Lessons learned from a last second, five-day, 75-mile backpacking trip through scorched Central Oregon
*words and photography Bryan Banducci, with addiitonal photo support by Ryan Lennox. All images captured with Yashica T4 on 35mm film
A trip over three years in the making was just a week away from kicking off in the Sierras. With wilderness permits secured, we were set to backpack a modest but highly recommended route in Yosemite National Park. Then the entire West Coast seemingly became engulfed in wildfires. As the Ferguson fire threatened Yosemite park boundaries, it seemed to say, “lol think again, bud.” We then looked at Desolation Wilderness, near Lake Tahoe. Same deal, smoke blowing in from all directions.
Sitting in New York City I tried not to get discouraged. With less than a week before my scheduled flight to San Francisco, all was still up in the air. Then, while checking various smoke maps a ray of hope finally emerged, in the form of Bend, Oregon—the surrounding area was just about the only place on the entire West Coast unaffected by wildfire and/or smoke at that moment. I knew exactly nothing about Bend, but some quick googling showed plenty of results for hiking, especially in the Three Sisters Wilderness. And so it was decided, that’s where we would go.
I quickly wrote up a route loosely based on a similar amount of mileage we had planed to do in Yosemite, and next thing I knew, we were packing up Ryan’s car in the foggy Sunset District of SF. Between the three of us we had only a handful of long backpacking trips under our belts, but plenty of camping experience and similar athletic capabilities, so the mood was more excited than anything.
Soon SF was behind us and we were flying north up Interstate 5, watching the suburbs of the Bay Area fade away into scorched desolate farmlands. The smoke from the north, which was barely visible in the tech bubble oasis that is The Bay, was shockingly present just an hour outside the city, and we were driving straight into the worst of it. For a couple of hours or more between Mendocino and Shasta, visibility was low and the sky was a very scary orange-green. As we drove through military convoys could be seen bringing aid to firefighters. We kept our fingers crossed for rain in the area, and less smoke further north.
As luck would have it, once we crossed the state line into Oregon the smoke fully cleared. After a night of camping outside Bend and a customary last minute trip to REI we were rolled into the parking lot at the Lava Camp Trailhead. A bit later than expected but excited to finally hit the trail nonetheless.
I filled out our backcountry permit and we started off, none of us really knowing what to expect, with this plan coming together so last minute. Starting so late in the day we didn’t even really have a mileage goal, and it wasn’t until we saw our first Forest Service ranger later in the afternoon that we had an idea of where we might camp that evening.
"Loose, dark red lava rock mixed with shards of obsidian made for some of the most unique trails I’ve ever walked on."
Our first two days hiking consisted of a 30 mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail, SOBO (Southbound). We encountered every terrain imaginable, from heavily dried up burn zones and sandy crater-like deserts to lush meadows and visible snow and glaciers at the top of the three dormant volcanic peaks we would eventually hike past—North, Middle and South Sister. Miles of loose, dark red lava rock mixed in with shards of obsidian made for some of the most unique trails I’ve ever walked on. It was particularly interesting to be hiking the (typically) opposite direction on a section of the PCT and pass so many NOBO thru-hikers still chipping away at their long walk—inspiring to say the least.
We had planned to summit South Sister, the taller of the three at 10,358 feet, the morning of day three, but after camping below the night before we deemed a summit bid too lofty of a goal with our group’s combined levels of exertion and some potentially crippling blisters beginning to take shape.
Instead we began hiking back up north along the Green Lakes trail, where we would spend the better part of our final two days hiking through a huge burn zone—dry and hot with limited shade. Smoke from wildfires near the Oregon coast had begun to creep into our horizon around this time too. Not enough to affect our hiking or ability to breath, but foreboding nonetheless.
With smoke in the distance and plenty of time spent walking among innumerable burned trees and on charred ground, we couldn’t help but wonder if these previous fires were natural or the result of human impact. A shame either way.
We finished our loop before noon on day five and promptly drove back into Bend, exhausted and slightly pungent, for a proper meal and a local brew. *
Altra Superior 3.0 Trail Running Shoes – Altra’s were immensely popular amongst all the NOBO PCT thru-hikers we passed, and for good reason – these zero-drop thinly padded trail runners have a super wide toebox that allows your feet to naturally splay out very comfortably, not to mention they grip exceptionally well on trail. Can’t recommend these enough, paired with gaiters to keep dust and debris out!
Boreas Lost Coast 60 Backpack – San Francisco based bag and gear company Boreas has been making some of my favorite innovative designs for years, and the Lost Coast 60 has served me well for countless adventures. A nicely featured and spacious bag approaching the minimalist / ultralight category, I’ve been consistently impressed with this bag’s durability and fit. Easily capable of swallow a bear canister, which we would have needed in Yosemite.
Six Moon Designs Skyscape Scout – My go-to budget tent for bikepacking and camping adventures alike. Relatively affordable, packs down small, decently light, and waterproof when pitched correctly. No rain on our route unfortunately (the Sierras so desperately need it) so leaving the door halfway open at night to catch a breeze and fall asleep staring at the stars was lovely.
Mountain Laurel Designs Titanium Pot – This 850ml Titanium pot replaced a much bulkier Sea to Summit pot and plate system I had been using previously, and I’m totally a convert to the single pot system for boiling, cooking, and eating now. Comes with a lid so you could even cold soak your meals on the trail if you wanted to go ultralight and stoveless!
GSI Outdoors Ultralight Java Drip Coffee Maker – Straight up the easiest and lightest way to make a banging cup of pour over coffee at camp. Just bring pre-ground beans from your favorite roaster (I’m partial to Variety Coffee in Brooklyn) and attach this filter to your camp mug and pour hot water over the grounds and voila! Cleans up super easy too, with just a quick shake into the bushes.