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Smoked out: Late summer fastpacking

So, let’s discuss my attempts to get out in the mountains during August and September.

First, however, I’ll mention that I built an experimental backpack intended to be used for fastpacking trips – backpacking with a significant running component. My goal was end up with a pack that would last for a little while, be fairly cheap to build, and get a learning experience.

The pack uses the Stitchback PZ pattern with some modifications to the standard dimensions, and with running vest-style straps. It cost me $34 in materials. It holds my stuff! and I learned a lot and have several ideas to tweak in the next iteration.

My kit isn’t completely optimized for running trips yet – I need to replace my sleeping bag with a quilt and could think about a lighter tarp – but with this pack I’m able to attempt some trips.

My hike around Brokentop

In August, I had an overnight permit for the Three Sisters Wilderness and was planning to circumnavigate Brokentop (approximately 40 miles on my usual route). Then, right as I was about to leave, thick wildfire smoke rolled in.

Let’s back up just a little. 2021 was a record setting drought year in much of the western United States. Low snowpacks and a very warm, dry spring created dangerous conditions, resulting in a historic wildfire season and complete forest closures in Arizona and California. Here in Bend, Oregon, we were practically encircled by wildfires to our north, south, and west throughout the late summer. The primary fire causing the smoke in our area was the Middle Fork Complex, a set of fires north of Oakridge and directly west of Bend, placing it in prime position to blow smoke our way. The Middle Fork Complex burned consistently through August and September and is yet to reach full containment as of this writing.

When you live relatively close to a fire, smoky days are surprisingly difficult to predict. A small change in the wind can bring clean air or smoky air to you. The post image above is from one of my trail runs this summer. The smoke had settled overnight in low-lying areas near Bend, and was starting to blow up to the forest near my house just outside Bend. It can be very localized.

So, I wasn’t shocked to have to cancel this particular trip. Even though smoke forecasts may have been wrong, I knew the smoke was somewhere out there. What was disappointing, however, was that the smoke blew out almost exactly at the time I would have arrived back home at the end of the trip! I wish I would have made it, but I have grudging respect for the power move by the universe on this one.

My next hike around Brokentop

In early September we had a weather system come through and bring us a little rain. It cleared the air and I had the opportunity to try this again. This time, I didn’t have an overnight permit for the Three Sisters Wilderness, so I had to structure my route to camp outside the wilderness and use a day use permit to pass through the following day.

I chose to camp at Little Three Creek Lake, and spent my afternoon covering 17 miles to get there.

But, shortly after my arrival, thick smoke rolled in once again. Thankfully I was carrying a N95 mask. I waited a while to give the smoke a chance to clear, but it became apparent it was going nowhere. Since I couldn’t sleep with the mask on, I decided to improve my situation and hiked back home in the dark via a shorter route.

Let’s try this again

So, a couple weeks later in September, more rain came through and the air cleared up. It was time to try again.

This time, I picked a different route taking the Metolius-Windigo Trail south to Quinn Springs. This is a cool area near Quinn Meadows Horse Camp, with a number of springs feeding Quinn Creek next to a lava flow. My intention was to circle back home through the Three Sisters Wilderness the following day, skirting South Sister and Brokentop to the south.

However, once again, thick smoke rolled in after I reached camp. This was the last smoke of the season. I was able to get a ride back home.

So now…

… I guess I keep trying! We’ve still got some time in October for some good trips, maybe even into November (then, it’s snow season, which is another thing altogether).

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Adventures

Backpacking Green Lakes and South Sister

On July 19-21 I headed off into the Three Sisters Wilderness for three days and two nights.

Day 1 – Hike to Green Lakes

Starting from my neighborhood, I hiked to Tumalo Falls and took the Bridge Creek Trail to the Brokentop area.

I took the Crater Ditch trail to Brokentop and across to Green Lakes. Crater Ditch is a lesser known trail but I always enjoy it. It follows a Bend city water collection ditch. I know, I’m making it sound great.

The Green Lakes area was beautiful as always. There were a bunch of tadpoles and a frog. I found a campsite and set up base camp.

This is the first year of the Central Cascades wilderness permit system, and I’m a believer. There were noticeably fewer people at Green Lakes than I used to see. Green Lakes is highly impacted from years of overuse, and it’ll take quite a few more years for the area to recover. Fortunately we’re giving it a chance now.

Day 2 – Run South Sister Circumnavigation

Time to wake up early for the big day! Today’s plan was to run a circumnavigation of the South Sister with a possible summit. Spoiler, the idea of tagging the summit turned into a definite “no thanks” pretty soon into this run.

