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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2002/08/24
by John Zinkand

Music Without Music

Its late July. Ashley and I are headed south on Route 97 in Oregon. Theres a vague notion of where we want this trip to take us, but its only a scant outline. A few spots like Crater Lake and Umpqua Hot Springs are on the must-do list, but whether we spend two days at an alpine lake or decide to camp somewhere near a trailhead that leads to a few hardy day-hikes is up to us. This trip will hopefully flow like water as we improvise our way through the central Oregon Cascades.
With camping supplies, food, and clothes packed to the roof inside the car and our bright red canoe strapped to the top, we feel pretty darn prepared for this wilderness adventure. The drive to our first stop, Paulina Lake, is smooth and easy. The most difficulty we have is climbing up the last incline to the 6300 ft. alpine lake with our fully loaded vehicle. The temperature gauge needle flirts with the H as our car slowly grinds us up and over the last of the elevation gain. A quick stop at the ranger station to purchase a Northwest Forest Pass is needed, then well head out to look for a camping spot, hopefully right next to the lake. At the station, we get more than the pass, however, as we learn that there have been many bear sightings in the area so far this year. We are warned to keep a very clean camp, to dispose of all used washing water in the sump holes provided near the camp sites, to keep all toiletries out of the tent, and to make sure no food smell or spilled food is on our clothes when we turn in for the night. Apparently, careless campers leaving food out have led to the killing of four bears already this season.
Intense beauty surrounds us. The blue waters of the lake are serene as they lap gently along the rock and sand shoreline. Birds fly high surveying the waters for a fresh fish dinner. The lake is actually a caldera from a long extinct volcano. Thousands of years ago there was only a volcano here until it erupted and fell in on itself, creating the enormous lake. There are high hills lined with pine trees that frame the lake. One of the surrounding hills is higher than the others and its peak is a large rocky outcropping that still has a bit of snow left in the shady corners. An immense old lava flow leads down from the hills and into the lake on one side, as well. Per our plan, we set up camp right next to the lake and enjoy a simple dinner and a few beers. Pink hues in the sky turn to purple and then black as the sun sets over this incredible scene. Im hearing the slow and beautiful introduction of a favorite song in my head as we drift off to sleep, tucked snugly in our tent, under the nights starry skies.
We wake up alive and assume neither of us have been eaten by a bear. The danger element is definitely unexpected, but makes us feel that we are experiencing an authentic wilderness adventure. It builds up some unseen tension which is released in a large sigh as we wake this morning. The arrhythmic bubbling and popping of cooking bacon sounds wonderful and the smell is even better. Chocolate and peanut butter chip pancakes add a doughy sweetness to the harmony of salty meat and tangy grapefruit juice flavors. The cleaning of the plates and pans is laborious, especially when trying to make sure everything is as clean as possible. I get up from kneeling by the water pump and notice a bit of back ache.
Our canoe slides easily into the water next to the dock by the boat ramp, and soon we are paddling freely in any direction we desire. The warm sun beats down and we enjoy soaking it up. At 6300 feet the sun is shining brightly, but not too warmly. A perfect day. Breezes blow us here and there as we decide to throw some fishing lines into the water and drift aimlessly. Ashley spies a bald eagle hovering gently on the air currents above the blue waters. We paddle towards a sharp drop off to deeper waters and throw the lines in again. Three fish are jerked up out of their homes by us in about as many casts, only to be released right back to be caught another day (hopefully when they are bigger than six inches). Hopes of fresh beer-battered trout tacos are dashed as we paddle the long distance back to the shore through the waves. The wind has picked up and it takes some real back and shoulder strength to get us to shore.
With our bellies full from a tasty but fish-free dinner, we kick back and enjoy a few cocktails. Then we get into the beer. Suddenly, we are two festive campers conversing loudly as we stoke our campfire. Sweet treats soon become the most important issue on our minds, and we decide to bust out the marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers. Its smores time, baby! The hot toasted marshmallow and melting chocolate squeezed between the crunchy graham crackers is a glorious and sugary end to our day. Sleep welcomes us with open arms this night after one day of paddling in the sun.
Upon waking, we decide its time to move on. Why dwell on one theme for too long? Breaking down camp is never fun, but we take care of business like a seasoned expedition team. We really enjoyed this lake, so we find another one in our tourist book that is supposedly even better. With the vehicle again fully loaded, we head in the direction of Crescent Lake.
