Columbia Gorge Loop (Day 3: Wahtum Lake & Eagle Creek)

broken_water_filterFor me, backpacking seems to be one of those activities that never goes according to plan. I don’t think that I have ever managed to do exactly what I had planned, and this latest trip was no exception. This time, I was alone and that made things a little different. I didn’t have to worry about anyone else, which freed me to make faster decisions. This also meant that I didn’t have anyone to support me, so if things went poorly, they could go very poorly indeed.

Best Intentions. I hadn’t planned on a hard day of hiking, but my trail plans always go awry.

I woke up before the rest of the campground and set out early. The trail up to Wahtum was some kind of abandoned road, so the hike was pleasant, with great views.

Because I had so many neighbors, I didn’t linger about in the morning. I stowed my tent and ate and left. Things might have turned out differently if I hadn’t, but probably I just would have had my disaster earlier.

At the lake, I sat at a picnic table, a luxury after two days of logs, and ate my lunch. I decided to read too, and that was the first of the day’s watershed events. My iPad informed me that it was 9:30.

I sat there, stunned by how early it was and realized that I had no interest in idling by the lake or sightseeing side trips. With my camera broken, climbing just for the view seemed lame. Then I made the foolish decision: I would hike out and go home a day early. Never mind that the trailhead was 13.5 miles away and I’d already hiked 5. I could do it.

The campground at Wahtum lake was filled with yahoos, breaking camp or arriving for day hikes. There weren’t any other backpackers around. I half-hoped that there would be someone else hiking down from the lake that day that I could latch onto, but I wasn’t quite ready to let go of the blissful solitude of the first to days on the trail.

Idiot decision firmly in mind, I marched down to the lake to fill my water bottles. I was running on vapors, since the fear of some redneck’s aggressive dogs had kept me from topping off in the morning.

Really, these dogs were the lunging, snarling pit bulls of every bad stereotype. I would have had to walk through their camp to access Rainy Day lake. Those dogs were unreasonably frightening.

By the water, I found a nice rock to sit on and began my process. I pumped, then there was a pop, and suddenly parts of the pump where floating in the lake. Scooping up the pieces, it sank in. I had 40 oz. of water to get me out. I had to hike out. Looking down into the surprisingly clear lake water, a crawdad waved his pincers at me defiantly. I was being mocked by a crustacean.

My relationship with wildlife on this trip was interesting. The frog on the first day barely begrudged me to share the rocky banks of Herman Creek. The second day’s hike took me on trails crisscrossed with spider webs. Some were big enough that I went around. Now, here I was in my moment of disaster, looking down on a small brown crawdad who seemed to be chuckling at my misfortune.


I set out at a fast clip. I had thirteen and a half downhill miles to cover. Then I made a mistake. I didn’t even realize that I’d missed a junction and gotten onto the wrong trail. My map provided some succor. If I continued on to Indian Springs, I could take a second trail to meet up with the one I wanted to be on. I had only added a mile to my day.

I may have added only a mile to my day, but I had effectively converted one mile of downhill into two miles of uphill. That uphill was on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, so it was well maintained and pleasant and the views from the top were great. It was still uphill on the longest day.

I bombed trail and drank sparingly. When my water ran out, I was still six miles from the end. I pushed and envied the casual hikers that passed me. I hit my wall a mile from the end. I had been using my poles to keep steady, but I could barely move. 19 miles under a pack had turned me to agony.

I don’t think that I’ve ever felt quite that weak on the tail before. I was staggering and struggling to stay coherent. I have no idea what I looked like, but I felt crazed, so much so that I was scared to ask for help. I was getting more desperate with every step.

My angels were a gaggle of college girl hipsters. I had given them directions miles before and now they were passing me on my way out. I broke down and told them I hadn’t had water for five miles. They offered up the remnants of their own and I chugged it down with abandon.

I was in desperation beyond pride and they saved me. With profuse thanks, I whizzed down the trail to the promise of water fountains and cel reception.

At the trailhead I drank from a fountain and filled one of my water bottles. The mile that I still had to walk to get back to the main parking lot was brutal. I took breaks and hobbled. After I finally managed to get a call through to Mrs. Portmandia, I settled in to wait. I drank more water and added electrolyte tablets to get my recovery started.

Once I actually started feeling better, I ate and rested. The ride home was welcome and the days to come would be painful as my body recovered from the abuse. A week later, I can say that it was still a great trip, even if I suffered.