Back from our three-day trip into the high country and Frances Lake in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Some readers may recall my post of a week ago in which I cited widely varying opinions about the degree of difficulty of the trail.
So which was it? The most “difficult and demanding hike in the Eagle Cap” or “an even grade, long but not difficult”? I’d lean more to the latter. The 7.5 mile climb to an 8,600′ foot pass (prior to the two mile drop down to Frances Lake) was a long but even grade. A solid climb to be sure, but do-able. After all, this soon-to-be 72-year-old did it!
My take on hike difficulty is that it has more to do with other factors than elevation gain alone. Chief among them are temperature and exposure to the sun. I’ve learned over the years that you don’t want to be hiking in the Wallowas in the middle of the day if the weather is warm (80 to 95 degrees) and you’re exposed to full sun. That will really take it out of you. So I try to hike early in the day.
The other significant factor is the weight you are carrying, which comes in two forms — the weight in your backpack and the weight in your belly region. Being reasonably fit is important. This is not a place to be hauling an extra thirty pounds in body fat.
And, over the years, I’ve reduced pack size/ weight from a ridiculous 45 – 50 pounds to something more in the neighborhood of 25 pounds. Part of that is improved, read “lighter,” equipment. Part of it is being pretty careful about what you carry. For example, I tore off the final hundred pages of a paperback book I was reading instead of taking all 400 pages. Part of it is reduced need for macho boasting, as in “my pack weighs 50 pounds,” ergo “I am tough.” The line between “tough” and “stupid” turns out to be a fine one.
Some backpackers who are really into “ultra-light” backpacking keep their packs down to 15 – 18 pounds by eschewing things like tents, which I have sometimes done. I didn’t do that this time because I had heard the bugs, i.e. mosquitoes, were “bad.” Really, they weren’t awful, but were definitely present. A funny note: we met a hiker on the way out who complained, we thought, of “hicks at the lake.” Turned out she had said “ticks” (as it happened, we didn’t run into either, “hicks” or “ticks.”)
Anyhow, the Frances Lake basin, an oval-shaped bowl made up of a host of different rock formations surrounding a long beautiful lake, made it all worthwhile. The wildflowers were wonderful. The swimming was great. A little flock of white-crowned sparrows and an occasional cedar waxwing kept us company at our nicely shaded campsite. One evening at sunset I walked up the stream that runs from the snow-fields at the south end of the basin to the lake (see far right). The sunset’s pinks and yellows glinting in the river’s water and off the stream’s many-hued stones were a stained-glass window that moved my spirit. (photo credits to my companions Mike Pierson and David Laskin).
The “Mark O. Hatfield Federal Building” has been much in the news of late. Hatfield, an Oregon State Governor, then Senator, was a Republican who opposed the Vietnam War. He also had a lot to do with creating “Wilderness Areas” like the Eagle Cap. My own inclination, should I find myself standing outside the building named in his honor, would not be to set fires or scrawl graffiti but a tip of the hat and a prayer of gratitude.