Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Backpacking the High Strawberry Lakes

Jack just got back from a very enjoyable three-night backpacking trip in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness area in the Malheur National Forest, just south of Prairie City, Ore. The area has about 125 miles of hiking trails and encompasses almost 70,000 acres of forested lands. There are lakes and streams and meadows, mountain peaks and, this time of year, wildflowers, butterflies, mountain goats (saw a flock of 19), and elk (saw their hoofprints, anyway).

My plan was to enter the Wilderness at the Strawberry Lake trailhead, hike to Strawberry Lake, spend the night there, then embark on the "grand 15.6-mile circuit of the high Strawberries" as described on page 62, Hike #23 in 100 Hikes / Travel Guide Eastern Oregon by William Sullivan (second edition). The route encompass Strawberry Lake, Little Strawberry Lake, High Lake, and Slide Lake. 

I got a late start on the trip because I went with Mrs Elliott to the Redmond airport to greet a small flock of Mrs Elliott's lifelong girlfriends who flew up from SoCal to help Mrs Elliott celebrate her birthday. Once the greetery was done it was nearly noon and I boarded Mellow Yellow, my 1984 VW poptop camper van and drove east on highway 26 through Prineville, Mitchell, Dayville, John Day, then stopped at the US Forestry station in Prairie City to check on trail conditions because the day before I struck out, the forestry service's website said that the southern part of the Wilderness was closed due to fire restrictions, so I figured I might have to change my plans.

The nice lady there told me that the trail restrictions had just been lifted--good news, I could do the hike I wanted to do. I filled my tank with gas, drove to the trailhead, changed into my hikin' clothes, and wandered the one mile or so (and 600' elevation gain) to Strawberry Lake. There was a nice spot between two creeks on the far shore of the lake, close to the trail I was going to take the following morning, so I set up camp. 

The day was overcast and windy, a bit cool. A fisherman camping on the shore of the lake had told me that the fish were biting, so once I dropped pack, I unpacked my fly and bubble rig, and looking through my gear, discovered that I could not find the line nipper. "No matter," I thought: I can use my teeth.

After tying a dry fly onto the leader, I found that this little 2lb monofilament is tougher than it looks. It took a bit of gnawing to nip off the tag end of the knot. 

But that was just the start of the fun. 

Once on the shoreline, I made a practice cast and the fly immediately snagged a chunk of waterlogged wood about 40 feet from shore and nothing I could do would budge it. I had to tug the line until it snapped, losing the fly and leaving only about 18'' of leader. 

That's when I discovered that I didn't bring any extra leader.

"Oh bother," I said, eyeing the rod with dislike. "Stupid fishing is a distraction from hikin' and campin' anyway!" so I set the rod aside and set up camp.

I brought minimal gear: no tent, because I hoped to be able to sleep under the stars and the weather report promised nothing more than a 40% chance of thunderstorms the first day, then clear weather the next two, so I just brought a coated nylon tarp (Kifaru Paratarp) that can be used as a ground cloth or, with trekking poles and tent stakes, as a roof over my head.

The wind was stiffening, getting gusty, and there were little spatters of rain, so I decided I'd best set the tarp up as a shelter. Once it was up with my little air mattress and sleeping bag tucked under it, I sat outside, snacked on dinner, watched the sky darken, and thought about my options. It went like this:

Option 1. Focus on Fishing: I came to hike and camp and fish. I'd made a mess of the fishing today, but I didn't want to give up. The fishing at Strawberry Lake was described as good, so I could stay here and make do with the tackle I had.  
Option 2. Cop Out: I could hike the short distance up to Little Strawberry Lake and set up camp there, maybe fish a little, and do a day hike from the lake, at 6,900 feet elevation, to the top of Strawberry Mountain (9,045 ft), and back.  
Option 3. Stick to the Plan: Keep the focus on the hikin' and campin, do the loop as planned, fish if the opportunity comes. 
#1 sounded too lazy and boring, #2 wasn't interesting, but #3 had that essential quality of challenge. And I would not feel proud unless I did the loop This trip was meant to be a trial run for a scheduled longer hike for about six nights in the Cascades later this summer. If I didn't do this hike, I would not know whether I could do the other.

I studied the topo map and re-read Sullivan's description of the route and saw that it was not going to be easy: tomorrow's hike to High Lake would be nearly eight miles, and I had to climb up from Strawberry Lake, at an elevation of 6,200' to a trail junction at 8,350' on a shoulder of Strawberry Mountain before dropping down to the High Lake basin, where I was planning to camp the following night.  I hoped I could do it. 

Those of you who walk up Pilot Butte--a trip of one mile in length with an elevation gain of 500' feet--will appreciate considering a hike eight times the length and four times the height.

