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January 17, 2022

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Circling the Sisters

Four glorious days hiking Oregon’s famous volcanic trio

The 80-kilometre Three Sisters Loop in the Cascades near Bend, Oregon is one of the most iconic trails in the state. It climbs through old growth forests, lush alpine meadows, rock strewn lava fields and obsidian lined streams. Pristine lakes reflect the Sisters’ soaring peaks. There’s an elevation change of 1800 metres, enough to put intermediate hikers through their paces, but the rewards are considerable. The best time of year to go is between June and October. Last June, the author, her partner Kalan and black pug Winnie, spent four days circumnavigating with the famous siblings.

Shampoo. That’s what the flowers smelled like. This alpine meadow, bright with scarlet paintbrushes, purple lupines and yellow primroses clustering between black ruins of trees destroyed in a recent forest fire. The scent of these tender blooms combined with morning’s freshness and a sense of well being was a distillation that could well have inspired the manufacturers of bottled hair froth. One of the secrets of these mountains, I thought. A delicate scent that could only come from the slow suspirations of snow-capped peaks like the ones that gazed quietly down on us.

The trail left the counterpane of colour and darkened under dense pines, switch-backing upwards. Afternoon lengthened. A switch flipped, one between mildly hungry and famished. Cheer dissipated, the frayed stain of crankiness intruded. A good time to keep silent and march on, I thought. Don’t pick a fight with the end of the day.

Trees thinned and a small sign indicated Golden Lake. Daggers of gold light between tree trunks turned us blue, yellow, blue as we padded along the soft path.

An open bowl, a great green ballroom at the base of two conspiratorial white peaks that were pinking in the setting sun. A lake, tiny, perfect, Narnian. Grass short, as if shorn, or painted on, perfectly overlapped the lake’s edge. A stream, similarly spare, wound down the nearest slope. The whole scene a surprise for us, not on the rudimentary map we’d sketched. Exhilaration.

No tent necessary, we decide. The grass is flat, there’s one rock there by the edge of the scree, a gesture of a table, something to gravitate to, lean the packs against. The pug, who’s marched bravely on for 32 kilometres, is covetous of anything soft to press her belly into. She climbs to the top of a pack as soon as it’s set down. In her book, synthetic trumps organic any day. Kalan pulls the sleep rolls out while I go looking for tinder for the stove.

Dense pine islands of wind-twined and tightened needles are knit so tightly to the ground that my fuel hunt turns up only the small dark mouth of a mammal-made opening. Foxes? Pushing through the resistant green curtain I find a twig-strewn chamber laced with just what I’m looking for: thin dry sticks. The neon yellow lichen is even better, brighter than Nikes, fluorescing from thick bark that is much older than it looks, the tricks of wind-shrinkage.

The new stove is light, two cans packed into each other, containers for a compact fire fed by whatever happens to be lying around. Sounds simple, but there’s a technique that has to be mastered to make it catch. Break twigs, no thicker than a pencil, into five centimetre pieces and stand them upright like toothpicks in the silver cylinder. A wad of sap on the lichen with some cone scales sprinkled in — light that first and rest it on the twig tops. Blow gently. After several failures — success! — and a hot meal after all.

Walking soft

Strange, that deep yet somehow wakeful sleep under stars. Opening eyes attentively to catch the silver-spangled blackness that glow-soaked cities extinguish. Hip against a hard place, sleep returning faithfully between interludes of gratitude and incredulousness. How is it I am here? A gradual acceptance of the gentle wind, the long loom of the peak tops in the moonless shadows, a settling certainty that mountain lions have also tucked themselves in somewhere to sleep.

Like human siblings, the Three Sisters, North, Middle and South, are chronologically disparate. Though arm-in-arm in convivial gladness, appearing as of-a-piece as stegosaurus crenellations, they arose at different times. North Sister, an extinct volcano, is the eldest. Middle Sister is inactive, but South Sister, the youngest, last erupted 2000 years ago and could again, keeping the United States Geological Survey on its toes.

We loop the bottom of the southern mountain through patches of snow, sinking every few feet. In June the piles are scant. Upon waking, the pug took a couple of pathetic steps and paused. Her foot pads are curiously swollen. Was it the heat or the roughness of the rocks? We don’t know, but we make a sling and carry her, taking turns.

A vast linear valley flanks South Sister, fields so green and flat they’d be right at home behind a high school. Instead, eventually, a long green lake. A flock of rust-bellied blue birds skims the water.

And suddenly — people. Couples with babies in backpacks, teenagers, groups of athletic-looking seniors. A steady stream is hiking up for the day from a parking lot at the Green Lakes Trailhead 6.5 kilometres from the top. Some keep going all the way to South Sister’s summit and Teardrop Pool, the state’s highest lake, at the bottom of a crater rimmed with glaciers, but not us. We’re on a mission to circle the Sisters: four days, three nights, 80 kilometres.

Walking here is like passing through a pack of postcards titled “Stunning Landscapes Around the World.” Every corner offers a different variety of gorgeous, a deliciously variable palette of intimate tawny meadows, turquoise, indigo and slate-grey lakes. We strip down, leap in and, for a micro-second, the icy water envelopes us.

Compressed forested vistas reach to the far horizon. A rolling valley dotted with massive odd-shaped boulders evokes a heraldic scene out of Game of Thrones and seems incomplete without jauntily flying coloured flags and horses in gaudy face masks.

To the end and back

Rain from the coast drops when clouds encounter the west side of the Sisters, leaving the east side, where we started, dry, and the west side, where we finish lush with plants and pools — and mosquitoes. The legendary swarms keep people away all summer, which is why, we guess, the hiking trails are nearly empty. The guidebooks say, don’t go until late August when the bugs are gone, but this is June and the solitude seems worth all the buzzing even when it amplifies at dusk. Lucky for us they can’t get through our head net. The smoke from our stove helps too.

Ten kilometres to go and the bottoms of my feet are nearly as swollen as the pug’s, who we’re still carrying. My boots have a thin sole, no more than a centimetre thick, and I’m finally feeling it. We’ve eaten all our food, including the last boiled egg and sheets of nori. Eerie white ghost flowers we’ve affectionately dubbed “toilet brushes” line the wooded path which is increasingly patterned with shards of black glass, made when lava rose to the surface without meeting with water first. The obsidian sparkles through the duff.

It’s dusk when we make it back to the McKenzie Highway. Our car is parked a few miles down the road, but I can’t take another step. Kalan sticks his thumb out while I slump on my backpack and the pug shivers. At last, a pickup truck pulls over, motions us in and we’re flying along blissfully, wind in our hair, back to our own vehicle, back to the bag of potato chips we left on the passenger seat for our returning selves, back to the extra-large pizza we order from the road and devour in the car when we finally make it, at 9:30PM, back to the crowded lit-up streets of downtown Eugene, back to our memories of the days spent with the Sisters, which will grow into longing until we return.

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