Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Eagle Cap Wilderness, Lakes Basin Region


Connor the Wrangler.
Photo by Art McBreen

Connor the wrangler wrapped our totes with canvas in precisely-executed folds and then tied them with knotted ropes looped in exquisite designs. With this skill he could have secured a job in the gift-wrapping department at Neiman Marcus’s flagship store in Texas. Instead, we met him at the Two Pan Trailhead into the Eagle Cap Wilderness in northwest Oregon. His calm demeanor settled the horses and the dogs and us. 

For more than thirty years I have camped by the Lostine River. The clear water with its rocky bottoms pleased my sensibilities. On occasion I hiked up the tributaries of this river, but never far enough to reach any of the lakes that are its origin. Friends hinted at their glory, but I was aware of my limitations. I never felt I would be strong enough to carry my shelter, my sustenance, and my weight all on my small frame. When my friend Art suggested hiring a company named Del Sol Wilderness Adventures to haul our food and equipment and ensconce us in waiting tents high in the mountains above Wallowa Lake, I was hopeful that with some small effort, I could do it. Art’s daughter Al accompanied us, but she hiked in and out.

The trip to the Lakes Basin Region of the Eagle Cap Wilderness was originally planned for September of 2022 until Art got a call two nights before informing us that a forest fire had shut down our route along the Lostine River. In rescheduling for 2023, Art considered the likelihood of more mosquitos in July, but a lower chance of fires. He was right about the fires and the mosquitos. (We carried multiple bottles of insect repellant, but by the time we returned to civilization, I even had a Big Dipper-like constellation of mosquito bites on my right calf. Still, the trip was worth the bites.)  

Both years Art and I had scheduled horse-riding lessons to get us comfortable in the saddle. In addition, I ordered a pair of horseback riding underwear in a classic black shade... well-padded in the rear. I justified the expense by deciding the underwear would be perfect should I ever be relegated to sitting all day in a wheelchair. If I have developed dementia by then and can’t dress myself correctly, these underpants are so beautiful and expensively made that I should be able to mistakenly wear them on the outside of my slacks and still look stylish.  

Before Art and I mounted our horses, Conor checked every rope, saddle, and stirrup twice. We were off.  

Lottie and I.
Photo by Art McBreen

I rode the seven-and-a-half miles to camp on a horse named Lottie. On the way out I rode Belotti. Although Art rode these same horses, when he rode them they kept their noses near the horse in front of them. When I rode them they would lollygag slightly behind and then on any straight and soft patch of trail jogged to catch up—putting the underwear to the test. The bouncing would set me to laughing until around mile six-and-a-half, I finally figured out I should stand in the stirrups during the jogs. I was tickled with my newfound skill and then laughed in delight.  

Al in the Cook Tent
Photo by Kathy McConnell

Del Sol’s campsite was off the trail on a rise overlooking the valley’s meandering stream. Al reached the camp ahead of us and welcomed us to camp at lunchtime. The canvas cook tent was kitted out with everything we needed to cook and the horses had carried in our food. 

Art Cooking
Photo by Kathy McConnell

Al had planned most of the meals, but she had consulted with us about the menu. Having the horses pack in made it possible to splurge on ingredients. Below are a couple of photos of meals. (You would hire Al to plan your meals if you could.)

Savory oatmeal with mushrooms, adocado, sesame seeds, an egg and soy sauce. My Favorite Breakfast!

Shakshuka with eggs.

We each chose our sleeping tent (already set up) and put the coolers into a small snowbank. We ate lunch, read, rested, and ate again before we made a fire from scavenged wood, watched the sun set on Eagle Cap Mountain to the east, and waited for the first stars before retiring to our respective tent cots.

Kathy and Art Reconnoitering
Photo by Al McBreen

On the second day of camping we prepared to hike a loop around four lakes, crossing four ridgelines to accomplish this. We examined maps, packed a lunch and swimsuits, and set out around 11:15 in the morning.

Mirror Lake
Photo by Kathy McConnell

The first lake, Mirror Lake, was a stunner. A large group of teenage boys were camped on a ledge above the lake. We moved on to Moccasin Lake where we ate lunch while watching a large dog retrieve sticks on one side of us and someone fishing on the other.

Al, Kathy, and Art
Photo by Al McBreen

Afterwards we walked the length of Moccasin Lake and left Eagle Cap Mountain behind us. This is when I found myself pleased that I could walk the length of a mountain. It felt as if I had moved the mountain from in front of me to behind me. As if I had lifted it up and repositioned it. This sensation happened again after crossing a ridgeline, descending to Douglas Lake with its blooming lily pads, and walking along a good portion of Craig Mountain. Just before arriving at Sunshine Lake over another ridgeline and through heather-lined paths, we looked back and were surprised with a view of both Craig Mountain to our right and a huge mountain, the Matterhorn, on its left. 

Matterhorn Mtn. (left) and Craig Mtn. (right)
Photo by Art McBreen

By this time we had passed a handful of backpackers. We noticed that no one was anywhere as old as Art and me. In fact, no one seemed older than in their mid-forties. As we approached Mirror Lake again and stopped to soak our feet in the cold lake water, we checked how far we had to go to get back to the camp. 

Kathy and Art at Mirror Lake Soaking Our Feet
Photo by Al McBreen

All of us were flagging as we crested the last ridgeline about 7:15 in early evening. My step count for the day totaled 28,424 steps. We had walked 9.2 miles on the loop and I had walked a total of 11.58 miles for the day. I am not sure that I could repeat this feat (seven hours of walking and moving two mountains) when I am in my eighties.  

The next day we “rested.” I walked a short distance in the cold mountain stream near the camp, taking photos of rocks on the stream bottom.

My Cold Foot in the Streambed
Photo by Kathy McConnell

I had taken off my outer pants to keep dry. (I was in a secluded spot after all.) By the time I was thigh deep in the chilly water, I was gasping. The experience was exhilerating. (More stream photos were taken the next morning.)

A Curve of Water over Rocks
Photo by Kathy McConnell 

I dried my legs with my camp towel and walked the banks looking for photo-ops of flowers. Even if I thought it was summer, the high valleys were in the middle of their spring season. Snowbanks were still in evidence. Larkspur, elephant’s ears, heather, buttercups, penstemon, pearly everlasting, and so many other unknown flowers carpeted the valleys.    

Heather and Larkspur
Macro Photo by Kathy McConnell  

Us in camp with Eagle Cap Mtn. in the background
Photo by Al McBreen

We took a photo from camp of us the last evening with the sun setting on Eagle Cap. Later, when I woke in the middle of the night, I slipped on my coat and shoes before going out to see the stars. Across the sky lay the Milky Way. I had almost forgotten of its existence.

The trip to the Eagle Cap Wilderness Lake District will be on my top-ten weekend trips of my entire life. Art, Al, and the Del Sol horses with their capable wrangler, Connor, made it all possible. Thanks, everyone. Lovely trip. Gorgeous place.

Sky Above My Tent on the Last Morning
Kathy McConnell

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