The place beyond the pines
Getting to all that beauty had taken its toll on my body.
At the end of day two, after 12 miles and coming down 3,000 feet in elevation, I dropped my pack at Six Mile Meadow near a stand of Western Larch trees, and said, “This is the place.”
I huffed and laid down in the grass and dirt, too tired to even lift my water bottle to my lips. It was 8 p.m. and my partner and I still needed to set up our tent, collect more water and eat dinner.
I did not want to do any of it. Having more the body of a heavy reader than the self-reliant outdoorsman I like to imagine myself in more fanciful moments, I almost regretted the trip at that moment.
But I looked up and saw the setting sun glowing on Pete’s Point and the ridge I had just come down from and I remembered why I had come on this trip.
The Wallowas are beautiful. One look at the mountains and the valley they drain into and it’s easy to see why Chief Joseph didn’t want to give it up. I had visited it before but had never done more than a couple of day hikes into the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
After weeks of pouring over topographical maps, reading hiking blogs and even reading up on the geology, my partner and I found ourselves last Friday morning at the Wallowa Lake trailhead south of Joseph ready to trek into the wilderness.
Our route started up the East Fork of the Wallowa River. The trail climbed quickly away from Wallowa Lake, with plenty of opportunities to look back at the beautiful blue lake framed by the moraines left by the glacier that created it in the last ice age.
Douglas fir and ponderosa pine gave way to Engelmann spruce and lodegpole pine as we made our way up the valley toward Aneroid Lake. Trapped in the forest for most of the steady, uphill hike, glimpses of the mountains we knew were around us were few and far between. But being the only ones on the trail, besides a mule train that passed us, made up for it.
After six miles, we reached Aneroid Lake. Created by a glacier, the gorgeous-looking lake had granite cliffs pitched on all sides and we set up camp on the moraine on the east side of the lake.
Used to the more popular Cascades around Bend where I grew up, where even the obscure trails I used to see no one else on as a kid are now practically highways of folks in expensive outdoor gear, being the only ones we saw all day felt good. It made the wilderness feel a little wild and lonely again.
The next morning we hiked up and away from Aneroid Lake coming to a meadow with a creek running through it. With wildflowers everywhere and Aneroid Mountain to the left, I was tempted to frolic around like Julie Andrews in the beginning of “The Sound of Music.”
Before leaving the creek, we drank water and filled up, even though we were less than a mile from the lake. The next six or seven miles would have no water and on a hot day, we would need the water.
Climbing away from the creek toward Tenderfoot Pass, we came to meadow after meadow of wildflowers. There were so many wildflowers of so many varieties they almost ceased being special after a while.
The top of Tenderfoot Pass, about 8,500 feet, was alright, and after spending more than a day going uphill, it was nice moving down for a bit. That didn’t last for long as we skirted around a creek and the ascent toward Polaris Pass began.
We rounded a cirque and took a snack break in the limited shade of some hardy whitebark pine — the last shade we would see for a couple of hours.
The narrow trail was washed out in a couple of places from what had been raging creeks flooded with snow melt earlier in the season, and my partner and I made like we were nimble mountain goats on the narrow trail.
The final ascent to Polaris Pass featured four switchbacks up the steep mountainside. We knew we had to go over it, but with the meadow and rocks obscuring where we were headed, it made the climb a little mentally taxing. Finally at the last switchback, I saw where the trail reached the top, up a steady incline.
The top of Polaris Pass was spectacular. The mountains we had seen so far had been tall and arid looking. We thought they looked good, but at the top of the pass we saw the Wallowas that most imagine, of the Seven Wonders of Oregon variety. We saw glaciers and the famous peaks of Eagle Cap, the Matterhorn and Sacajawea. Mountains behind mountains and lakes and creeks and more lakes stretching out in every direction to the west. It was one of those images that make backpacking so memorable and worthwhile — it feels good starting at the bottom and making it to the summit.
The descent nearly never happened. The trail down the even steeper west side looked like it went straight off a cliff. The mountain covered in large rocks had a trail barely discernable from all the other rocks looking to give way in an avalanche. The first switchback was washed out and steep enough that it made me second guess whether the trail was even safe to continue. We scrambled down from the upper to the lower trail, actually it was more like me sliding on my behind down to the next part and we continued, gaining more courage as we made it further down toward the tree line.
We continued down the trail, switchback after switchback, hour after hour. I ran out of water, but the switchbacks kept coming. The trail snaked between two creeks, both which laid much further down in a draw that prevented a water stop.
After hiking and balancing my feet on the large rocks down a few thousand feet, my feet felt pretty raw. I was also thirsty and picked up the pace, desperate for some water.
We finally reached a creek and I threw my pack down and dug quickly for my purifier, angry, sore and dehydrated. After pumping one of my bottles full, I looked up and noticed the creek was framed by mountains and looked beautiful — I guess I had forgotten to look up and enjoy all the beauty I had traveled so far to see.
In Six Mile Meadow, we ran into civilization, with several other groups camping in the popular spot. We hiked out early the next morning, the trail following the West Fork of the Wallowa for six miles as it snaked its way past the Matterhorn toward Wallowa Lake.
With plenty of berries, flowers, trees, mountains and a clear river to look at, it was everything one looks for in a hike. But with my feet pocked with painful blisters, I was having a hard time finding the transcendence that I had come to expect when I go hiking. But I guess that’s life — sometimes even when we are wrapped up in the toil of going where we need to or the task at hand, there is most likely some beauty to be found somewhere.