Strawberry Lake Eclipse Weekend
Back in Spring, a friend of ours tried to organize a camping trip to Eastern Oregon as a group activity, similar to some group camping we'd done last August. I hadn't put together the significance of the time or place until the weeks leading up to the trip when it became clear that it was likely going to fall through. Not wanting to skip the significant and infrequent astronomical event, I found myself crammed into the Outback with my husband Bobby, our friend Jason, and a few days worth of camp gear and food (and the interesting audio of Jack Vance's The Dragon Masters) in the middle of the night on a windy dark road just past the border.
Our destination was Strawberry Lake, just outside of Prairie City in Malheur National Forest. We drove straight through the night to the National Forest boundary gate. A bright sign indicated that all parking and sites were full, so we hefted packs to hike up the road to the campground. After this trip, I decided most definitely that my husband needs his own bag. He was loaded with food and drinks in a school backpack on his back, and a small daypack on his front. We crawled upward, cranky from lack of sleep and a decent breakfast (cold breakfast burritos don't cut it).
After a couple of upward miles past decidedly not packed road and campgrounds, we made it to the Strawberry Campground and dropped our packs for a break. Usually, I'd push on the additional 1.5 miles, but taking one look at the state of us, we readily took up an offer by two guys who were leaving their car camping site for the weekend that Jason had chatted up during our break. A quick flop down in the tent until 11:00 AM (of completely restless napping) later, I made the executive decision to hike back down and drive the car into town for a hot meal to perk us all up.
The residents of Prairie City are so kind! I stopped into a small grocery and a handful of stops along the main road for out last minute provisions met with big smiles and excellent looking eclipse kitsch. I'm kicking myself for not taking a business card from the place I ended up picking up our lunch from because I was led there exclusively by my nose. A barbecue setup (similar to a food truck) in an alley with a bench and a guy my age at the counter and a chalkboard boasting a select menu of tasty sandwiches and sides seemed to have sprung up from under the dusty ground. I quickly ordered three steak sandwiches and took to taking inventory of our provisions for the next days up at camp. I had a great conversation with the proprietor's mom for the next 15 minutes, and I learned all about the endeavors of her children, the people who had passed through so far, and life in Ukiah (California) where she'd been and lived by before.
On my way back to camp, I learned that our overnight drive was incredibly good timing. Cars were being backed up and turned away by rangers miles down the road. I passed with a wave and when I drove up into our site found both of my comrades sprawled on the benches of the camp table partially passed out. The sandwiches warmed us up for a time, and we tried to stay occupied and alert. Jason headed up to check out the lake and Bobby, and I decided to sleep more.
The next morning made me feel awful for my hazed packing. Husband had no jacket or coat or long pants in the night. So, I set about making possibly the most glorious camp breakfast on my Pocket Rocket: instant mashies, spam, smashed cheese and crumbled cheddar and sour cream ruffles, mixed with ranch powder. Once reinflated, we prepared for a day up at the lake and exploring.
The hike up to Strawberry Lake goes through some former burn areas and is full of small moments of different stages of forest development. The trail itself was incredibly dry though, and dust kicked up over our clothes and faces. We were passed by what seemed like dozens of backpackers (I'm not sure where they sprouted from, given the state of the road the day before) on the way up, including four-legged ones! I loved spotting the large boulders on the approach to the lake itself, being signs of how much land can change.
The lake was gorgeous! A deep bright blue, its rim dotted with dozens of garishly colored tents. We watched osprey swoop for fish and took a break to sit and watch campers arrive. We then meandered around the lake, had a quick panic when we had thought husband had lost his glasses and ate some snacks on the southern bank. I also learned that I do not enjoy wading through reeds and mud to find water to filter this day.
Up next was a quick hike up to see Strawberry Falls. More burn areas on the way up here, with brilliantly green springs of life poking up amongst the darkened trees. I loved this waterfall, and very much wanted to walk closer and across it to take more photos, but the grip on my shoes was less than ideal. I was astonished by how clean some day hikers were at this spot. How did their white sneakers stay so white?!
Back at the lake, I tried out my new hammock with varying degrees of success and shared our stash of candy while I set to heating our lunch. I'm starting to think that my ideal backpacking meal, rain or shine, has got to be mac and cheese of all kinds. I'm not stoked on rice or teriyaki style noodles (as I detailed back in my post about Ancient Lakes), but I suppose I can't just eat like a five-year-old forever. If anyone has suggestions for a picky backcountry eater, please send them my way.
On our way back, we completed our counterclockwise loop and passed the most idyllic campsites next to bubbling streams and fragrant wildflowers. We also passed people much smarter than us with fun inflatable tubes splashing in the water below. (Another lesson learned: always take your mermaid float!) I got many ideas about how to make a backpacking site fun and was impressed by the families who had packed in supplies for small children (and the tiny hiking boots I saw littering the outside of tents).
The evening was spent laughing our butts off playing Super Fight, getting belligerent about how much Doctor Beverly Crusher is terrible, and rifling through the tipped food bags in the back of the car for a more free form dinner experience. It was good times! I ended up crawling into my sleeping bag first, still debating if I wanted to try to get to the lake at sunrise.
Spoiler: I didn't. I ended up in the car bundled under my sleeping bag waiting for the others to wake up. I got about 300 yards up the trail before my stomach betrayed me. Once up, we all creaked and shoveled our camp into the trunk and backseat and trudged upward to find the right spot to watch the event. We settled on a spot next to two photographers with time-lapse setups and a couple of families. Maybe it was the time of day or my lack of preparedness, but I didn't feel strong urges to photograph anything.
The eclipse itself is the most surreal thing I've experienced in my life to date, rivaling only my first ever glimpse of the Hoh Glacier. The feeling of being so small is hard to describe. You simultaneously feel such a part of something big, but also so wholly insignificant. The temperature dropped, the colors shifted and became more saturated, and the most amazing thing: the stars became visible across the lake. Once in the totality, I felt stunned and cemented firmly to the ground. Whoops, yells, and gasps surrounded us. Afterward, we tried to collect ourselves, chat briefly with the others at the lake, and hike downward in the afterglow. It was like existing in an Instagram filter. The quality of shadows was jarring, and I felt outside of myself, watching my feet swing forward.
We climbed in the car, I switched on the ignition, and the three of us nearly instantly committed ourselves to see the next one. We rambled back home for 12 hours, overate fast food, and once my head hit the pillow in my bed, I smiled big and knew that this was a trip I would replay in my mind as long as I could.