Moraine Lake Hike – August 2017

For her birthday, Linda planned for us to do the hike up South Sister – Oregon’s third highest mountain at 10,363′ and located roughly 30 miles west of Bend on the Cascade Lakes Highway. On Monday, August 14th I headed home from work a bit early so we could hit the road by 4pm. It was sunny and warm as we loaded our backpacks into the car and left Hillsboro enroute for Bend. Once leaving I-5 in Salem, the drive on Highway 22 along the Santiam River over Santiam Pass to Detroit Lake and ultimately through the tiny hamlet of Detroit is always a delight. As we’re passing Hoodoo Ski Area on Highway 20 headed towards Sisters, OR the sun has set and we are treated to beautifully orange colored clouds above and around Mt. Washington.

Mt. Washington fronted by a forest of needless pines – the aftermath of a now decade old fire that devastated the area.

By the time we approach Sisters we can already see the smoke hanging in the air on the horizon. Where the last rays of sunlight touch the smoke particles, the sky turns orange. But not the good kind of orange. It’s the kind of orange that has become all to common across Oregon and the entire West over the past decade. There are currently no less than nine fires burning across Oregon with a size great than 1000 acres. A few miles west of Highway 20 we see the glowing flames of the Milli Fire which burns just over 24,000 acres before it’s finally extinguished in mid-September.

Milli Fire

In Bend we stop at Market of Choice – the only supermarket on the planet more expensive than Whole Paycheck Foods – to get some dinner and a few protein bars for the hike. From here we head west along the Cascade Lakes Highway past Mt. Bachelor to the South Sister trailhead at Devil’s Lake Campground. The plan, hike to Moraine Lake, setup camp, sleep a couple of hours and climb to the summit of South Sister.

It’s about 9:30pm as we shoulder our packs and begin the steep mile and a half climb through a hemlock forest to the junction of the Moraine Lake trail. Given the elevation at the parking lot – roughly 5500′ – it doesn’t take long before my lungs are burning and I’m drenched in sweat. Did I mention the mosquitos already? Linda seems to be faring much better than I am. I guess that’s to be expected as she bicycles 20+ miles to and from downtown PDX to our house several days per week while I have this obsession to lift enough weights to one day become BIG. But let’s focus. Even though we’ll only be out for one night and our packs aren’t particularly heavy, there are a few times where I consider chucking mine down the ravine we’re currently ascending. About an hour later and way too many stops to let my heart rate settle to an acceptable level we reach the afore mentioned trail junction. From here it should be an easy three quarter of a mile descent to Moraine Lake. It’s cooler up here in the open too which means few mosquitos. Yay! Time check 10:35pm.

About 15 minutes down the trail we come to a sign telling us where the 22 campsites scattered around Moraine Lake are located. Problem is, they are all designated by GPS markers. No worries right? We have iPhones and I have a post graduate degree in computer science. I also have a love/hate relationship with technology and at this very moment it’s bordering on rage! Neither of us can figure out how to make our phones show GPS coordinates. I’m sure it’s simple and any 10 year old could show you how to do it. But this 46 year old software engineer apparently cannot. Time for plan B – wander around until we come across a campsite marker. After 45 minutes we abandon plan B and go to plan C – camp illegally. I have slept in some really questionable places – rest areas, random picnic tables and many many nights in the back of my truck on the side of some road off some highway across the US. But I don’t like camping illegally because I really believe in the “leave no trace” mantra. However, at this point we don’t have much of an option. We’ve already had our headlamps on continuously for 2.5 hours and they aren’t going to last forever. Time to make an executive decision and pitch the tent.

Our sleeping spot for the night

Since we were camping in an undesignated spot we knew that we had to move our camp at daybreak so we had to make a decision about hiking South Sister. There were three realistic options but only one made sense for this trip. They were as follows – get up really early and hike to the top with all our gear (not pleasant), try to find a designated spot at daybreak and move our camp, hike to the top, hike back into Moraine Lake at the end of the day and retrieve our stuff (also not pleasant) and lastly just admit that we screwed up and would have to come back and just hike South Sister without camping at Moraine Lake. Doing a multi-day would be another option but since we were taking a day off work for this that was not an option. We decided to break camp at daybreak, spend some time at the lake and hike back to the car.

Having settled that we spent the next hour lying on our backs admiring the number of stars visible in the night sky at 6200 feet above sea level and miles away from civilization.

My first attempt at capturing the Milky Way
Our campsite, the Sisters and a shooting star. Pretty damn spectacular!

At some point fatigue and exhaustion take over – falling asleep was not a problem. Often times I sleep better outside on the ground in nature than I do at home. The first hint of dawn comes quickly. Much too quickly. Seeing the view from the tent however, reminds us why we do this.

The thing that always makes waking up outside in the middle of the night or very early in the morning so special is the sounds. I am referring specifically to the sounds of nature . This morning is utterly still and we spend a few moments without talking, without moving to take in the silence. It’s a rare pleasure given the human generated cacophony we deal with on a daily basis.

After breaking camp we follow the well worn path down to the edge of Moraine Lake. Even though it’s mid August, it’s chilly and whatever notion I had about jumping into the lake for an early morning dip is quickly dispelled upon placing my hand in the water. It’s cold. Looking up at the Sisters it’s easy to see why – the water in the lake was snow just a few short days or weeks ago.

By now the suns rays are hitting the far side of the lake and the relative stillness of the water produces a beautiful mirror effect.

As soon as the sun’s rays crest the horizon the temperature starts to climb and by the time we reach the junction of the main South Sister trail it’s downright warm. We stop to strip off a layer of clothing before continuing down the trail towards the parking lot. Although we didn’t manage to summit South Sister on this outing we will be back to try again.

This entry was posted in Camping, US Travel.