Back country back-packing in Oregon


 This past week we set pearls and work aside, packed up the car and headed for the mountains.  Summer is fleeting here in the Pacific North West so we have been itching to get away from our home in Portland to enjoy it.  There's much to do here of course but having back-packed with our parents, Celeste and I were both keen to get our kids out to see what the higher elevations of Oregon had to offer.  We were familiar with the Sierras and Trinity Alps of California but neither of us had been in the back country of the Pacific Wonderland and after living here for a year now, we were way over-due.

Our camp from above.

Guided by our favorite wilderness author Douglas Lorain and his amazing book Backpacking in Oregon, we headed east for over five hours to the Wallowa Mountains.  I drove while Celeste and our good friend Sandra Bao (like Celeste, also a Lonely Planet guide book author) were in charge of piloting.  Sandra wrote the last Lonely Planet edition of Oregon so it was fortuitous and fun having her with us.  

Our camp from below.

My pilots landed us in a very small town called Pondosa.  Technically it was wrong turn but a visit to the only store in town quickly reminded us that when traveling the voyage is often the destination.  The "store" was the home of a sweet elderly couple who were obviously glad for our unlikely visit.  They showed us pictures of the Pondosa they knew 30 years prior and the sawmill and buzz of activity that surrounded it.  Their home has 12 rooms upstairs that used to lodge two men in each room.  Now, the cobwebs and musty air are testament that all has been quiet for many years.  They proudly showed us t-shirts and newspaper articles that claimed Pondosa to be the geographical center of the United States (Hawaii and Alaska included).  A Google search would later contest it but we were glad to have journeyed to such a self-declared power center.  After a half an hour we waved goodbye to them and their numerous spooky cats and got on our way.

The constellation Jasmine.

As we climbed in altitude the desert and rolling dry hills that we had been in for hours gave way to lush pines.  On arriving at the trail head we breathed in the thinner, pine heavy air and eagerly hoisted our heavy loads onto our backs.  I was barefoot and was immediately glad to be so.  I found that curving my feet and gripping my toes gave me considerably better traction than stiff-soled hiking boots.  Balance with the heavy pack was easy and walking through the  rushing streams was a joy instead of something to be avoided.  Celeste quickly became frustrated by her flip flops and abandoned them then our son Tevai's waterloggerd skate shoes came off, soon followed by Jasmine's.

The trail climbed steadily and followed a stream, noisily plunging over giant granite boulders.  About a mile into the 4.1 mile hike we met a ranger on the way down.  Dennis was an affable mix of John Denver and Willie Nelson and was clearly in his element.  He was impressed by our lack of shoes and asked us if we had filled out the honor system visitor's permit at the trail head.  We had and after checking it with some spectacles hanging from his neck he explained that it was an important detail because it helped them track the number of visitors which in turn was helpful for their annual budget demand.  Funding for the work of the Oregon Parks and Wilderness has been getting slashed to the point of it being a struggle to do their job.

The noise of the stream became more distant as the trail climbed away from it then finally we entered a meadow where we were to make our camp.  Ranger Dennis was spot on when he said that we would be singing at the sight of it.  The meadow which was bright green and full of wild flowers was met by the harsh white of granite rubble mixed with pines making for a perfect alpine effect.  There was a small island and Tevai suggest we cross the stream to what looked like a campsite on the other side.  A campfire circle awaited us with several perfect places to pitch our tents.

Glorious Lookingglass Lake.

Tevai and I got busy answering the question of what we were going to have for dinner.  We could have literally and easily caught trout from our tents but we struck off to explore and found that the Brook trout were abundant and eager to gobble whatever we threw in the stream.  We ate trout every night and Tevai surprised us all by pulling 13 and 12 inch fish from gorgeous Lookingglass Lake the day after our arrival.  Brook trout over 11 inches are uncommon so the three plus mile hike to the spectacular lake was more than worth it.

Sandra and her first trout.

The meadow on the other side of the creek from our campsite had veins of tiny streams cutting through it with freezing cold water rushing to meet the main stream.  In some places the streams were a foot wide and two feet deep but incredibly enough were full of trout.  The fine art of "trout tickling" quickly ensued and we had a beautiful specimen for dinner in no time.  To "tickle" a trout, you have to first flush them out with your hands and feet.  Once you locate them you have to murk up the water just upstream of where your trout is hiding.  You then put both hands under the bank and slowly find your trout.  If you are gentle enough, they will stay put as you close both hands around them.  There's something primal and deeply satisfying about it but most of all it's a great recipe for wet fun.  Back at the main stream Sandra caught her first trout on a rod and was instantly "hooked" on the craft of fishing in a small stream.

This is the one I caught with my hands.

Nightfall was always an occasion to look forward to.  The moon was waxing and nearly full on our last night making for some fun night photography; making me glad I lugged my photo equipment up the mountain.  Despite the warm days, it got very chilly as the sun went down so a campfire at night was the routine.  This was cause to partake in the fine American tradition of melted marshmallows and chocolate on graham crackers ie: s'mores.

"Can I have s'more?"

On the way home Sandra "steered" us to the cowboy town of Pendleton that boasts a massive rodeo called the Pendleton Round-up that has been going since 1910.  It's also the home and factory location for the wool clothing brand Pendleton but most of all it's a slice of American life that felt strangely foreign to us.  A big Dodge truck with an Obama bin lyin' bumpersticker was a mirror to the Prius with the Palin/Sheen 2012 sticker we saw on the way out of Portland.  

Having an out of body experience as the moon lit up the valley.

Getting to know some of the breath-taking scenery and wildlife as well as the long roads and endless horizons that are part of a road-trip in America, help me to feel like life in this country is something I can claim as my own.

Celeste wrote a post while I wrote this one so for a different perspective please check out her popular blog at


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    Sunny: October 01, 2011

    I don’t even know what to say, this made things so much eaeisr!

  • Author image
    Josh Humbert: August 16, 2011

    That’s funny. You’re right Pattye. ;)

  • Author image
    Pattye: August 15, 2011

    Gorgeous scenery! Your trout is still looking surprised at being caught bare handed!

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