Friday, December 30, 2005

Eagle Cap Storms

Part 1

Lightning flashed.
The tent's aluminum-pole
skeleton shimmered.
Knobby toes at the far end
of my legs that lay flat on the
sleeping bag stood starkly
outlined against the pale tent
wall. They twitched slightly.
So did the hands that
clutched Agatha Christie's
witch-inhabited mystery novel
``Pale Horse'' against my
A soft rumble rolled down
the granite ridge to the east. It
sounded faintly hollow, like
an oak chair tipping onto the
maple floor of a vast and
distant castle hall.
Within seconds the rumble
built to a crescendo, and
chair, castle and known world
crashed around my ears.
Lids squeezed over bulging
eyes. Hair stood on end. An
impulse to scream into the
night swept over me.
More lightning crackled.
More thunder hammered
across my head and
shoulders. Rain hammered
the tent, too, and marble-
sized drops skittered from the
fabric into the night.
But I lay still, except for
twitching some.
Why, the worst that could
happen would be:
Stormy thoughts occurred
to me that night in the Eagle
Cap Wilderness Area, about
6.1 miles from Wallowa Lake,
at the edge of Six Mile
Meadow. I'd been on the trail
since Sunday and walked
about 64 miles already.
My ride, fondly named
Darlene's Shuttle Service, had
dropped me at the gate near
the top of Minam Hill, about
10 miles east of Elgin on Ore
gon Highway 82, at 10:30 a.m.
When I reached Wallowa
Lake, I'd call and she'd re
trieve me. So, with no vehicle
waiting for a week at a
trailhead, I started the hike
with an unfettered mind.
Well, not quite.
I expected to encounter
SOME natural adversity along
the way. And several normal
misgivings nagged at my
head, such as: Will the food
last? What if a bear takes it
away from me? Will the stove
work? What if a tent pole
breaks? Will the trail be open?
What if I get an infected blis
ter or twist an ankle and can't
walk? What if a tree falls on
Strolling down the first part
of the hike, I told myself to
RELAX and put silly fears
Besides, as Harry Roberts
said in his small book ``The
Basic Essentials of Backpack
ing,'' you don't have to be
smart to hike successfully.
He said ``attention to detail''
means much more than intel
ligence on the trail. Roberts
also said hikers should ``roll
with the punches'' and ``enjoy
the rain.''
Clearly, with some serious
concentration, I'd be all right.
My motto became: Relax
and pay attention to detail.
Later, beneath a 90-degree
sun, I pondered a less ideal
istic view of the great out
doors, however. In one of Sue
Grafton's mystery novels, de
tective Kinsey Millhone said
something like, ``Nature runs
uphill, dirty and sweaty and
By 3:30 p.m., sweat had
plowed furrows through the
dust on my face and neck. A
sweat-soaked shirt clung to
my back. Pants and socks
sagged. The pack's hip belt
had rubbed raw patches in my
flab. And, somehow defying
gravity, sodden shorts had
inched upward and
threatened to strangle me.
So, maybe 10 miles from
Minam Hill, I quit for the day.
Half an hour later, the
camp stood beside the river
and a small rainbow trout
danced on the end of the fly
line. Clearly, detective
Millhone's view of nature
missed an important clue.
After dinner, while sipping
tea, I discovered a blister on
each little toe. I'd started out
with Moleskin, a soft felt ma
terial with stickum on the
back, covering those very
blister-prone spots, too.
Would I be able to walk on
Monday? Many miles to go,
after all. A sign near the wil
derness boundary had said
``Reds Horse Ranch 17,'' and
``Minam Lake 43.'' And
Wallowa Lake would be 17 or
18 miles more.
Bravely I battled negative
thoughts. Then I snipped the
blisters with the Swiss Army
Knife's scissors and painted
them from the small bottle of
Second Skin. They stung like
the dickens.
The next morning I covered
the blisters with new Mole
skin and slipped on a pair of
thin double-layered nylon
socks, called blister-resisters,
beneath the light woollies.
Lo, the feet smiled when
they hit the trail at 7:15 a.m.
And, with frequent rest stops,
they smiled when they
stopped a mile short of Reds
at 3:46 that afternoon.
