Wallowa-Whitman National Forest
Up where we belong - Joe Cocker & Jennifer Warnes
"How deep our sleep last night in the mountains here, beneath the trees and stars, hushed by solemn-sounding waterfalls and many small soothing voices in sweet accord whispering peace!
And our first pure mountain day, warm, calm, cloudless, -- how immeasurable it seems, how serenely wild! I can scarcely remember its beginning. Along the river, over the hills, in the ground, in the sky, spring work is going on with joyful enthusiasm, new life, new beauty, unfolding, unrolling in glorious exuberant extravagance, -- new birds in their nests, new winged creatures in the air, and new leaves, new flowers, spreading, shining, rejoicing everywhere."
-- John Muir (American naturalist and co-founder of the Sierra Club)
Some of my favorite camping trips have taken me to the Eagle Cap Wilderness area of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. This mountain range sometimes called "The Little Switzerland of America" is located East of La Grande, Oregon. The wilderness area can be accessed from Wallowa, Joseph, Enterprise, Lostine, Baker City, Hope, and La Grande. Permits are required for any length of stay in the Wilderness. There are no motor vehicles authorized inside its boundaries except for the Lostine River access route to a Horse Ranch staging area for backpacking into the back country. The highest peak, China Cap, rises to over 10,000 feet. The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest mountains are some of the oldest mountains in Oregon. They are even older than the Cascade mountains, and were once a island at one point in geological time when the rest of Oregon was ocean.
The times I've backpacked into this wilderness have awarded me with the fondest of memories. The wildlife have been seldom hunted by man, they are more curious then fearful of humans. The wildflowers that grow there are abundant being well-cared for by the Spirit of Nature.
The campsite that I frequently use is accessed from Medical Springs on the south end of the national forest. The staging area is the West Eagle Meadows Trail head. However, I like to camp at Lost Creek; a place I found while exploring the roads in the national forest area bordering the wilderness. This single camping spot is normally used by hunters during their season, but my venture is in late Spring or early Summer when the snow has subsided enough for access to the high lakes above West Eagle Meadows.
Lost Creek is so charming, a clear mountain stream with tall grass on its banks that locals refer to as "Deer Hair". The denizens of the forest that may visit are cotton-tailed rabbits, chipmunks, white-tailed deer, mule deer, fox, brown or black bear. The bears usually stay away, unless you come across them in the wilderness area. They don't seem to be aggressive, but I never took the chance. Also, a puma/cougar may be sighted too, but they usually see you first and retreat, not being a threat.
This specific excursion to West Eagle Meadows involved a hike into the wilderness to a couple of high lakes to fish for some native Eastern Brook Trout that had been bottom feeding all Winter. When the ice thaws on the surface of the lake, these hungry fish will come up after assorted bugs, mosquitoes, etc. To get to one of these lakes involved a one and one-half mile trek up a switch-back trail (one that zigzags up the mountain with a more gradual slope than one straight up). The trail was filled with hard granite pebbles that were eroded over eons of years into irregular shapes and treacherous to walk on. One could lose their balance quickly by slipping on these loose rocks. Also the trail crossed several seasonal glaciers that had not fully receded off the path yet.
Hidden Lake - Eagle Cap Wilderness
We were up at daybreak, packed and rearing to go. We headed off to the Trail head and started our hike up the first trail. The air was fresh, birds singing to us, and we were filled with anticipation of catching some fish at the high lake. The trek up was exhausting, even though we were in shape, it called for stopping and catching our breath. Towards the North side we ran into some packed snow and the one glacier that retreats to a very small area. The trail was blocked with snow and ice. The snow continued down the ravine for another 100 feet below us. It took us awhile, but slowly with sure-footed steps we made it across about fifty feet of snow and ice. We continued to the lake.
Once we arrived at the lake, the sun had risen high enough for us to shed a few layers of warmth, to soak in some sun rays in the cool brisk air as we fixed our fishing poles and baited the hook with some wet fly lures. Needles to say, the fishing was great, we limited out in about two hours and headed back. When we got to the glacier; my buddy with me slipped and slid about 40 feet down the snow pack. I continued across where I tied off a hand line on the base of a rock abutment and threw the rope down to him. He managed to pull himself along and back up to the trail with me helping. That was a close call for at the base of the snow pack below us was a bluff that he could have fell over a hundred feet below against large boulders and possibly killed.
If your travels ever take you to the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and Eagle Cap Wilderness; take the time to get a day's permit or longer and hike into this beautiful area, unspoiled by humans. It is well-worth the trek. Please respect the Great Spirit Chief's land by packing out what you packed in. There are still places on this planet that should be cherished. We all should visit these places and take in Nature's Beauty:
"With the beauty before me,
May I walk
With beauty behind me,
May I walk
With beauty above me,
May I walk
With beauty below me,
May I walk
With beauty all around me,
May I walk
Wandering on a trail of beauty,
Lively, I walk."
-- Proverbs, Sayings and Songs, Navajo Indians