The Ghost of Old Judge Waldo
Copyright © 2006-07 by Richard S. Platz, All rights reserved


Photo Oregon Historical Society #OrHi64412
(Click on photos to enlarge)

Blue Lake and Island Lake Backpack
Sky Lakes Wilderness
August 8-12, 2006

Photos by the Author Except Where Noted

"Moaning some dread message from beyond the grave"

"Judge Waldo? Who the hell is Judge Waldo?" I wanted to know.

"Apparently a conservationist of some sort," Barbara replied and handed me the Sky Lakes Wilderness map she had been reading. She pointed to the following paragraph:

"At the southeast end of Island Lake is the Waldo Tree. This inscribed Shasta red fir bears the carved names of early-day Oregon conservationist Judge John B. Waldo and four companions. In 1888, these men journeyed south along the crest of the Cascades, from Waldo Lake to Mt. Shasta, the first recorded party to travel much of the general route of what is now the Pacific Crest Trail."

Accompanying the text was a black-and-white image of a tree defaced by graffiti vandals, presumably Judge Waldo and his party. "What kind of conservationist carves his name in a perfectly healthy Shasta red fir?"

Neither of us had heard of Judge John B. Waldo. Weeks later, we googled him and found him described as "the John Muir of Oregon." This was something of an exaggeration. True, Muir and Waldo each wore the wild, flowing beard of the mountain madman. And the range of these two contemporaries overlapped. Judge Waldo traversed the backbone of the Cascades south to Mount Shasta in California, while John Muir's journals describe his journey north to Oregon's Crater Lake. But therein lies the root of Muir's immortality and Waldo's obscurity: the extensive and eloquent journals of Muir's peregrinations were widely circulated and read while Waldo's diaries slipped into historical oblivion.

We were perusing wilderness maps of Southern Oregon because the wild lands of Northern California were on fire. The trails of the Marble Mountain Wilderness were closed, and smoke choked visibility throughout the Trinity Alps and Russian Wilderness, reddening the sunset downwind for hundreds of miles. In the polluted air strenuous physical exertion would be suicidal.

Upwind from the fires, the Sky Lakes Wilderness showed promise. The Blue Canyon and Island Lake trailheads were close by our cabin near Ashland, Oregon, and the trail between lakes was short. Of course, we had no inclination to track down the Waldo Tree. Nor did we foresee unearthing a fundamental flaw in the Forest Service's description.

For two sodden nights we slept in our tent outside the cabin, waiting for a persistent drizzle to lift. Tuesday morning we awoke to lightning, thunder, and a deluge, and wondered if we would backpack at all. But the sky cleared a little toward noon, so we loaded our backpacks into the rental car and drove north on Forest Road 37, past the site of the Burning Van, then jogged east and north at Highway 140 where Road 37 dropped its woodsy moniker and began calling itself Jackson County Road 831. None of our maps had a Road 831, and this unnerved us for a tense fifteen minutes until a sign pointed to Forest Road 37 forking off to the east.

We followed now-gravel Road 37 twelve miles through gently rolling forest to the primitive campground at Parker Meadow on the South Fork of the Rogue River. We had the camp to ourselves. The trees were dry and deadfalls littered the otherwise pleasant spot. Black thunderheads roiled over the mountain crest above us to the east, and we debated spending the night, but opted instead to drive a few more miles to the Blue Canyon trailhead, and, if necessary, camp there.

Backtracking to Forest Road 3770, we began the steep five-and-a-half-mile climb up the western slope on a good gravel road, keeping an eye on the towering dark clouds. It was already mid-afternoon by the time we arrived at the trailhead (N 42 31' 46.8", W 122 17' 49.2") below Cat Hill, a knob on the spine of the north-south trending ridge. Tall, healthy forest, a line of rusty volcanic boulders, and a fence of zig-zagging logs framed a lovely meadow of flowers and bunch grass. A few red firs stood waiting to be decorated as Christmas trees. Except for our car, the large parking lot was empty.