And I soon smiled, too.
After shucking the pack and
sweaty clothes beside the
green water, I carefully _
paying attention to detail _
took a running cannonball
leap from the bank.
Cold, clear water washed
over me. Nearly took my
breath away. Huff-puff. Spurt-
spew. Absolutely relaxed.
But, alas, on Tuesday that
laid-back attitude suffered a
setback. Between Reds and
the North Minam River, about
a zillion fallen trees blocked
the trail. I labored from 7:10
a.m. to 3:30 p.m., including a
half-hour for lunch and two
coffee breaks, to cover the
11.8 miles to Rock Creek.
After another river plunge
and more fishing near a green
buttercup-dotted meadow, I
wrestled with the prospect
battling deadfall all day
Then, while reading Chris
tie's novel with my headlamp,
I experienced a revelation.
The vicar's wife, Mrs. Dane
Calthrop, told the hero of the
book, ``Always envisage the
worst. You've no idea how
that steadies the nerves. You
begin at once to be sure it
can't be as bad as you im
Wow. I immediately
blended the idea with my
``RELAX'' motto. Relax, pay
attention to detail and expect
the worst.
At the absolute worst, the
14.6 miles of trail upstream
from Rock Creek to Minam
Lake would have a deadfall
every five feet.
It worked. After clawing
and stumbling through the
first clump of fallen lodgepole
pine and spruce trees early
Wednesday morning, I
laughed out loud. The next
barrier lay at least 100 yards
away. My worst fears would
never come true. Then the
deadfall almost completely
ended after 81/2 miles, at
Trail Creek.
Thursday's storm surrounded me after I left Minam
Lake, crossed Lake Basin and
camped beside the West Fork
of the Wallowa River.
Lightning flashed and thun
der crashed. I lay in the
muggy tent on top of the
sleeping bag and watched
twitching toes outlined
against the taught pale nylon.
Then, again taking control,
I relaxed and envisaged the
worst: lightning could strike
the tent and leave one strip of
curled, burnt bacon-like
gristle smoking on the pine
Boy, I sure felt better and
immediately fell into a dream
less sleep.
Part 2
When the goshawk
swooshed from the shadows
screaming ``Skree, Skree,
Skree,'' the bottom slipped
from my stomach.
And down my leg.
My head scrunched deep
into my shoulders.
``Yiiiiippppeess,'' I said and
jigged from foot to foot on the
damp trail.
When the gray-breasted,
dark-winged, red-eyed bird of
prey screamed like a dry band
saw and swooped a second
time, its tail feathers fanned
and it swerved barely five feet
from my bloodless face.
``Yeooooooooowwwww'' I
Shucks. What a time to be
penetrated by talons.
And after a week in the
wilds, too. A week more or
less without incident.
In six days I strolled 65
miles through the Eagle Cap
Wilderness: from Minam Hill
on Oregon Highway 82, 10
miles east of Elgin, up the
Minam River; over the pass
above Minam Lake; across
Lake Basin and part way
down the West Fork of the
Wallowa River.
I survived _ with minor
scratches _ hundreds of
fallen trees across the trail, 60
swatrillion swarming mos
quitoes and one blood-
curdling, thunder-and-
lightning storm.
I waded swollen streams
and lost the trail once near
Big Burn, about five miles
south of Red's Horse Ranch,
which forced me to
bushwhack for three hours
over 40-foot cliffs, across a
buttercup-dotted green
meadow and through jagged,
mucky thickets.
And, when I tried to avoid
wading the Minam River a
mile from Minam Lake, I fell
off a log jam into waist-deep
icy water. I smiled, of course,
and walked on with my boots
Anyway, with just five miles
of trail remaining to Wallowa
Lake, I had to deal with a
crazed, red-eyed, winged
And I decided to stop the
bird in mid-swoop with my
trusty, although somewhat
bent and dented, Nikon cam
So, on the bird's third
screeching pass I deftly drew
the camera from the handy
belly pouch made by Dana
Design of Bozeman, Mont.(
I bought the pouch for that
very purpose, you see. It at
taches to the backpack's
shoulder straps and stretches
across the belly. Carry a cam
era in it and you're ready
when a poignant scene un
Well, sure, the pouch also
allowed me to keep other es
sential items just a quick zip
away, too.
