Return To Eagle Cap, Day 1: "Oh, Hell No."

Return To Eagle Cap, Day 1: “Oh, Hell No.”

“Oh, hell no,” Elizabeth shook her head and uttered these words at me about 4:16pm at the junction to Lookingglass Lake on our first day of backpacking back in Eagle Cap and it pretty much summed up the tone of our trip.  I looked at her and smiled, “That sure, are you?”

I don’t know why it has taken me that long to write about my Eagle Cap trip this summer.  It isn’t like it was that bad of a trip.  In fact, it was a great trip.  But the fact is that the our excursion happened just days after losing a family member in a hiking accident and it did weigh heavy on our minds as we began our backpacking trip to Eastern Oregon that we had been planning ever since we had left there the summer before.

That wasn’t the only thing that influenced our trip, of course.  The fact that my hiking partner was not in the condition she wanted to be in for the itinerary we had originally planned and the amazing amount of snowfall we received last winter still melting off the higher elevations also played a part in how our adventure panned out.  But one thing I have learned in backpacking is that often plans do not go we would like them to and you have to be willing to roll with what nature and life throw your way or you would never get out there.  Our trip had already whittled down from a full week to 4 days due to family responsibilities.

This year, because of the 6 hour drive from where I live, we opted to start in Umatilla near Hat Rock so our drive to the trailhead would not be as long and we could start our hike at an early hour (read cooler temps).  That was our plan, anyway, and we all know how my plans usually go.

Her husband “lives” at the Hat Rock Campground during the week for work, so we met there the night before to drop off her 12 year old son and get ready for our trip in.  As I was putting all my gear together and double checking I had brought everything I needed (as I am prone to forgetting at least one thing), I realized that this year it would be my sleep socks (warm socks I only wear at night so they stay clean and so does my sleeping bag).  Last year was quite cold when the sun went behind the horizon and my down slippers had been perfect but this year I was trying to go lighter so I has only bringing my normal set of wool sock liners.  I momentarily entertained the idea of going without them, but there was NO way I would survive a night outdoors. I am a cold wimp.

So, our early trip already meant timing with the opening of a store that might sell them.  The nearest town on the way was Pendleton so I knew I had two options, Walmart and the Pendleton Wool Clothing store.  Odds were infinitely better at the latter but the first opened at 7am so it would be my first try.  As expected, however, Walmart had nothing more satisfactory than the earlier opening time which means we waited in the Pendleton parking lot for a brief moment until I could run in at 8:01am and pick up something to prevent freezing toesies from keeping me up at night.  Okay, maybe I ran in but we were there for more than a few minutes.  There were too many cute socks to choose from and they had to be the thinnest ones I could find.

On the road again heading south on 203 towards La Grande, then Union and onto Medical Springs we were soon bumping along on the familiar terrain of forest road.  Some of the better ones out there, it ran for about 23 miles and I couldn’t help but laugh at the local “wild cowswe encountered along the way. What is it about free range livestock this year and me this year? Quite possibly another omen for our trip…

In about 2 hours we were to the trailhead at Main Eagle Creek and unloading. This year we were coming at the wilderness area from a more southern entrance and hoping it would mean less traffic.  Pulling into the parking lot on this Saturday in July confirmed my guess as there were just a few other vehicles and people.  So little that we could change out of our car clothes into our hiking ones right next to the car instead of in the privy.  It was at this point I realized I did, in fact, have my original pair of wool socks with me.  Good grief.

We ate a good meal, locked the car and headed up the trail just a bit before noon.  This is the 5th backpacking trip that my good college friend, Elizabeth, has been brave enough to join me for, including several weeks on the Pacific Crest Trail.  Our trips are never short on adventure!

Not nearly as early as we would have liked but if I hadn’t been so worried about cold feet we might have done better.  Oh well, we were here and all was right with the world.  Something about finally setting foot on the trail lets all the worries fall away.

This section of the trail began similar to the entrance from Two Pan into Lostine with a wide path that followed a ribbon of icy mountain water in as it gains elevation and takes you into a lush green valley with majestic peaks beaconing in the distance.

We passed a few hikers heading out but mostly had it to ourselves as we pushed back the yearly brush closing on us.

Our conversation at this point mostly revolved around the timing of our hike out and where we wanted to be our last night so Elizabeth could get home in time to pick up “the boy” and get him to a friend’s birthday party in time.  As we walked along, I kept my eye out for suitable campsites in the event we wanted to make it back this far the last night.  There were a few level spots within 2 hours of the parking lot so I knew that could be an option if needed.  It is always good to know you don’t have to make it all the way to your car if you don’t have to.

The water was bountiful along the trail and we stopped often to cool ourselves and refill water bottles.  We both carry the Steripen and don’t mind stopping for a few minutes if it means not having to carry the weight of extra water.  Somewhere along here E lost the chest strap to her pack which seems like a big deal but she had packed light enough her hipbelt was sufficient to carry the weight.  We crossed the wilderness boundary about 1.5 hours in (1.7 miles in), clearly we were not in a hurry and enjoying ourselves.

