On Saturday night our endless summer came to a screeching halt, and I happened to be outside to witness the transformation. I’ve been feeling slow and lethargic lately, and needed some change in routine to shake out of my rut, so I decided I’d load up the trusty ol’ backpack and hit the trail for a couple days.

There is this place in the Cascade Range, somewhat close to where I’m currently living, that I have been trying to reach for the last three years. It sits somewhere between Mount Hood and the Columbia River, and it’s called Wahtum Lake. As far as lakes in the Cascades go it’s a bit bigger than most, but it’s pretty wimpy compared to anything I’m used to. Nevertheless, Wahtum Lake is a lake and it’s in the mountains, and I love lakes as much as I love mountains, so right there is a natural attraction. Not to mention Wahtum Lake is within 30 miles from Hood River, making it a worthy destination for a quick weekend in the woods.

As I said, this lake has eluded me for three years. In 2003 my friend Ryan and I flew out to Oregon for spring break, and spent a couple days tromping all over Portland, the Oregon Coast and Hood River. This was the first time I had even seen Oregon, so the entire time my head was crazy with all the green. I thought I was going to suffocate on the thick living air, and I figured that would be a dignified death, all things told.

We decided to hit up Eagle Creek for a few days, intending to hike up the canyon all the way to Wahtum Lake. It’s nothing too difficult as far as distance goes, and we had even brought snowshoes for the higher elevations. However, we hadn’t factored in the rain. Oh the rain. The incessant frigid drizzle, that quickly sapped from us all available energies. Ultimately we hiked in for two days, basecamped 7 1/2 Mile Campground for a few days, and hiked out soaking and cold.

That was the first time we tried to make it to Wahtum Lake. My second attempt was a solo trip executed within the warm cocoon of the Subaru, in the spring of 2005. See, you don’t need to hike to Wahtum Lake from the Eagle Creek Trailhead. There are logging roads galore that will, so long as they aren’t washed out or gated shut or being used for, well, logging, take you straight up to Wahtum Lake.

Once again I began my assault on the summit of Wahtum, this time taking a route far less noble, with a support crew that included rear defrosters, fuel injection and a CD player. Despite being so grandly outfitted I was once again sent down without seeing Wahtum Lake, this time because the road was choked with snow. I did find a really cool rough-skinned newt, however, so the trip wasn’t a total loss. His belly was bright orange and he was pumped full of neurotoxins. How exciting!

So yesterday, it was with no small amount of trepidation that I set out for Wahtum Lake. The weather was clear and warm and beautiful, and despite a few near-collisions with oncoming traffic on the one-lane road, I made it to the trailhead without a hitch. Signs posted at the trailhead requested that I post some sort of “pass” or pay some sort of “fee” to leave my car in my parking lot, but I just told said signs to bugger off. I slouched into my backpack and hit the trail.

And after descending a couple hundred feet, I finally saw Wahtum Lake. It’s a nice blue lake, surrounded by steep hills and thick stands of pine. Splendid.

However, Wahtum Lake wasn’t the goal. I was gunning for Smoky Campground, a five-mile southbound hike from the trailhead. It was a wonderful hike with some spectacular views along a 4,000-foot ridge, and the sky was achingly blue. Mount Hood was looking over my shoulder for most of the ridge, and sometimes Mount Jefferson even poked his head up. At one particularly amazing overlook I could see Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, and parts of the North Cascades all adorning the horizon.

I reached Smoky Campground (they call these campgrounds but really they’re just one-banger backcountry campsites) by late afternoon. I hadn’t seen another soul for hours, and I wouldn’t see anyone until I got back to the trailhead the next day. To save weight I had left my tent back at home, bringing only the poles, rainfly and ground cloth. This is the configuration that they often refer to as “quick pitch”, even though there is little that is “quick” about “pitching” with only these tools.

Since you don’t have the actual tent to keep the form, you’re at the whim of the poles, and in accordance with physics the poles tend to fall to the ground. This makes it difficult to do anything with the rainfly but throw it over your head, or maybe tie it around your neck so it blows in the wind like you’re some kind of superhero. Really, this is how I figure you “quick pitch” a tent:

  1. Stake down the ground cloth.
  2. Put the poles in the ground cloth.
  3. Grab the rainfly and throw it over your head.
  4. Now you’re a ghost! Spooky!
  5. Walk around a bit.
  6. Trip on the poles. There they are!
  7. Finagle the rainfly’s velcro straps around the poles.
  8. Keep doing this until you imagine you resemble a tent, not a ghost.

I made dinner. I got cold. I made a fire (which was, strangely enough, the smokiest fire I have ever made in my life). It got dark really quickly, which is when I started realizing how creepy it is to be on a solo trip. I put out the fire and went to bed. It was 7:00.

Sometime during the night, it got cold. Then it got colder. Before long I was deep in my sleeping bag wearing every single layer I had, including my rain jacket. The wind started picking up, and I started cursing this campsite on the top of a ridgeline. Actually, I had no idea how windy it was until I stepped outside to pee. Wow, it was really rippin’ out there, but you could hardly tell from inside. Such was a testament to the fine construction of my tent, even without the actual “tent” part of it, and my awesome quick-pitch skills. Spooky! I slithered back into my sleeping bag and checked my watch, just to see how many more hours of darkness I had left.

It was 8:00.

Anywho, somehow I managed to sleep through the night, even though it was cold and the wind was howling and demons were tromping around outside. In the morning I awoke to more wind, and rain this time around. I gathered my crap, made a hasty breakfast of Milky Ways, and tried my best to dismantle the tent from the inside-out to avoid getting wet. Loaded up and hunkered down in my rain gear, I began the soaking trod back to Wahtum Lake. Whereas on the hike out I could almost see to Canada, this time around I could hardly see 100 feet in front of me. Clouds and fog boiled up and over the ridge, and a silent, relentless drizzle soaked me to the bone.

I was loving every minute of it. In its own dumb way I knew that this was exactly what I wanted.

By the time I reached Wahtum Lake it was snowing, my gloves were sodden, and my hands were useless. I hiked to my car, tossed down my pack, and began the arduous process of extracting my hands from their gloves, and then pulling my car keys out of my backpack. I started the car and loaded my gear into the back, warming my hands in the exhaust so I could summon enough dexterity to peel off my rain gear. Thus unclothed I tossed my dripping layers in the back, climbed into the driver’s seat, and wiped the layers of slush off the windshield.

The thermometer in my car read 34 degrees.