Looming up ahead of the trail like a giant puff of cotton candy was a rounded pink boulder, a boulder that was an entire mountain of the pinkest hue imaginable for a solitary peak. Last in line in a wall of gray and white crags scraping the afternoon sky, this sharply contrasting bluff wasn’t coated in pink wild flowers, nor was it the reddish hue of southwest mesas. Except for a very few scattered pockets of evergreens, the mountain was devoid of vegetation, and its enormous mass glowed true pink in the bright sunlight. If there ever was a “big rock candy mountain” this would be the cherry on top, just another delight of wilderness hiking.
Our trek had begun at sunrise, with the goal of reaching a high mountain lake and returning to camp in the afternoon. In the first few yards of the trail, a fork gave us pause; to the right, meandering switchbacks for altitude gain, to the left an old access road barely suitable for ATV’s. We had been warned against using the extremely steep, straight-up-the-mountain route which looped back to the main trail. In the dim morning light, my son Josh and I looked right, looked left, looked at each other, and with a proverbial shrugging of shoulders, we charged up the shortcut on the left.
After a mile of sheer scramble, we arrived at the trail merger where a small dam and emerald clear pond provided welcome relief, and we regrouped while watching trout darting about. It was an altogether low key morning, quiet and calm in the mountain stronghold as we continued up a cascading river canyon. Soaring peaks walled in the canyon, and periodic scans with field glasses kept me hopeful for glimpses of the resident bighorn sheep and mountain goats. However, not many secrets of wild nature were being disclosed, including the sea shell fossils that remained hidden from our scrutiny.
Yes, sea fossils high in the mountains and almost 400 miles from the ocean, because this was the sea coast tens of millions of years ago, and these awesome spires surrounding us were tropical islands that mashed into the continental mainland and uplifted. Therefore, remnants of coral reefs and marine fossils are found near the summits, including the bones of a sea dwelling Ichthyosaur, which is one of very few dinosaur discoveries made in the state.
Finally showing through the noble firs at 7500 feet was a beautiful little alpine lake and the goal of our six mile hike. Enjoying the view that spread out before us, we pulled out our lunch and watched alpine ducks skimming the water surface before contemplating our downhill return.
I have always fallen victim to a restless yearning, much to the chagrin of anyone accompanying me. I am the one who has to check out what’s around the next bend, or go just a little further up the trail. I am naturally drawn to take one more look, go one more block, just to see what there is to see. From the print out map courtesy of the forest service, I knew there were more high ridges just ahead of us that were blocked by the alpine firs surrounding our little lake. Why not hike a mile or so further, just enough to break out of the trees for open views and another chance to spot some bighorns or mountain goats?
In this instance of my uncontrollable yearning, Josh was a good sport and we continued on past our destination lake. As the trail plunged down into the trees, I noticed rock ledges stair stepping to higher points, and suggested “let’s scramble up to higher viewpoints.” Up we went, jumping from one promontory to the next as we left the trail behind.
At the highest point we found ourselves peering over a precipice where a breathtaking panorama unfolded before us. All the rugged peaks were in view, some covered in glaciers, but they surrounded a huge lake! This was the real Aneroid Lake that we were seeking! This lake was of a much grander scale, leaning towards a Crater Lake rather than the typical high elevation tarn that we had just visited.
“This is the real show!” Josh proclaimed, “We were fooled by that imposter lake a half mile back.” “Sometimes we are looking in all the wrong places.” I added. Incidentally, the forest service handout did not include the minor lake which was on the same trail, and there was a dearth of signage in these reaches of wilderness.
There were still no mountain sheep to be seen, and the extent of our wildlife interactions were only some marmots scurrying about the boulders and a few mule deer reluctant to give way on the trail, along with high elevation ducks skimming the lake surfaces. The trail back down wove through the same ridges resplendent with Jurassic granite, oceanic gray limestone topped with white limestone knobs, peaks with reddish shale crowns, bands of sandstone, huge slides of broken up rubble, and finally, at the duration of our trek, the rosy “big rock candy mountain.”
Back at camp, Josh reviewed his guide book on the region so as not to be fooled by masquerading lakes again, and the evening campfire glowed in the company of our wives. Intimate family conversations evolved, leading to concerns of an elder brother and uncle fighting a terminal illness.
The fire had died down to bright coals and an even rim of lapping flames, followed by a lull in the pointed discussion. As is typical of human nature, the discourse had danced around the true anguish and fears of the inevitable outcome of the unfortunate family member, and in the quiet pause everyone retreated into their own private thoughts. And in that moment, an uncanny vision unfolded.
The campfire was in a low and even burn stage, with little or no smoke, and with no added accelerants, when suddenly it flared up and released a solid black, extremely thick and opaque donut of smoke. It was the size and look of a car tire, and it held this perfect form and floated about for a longer time than an ordinary puff should last. When it finally vanished, it was in an instant, and absent of any lingering contrails. In my mind, this apparition was an obvious supernatural manifestation.
On the long road home, gravel turned to pavement, pavement became state highway connecting tiny hamlets, and the highway became four lane freeway as home gradually became less distant. For 200 miles the freeway followed the vast Columbia River Gorge, transitioning from eastern desert badlands and barren escarpments to steep ridges of heavy, dark green fir forests spilling towards the Pacific Ocean.
On the endless drive past the abrupt cliffs lining the parched eastern reaches of the river, my wife was done, young grandson and the dog were almost comatose. On the quiet and sparsely traveled freeway, I amused myself by scanning the horizons and cliff spires for the occasional golden eagle or hawk or antelope or any surprises that nature had to offer. However, there was very little movement in that hot part of the day.
And suddenly, there they were, a small herd of wild bighorn sheep, tucked in under a rare shade tree within a stone’s throw of the freeway. I had hoped for a view of mountain sheep on 12 miles of wilderness hiking and saw none. And here, hidden in plain sight on this major freeway home, was half a dozen! I was rewarded with a perfect view of a Bighorn Ram with spiraling horns plainly visible, white patch on rump, lording over the ewes, which were mostly at rest on the premium real estate under the shade tree.
Sometimes we are looking in all the wrong places.
Where on Earth?! Eagle Cap Wilderness, Northeastern Oregon