We also stayed together for most of this section, something we don’t always do.  One of the things we talked about as we drove in for this trip was that the past week’s event had us talking about what we would do in the unlikely event one of us was hurt and we were not together on the trail.  How would we communicate?  I carry a personal locator beacon but that doesn’t help us when we are out in the wilderness to talk with each other. So, we opted to try and not spread out as much as we usually do.  This was a bit difficult because my pace is faster than hers, even more so this year as she had not as much time preparing for the hike as the previous year.

But it was good for us, I think.  More time to catch up and ponder life.  Taking stream crossings is more fun when with others, if only so you can watch how someone else goes and not make the same mistake!  Eagle Creek here is playing havoc with the trail, there were quite a few times we crisscrossed back and forth over the water.  Luckily, I think I only took my shoes off once and that was because the idea of cooling them off beckoned.

Somewhere around 3pm and 3.5 miles in, E begun to slow considerably.  Deciding she could continue but not at a faster pace, I told her I would stop at the junction for Lookingglass Lake.  This was our destination for the night (the lake) but at this point I had my doubts.  It would be a late arrival and a steep end to the day.  Remaining optimistic, we said we could decide when we got to the junction.  So, I moseyed on up ahead and she continued behind me.

Shortly after this, the trail broke out of the trees and entered the Main Eagle Creek valley and the views opened up in front of me.  It is an understatement to say this is why I love the area.  This last mile to the junction slowed me down with all the picture taking and a break to snack.  I gazed up to my right at Hummingbird Mountain and imagined the lakes above that we hoped to camp by.

I reached the junction about 4 miles and 4:15pm and Elizabeth came up behind me shortly there after.  It was here where we talked about our next move and I pointed up to our right and said the lakes were up there.

“Oh, hell no,” was her response, I laughed and Plan B went to action.  There are no campsites here on the trail, but there are multiple to the right along the creek.  The ones we had already passed were taken so I suggested we head up the trail towards Lookingglass and maybe there would be something across the creek.

This turned out to be a so-so idea as the trail was so marshy from winter runoff and the area around the creek was flooded.


On the other side of the creek I did some scouting while E took a break and I found a stealth spot up about 100 yards away from the water in the trees just big enough for her tent and my hammock.  It would do for the night, allow us to hang our food and be able to stop as she was physically done for the day.  It also meant I could take a side trip up to the lakes after setting up camp.

So, at about 6pm I took off up the trail and told Elizabeth I would be back by dark.  Lookingglass was only 2.4 miles up from camp so I should have been able to make it there and back by 9pm.  Easy, peasy, right?  Well, it turned out to be quite a muddy trail with several creek crossings (one of which I had to remove the shoes for) so I didn’t get to the lake until almost 7pm.  Thankfully (?) the mosquitos were out in force so I was only able to stay long enough to eat a bite and snap a few pictures.

From this dammed lake, I was able to see the peak of Needlepoint up the valley and it sure looked worthy of a scramble.  I had done my research before our trip so I knew a few possible routes, one of which left from Eagle Lake.  We had also passed a gal on her way out who had just came from there so I knew it was possible in the current conditions.  The summit called out to me and I knew I would be giving it a try.  I would only go as I felt comfortable as the area is new to me and there would most likely still be some snow left on her slopes.

I left Lookingglass and headed back down the trail after about 20 minutes, once again dodging mud and flooded trail as the setting sun turned the screed slopes around me amber.  The beautiful sunset to my left stopped me for more pictures and a short prayer to count my blessings.  I’m so lucky to be able to get out to see such things in nature!

About an hour from the lake, I hit the junction with Culver and Bear Lakes that also nestle up here with Lookingglass.  My map said they were just a short jaunt up, so I quickly made my way up to Culver.  I just had to see the sunset on the cirque around the lake.  I arrived in just 15 minutes and it was a spectacular sight.  I didn’t want to leave but at this point I knew I would be donning a headlamp for the rest of my hike to camp.

I made it back to camp around 9:30pm and quickly climbed into my hammock, my snacking up at the lake would have to count as dinner.  Elizabeth and I set a goal to be on trail by 6am in the morning to take advantage of the cooler early morning hours.  I told her about seeing Needlepoint from the lake and how I hoped to make time to scramble up a bit.  She wasn’t so sure (and knew she wouldn’t be able to).  There is no official camping at Eagle Lake, so we planned out to camp at Cached Lake just 1.5 miles from there.

Our original plan had been to make a loop from Cached Lake up the Trail Creek Trail to a junction with Bench Canyon and the back down to Main Eagle.  At this point, however, Elizabeth knew she wouldn’t make it that far so our trip would be an in and out.  I dealt with the disappointment of doing less than I wanted but set my sights on Needlepoint as my highlight of the trip. Only tomorrow would tell how much adventure we would have on Day 2 before hiking back out to responsibility!

Click to open gallery from Day 1:

I attempted to do some more video on this hike, talking about food and showing Elizabeth and I in action.  I put it together with some of my favorite pictures from Day 1!

For more details about this hike, such as itinerary and maps head over to Eagle Cap Wilderness 2017.  And for Day 2, continue over at  Return to Eagle Cap, Day 2: Not Your Grandma’s Needlepoint!

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