It was a noisy night, the wind battered the tarp, but mere noise does not get between Jack and slumber. I slept warm and I slept comfortable. I awoke early, as I do, and found calm air but still overcast skies. By 7:45 after a cup of hot tea then one of coffee (Starbucks' Via is the best thing for lightweight backpacking in the past ten years) I was on the trail. 

I passed 60' tall Strawberry Falls on the way up. (Click on picture for a larger version.)

I walked through several meadows filled with wildflowers and butterflies. 

A green meadow, Strawberry Mountain looming in the background.

Getting close to the ridge which leads to the trail junction, this is the trail looking back the way I came from Strawberry Lake basin. 

Finally, the high spot. I could turn right here, and climb up another 700 feet and a mile or so to the top of Strawberry Mountain, or turn left and start working my way down to High Lake. Though the clouds were blowing away, it was cold and gusty, and I didn't bring a windbreaker or rain jacket, so I turned left. 

It was a fairly easy hike to High Lake, and I arrived at 12:45, but I was nevertheless fatigued. Lots of climbing, and at a high elevation. This is pretty thin air. 

I dropped my pack on the trail and explored the lake to see where the good campsite might be, and found a nice one on the southwest side. 

After soaking my tired feet in the lake's outlet stream, I noticed that there were plenty of trout rising near the shore of the lake, napping down bugs; so I took another look at the fishing tackle and decided that it was worth a try, even with almost no leader. 

I tied on an ant-like dry fly and cast it several times. No takers, though one trout apparently thought that the bubble looked like pizza and made a trial run at it. I switched to a pale-colored dry (I am a fly newbie and can't name the things), and while there were several strikes, I was either too soon or too late at setting the hook, so I merely managed to get the fly back, soaked and sunk. 

Dried it off, applied more floatant, and tried again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Dozen or more casts later I hooked a nice little 6'' Brook trout. Yes, a small fish, but the first I've ever caught hiking, so I was rather pleased. 

I was planning to cook it on the campfire (see great YouTube how-to video here, love how the guy says everything VERY LOUDLY), but after cleaning the fish, I realized that I had brought no trout-cookin' supplies. Yes, I could have laid it directly on the coals, but when I cleaned it, I removed the head, giving me no handy gill openings to snag the fish out of the fire with using a stick. Trout's too slippery to pick up with two sticks, chopsticks-style, and I'd left my protective asbestos gloves home with my welder's goggles. 

And, after thinking about it for a bit, I realized that all I had was a small knife, a French Opinel No.8 pearwood handle folding knife with carbon steel blade, which did a bangup job of gutting the fish but might be a bit dicey as an eating implement, especially given that I had freshly honed it before the trip and had brought no fork. In addition, I had nothing to eat fish off of. No plate, no pot lid, not even any aluminum foil. Eating trout off the ground or even a flat rock did not sound very appetizing, so I regretfully buried the fish.

Camp at High Lake, dusk.

During the afternoon, the wind abated and I thought I might be able to sleep under the stars. But trusting not the Oregon weather, I staked out the tarp as a tent, then collapsed it by pulling out the hiking staffs/tent poles so the tarp would lay flat for use as a groundsheet under my bed, but could be set up quickly as a shelter if the weather changed. 

And by bedtime it had: the wind returned full force. Even better, the open end of the shelter was facing right into the wind, so the tarp was inflating like a blowfish and was clearly going to pull its stakes loose and blow into the trees. 

So I had to take it all apart and re-assemble it: mylar "space blanket" groundsheet, air mattress, down sleeping bag, inflatable pillow, and featherweight paratarp, all items so light that the slightest gust could carry them away, in the darkness, in the wind. 

But Jack is a mighty and skilled camper, with sinews like leathern straps, and hair over every square inch of his body save the top of his head where Mother Nature and genetics joined into an unholy alliance and played a cruel cruel trick. . . but anyway, Jack has been caught out in far worse conditions than this, and has set up camp in rainstorms and in blizzards with hypothermia breathing its chilling halitosis breath down his neck.

Again it gusted and rattled and roared through the night. But when I opened my eyes at first light, it was calm, calm, calm, and the sky was clear. 

The hike to my next destination, Slide Lake, was comparatively easy: only about three miles, over a pass at 8,150 feet. The trail down to the basin was interesting: it traversed a huge rockfall: 

Click on the picture to see a larger version. Find the three little snowfields just to the right and above the center of the picture. Now look just below those snowfields and you can see the trail running horizontally from left to right across the rocks.

Here, the trail crosses an ice field which has not yet been cleared. One misstep and I would have slid down 40 feet onto the rocks below. Ow.

