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home : columns : columns August 17, 2017

9/3/2013 1:15:00 PM
Patjens Lakes Trail still a good hike
Hikers take a swim break in one of the Patjens Lakes post-fire. photo by Craig Eisenbeis
+ click to enlarge
Hikers take a swim break in one of the Patjens Lakes post-fire. photo by Craig Eisenbeis

By Craig Eisenbeis

Two years ago, a smoldering fire spotted from the Black Butte lookout tower failed to attract much fire suppression attention. Initially ignored, the fire quickly grew to over 300 acres in the next two days; and, in less than two weeks, the Shadow Lake Fire swept across the Cascade crest, and 10,000 acres were aflame in the shadow of Mt. Washington.

The roads leading to the Big Lake Youth Camp, along the route of the old Santiam Wagon Road, eventually served as a fire break on the north side of the fire. The fire burned to within a few yards of the youth camp, but the camp itself was saved. Meanwhile, the fire burned west around the south shore of Big Lake toward the Patjens Lakes.

The Patjens Lakes are located near the top of Santiam Pass behind Hoodoo ski area. Since they are over the Cascade crest, this is part of the Willamette National Forest. The trail takes off from the northwest corner of Big Lake and follows a six-mile loop through what was, until 2011, a beautiful mixed-conifer forest.

I hadn't explored these lakes since the fire and decided that it was time to do so. I was disappointed - and a bit surprised - to note that even the trailhead area was pretty thoroughly burned; although not to an extreme soil-sterilizing extent.

The area is already showing some signs of recovery and regeneration. Many wildflowers appeared in the area this year - although they are mostly gone by now. The fire-tolerant Indian beargrass is much in evidence. Current editions of wildflower books have dropped the "Indian" but still note that Native Americans continue to use the plant leaves in basket-making. With fallen needles and other forest floor debris mostly consumed by the fire, the beargrass shoots sometimes sprout like tiny palm trees atop the protruding and charred tuber-like root stalks.

The average elevation of this hike is around 4,600 feet. Published trail information usually rates this hike as "easy," and mentions a 400-foot elevation gain. There isn't any mention, however, of how many times the 400 feet are climbed. In reality, the issue of elevation gain isn't that big a deal, because this really is an easy hike; but it does seem like the trail has more ups and downs than commonly advertised.

This trail sees a lot of horse traffic, so it's very well defined and even worn down below ground level in places. After leaving the trailhead near the campgrounds, the trail forks; and a sign points both ways to the Patjens Lakes. We went to the right, following the loop counterclockwise. Choosing this route saves the best lake scenery for the latter half of the hike.

The burned-over forest included lodgepole, whitebark, and white pines, quite a bit of hemlock, and most of Oregon's true firs, including white, grand, Pacific silver, noble, and sub-alpine. At this stage, new conifer seedlings are relatively few. The first part of this hike follows a marshy drainage area, and later offers views of the Three Sisters and some of the west side's more prominent foothills.

About halfway into the hike, the burned forest abruptly ends with a sudden wall of towering green trees. This sharply delineated fire margin is somewhat unusual in that a mosaic transition is much more common. In this case, however, totally burned trees stand within a few feet of trees that appear untouched.

Entering the unburned forest, there are lush meadows of bracken ferns and, a little later, a very impressive grove of old Douglas firs. If you read this column regularly, you probably know by now that these are not "true" firs of the genus Abies. In fact, the species puzzled botanists for over three-quarters of a century until, in 1867, plant scientists came up with an entirely new genus, Pseudotsuga, meaning "false hemlock."

Not long after the trail passes though this picturesque grove, fire damage starts to appear again, although in a more typical mosaic pattern this time. Also, the first, and smallest, of the Patjens Lakes soon comes into view and is the only one to appear on the right side of the trail. In the course of the next mile, the trail passes all four.

During the late 19th century and the early 20th, Henry Patjens - a Sherman County sheep rancher - grazed his animals around these lakes as soon as the snow receded and the grass greened. It is estimated that Patjens and his fellow ranchers drove as many as 50,000 sheep into the area each summer.

Sisters was the principal resupply site for the sheep ranchers all through the summer, and Patjens' habit of driving sheep through town clogged local streets long before car-driving tourists did. In the fall, the sheep were driven back through Sisters to their winter ranges, some as far away as Antelope and Shaniko.

In 1903 Shaniko was billed as the "Wool Capital of the World." Wool was shipped out by rail in 500-pound bags, and much of that wool was grown from nourishment obtained from the mountain grasses near Sisters. Timing of the sheep drives was very important. If early season snow caught the sheep still in the mountains, losses could be heavy.

Today, these out-of-the-way lakes make an excellent hiking destination. Once there, take the time for a scenic lunch break; or, as we all did, jump in for a swim!

When the easternmost of these lakes is reached, you're on the final stretch. From there, it's about a mile-and-a-half back to the shore of Big Lake and another mile along the scenic shoreline back to the trailhead parking lot at the campground. Be sure to enjoy the views of Hoodoo and Hayrick Buttes and, of course, Mt. Washington.

To reach the trailhead, take Highway 20 west from Sisters for 20 miles. Turn left (south) at the signs to Hoodoo and Big Lake, and drive about four miles on a nice paved road to the trailhead. Much of the hike is inside the Mt. Washington Wilderness Area, so a wilderness permit is required. Wilderness permits are free and self-issued at the trailhead.

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