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Wilderness Wednesday: The Spirit of Waldo

It’s 4 AM, and my Grandpa is waking me up telling me to get dressed so we can eat breakfast and leave for the mountains. It’s 1959, I am 5 years old, and to me, my head had just hit the pillow to go to sleep when Grandpa started to wake me up. Surely there must be some mistake; surely I can sleep longer. I can smell the bacon cooking in the kitchen as Grandma gets breakfast ready and packs lunch for Grandpa and me, and I know it is time to get up. As I wake up, I remember Grandpa getting the boat ready and packing the camping gear in his 55 Chevy pickup the day before for our annual trip to Waldo Lake. It’s dark outside, and it seems like we are leaving in the middle of the night; something I would come to get very familiar with on the many trips like this I had with Grandpa going on fishing, hunting, and camping trips in my youth.


My times with my Grandfather going on these adventures are my most cherished memories, and though I didn’t know it at the time, they formed the foundation of who I would become as a man. How very fortunate I am to have his ever present patient guiding hand to show me the way through the mystery of life. Through him, I learned about the forest and the wisdom of learning through observation. Through that observation in the solitude of countless trips, the forest revealed its secrets to me, and my connection with nature was made.

As I walk out the door the crisp morning air hits my face and my senses are alive with the possibilities that lie ahead. We are going camping for a week at Waldo, my very favorite place on a list of many favorite places I had around central Oregon. In those days, the forest started right at the edge of town, which was a couple of miles in from where the edge of town is now. The forest was magical and mysterious, and full of endless opportunities for adventure and fun. It seemed immense to me; endless. As we drive up the Cascade Lakes Highway (called Skyline Drive in those days) I fall fast asleep in grandpa’s pickup, only to be awakened by the truck bouncing on the rough dirt road that leads from Little Cultus Lake to the primitive campground on the north end of Waldo. Another sleep interrupted, another adventure begun. Forest road 4636 started as a sheep trail in the 20’s and was gradually “improved” to its present condition by cars attempting the trip. The forest service does not maintain this road, and it is in the same condition today in 2014 as it was in 1959.

The trip to Waldo really started at Little Cultus when you entered forest road 4636. It stretches for 13 very rough miles which were often impassable due to deep ruts and mud. Several times, we would have to turn back, and make due camping at another location. Waldo was surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of ancient primeval forest with only one road in and one road out: forest road 4636. The impassibility of that road protected Waldo from the masses until 1969 when the forest service punched a new road in from Highway 58 to the South end of the lake and started developing campgrounds on the eastern shore.

On that day in 1959, we made it to the lake, and although my parents had been taking me to the lake since I was 2, my first clear memories of Waldo are from this trip. I would go to Waldo and the surrounding country every year for the next 23 years, sometimes spending an entire summer camped at the end of nearby Cultus Lake with my brothers exploring the area, fishing, hiking, water skiing, and having adventures.

I moved to Alaska in 1982, then to San Diego in 1987 to start a business, and then a family. In the 22 years of living out of the state, I only had the chance to visit Waldo a few brief times. I did come to Bend to visit family, but never had enough time for extended trips into the wilderness. I did have plenty of time to see what the influx of people and development was doing to Bend and the surrounding area, and it caused me great distress. I moved back to the land of my youth in 2009 to reconnect with the mountains, and raise my daughter near the forest that I loved so much. Part of my plan included actively engaging to help protect the forest and wild places that had given me so much in the first half of my life. That led me to the Sierra Club, and starting the Keep Waldo Wild campaign, and full circle to now.

On a July morning in 2009, I rose at 4 AM, packed my lunch, and headed for Waldo country to hike to Hidden Lake and up the Twins from the north side. As the cold air of pre-dawn hits my face, I am filled with excitement and anticipation of the day that lies ahead. I am returning to the site of my first backpack trip in 1961 with my Grandpa, where a Pine Martin ate bacon from my hand, and we spent several days exploring, fishing, and just being with the forest. So many places I had known and treasured had been lost to development and “progress”, and I was afraid that even this remote spot might have been altered by the influx of new people.

As I approach the spot where I camped on the shore of Charlton Lake with Grandpa in 1961, a wave of memories flood over me, and I am lost in a vortex of emotion. I spend the day hiking on and off the trail embraced by the forest welcoming me home after being gone for far too long. The forest envelops me completely, and speaks to the deepest part of my being. The day is magical and filled with wonder; a flock of hundreds of small birds I don’t recognize circles around me in a grove of ancient hemlocks, a pileated woodpecker drums on a tree, a cow elk and her calf walk by seemingly accepting me as just another part of the natural landscape. Through it all, the pulse of the forest beats in my chest, speaking to me, and in that silence in the rhythm of the forest, I commit to protect it from anything that would disrupt that perfect symmetry.

The Keep Waldo Wild campaign was born on that day, and in the years since, has added many new voices to speak out for the forest and the animals that live there. Dear friends have joined the campaign, and we have had the privilege of showing new people the forest, leading them on hikes to many of the places I went in my youth. Just yesterday we accompanied Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune and his family as they experienced the area for the first time. The Sierra Club makes this campaign possible, and has been instrumental protecting the solitude of Waldo Lake from motorboats and floatplanes for others to experience and enjoy. The paddling community, horseback riders, mountain bikers, back country hunters and fisherman, the Waldo 100 endurance run, and other environmental groups have joined the campaign. Come and join us for our annual “Keep Waldo Wild” campout in August to hike, swim, canoe, bike, and share stories and food around the campfire. The forest needs your voice!

-- by David Stowe, Sierra Club Oregon volunteer

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