North Fork John Day River Backpack

26 08 2016
River Evening Peaceful

The peaceful nirvana of early evening at the Oriental Springs Campground

In July, Laura and I planned to backpack a 10-mile section of the North Fork John Day River in central eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains. The entire river is a nationally designated wild and scenic river, so we were very excited! I had hiked the eastern portion back in 2014. This time, the plan was to try hiking from the western end. The whole trail, some 50 miles, is steeped in gold-rush history. Back in the 1870’s gold was struck in the area, and thousands braved the wilds to strike it rich. Today, although the big mines are mostly gone, there are still active mining claims with people panning for gold! I’ll post a blog about that next. But for now, it’s about the backpacking.

This hard-to-reach trailhead and backpack had been on my list for many years. It took about 5 hours from Portland. Even when you get off the state road, the dirt road/4WD track to the last campground and trailhead is many miles. Due to the long drive, we just planned to car camp the first night at Oriental Springs Campground. Arriving about 5:00 p.m., the heat of the day had passed. The river sits in a tight valley, and the shadows were already beginning to lengthen.

Oriental Campground We had the whole place to ourselves. There were lots of puddles on the road – and blow down. There must have been a recent thunderstorm. Though most of the area was dry and dusty, the evidence of rain was there. Despite the standing water, there were no mosquitoes. Lucky us.

Laura found the campfire to her liking! Laura Fire Oriental Campground

In the morning, we sipped coffee, ate breakfast and packed up.

It was a moderately cool morning. Very pleasant!

Not in a hurry, we didn’t plan on hitting the trail until maybe 11:00. Big mistake.

Laura packed for backpack

Packed up and ready!

With the car locked and packs filled, we hit the trail. My research revealed that this is bear and cougar country. So, we both wore jingle bells on our wrists and used trekking poles, which made us very noisy to any hungry or motherly creatures out there! And merry makers to others.

Bear Bells

Bear bells highly suggested!

The trail lies on the northern (i.e. sunniest) side of the river. The forest here is amber-colored bark Ponderosa pine. If you’ve never been in a Ponderosa pine forest – I need to describe. Instead of tightly laced tree branches typical of Douglas fir forests – which are shady and therefore offer a cooling effect, Ponderosa pines are spread farther apart, with not nearly as many branches between trees touching. Hikes in Pondersoa forests are more vulnerable to hot sun. This one is no exception.

The valley slopes reached skyward immediately from the northern side of the trail. Soon,  the place became a convection oven! We had no relief from the sun or the broiler-like hillside next to us. But there was more. There was winter blowdown. Packs on, we climbed over or slithered under fallen trees.

It didn’t take long for signs of large wildlife to appear. The recent rain and puddles left some flat, muddy areas. Anything walking over would leave footprints, betraying its presence. We noticed deer, elk, and then – bear and cougar prints!

Bear Track

No doubt about what left these prints!

Not long after, and right smack in the middle of the trail, we saw a pile of poop. Not just any pile of poop. Because whatever this creature ate it was full of seeds! Bear scat. Between the trail and the river at this particular point is an area full of blackberries. No doubt this bear was feasting.

Heat aside, it’s a very beautiful river. It winds lazily along, and except for some deeper pools, it’s about 2-3 feet deep. But the heat quickly got to us. We found an open place for lunch and discovered it was a camping spot. It didn’t look like it had been used recently because growth was starting to cover the fire ring. As hard as it was to accept, we actually decided to base camp here. It was a place that offered shade!

 

Feeling guilty and pretty annoyed about the heat and the fact that we’d only covered 2.5 miles, we decided to hike further up the river. What we discovered unexpectedly justified stopping to camp were we did.

We didn’t find anywhere suitable to camp. And grass plus brush had assertively grown across the trail, about knee high. We wore shorts. And I’d heard stories about lots of ticks from other hikers recently. So we pressed on, but were constantly checking our legs for critters.

Eventually we’d had enough and, frustrated, we started back. Just when we began to get cranky, I saw a possible wading spot. We walked down there and waded out into the river. This was the respite we needed. More, we realized, this what this day was all about. Sitting in the river, with it flowing over our overheated souls, we cooled down enough and it became almost meditative. Impossible to get out.

Laura on rock in river

We spent time here, and then back at camp, spent more time just enjoying the water! Well, what to do with the rest of our time out here? We decided to get on the trail early the next day, before the heat picked up, hike out, and then drive over to Anthony Lakes and car camp.

Laura on Anthony Lake

An end-of-day happy hour at Anthony Lakes!

Anthony Lakes is a year-round recreational area. In summer there is camping, hiking, boating, and fishing. And even some sailing. It’s elevation is over 7,000 feet, so it’s got dry powder snow in the winter. The Anthony Lakes Ski Area is popular with locals all winter long. Plus, there are lovely Cross-Country trails all around. The stars were really spectacular. All together, we had a nice trip!

