Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

DAY 20 – Medicine Lake to Lava Beds

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October 18, 2012

Medicine Lake, CA
We woke up from our coldest night yet. I slept in two layers of clothing and under two sleeping bags. I was warm enough but felt uncomfortably confined by all the bundling. We had already discovered that when the night temperature is low enough, condensation from our breathing collects heavily on the aluminum beams of the ceiling and on the thick plastic sides of the pop-up section. This morning we look up to see that the condensation had frozen into a white coating of frost. When it warmed, as Chris said, “it rained in our house”. We’re not yet sure how to prevent this so for now we wipe down the ceiling on cold mornings.

You never know what magic you will find. I walked to the lake just as the sun rose and discovered that ice has formed along the beach in an enchanting and unusual way. Moisture below the surface had frozen and grown upward through the pebbles and sand creating 3-4” long ribbons, strings and blades of ice looking like a garden of crystalline white grass. They were reverse icicles, the frozen water reaching for the clouds rather than dripping downward to the earth. They would soon collapse and dissolve in the warming sun even though, while they lasted, they had the strength to lift stones (albeit lava rock), 1-3 inches in diameter.

While absorbed with photographing these ice formations, my attention was suddenly diverted by what I thought was music. Were other campers playing loud music this early in the morning? Then, with great pleasure, I realized I was hearing a chorus of coyotes, their howling so melodic, I thought it was song. It was one of the largest and longest coyote performances I have heard and was full of yodels, yips, yelps, trills and soulful cries. The sound filled the lake basin and it was difficult to tell what direction it came from. The choir reached a crescendo and then abruptly stopped, returning the forest to silence. For about an hour, there were periodic outbursts of this wild and exuberant music. I would have loved to see this pack while they sang, so uninhibited, expressing a vitality uncommon in humans. It was as if they were singing the new day into existence.

Later, back at camp, I heard another familiar call and I sighted an osprey landing in a nearby tree with a fish in its talons. As I walked toward it, the big raptor burst into flight with another bird in hot pursuit. For a few moments, I thought the second bird was also an osprey but then saw that it was bigger and darker. A bald eagle! They began a display of aerial acrobatics with the eagle determined to get a free lunch from the osprey. Instantaneous twists and turns, twirls and tumbles. Wow. Then, as quickly as it started, it was over. I’m not sure who got the fish in the end. For the rest of our stay, the osprey and eagle remained hidden.

A few days later I discovered that Medicine Lake is at nearly 8,000 feet which explains why it was so cold. Our climb to get there was so gradual that we never guessed that we had reached that altitude. I also learned that it is the caldera of a great shield volcano, the volcano that created the lava flows and tubes of Lava Beds National Monument. Medicine Lake Volcano has been erupting for 500,000 years and will likely come alive again.

After a short kayak exploration of the lake, we leave and drive the 16 slow miles to a remote entrance of the park. We’ve been traveling the Modoc Volcanic Scenic Byway, a barely used road this time of year, soon to be closed for winter.  It turns from good asphalt to good dirt to bad dirt (washboard) to bad asphalt (potholes). We stop just over the boundary in the park to see Mammoth Crater, the largest vent of the volcano from which most of the lava oozed. The path around the crater has an amusing name, “Big Nasty Trail.”

I love all things volcanic. Don’t you?

At Lava Beds National Monument we find a beautiful campsite with a vast view across the plain of the park. We also discover that that weekend was the annual Orionid Meteor shower. I love meteors as much as volcanoes! The weather was mild, in 70’s, sky clear. Not having properly bathed in a number of days, we tried for the first time the outdoor on-demand hot shower that Chris had brought. It was wonderfully refreshing.

By coincidence, the young ranger at the visitor center desk was from Pittsburgh, as I am, and had just graduated from Slippery Rock University, my father’s alma-mater. To be honest, he seemed disoriented and perplexed by this high volcanic desert, so different from western PA where he had spent all his young life.

One thought on “DAY 20 – Medicine Lake to Lava Beds

  1. Wow! Magical, rock-cradling reverse icicles emerging from the lake. Coyote creation song. Eagle Vs. Osprey. All in one day!

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