On Saturday morning we awoke to a flood of brilliant light at our base camp near the Two Pan Trailhead in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains — Eagle Cap Wilderness.
The sun was so bright it made the drops of rain still clinging to leaves into prisms and gave the air a fresh taste. There were over fifty cars parked near the campground, so it was not surprising how many people we ran into setting forth on the East Lostine Trail towards Eagle Cap Peak. We passed a group we fondly referred to as ‘the ladies,’ which consisted of five or six women over fifty. They had hiked the trail together many years ago and come back for a reunion. This time, they carried only small backpacks with daytime essentials and horses, hired as porters, went ahead with the rest of their equipment. My hiking partner and I exchanged laughter with them as they regarded the size of our packs and the scope of our journey. They said, the passing of time takes with it some of the motivation to physically test yourself – but does not diminish the urge for adventure. Several couples, families with children and groups of male hikers passed by us as they returned to the trailhead from day trips, overnight camping, or weeklong adventures exploring the trails.
The Reserves’ Two Pan Trail, beginning at 5,600ft, gives hikers the choice to begin via the West or East Lostine River trailheads, which start just twenty yards from one another. We started on the more popular East Lostine Trail. Picturesque Mirror Lake is a moderate 7.3 mile hike with a 2,000ft elevation gain through forest. We passed a large sub-alpine meadow filled with bluebell, shooting star, and larkspur wild flowers. This portion of our trek was the most densely populated. One woman and three young boys on horseback passed us as we walked through a small meadow. Their dog, a Jack Russell who enjoyed scurrying between the riders, was under the watchful eye of one of the boys. “Here, Skeeeeeter! Come on boy!” was the only sound, beside the intermittent clapping of grasshoppers and occasional chirp of a gray crowned rosy finch that we heard for some time.
Bare spots among the Ponderosa Pines allowed for my first glimpse of Eagle Cap, one of the highest peaks in the area; it was daunting. Even the base of the mountain seemed unreachable in the distance. Our desire to dine at sunset on the Peak suddenly felt a bit unrealistic. We continued to walk out of the trees and into the open meadow. The lake was littered with campers but we found an amazing site sheltered on two sides by a natural rock wall and the third by trees, which gave us a beautiful view of the water through a gap in the trunks. With boots shed we headed to the lake for a dip because the opportunity to take advantage of a natural bath should never be squandered. Wading in, I hesitated, and then dove forward into the glacial water. The cold took my breath. My friend laughed as she watched me robotically doggy paddle to get back to the shelf and the warm rocks. She found the water “refreshing.” After half an hour soaking in sun and staring at Eagle Cap directly in front of us we decided to attempt the ascent.
We lightened our packs to include only: water, down jackets, hats, headlamps, emergency first aide, necessities for dinner and set off towards the three mile trail that would have us gain another 2,000ft to the peak. There are several switchbacks that are covered in scree, which falls away as you walk. The trail narrows in some spots with steep drop offs. When the wind began to kick up I wished my pack was weighted towards the mountainside. We saw only two others once we traversed the switchbacks and began the more vertical climb up the bare granite peak. A man and a woman. I could see them far off; two figures who bobbed and disappeared and then reemerged with the landscape. It felt as though we were the only four explorers in an alien landscape and I felt the urge to say something to them when we eventually crossed paths, but did not; only a brief greeting.
Near the 9,600ft cap there was no foliage save the intermittent wildflower. There were small areas of snow that never melt, but untouched by the sun and surrounded by miles of rock just turn an ice blue. We reached the peak, barren except pockets of brush, and could not find the ammunition box containing the summit log. It was disappointing. I like to look at the names of the people who came before me and read what they had to say when they were looking out at the very same view.
Blisters had quickly formed on my feet, which were weak from a hiking hiatus. I found a large flat rock and removed my shoes, sat cross legged and stared down at the lake and valley I had left behind only a few hours ago. The peak allowed for a 360-degree view of the surrounding wilderness. We looked over Hornton Pass to the heavily forested area below. The gentle meadows full of Indian paint brush, high grass and scurrying pika we walked through earlier that day made me feel small, exposed, delicate and quiet; I longed for tomorrow when we would meander in the cool, sheltered shade of the large pines on the other side of the ridge line. Our plan was to make dinner and repack before sunset so we could leave the summit immediately; descending the more dangerous areas of the trail while light was still left in the sky.
