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The Waldo Tree, on the shore of Island Lake, in the Sky Lakes Wilderness. Photo by Lee Juillerat

Hiking and hurdling into the Blue Canyon Basin

A recent outing into the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area included a tidbit of Oregon history, a trio of tempting mountain lakes and, fittingly during an Olympic summer, chances to work on overcoming low and high hurdles.

What is normally a 10-mile round-trip hike required added extra distance because of numerous detours, sometimes hurdling or climbing up and over trail-blocking fallen trees or rambling through the woods around mounds of trees, limbs and debris.

Our destination was Blue Lake, the jewel in the Blue Canyon Basin of the Sky Lakes Wilderness. Old wilderness maps show a trailhead from Road 3561 J, a spur off the popular Road 3561 that leads to the Cold Springs Trailhead that accesses Heavenly Twins Lakes. The trail remains but is not regularly maintained. From the unsigned trailhead, it's about 1.2 miles to a junction with Trail 987, which crosses the Pacific Crest Trail and angles west on Trail 982 toward Blue Lake.

Shortly along Trail 982, an unsigned trail goes north (right) toward Island Lake. It's an attractive lake, but the historical link at a backcountry campsite just off the right (north) side of the trail is the Waldo Tree, a 200-year-old Shasta red fir.

On Sept. 13, 1888, while traveling along the spine of the Cascade Range, Judge John B. Waldo, a 19th-century conservationist, and his four companions rested at Island Lake. Felix Isherwood, a member of the group, carved their names on the tree. Waldo used information collected during the trip in his lobbying efforts to support legislation designating the 4.5-million-acre Cascade Forest Reserve in 1893. The reserve includes portions of the Mount Hood, Deschutes, Willamette, Umpqua, Fremont-Winema and Rogue River-Siskiyou national forests.

From Island Lake, which isn't visible from the trail, our route continued west through stands of mountain hemlock and Shasta red fir. The trail passed unseen Pear Lake before reaching the southern shore of Horseshoe Lake. Its glassy waters made it a temping lunch and swim spot, but we agreed to continue another three-quarters of a mile to the Basin's gem, Blue Lake.

Good decision. Framed by a backdrop that features a rock slide on a dramatic rock cliff, the lake's shimmering, blue-green waters are charming to view and, even better, delicious for swimming. Many of us took advantage of the warm summer day and Blue Lake's relatively warm water for lazy swims before sun-drying and devouring lunches.

Although mosquitoes can be beyond obnoxious, they weren't really a factor. Even better, from now until October wild huckleberries should be ripe for picking.

The main hurdle to the hike is the proliferation of downed trees. Anthony Benedetti, recreation officer for the Fremont-Winema National Forest, said the combination of last December's heavy wet snow followed by extremely high winds in January has created trail maintenance problems throughout the region. Efforts to clear trails — the Fremont-Winema has only a two-person crew — were complicated because roads to trailheads first had to be cleared of snow, fallen trees and other debris.

"We're just playing catch-up. It's a mess," Benedetti said of trail conditions on the southern section of Sky Lakes, which is jointly managed with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. "Talking to people who've been here 30 years or longer, it's the worst they've ever seen. It's probably going to take a couple of years to clear the backlog. Even if we had a crew of 12, we still wouldn't be able to clear all the trails."

In some areas, he said, there are downed trees or debris every 50 feet. A Pacific Crest Trail hiker reportedly counted 951 downed trees on the 27 miles from Highway 140 to the Crater Lake National Park boundary. Earlier this month, volunteers worked to help clear sections of the PCT.

Crews have cleared many trails, including the Cold Springs Trail to Margurette Lake, the Sevenmile Trail to Grass and Cliff lakes and the first three miles of the Cherry Creek Trail, "But the upper portion is real bad."

Just like other trails, there are unplanned obstacles on the trek to Island, Horseshoe and Blue lakes. But some hurdles are worth overcoming. The hurdles on the Blue Canyon Basin trails aren't insurmountable. Be an Olympian and clear the hurdles.

Lee Juillerat has been writing about outdoor adventures in Southern Oregon and elsewhere for more than 30 years. He is also a regular contributor to the outdoor-travel website High On Adventure at www.highonadventure.com. He can be contacted at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

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