Oregon's Summit Lake is an adventure

Walla Walla Union-BulletinOctober 25, 2013 

It's October. Like the wasps that hover around every particle of food left outside, my family feels desperate. Winter's approaching, and we haven't spent enough nights in the wild.

We make plans to head out on our first all-family, multi-night backpacking trip, and pick a location.

The Elkhorn Mountains, situated just south of Baker City, Ore., call to us with their beauty ... and their proximity.

We've already driven to New Mexico and back over the summer, we need a trip close to home.

"Are we there yet?" the question wafts forward from the back of our hastily-packed Pilot. "I'm hot ... and I'm hungry!"

Obviously, it's not close enough.

We U-turn on several back roads before locating the cutoff to our destination. It's neatly concealed amid cow-studded fields. Apparently, Oregon means to keep this place under wraps.

Brutal wraps, I soon learn.

The road deteriorates rapidly into a snaking, undercarriage-scraping eternity of boulders and potholes. I roll down my window in hopes of catching the scent of adventure in the pine-infused air, but the backseat crew stages a riot.

"The dust! I can't breathe!"

"Roll up the window! It stinks!"

I hastily reverse my action, trying to hermetically seal our car from the clouds of dust that billow around us like dry-ice on a stage. I visualize our progress as seen from space, a dust trail slowly inching its way up the canyon, a marvel to astronauts everywhere.

Beside me, my husband Chris grunts as we drop over the edge of a washed-out wheel rut.

"It's got to be around here somewhere," he mutters. "But hey, at least it's an adventure!"

I glance sideways before continuing my attempt at reading.

Yes, adventure.

We could be miles from our trailhead, and my tailbone's begging for mercy.

The begging rivals the screeches and thumps coming from the underside of our Pilot before long. And still, we weave upwards, collecting several nasty paint scratches and meeting only one other life form on the road: a picture-book family of three, bouncing jauntily along on their high-clearance ATV.

Envy rises in my throat like the nausea that accompanies a trip of this nature. Of course they're having fun. They got the secret memo that said DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS TRIP IN A PILOT.

But attempt it we do.

And until we reach a stretch of road festooned with boulders I'd need a belay line to climb, I hold out a dim hope of reaching the trailhead.

But the poor little Pilot has eaten her share of this mountain. We pull to the side and unwind ourselves from our seats, donning our backpacks and staring ahead with distaste.

Somewhere up there past the dust, our trailhead awaits.

We just never thought we'd have to hike in to reach it!

"We'll be fine!" I try to sound chipper as I adjust the strap on Summer's Flash Pack.

It's time to try out my spouse's line.

"Hey, at least it's an adventure!"

And so it turns out to be.

Several hours later, we declare the next clearing our base camp. Nestled near Red Mountain Lake trailhead, it sits next to a rushing stream and provides ample firewood for kids to collect. We freshen up the fire pit and introduce the crew to freeze-dried backpacking food before bed.

Ethan unearths a tiny frog.

Jared reserves the camp hammock. ("Honest, I'm not scared of the cougars ... uh, can I bring a flashlight?")

The long view's not much, but the flora and fauna provide interest. Deadwood and lichen, rock fern and rose ... When you're under 12, you don't need a lot.

Chris and I are content as well, feeling fortunate our Pilot's intact and our first day's complete. We go to bed full of cocoa, with only a few phantom cougars to disrupt our slumber.

The next morning, we hit the trail early -- most of us carrying nothing on our backs, which should increase our speed on the trail. Up the road again, sending dust-puffs skyward with each step -- then off toward Summit Lake where the trail begins at a modest creek crossing.

It's up, up, and up some more, through more deadwood forests and gnarled tree roots.

Summer, who enjoys just about anything more than voluntarily breaking a sweat, drags herself forward at a slow crawl.

Ethan develops a life-threatening lollipop deficiency.

And Jared strides along, leading the pack like a hound dog until we reach the boulder field just before Summit Lake.

"Can I give Summer a ride?" he asks out of the blue.

He glances toward his sagging sister, now panting in a small patch of shade; and I feel a catch in my throat.

"Of course!"

Manfully, he lifts her onto his back and staggers on up the hill. Together they crest the ridge, and he sends her ahead so she can be first to spot our destination.

Summit Lake provides a beautiful reward for his efforts. Perfectly positioned with a peninsula in the middle to allow for his-and-hers sibling skinny-dipping, its rock-lined shore provides ample staging for the chipmunks that flit back and forth, begging scraps.

We linger for hours, entranced. The boys try out spear-fishing, and we all shout for echoes.

It's a laid-back adventure, perfect for the kids.

We return to our camp as the light starts to fade, and tell silly stories till bedtime.

"Let's do this again next weekend!" Ethan enthuses as we walk toward our tent in the moonlight. "I love backpacking, Mom!"

"Me, too." I smile and glance up at the stars - so much brighter just an hour away from home. "There's no place as cool as the mountains!"

Sarah Coleman Kelnhofer writes from College Place, where she and her husband strive to tame their half-acre of wilderness while their children try to reclaim it. Last year, she even grew pansies - in a secret location - hidden from the local wildlife.


Summit 5: Summit Lake is hard to get to, but worth the trip.

Summit 7: No trip is complete without a dangerous stream crossing.

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