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The mystique of Mystic Lake

Photo by Lee Juillerat A sign points the way from the South Pass Trail to the once-hidden Mystic Lake.
Photo by Lee Juillerat Late afternoon at Mystic Lake in the Mountain Lakes Wilderness Area, with distant peaks in the background.

Some places generate a sense of awe, sublime secrecy, even a hint of the unknown.

One of those places is Mystic Lake, an often unseen, unknown lake in the Mountain Lakes Wilderness Area. It’s shown on Forest Service maps off the little-traveled South Pass Trail, a short detour from the Mountain Lakes Loop Trail. Because the lake is tucked away and can’t be seen from any trails, it’s a true wilderness lake.

Decades ago, the trail to the lake was easy to miss. In recent years, however, trail crews with the Fremont-Winema National Forest have posted a sign, “Mystic Lake, 200 yards,” off the South Pass Trail.

Still, because of its remoteness, Mystic Lake maintains its mystique.

Why it’s named Mystic is, fittingly, a mystery. No histories of the Rogue River or Winema national forests provide an answer. Michelle Durant, westside archaeologist for the Fremont-Winema National Forest, speculates the lake might have been named by summer trail maintenance crews.

There’s obvious precedent. Although Mystic isn’t mentioned in “Recollections: People and the Forest, Oral History Interviews, Volume III,” published in 1990, Durant says clues to how forest landmarks were named may be found in a wide-ranging 1989 interview with then-79-year-old Jack Hollenbeak.

Beginning when he was 51 years old, Hollenbeak spent several summers working on trail crews during early years of what was then the Rogue-Umpqua National Forest in what is now the northern section of the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area. The interviewer asked Hollenbeck why certain trails were given their names. In some cases he was didn’t know. But other times he offered possible clues.

In the interview, Hollenbeak said he believes the Tom and Jerry peaks, side-by-side mountains in the northern Sky Lakes Wilderness about three miles south of Crater Lake National Park, might have gotten their names because, “I suppose somebody must have been thinking about going home and getting a Tom and Jerry, so they named those peaks and they named the trail after that.”

And, of Mudjekeewis, located south of Tom and Jerry, Hollenbeck explained, “I heard here recently that Mudjekeewis was the son of a chief, and I thought before that it was an Indian girl. That was one of the old, old trails that tied in this area with Fort Klamath. You could go clear through, and I’m sure the Indians were the first ones that led people through there, so they named it for him.”

Of Honeymoon Creek, also in the Sky Lakes Wilderness, Hollenbeak said, “That was named, they told me, for a couple that backpacked through there ... on their honeymoon.”

He said a site called Jack Spring was incorrectly named. “At one time they put my name on that spring, which they shouldn’t have because I didn’t find it. Two of the boys that worked on the crew found it but they called it ‘Jack’s Spring’ because that was the first camp that was ever put in there.” The name, however, has stuck.

The Sky Lakes and Mountain Lakes wildernesses both have a fascinating array of names — Goose Egg, Cinnamon Peak, Solace Cow Camp, Crippled Horse Spring, Boston Bluff, Lake No-see-um, Imagination Peak, Lake Malice, Bull Swamp, Paragon Lake and many, many more.

During a recent overnight at Mystic Lake, Bill Van Moorhem wondered whether the lake was so named because of its remoteness and shifting, subtle beauty, especially when evening cast shadows on the lake and towering Aspen Butte emerged from the smoky haze.

For me, Mystic Lake has always maintained a special mystique, one that dates back nearly 20 years ago to a multi-night backpack with my two dogs, Nick and Libby. I wrote about the lake without naming it:

“It had been a long, hilly, hot hike, and my reward was this sparkling, secluded lake in the Mountain Lakes Wilderness Area.

“I was paddling around the lake, savoring its champagne-like waters. Rolling onto my back, I soaked up the welcome chilly waters, gazing languidly at the blue sky as I put my thoughts on mute.

“Pure bliss. Oops, short-lived bliss. A thump rocked me from my reverie. It was Nick, my lake-loving, seal-swimming border collie. Nick hates being left behind, whether heading down a trail or jumping in a lake. He'll swim for hours, preferably chasing and retrieving a thrown stick. This time he was retrieving me.

“Dancing along the shore was Libby, a border collie who likes lolling in shallow water and splashing after sticks in water that doesn't come up above her chest. She'll get thoroughly soaked, but she doesn't like to swim.

“Nick and I paddled to shore. Nick is not a graceful swimmer. Swimming or romping, I always worry that he'll never quit, never admit when it's time to sit on the shore or sit in the shade. ...

“My favorite lake is reached by an easily missed side trail. I first camped there more than 25 years ago. Whenever I've visited, it's been my private lake, a hard-earned reward for a long one-way trek (those years from the Varney Creek Trail).

“… Nick and Libby are the only two I've ever taken to my special lake, but I'm not worried that they'll reveal my secret. They're smart dogs. They can speak, but they won't talk.”

Visiting Mystic Lake always generates remembrances of that visit with two long-gone friends.

I no longer avoid revealing the lake’s name. The secret is long out. But, just as how it got its name remains a mystery, what always doggedly persists is the mystique of Mystic Lake.

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

If You Go

To reach Mystic Lake from Ashland, take Dead Indian Memorial Highway about 28 miles to Clover Creek Road. Turn right and drive south toward Keno. After about seven miles, turn left on Forest Service Road 3852, which is signed, and drive 3.3 miles to the Clover Creek Trailhead at the end of the road. The shortest way to Mystic Lake begins from the trailhead. After about two-plus miles, just before reaching Clover Lake, take the Clover Creek Cutoff Trail. The trail is signed but is not maintained. It has several steep sections. Watch for small orange dots painted onto some trees. The cutoff trail connects with the Mountain Lakes Loop Trail, which eventually parallels the summit ridge at an elevation of about 7,000 feet and offers scenic views of Lake Harriette. The loop trail goes downhill to a junction with the South Pass Trail. Take the South Pass about a quarter-mile to the signed junction to Mystic Lake. The total one-way distance is about 5.1 miles.