BAKER CITY — We looked at the map, but didn’t really study the map.
My friend Meggan Hills and I always plan a backpacking trip for the last weekend of July. It’s become our tradition — a 30-hour leave from our responsibilities as mothers.
This year we both turned 40. We contemplated a 40-mile hike to celebrate, but knew we would need more than one night to accomplish that adventure.
Instead, we chose Hidden Lake.
We started out on a morning that was already warm. The map indicated a hike of about 8.5 miles. The first 7 are on the East Eagle Trail; the last mile and a half is a side trail that leads to Moon Lake and Hidden Lake.
I traversed this trail about 15 years ago and remembered several good patches of huckleberries a couple miles into the hike. This year did not disappoint, and we paused several times (OK, a lot) to pluck plump purple berries from the bushes lining the trail. Backpacking is not conducive to carrying heavy fresh fruit, so we relished this sweet treat.
We met a few groups of hikers heading down to the trailhead. Upon hearing our destination, they gave us a few tips on finding Hidden Lake (there’s a reason for its name) and also told us they didn’t see very many mosquitoes (more on this later).
The hike up East Eagle is one of my favorites. The trail isn’t quite as dusty as the well-used trails on the north side of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, and we crossed stream after stream that bubbled across our path. The wildflowers were a bouquet of color — the red of Indian paintbrush, the purple of penstemon, the bright pink of skyrocket gilia, the pinkish-purple of fireweed.
Backpacking is a fairly slow business when you hike uphill with packs that weigh between 25 and 30 pounds. The first 7 miles is a fairly gentle grade that rises 2,000 feet.
As the sun beat down in the afternoon, we grinned when we saw the big rock cairn with a post that indicated our trail to Hidden Lake (there is no sign).
We walked down to East Eagle Creek and swapped our hiking boots for sandals. A sturdy stick lay nearby, perhaps left by previous hikers who used it to cross the water.
Here’s the thing about the high mountains: The water comes from snowmelt and icy springs. The first few steps were refreshing on my tired, hot feet. Then, as I neared the other bank, the sensation turned more to an ache and I nearly lost feeling in my toes.
Safe on the other side, we again donned our boots and hitched our packs back on sweaty backs.
This was the part where we didn’t really study the map.
The mileage sounds nice: 1.6 miles.
The elevation? Not so nice at nearly 1,000 feet.
We started up, and kept going up. The trail tends to loose rock and a pitch that more resembles a trail in the Elkhorn Mountains, rather than the gentle switchbacks of the Eagle Cap.
We stopped every so often to catch our breath and give our burning legs a break.
We were very happy to see Moon Lake, which is small and shallow but still pretty against its backdrop of cliffs.
The trail led gently around the lake, then headed uphill again.
This time, as we picked our way around granite rocks that wanted to roll under our boots, we couldn’t help but worry about the next day when we had to come down the same trail.
But all our aches were momentarily forgotten when we saw Hidden Lake. (Again, there is no sign. The trail fades out and you hike over a rise to the right to find the lake.)
Looking east across the lake we could see Eagle Cap, although it’s not quite as impressive as it’s seen from Mirror Lake in the Lake Basin.
We filtered water from a cold stream, then took off our shoes and waded into the lake. Although we were hot and sweaty, we knew the sun would soon set and decided against a quick dip that would result in wet clothes. But soaking our feet and legs was a nice compromise.
(Remember the hiker who claimed he didn’t see any mosquitoes? Perhaps they moved in after he left, but we used nearly a full bottle of repellent to ward off the annoying bugs. Even then we still ended up with itchy bites.)
Our campsite sat in a space fairly far from trees, which meant we had a panoramic view of the starry sky. The sliver of waning moon didn’t rise until early morning, so whenever I opened my eyes at night (which is quite often, as camping is not nearly as comfortable as my bed back home) I marveled at billions of stars.
Although it’s quite quiet in the wilderness, we did awaken to an eerie chirping sound, which we later learned was a cow elk calling to her calf. Near dawn, a rustling woke us up as a doe licked the salt off our backpacks.
Morning in the mountains is often a chilly time, and this was no exception. Hot coffee tastes especially nice on a camping trip, and the cups warmed our hands.
After cleaning up camp and finding a couple of sturdy sticks, we slowly made our way back down the steep trail.
Although loop hikes are my favorite for seeing a lot of country, an out-and-back route allows you to see the scenery that was at your back on the way up.
We met a few hikers on the way down, mostly locals who knew the trail well. We swapped stories, which was a nice break from the walking that seems harder the second day with tired legs and sore shoulders.
As happens, the trail seemed longer on the way down — but the huckleberries seemed sweeter.
Back at the rig, we sunk into the soft seats and broke out the icy watermelon I stashed in a cooler.
Although my calf muscles are still sore as I write this, I know that feeling will fade soon. The memories of a weekend adventure with my friend, however, will stay vivid for a long time.