When a hunger pang
nagged at my belly barely an
hour after breakfast _ as it
did daily _ I didn't have to
stop, take off the backpack
and fish a snack from a side
pocket or from the main com
Why, I just unzipped the
pouch, pulled out a chocolate
PowerBar and munched while
I walked.
And since the pocket _
which cost nearly $30 last
winter at Mountain Gear in
Spokane _ also carried a
water bottle, I chased the
snack with cool water.
Or Gatorade or apple juice.
Especially apple juice.
In addition to camera,
water bottle and chocolate
PowerBars, I loaded the belly
pouch with sun screen, insect
repellent, compass, note pad,
pencil, reading glasses, mon
ocular, Swiss Army Knife,
lighter for the stove, a small
bottle of Second Skin and a
package of Moleskin, a soft
stickum-backed bandage, for
Once along the Minam
River, downstream from
Red's Horse Ranch, and three
times in marshy Lake Basin,
clouds of mosquitoes swirled
about my head and shoulders.
With a quick unzip, I pulled
out the bug juice and rubbed
it on critter-covered hands,
face and neck as well as on
shirt shoulders and sleeves.
Why, without ready access
to the goop, those clawing
needle-noses would've
pumped my body dry.
And speaking of pumps, my
First Need water purifying
pump sometimes fit into the
belly pouch, too.
Usually, though, I tied the
pump to a strap on the
Anyway, the First Need
pump worked almost per
Some hikers don't worry
about purifying Minam River
or other wilderness water, but
I do.
I've heard too many claims
that Giardia protozoa live in
wilderness streams and lakes
these days. And if you get it, it
causes a severe fever,
diarrhea and other flu-like
symptoms. Who needs that? A
First Need system, according
to advertisements, filters out
this protozoa, among other
And with the pump, you
don't have to boil water,
which takes time and fuel, or
use iodine tablets, which
makes the water taste like
Still, on a scale of 10, the
pump falls about 2.7 points
shy of perfection because you
need three hands to work it.
During the recent hike, I
pumped six to eight quarts of
water a day. While squatting
on a rock or a log and dangl
ing the pump's inlet tube into
the water, I braced the clean
bottle that held the outlet tube
between my feet. With the
pump and filter in my left
hand, I pumped with the right
It required less than two
minutes to pump a quart of
water. In the evening, I filled
two quart bottles, one pint
bottle, the coffee pot and the
Dana Design bottle.
During the day, I kept one
bottle half-full in the pack and
filled the belly-pouch bottle
from it.
Invariably, pumping
worked up a sweat. And, in
variably, I slipped and clat
tered into the water source to
fill at least one boot.
Other filtering pumps ap
parently work better than the
$37 First Need system, includ
ing a $240 one by Katadyn
and a $140 one by MSR.
Katadyn also sells an
expedition-quality system for
But for the difference be
tween $37 and $100 or $200
or $600, I'll pump and sweat
and fill the occasional boot.
Besides the First Need
pump did the job. At least I
think it did. I haven't felt sick
Well, standing on the trail
with camera in hand and
dodging the screeching gos
hawk, I did feel a slight wave
of nausea. Or fear.
``Skree, Skree, Skree,'' said
the swooping bird.
Yeoooooooow, I mumbled
as it pulled from its 100 mph
power dive within bare feet of
my skinned-back eyes. Well,
Maybe I overrated the value
of keeping a camera handy on
a hike.
When you think about it,
it's no big deal to stop a diving
goshawk on color film, with
its red eyes gleaming, with its
razor-edged beak open and
with its glistening, gnarled
talons in your face.
Maybe we put too much
emphasis on pictures, any
Didn't American novelist-
essayist Philip Wylie
(1902-1971) write years ago
something like: anyone who
believes a picture is worth a
thousand words can't read,
can't write, can't think and
has a paltry imagination?
So, I shook feeling into my
legs, squared my shoulders,
zipped the camera away and
ambled on down the trail.

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