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Learning the Hard Way

Editor's Note: This is a condensation of Michael Lanza’s story: Learning the Hard Way: Backpacking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness. Click here to read the full story and see many professional-quality photos of the area.

Story and photos by Michael Lanza

Just as I reach the 9,572-foot summit of Eagle Cap, the first thunderclaps boom so close that I feel them in my ribs. The rain follows within minutes, catching me dashing down off the summit—and not just to avoid being charbroiled by a lightning bolt, though that prospect is on my mind. But mostly I’m thinking about the fact that my son forgot all of his outer layers—rain jacket, fleece jacket, and wool hat—on this backpacking trip. And somewhere below me, my family is hiking through this cold, windy downpour right now.

We had discovered Nate’s oversight only in the car, four hours from home. After some deliberation, we decided to go on with this five-day loop through Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness anyway. It would be sunny and dry most of the time. Maybe we’d get lucky and avoid any rain. Maybe our pre-teen would even absorb a lesson in personal responsibility from this. Most likely, of course, if we got caught on the trail in a thunderstorm like this one, I would be handing my rain jacket over to him.

I didn’t anticipate that a storm would hit during the only 90 minutes of the trip that I’m separated from my family for this side hike up Eagle Cap. Trotting down the stone-littered trail as fast as I can, as sheets of rain and black clouds make the afternoon look like dusk, I have a mental picture of my skinny son wet and shivering—and wonder whether the hardest lesson of this episode will be reserved for me.

I’m not sure what caused the question to pop into my head as we drove toward the East Eagle Trailhead in the Wallowa Mountains yesterday, but we were almost there when I got a bad feeling and said, “Nate, did you pack your rain jacket?”

He groaned and muttered, “No.”

I sighed, biting my tongue. After a pause, a related concern came to mind, and I asked, “Nate, did you pack your fleece jacket?”

Another groan, louder and more sustained that the first. “No-ooo,” he said painfully.

Then, going for the trifecta, I asked him, “How about your wool hat?”

This time he sounded like a contestant losing in the final round of a very close game show—frustrated but resigned. “No,” he repeated.

“Nate,” I said, indulging my paternal instinct to state the glaringly obvious, “We’re going backpacking for five days and you have no warm clothes.”

My son, to his credit not ignoring the gravity of the situation, responded, “Nobody’s more unhappy about this than I am.”

Penny, my wife, and I discussed our options. Do we turn around, change plans, or lose a day of hiking in exchange for another day of driving? Whatever it says about us as parents, we decide: no. Besides me handing over my jacket to Nate if it came down to that—the unspoken truth she and I both understood—we had other options that would preclude any dangerous scenario unfolding, though we didn’t discuss them just then. Maybe we would see whether Nate figures out what to do if and when circumstances demand it.

Setting out from the trailhead on our first afternoon, under a hot, August sun on a trail with only intermittent shade, Nate tells me the heat is “brutal and blistering.” But as we all slip gradually into the unpressured, relaxing rhythm of being in the mountains, he shakes off his foul mood and starts bouncing down the trail. By late afternoon, a bit more than six miles in, we pitch tents in a dry, grassy meadow near East Eagle Creek.

By early afternoon on our second day, we are following East Eagle Creek Trail up the broad valley to the creek’s headwaters in a starkly beautiful granite-scape with small, scattered copses of conifers, below walls of granite and vast fans of talus. At Horton Pass, just over 8,400 feet, we have a family meeting about hiking the spur trail to the 9,572-foot summit of Eagle Cap, about three miles and 1,100 feet up and back. The kids turn thumbs down; they’re ready to find a campsite in the Lakes Basin just downhill from us. Penny is content to join them, but it cuts against my constitution to pass up a summit that’s so easily within reach. Watching my family head downhill, I drop my pack and head up Eagle Cap.

The trail to the summit is a delight—at times traversing a narrow, spine-like ridge, and frequently offering long mountains views. At the summit, I stand atop dizzying cliffs overlooking the blue-green gems of the Lakes Basin far below. But I pause to enjoy the view for only a few seconds; lightning has that effect on me.

Hustling down the rocky trail, pelted by rain, I see one of our tents pitched just ahead. Reaching the camp, I pull our other tent from my pack and quickly pitch it. Once we’re all warm and dry inside, Alex and Nate breathlessly regale me with their story about the storm’s onset. When the rain hit, they immediately found a campsite. Nate—wearing a T-shirt—issued instructions to his mother and sister about holding the rainfly over the interior canopy to avoid getting it wet while pitching it.

Photo: Sunnier times are often fruits of lessons learned the hard way.


So maybe Nate did glean a valuable lesson from forgetting his jackets. I tell Nate he handled the situation well—doing exactly what I’d have done without a rain jacket and insulation: get inside a tent and sleeping bag.

Kids are going to make mistakes—it’s sort of what they’re supposed to do. That’s how they work through problems and become competent adults. Nate figured out what to do when the thunderstorm hit and they needed shelter quickly—especially him. Kids will make mistakes even when we’re telling them what to do. But as the old saying goes, good judgment grows out of bad judgment. Certainly some of the my best learning outdoors occurred when I had no idea what I was doing.

I learned something from this experience, too: Don’t just remind the kids four billion times about what they need to pack. Make sure they actually have it. I would add something about parents making mistakes, but I can only absorb so many lessons at any one time.

This is a condensation of Michael Lanza’s story: Learning the Hardway Backpacking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness. The story is also full of useful hiking information about visiting the Eagle Cap Wilderness. We excerpted the portion of the story related to lessons learned through the school of hard knocks. Lanza is also the Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine and author of the book, Before They're Gone--A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks.