One of the coolest things about The Oregon Extension is that we have several West Coast trips and excursions built into our academic calendar. In late September, the students break into several groups and go out into Oregon or Northern California for a weeklong backpacking trip. So on Monday, September 17th, my group journeyed to the Canyon Creek Lakes of the Trinity Alps Wilderness. It was a four hour drive through Southern Oregon into Northern California. Quite the adventure lay before us.
Monday, September 17th, 7:50am- We’re off! Our party includes 5 students, 3 professors, 3 kids and 1 dog. The dog’s name is Jinx and she’s a Jack Russell Terrier. She’s so small that I could hardly consider her a dog. Maybe a light snack for a bear.
9:00am- We just crossed from Oregon into California. The terrain is shifting away from the usual brown bluffs covered in scruffy brush. We just took exit 776! That’s the highest exit I’ve ever seen. According to the road sign, we are only 323 miles away from San Francisco. Detour, please?
9:30am- Now the terrain is much more beautiful. It’s more mountainous with granite ridges and dense forests. The mountains have sharper, more angular peaks and everything is looking more “alpine.”
10:00am- We are passing through the bottom of a beautiful valley. The basin is mostly flat with gradual rolling hills. It’s all cow pastures with brilliant, emerald green grass. Red barns dot the fields. The mountain ridges are peaked and wooded and create a beautiful backdrop all around us. This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Apparently happy cows do come from California
10:15am- We’ve left the pasture valley. I am seeing more and more granite as we drive farther into California. The highway is cut into the granite mountainside and granite outcroppings jut out of the mountains around us.
2:00pm- We’re approaching the trailhead. Earlier we stopped in Weaverville, California to get temporary fishing licenses. They put my height in as 5’2” which is a blatant lie. I’m not sure how that happened. I’m curious to see how the hiking goes. Our party includes some very old and some very young and one very canine. I hope it goes smoothly. Wish me luck!
Wednesday, September 19th, afternoon- Well, here I am in the Trinity Alps of Northern California! A lot happened in between our start at the trailhead and our arrival here. Let me recount the adventure for you.
We hit the trail at 3pm, which was later than we’d hoped. However, I think we forgot to take into consideration the fact that kids tend to operate in a different time zone. Oh well. We all set off at a slow and steady rate to keep a progressive pace. Hiking with a pack felt lousy at first but I got used to it pretty quickly. Sometimes I pretended it was a small child and then I felt like had a mission. In fact the whole trip had a sense of a mission with clear goals. There is a great sense of accomplishment that goes along with it. I kind of loved it.
At one of the junctions, about 3.5 miles in, we stopped to wait for the whole party. Those of us who were waiting, the five students, decided to take the side trail to the left that led downhill. We dropped our packs and scampered down. Only about a ¼ mile later, we found ourselves out of the afternoon sun and down in a shady valley cradling a dry creek bed. The creek bed was fairly wide and we hopped from boulder to boulder to cross. As I crossed the smooth, black-and-white-speckled rocks, I couldn’t help but feeling a haunting sensation. It was like the river was dead and the dry, white rocks were its bones. There were still dried mosses and lichens affixed to the cracks of the rocks. You knew that there was supposed to be water rushing down the creek. The quietness was chilling. The echoes of previous rushing produced a deafening silence. You know how in an underwater cavern, the reflection of the water makes a rippling, bluish pattern on the ceiling? That’s what the air was like. Cold, blue, eerie.
After we explored the sunken creek bed for a little while, we walked back up to the trail. The group pressed on, hoping to reach the Upper Meadow where we knew there was water and a place to pitch the tents. It got to be about 6pm and we realized that we had to set up camp soon because daylight was waning. The issue was that we didn’t know where we were on the trail and so couldn’t determine how far away the Upper Meadows were. We would have pushed on and set up in the dark. The only hitch was that we didn’t have any guarantees of a water source. The last place we had seen water was from a small pool at the base of the dry creek bed. After reassessing the map, we saw that the dry creek bed was labeled The Sinks. No one wanted to backtrack but no one wanted to go thirsty either. So, grudgingly, we turned around and set up camp at The Sinks. There was an area between the fork of the creek bed with trees for the bear line and ground soft enough for tent stakes. It was a fine place to camp. Even though we pitched and cooked our dinner in the dark, we were happy to be settled.
Before we left for the backpacking trip, everyone had a chance to grab gear like packs and ground pads. For whatever reason, I was the very last person to get a ground pad. There was just one roll left. It was torn and in pretty bad shape. But then I espied an egg crate folded up neatly under the chair with the ground pads. Good things come to those who wait, I always say. And so, I had a luxurious eleven-and-a-half hour sleep on my wonderful egg crate. I cannot remember the last time I slept that long.
