Ghost of Old Judge Waldo
Copyright © 2006-07
by Richard S. Platz, All
Photo © Oregon Historical Society #OrHi64412
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Blue Lake and Island Lake Backpack
Sky Lakes Wilderness
August 8-12, 2006
the Author Except Where Noted
"Moaning some dread message from beyond
"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
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
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:
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.
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.
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
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
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."
There indeed was the graffiti, still faintly
legible, with the five names Judge Waldo's party had carved
into the mighty trunk in 1888.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!"
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