Mountain top solstice

There are probably a half dozen Oregon lakes named Surprise Lake. Wikipedia's list of Oregon lakes doesn't have any. Surprise! One of these Surprise Lakes in particular has captured my imagination ever since my father-in-law described his twenty-year-quest to reach it. My father-in-law, Paul, is an avid fisherman, an experienced outdoorsman, and a former Eagle Scout, and the closest he's ever gotten to those clear, green waters was to spy them from atop a ridge across the valley. He said the lake was only a few miles away, clearly visible, nestled below the next ridge. Never has he gotten any closer than that, despite twenty years of trying. I decided to join his quest, in part to show him up. How hard could it be?

First, I opened the site on Google Earth, and starting from the lake, I traced all of the routes leading out. They all dead-ended! There were no roads in or out. Soon after relaying that info to Paul, I randomly met someone who knew of this Surprise Lake, and they also knew that the road to Surprise Lake washed out in a huge storm fifteen years ago. Shortly thereafter, the whole of Fish Creek was closed to fishing and all of the roads were blocked off.
No wonder Paul couldn't get there. He was trying to drive in.
I decided I was going to hike in and bring him back a picture!

 I nerded out this time, and I weighed everything I took. It came to exactly 25 pounds, which is exactly the recommended 20% of my body weight. What did I forget?

I nerded out this time, and I weighed everything I took. It came to exactly 25 pounds, which is exactly the recommended 20% of my body weight. What did I forget?

That was five years ago.
My first trip on the quest was also my first solo hiking experience in the "back country". I got spooked by large cat tracks and turned back.
The second time, I again turned to the maps, and this time I found the forest access road that would get us the closest. From the end of the road, it was a seven mile hike over the top of Thunder Mountain. Everything went smoothly until Paul rolled his Land Cruiser down a cliff on the way there.
True story.
It was a long hike back to the highway. Thank God he survived.
The third time, I took the same route and backpacked over Thunder mountain like I'd planned. That was a brutal hike (700ft. up, 700ft. down the other side) that taught me some things like "don't pack food in glass jars" and "check your pockets before you leave, in case you randomly have five dollars worth of quarters in there". You know. Stuff like that. The hike was cool, but it only provided the same commanding view of Surprise Lake -- from across the valley -- that Paul had gotten twenty years ago.

 Yep. That's it. Surprisingly hard to reach.

Yep. That's it. Surprisingly hard to reach.

This time was my fourth attempt. This time, I decided to hike in the long way. The AllTrails website listed it as a "moderately trafficked" 26.5 mile loop. If I took the western route, it was only 12 miles to the lake. I've been doing the Couch to 5K app for a few months now, so I figured I could hike it in one day, spend the solstice there, and hike out the same route on the third day. Easy peasy.
Yeah, did I mention that I like to set unachievable goals?

 In some places the trail was nonexistent, and in some places it was quite intentional.

In some places the trail was nonexistent, and in some places it was quite intentional.

I made it halfway to the lake on the first day. At first, I stopped off at every side trail to explore what it had to offer. Some were good swimming holes, some had amazing amphitheater sized campsites. As the day progressed, though, I just wanted to get there already. My intention was to hike until eight, but honestly, I don't think I could've pushed myself that long. By three o'clock, m y body was pretty grumpy about the hours of energy bars and jerky, and it was asking for some real food. Like a meal. I stumbled across a sweet campsite where I stopped for a break. I ate some granola, but that didn't really satisfy either, of course. I wanted FOOD.

I packed up and set out again, and just then a storm rolled in. Before I left, the weather was supposed to be clear and hot with a 60% chance of cloud cover in the evening. Nevertheless, the wind picked up. I only saw a few lightning flashes, but I definitely didn't want to get caught in the rain on the trail. A constant rolling hunder boomed all around me. I had passed two bridges on the way up, and both had had campsites next to them. From the map, it looked like somewhere up ahead was another bridge. The map made it seem close. I thought I could reach it and set camp there.

After a half mile hike into the storm and with no bridge in sight, I turned around. I backtracked to Music Creek and set up camp for the night. Just as I got my tarp tied overhead, the rain picked up, and the sky got really dark. I warmed up some instant soup on my camp stove and listened to the sounds of the rain forest.

 After six hours on the trail, and with a storm bearing down the valley, it was nice to find an established campsite!

After six hours on the trail, and with a storm bearing down the valley, it was nice to find an established campsite!

 The campsite had a nice swimming hole. If it hadn't been raining, I might have taken a dip.

The campsite had a nice swimming hole. If it hadn't been raining, I might have taken a dip.

At about six o'clock in the evening on the longest day of the year, I sprawled out in my hammock to wait out the storm. I sipped soup and watched the rain. At some point I realized that I wasn't going any further that night. It looked like I should've planned for the trip to be two days in and two days out, and it turned out that a twenty-six mile loop is a pretty stinkin' far hike. It took more than six hours to go around seven miles and gain 800ft. in elevation.

 I stopped about six miles short of Surprise Lake. With the trail conditions, it might have been another full day's hike and another 1500' climb in elevation.

I stopped about six miles short of Surprise Lake. With the trail conditions, it might have been another full day's hike and another 1500' climb in elevation.

The next morning was chilly, but mostly sunny. Fluffy clouds constantly rolled through as mist rose from the forest. I was able to grab a few hours' worth of sunlight, enough to recharge my phone to 60%. I had downloaded the area to Google Maps before I left, and my phone served as my GPS and camera for the trip. Keeping it charged was essential. While it charged, I explored the area a little. Although it was invisible from the campsite, there was a bridge only about twenty yards away. It wasn't that old, but it had been totally abandoned. Barely a trail on this side, there wasn't even a discernible trail on the opposite side, although the map still showed a road.

 Only forty years later it looks like this...

Only forty years later it looks like this...

When I packed up my site in the morning, I felt a little nervous. Why? All I did was roll up my hammock and fold up my tarp, neither of which offered anything in the way of real protection from danger. Still, with the hammock hanging there, that was my one place of security. Without it, I felt exposed and vulnerable, like I had nothing to cling to. Once everything was packed again and on my back, though, any trepidation I may have felt evaporated like the mist and was replaced with an exhilarating sense of total freedom.
I still had two days! I could take my time and enjoy myself.

 On the hike back, my poor dogs were barking.

On the hike back, my poor dogs were barking.

The big take away for me is the need to perfect delicious trail food meals. At night, I feasted on an instant soup, and that was awesome. During the day, however, my body was not happy solely with snack bars and jerky. I need some ideas for wholesome, healthy options that are lightweight and easily packed.

 I was so tired on the hike in that I didn't notice the salmonberries everywhere! It wasn't until the walk back that I feasted. No sign of bear, though. Whew!

I was so tired on the hike in that I didn't notice the salmonberries everywhere! It wasn't until the walk back that I feasted. No sign of bear, though. Whew!