Like many alpine lakes, the water of Ice Lake is clear and cold. Trout rise in early evening and again at dawn.
ICE LAKE BACKPACKING SOLO ~ JULY 23RD & 24TH, 2012:
Sunday night July 22nd I had all my backpacking gear packed in the back of my car. I set the alarm clock and went to bed early. Five am, the alarm went off and by 6 am I was driving from my home in Eastern Washington towards Joseph, Oregon.
I had a big breakfast at Denny's in La Grande, Oregon. My food for the rest of the day and part of the next day would be snacks and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made on whole winter wheat bread...good but not like chicken fried steak, hash browns, and tall glass of cold milk I had at Denny's.
I drove through the "busy with tourists" town of Joseph and on to the trail head south of Lake Wallowa. It was a beautiful morning with an excellent weather forecast. In fact I decided to leave my rain gear in the car. In a pinch I could always make a light rain poncho out of the two 33 gallon garbage sacks I take with me.
High noon, I shouldered my REI Flashpack 65, with only what I needed for a one night backpacking trip into the Eagle Cap Wilderness of Northeastern Oregon. I started up the trail.
My destination would be Ice Lake. I had never hiked there before. I had hiked up the first three miles of the trail with my wife a few years ago as we were enjoying a short hike after spending a few days at a cabin south of Lake Wallowa.
I had no idea how long it would take me from trailhead to Ice Lake but I usually use an hour for every thousand feet gain in elevation + an hour for every mile and a half to two miles of distance from start to destination. I use this as a rough conservative estimate for hiking time with a full pack. The condition of the trail can change that considerably and I usually hike much faster than that.
It would be just under three miles to the bridge across the West Fork of the Wallowa River, then another five miles to Ice Lake. Trail head elevation at 4,700' and Ice Lake at 7,920' - thus a gain of 3,220'.
I saw a string of pack horses and mules and several "with questions" day hikers near the trail head. I talked with some of the day hikers, but once I got a couple of miles up the trail, I pretty much was on my own.
When I got to the trail bridge over the fast flowing white water West Fork of the Wallowa River, I was surprised to see a sign informing me that the "bridge was out". Just past the signs I could see what was left of the old trail bridge. I don't think I would have tried to ford the river had that been my only choice, it was flowing too high and too fast. But there was a huge log jam, where the trail bridge used to be, that offered an easy crossing (I hand carried my backpack across in case I lost my footing so I wouldn't end up in a swift flowing river if I slipped, with a full pack buckled tightly to me).
The elevation gain is under a thousand feet to the river crossing (2.8 miles) and the next five miles involve 37 switchbacks, according to the trail hiking guides, and climb more than another 2,000 feet.
I found the trail very easy hiking with a nice easy grade. The switchback trails seemed to have been designed for stock and it was just the kind of steady gradient I like to hike. There was only once section of about a quarter mile that had a lot of loose rocks on the trail, so care was required here not to twist an ankle...other than that a sweet trail all the way.
It took my four and half hours from trailhead to the camp I selected which was high on a bench above the lake and just above the outlet creek. It provided a good steady breeze, which I knew would serve as a good mosquito deterrent. A small snow field next to my camp made a great ice box for my diet Mt. Dew, which has become my trail beverage of choice (partly because it clinches my thirst even when warm, has lots of caffeine, and has no after taste -- it tastes great).
I used a "cache it and don't carry it" strategy I have used for desert hiking when it comes to beverages. First of all I have given up on the strong but heavy and fixed shape Nalgene bottles of all colors and shapes. Instead I carry bottled water and/or diet Mt. Dew, in their lightweight plastic bottles. These can be refilled OR if not needed, they can be squashed to force all the air out then capped. Once squashed and capped they take up much less pack space and of course, weigh next to nothing.
I took my water filter and FOUR full 20 oz bottle of diet Mt. Dew. Two of these bottles fit well in the lower outside stretch net pockets on each side of my REI Flash 65 pack. They are easy to reach and if one were to develop a leak for any reason, they would not wet anything inside my pack.