 





Backpacking to Mt. Jefferson and Jefferson Park

3 09 2015
Jefferson Park,Mt Jefferson,backpacking oregon,hiking oregon

Russell Lake – Mt Jefferson fills the sky!

One of Oregon’s wonders is Jefferson Park, and Laura and I recently hiked the Whitewater Ridge Trail to spend a couple of Eden-like days in its splendor!

A dormant 10,495ft high volcano, Mt. Jefferson is Oregon’s 2nd highest peak. It sports five glaciers. And sitting just below its northeast side is Jefferson Park – a square mile plateau sprinkled with wildflower meadows and brilliant lakes.

Laura and I backpacked about six miles up 1,800 vertical feet up the Whitewater Ridge Trail to reach it. The day we hiked, it was 85 degrees at the trailhead. Much of the route is exposed to the sun – with beautiful views, but on our day the heat and effort were what dominated our trip up.

Rod Richards,backpacking oregon,hiking oregon,jefferson park,mt jefferson

Now we just need to find a campsite!

But once at Jefferson Park any suffering we endured melted away amongst the sheer majesty of the place. Because once you have arrived, every view is dominated by Mother Nature’s spectacle. Look one way and the mountain covers the sky 180 degrees. Look everywhere and you see carpets of green, plus wildflowers and twinkling lakes. The biggest lakes are Russell, Scout and Bays, then there are smaller ones like Park Lake or Rockpile Lake

bays lake,mt jefferson,jefferson park

Bays Lake – Dive Right In!

Jefferson Park is a protected area within the Mt Jefferson Wilderness, and there are maybe two dozen designated campsites throughout. It’s very popular so some of it has been marked off limits for the land to recover. It’s all alpine flora, which is super delicate.

We’re trying to find my old favorite spot on Bays Lake. But it’s occupied, so we opt for a spot on Scout Lake. We’ve got nothing to complain about with our view.

Laura enjoying the warm sun

Laura enjoying the warm sun

And Laura has no problems settling into the routine. Before long she’s relaxing reading a book on Tibetan Buddhism in the fading afternoon sun.

We take a bit of time to explore the plateau. We head north up to the Russell Lake area. It’s a ways but worth the effort. We decide to return there the following day. There are not many wildflowers as times I have been here before, because in 2015 we have a severe drought. The wildflower season came very early. But on the other hand, huckleberries are everywhere! We collect huckleberries for breakfast.

huckleberries

These will be good at breakfast!

Then it was back to camp for dinner. I brought a quick fix rice side and blended it with cooked chicken. It looked huge but I ate all of it. Laura had simple cheese, crackers and some meat like sausage.

It was a beautiful evening. Starry and windless. I slept very well.

I awoke to a rosy dawn, and made hot water for coffee or tea. Those huckleberries went well with my oats and yogurt.

scout lake,jefferson park,mt jefferson,backpacking oregon

Our campsite view on Scout Lake

Hunger satisfied, we headed out for an exploratory hike checking out the area, and the first destination was Russell Lake. It’s about a mile north from our camp at Scout Lake, a completely flat trail meandering along the meadows, passing through islands of trees. We could see that a few weeks earlier it was a carpet of wildflowers everywhere.

Once we reached Russell Lake, we took a trail around the lake. We encountered campers, everyone gushing about how beautiful this place is. It was on the northern fringe of the lake where we found a micro-zone ecosystem with a view to knock our socks off.

The stream into Russell Lake

The stream into Russell Lake

There, a three-foot-wide stream meanders across the meadow before entering Russell Lake. It wets the soil enough to allow wildflowers to continue blooming along its path. And in the stream, we glimpsed frogs and minnows.

There was Indian Paintbrush, Lupine and several other species of wildflowers I couldn’t identify.

We spent a half hour taking pictures and examining this micro eco system.

Russell Lake Indian PaintbrushIt was so profound that just a bit of extra moisture kept this area lush with life, with an extended season, long after other parts of the meadows had gone to seed.

Russell Lake Stream3

Later, we headed over to Bays Lake for a swim. Bays lake has lots of boulders and it’s deep. We dove in and swam across, back and forth, revelling in the warm water and the beauty! We both decided to bring more friends up here in the future. It’s too beatiful and it’s got to be shared!

Following the evening meal another rock solid sleep.

The following morning, it was time to head out. The trail now would be all down, much faster and easier. We passed by several groups, pretty diverse! Some retirees, and I swear a lady over 80. And three kids, followed 5-minutes later by mom toting an Everest expedition sized 70 pound pack for all of them! Cheers for her!

Well, here is a victory photo. A trip well done! We’ll be back.

Rod Laura trails end portrait