The Eagle Cap Wilderness and Wallowa mountains of far eastern Oregon was my grandpa’s stronghold — the place where he forged his soul and character. He grew up there during the Great Depression. His father, my great grandfather, ran the general store in Cove, nestled up against the west side of the mountains. It’s no wonder my family took root here. At 355,000 acres, the Eagle Cap Wilderness is Oregon’s largest wilderness area and largest protected alpine area.
We set out to recreate my grandpa’s infamous fifty-five mile hike from Cove to Joseph. He did it the summer he turned 15 with his buddy Bill and a stubborn mule named Jenny. I’m a little older than 15, and I brought a small but intrepid crew of six fellow human beings. There was something so satisfying in following my grandpa’s footsteps through this awe-inspiring wild place.
As gorgeous as the hike was, it was also an incredible challenge. It’s no quick trip, and in typical northwest fashion we got caught in some fairly serious downpours. It’s especially draining to backpack through the rain. We tried hiking down to lower elevations and lighting a big fire to warm up and dry everything we owned. We were sabotaged again and again by heavy, sopping wet Oregon rain.
We all woke up pretty cold and drenched — even the folks who brought nice tents were a little damp. (I found myself regretting my personal no-tent policy. While most of the backpacking I do happens in the 6-9 months that are insect-free and dry.) We reached a road near Joseph and hitched out that day. Our backpacking pals Greg and Ashley run the visionary Jennings Hotel when they’re not sleeping in the rain with me, and they kindly put us up for the night. After we took advantage of the sauna, dried out all our stuff and got some good sleep, we all got back on the trail.
We picked up right where we left off, at the Two Pan Campground at the bottom of Lostine Canyon Road. From there we hiked up into the high lake country, unmistakably carved by Pleistocene glaciers. These high elevation hikes aren’t easy on the body, but the mind? Spiritually, for me, these places are unmatched. Brilliant, pure blue, post-storm skies. Dank, consuming smells of sun-basking Conifers — the classic Rocky Mountain mix. Noble Fir, mountain Hemlock, Englemann Spruce, Ponderosa Pine, western Juniper. The rain-soaked soil, so wonderfully earthy and spicy. Everything we could smell and see was coming to life right in front of us.
Our latest Field Lab, Hurricane Creek, was born on this trip. Before our rainy excursion, I had been on several day hikes in the area. I spent those hours rooted deep in that place, lost in dreamland. I wanted to bottle up those beautiful Conifers and the way the color the air with their bright, spiky, green aromatics with a touch of late summer alpine meadow sweetness.