We all had a leisurely breakfast and it was about 11:00 by the time we were all watered, fed and packed up. The group hit the trail, redoing what we had done the day before. We agreed to regroup at the Upper Meadows. The going was much steeper in between The Sinks and the Upper Meadows with many granite stairs cut right into the mountainside. It was a relief to reach the Meadows where we ate lunch by a waterfall. Some people wanted to stop and swim, others wanted to push on. With the hope of other swimming opportunities in mind, we pressed on.
After not too far, we came upon another waterfall with a stunning pool at the bottom. We needed more water anyway so the group stopped. It was one of the most enchanted scenes I had ever seen. The waterfall tumbled into a pristine pool, lined by rock. A babbling brook flowed out the other end, down the side of the trail. The water was cold and clear, pouring straight from the veins of the mountain. You could see every single pebble at the bottom of the pool, even six feet down. High trees on both sides hung their branches low over the water. We took off our shoes and washed our feet in the water, splashing our faces and feeling much refreshed. I was loath to go but we couldn’t stay there all day. We saddled up and continued.
The next mile or so was simply stunning. There was little elevation gain and we found ourselves in a lush wood. The trees towered above us, maybe 70-80 feet high. I craned my neck and craned my neck and craned my neck but the trees just soared higher and higher. The trail was lined with ferns and had a bit of a Jurassic feel about it. We hoped that the ground wouldn’t begin to shake.
We trekked on and as the trail tilted up again, the greenery shifted from the ground to the treetops. I found myself in a forest fit for elves. The trail was crooked and meandered over huge roots and around giant, hollow trees. I couldn’t help but compare it to scenes from Lord of the Rings.
The trail became steep again as we began to approach the Lower Lake. We marched upward and onwards, twisting around switchback after switchback. Soon we came to a place where the vista was clear; we had left the enchanted forest. The group sat atop a granite outcropping and soaked in the spectacular view. We weren’t very far from the Lower Lake from what we could tell. We continued as the sun cooled and began its decent. What lay in between our destination and us was about a half-mile of hands-and-knees scrambling up a sloped granite face. I took this climb very slowly. I was physically tired and I could tell my footwork was getting lazy.
Finally, we stood at the rim of the Lower Lake like ants standing on the rim of a bowl. The Lake was soaring and unblemished. It seemed like the sight of mankind had never touched its beauty. Granite boulders and scattered pines lined the shore. Two mountain slopes crisscrossed behind the lake, hiding the Upper Lake.
I dropped my pack and ran straight into the water like a runner tumbling through a finish line. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen and all I could do was be.
I was ready to call it a day, or a trip rather, but we were still on top of granite slabs and the spot was not too great for tents. So at 6:45pm, under the last of the day’s light, we set out over the crisscrossing slope to our left. We hoped to reach the dyke that lay between the two lakes. The going was extremely precarious as we wrapped around the crumbly, bare mountainside. The path was poorly marked and hardly visible. We doubled-back many times in the evening shadows.
Some of the group had hung back to fish for a little while and decided to hike over after a bit. I had left with the first group to go over the slope. We barely pitched our tents by the time night fell. We tried not to worry too much even though the second half of our party was still trekking through the darkness. Thankfully Heidi, my tent-mate, went back out to guide them in as I posted myself about halfway in between camp and the slope. We were all very thankful to be safe and together as we helped each other pitch and get settled for the night.
The place we were camping between the lakes was very sandy and rocky with a few scrappy shrubs. It provided a spectacular view but the land was less than idea. Because there were not surrounding trees, we were not able to set up a bear line. We stashed out food away from out tents but the idea was still in our minds as we tucked into our mummy bags.
Heidi and I had accidentally broken our rainfly pole and so it was not tight over our tent. We, however, did not take this into consideration as we began to hear rustling starting at 2am. So from 2am to 6am, Heidi and I spent the most terrifying occasion of our lives listening to what we thought was a bear rustling, sniffing and scratching at our tent. My life didn’t flash before my every but I found myself wishing I had written a farewell note to my friends and family before I had been eaten alive by a California grizzly. I prayed and prayed and thanked God when the sun begun to rise. And just as the light began to arrive, two owls across the lake started to call to each other in low, mellow tones. The gentle calls circled and resonated through the valley. It was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard.
We stayed at the Canyon Creek Lakes for next two days, just taking in the majesty all around us. I spent my time hiking, reading, journaling and writing. Here is a poem I composed as I sat beside a creek that flowed between the two lakes.
This fountain never slows, this spring always flows
I stand under these falls and I fill
Being slaked at this brook, I am loath I forsook
I not longer pour but I spill
Father, what it this place, what are these days
But an echo of Your will?
A perfect creation, a Maker’s liberation
A life no death could kill
How could these mountains, these rocks and these streams
These valleys and rivers and lakes in between
Be but a reflection of the heavenly world?
How will I breathe when Your glory unfurls?
With just a glimpse of Your might
I will fall at the sight
For You have made all that is Right.