Editor's note: This article is from the dailytidings.com blog Ecologue.
A few weeks ago we took advantage of the balmy weather and went backpacking on the Blue Lake Canyon Trail in the Sky Lakes Wilderness.
From the trailhead, located north of Mt. McLoughlin, the dusty path descends through a forest and quickly emerges at Round Lake, the first of several alpine lakes. Shimmering blue edged by emerald grass — of course we had to stop, even though the mile of downhill walking hadn't tired us. We took the dogs' packs off before they drenched their food and soaked up the scenery while they splashed and tore crazy circles in the bushes (my dogs love backpacking).
Eventually we realized we had to keep going if we wanted to see the rest of the trail. (The hardest part of the trip? Tearing ourselves away from picturesque lakes.) Another mile down the path we arrived at Blue Lake (which the guidebook author claims is the prettiest of the bunch). A beautiful campsite perched above the shore (wilderness rules: no camping within 100 feet of the lake) tempted us, but we decided to keep going after another dip for the dogs and a pika search.
Pikas, also known as "conies" or "rock rabbits" (and they are related to rabbits), live in rocky areas at high altitudes, and the steep rock face fronting Blue Lake is one place they can be found in the Cascades. Pikas are thought to be early victims of global warming, as the thick fur that enables them to survive harsh winters also makes them heat sensitive — I've heard that pikas have a difficult time surviving in temperatures higher than the mid-70s. Some scientists call the pika the "canary in the coal mine" of global warming in the West.
Despite the cool weather Saturday afternoon, we didn't see pikas, but we heard their plaintive "meep" calls, and we did spot one Sunday on the way back to the car. Picture this: You're hundreds of feet away, squinting at the rocks because you forgot to bring the binoculars and you don't want your lab/border collie/boxer mix to get any ideas about chasing pikas. A tiny blob of fur is darting among the rocks, scampering up boulders and scurrying down slopes. Occasionally he emits his bleating cry — in between his dashing. It was like watching a home video shot from too far away on fast forward ... but at least we got to see our first pika.
We continued along the trail past grassy Meadow Lake another half mile to Horseshoe Lake, and then another half mile to Pear Lake, which the guidebook said must have been named before bananas became popular (it's more oblong than pear shaped). Huckleberry bushes crowded much of the trail, and it was berry season. We picked them until our fingers and tongues were stained purple. The dogs also enjoyed grazing the bushes. Past Pear Lake, the trail gets drier and rockier as it climbs and then drops down for two miles to Island Lake. Supposedly, these mounds of rock, called "moraines," were torn from the mountain by glaciers.
We saw a different piece of history at Island Lake: the Judge Waldo Tree. Judge John B. Waldo of Salem served as chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court in the 1880s, but he may be more well known for his conservation efforts in support of the Cascades. (Some have dubbed him "Oregon's John Muir.") In 1888, Waldo and a small party traveled the length of the Cascades on horseback, from Mt. Jefferson to Mt. Shasta. He carved his name and the date in a tall lodgepole pine on the shore of Island Lake, where you can still see it (albeit faintly) today.
Island Lake contains a small island with a couple trees, backed by a larger island with more trees. Tiny toads crawled in the grass along the shore, and a school of fish gathered in a lake-bottom trench where a small stream ran into the water.
We camped away from the shore in the woods to avoid the bloodthirsty mosquitoes, which weren't actually that terrible, according to what I've heard Sky Lakes mosquitoes are like in midsummer.
The next day we enjoyed a lazy ramble back to the trailhead, with plenty of swimming and huckleberry eating along the way.