I’ve been hunting a lot this fall. Trees, mushrooms, even deer and elk. I’ve never really approached my outside time with this perspective, so it’s been a really interesting and enlightening experience. And, in some cases, extremely tasty.
First, the trees.
One of my favorite trees is the Lyall larch (Larix lyallii), which is an alpine conifer that turns golden yellow-orange in the fall. Individually, they’re not that flashy (people often mistake them for being dead), but when you get hundreds of them together and sprinkle in some craggy mountain scenery, you have the stuff from which my dreams are made.
We don’t have any Lyall larch in Oregon, but we do have Western larch (Larix occidentalis), a shyer, beefier cousin of the Lyall larch. These larch only like dry, well-drained soils, so they tend to hang out east of the Cascades – with exception, of course. The closest substantial patch to Portland is in the Badger Creek wilderness, where this hunt begins.
I had my eyes set on a four-day trip to the Okanogan National Forest to check out the Lyall larch show in mid-October, but a brief spell of bad weather nixed the trip. Two friends and I were scheduled to do an Enchantments Traverse around that time, too, but the same little weather system also dumped a bunch of new snow in the Alpine Lakes and North Cascades. We all had already crossed off “Climb Aasgard Pass in Thigh-Deep Snow” from our bucket list on a previous trip, so we weren’t keen on a long drive to do the same. But I still had a larch itch to scratch and I wanted to see if we could find a nice patch or two a little closer to home. So, despite a dodgy forecast, I convinced my compadres to kit up for what looked to be the last backpacking trip of the season.
Grab yer bags, girls! We’re goin’ larch huntin’!
I wanted to head straight to Larch Ground Zero – Flag Point in the Badger Creek wilderness – to see how they were coming along. My partners had other objectives, including a long hike with some good elevation gain and views. We compromised and went in from the east along Little Badger Creek, dropped our gear around 4,000′ near the helispot, and then dayhiked to Flag Point through thick clouds and mist. At one point, it snowed for 35 seconds. We skipped and danced as the handful of flakes lazily fell onto the ground and then made the season’s first snowman.
East of Flag Point, the larch were few and far between. Our sightings were small and chartreuse. On top of Flag Point, we could see nothing but cloud and the faintest glow of yellow in the distance, like candles in the fog. We returned to camp as it started to grow dark, where we beat back the cold and wet with a warm campfire and hot buttered rum (which, for future reference, should not be made with powdered non-fat milk).
We had some nice fall color on the hike out, mostly from the vine maple, white oaks, and ferns, but no larch.
Though we didn’t see the elusive golden halo of the Western larch on that outing, I was determined to go back and try again. My next opportunity was later that week, in perfect weather, with a new friend.
We started early from the Fret Creek trail and hiked the Divide Trail between Flag Point and Lookout Mountain, a T-hike just under 11 miles. Just driving to the trailhead was glorious, as there are some awesome larch patches along the Dufur Mill Road (FR 44) that were radiant in the morning sun.
The afternoon was too glorious to rush, so we lingered on top of Lookout Mountain for a while (time = one dog nap). Looking out across the valley to the timberline flanks of Hood, I noticed that there were some large patches of larch in the 2008 Gnarl Burn area. When I got home that night, I cross-referenced my photos with Google Earth and my Mt. Hood Wilderness map and found that one of the big patches could be accessed by the little-used Lamberson Spur Trail. The other patches were in trail-less terrain between Lamberson Spur and Elk Meadows. That would have to be another adventure for another day.
I called up my trail friend Amanda and pitched my plan: adventure hike with potentially no views, lots of blowdown, and some cross-country. This was an exploratory mission with potentially no big payout. She was game, as always, and so we set off early the following week to see what we could see.
It was a glorious late October day. Our teeth chattered as we left the Tamawanas Falls trailhead but we had stripped to t-shirts and shorts by the time we had gained the ridge to hook up with the Lamberson Spur trail. It was a pokey, interesting hike. We stopped to photograph little clusters of larch, funky mushrooms, and climb over blowdown. We told stories and caught up on life, and then, right when we were ready to call it, we popped over a small ridge to the fire staging area and saw what we came to see: Mt. Hood and the patch of larch.
The perfect view was really hard to come by. A rock outcropping offered up the best perspective, but it wasn’t ideal. I shot a couple of photos from various points on the outcropping but yearned for a Storm Drone 6 more than ever. Or that I could fly. (Both unlikely.)
I was happy to have found these larch and seen them at their peak. Next year I’ll go down into the patch and explore them more fully, but this year’s hunt was satisfying in so many ways. I got to have the season’s last backpacking trip with some good friends, I got to meet someone new and extraordinary, and I got to slow down and spend a whole day with a good trail friend in a new place, all during one of the most incredible October’s I’ve ever experienced in the Pacific Northwest. It almost makes up for getting skunked in the Alpine Lakes and the Okanogan, the land of my dreams.