a pool, maybe enlarge it a bit and then let the silt settle. Or maybe you’re better off going to the Camp Creek Trail stream for better drinking water.”
This was farther than we wanted to go, but we knew we needed water for dinner that night and breakfast in the morning. I typically walked five miles every day at home, so I had thought 6.8 miles should be no big deal. Except now I’m wearing 45 pounds. The trail grew ashier. The dirt became looser and more volcanic. Clouds of dust swirled with every step. I was glad I had brought my inhaler.
Suddenly, the sparse alder trees seem to darken. Gone were the leaves and many of the trunks are charred. There was a sign nailed to one of these charred trees, indicating “The Burn.”
There was no camping in The Burn. No fires in The Burn. It was a restricted area that stretched for many miles which one may hike through, leaving as little trace as possible. The area needed rehab from a fire that raged in 2012. Alder Creek is inside The Burn, but we had no idea how far.
There was no way we could hike all the way through the Burn that evening. Our hand was forced: we camped outside The Burn. Andy took a hard right at the sign, up an embankment, and sure enough, we ran into a flattened area with a few campsites. We dropped our packs. I was So. Happy.
Andy disemboweled his stuff to get to his hiking fanny pack. I know it sounds silly, but this thing is like a fanny pack on steroids. He put the three one-liter sized Nalgene bottles in there, along with the water filter and headed out to find Alder Creek. Meanwhile, I made camp. I pitched the tent and laid out our sleeping mats and bags inside of it.
The tent was a borrowed one, and felt larger than my first apartment. I sang to myself as I unpacked the camp stove and retrieved our freezer bag sized food ration for Day One. We hadn’t eaten all of our gorp or the Clif bars we’d brought for the day, but we still had dinner and dessert ahead of us. I read the directions on the back of the freeze-dried entree. We’d chosen Beef Chili Mac for that evening, mostly because the three campers pictured on the front of it looked to be having a preternaturally good time. Drugs must be involved.
Andy returned sooner than I anticipated, in a better mood than when he’d left. All three bottles were brimming with fresh water from Alder Creek, which turned out to be less than a half a mile away.
I wrote in my journal that night: “Finally, something went smoothly.”
Given my profession, I had lugged my heavy journal with me, forcing me to write every night. Something as heavy as that damn book had to be justified.
“I am writing while Andy is cooking,” I wrote. “Not unlike home, really. Just much, much quieter.”
We decided then to make a habit of writing down our stats every night as a way to gauge our progress, what worked and what didn’t, check in with ourselves using concrete data. You can probably guess it was Andy’s idea.
We were in our tent long before sun-down, taking down the tent fly so we could see the stars when they arrived. We each read our books and before long, I was out. I never even made it twilight.
Day One Statistics:
On Trail Time: 1 pm
Off Trail Time: 5 pm
Total Miles: 6.5 miles.
2 cups gorp
Freeze-dried Beef Chili Mac entree from Mountain House
2 packs of Justin’s Organic Peanut Butter cups
6 liters of water