Backpacking the Eagle Creek - Benson Loop

Last weekend about 19 of us from from Troop 224 in Sherwood, OR ventured to the Columbia Gorge for an overnight backpacking trip on the Eagle Creek / Benson Loop trail. This is my trip report with some photos (see the rest of the photos on Flickr).

This hike has two distinct halves -- a meandering stroll up Eagle Creek (we encountered probably 6 different distinct groups on the trail) followed by a very difficult ascent up to Benson Plateau. I created a rough pedometer trace of the route, but be warned that the actual hiking distances are longer as I'm not capturing every twist and turn of the path. We are training for Philmont so for the past few hikes we have divided up into our separate crews. Julie, Jacob and I took the lead crew (plus two youths and one adult) and departed first.

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The Eagle Creek trail was in full splendor with rushing water, brilliant wildflowers, and two scenic bridges crossing Eagle Creek. Roughly 5 to 5.5 miles into the trail (just past Wy'East Camp) we found the junction with the Eagle-Benson trail. This was a good place to stop for lunch and wait for the next crew to catch up.

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There's no easing into the climb to Benson Plateau. The trail immediately rises as we begin the ascent from about 400 ft to 4,000 ft in less than three miles.

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There some sheer, exposed cliffs to traverse on the climb, but with the dry packed trail we never felt in danger. I can imagine feeling differently in a muddy rainstorm. As we cleared the exposed Eagle Creek gorge and worked towards the plateau, we entered the burn area where wide open trails transitioned to undergrowth and tree-fall. I picked up a bit of poison oak coming through here but I seemed to be the only one. The obstructions were nowhere near as bad as what we encountered on the Tillamook Head trail last month.

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The payoff for the climb was spectacular. As we hit 3,000 feet the views of waterfalls, surrounding peaks, the Bonneville dam, and Columbia Gorge were breathtaking. We were exhausted but still had another 1,000 feet to climb. As we approached to plateau the pine forest began to thin out with easy to navigate trails.

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A key milestone was finding the Smokey Springs campsite where we joined up with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The trip across the plateau started easy with mostly flat and wide open pine forest. Before long though we encountered snow pack, sometimes 18 to 24 inches deep. This was not a major concern until about a mile into the plateau where we lost the trail in the snow. Jacob and I were using our GPS and pre-downloaded maps and were getting some conflicting information, but using the terrain as our guide we gradually worked our way to an orthogonal path to what should be the trail and found it within 15 minutes. We started to grow concerned about the two other crews however.

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At about 4:30pm, about 6.5 hours after our departure from the trailhead, we found our new home at the Hunters Camp on Ruckel Creek. This is a great camp-site with easy access to water and plenty of flat spots for our tents. About an hour after setting up camp, the second crew rolled into camp (2 adults, 2 kids). They also got lost in the snow but used map & compass to find their way back to the trail. A good test of our navigation skills!

We honestly had doubts about the third crew and whether or not they would make it to camp. Part of me hoped they took our bail-out option and stayed down at one of the Eagle Creek campsites. I worried about them getting lost in the snow forest and dark settling in, but when I reminded myself about how well equipped they were and how they have an adult trained in Wilderness First Aid my fears vanished. Worst case they would have to work their way to the exit path down Ruckel Creek in the morning.

Lo and behold they showed up at camp about 7:45pm, over three hours after our arrival. They were tired but in great spirits. It was great to have everyone together for a warm campfire and good fellowship.

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The exit on Sunday is a steep descent down Ruckel Creek. In about 5 miles we descended nearly 4,000 feet. At times we had to slow jog to keep up with the boys. While Julie had an easy time with the climb on Saturday and I struggled, we flipped roles on Sunday. I had no pain (and I was even hiking in my KSO Treks) while Julie's legs started to ache on the descent -- she would pay the price for the rest of the week.

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Our descent only took about 2.5 hours and we had some great waterfalls at the base of the creek for a payoff. We finished off our weekend adventure with a simulated wilderness first aid scenario to keep us all sharp then returned to civilization.

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I can see why Portland Hikers has this trail marked as a Lost Hike, but that shouldn't scare away intermediate to advanced hikers. You better be in shape and ready for some map and compass navigation, especially if there's still snow on the plateau. The views and escape from the crowds are worth it!

Orienteering at Mt Tabor

I love maps and navigation and have enjoyed teaching orienteering to Boy Scouts in the past. A few summers ago I even took over an orienteering merit badge class being run by an older scout that hadn't even learned the basics. Despite my love for map & compass, backpacking, and navigation I never participated in the official sport of orienteering -- at least not until last weekend.

Last Saturday I joined the Columbia River Orienteering Club at Mt Tabor for a free beginner-oriented event. I spent some time reading up on the basics of the sport. Our own club has some great content: start with the beginners guide then check out the Orienteering: "O"-1-2-3 page. One surprise for me going in is that there is very little compass work involved in the beginner and intermediate levels. This sport is mostly about map reading, knowing where you are, and making good tactical choices about how to approach the different controls on a course.

Instructor teaching map basics

I showed up at Mt Tabor right when they opened up registration and waited briefly for the beginner class. The friendly volunteer handling registration talked me out of the beginner White course which is primarily intended for kids. I decided to do the Yellow (advanced beginner) course, about 2.4km long. I was wearing my Vibram Fivefingers KSO Trek and ready for some cross-country action. This course kept me mostly on the roads and trails around Mt Tabor, but there was plenty of climbing involved. There are enough cross-paths and man-made structures around Mt Tabor that I never had problems finding good attack points to find the controls. I finished in just under 30 minutes.