In the muggy afternoon, we agonized over our options. From the 6270-foot meadow, the trail dropped 700 feet to Blue Lake in a little less than two miles. Our backpacks were ready to go. If we scrambled down to the lake and pitched our tent before a storm hit, we would be all right. If not, we might end up drenched and miserable. Suddenly a blaze of sunshine broke through the smoldering clouds, framed by a hopeful fringe of intensely blue sky. We decided to roll the dice and see what would happen.

Even before we entered the forest, a sign beside the trail broadcast:

We knew that. But these signs were usually posted discretely in a corner of the trailhead bulletin board, not so insistently in our faces. The little ranger had been busy making his little point and thus laying the groundwork for issuing his little citations to scofflaws. The problem, we would soon discover, was that all the good campsites lay within the proscribed area.

We hair-pinned around a knoll beneath Cat Hill and quickly descended southeast through stately forest into Blue Canyon, the headwaters of the South Fork of the Rogue River. The march went quickly. In a half hour we passed Round Lake, which offered no campsites, then dropped through a wide wooded valley, crossed a dry wash, and rose to see Blue Lake sparkling through the trees. The weather was holding.

We soon arrived at a level clearing on the northeast shore of Blue Lake in a mixed conifer forest of Shasta red fir, nodding mountain hemlock, lodgepole pine, and sporadic white fir and white pine. Blackened chunks of rock from a scattered fire ring, no doubt the work of the little ranger, testified to the place's long history as a prime campsite. The only problem was the graying wooden signs, nailed to several of the most prominent trees, that read:

Bummer.

Other campsites along the north shore were likewise closed. Closure, we had to concede, was a necessary evil brought about by years of careless horse packers, discourteous backpackers, and rapacious fishermen. This popular lake was just too close to the trailhead, too accessible for dayhikers toting six-packs, hand axes, and bad attitudes.

On the other hand, Barbara and I were considerate, nature-friendly, low-impact campers, so we should have been allowed to camp there. The Big Ranger would have understood. Conflicted, we glanced at the still-threatening sky.

So we continued along the trail circling clockwise around the eastern shore. An imposing cliff of pale andesite, half cloaked by a talus skirt that descended into the steel-gray water, revealed itself towering above the western shore of the lake. The lovely lake lay stark and vulnerable beneath the glacier-hewn escarpment. At the southeast corner we came to a junction with the South Fork Trail. A posted notice announced that due to a wildfire, the trail was closed between Beal Lake and the trailhead seven miles to the south near Parker Meadow. We sniffed the air, but detected no smoke. The fire must be out.

Continuing on the Blue Canyon trail, we crossed the dry outlet creek in a thicket of brush and dead timber, standing and fallen, mostly lodgepole pine. An even better campsite met us as we rose to rejoin the lake, but it too bore the odious reforestation signs. All the good campsites were closed.

I spotted what looked like a fire ring on the ridge that rose westward toward the escarpment and climbed up to explore it, discovering what appeared to be the one good legal campsite on the entire lake (N 42 30' 57", W 122 16' 43"). The ridge separated Blue Lake from a broad meadow below us, which harbored shallow Meadow Lake. The campsite turned out to be splendid, if a bit tilted, with long views north to the cliffs above the wind-swept lake and south across the green sward below. We heard and saw no other human.

Thunderheads still menaced above, so we put the tent up quickly, accompanied by the "quick-three-beers" call of an olive-sided flycatcher. The wind gusted. We built no campfire that evening. Barbara cooked dinner on our JetBoil stove. Later we sat by the lake and watched a water ouzel dipping from the shore rocks, red crossbills, and a host of nighthawks crisscrossing the sky. That night the temperature dropped to a chilly 40 degrees, but we were snug in our down sleeping bags.

Wednesday we woke to sunny, clear skies. A light mist swirled from the surface of the lake. No rain had fallen. From the hammock Barbara watched a gala of small birds flitting about in the trees, including white-breasted nuthatches and redbreasted sapsuckers.