The book is right! Crescent Lake, in the shadow of Diamond Peak, is truly a sight to behold. We find a large camping space next to the lake complete with a sandy beach and a handmade volleyball net that had been cleverly crafted from two large and weathered branches and some fish netting. Theres a short walk over to the crystal clear water and we take in the majestic beauty of this place. Again, this is another alpine lake at close to 6000 feet. The pine tree-coated hills that frame the lake are present, but much more scenic that at Paulina Lake. A hill rises very high in an even triangle behind the lake in one area, while the Diamond Peak wilderness juts out of nowhere like a rocky pillar to the heavens on another. The far side of the lake is lined with more undulating hills that have craggy tops of grayish brown rock, stone, and dirt sprouting out of the deep green forested hills.
Some sandwiches and chips serve as our lunch before we drag the canoe across the sandy beach and down to the water. This lake is large and the surface is almost as smooth as glass, but no fish are biting. We decide to steer towards a little rocky island. Upon closer inspection, many people have the same idea. Instead, we paddle towards a sandy beach that has some large flat rocks near the waters edge. The heat of the sun and our valiant paddling efforts have us slightly overheated so a cool dip in the lake is a welcome treat. The rocks are a great place to lay out towels, enjoy the rays, and do a little reading. This is just about as pure and uncut as relaxation gets. Life is good, I think, but not for the last time of this trip.
The horse-flies and bees become annoying and the massive dragon-fly influx is slightly overwhelming. Relaxation is harder to come by when our bodies serve as landing strips for every winged insect with a stinger. I do a brief battle with an aggressive horse-fly and his demise is handed to him by the snapping of my lethal towel-weapon. Now Im paddling once more while Ashley throws her line in again and again. Stroke after stroke, I paddle on. I quietly note to myself that this is more upper body exercise than Ive had in years. The fish dont want to provide us with any sustenance again tonight apparently, and we ultimately paddle towards shore as the sun sinks lower in the clear blue sky.
As we prepare and then enjoy our dinner of sausage and veggies over parmesan cheesey-rice, the serenity is broken. A beaten down old pick-up rumbles up next to our camp site. Apparently, these folks grab this spot every summer and are expecting some twenty friends to join them here tomorrow night. Sipping on a cocktail and taking in the beauty of sunset, we listen to our new neighbors as they noisily set up their camp next to ours. Their little girl is obviously excited to be camping and is screaming. Her dad warns her to be quiet and affectionately calls her Mudbug. I am amazed at just how sore and sunburned Ive become in two days as we crawl into our tent for another nights rest.
Things get pretty dark here in every sense of the word. Cold moves in and soon Im putting on some warmer clothes to deal with the situation. I lay back down and close my eyes, but there is a dull and painful throbbing in my shoulders, arms, and upper back. I flip onto my side, but the pain is intense. Another quarter turn and Im on my stomach. The pain streaks up and down my back. I turn another quarter turn and Im on my other side. It hurts. I turn again and Im on my back staring at the ceiling of the tent. My shoulders throb with pain and I hope it will pass. It doesnt. After a few hours of pain and cold, I consider finding the Tylenol which is deeply and randomly embedded in the car somewhere. But the thought of leaving the warm nest of the tent to brave the cold darkness is too much, and I remain bundled up knowing the pain has got to subside a little at some point. After tossing and turning the rest of the night, I wake at 5:20am.
My pain and grogginess levels are off the scales, but the beauty that comes from this pain is even more intense. The slightest glimmers of daylight are just barely peaking over the hills in a light pink hue. I walk seemingly in a dream around the lake and notice a little stack of rocks that someone has piled up as a small monument. In the strange half light of early morning, I make my own with rocks lying by the shore. The light pink becomes a deep pink that is on the verge of becoming red. The first pink glimmers of light hit Diamond Peaks snowy top which is high on the western horizon. I am filled with an almost indescribable peaceful feeling. The wisps of clouds near the eastern horizon turn pinkish, red, then orange as the sun finally peaks its face over the tree line. Finally, the normal yellow light of day engulfs everything as the full orb of the sun can be seen hovering just above the hills.
I stumble back to the tent after drinking some water and taking three extra strength Tylenol. Sleep greets me like an old friend until I wake up hot and sweaty in the baking heat of the sun-drenched tent. Then we hear the high-pitched shrill of Mudbug coming from the site next to us, and we decide to eat some grub and get out of there. Breaking down camp is difficult on two hours of chilly sleep, and I am doing my zombie impression for much of the day. Simple sentences like, Where is my toothbrush? turn into weird phrases like Wearing my teethbrush.
