High & Wild in Eastern Oregon
As we followed 9.1 miles of switchbacks from Francis Lake Trailhead to the lake, Jeff reasoned that the trail was too easy, and thus too long. As for me, I thought the 9-percent grade suited me and my runner's quads just fine, thank you. Jeff's cross-country skier quads would be tested later on, in climbs and scrambles after we'd reached the lake and shed our packs.
The Way In
Our visit took place in the second week in August, and due to the deep 1998 - 99 snowpack, the trail had only opened to horse traffic one week earlier. A steep snowfield where the trail crossed the ridge kept all but a few hikers out. That, and the fact that this was a destination trail not on any of the loops convinced us we might have more of the basin to ourselves.
To get to Francis Lake Trailhead from Lostine, a town north of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, we had followed the well-kept (and well-traveled) Lostine River Road. The last 7 or so of the 15 miles was graded gravel. We made final adjustments to garb and gear, visited the lone outhouse, guessed at the number of horses two trailers might indicate, and strode out onto the trail blithely forgetting to fill out the required (free) wilderness-use permit. I don't know if this is a ticketable offense, but we saw nary a ranger on the trail so we didn't find out.
Most of the seven miles up to the ridge were through forest, but frequent openings provided a spectacular view of the mountains, waterfalls, and meadow basins on the west side of the Lostine River canyon. We paused for lunch and water at the five-mile point, the only place the trail crosses a creek. The water tumbled down from the snowfields and rocks of Marble Point. The broken swaths of trees on either side were evidence that this steep canyon is an avalanche chute come winter.
At seven miles we reached the ridge above the lake. We abandoned the trail at a clear spot before actually reaching the pass, dropped our packs, and walked and scrambled south along the ridge toward Marble Point. We noticed immediately what would continue to amaze us for the three days we spent in the lake basin. The mountains that shaped this bowl were made of many kinds of rock: different in origin, composition, and appearance. The Twin Peaks, to the east, were reddish brown, slopes of scree rising to the ridge, where the peaks themselves were pinnacles poised on a layer of unstable ash. The unnamed gray mountains to the south were more alpine in appearance, whole faces of smooth granite. And in between, Hurricane Ridge home to Dall sheep and mountain goats was a mixture of layers and rock. It was a geologist's paradise: igneous rock, Columbia River basalt, Mazama ash, and lava of various shades.
As we descended the final two miles to the lake, we could see large boulders and submerged rocks dissecting the scattered forest and meadows. We wandered through large volcanic"moon rocks" along a red clay trail until we came to a dry even bed of soft dry yellow clay, where we pitched our tent. The variety of rock was surprising, but red and yellow clay deposits in alpine tundra at 7,700 feet seemed an even greater anomaly.
The wilderness lakes and streams of the Eagle Cap are renowned for the brook and rainbow trout they've been stocked with, and by the time we camped, the fish were hungrily rising to the surface of the closest pond on the creek that drains north from the lake. Some rusty casting, a nibble, and the loss of several flies and a leader later, the approaching darkness gave me good enough reason to leave off fishing and cook macaroni and cheese for dinner. Jeff reassured me that he was a salmon man.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication