Donica Lake Trip, From the Archives

D. E. Larsen, DVM

It was early summer in 1978. We had lived in Sweet Home for a couple of years, and I was becoming involved in the community. There was a lot of debate taking place between the timber industry and environmental groups. The environmental groups had proposed a Middle Santiam Wilderness area. I felt that I needed to check it out.

Our family was young at the time, and Sandy was a good sport but not really an outdoor girl. We had 4 kids: Brenda, 11, Amy, 7, Dee, almost 6, and Derek, just 2.

We planned a 3-day backpacking trip into Donica Lake in the southern edges of the proposed wilderness area.

The trip involved a 3-mile hike, and the first 500 yards were tough, as we would have to traverse an ancient landslide that was still slowly moving. The plan involved packs for all the kids, one pound per year. My pack would be 45 pounds, Sandy would carry 20 pounds, Brenda would be limited to 11 pounds, Amy would have a 7-pound pack and Dee 6 pounds. Derek was given a pack, but it only contained a couple of clothing items.  

Amy’s and Dee’s packs included their sleeping bags and clothing items, and that was about all. Brenda’s was similar but also contained the tent poles to our large 6 person wilderness tent. Sandy’s pack included a lot of the food items, the rain fly for the tent, sleeping bag, and clothes. We were pretty strict with the weight of these packs. My pack contained everything else we would need over 3 days and the main portions of the tent. My pack tipped the scale at close to 50 pounds. I had carried more in the army.

Finally, the day arrived, and we were off. Leaving the highway at Mountain House about 20 miles east of Sweet Home, we traveled up Upper Soda Fork to the divide between the South Fork and Middle Fork of the Santiam River. We stopped at the massive old-growth tree that stood along the creek a couple of miles from the highway and then continued to the top of the hill. The road down the other side to the Middle Santiam River was steep and winding.

We parked the car, loaded up, and headed for the slide. This was more of an obstacle than I had been led to believe. On my first trip across the slide, I took all the kid’s packs and had Brenda follow my footsteps. She had no problems. Setting all the packs down, I returned for the others. With Derek on my shoulders and the younger girls on each hand, we managed to get everyone across. Sandy was having a few second thoughts about now.  

A young man was camping by himself at Pyramid Creek. We stopped and talked with him for a time. He was interested in going to Donica Lake and asked if he could travel with us. I figured he seemed nice enough, but then so did Ted Bundy. I just thought it would be better to have him with us, rather than wondering where he was behind us.

We started off up the last remnants of a logging road. We were clustered in small groups as we started up the hill. Sandy and the kids led the way, followed by the young man and then me bringing up the rear. I was glad that I had decided to carry my revolver. Probably would not need it, but it just made me feel more in control of the situation. 

It was easy going now with the road to the river and bridges across the river and Pyramid Creek. I noticed an excellent campsite along the river just before the bridge. The trail involved a logging road for the first mile and then a large clearcut that was all located within the proposed wilderness. There was a hill in this first mile, but it would be an easy hike from the top of the hill. Derek was the first to shed his pack, but Amy and Dee were not long after him when they realized Dad could carry more.

After the clearcut, we entered a prime old-growth forest. The shade was welcome, and the trail was level. Soon we reached a stream, and we missed the turn in the path where it crossed the creek on a massive old cedar windfall. The young man decided he had gone far enough and headed back to his camp. It didn’t take long to correct our error, and just over a little rise from the stream, we came to Donica Lake.

The lake was not very impressive, maybe 3 acres in size, but entirely surrounded by giant old-growth Douglas Fir trees. These trees were all 4 to 6 feet in diameter. On the eastern end of the lake, a small stream entered through a grove of massive red cedar trees. I had never seen such a grove of old-growth cedar trees. There was a nice sand bar here, and this is where we made camp.  

Everyone was tired from the hike, so we busied ourselves getting the tent set up and the sleeping bags laid out so the kids could relax. A gas backpacking stove made dinner easy to fix. The kids wanted a fire, but we convinced them that we would do that tomorrow. Early to bed tonight.

About 3:00 in the morning, Derek started vomiting. He was still vomiting when morning came. Sandy and I decided that we had better get back closer to civilization. If we got on the trail after breakfast, it would still be afternoon by the time we got back to Sweet Home. So I packed up while Sandy fixed breakfast. Derek was not up to eating. We loaded up, I took the two younger girls’ packs on my pack and put Derek on my shoulders. I told Sandy I would walk at a brisk pace and wait for her and girls every half mile or so.

By the third stop, Derek was digging through the pockets on my pack for anything edible. Nuts, Trail mix, and jerky were all disappearing. He was apparently well. We decided to continue on to the river and set up camp if Derek continued to improve. By the time we made it to the river, Derek had consumed everything available from the pockets on my pack. I was tuckered out after 3 miles with over 80 pounds on my back. The campsite on the river looked pretty good. There was no sign of the young man who had been camped at Pyramid Creek.

As it turned out, this was probably a much better place to camp. The kids had fun, and we were able to get each of them hooked up with a fish. There is nothing like fresh trout cooked over an open fire. The next two days were relaxing and comfortable. Now the only thing that we had to worry about was getting back across that slide.

Photo by David Baker on Unsplash.

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

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