After a leisurely breakfast, we decided to hike down the South Fork Trail to Mud and Beal Lakes. One of several branches of the South Fork begins at Blue Lake, flows underground to pond at Meadow Lake, then spills out onto the rocky surface as it meanders northwest to receive the overflows from Mud Lake and Beal Lake. It seemed odd to see water flowing at all in the high Cascades. The ash and pumice of the stratovolcanic landscape usually soaks water up like a massive sponge, discharging it as springs far below. But the little creek gurgled happily over lava rock at the bottom of a tangled defile of ferns, flowers, grass, brush, and fallen logs beside the trail.

In the Sky Lakes Wilderness, as with most of the Cascade valleys, one lake generally looks pretty much like another, a shallow circle of green water encroached upon by surrounding forest. Perhaps there is a narrow margin of grass. Maybe a few lily pads float in the shallowest water. But one lake looks like another. There are exceptions, such as Blue Lake, with its sharp western cliff plunging into deep water, Alta Lake, with its overview of the Seven Lakes Basin and the Crater Lake rim, and, as we would soon learn, Island Lake. But Mud and Beal Lakes, like Round Lake of the previous day, might just as well have been the same shallow bowl of water viewed from progressive vantages.

As with the lakes, one stretch of trail through the woods can look much like every other stretch in the Cascades. The trees and shrubs are the same. Lava rocks bear the same dull beige patina. Long views are scarce. Beal Lake, however, offered us an unobstructed view across its waters to the western ridge with the prominent crest of Cat Hill, where our car was parked. For the first time we could see exactly where we were.

We returned to Blue Lake for lunch and a swim, then whiled away the afternoon exploring the area. On the main trail beyond Meadow Lake we encountered a spring, fenced off from cattle, and a trail junction. The scarcely used path to the right climbed the western escarpment to the Cat Hill Trail, then looped back to our parking lot. To the left the sign pointed to a "Horse Camp." This was apparently where the little ranger wanted us to camp, rather than at the splendid historic sites on the water's edge. We walked up the dusty track to investigate. The trail ended at a dreary, dry clearing in the timber littered with windfalls and buzzing with horseflies. Impacts to the wilderness in this hidden place without a view would indeed be minimal, because its essence had already been crushed out and the remains scattered among the dried mounds of horse manure. Camping there would suck the spirit out of even the heartiest traveler.

Late in the afternoon two young women backpackers with their dogs hiked past our camp, and we held our breath. But after a brief stop, they continued along the Blue Canyon Trail toward Island Lake. We felt giddy to have Blue Lake to ourselves for a second night.

Thursday morning was sunny and warm. A pair of red crossbills flitted about by the lake. The weather radio mentioned a threat of isolated thunderstorms in the afternoon, so we decided to head for Island Lake while the skies were still clear. We broke camp, loaded our backpacks, and headed out in the late morning. The Blue Canyon Trail rose from the valley floor and began a gentle 500-foot climb toward a divide, following the escarpment as it curved eastward. Horseshoe and Pear Lakes lay at the base of the cliff, but we did not tarry there to explore.

As the trail climbed east out of Blue Canyon, the foliage began to change. The lush ground cover gave way to manzanita and dry, prickly brush. Near the crest we crossed a small steam, yet another tributary of the South Fork. On the far side of the divide the trail dropped into a drier landscape where the recent drought had not been kind. The parched forest began to appear unhealthy, with scrawny, dead, or dying lodgepole pines littering the floor.

Before long we dropped 200 feet to the almost level valley floor, but the thick curtain of trees hid any sign of Island Lake. Moist and muddy spots along the trail bred tiny frogs, thousands of them no bigger than plump raisins, hopping every which way like startled fleas as we marched through. We tried in vain not to step on them.

Through the trees we at last caught a sparkling glimpse of the south end of Island Lake. A use trail led to a decimated camping area complete with two stone fire rings. To the west lay a green swath of meadow marsh that no doubt bred mosquitos, but in the heat of the afternoon, they did not bother us. The campsite was tolerable, and there were places to camp legally a hundred feet from the water's edge, this side of the familiar signs marking the shore as a restoration area, no camping. But something was not quite right about the place. Trees stood dead or fallen in awkward places and poses. The fire rings looked long forsaken.

