SANTIAM PASS-CANYON CREEK MEADOWS-PCT LOOP
Mount Jefferson Wilderness, Oregon
~ 25 miles, ? elevation gain (nope, no idea)
Last year, during my Three Sisters trip, I began to fall in love with solo backpacking. That sense of not relying on nor being beholden to anyone but yourself, no compromises. It is not a feeling I always seek, but for me, that sense of solitude and self reliance brings a deep sense of calm and quiet, a reset for the soul. In the month I have before nursing school, I want to do several backpacking trips. My goals: challenge myself to longer loops, more solo hiking, and check several bucket-list trips off the list.
- The Dollar Lake fire currently scalding the north side of Mount Hood effectively killed any Timberline Trail plans for this year. [Grrrrr]
- The CD player in my Subaru fried a couple of weeks ago. This makes me feel lazy about driving the five + hours north to the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Music takes my mind off the monotony of driving by myself, and I am not the most patient radio channel surfer.
Jefferson Wilderness it is.
The backpack trip I really coveted was the Jefferson Traverse, outlined in Douglas Lorain's Backpacking Oregon, but lack of a car shuttle made that trip impractical. So I modified a large loop to begin at Santiam Pass, explore the area east of Three Fingered Jack, then head north along the PCT past Minto Pass and Rockpile Lake, finally winding my way back through the Eight Lakes Basin.
Starting from Santiam Pass at 1 pm, I eyeballed the wildfire burning just across the highway in the Mount Washington wilderness before continuing east and north on the Old Summit Trail en route to Canyon Creek Meadows. This was my first backpacking trip completely solo- at nine years of age, Rocky tires more quickly with long mileage and heat, so I decided to leave him at home. I had also managed to get my pack weight down to twenty-four pounds (minus water) for a three night/four day trip. This may not seem light for the ultralight hikers out there, but for me, it's a record, and I was thrilled.
|wildfire in the Mount Washington wilderness|
One of the most unique aspects of the southern portion of the Jefferson Wilderness is the destruction left by wildfires. In 2003, the B&B Complex torched over 91,000 acres, and in 2006 the Puzzle Fire crisped another roughly 5,000 acres.
|Old Summit trail, beginning to disappear in the burn|
|Three Fingered Jack from the Old Summit trail|
That said, there is something remarkably stark yet beautiful about hiking through old burns. A contrast of silvered snags and green meadows, the landscape stripped down to its bones, all wildflowers, clean silhouettes and outlines. Beyond Booth Lake, meadows and brush are reclaiming the trail, and I found myself fighting Mother Nature with creative expletives. It was slow work around a multitude of blow downs; in certain places my route resembled deep creek bed rather than trail; in other places, trail mysteriously disappeared only to reappear several feet away behind thick brush. I stopped several times to 'de-beach-ify' my shoes; trail dust and sand had worked its way into my trail runners to such an extent that I felt elevated in my own insoles. I believe the constant friction from the dust is what contributed to the nasty, nasty pinky toe blisters I had by the time I reached Jack Lake.
|oh yes, all of that came out of one shoe|
While I am glad to say I have now explored this trail, I personally am not sure it warrants a revisit anytime soon.
|giving the Old Summit trail the ol' middle finger|
Canyon Creek Meadows, on the other hand...wow. I arrived tired and footsore, approximately eleven miles from Santiam Pass, to absolute solitude, all the day hikers returned home to beers and showers. Only two miles from the Jack Lake trailhead (yes, I could have driven to Jack Lake, and saved myself some blisters), I can see how Canyon Creek Meadows teems with throngs of day hikers. A small pocket of wilderness not sacrificed to the wildfires, the meadows fill your entire focal scale with wildflowers. But I was there on a Thursday, arriving at 7:30 pm to not a soul in sight. I wandered another mile or so up to the head of the basin and found a lovely campsite, the craggy face of Three Fingered Jack staring me down.
|if my mother could see me now|
Stars, the remaining vestiges of the Perseids, Craggy Jack and icy alpine air were my only companions that night.
Popping out of my tent to brilliant skies, I startled a young doe not ten feet from me. We both went motionless and engaged in a staring contest, neither one of us moving except for me to smile and her to frantically twitch those over-sized ears back and forth. She finally bounded off, leaving me to make my coffee and warm up in the morning sun like a lizard on a log.
|Canyon Creek meadows site|
Upon analyzing my blisters the evening prior, I had killed my huge loop dreams, prioritizing saving my feet from utter destruction for the month ahead. Theoretically, I could hike the remaining miles to Santiam Pass, but hoped I would find a campsite en route to stay another night or so.
I reentered the devastating burn not long after leaving the meadows, making my way towards Wasco Lake and the moderate climb to Minto Pass, which my feet did not enjoy. I did, however, find nummy huckleberries, which my taste buds loved and provided a pleasing distraction.
|motivation up Minto Pass|
Begin the thru-hiker parade.
Every time I meet a thru-hiker, my heart aches with a jealous longing to join them on their nomadic trek north. Something about those endless miles, the sense of a journey both physical and mental, appeals to me on a deep scale. One in particular, Crasher (I'm sure there's a great story behind her trail name), was exceedingly kind and chatted with me for several moments before continuing her cruise north.
Here, the PCT passes in and out of burned forest and winds its way around impressive views of the north face of Three Fingered Jack.
|Three Fingered Jack from the PCT|
I found a lingering snow melt pond and decided to call it a day. An isolated pad with just enough space for my tent was hidden beyond the pond, and I set about hastily making camp- not only did I need to check out my feet, but the pond's resident mosquito population had found dinner.
(Having not brought any bug spray with me, I have well over one hundred bites. I think the Jefferson Wilderness breeds an entirely new and formidable species of mosquito. Normally I don't itch that much, right now, I'm clinically insane).
During the remaining afternoon hours, I entertained myself lancing blisters, reading and creating a little mosquito graveyard in my tent.
Around 7pm, the temperature suddenly plunged, and the wind picked up...big, shaking gusts, whistling through the trees and rattling my tent so hard it was lifted against the stakes holding it to the earth. Wildfire smoke began filtering its way up the PCT from the valley, setting the sky ablaze with color.
I slept reasonably well, but it was still a long night, the wind howling and rattling my tent like a freight train throughout the night and into the dawn. That morning, I was so cold, I actually drank my coffee in my tent, wearing everything I owned, while I packed up.
That said, the remaining approximately six-ish miles passed in a cold, blustery, and spectacular fashion. One of my beloved hours to hike is the early dawn when the world possesses a sense of still slumbering, of anticipation. The details are richer, yet more subtle, the light soft. I wish I hiked more often at dawn; however, I find that the actual getting out of bed process tends to interfere with this favorite time of the day to hike.
Again, at the trailhead, I take stock: eight blisters, stinky, mosquito-bitten. Hungry for real food. Tired. Deliriously content.