As we rounded a bend on the sagebrush-flanked trail, a small gossamer waterfall, lit by the morning sun, tumbled off the plateau high above us. Granddaughter Eleanor, aged five, noted, “That’s a fairy waterfall.”

Last year we backpacked to the ocean and set up camp in the midst of giant, grayed logs that had been tossed by tumultuous seas far back on the broad beach. Not only had we camped in the midst of a giant sculpture but it had become a wonderful playground for a four-year-old.

So this year, her father, Ben, suggested we head away from the ocean and steer up over the pass through snow country and descend into eastern Washington and backpack within an easy raven flight of the deep Columbia River gorge. The area is specifically known as the Ancient Lakes Basin. 

In this part of Washington, sage brush is common and the region is arid, almost desertlike. The area lies just east of the foothills to the Cascade Mountains. There is a strong rain shadow effect here as the precipitation falls in the mountains to the west. Consequently the area has one of the lowest precipitation rates in the Columbia River Valley.  So finding a basin of natural lakes seems odd. 

Our destination was a cluster of ancient lakes. These incongruous lakes owe their formation to a the melting of glaciers roughly 17,000 years ago.  The plateau is a horseshoe around the lakes. Small seasonal streams and a creek spill into the basin.

Eleanor a year older, is stronger, slightly taller and into fairies. However, some things don’t change. She carried the same cute daypack with its primary payload a couple of favorite stuffed toys. Her father and grandparents, Nana and Opa (me), carried conventional backpacks stowed with food, tents, sleeping bags, pads and a small amount of extra clothing and rain gear.

This year we would double the hiking mileage to our destination: 2.3 miles. It’s important when taking short-legged humans on hikes, first and foremost it has to be fun. 

Out of sight above us, the plateau is covered with orchards and vineyards. Due to the use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, it is not safe to drink the water from the lakes.

Eleanor was particularly intrigued with the dark gray rocks perforated with scores of tiny holes. I excitedly told her she had “discovered” clues of volcanoes.

Our hiking pace was determined by Eleanor and stops were frequent. She often paused to consider tiny discoveries. A beetle, a wind blown flower petal or a wisp of a feather. 

“There were volcanoes here?” she asked with a wrinkled frown.

I told her the tiny holes, called vesicles, were made when the lava cooled and puffs of gases escaped. I also pointed to the tall cliffs nearby and told her all those sharp edged columns were made from magma that had cooled down forming a hard rock called basalt. 

Her fidgeting told me I was giving too much information. But she did ask about taking the pockmarked rock home. Her dad suggested we pick it up on our return trip to the car. 

Eleanor declared we had to find ten different kinds of wild flowers. I believe the final tally was a dozen. . . not bad for early spring in a desert. We inspected beaver cuttings at the edge of the small lake and found a sun-bleached deer jaw which prompted a host of more questions.

We made camp near a cliff and a sloping run of scree, atop a bare ridge that split two of the small lakes. It was a lovely overlook. We wondered if the pair of marmots we saw up in the rocky scree chose this site for the view.

After the tents were set up it was time for hide and seek amongst the tumble of boulders and rocks. Eleanor’s insistence that the seekers only count to thirty made it difficult to get very far from the starting point. Eleanor did not like being hidden too long as she would let out little chirps and squeals to guide us to her hiding spot. 

Time for supper and once again, by popular demand we dined on macaroni and cheese. I lost count of the declared “yums” emitted over the course of the meal.

Not long after eating and getting camp dishes cleaned up we were chased to the tents by a sudden squall that hurried down the cliffs from the plateau. The wind suddenly took a more serious note when we found ourselves holding up the tents from the inside to keep them from flattening. 

From the dad and daughter tent, a query shouted into the wind about getting up, dropping the tents and shuffling camp a hundred yards to find protection behind a cabin-sized boulder. I yelled back, “Let’s wait a few minutes. I think this blast will push through.”

Five minutes later, the tent only rippled in the following calm. Nana and I could hear Ben reading bedtime stories to a cocooned daughter. Distant coyotes shrilled their howls and yips. Tucked in my own bag, I couldn’t help but smile.

The following morning broke clear and chilly. Eleanor asked for a cup of hot cocoa. Her dad’s face betrayed a fleeting look of horror. “Oh Eleanor, I forgot your cocoa.” 

“No problem,” I declared, “she can have some of mine.” I always carry a stash to augment my morning coffee. 

Eleanor snuggled in next to her dad. Life was good.

We broke camp, donned our packs and headed home with visions of an impending ice cream cone. But first, as we neared the end of our hike, we picked up a chunk of rock, riddled with holes. A souvenir to sit amongst the likes of little fairies.

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