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Wahtum Lake to Chinidere Mountain

Kaj Jensen

I switched my location to Portland on OK Cupid a month before I actually filled my Honda Fit with camping gear, some clothes, and my cat. I was desperately ready to be in the land of the queers, to laugh and bring my whiskey lips to a woman's in a bar without worrying that we were risking violence. The endless queers with their clever profiles and mountains in their photos were overwhelming if I thought about it too hard after the scarcity of Omaha, where I could never quite figure out how to be "butch" or "femme" enough to fit in to the dating scene.


M and I met once in Portland, to make sure that neither of us were axe murderers, and made plans to go hiking. Having grown up in farm country, I'd spent very little time around mountains. The lush orchards and tantalizing peeks of  Mt Hood as we drove through Hood River and Parkdale felt like magic. When we turned onto FR-1310 towards our hiking destination, the brown and barren slopes of clearcut forest were painful.


We zigzag up and up and I am glad that what trees that are left line the road, blocking the view of how far down it would be if the car left the road. Finally we're back in the trees, but they're different than those found lower. Prairie-fire and wildflowers I still don't know the names of feel like apologies for the desolation we've left behind.


She parks her Subaru next to all of the other Subarus and we disembark. The trees are so tall I can't see their crowns.


I put on my backpack, shrugging my shoulders to shift the weight of our feast. I follow her. We head down stairs made of railroad ties and then right at the base, walking and making small talk though a green tunnel of ferns and firs. 


I don't notice the huckleberries that encircle the lake. I barely take in the clear waters that we will go skinny dipping in to cool our sweaty bodies in the July heat. I watch her calf muscles. I try to keep up. 


I am almost evenly matched with her until we reach the Chinidere cutoff trail—a vertical right angle from the more reasonably horizontal PCT. A series of switchbacks take us up higher than the mountain lake, higher than our parked car, higher than the endlessly tall trees. She tackles the scramble with goat-like enthusiasm. I fight a nearly incapacitating combination of vertigo and certainty that I will fall to my death with each skittering fist-shaped rock that comes loose and tumbles down the mountainside.


Two months later I am single. I have three days off from my terrible call center job and I am determined to go on my first backpacking trip. I have read Wild. I have Googled the PCT and studied its line through Oregon. I have purchased the right map from an outfitter, and a compass. I wear a pair of my dad's old khaki-colored jeans and a red Patagonia pullover I found on the side of the road. I’ve washed it twice, but it still smells like dog. My pack wasn't so heavy I needed help to put it on, so I felt like I was a little better off than Cheryl Strayed, but I was certainly making my own mountain of mistakes.


I didn't know yet not to wear cotton, which makes a dangerous swamp that can increase dehydration. I didn't know that it gets cold up that high at night—cold enough you need a sleeping pad, and something that keeps your body heat close to your body. I didn't worry about packing smelly tins of food that would attract wildlife, or realize how silly it was to bring a full-sized camp towel on my 50 mile walk.


It's nearly dusk when I reach Wahtum Lake on my second day of hiking. I know I should find a campsite. I also know that I should do as many miles as possible before the sun sets. A former thru-hiker doing trail magic at Indian Springs encouraged me to continue to Cascade Locks rather than completing my planned out-and-back. Spurred on by the sweet, deliciously cold Olympia he gave me, and the promise of a ride back to my car at Lolo Pass, I hike an 18 mile day. 


I don't stop to fill my water bottle in Wahtum Lake because there's been water everywhere. The next day, I will get lost two more times, spend hours without water, cry, and almost encounter a bear. I will hobble into Cascade Locks by nightfall, intoxicated by having survived in the woods for three days on my own.



L and I claim the last unoccupied campsite dotting the lake's southern parameter. We've only been dating for a few months, but already we're talking about moving in together, maybe even having kids. I've never talked like this with anyone, even the person I was married to for five years. They talk about introducing me to their family when I come to visit them in London in the fall. It’s been three years since I’ve visited this place, but I remember it well. My name has changed, but this is one place where I still feel fundamentally the same.


I show them how to use my Sawyer Mini water filter, and demonstrate the features of my ultralight sleeping quilt that I saved up for a year to buy. 


I proudly lead them up Chinidere mountain, pointing out bear grass and lupine blooming, barely feeling the exertion of climbing to the peak. I show them how to navigate the scree. I do not cringe as rocks tumble down the mountain behind me. To our left, Mt. Hood looms, glaciers gleaming. I point and name the three Sisters, Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson, Rainier, St. Helens. I point to the trail we will hike the next day seeking avalanche lilies. They are nervous we will fall off the mountain, and want to go back down into the safety of the tree line. 

Back at our campsite, we will stay up late sipping whiskey around our campfire and telling stories of mermaids who live in the lake. We will put freshly-picked huckleberries in our chia pudding for breakfast and talk of living on the tiny island in Wahtum Lake forever. 


A year later, ash falls in Portland like the driest snow and the sky is apocalypse yellow. It collects on my skin and in the pint glasses at the rooftop bar where I am working. One hundred and fifty-two people had to be evacuated from Wahtum Lake. They were trapped there overnight when the Eagle Creek Fire began—the blaze, sparked by a firework-wielding teenager, eventually burns 50,000 acres. The area from Eagle Creek to Wahtum Lake will be closed for years. 


Being single feels lonelier than it used to. Back when I didn't know about huckleberries and never passing up a water source when you don't know where the next one is, being single felt like freedom. Now it aches like nothing will ever be the same, like I've been clearcut and scorched and it will take years for life to return to anything like normal.

Kaj Jensen is a trans, genderqueer person who completed a Masters of Creative Writing at University of Brighton in 2018. They write personal narrative, compose audio essays, work on video games and craft the occasional poem. They prefer to travel at human-powered speeds and can often been found spying on birds and sneaking up on plants when they're not writing or doing research.

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