So while Barbara stayed with our backpacks, I set out eastward along the shore to see if there was anything better down the way. In a hundred yards I came to another clearing with level tent sites and a fine stone fire pit (N 42 30' 59", W 122 14' 16"). This looked like the main horse-camping site. In fact, a railing had been nailed on stout posts, and I took it to be a hitching post for horses. It seemed out of place in the wilderness, but horsy people often hold sway with the little ranger. I passed through an opening in the brush and found a cold, spring-fed stream meandering along the eastern margin and followed it fifty feet through the shorelinebrush until it spilled into the lake near a grassy beach and a fine view of the lake. This was the better campsite. More orderly. Less debris and horse manure.

As I returned to the clearing to summon Barbara, I rounded the other side of the hitching post and found it to completely surround the trunk of a great tree. Like a corral designed to keep the tree from wandering off. Odd. I inspected the tree more closely. Eight feet up the trunk a wooden sign had been nailed reading, "Judge Waldo Tree."

"Whoa."

There indeed was the graffiti, still faintly legible, with the five names Judge Waldo's party had carved into the mighty trunk in 1888.

"Whoa."

The Waldo Tree impressed me more than I would have imagined. It brought a vision of rough mountain men circled around a crackling campfire 120 years before. The population of Oregon was maybe 300,000, three-and-a-half persons per square mile, mostly homesteading in the fertile river valleys. Only a few hunters, trappers, and restless misfits bothered venturing into the high Cascades. Before the two Great Wars. Before the automobile. Before the light bulb. Before telephones.

"Whoa."

Barbara loved the camp and the waters of Island Lake sparkling nearby.

Scattered throughout the mighty red firs and mountain hemlocks, a decimated army of dead white snags stood like skeletal fingers pointing blame at the unmerciful sky, or else lay already fallen and broken like bones in a giant game of pick-up sticks. We had difficulty finding a tent site beyond the reach of the looming deadwood, which we feared might come thundering down in the dead of night and crush us as we slept.

One particular tall snag near our tent had snapped at its base, but not fallen. Instead it leaned drunkenly against the shoulder of a healthy neighbor, a hemlock. With each breath of wind the dead tree groaned and creaked, trunk upon trunk, like the ghost of old Judge Waldo moaning to us some dread message from beyond the grave.

To be sure, this was no chain-rattling wraith of Jacob Marley come back to frighten us. Nor was it the wispy apparition of Hamlet's poisoned father drifting dolefully in the mist, crying for vengeance. But perhaps the living tree into which Judge Waldo had carved his name, having grown through the ages, served as some sort of harmonic conduit for his evaporating spirit. Or perhaps not. In any event, we felt obliged to listen politely, if uneasily, as the groaning persisted.

We examined more closely the ghost-infested forest and were startled to discover that the Waldo Tree was not a Shasta red fir, as advertised on the Forest Service map. It was a massive mountain hemlock. We wondered how the arborists, the botanists, the sundry forestry gurus could have made such a blunder. But obviously the specialists had never been consulted. The little ranger, fingers still sore and sticky from nailing up all those little signs, had no doubt been in too great a hurry to advertise his woodsy little fiefdom. We glanced around uneasily, wondering what else the little ranger might have screwed up.

After lunch we hiked to the north end of Island Lake to explore if there were any other campsites. The trail lay far enough from the shore to offer only sporadic glimpses of water through the thick timber. No use trails cut off toward the lake. The forest became monotonously uniform. No campsites were evident until we reached the northeast corner, where the trail returned to the lake. There on a rocky rise just above the trail was a fine campsite. Below the trail was a cove with easy access to the water. Two dome tents were perched on level spots among the huge trees, and two open backpacks leaned against their trunks.

Lounging on an air mattress with his nose in a paperback was a middle-aged man with receding hair graying at the temples. He wore khaki shorts and a faded blue tee-shirt and had the solid look of a man who spends his days talking about significant things to clients across a desk, then blowing off pressure at the gym or on the golf course. Perhaps he was a banker or investment counselor. But today, he was on vacation and working damned hard at relaxation. Another man, slenderer and clad only in hiking shorts, stood with his back to us ankle-deep in the shallow water below, perhaps fishing.

