Crystal Creek Upper Klamath NWR

Crystal Creek Upper Klamath NWR
Crystal Creek Upper Klamath NWR

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

06-12-2019 Spontaneous Camping in the Cascades

Current Location:  Sunset House in Grants Pass with clear, sunny skies and 80 degrees F

One of the many reasons we chose to live in Grants Pass is how close it is to the Cascade lakes and mountains.  So many times as we travel back and forth over the High Lakes Pass on Highway 140 I think about the smell of the firs, the sound of a crackling campfire, and wish that we could take time to spend a few days camping instead of simply driving through. 

When we lived in Rocky Point, our home was in the middle of the forest, a quarter mile from Klamath Lake, and we enjoyed all that mountain air.  That air came with the mixed blessing of hordes of mosquitoes, fire danger all around us in late summer, tiny frogs by the dozens who loved to invade our hot tub, and deep winter snows.  Somehow, visiting the mountains is much more thrilling than actually living there, at least at this stage of life.

It was with great delight that we looked at each other, at the calendar, and said, “Let’s Go Camping”.  All we needed was a couple of days and a close location to escape in the MoHo.  Last year around this time we camped at Howard Prairie, a reservoir a bit more distant than the location we chose for this trip.  I checked the Bureau of Reclamation website for reservoir levels, and discovered that while both Howard Prairie and Hyatt Lake were full on May 31, by the middle of June the water levels were down to 51 percent.  Really?  We had a lot of water this year, lots of mountain snows.  Lake Shasta farther south is full to the brim for the first time in years, so neither of us could figure out the reason for emptying the reservoirs so early in the season. 

Hidden away in that data was a surprise.  Tiny Fish Lake, just west of the bigger and much more popular Lake of the Woods, was 97 percent full, and the Doe Point forest service campground seemed like a good place to check out this little lake. 

Mo and I have a memory of Fish Lake from 2003, when we climbed to the top of the nearby Mt McLoughlin, at nearly 10,000 feet, with an expansive view of both Lake of the Woods, and Fish Lake.  Lake of the Woods was bright blue, and Fish Lake was bright green. Mo and I had only known each other a few months, but this great and somewhat challenging hike set the tone for our friendship for the next 16 years.

It seems that the smaller lake is subject to non toxic but rather ugly algae blooms.  We hoped that this early in the season it would still be nice and clear. 

We arrived at the campground at the perfect time, just after 1PM on a Wednesday, when most people had checked out and check in time was officially after 2PM.  There were several sites open, and several sites that had signs saying they were available for one night only, and several reserved and occupied sites.  We drove around the loops a couple of times, checked out the nearby Fish Lake Campground, and decided on a nice quiet level spot toward the upper end of the Doe Point Campground.  Shade was important since there are no hookups at either of these campgrounds and we wanted to stay reasonably cool.

After settling in, I found the camp host, a very short and very talkative and quite nice guy who was very helpful.  He had lots to say about the reservation system, when and where we could park, and the park rules.  We were able to snag the spot for two nights, with no reservations coming up that would interfere with our plans or require us to move. 

Later, as we walked around the campground we discovered a few primo sites that are right on the lake, with a short dirt trail down to the water where we could keep the kayaks.  But that will be for next time, when I might opt for the reservation fee to be sure to get one of those sites. 

On that lovely, warm afternoon, it felt just perfect to be up in the firs, with plenty of space and no one else nearby.  That would change the next afternoon when a family moved in to the site below us, but on that first evening all was quiet.  Even after the people moved in later, with several campsites occupied for their extended family, the kids were all playing down at the lake and the elders gathered at a more distant site, which made us quite happy.

That first afternoon we wandered a bit, explored the campgrounds, did some hiking along the lake trail, and then we pulled out the Weber Q for some excellent chicken.  Why does everything always taste better in the mountains?!  Mo built a campfire with our well seasoned oak and madrone from a few years of tree trimming at Sunset House, and we settled in with a glass of wine and Mattie and our books to keep us entertained until bedtime.

The next morning was chilly, cool enough that Mo needed a jacket to take the dog out, and we waited until after 9 to take the kayaks down to the boat launch site.  That green water wasn’t terrible, and the launch site wasn’t difficult.  When we first got on the lake it was pretty windy, but once out past Doe Point the wind settled down and we had a great paddle to the far end of the lake where the dam is located. 