What are you actually doing on the course? Following the map, looking for the next numbered control (and orange and white flag on a pole or hanging from a tree -- you can see an example in the above photo), verifying that the control number matches the one on your card, then finally punching your control card with a special punch that will allow the scorekeeper to verify that you went to the proper control. Repeat for each control.

Out on the Orange (Intermediate) Course

Feeling ready for more I grabbed another map and control card to attempt the Orange (intermediate) course, which was 4.6km. This distance was a bit misleading given the location and weather. Surprisingly for Portland it was sunny and hot, and this course took me all around Mt Tabor (up and down). Now is a good time to mention that I generally ran from control to control -- I love trail running and am partly interested in this sport as a way to have fun while training. I was exhausted after completing this course in just over 57 minutes. I felt that I was moving along pretty well, mostly running but having to walk at times when climbing 400-500 feet. You can see from the results that some of these folks really move fast through the course. One of the volunteers told me that 10 minutes per KM is a good time, add a bit if you have a lot of up-and-down or the terrain is rough.

Unfortunately there aren't any scheduled events I can make until the end of the summer, but Julie and I plan to return to Mt Tabor and do the Mazamas orienteering self guided training course before we head to Philmont in late July. This training course is geared towards learning back country navigation skills, not the sport of orienteering.

The Dice Tower 2011 Gaming Awards

The Dice Tower recently published their nominations for the 2011 Dice Tower gaming awards. They recently lamented about how there aren't any luminaries talking up their awards, so I figured I would do my part to maintain the status quo. I'm in no position to select from the various categories -- in most cases I've only played about 2 or 3 games on each list -- but I'll give commentary nonetheless.

Best Game of the Year Nominees

Games I played: Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, Risk Legacy, The Castles of Burgundy, A Few Acres of Snow, Quarriors!.

Commentary: From the games I've played, I would select Risk Legacy for its innovative design and sheer fun factor. A Few Acres of Snow would be a close second. Quarriors! is fun but lost its luster quickly. Lord of the Rings: the Card game is very similar to other living card games from FFG but innovated with the solo / cooperative play.

Best Family Game Nominees

Games I Played: Quarriors! and Say Anything: Family Edition.

Commentary: I give the nod to Say Anything here, a game that improves on Apples to Apples and comes in a low-priced package. The more I hear about Flash Point: Fire Rescue the more I want to try it. I've heard it is a solid cooperative game in the style of Pandemic.

Best New Game Designer Nominees

Games I Played: None!

Commentary: Can't judge this category! I suspect I'll get to play Nightfall soon in my local game group. The Ares Project is on my list of games to try - might be something to put on the list for BGG.CON this coming fall.

Best Game Reprint Nominees

Games I Played: Can't Stop, A Game of Thrones, Puerto Rico.

Commentary: I can't vote for Puerto Rico here because the game was still available -- this is just an enhanced version of the original game. I didn't realize Can't Stop was out of print so it must get my vote, despite my love for the Game of Thrones board game. Everybody should own Can't Stop.

Best Production Values Nominees

Games I Played: Drizzt, Risk Legacy.

Commentary: I'm not inclined to favor either of the D&D boardgames here as they didn't bring anything new to the table. The pieces and cards, while excellent, look just like every other FFG fantasy game I've seen in the past few years. Risk Legacy, on the other hand, with its great use of stickers, sealed envelopes, and clean interface set the bar and is my choice.

Best Small Publisher Nominees

Games I Played: None!

Commentary: Not much to say here, other than I would like to try Flash Point and Sentinels soon.

Best Party Game Nominees

Games I Played: Crappy Birthday, Train of Thought. I've played the original Dixit before, but not this expansion release.

Commentary: Train of Thought, when played correctly by the rules as published, is a fun party game with the right crowd. I'm not a big fan of Crappy Birthday, and I suspect Dixit Odyssey is a nice expansion on the original.

Best Game Expansion Nominees

Games I Played: 7 Wonders: Leaders.

Commentary: Is the Summoner Wars Master Set really an expansion? I suppose so as it adds a board and the factions appear to be different. I really like the original game so should probably pick this up. 7 Wonders: Leaders was a nice expansion but if it was the best of the year I'd be surprised.

Most Innovative Game Nominees

Games I Played: Quarriors! and Risk Legacy.

Commentary: Even if I'd played the rest of the games, I suspect Risk Legacy would be my choice.

Best Game Artwork Nominees

Games I Played: Lord of the Rings Card Game, Game of Thrones Board Game.

Commentary: I'm a terrible judge for this category, but I love the graphical design and artwork in the Game of Thrones board game.

Best War Games Nominees

Games I Played: A Few Acres of Snow.

Commentary: I pre-ordered the second printing of Sekigahara and suspect I'll really like that one. I don't think I need another tactical squad-based game in my collection so doubt I'll ever play Band of Brothers. I would not be surprised at all if A Few Acres of Snow wins - my three plays have been extremely rewarding.

Best Game Theme Nominees

Games I Played: None.

Commentary: Not much to say here!

Best Digital Boardgame Nominees

Games I Played: Ascension, Ticket to Ride, Elder Sign.

Commentary: My vote goes to Ascension, hands down. Great treatment on iOS, and a great example of how some games get better when turned into a digital form.