Unexpected Adrenaline in Oregon

Until just recently, I have never known anyone from Oregon, and I could not tell you one thing about the state, as I have never heard anything about it. In fact, I learned the proper pronunciation of the state’s name only a few months ago when my boyfriend Shane was assigned to a station in Toketee, Oregon, where he is a wilderness fire fighter for the National Forest Service in the Diamond Lake district, a mere half hour or so from Crater Lake National Park.

After three months away in South Africa, it was time to visit Shane and see where he was living. I didn’t have any expectations for the six-day visit other than getting a tour of the bunkhouse and finally “meeting the guys.” I assumed I would spend half the time showing him my thousands of pictures of springboks and herds of soccer fans and the other half moping over the fact that the nearest supermarket was sixty miles away. It turns out I never had time to show him the pictures, and there was absolutely no time for moping. Shane picked me up at the airport in Eugene two and a half hours away from Toketee, dragged me by the arm and threw my bag in the back of the pickup. Instead of inquiring after my jetlag, he said Come on, we have so much to do. We quickly stocked up on six days’ worth of groceries, and after driving the 130 miles to the fire station, Shane proudly showed me the daunting itinerary he had taped up onto his bedroom door for me.

Nothing about Oregon was boring or mundane.

Shane thought that after three months of the urban Cape Town lifestyle, he should “ease” me back into some light outdoor activities; that is, he decided a quick ascent of 9,184-foot Mt. Thielsen would be appropriate. Not only had I not been hiking in a long time, I had also come from a winter climate directly into a hot summer sun. Moreover, any mountain climb with Shane is potentially harrowing; after having already climbed four of the “seven summits,” his pace on some “shorter” peaks is faster than that of the average bear. Summiting Mt. Thielsen last week makes it my highest mountain to date, but getting to the top was no picnic. After chasing along behind Shane’s heels for three hours, the last fifteen minutes of the climb definitely marks the most on-edge I had ever felt on a mountain. With an entirely unobstructed view of Diamond Lake, Mt. Thielsen’s peak is completely exposed, acting as a perfect lightning rod on bad weather days; the locals call it “the lightning rod of the Cascades.” One misstep up there on the needle-point summit, and you will have a long but direct fall down to the shale cliffs below. Moreover, the peak of this mountain involves actual rock climbing, not just hiking, something to which I was more accustomed on smaller mountains in the northeast. After a short freak-out session a mere ten feet from the summit, frozen in mortal terror with both elbows hooked for safety over a rock ledge, I finally dragged myself to the tippity top and shook like a leaf for the next forty minutes, dreading the precarious climb down. Shane congratulated me on summiting while he happily munched on pretzels. Obviously I lived to tell the tale.

The next day Shane thought I deserved some fun in the sun, so he took me an hour’s drive from Toketee to the South Umpqua River. At first, it appears to be just a regular old stream, but a hundred meters downhill, the water takes a dive into a hollowed-out crater, leaving perfect waterfalls along the sides, about fifteen feet above the water’s surface. While Shane took multiple trips down the naturally-occurring stone water slides and leapt off every possible jumping point, I stood with my toes peeking over the slippery edge, considering my options, the easy way down or the hard way down. The easy way would be to go ahead and jump and have fun with it, while the hard way would be to try to maneuver, turn around and climb up the slippery rock slope back to level ground. Apparently the easy way down was even easier than I thought; while I stood there assessing things, worrying over who would look after my dog for the next ten years if I somehow didn’t “make it,” four small children in life jackets, none of them even four feet tall yet, chucked themselves ahead of me with a running start down into the falls. By this point Shane was standing at the bottom on the other side of all the rocks, his arms crossed over his chest, his eyebrow raised at me, a look on his face that could have said We are not talking the rest of the day if you don’t jump in already. I had just crossed nine time zones and endured over thirty hours of air travel to make this visit, so I decided to get it over with. I landed just to the left of the four children bobbing in their neon orange jackets in the water, and the littlest one said something to the effect of look, finally she jumped. The biggest one sagely agreed that it was better late than never. And that’s how I can sum up my adventures in Oregon; it took me a quarter of a century to make it over here, but the state offers up some of the most impressive natural features I have ever seen.

After all the brisk water, we were in the mood for some hot water. Shane drove us to the Toketee Hot Springs, which involved about a mile-long hike through the woods. The five or so hot springs are hottest at the top of the hill and get consecutively cooler going down the hill. We had just dipped our feet into the top pool when a garrulous completely nude man stood up out of one of the other pools and made several attempts to engage us in lengthy conversation. After taking a few pictures of the pretty pools and making small talk with our new friend, we agreed we had certainly “seen enough” and chuckled to each other as we crossed paths with a family with three young children making their way towards the hot springs. The father asked how is it over there?, and we confirmed that it was just as beautiful as one would expect, except he and his family might be getting more than they bargained for. He skipped ahead of his family up the path to evaluate the scene. I wonder how things worked out.

Also worth mentioning are the countless waterfalls along route 138. You simply pull off the road at the signs for the campsites, and the various falls are within a quarter mile. My favorite was Watson falls, just across the street from Shane’s fire station. Notice how small the people are in the bottom right hand corner.

The most tame predictable thing we did those six days was taking pictures of the aqua crystal clear Crater Lake. It was hot in the direct sun, but on August 1st, kids scooped up snowballs from the six inches of snow left along some of the roadsides—most of the park’s elevation is in the 7,000-8,000 foot range, with the lake’s surface just over 6,000 feet. Shane and I have already visited more than twenty national parks together, but I didn’t know anything about Crater Lake National Park aside from the fact that it is gorgeous. There doesn’t seem to be as much widespread knowledge about Crater Lake as compared to other places like the Grand Canyon or Mount Rushmore, so I found out that it started forming 7,700 years ago when Mt. Mazama collapsed in on itself after violently erupting, eventually filling with water from rain and snow. On my last full day in Oregon, Shane had to go back to work, so I returned all by myself to Crater Lake to actually go swimming at the bottom of the Cleetwood Cove trail. To my horror, swimmers were throwing themselves off a 19-foot ledge into the sparkling water. It seemed safe enough, what with the perfect visibility under the lake’s surface, and I busied myself getting action shots of the happy jumpers. I was pleased to sit this one out on the sidelines— after a week of such a surplus of outdoor excitement, I felt entitled to finally draw the line.

Watson Falls is approximately 60 miles east of Roseburg, Oregon, on route 138. Crater Lake National Park is another twenty minutes farther.

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