Each 20 oz bottle weighs 1 lb. 6 3/4 oz, so the four full bottle weigh over FIVE pounds. I need my caffeine, so I want to be able to drink some, start to finish on a hike, yet not carry extra pounds too far. So...after crossing the log jam across the river at 2.8 miles I dug a hole into some river sand and cached one full bottle of diet Mt. Dew. Two mile farther up the trail I dug another hole and buried a second 20 oz bottle of diet Mt. Dew.
I drank from the two remaining bottles of diet Mt. Dew as I hiked and by the time I reached Ice Lake, I had drank all of one the bottles and about a third of the second. I set up my tent, hung my food sack, and then headed for the lake to filter water. I filled the empty bottle and chugged the nice cold water. I filled it again and did the same. Now I placed half the remaining diet Mt. Dew (with its precious taste and caffeine) in the two bottles and topped them off with ice cold water from Ice Lake. These I placed in a snow bank next to my tent for an ice cold drink any time I wanted it.
This was my first field test for my new Big Agnes Copper Spur UL1 solo backpacking tent. I decided to leave the rain fly off at night, since there was zero chance of rain and it didn't look as though high winds would be a problem. Besides, I wanted to go to sleep looking up at the black star filled sky at 8,000 feet. So my lodging and bed for the night consisted of the Copper Spur UL1 with footprint; a VERY comfy Big Agnes Q-Core air mattress; and a light warm weight Marmot Pinnacle 800 fill down bag rated at +15. I stuffed my primaloft jacket inside the compression sack used to transport my sleeping bag as an adequate "pillow".
I spent all my time until night came, wandering the shore of Ice Lake and climbing repeatedly to high vantage points, where I could take photos and enjoy being in such a spectacular setting and a lake I had never before hiked to. It was precious and enjoyable time.
At dark I hung my LED headlamp up in the roof of my tent and broke out some short story reading material I had copied from various editions of Outside magazine and had brought along. It was a beautiful night. No wind, just the constant sounds of the outlet creek from Ice Lake, not far from my camp, and .... silence.
I slept extremely well. The Copper Spur UL1 was much roomier (and lighter) than my other solo backpacking tent. The Marmot down bag always keeps me more than warm; and I am a convert to the BA insulated Q-Core air mattress. With self inflators I have always woke up with a sore hip or shoulder which would seem to always find the hard ground at night, as I tried to sleep on one side of my other. Not so with the Q-Core, "nothing but air". I'm sold.
When I next awoke, the stars had disappeared and I could tell that morning was on its way. I checked my watch and it was five o'clock in the morning 7.24.12. I didn't want to miss sunrise arriving on the peaks above Ice Lake (The Matterhorn and Sacajawea being the two most prominent and highest). I got up, put on my Mountain Hardware primaloft jacket to warm up and headed up the hill behind my camp, camera in hand (I used the G10 on Monday and the G9 on Tuesday).
I hiked the hills above the lake and the shore trails taking photographs. I returned to camp to eat a bite and break camp. I had to place my tent footprint and the tent itself out in the morning sun to dry off as dew had arrived during the night and I even had a thin sheet of ice on some of my gear. By seven in the morning I had everything packed and I started hiking back down the trail.
It had taken my four and half hours coming up and it took me three and half hours hiking out. I'm old, overweight, and out of shape, but have always preferred to hike steadily at a comfortable pace. So with only a few pack off breaks of five or ten minutes to drink or snack, I pretty much hike all the time when on the trail. The exception of course is quick stops for photo ops. I ALWAYS carry a camera on my pack sternum strap, so if I see anything I want to photo it is easy for me to come up with a camera.
When I reached my car at 10:30 am I first grabbed a cold can of diet Pepsi from my ice chest, then changed into jeans, a cotton shirt, and traded hiking boots for Crocs. I drove into Joseph and spent some time walking about town (the fly fishing shop in Joseph is a good one to visit). Then I headed straight for Denny's in La Grande, Oregon for a steak and egg dinner. I figured I had it coming. Home by six Tuesday night....a bit sore...no mosquito bites...and very happy to have finally spent a night at Ice Lake in the fabulous Eagle Cap Wilderness.
Here is a link to a day hike that my son and I took and later a backpacking trip my wife and I took in another section of the Eagle Cap Wilderness: