In the woods my imagination runs wild, pondering what transpired on these age-old trails way back when, in another time, possibly another dimension.
I envision the hearty souls who came to tackle Oregon’s vast wilderness, bush-whacking these trails on cowboy boot foot or in the saddle on the back of a hearty workhorse.
Patches of morning sun sliced through the canopy of Hemlock and firs, transforming the trail of yellow needles into glistening golden glow sticks as I paused to catch my breath on the Fuji Mountain Trail.
Climbing endlessly on my mountain bike for the first 30 minutes from the trailhead off Waldo Lake Road, Fuji Mountain Trail offered more than a little workout.
The stunning image overwhelmed me as the countless shades of green cascaded up to the blue sky.
Another wonderful day in the mountains.
This time, however, my imagination took a backseat. Cold, hard facts would rule the day. I came in search of one of the many tree blazings left behind more than 100 years ago by the first Forest Ranger in the high Cascade Lakes region, Cyrus J. Bingham.
Robert Cox wrote about Bingham in Blazes on the Skyline, and he shared a copy of his tome challenging me to search on my own. It relates the story of Bingham’s time in our neck of the woods, and chronicles what he left behind — tree carvings with his name, date and anyone who happened to be with him.
According to the book, there are a number of tree carvings south of Waldo Lake, where Bingham once had a camp.
Reality gnawed at my child-like enthusiasm as I wondered just how much climbing I felt like enduring while the dingy odor of smoke from a wildfire chalked my lungs.
What chance do I really have of finding one of those blazings?
If I really thought it was a sure thing, I would be bouncing barefoot through the woods, not chugging up the mountain on my bike.
That was my original plan that changed in a blink. I figured I’d drive back to the boat launch on the south end of Waldo Lake and ride my mountain bike 2 miles down Waldo Lake Trail to its intersection with the South Waldo Trail, just past the Shelter, where there are some obvious blazings.
I’d ditch my bike and cleats in the woods, and hike sans shoes on the South Waldo Trail in search of blazings.
What inevitably happens to me when I’m armed with a map, I make impulsive changes on the fly.
Checking out the routes, I noted that the Fuji Mountain Trail intersects the South Waldo, and I can ride my bike on that section all the way north to the Mount Ray Trail. Take Mount Ray back down to the road, the road back down to the truck. Sounded like a reasonable plan.
The map, of course, was not topographic.
Hey, I know that any trail with the word mountain in it will challenge you. So be it. I may not find any blazings, but at least I’ll get a heck of a workout, right?
Just about the time I decided that this was going to be nothing more than endless climbing with the scenery on an never-ending loop, the first alpine lake presented itself. A calm, clear gem dotted with lily pads.
The trail leveled off a little more. I’d say overall, for me, an intermediate rider, at best, the trail is about 85 percent ridable heading up. The other 15 percent is walking, or, rather, pushing my bike up the steep, rocky ruts.
Lakes started popping up regularly, and even with the haze of smoke now descending upon me, I realized I’d probably spend about every free moment up in this neck of the woods until the snow flies.
Finally, I hit the South Waldo Trail, three miles up from the road.
Heading north, toward the lake, the first section was a serious climb. All I could think about was keeping my eye peeled for blazings. When the trail leveled off, and more lakes began to pop up, I found myself compelled to explore more than simply scour the forest for the trees.
Lower Island Lake twinkled down the steep hill, and I couldn’t resist. I ditched my bike and scrambled down to the shore. The view swept me away. To another time.
Suddenly the blazings were much more than prize to search for. They became part of the living history of the woods. With my dual suspension bike laying on the hill, I took video and photos in the physical present, while my mind wandered into the past.
Imagine a century ago, when there weren’t enough people exploring these parts to keep a trail worn and recognizable. When the only way to mark the trail was to chop huge chunks out of a tree trunk to show the way.
Cox writes in his book that Bingham and Archie Knowles camped somewhere just north of Upper and Lower Island lakes. They each marked a tree there.
I moved on along the trail like I’ve never ridden a trail before. On auto pilot. Hoping my natural balancing and observations would note any dangers on the trail, while I kept my eyes on the trees. The trees with cyclops eyes, carved out to show me the way.
I can’t say that I’ve spent much time mountain biking at this snail’s pace. I can’t say I’ll do it much in the future. But I can say that in the moment, in the heat of the hunt, it felt right. Totally right.
Considering my severe lack of bike-handling skills, this wasn’t really a smart move. It was more the intuitive move. I always trust my gut.
While the beauty of South Waldo Trail refused to let me down, its hidden history did. On and on I rolled, tackling the 2 miles to the Mount Ray Trail thinking to myself how crazy the odds must be to find some carvings in the side of the tree that are more than 100 years old.
Time, again, became a factor. By my best estimate, I had about five minutes of the leisurely pace remaining. Then I’d need to bust a serious move back down the mountain to get home in time to pick up my daughter from school.
That’s when the trail began to snake through one of those small clumps of utter destruction, with downed trees piled all around. Where you slide right through the middle of a tree, thanks to someone’s massive chainsaw that cleared the way.
To see such big trees — 10-15 feet in diameter — down hit me hard. My stomach ached for them. It forced me to stop, my knees beginning to tremble in anguish.
I looked around, stunned to silent reverence.
Until, I saw it.
Just off the trail to the side, with nothing more than the first seven feet of the tree remaining, its top ripped off and twisted about, laying on the forest floor aiming south.
A huge blazing:
Aug 10, 1905
Taylor and NoCoin
Time to ride