Fish Lake has a ten mph speed limit for boats, so it is great for kayaking.  Mattie is used to kayaking, and as usual after about 90 minutes she got a bit restless, but two hours was plenty of time to cruise the lake, check out the lakeside remote cabins, and enjoy the bird life.  We didn’t see the eagles and ospreys that we often see at other lakes, but there were lots of American white pelicans, egrets, ducks, and geese.  The fishermen were also bringing in limits of trout, so that little bit of an algae bloom must not have been too much of a problem.

Mt McLoughlin south facing side from Fish Lake

We enjoyed a nice lunch, and then decided it was time to explore a bit more.  As I said, we travel Highway 140 often, and Mo says repeatedly, “I wonder where that road goes?”.  We piled into the Tracker with the dog and headed back west on the highway to find those dirt roads we had always wanted to explore. 

Forest Road 2815 led us down to Little Butte Creek and a well used campsite along the water that looked very inviting except for the trash lying around.  I grabbed a bag and cleaned up the trash, and Mo and I decided that camping there would be a bit iffy, with its proximity to the highway and the possibility that it might be used fairly often by somewhat unsavory types. Not a smart place to boondock for a couple of older women.

We ambled up the road for a bit of distance before deciding that the trees and the mountains weren’t opening up for much of a view to make things interesting.  Driving back to the highway, we found another dirt road that begged exploring and found ourselves on the Heppsie Mountain Road.  I had never heard of Heppsie Mountain, and we decided to go up, and up and up some more to see what it might be like.  This road was a typical forest service haul road, with lots of branches going off in all directions.  We didn’t have the phone with us and even if we did I hadn’t downloaded Google Maps to use offline so had no map.  Right.  No map.  I really wished for a forest service map about then, but alas it was an unplanned foray into the mountains.

We turned around at what I was to later discover was actually Heppsie Mountain, an unremarkable summit that has no real view unless one travels farther west to the more open southern slopes that overlook the Cascade-Siskiyou Wilderness, an area that we explored a little bit last year when we were at Howard Prairie.

It might be interesting to keep in mind that these are areas that are all within a few miles of where we lived at Rocky Point and never ventured to explore.  Something about living in the mountains makes it a bit unnecessary to wander off like this, although we did it quite a bit on the east side of the summit, but not on the west side. 

Home again in the late afternoon for quickie naps, another great picnic supper, a campfire, a glass of wine, and another wonderful dark night with gorgeous, brilliant stars overhead.

The next morning we decided to leave the MoHo in her spot since we didn’t have to check out until 2 and make the short drive down the east side of the Cascade summit to Rocky Point and our old kayak haunt.  The only hard part was deciding which way to go, up Recreation Creek, over to Crystal Creek, launch at Malone Spring? It is all so familiar, and yet never the same. 

This time we decided to launch at Rocky Point, and since the water was higher on Klamath Lake and Pelican Bay than we have ever seen at this time of year, we headed south toward Harriman Creek and Harriman Spring.  Harriman Creek is usually crystal clear, but with the high water it wasn’t quite as perfect as we have seen it.  Also, there is a lot more development at Harriman Spring Resort, and instead of the crystal clear cold water with the rare Mare’s Eggs on the bottom, we saw only bright green algae.  That was a bit of a sad moment for me, since the springs along the west side of Klamath Lake at the base of the mountains are a treasure. 

The high water gave us the rare opportunity to paddle through the Pelican Bay Cut, right across what are sometimes open fields.  This time they were inundated with enough water that we were never more shallow than a foot or so and we wove our way through the wocus and carex toward the main channel that leads from Rocky Point out to Klamath Lake proper.

Mt McLoughlin east facing side from Pelican Bay

It was a gorgeous morning, a beautiful paddle, and it felt wonderful to be back in our old home turf or should I say home water.  After loading up the kayaks, we drove the short distance back to Harriman Springs Resort and opted for a beer sitting on the beautiful outdoor deck overlooking Harriman Spring where we had so recently paddled.

Mattie wasn’t old enough for a beer, but she did enjoy sitting on the patio and acting like a grownup.

It was a perfect 3 day, 2 night getaway, filled with the heady fragrance of firs and campfires, fresh air and blue skies. Fish Lake is so close to us, and it doesn’t seem nearly as crowded and busy as Lake of the Woods or Howard Prairie.  I will have to check the reservoir levels, but I am sure we will return again for a spur of the moment quickie campout that is just over an hour from home.