Pretending not to notice us approaching on the trail, the banker continued reading intensely, reading us out of existence, even though we were likely the only other humans he would encounter that day. He was on vacation, having a relaxing time, and refused to be interfered with. We stopped ten feet away and waited for him to look up, but he continued ignoring us as if we were unwashed panhandlers at Dupont Circle, or noontime freeloaders skulking down State Street, or perhaps lepers rattling tin cups in the narrow, winding alleys of Calcutta.

"Hi," I chirped, stepping off the trail into his space. "Where're y'headed?"

Grudgingly the banker lay down his paperback and focused on me. He and his friend had hiked in on the Cherry Creek Trail to the north, he said. They had spent two wonderful days at Lake Sonya, a very special place, and would be going back the following day. He seemed intent on impressing us with what a grand time they were having, a better time than we could possibly be having, as if this were some sort of competition.

Briefly I outlined our itinerary, then asked, "Is this a good place to swim? The water seems so shallow and mucky everywhere else."

"He's giving it a try," he replied, pointing toward his buddy, who was now knee-deep and stepping gingerly forward on the sharp submerged rocks. When we turned back, the banker had returned to his book.

So we backtracked and cut down to the water's edge for a better view. In the distance, beyond the shimmering water, stood the snow-streaked and glacier-carved north face of 9495-foot Mt. McLoughlin, the bulwark of the Sky Lakes Wilderness, from which all things drain northward. Billowing white thunderheads were beginning to roll in on a stiff westerly breeze. It was time to return to camp.

We stowed our gear and battened down the tent. The cold breeze chilled us in the shade, so we spread out our ponchos and blue pads in a sunny spot on the grassy shore by the choppy lake. There we sat in the lee of some azalea bushes, leaning together in the warm sunshine, sucking slices of lime and tossing back gulps of tequila from a plastic Korbel brandy bottle, and watched the thunderheads roll shoulder-to-shoulder across the great sky like a thundering herd of shaggy gray buffalo with blazing white manes. Mexican peasants believe that inebriation is a state of closeness to God, and we would not have disputed that notion.

A strong, gusty wind blew until evening, then died down. No rain fell. Judge Waldo moaned to us that evening as we sat beside our small campfire, dishes washed and set out to dry. A few mosquitoes came out to serenade us, but the poor things were utterly inept at drawing blood. Before turning in we leaned against a log to watch the sun go down, while nighthawks swooped low over the lake. As darkness fell, the night grew still, clear, and cold. Judge Waldo groaned as we drifted off toward sleep, but we could not fathom what he was trying to say.

The wind abated overnight. Friday morning mist drifted on the lake. I built a small cooking fire to boil water for tea and coffee. Gray Jays bounced from tree to tree, scolding us as we ate, drawn by the mysterious carcass of a large dead fish moldering in the woods far from the lake. As we finished breakfast in the hammocks, Barbara scrutinized the ruffled pair of red crossbills rooting around in the ashes of our fire.

After breakfast, at peace, I watched the silver flash of fish piercing each bulls-eye of expanding rings on the lake's calm surface. In the week before we left, I had felt a great urgency to transfer money from my checking account into a liquid savings account to earn a week's interest while we were away. It seemed so urgent then that failing to get it done left me in despair. But now as I sat in harmony beside Island Lake, Judge Waldo long gone, I realized that it was all just a dream within a dream, a blotter of worry sopping up my precious time. There is no future, no week's interest, no Waldo past, only this fleeting, yet enduring present, lived over and over again.

That day we dayhiked north on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Blue Canyon Trail junction near the southeast corner of Island Lake. For philosophical reasons I could never comprehend, the little ranger has gone out of his way to route the Pacific Crest Trail through monotonous stands of timber that offer little or no view and avoid all contact with lakes and other destinations that the normal human might want to visit. Here the Pacific Crest Trail parallels the Red Lake Trail a quarter mile higher up the slope, bypassing a half dozen lakes and ponds along the lower route. We decided to make a loop of it by cutting back on the old Oregon Skyline Trail after four miles, then returning on the Red Lake Trail.

