By MARK FURMAN
A hearty breakfast at in Saturday segued into the need for a hearty after-breakfast hike. We found the West Fork of Pine Creek trail just past the soon-to-open
andquot;I wish we were backpacking,andquot; I said when we stopped for a rest. andquot;Then we could go until we're tired and camp for the night.andquot; No sooner were the words out of my mouth than two backpackers appeared descending the trail from Pine Lakes. Hot on their heels were two more backpackers who had also spent the night at Pine Lakes, a seven mile grunt from where we'd parked.
They reported that the route was slow going, but that the lakes were worth the trip.
But it wasn't to be not for us, not this day. My companion had to work in Baker City Saturday night. I was off until Monday and dawdled around the house, leafing through a magazine and daydreaming over a map of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Then it hit me:
I didn't have to work until Monday morning.
It was Saturday night.
Why not make the most of it?
I packed quick and light, dispensing with a stove, cook kit and coffee in favor of just some dried fruit, canned meat and Clif Bars with caffeine. Toss in a water filter, long undies, down sleeping bag and a bivvy sack and voila! Barely an hour after I gave in to the bug, I was on the road.
I'd been to this mountain lake in the Elkhorn Mountains once before, during the winter of 2000 on a snowshoe daytrip with (nowadays Oregon's state geologist) and (nowadays a Native American artist). Back then we were all relative newcomers to Baker County, eager to explore its wild environs.
We'd trooped up to Van Patten in the snow, breaking trail as we went. It started snowing as we entered the basin, and we saw very little of the basin and its big granite before we descended out of the storm.
I hadn't been back since, in large part due to access. The Van Patten Lake trail is relatively short: just 1/2 mile from the trailhead to the lake.
But access is difficult: the trailhead is one mile up a rough road from Little Alps off the Elkhorn Scenic Byway.
I've been missing out: not only is the road four-wheelable (if you are so inclined), the combined road/trail hike of a mile and a half only took about 45 minutes of swift huffing and puffing. I pulled into the lake around dusk and found a perch atop some granite cliffs overlooking the lake. Night fell, the stars came out, and I woke up someplace absolutely beautiful Sunday morning.
I decided to hike up to the ridge at the head of the lake, wondering what might be on the other side. That's as good a reason to climb a mountain as any, no?
This turned into more of an endeavor than I anticipated, however: Van Patten Butte, at 8,729 feet high, is about 1,300 vertical feet above the lake.
It felt like more, but the view from on top was excellent. To the west I could see the peaks of the region; a little south, Dutch Flat Lake glimmered in a hanging valley at . I'd seen this terrain before, but never from this aspect. I lingered a while watching butterflies and birds soar over the abyss below before going back down to the lake to pack up and head down to my car.
I smiled big all the way home, but kicked myself, too: Too many years had passed since I last visited Van Patten. The road/trail might not be the most scenic, but the lake is really nice.
And the relatively short distance makes it a good goal for novice backpackers or folks looking for a short trip.
Relatively easy access has its drawbacks, though. I found plenty of fire rings full of empty beer cans, as if aluminum would make a good fire starter.
A small pile of plastic drink containers were strewn on the rocks below where I slept.
And while searching out a campsite, I stumbled on a group of teenagers who let out a relieved andquot;Oh, it's just a hiker!andquot; and stopped