That said, I took things pretty easy and stopped often for breaks and to look at the scenery. I ran into stomach issues toward the end – I was feeling generally nauseated – but I managed this better than I have in the past by hydrating and taking in electrolytes.

I prepared my running pack, left my main pack and base camp behind, and took off. I started off along Green Lakes and went up to the saddle between Brokentop and South Sister.

I ran (mostly) downhill to the Camp Lake trail junction, turned left, and ran five miles uphill to Camp Lake. This is a beautiful area right near the treeline between South and Middle Sisters. Following this was a mostly-hiking area above treeline through a lava-blasted area. Along the way I passed two high lakes – the Chambers Lakes – then started heading downhill toward the PCT.

I’m not a big PCT guy – only because it gets more attention than some other awesome trails in our area – but once I turned south on the PCT I was in a beautiful area of meadows, wildflowers, old growth forest, older burn areas, and open views.

I proceeded to the LeConte Crater Trail, which starts to loop you around to the south side of the South Sister. From here I went uphill to Moraine Lake (and definitely did not tag the South Sister summit). A little down to the Green Lakes Trail, and more up to return to my campsite at Green Lakes finished off the day.

It was fun (looking back) and I generally felt OK. If not for the stomach I could have done it faster, but I enjoyed the pace of the day. Running helps move me through the less interesting (but still beautiful) sections, and I enjoyed stopping for breaks at scenic locations. It was a good way to take this loop.

I carried a single trekking pole on this run (actually the entire trip) and I think that’s my go-to now. A pole is helpful when I want to keep moving, but less hassle than two poles. I can stow it away if I need both hands while moving, but can also have a water bottle in one hand while using the pole.

Day 3 – Hike back to Tumalo Falls

I didn’t feel great during the evening on day 2, though I was able to get some salty food which helped. By the following morning I was doing OK but not sure that I wanted to hike all the way home. So I decided to text my wife and ask for a pick-up at Tumalo Falls to save a few miles.

I woke up early and got everything packed up and set off down the trail. After about a mile I stopped and cooked a little breakfast, then continued at a leisurely pace. The view to the south was beautiful and hardly anyone was out. I continued out the same way I entered the wilderness on day 1, and felt better as I went along.

It was a fun trip, a big effort on day 2, and a cool experience.

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Adventures

Todd Lake / Tumalo Mountain Backpacking

On July 3-4 I took off on a short, fast backpacking trip, aiming to see some views and explore a few new (to me) trails.

Day 1

Starting from my neighborhood, I hiked to Tumalo Falls and up to the Metolius-Windigo Trail, which I took toward Todd Lake. I had several miles of constant mosquitos which would bombard me if I ever took a rest.

Todd Lake was open, sunny, and breezy enough that I was able to sit next to the lake without being bothered by the mosquitos. Wildflower season is gearing up and the meadows near the lake are beautiful.

I then followed the Water Tower Trail from Todd Lake to the base of Tumalo Mountain, at Dutchman Flat. This is not a summer-maintained trail, and there are logs down all over, but it’s marked with blue blazes for skiing. The mosquitos finally relented as I made my way into drier forest areas.

Tumalo Mountain has a fairly accessible summit with truly great views. I dropped my pack at the bottom and did a quick out-and-back to the top.

I chose to push quite a bit further this day. I had picked up 4 liters of water after leaving Todd Lake, but was in the middle of a 15-mile dry stretch – and I decided to dry camp only a few miles from the next water source so I could hit it first thing in the morning, but I was definitely stretching my water a bit in the July heat.

Day 2

I woke up and packed early with that next water stop on my mind. I hiked down to the Swampy Lakes trails and through a nice flat stretch toward the South Fork trail. Once there, I grabbed water from South Fork Tumalo Creek about 3 miles into my walk, then took my time the rest of the way down, avoiding insane downhill cyclists and the occasional mosquito.

Overall this was a fun short trip, but I pushed the first day a bit too hard and too long and cut my water supply pretty close on the long carry. Food and water intake are difficult for me to get right, and more discipline to stop, eat, and drink (even in the middle of mosquito sections) would have been helpful. Todd Lake and Tumalo Mountain were the big hits for this trip. Even as a Bend resident for 7 years, I haven’t been to either until now! They are both well worth the trip.

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Adventures

Crater Lake

Yesterday we went to Crater Lake National Park. It was something of a last-minute getaway, since the park’s north entrance road and the Rim Road will be closing this coming weekend for the winter.

However, the weather for now was amazing and we had beautiful clear views of the lake all day with only a little haze. While driving around the rim, we had views of Mt. Thielson, Diamond Peak, Mt. McLaughlin, Mt. Shasta, and Klamath Lake.