We entered the wilderness Friday morning from the Marion Lake trailhead, which leads steadily but gently upwards through Doug Fir forest, along a small lake, and to several fine campsites on the lakeshore. The trail crosses the stream outlet on a rock bed while the water chuckles below, out of sight, which is pretty darn cool. After passing the lake and some excellent large streams, we climbed to Minto Pass, pausing to eat huckleberries and low bush blueberries which were lush throughout the burned over pass. I quickly understood why Native Americans set fire to the berry fields to keep them clear; I have never seen so many fat, juicy berries on a mountainside in my life! We crossed the PCT and dropped down into Eastern Oregon, the dry side of the range, with a pretty quick shift in trees from hemlock and true fir to lodgepole pine and an occasional ponderosa. Eight miles in, we had lunch at Wasco Lake, which is where we should have stopped for the night. Three Fingered Jack loomed over us; while we ate we considered what it would be like climbing the crumbly core of the ancient volcano. Along the trail we encountered a crew of trail workers, some students doing soil studies, and several through-hikers.
After lunch, we walked over to Jack Lake, moving in and out of the burned areas. The lakes and moist areas had protected some of the forest; the fire did not rage through and kill every tree on the mountainside. Beargrass and other wildflowers dominated the fields here. We did not turn left and head into Canyon Creek Meadows, where many day hikers were headed to check out the wild blooms, but stayed on the main trail down to the campsites. By three thirty, we were soaking our feet in the warm waters of Jack Lake. A good day—about ten miles.
The next morning, we headed off, first to Square Lake and then to Berley. Mark was a little tired from a less-than-restful night; he had heard rustling and heavy footfalls in the dark, and was convinced a bear was eating our food. The next morning the only evidence of our nocturnal visitor was deer tracks. The trail was totally in the burn all morning, but it was still beautiful. The dead trees have weathered silvery gray and the views were amazing. Mount Jefferson protected our backs, while the Three Sisters lured us on. Before the burn, you could not see the mountains. We looked out over Eastern Oregon as we walked through snowbrush, lodgepole pines, and fireweed. This part of the trail follows the contours of the mountain, swinging around canyons more than dropping down into them and then out. A nice walk. We passed four guys heading in the opposite direction; at ten thirty, they were the first hikers we had each seen that day. By early lunch, we were at Square Lake, hot and ready for a swim before eating. Most of the lake was open because of the burn, but the campsites were still shaded by trees that had survived. There was no one around. The world was silent, except for a soft breeze. We spent two hours cooling off and enjoying the world before moving on; in retrospect, this would make an excellent stop for a second night, if we had camped at Wasco the night before.
The afternoon over to Berley was hot. The entire south slope of Three Fingered Jack was covered in sweet smelling snowbrush, about shoulder height, which blocked the breezes but not the sun. We could see the highway below. For two miles, we trudged along until a cloud of dust kicked up by horses announced the trail junctions, and we turned onto the PCT. I do not like hot afternoon sun; it can make me ill. Mark trickled water over my head; I tied a wet facecloth around his neck. The trail was better as we turned north, away from the sun and into a few trees that provided occasional dappled shade. We both agreed that this would be a better morning walk. Berley Lakes are, for me, always elusive. The first turn in is marked by a small cairn, often knocked over and the second is always about fifteen steps further than I expect. We were thrilled to finally find this small mountain lake, totally surrounded by mature trees, in the late afternoon. We were the only campers that night. It was so quiet that we could hear the bugs buzzing on the other side of the lake. Amazingly peaceful. A hot day—about eleven miles.
Sunday morning, we decided to poke around camp before heading out. There is a requisite amount of time that must be devoted to fiddling around camp on any backpacking trip. If it does not happen at night, it usually happens in the morning. I sorted the foodstuffs while Mark backflushed the water filter. We watched a hummingbird divebomb the pink cloth bag that was hanging on the line while another examined the reddish orange tent poles. We finished off the dried figs and peaches that had been snacks for Friday and Saturday. We knew that we were hiking through the Eight Lakes Basin for the day, looking at about seven miles total, through trees and burn, so why rush on?
Sunday peace continued all day. We chatted with one woman horseback riding who was astounded by the emptiness of the countryside. We ate second breakfast about two miles in at Santiam Lake, staring once again at Three Fingered Jack. Lunch was a long pause at Duffy Lake, considering the butte that frames one side of the pond. Three guys walked along the trail heading out while we ate. Climbing out of Mowich Lake, we met the local backcountry ranger. He had been posting no campfire signs all along our route and felt that they were effective in shifting behavior, for the most part. “Some people, though, you just have to fine,” he grumbled. “They were all at Marion Lake last night. Overall, though, I have the best job in the world.” He’d walked 14,000 miles in the wilderness in the last four years. Before we parted, he told us about a site at Blue Lake, a couple of miles further on.
Blue Lake was incredible. The trail is more rugged. There are some steep climbs through the burn and along exposed rocks. Blue Lake perches on the ridgeline between the Eight Lakes Basin and Marion Lake basin, at about 5000 feet. From the trail, we saw Three Fingered Jack to our left, all craggy and broken with huge puffy clouds behind it and Mount Jefferson, serene and bulky to our right. Below were a series of small lakes and ponds. Huckleberry and blueberry bushes lined the trails into our night’s site. Fireweed flashed magenta at us. Pearly everlasting provided a creamy white accent. Mountain breezes ruffled the surface of the lake. Silence surrounded us. The sunset turned the puffy clouds pink and red and just after we climbed into the tent, deer walked through, heading for a drink. After that, silence.
The last morning was a seven-mile drop down into Marion Lake. Once again, berries distracted us. Some clearings were full of beargrass, some of fireweed and pearly everlasting, others berries. Why? And why were lodgepole pines coming back were hemlocks had once grown? How do the berry bushes survive? How long will it take for the forest to return? When can we come back to these trails?
By noon, we were in the world again, sitting on a creekside patio, ordering burgers (meat or salmon), fries, and coleslaw. The food was excellent. Our feet were dusty and tired. Our hair needed washing. But the sounds of deep silence echoes in my mind as we began the long drive home, and will follow me well into fall.