When we turned our backs on the sunset, we found the moon full. We got distracted. We followed one another down the entirely wrong side of the mountain chitchatting and continuing on for twenty minutes until we spotted a small lake with a fire down below. At first we were happy to look down at the pretty scene, but then my friend realized that we had not seen the lake or cabin on the way up. We traversed the side of the mountain trying to meet the correct trail but couldn’t find it. The night quickly closed in. We walked straight up, back to the summit, to find the right path in the darkness and start down once more. Our second attempt at descent was silent.
It was nearly ten o’clock when we reached the base of the mountain and continued along the short path towards the lake. There had been little to no conversation on the way down. We were tired, introspective, and focused on not loosing our footing. Suddenly, my friend stopped, whispering, “Do you see that?! What is that?! Is that rock glowing? Should we go check it out?” And my response, “Of course. We have to.” We got within a few feet of the rock before realizing it was a tent. We walked away, dove straight into our sleeping bags, laughed at our exhausted delusions, and fell asleep. I hope we are always so quick to laughter.
The next morning was spent sleeping and then jumping in and out of Mirror Lake. At midday we set off to cross a steep pass to reach our next campsite, Minam Lake. The task seemed simple but our feet were lazy. After an 800ft elevation gain trudging up Carper Pass, we took our packs off for a break and surveyed the land in front of us. Standing on the edge of a cliff we looked down at Mirror Lake then up and to the right at Eagle Cap. We had come far.
Minam Lake is not the picturesque scene that Mirror Lake is. We desperately wanted to set up our tent and drop most of our equipment before taking the one-mile hike to Blue Lake, an incredibly clear, fresh, glacial body of water, while the sun was still shining. Once we set up camp we continued on with just our towels. The trail was like the ones I imagined discovering as a young girl, with babbling brooks, yellow and purple wildflowers, and fallen trees covered in moss and lichen; the only thing missing was the elves and fairies.
Blue Lake surpasses its name. The light sparkles against it. As far as we were concerned, we were the only people in the world as we climbed onto a large boulder on the edge of the lake and shed our clothes. The familiar feeling of wanting to shade the body from any onlooker was gone and replaced by the warmth of the sun and the cool lake water. The first jump was tentative. We could see straight to the bottom, which tricked me into thinking it was shallow. My toes never did touch the rocks. I lay down to let the sun dry the water droplets that clung to my skin. I closed my eyes and wondered why I should ever leave this place. I silently hoped that all women have the chance to experience this feeling.
My mind wandered back to the night before we left for the Wallowa’s; I was at a wedding. I am twenty-six years old. My friends from high school are getting engaged or married at the rate of two a month — at least. In some ways I feel like I am being left behind, as if they are entering a new stage of life that I am not privy to. While lying on the rock those feelings dissipated. When people look at me, whether I have “put myself together” or not, they would never think that I am in love with fresh water springs, the silken strand of a spider web, the warmth of the sun, the moon. It is hard for me to understand. My friend and I were the only women (besides the ladies) who were without male companions. The people that we came across were shocked. “What are you little girls doing out here?” someone inquired. I hope, in the future, a girl – one who is feminine, strong and able will tell her friends that she is going to take her dog and walk into the wilderness for a few days and that she will not hear the kind of response that I do. They will not say to her, “you are crazy, that is my worst nightmare,” or, “that sounds dirty and uncomfortable. Why would you go camping when you can go on a real vacation? They will, instead, say to her, “Can I go with you?”
Since completing this trek Chelsea Leopardi has spent time in Peru hiking the Andes, in Norway traversing the Lysefjord, completing the Kalalau trail on Kauai’s Napili coast, as well as hiking in her native California. She is, among other things, a dog lover and travel writer.