On Sunday evening, my family and I drove to Elk Lake figuring (correctly) that we'd have Sunset Beach to ourselves. As we passed Sparks Lake on Cascade Lakes Highway, we spotted a small herd of elk grazing blissfully in the meadow that flanks the lake.
They stood in stark contrast to the type of herd Map Guy and I encountered at Sparks Lake two days earlier. On Friday morning, the two of us took my trusty, dented aluminum canoe up to Sparks for a paddle on what has to be on the crown jewel of the Cascades Lakes. The only herd we saw was human in form.
Neither of us could recall having seen crowds like the one we encountered as we approached the boat ramp late that morning. Map Guy piped up that he thinks of Sparks Lake as a quiet, low-key sort of place, and later he would repeat this apparently no-longer- accurate view as though he were wishing it were still true.
Not only was the small parking area full, so was the nearby lot that serves as trailhead parking for the Ray Atkeson Memorial Trail. There were maybe a dozen more trucks, cars and SUVs parked on what little shoulder there was, with obligatory groups of people milling around.
“Want to try Hosmer or Little Cultus?” I asked, but Map Guy answered that we were already here, and it would probably be crowded at those lakes, too. So we double-parked just long enough to unload the canoe, paddles, sunblock, life vests, cushioned seats, Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Permit (expired), food, water and digital camera.
A lot of equipment for a few hours of canoeing. Map Guy waited with that boatload of stuff while I parked way off down the gravel road. What felt like 15 minutes later, I'd hoofed back to help lug the canoe to the water's edge. Because of the logjam of canoes, kayaks and their owners down at the ramp, we opted to cut to our right through the thin stand of pines to a large cove, and put in there.
Map Guy managed to climb in the back of the boat without capsizing us, and we paddled out into open water. It's been my experience that the widest part of the lake is its least-visited, and we passed not one other boat as we paddled across to the west side of the lake. This held true for the rest of our outing, but we took the route less chosen.
According to the U.S. Forest Service's page for Sparks Lake, it was formed about 10,000 years ago, “after lavas from the Mt. Bachelor Volcanic Chain blocked the upper Deschutes River.” Its nearly 400 acres of surface area are surrounded by hundreds more acres of meadow, forest, marsh and wetlands.
Most paddlers — myself included, on other visits — opt to go straight out from the boat ramp, hugging the rocks and paddling along the interesting lava formations that rim the southeast shore of the lake.
They'll then turn south, away from the highway, which leads to narrower portions of the lake and all sorts of interesting coves, nooks, crannies, rocky outcroppings and places to beach one's boat.
It's great paddling, and if your goal is to hop in for a swim in this shallow lake, it's the way to go. But it's also a sure way to see a lot of the other people out on the lake.
So, once at the far side from the boat ramp, we decided to go north, hugging the shore. This leads through a narrower section, after which it gets wide open again (see map).
When the water level is low, portions of the lake can dry out enough to scrape your boat's bottom, but recent snow melt has left the water level high.
Despite all the essential junk I had brought along, I'd unwisely left the skeeter juice at home, figuring that at midday, the mosquitoes would be hiding in the shade. But when we got too close to the shore, the rascally mosquitoes would emerge from the cool shadows of the trees crowding the shore. When Map Guy required a quick pit stop at the shore, he laughed about the number of mosquitoes swarming my back.
While not as geologically interesting as some of the other parts of the lake, there were plenty of treats to be had — most significantly, the views of Mount Bachelor, Broken Top and South Sister, not necessarily in that order.
A poet could write rapturous verse all day long in tribute to the splendiferous sights: the endlessly blue skies, the limpid lake waters, the craggy peaks, rocky ridges, stubbornly clinging snows and the magic meadows bursting with life.
Whereas an all-business newspaper reporter would just write dry prose telling you that if you want a lot of view for your outing buck, Sparks Lake is a pretty nifty place to visit.
Along with the majestic sights, there were smaller treats to be had as well. Slime-covered logs, mossy rocks, numerous tadpoles and the occasional mysterious shape skidding along the bottom of the lake.
We neared Devil's Garden — a massive boulder mash-up that looks like it could be blocking the highway when you're driving on it. With it looming above us, we paddled up one of Sparks Lake's feeder streams — Map Guy says it's called Satan Creek — noticing the submerged grasses that the high water allowed us to paddle right over.
Eventually, we reached a log blocking our path. Rather than turn around, we decided to hoof it the rest of the way to the highway, just for the heck of it. Map Guy, as usual, was wearing jeans and boots, which he wisely chose to keep dry. I was wearing sandals and shorts, and stepped right into the icy water of the stream. This led to a barrage of swear words disrupting the peaceful solitude as my bones froze.
Big mistake, but one I repeated a few times because it was faster than walking on the boggy shoreline, where Map Guy put to use skills from his childhood — he caught one small toad and a slightly bigger tree frog, both of which he released unharmed.
We reached a culvert, then turned back to the boat, eating our lunches as we lazily paddled back to the main body of the lake.
Once we reached it, we had to paddle into the wind, which had picked up considerably since we'd set off on our trip: hardly much of a price to pay for the — what the heck — splendiferous views.
Just don't forget the skeeter juice.