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Finding Lost Creek: Winter still rules in the Sky Lakes Wilderness

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[Photo by Lee Juillerat] Gary Vequist traverses Lost Creek Trail, which has been inundated by the creek.
[Photo by Lee Juillerat] Spring rain and snow, fill Center Lake in the Sky Lakes Wilderness.
[Photo by Lee Juillerat] Bill Van Moorhem, left, and Gary Vequist stand alongside swollen Lost Creek in the Sky Lakes Wilderness.
[Photo by Lee Juillerat] Gary Vequist crawls across a log over the inundated Lost Creek Trail in the Sky Lakes Wilderness.

Lost Creek isn’t lost anymore.

The creek that often parallels Lost Creek Trail into the east side of the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area usually is unseen. Over the past several decades, day hikers and backpackers who use the trail, including me, didn’t even realize there is a Lost Creek because it’s usually just a trickle.

Not this year.

The calendar may indicate that summer begins next week, but it’s still winter in Sky Lakes. A planned day hike Monday from the trailhead to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail — where we planned to decide whether to head south toward Long Lake or north to Island Lake — was cut short.

Why? Because the trail — which is not shown on Fremont-Winema National Forest maps but cleared yearly because it’s used as a wilderness access point for Forest Service rangers and firefighters — currently is a fast, free-flowing river filled with overflow water from suddenly surging Lost Creek. Our group of five slimmed down to three at a river ... er ... creek crossing about a quarter-mile from the unsigned trailhead off Forest Service Road 3659.

Bill Van Moorhem went first, gingerly stepping across rocks and a narrow log to a small island, then tippy-toeing across more rocks to the other side of the creek/river. Gary Vequist took another route, lying nearly on his chest as he slowwwwly crawled across a log. I took Bill’s route while the others, already wet from rain and snow, worried about maintaining their balance and — concerned that warming temperatures might create an even higher waterflow when we returned — turned back.

Even the drive to the trail’s beginning had been challenging through wide, deep puddles along the dirt road.

We thought we’d come prepared. The morning’s forecasts showed cool, cloudy skies with sunshine by late morning. Snow wasn’t in the picture. At the last moment, I tossed my rain coat and a down jacket into my pack. Good decisions.

The jacket and coat came out of the pack immediately after parking the car. Light, sometimes heavier, snow persisted over the next several hours. But it was also just warm and windy enough to trigger waterfalls of snow from tree branches and limbs.

Because the trail was a waterway, we weaved our way cross-country, often alongside or in sight of the trail turned river through the wet forest and brush. Some areas were piled with snow mounds 3 feet deep. We sometimes learned the snow depth the hard way when a foot suddenly plunged into an unseen, snow-covered hole.

We discussed turning around, but Gary wanted to find Center Lake, which — when it’s not a river — can be seen from the trail and is near the PCT junction.

On we waddled, up and over logs, across periodic fields of snow, past and underneath pine and cedar trees draped with old man’s beards. Bill used his GPS to help lead the way toward Center Lake. Eventually he announced: “500 feet.”

To our surprise, Center Lake had never looked so like a lake. On other visits, it’s been smaller with an extended shoreline. This time, reaching the lake’s edge required meandering through an obstacle course of bushes and small twisty trees while trying to avoid water-mushy areas. The lake had never looked so lovely.

Satisfied, but soggy amid still falling snow, we turned around. On other days, when there was a trail to follow, the hike from the trail’s parking area to the lake is a quick-paced distance of about 1.3 miles. Not this late spring day. Because of our roundabout meanderings, the actual hiking distance was longer and slower.

On the return to the car, we often followed tracks we’d made in the snow on the hike in. Other times we took turns leading — and getting lost. Not truly lost, but uncertain as to where the heck we were.

Keeping the creek/river to the north, we stumbled through the brush and untouched snow. Bill stopped frequently to get GPS readings. As we’d done on the hike in, we also looked for blazes carved in trailside trees.

Our uncertain wanderings finally ended when we found tracks in the snow that we’d made earlier that morning. Farther on, we passed the sign marking the wildnerness boundary. Soon the creek/river crossing came into view. One by one, we teetered across, but this time Gary didn’t crawl across a log.

Lost Creek, as we found, is no longer lost.

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