Newlyweds cross the Wallowas on foot

September 07, 2006 12:00 am
Mirror Lake lives up to its name as it reflects the trees and lush foliage on a sunny afternoon. This lake is part of the Lakes Basin in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, and sits right below Eagle Cap. (Baker City Herald/Lisa Britton).
Mirror Lake lives up to its name as it reflects the trees and lush foliage on a sunny afternoon. This lake is part of the Lakes Basin in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, and sits right below Eagle Cap. (Baker City Herald/Lisa Britton).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Blood oozed from a gash in my left knee, and it was at that instant that I began to hate Cliff River.

Or maybe it was Cliff Creek I was starting to despise.

I couldn't say which it was with any certainty.

The confounding thing is that one trail sign reads "river," and a second sign half a mile away calls the same stream a "creek," and my collection of maps of the Wallowa Mountains, through which this water course meanders, is equally foggy on the topic.

And yet, as I grimaced through a moment of stinging pain after a tree branch gouged a shallow furrow in my skin, I didn't care a whit whether it was Cliff River or Cliff Creek or for that matter Cliff Canal (the latter, to my great relief, appears on no sign or map that I've seen).

Mostly I was just sick of stumbling over logs, of which there was an abundance jackstrawed across the path that parallels the stream.

Which is a pity, because the creek or river or whatever is quite pretty — too pretty, it seems to me, to be sullied by indifferent trail maintenance or cartographic inconsistency.

Of course I could have avoided the mess altogether had I only watched my wife, Lisa.

She is much wiser than I am in most matters, including, as I learned during our south-to-north hike across the Eagle Cap Wilderness two weekends ago, blazing a blood-free route through a labyrinth of wind-toppled tamaracks and subalpine firs.

We had come to Cliff River (it's as wide as the Powder, so I'm settling on river rather than creek) from Crater Lake, which is considerably smaller, and less famous, than Oregon's other Crater Lake, which got so popular the government called it a national park and paved a couple roads right to it.

No such fate awaits the Crater Lake in the Wallowas, so far as I can tell.

Mainly this is because you have to walk at least six miles to get there, and most of those miles aren't flat, and places you have to hike uphill to get to tend not to attract a lot of visitors.

But at least the trail to Crater Lake wasn't littered with fallen logs.

The Cliff River trail, by contrast, looked as if a Lincoln Logs factory exploded nearby.

Now I don't mind a few trees across a trail, if the trees are modestly sized and they lie on the ground, like well-trained dogs. Those (the trees, not the dogs) are no more an impediment than a curb, and I can step over without breaking stride.

The trees blocking the Cliff River Trail weren't like that.

Most of them were thick enough you could saw them into a stack of two-by-fours. And the worst of the lot, of which there were many, hung above the trail at the ideal height for decapitation.

I certainly couldn't leap over these logs — I'm a low jumper even when I'm feeling spry, and rarely do I feel less spry than when 25 pounds of stuff, much of which I probably won't need unless I become mired in quicksand for several weeks, is clinging to my back like a toddler getting a piggyback ride.

The other obvious option is to unstrap my backpack and slither beneath the log, sort of like a soldier crawling across a beach that's laced with thickets of barbed wire and being swept by bursts of machine-gun bullets.

But I slither about as well as I jump, and besides I hate to take off my backpack unless it's to get something to eat, preferably something made of chocolate. Like chocolate.

So I clambered up the gentle slope at the edge of the trail and, with the advantage of a few feet of elevation, I managed to step onto the log.

And then I managed to almost slip off the log.

Fortunately, the skewer-shaped tip of a snapped-off limb broke my fall. It did this by slashing my knee, which hurt probably more than if I had simply tumbled to the ground.

Lisa patiently watched this display of ineptitude.

Then she unclipped her backpack belt, hefted the pack over the log, and ducked under the obstacle with a dancer's grace.

I mumbled an obscenity and glared first at the tree and then at my wounded knee.

Rather than ridicule me, which I admit was appropriate, Lisa simply suggested that it was silly for me to let a brief encounter with one log mar a weekend in a place as gorgeous as the Wallowas.

She was right.

An hour later we waded the South Fork of the Imnaha River and the water was as clear as a new window but so cold it hurt, as if it had just trickled from a glacier. The marble spire that caps Cusick Mountain's summit reminded me of the Grinch's cartoon peak, brought to vivid life. My lungs wheezed as we climbed Hawkins Pass on a trail deficient in switchbacks, but a brisk breeze ruffled the summit with that unique breath of the high mountains, more refreshing than any air conditioner.

When we got to Glacier Lake on Sunday morning the lake was as I remembered it, the epitome, if such a thing can be, of the alpine setting, all gray granitic boulders and blinding white snow and blue sky and indigo water. A place you could photograph and then sell the prints to people who would hang the scenes on the wall and gaze at when they tired of traffic and jobs and credit card offers in the mail.

My right knee, the unscratched one, was aching, some ligament ailment, I think, which had started the day before as we descended toward Little Frazier Lake.

But then we crested Glacier Pass, the high point of our hike, and the Matterhorn's white marble brow soared above Hurricane Creek and Eagle Cap loomed and right then, as we stood there, surrounded by the massive sculptings of nature, recent matters, maps and signs and sore knees, seemed as insignificant as the passage of a second.

And then we hiked on together through the wilderness, toward the promise of cold watermelon.