Devils Punchbowl lies along the Doe Flat Trail in the Siskiyou Wilderness - Mary Beth Lee

What's defiled stops being wild

My sister and I hiked into the Siskiyou Wilderness in September looking to get away from it all.

We managed to find solace, camping alone at Buck Lake, Devils Punchbowl and Trout Camp, but we weren't quite able to escape nagging reminders of civilization. By the time we left, we realized it takes quite a bit of ongoing human effort to keep the wilderness free of human abuse.

Our hike began on the Doe Flat Trail, a well marked path that was re-routed in 2005 to protect an isolated stand of Port Orford cedars from the deadly Phytophthora lateralis fungus. Gasquet Ranger Station warned us about the trail remake, which does not yet appear on published maps and which, in spite of its name, no longer follows Doe Flat. The new trail makes getting to Buck Lake easier. It's well graded and on the way to Devils Punchbowl.

We spent our first night at Buck Lake, less than an hour's walk from the car. The lake is officially inside the Wilderness but has the look backpackers have come to expect from overcrowded, easy-access campsites — well-trampled ground, boughs hacked down for makeshift campsites and a fire ring filled with paper, cans and glass. A ranger we ran into on the trail said Buck Lake gets more traffic since the rerouting, and it shows.

One fire ring at Trout Camp was closing in on itself from so many hikers adding rocks to contain the ash accumulation. We watched a two-woman Forest Service clean-up crew dismantle and rebuilt a similar ring.

The new Doe Flat Trail cuts a mile off the hike to Devils Punchbowl. It's still a stiff climb to that aerie, but the rerouting avoids hundreds of feet of elevation drop and gain in each direction, an enticement for day hikers like the one who steamed by us as we struggled up the rock with overnight gear.

Devils Punchbowl is a jewel-like glacial cirque that gets swallowed by afternoon shadows and reflects the Milky Way at night. It's well used but not trashed. The hikers who stayed here the night before told us they watched a bear from their campsite.

As we lowered ourselves out of the rock toward Trout Camp the next morning, we heard gunshot — followed by a rockslide in a near-vertical chute — a reminder that individual actions cause reactions.

Trout Camp lies along the Clear Creek National Recreation Trail, a 20-mile path that follows Clear Creek from Youngs Valley, near its headwaters, to No Mans, near its tumble into the Klamath River. When we arrived at midday, a two-woman clean-up crew from the Forest Service was busy dismantling and rebuilding a fire ring that was closing in on itself.

To clean out this one fire ring at Trout Camp, our wilderness janitors undertook a full day's backpack from No Man's to Wilderness Falls, then hauled their shovels upstream three more miles before returning as they had come.

We hiked from Trout Camp to Wilderness Falls for the afternoon on a trail that sometimes disappeared into dense brush that needed pruning. A trail crew was working on one of three giant blow-downs in the area. The immensity of their task hit home when we backed off from one downed goliath and opted for a stream approach to the falls, where Clear Creek shoots into a chilly granite-lined pool.

You have to be quite hot and dirty to brave the breathtaking cold of the Wilderness Falls pool, and we were both. We soaked our clothes and ourselves, but warmed quickly on the return hike to Trout Camp. As we ate dinner we noticed a littering of pistachio shells on a cold fire ring. We had seen those shells at Buck Lake, too — the most tolerable debris at that besieged lake.

On our way out of the wilderness, we revisited Buck Lake for a swim. The fire ring contained even more trash than we'd seen two days earlier, including burned blue jeans, a bag of cans and a plastic juice bottle.

I hate to leave the impression that a visit to this wilderness isn't worthwhile. The Siskiyou Wilderness is one of the most remote and beautiful places in America. But it takes effort to stay that way. We need cleared trails to enter the Siskiyou Wilderness, but we should not need clean-up crews. What's defiled stops being wild.

Ashland resident Mary Beth Lee is a hiking, biking, skiing and backcountry-bushwhacking writer and editor.

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