Tuesday, December 29, 2009

i'd like a room with a view, please

Hager Mountain...the lookout is the tiny dot on the right peak

Rather than hanging around in Corvallis this Christmas, Dave and I decided to go on a little adventure and either camp at the coast or get out into the mountains. After looking for a cabin in the Cascade range, I happened to come across fire lookouts that were available to rent during the fall and winter when fire risk is low and no one is occupying the cabins. Immediately, I booked us 2 nights at the Hager Mountain site, which had slightly less demand than the ones located in the Northern Cascades...probably due to its seclusion in the Central/Southern section of the state.

The night before we also rented a cabin in Summer Lake, Oregon so we could get an early start the next morning. The drive here was amazing! We drove east of the wet, foggy valley, over the snow-covered Cascade Mountains and into the sagebrush dominated high desert region of Central Oregon. Landuse of this area is now for cattle-grazing and hay fields so our primary views consisted of regions of orange earth dotted with light green sagebrush or seemingly endless yellow fields speckled with cows' silhouettes.

These areas offer extraordinary color palettes not seen in many other settings making Central/Eastern Oregon possibly my favorite region of the state. Sunsets and sunrises are just to a different degree out here...first of all, the skies are enormous and the horizons are impeded by nothing more than distant blue mountains allowing for a rim of reds and purples to form where the land meets the sky. Because precipitation is a commodity out here, everything has a very dry desert look about it. The earth is very arid, tanned, and rocky and the primary form of vegetation is short brushy sage and vibrant wildflowers. On Christmas morning when we left from Summer Lake (~20 miles from the Hager Mountain turn off) there was a heavy frost on the ground, which caused the sage to sparkle and shimmer as the sun rose above the peaked horizon into an unbounded pink and purple sky. It was a sight beautiful enough to take your breath away.
sunrise outside Summer Lake, OR on the way to Hager Mountain

We arrived at the trail head relatively shortly after turning onto the Forest Service Road 28 past Summer Lake, OR. We now had an ~3.3 mile hike and a 2000 ft elevation gain ahead of us until reaching the lookout at 7200 ft. Arriving in a little over 3 hours, the hike was less difficult than we had originally anticipated. This may have been due to the outstanding weather we had that day and the very well-marked trail leading to the summit.view of the lookout from the approximate elevation of the toilets...it was quite a hike back up.

Dave and I sitting on the deck of the lookout cabin

The views from the top of Hager Mountain were awe inspiring! We had 360 degree views of the landscape stretching to California's Mount Shasta to the South (125 miles) and Mount Jefferson to the north (123 miles). While standing on the summit, I felt as if we were on a central pinnacle surrounded by a crown of hazy, blue mountains. It was almost hard to believe that anything further existed beyond the illusive boundary created around us.
typical vegetation at the summit

Dave basking in the sun of the lookout

While the outside temperatures ranged between 25-30 degrees F, inside the lookout was a different story. Walls of windows created a green-house effect inside the cabin causing temperatures to approach a toasty 75-80 degrees F during the day (with no fire!). However, a setting sun was quick to turn off the solar oven and a fire was crucial to create a comfortable setting throughout the night. many dishes were supplied by the US Forest Service and donations from other visitors

as the sun set, Hager Mountain cast its shadow across the valley floor

sunset Day 1 Hager Mountain

sunset Day 1 Hager Mountain

As the sun went down, the winds quickly picked up and howled all throughout the night. With the windows pulsing in and out with each gust, we felt very cozy in our warm (sometimes rather too warm) shelter. We passed the time playing card games and gazing out the windows at the star-filled sky that lit up the desert floor below. I often debated if this panorama of a million twinkling stars locating light years away, illuminating the world around us could possibly surpass the beauty revealed during the day by our own star, the sun.

sunrise day 2 Hager Mountain

I awoke early the next morning to find a spectacular red ring around the horizon that quickly faded to the deep blue that encapsulated us throughout the night. We were also quick to realize that a bank of clouds from the South were creating a red wall that seemed to be moving toward us. I wasn't sure if the old sailor's saying of "red sky at 'morn, better take warn" held true for the desert, but I was willing to place my bets on yes so we prepared ourselves for any kind of weather that may have been moving our way and kept a watchful eye on the sky.
Day 2 Hager Mountain

After lunch, we headed out on a short hike down the road that the rangers take to get to the fire lookout during the summer months. While we didn't see much in terms of wildlife, there was abundant evidence of elk and snow bunny tracks.

By the time we arrived back at the fire lookout, the clouds approaching from the South had arrived. We could see wispy sheets of precipitation raining down from the clouds only to be evaporated before reaching the ground. At this point, nothing seemed too menacing, and when conditions didn't change by sunset we assumed another snow-free night.
hike down the East side of Hager Mountain

Eastern side of Hager Mountain

lichens common to many of the trees in the Cascades

snow bunnies!

precipiation and evaporation

yay for fire lookouts

At around 4am on the morning of our departure we awoke to hear beads of ice pelting the windows around us. I looked out of the window to see white out conditions and snow and ice crystals stacking up on the structures around the lookout deck.

These conditions lasted throughout the morning as we packed our bags and prepared to head back down Hager Mountain. It was hard to believe that only ~36 hours earlier the clear vistas we marveled at were displaced by the white clouds which lingered outside the window. On the upside, we were both pretty stoked to finally use our snowshoes that we dragged all the way up the mountain!

The hike down was equally amazing as our ascent. Even though we were unable to see much beyond our immediate surroundings, that was enough. All of the vegetation was coated in a thick layer of wind-swept snow. Our snowshoes proved to be very useful as we floated above the 6-7 inches of freshly fallen flakes and we made it down in ~2 hours.

The Hager Mountain fire lookout was a unique way to explore the fantastic surrounding area and I'm looking forward to future experiences in the other lookouts offered by the US Forest Service in the Cascades. snow and ice accumulation blowing in on day 3

change of weather: day 1
change of weather: day 3

Dave gearing up for the hike down

views of a small meadow on the way down

parasitic insects beneath the bark of some of the trees. these trees also had a lot of woodpecker holes.

more snow covered scenes

the view on the way down

wind swept trees

snow covered evergreens

As a side note...apparently, we weren't the only ones on Forest Road 28 from December 25-27. When we got back to Corvallis we found this news article about a couple that were stranded in the snow for the same duration as we were on the mountain...they must have gone right past Dave's truck as their trusty GPS "guided" them "safely" home. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34620195/ns/technology_and_science-innovation/