Spence here: Over the Labor Day weekend, I managed to wrangle (seriously, I had to wrangle it) an extra day off. I have always wanted to check out Mt. Jefferson and the whole Jefferson Park area, outside of Detroit, Oregon and the South Fork of the Breitenbush River. With an extra day for driving and seeing the sights, we were off.
I knew the trail to the area was steep (trail 3375) and we hadn’t been backpacking in awhile. I was still a bit disappointed in my fitness level, however, and it still came as a surprise as to how long it took us to get up the 6 miles (and 2000 feet) to the park area. I felt happy though, just to get out there, feel the late afternoon autumnal sun rays and smell the breeze. I bought a new backpack several weeks ago and really got a chance to over-load the thing with heavy food, extra clothes, books, journals and water, to test it all out. My review of the pack is simple–awesome! Mountain Hardware’s South Col 75 is a good friend to have along in the back-country. Comfortable, big, nice hip belt, great outside pockets and mostly waterproof.
The first night we stayed in a site among the boulders, hiking up about 3 miles. We had left late from Portland and meandered our way to the trail head from Genie’s restaurant, the library and a stop at the North Santiam River State Park–finally driving through Detroit and down a long gravel way. The first morning was chilly. We made coffee early and then got back in our sleeping bags with the thermos full, reading books until the sun came up over the ridge. Warming up came quickly though, as we hiked the rest of the miles up to the lake. We took our time feeding and watering the horses (I like to think of myself as a horse sometimes when I hike uphill, as it makes me feel stronger), eating fig newtons all the way up.
Our reserved back country site was on Park Lake. There are numerous lakes in the area: Bays, Russel, Scout, Park, and Rock Lake. The Pacific Crest Trail runs through the area and on our next full day we hiked along the rocks and on this famous trail.Views of the mountain were in my mouth it was so close and the shadows long with a strong warm sun. The next day however, the mountain changed moods. We woke to dark, chilly sky and a misty ridge line. By the time we thought about packing up, the rain was actualizing and the temperature had dropped. We said goodbye to the brook and the trees, glanced up and said farewell to Seekseekqua, aka Mt Jefferson, the lakes and Park Butte, (and our abandoned oatmeal breakfast) and headed down at a good trot. I finally found a good pack weight equilibrium for my knees and felt like they were healthy for the first time in years. I actually had a great time going down over loose gravel, mud, rolly rocks, wet plants and low hanging brush. We stopped a few times to pick and eat wild blueberries and Oregon Grape. At one point I was running down the trail, using my trekking poles like a slalom skier… thankful to be feeling better in my mind and body. 6 miles in 3 hours and were getting back in shape. I love the woods!
Billy here. What a much-needed foray into the wilderness! We were so happy to be on our first real backpacking trip of the year that we didn’t mind the ridiculous traffic on the highway (that seemed to mysteriously end after passing the suburban outlet malls with their Labor Day sales).
On the way, we stopped for lunch at North Santiam State Park and sat at the river bank for a bit, enjoying the sun. It was late afternoon by the time we took our final turnoff on the forest road for our trail head: late enough that we knew we may not make it very far in before setting up camp for the night. On the road, far from any other campground, a lone man was walking with a dog. Spence waved, but the man only peered in to the jeep at us intensely. We thought it seemed odd, but soon forgot all about it when we reached the trail head and tried on our fully loaded packs. It had been entirely too long, but it felt good. My pack was actually too heavy, despite my assertion that it felt light. I had journals and Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit packed, along with fresh fruit, vegetables, and more food than we could possibly eat in three days. However, it was sunny and the smell of the woods was invigorating.
Posted on the trail head was a flyer for a missing young hiker by the name of Riley Zickel, who had been missing since July 27th. His car still remained at the Breitenbush Lake trail head, according to the flyer. Spence said maybe he just decided to keep walking the PCT. This put me in a reflective mood as we ventured into the woods. The lady fern, vine maple, and big leaf maple began to envelop us. Some creature left several half devoured grand fir cones in the trail. As the trail climbed, the ferns changed to bear grass and huckleberry, and the maples gave way to mountain hemlock and Douglas fir. We struck off the path as the sun turned red to find a flat spot to camp, but the going was rocky and steep. I kept imagining how the missing hiker may have slipped off and into a ravine to perish. By the time I was really thinking of how tired and out of shape I was (and how we probably should’ve settled for the last flattish spot), we found a beautiful little camper nest off the trail with just enough space for our tent and a kitchen area. It was cold that first night, maybe because it was wet near the creek and the sky was clear.
The next day was gloriously sunny and warm. We hadn’t made it quite as far as we’d imagined, but it was only a few miles to the wilderness area up near Park Lake where our reservation was for the next night. Hikers leaving for the weekend, it being Labor Day Monday, reported being rained out the entire weekend, only to have the weather break today when they were leaving. We knew we had a little window though, because the forecast called for rain tomorrow. The hike over the ridge into the Jefferson Park was really beautiful and, after feasting on wild blueberries, the rest of the walk was more or less downhill.
We crossed stunning meadows and creeks as the mountain suddenly came into view, large and sheer. Park Lake was nestled at what seemed like the foot of the mountain, where our campsite sat at the top of a hill overlooking both the lake and the mountain. We sat at the water’s reflection. We ate chocolate and drank wine. We wandered the lakes and walked a short jaunt of the PCT around the park. The sunset was golden and the stars that night were powdered sugar and crystals.
The next morning we moved slow. It was misty and wet and we didn’t finish breakfast before it started to rain. We packed up everything wet and began our descent down Breitenbush Trail. I forgot my gloves and Spence graciously lent me his socks and carried my cold trekking poles. Raynaud’s syndrome causes the blood vessels in my fingers to constrict, so my hands overreact to cold and wet climates. I should start packing my neoprene surfing gloves everywhere! Despite being soaked and a little cold, the hike down was lovely. We ate more blueberries on the way down. I think they are the most delicious blueberries I have ever tasted in my life.
Driving back out down the forest road, I mentioned to Spence that the man we saw walking with the dog a few days ago may have been the missing hiker’s father. We stopped in Detroit for coffee and snacks and the hiker was the talk of the town. The family was indeed searching for him and they said that his father, Robin, did indeed go walking for him every day. Sadly, as of this post they still have not found him yet, despite weeks of rescue efforts, but the search continues. I found myself deeply moved by the courage family and friends showed when faced with this uncertainty and loss.
A friend of the family, Cheryl Alterman, described the young man: “Riley was a special kid. He’s an old soul. He’s 21, but you would never know it, and his smile entered the room before he did. He is the guy that every mother hopes their daughter can marry. I know his heart is brightening up the forest.” Lt. Chris Baldridge said: “I think it’s the hardest thing for us to have to look the family in their face after getting to know them for eight-plus days, and letting them know we can’t find their child.” The father posted this moving message online from the family:
I will be leaving Detroit today with great gratitude for the love and support we have received from the people of Detroit and from the people who have tried so hard to rescue him.
What we have learned from this very hard lesson is that Riley has shown us that the most important thing is to show love and compassion to one another. This is what we have received from you and this is what we would like to give back to you so that we all can continue on to give to each other.
Our lives have changed forever and it is our hope that due to our beautiful son Riley so has yours so that we can all share with each other and the world the beauty of the lessons he has shown us.
Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
Erin, Robin, and Noah
Cheryl observed, “The forest was (Riley’s) favorite place, and if that was his way to go, then he’s probably in the happiest place that he can be.”