Friday, July 24, 2015

An Intro to the Eagle Cap Wilderness and Back Country First Aid

I am not usually very responsive at 3:45 A.M., but when the alarm went off that early morning, I was up in a moment. We were heading out on a drive across Oregon to the northeast corner. Finally, after much anticipation, we were going to see the Eagle Caps.

Sometimes referred to as the Oregon Alps, this collection of rugged granite peaks offers over 500 miles of trails, 17 mountain peaks above 9000 feet, and numerous lakes. Hikers could spend weeks exploring this area; we had five days. Our plan was to hike up East Eagle Trail into the popular Lakes Basin. If we were feeling energetic, we would make a 42-mile loop and come down Kettle Creek Trail. If not, we would explore the lakes and return the way we came.

The area we were going to is accessed from Highway 86 between Baker City and Richland. This same website has excellent driving directions if you scroll down the page. There is parking for horse trailers and passenger vehicles as well as dispersed camping near the trailhead. No fees are charged; however, a wilderness permit is required (free at the trailhead) and groups are limited to 6 people in the Lakes Basin.

The hikers with their covered packs
This is big country for those of us accustomed to the coast and Willamette Valley. Hills are higher, the land is rougher, and towns are further apart. On our way to the trailhead, we crossed debris from flash floods, then drove gravel switchbacks past long-abandoned buildings. After hours on the road, we arrived at the trailhead shortly before a random thunderstorm cropped up. Quickly donning our raingear, we began to acquaint ourselves with the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

The climb began immediately, as did the visual rewards. We gradually passed through thick woods into open meadows dotted with wildflowers. The mountains began to show their faces: huge, sheer slabs of rugged granite. Eagle Creek tumbled below. We encountered several downed trees and a few creek crossings, but the trail was never ugly. Faint side paths hinted at hidden campsites, and we set up for the night about six miles in. Our plan was to get an early start and cross Horton Pass into the lakes. It was not to be.

The slow and careful hike out
This is unforgiving country, steep and rocky. Even careful, experienced hikers get hurt here. That glorious first morning in the wilderness, a member of our party slipped and was seriously injured. While our long-awaited hike ended that day, we are grateful to have had this introduction to such a unique and beautiful place. We hope we will be able to return next year to photograph the lakes for a future post.

Wilderness Safety
What's in your backpack? It's easy to jettison survival gear if you have hiked for years and never needed it. It's very tempting when trying to cut those ounces to pare down to a few bandaides, but in an emergency you will need a real survival kit. Here and here are a couple of websites with idea lists. Especially important are a map and compass (they never need batteries like a GPS), water purification (we take a backup system, as well), a good knife, shelter, and first aid supplies. I carry a satellite messenger which I use to send my coordinates to family members. I can also use it to call for help.

First aid supplies are indispensable when you will be miles from any help. We have heard of ultralight hikers who carry nothing but a tube of Superglue. While this may help to temporarily close the edges of a cut, it would not have done us much good in the Eagle Caps. At the other end of the spectrum, some hikers take a kitchen-sink approach, as seen here and here. While these are excellent lists, we aim for somewhere in between. Bandaides and antibiotic ointment are usually needed at some point (in fact, the latter can be used as a firestarter: rub some into a cotton ball and fluff it out, then light). Wind some duct tape around your water bottle. It can be used to secure dressings and splints, cover skin where it might get chafed, and repair torn shoes and broken tent poles. A prepackaged sterile dressing weighs almost nothing, as do foil-wrapped alcohol swabs. I always take an Ace bandage and some stretch wrap (the kind used by vets). They can be used to hold dressings over wounds, to support a sprain, or to secure a splint. We are convinced that everyone should have some basic first aid training; then it's just a matter of transferring that knowledge to a different setting. Here is a simple and practical site on back country first aid.

As much as we enjoy wilderness solitude, the Eagle Caps are not a place to explore alone. Ideally, a group should consist of at least three members; in a medical emergency, one member can stay with the victim while the other goes for help. We encountered more than one solo hiker on this trail, but as we saw, this terrain is steep and remote. As always, your most important piece of equipment is your own common sense.

The Eagle Caps are a wildflower paradise. Following are a few of the many specimens we encountered.


  1. What an amazing post! Having the best wilderness first aid kit is not enough. I believe any outdoorsman needs some basic first aid training. This way, one can actually use the kit when need be while in the wild. Learn the basics of wilderness first aid here:

    1. Thank you, Julie, for the link to that excellent site! Very accessible and practical information!

  2. Yep, outdoorsman needs some basic first aid training!!!
    Anw, very nice picture!

  3. VTruly, this article is really one of the very best in the history of articles. I am a antique ’Article’ collector and I sometimes read some new articles if I find them interesting. And I found this one pretty fascinating and it should go into my collection. Very good work! how to train a german sheperd