I got to Slide Lake at about 10 o' clock and hiked around it, looking for the good campsite. At the outlet side there was a large party of rowdy young men: the sounds of chopping wood, a couple gunshots, and general whooping and hollering. I didn't want to camp near them. But I didn't find any place to camp at the far end of the lake. There was one site but it was taken by two fisherman with float tubes they'd packed in. The one in camp said that the only other nice spot was right across from the outlet where the noisy party was. The party where one member was at that moment hooting and screeching and generally being obnoxious. 

Floating out in the lake was the other fisherman, and he waited for a lull in the noise then shouted "SHUT UP! JACKASS!!"

The noise stopped immediately. 

I hiked on, and came to the mentioned campsite and it was nice, but it was only 100 yards from where the youths, now very quiet, were camped. I did not want to have to hear those goobers making noise all night so I dropped my pack and went over to their camp to address them. 

"I hiked all around this lake and I could hear you the whole time. This is a wilderness area. People come to wilderness areas to have a wilderness experience. This means quiet, and solitude, a chance to see wildlife and be at peace with nature. It means showing respect to others. It does not mean shouting and being rowdy and obnoxious. If that's what you want, then go to Shasta."

That's what I was going to say. But when I got there, they were gone. Packed up and blown outta there. 


So I had the end of the lake to myself except for the two quiet fisherman who were almost at the other end of the lake. Later on a party of six young people (three straight couples) and three well-behaved and trailwise dogs came to the lake and set up camp on the far shore across the lake. Never heard a peep out of any of them. It promised to be a nice day. 

I gave thought to catching some more fish and figured that I could always poach one or two in my little titanium cooking pot over a fire, but my ankle was getting tender. 

So far, my ankle, which had been fused in 2009 (after about 30 years of slow degenerative breakdown due to traumatic arthritis) had not been bothering me. I was expecting it to give me some trouble because it did so after last year's two trial backpacking trips and an earlier one I did this year with my son to Alder Springs, with inflamed and very tender tendons. 

On this trip I was using a sturdy ankle brace, a new item, but once in camp at Slide Lake, my tendons started to ache and walking was painful. Fishing was out of the question. 

I babied my ankle all day, and worried about the trip out: on the next day I had to walk five miles back down to the trailhead, with a 1,900 foot elevation drop. Downhills are tough on feet, ankles, and knees. 

I worried about this a lot. I feared I might get crippled up midway down and have to be dragged the rest of the way by a helpful hiker. But as the sun was going down, I had a thought: I had been thinking about my ankle as if it still had arthritis, which it doesn't. In fact, there is no longer an ankle joint for arthritis to attack: it's fused. What's hurting are the tendons. And while an arthritic joint will never get stronger, tendons will. 

Treat it, then, I thought, with Ibuprofen and cold water to reduce the inflammation, rest it, and use it and it will get stronger. 

That was the plan, the hope. I left that worry aside and enjoyed the rest of the evening. 

It had been calm, warm, and sunny all day, and there was no sign of any of the winds that had driven me into the shelter the previous two nights, so I again set my bed atop the flattened but staked paratarp and, when full dark came, I climbed into my snug little bed, read a couple pages more of Moby-Dick (a rollicking good tale) on my Kindle, and fell asleep under the stars. 

The hike out was uneventful, the trail pretty. My ankle was fine, has been fin since. My theory about it just needing to get stronger holds. 

This was probably one of the prettiest and most fun backpacking trips I've taken. The scenery was diverse and interesting, the weather dramatic enough to be interesting but never a threat, the campsites comfortable, plenty of clean drinking water, good coffee, good whisky, good tea, good food; and I packed exactly what I needed to bring, with hardly one item extra*: Those who backpack know that if you take more stuff than you need, you're gonna have a bad time; and if you leave behind some essential item, you're gonna have a bad time. 

Bringing exactly what you need, no more and no less, is the trick. 
Greetings, indoor-people, from Slide Lake, July 2012. 

* I did bring a little extra food, returning with 1-1/2 lbs uneaten (mostly summer sausage and two foil packets of tuna), and an unneeded mosquito headnet. That's not bad at all. 


  1. An excellent adventure, superbly planned, masterfully executed, succinctly told with great pix. Well done!

  2. Thanks for sharing this. These photos are wonderful. They look very professional. I didn't realize your little brownie camera could take such nice shots.
    I am happy that you had a great time, although I would of probably preferred hearing you were pining for me the whole time.

  3. Sounds like a great time, and thanks for sharing. It's nice to hear that your ankle is being cooperative. Be sure to add the pining part next time, and bring a pan for the fish. Mmmmm...fish...


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