The Pacific Crest Trail leg was relatively tiresome. We encountered the same trees as at our campsite, mountain hemlock, Shasta red fir, white fir, and spruce, although we did note a few white pines and fewer lodgepole pines. The junction with the Oregon Skyline Trail was not adequately marked, but consultation with the map and GPS made it clear that from the ridge-top junction the PCT continued northeast, leaving the Rogue River National Forest and entering the Winema National Forest, while the unmarked spur trail descending southwest had to be our route. The trail dropped steeply through an open, brushy area, burned not long ago and beginning to reforest, until it intercepted the Red Lake Trail in a little over a mile at the valley floor.

Returning on the Red Lake Trail, we soon passed Red Lake, a long, shallow, forest-rimmed basin, and not the least red. The one main campsite at the northeast corner appeared to be occupied by backpackers. We passed three other small, unremarkable lakes, all virtually identical, before arriving again at the camp at the northeast corner of Island Lake. The banker and his buddy had vacated, so we looked around and noted the site as a possible destination for some future trip. At the little gravel beach below the trail with a fine view of Mt. McLoughlin, we ate lunch, swam, and soaked up some afternoon sunlight. The shadow of a large bird passed over us, and when we looked up, we saw a bald eagle circle and swoop back low overhead, then climb on a thermal, circle again, and disappear over forest.

Our dayhike had been eight miles long, and we were tired. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening laying around our camp. That night, in the clear calm, the temperature dropped to 32 degrees. Judge Waldo no longer had much to groan about.

On Saturday morning the tent was dripping wet from dew. A different flock of birds were interested in the fire pit, and one landed briefly on the hot coals, then flew away in a puff of ash and smoke. As we were packing to go, a wasp stung me on the outside of my left ankle for no apparent reason. Perhaps it had become entangled in the fuzz of my wool sock. By the time we hoisted on our backpacks, my ankle was swollen, and as we hiked the swelling grew and dropped into my foot, throbbing. I wanted to keep moving so the action of my step would pump the lymph and keep the swelling down.

We climbed the trail to the divide, trying not to step on the tiny frogs, their numbers now diminished, then dropped again into Blue Lake Canyon. Through the trees we saw Pear Lake sparkling, but would have had to follow a long access trail to the water's edge. Because of my reaction to the wasp sting, we kept walking until Horseshoe Lake, where we rested at a lovely clearing on a peninsula jutting into the lake, another of the little ranger's forbidden reclamation sites. The green water was too shallow and the bottom too soft to consider a dip.

By the time we reached Blue Lake, we were ready for a swim. A fisherman was casting from the flat rock that was our usual swimming spot. So we circled a bit further, just past the junction with the South Fork Trail, then yanked off our clothes in a small grove and jumped into the refreshing water. Afterwards, drying ourselves on the bank, we began to notice the host of hikers and gawkers crowding the shoreline. One man was slowly circling the lake in an inflatable boat drift, fishing. Barbara grew embarrassed. I pointed out that anyone who might get excited about seeing a couple of old people swimming naked was not worth troubling about.

There beside the water we ate lunch, and the more we looked about, the more crowded the shore appeared to be with fishermen, families, children, hikers, young couples, and old codgers. Lucky we had been to have the lake all to ourselves for two days. And Judge Waldo, had he seen his precious wilderness so assailed, would have wailed like a loon.

The final two-mile, 700-foot climb was arduous in the heat of the afternoon. But at least our packs were 20 pounds lighter than the day we hiked in. As we trudged up the trail, each in the solitude of his own sweat and pain, I thought about old Judge Waldo. We never really figured out what he might have been moaning about. The long dead do not enunciate all that well. It could have been a noble cry of remorse for carving his name into a tree, or a dire warning about overpopulation, global warming, and a dismal prognosis for our suicidal civilization. But I do not think so. Why should the dead care any more about such matters than the living?

No, I believe that if we heard him at all, Judge Waldo was complaining that life is too short and being dead is not so hot. And if he was offering advice, what else could it be but, "Oh do not waste your time!"

Return to Backpacking in Jefferson