Now were driving up and up to Crater Lake. Theres lots of hazy smoke everywhere and we are told at the entry point that the view is not the best today due to the nearby forest fires. Weve come this far and really want to see this spectacle even if its not optimum, so we cough up the ten bucks and drive up towards the lake. This is another caldera of a long extinct volcano that is the deepest lake in the country at 600 feet deep. One has to drive up to the rim of the crater and look in and down on the lake. The drive up feels like passing through some strange war zone from another dimension. Smoke hangs in the air in different brownish layers as we drive through a large barren pumice field. There are varied mountain peaks scattered here and there barely visible through the smoke surrounding Crater Lake.
At the top, the view is amazing, almost indescribable. Crater Lakes massive size and the high cliffs that surround it are overwhelming. Our viewpoint is from high up on the rim and we peer down into the icy blue waters of the lake which seem to be miles below. The isle of land in the middle of the vast deep blue is huge. The cliff walls next to us at this vantage point are high and craggy and there are steep drops of massive stone walls, rocks, and earth. An errant tree somehow latches on to the rock cliffs half way down the slope, defying gravity as it holds on for dear life.
Our gas tank needs filling and the view is becoming more and more clouded with smoke, so we decide to head out. The tourists stream in driving their mini-vans and RVs as we make our way out. As we travel down tiny forest roads we spy a bobcat and feel lucky as they are mostly nocturnal critters. Sleep deprivation is bumming me out, however, and I begin to clamor that we should find a camp site soon. Upon finding a lovely little campground near Toketee Falls, we set up our last camp of the excursion beside a little stream underneath a dense canopy of trees. Im in a foggy haze that rivals the smoke we encountered earlier. I hit the tent floor and crash hard for a few hours.
I rise to the second morning of my day and feel very refreshed. A campfire seems like a good idea and we use the steel grate above the fire pit as a grill for our steaks. The flames lap at the choice cuts of meat until they seem nicely charred and ready to eat. The wood-grilled smokiness of the beef is exquisite and is washed down nicely with some red wine. Discussion soon turns to Umpqua Hot Springs, a natural hot spring that is located just about four miles from where we are camped. The springs will provide some much needed soothing medicine for my aching muscles, a perfect end to a great trip.
The drive is short and were there. We park in a little gravel parking lot right next to the Umpqua river. A short hike up to the springs is required, so we head across the walking bridge, over the river, and up the short trail. It is a very short trail of only about a half mile in length, but its pretty intense as it gains 1200 feet in this short distance. Sweating a little and out of breath, we reach the top. Its an amazing little site perched on top of a thickly wooded hill that overlooks the rumbling river below. Four upper pools contain water that is a too hot for our sensitive sunburned skin, so we carefully slide down to the lower and slightly cooler pool. Minerals that have been deposited throughout the years have built up in colorful swirls around all the pools. Everywhere is the shiny, thick, colorful look of stalagmites and stalactites. Once inside, the pools have gravel bottoms, and we enjoy a nice long soak while alternating glances up into the trees and down on the flowing river. I can feel the kinks being worked out of my muscles by the hot, soothing, therapeutic bath, compliments of mother nature.
The drive back to camp is a haze as we are both deeply relaxed from the awesome hot springs. Sleep comes with a vengeance and we sleep deeply all night and into most of the next morning at our cool and shady spot. Upon waking, we enjoy some leisurely lounging as we slowly get alive. Peering out of the little window from inside the tent, I spy a black-tailed deer buck. His large antlers have five points and he is munching on some plants here and there as he slowly walks through the campground. Soon hes joined by a doe.
As we pack up our last camp, we discuss the great time we have had. Exercise, fresh air, and the wonders of nature invigorate us. Weve been out camping in Oregon before, but each experience is unique and different from the last. While we anticipate only good times on a trip like this, we know and accept that anything can happen. Driving back towards home we put some live music on the CD player and groove to the different beats, textures, and sounds the recording has to offer. The music ebbs and flows, gets happy then dark, builds and releases waves of musical energy. We smile. Its great to hear some jamming music after days of serenity. But in a way, we just heard some of the most intense music life has to offer. I cant wait for another performance.

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