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Sounds (and bites) of nature

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Backpacking trip to the source of the Umpqua River comes with ups and downs
Photo by Lee JuilleratDiane Miller pauses to enjoy the forest along the trail to Maidu Lake.
Photo by Sharon LeedhamA frog peeks from the shallows along Maidu Lake.
Photo by Lee JuilleratA view of Howlock Mountain from Maidu Lake.
Photo by Lee JuilleratCheryl Brown dons her mosquito netting on a backpacking trip to Maidu Lake.

MAIDU LAKE — The sweet, subtle sounds of nature woke us up early, well before dawn.

Likewise, unheard sounds of nature forced us to forego savoring evening sunsets from lakeside viewpoints and, instead, caused us to take refuge inside our tents.

The first night at Maidu Lake our foursome retreated about 7:30, long before sunset. Why? Because as the welcoming breeze faded, silent hordes of mosquitoes flew kamikaze style around our heads and faces while others quietly drilled their needle-like proboscises into exposed skin. The swarms were intense, but we mostly kept them from getting in tents.

Once settled inside and safe, other sounds of nature, those of croaking frogs — or were they toads? — penetrated the calm. Sometimes they sang in a chorus of blended harmonies. More often it was an abrupt cacophony of competing, out-of-sync, deep-throated belches. And other times a single croaker expelled elongated, low-pitched guttural groanings. And when it stopped, the silence was deafening.

Mornings inside our tents, we woke to sounds of nature waking up. Before the sky brightened we heard the thrilling, trilling melodies of unseen song birds. Then, as the sky lightened, more sounds resonated — the hard edged “caws!” of crows, the deep-pitched screeches of who-knows-what, and the rat-a-tat hammerings of woodpeckers.

Leaving our tents that first morning, it quickly dawned on us that being outside required coatings of mosquito repellent. The critters were annoying, but mostly controllable. Not the second morning — they were voracious. Sharon Leedham complained about skitters in her cereal.

“They’re hungry,” agreed Diane Miller.

After gobbling her breakfast, Cheryl Brown fashionably covered her head and shoulders with a mesh curtain of mosquito netting.

We knew we’d tangle with mosquitoes, which are notorious in Southern Oregon’s Cascades from June into August. But, skitters be damned, we wanted to keep alive a previously planned three-day, two-night backpack to Maidu Lake.

Reaching Maidu requires a four-plus-mile hike from the Digit Point Campground at Miller Lake, 12 rumpy, unpaved miles off Highway 97 just north of Chemult.

The hike to Maidu is delightful. The first mile ambles along the shores of beautiful Miller Lake, known for its usual swarms of skitters, but over this long weekend it was amazingly bug-free. Footbridges along the trail cross a series of bubbly lake-feeding creeks.

Just steps past the Evening Creek bridge is a junction where the Miller Lake Trail continues its five-mile circuit. We followed the spur, almost immediately entering the Mount Thielsen Wilderness and passing through stands of mixed conifers as the trail climbs to an intersection with the Pacific Crest Trail. We crossed the PCT, continuing west nearly a downhill mile through stands of lodgepole pine to Maidu Lake.

Maidu is beautiful 20-acre lake nearly entirely circled by trees. Two backpackers, the only other people we saw during our three days, were camped where the trail meets the lake, where the view features stunning sights of semi-snow-covered Cascades peaks.

We hiked east, making camp where the lake circuit trail meets the North Umpqua Trail. Maidu is the source of the North Umpqua River. But at the outlet where Maidu feeds the river, it’s baffling to think the trickle of water that filters through a marshy area is the headwaters of a 110-mile river, one that eventually merges with the South Umpqua on its journey to the Pacific Ocean.

We set up tents and picked a lakeside cooking-eating spot. The choice proved prophetic, providing views of ducks performing all sorts of shenanigans — zooming in pairs like fighter jets on reconnaissance missions, sometimes uttering quacks that echoed across the lake. Twosomes paddled side-by-side or merged to flotillas of four or five and, appropriately, ducked underwater seeking snacks.

But, wait, there was more.

Close to shore, eyes of curious frogs watched us from the weeds. A snake slithered past. And, of course, we felt more than saw the ever-present mosquitoes.

The mosquitoes proved to be motivators. The first morning they spurred us to leave camp and head down the North Umpqua Trail. A detour took us to nearby Lucile Lake, Maidu’s beautiful little sister. The second morning they hastened our return back to Miller Lake. That morning we learned why one writer calls Maidu “the Grand Central Station of mosquitoes in the Cascades.”

The hike along the North Umpqua Trail was enticing, but challenging. We had encountered a few fallen trees on the hike from Miller Lake to Maidu. But from Lucile on, past where the forest boundary changes from the Fremont-Winema to the Umpqua National Forest, we faced dozens of obstacles — trees we had to climb over, detour around or even slither under. The reward was bucolic places where bridges crossed over lush, often mossy creeks flowing to the unseen North Umpqua. After lunch we retraced our steps back to Maidu to enjoy mid-afternoon sightings of elusive frogs and snakes, and showing-their-stuff cavorting ducks.

As the mosquitoes reminded us, nothing in nature is perfect. But, as the overriding beauty and experiences proved, everything in nature is perfect.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.