The Lake of the Woods

I was hunched over a circle of stones with a box of matches in one hand and an old torn up national park map in the other. I lit match after match after match, touching them to the crinkled map pieces already in the center of a small firewood teepee. It was windy and with the temperature dropping toward a predicted low of 24 degrees, I was getting more and more frustrated in my attempts. Shivering, I jammed in more paper and lit (or broke) another set of matches. But I couldn’t get the damn thing to catch.

If I’m making this seem like a dire situation, let me assure you, it was not. My friend Shonna’s truck was in the parking lot a hundred feet away and we could see a small set of rental cabins through the trees. It was just so cold and we really wanted a fire.

Instead we huddled under blankets in Shonna’s tent and ate warm-ish vegetarian chili and a baguette we’d gotten from the Ashland Coop that morning. It was October and we were camped on the shore of The Lake of the Woods in the Fremont-Winema National Forest in Southern Oregon. And despite the fact that the temperature and wind drove us into our sleeping bags at about 7:00, we were happy to be there. We were starting a new tradition. Shonna had just recently moved to Northern California and we decided in order to make a trip happen we’d split the difference and meet in the middle. I was also carrying on another tradition, attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The morning after the play we had planned to drive to Crater Lake and camp for two more nights. But after a beautiful sunny drive, we found our intended campground full and the other, larger campground closed for the season. So we snapped a few photos and drove back down out of the park trying to sort out where exactly to stay instead. I’d been to The Lake of the Woods once before (on yet a different OSF trip) with my mom. It was summertime then and I remembered the nostalgic feel of the “resort” where we’d rented a canoe for the afternoon. There were also two large campgrounds at the lake and I was hoping they might be open year-round. Since it was the only other camping facilities I knew of in the area, it was definitely worth a shot.

When we arrived at Aspen Point Campground the gates were open but we were less than certain that it wasn’t also closing for the season. Bright pink signs lined the site posts telling us the “upper loop” was closed and there was barely anyone in sight. But we kept driving and found a handful of tent walk-in sites without any signage. We agreed it seemed open enough – there were a few other people around – and set up our camp among the tall trees.

The sun was just starting to set and the water was shining silver in the evening light. The wind was blowing through the branches, but everything else was quiet. And perhaps it seemed especially quiet given that we were in a space that was obviously made to be full of people. Aspen Point is not a secluded backcountry campground. It has dozens of sites and full restroom/shower facilities. We were simply there between seasons – after the summer crowd but before winter recreation set in. It felt like a ghost town, and there was something very surreal and magical about the whole thing.

After setting up camp we made our way to the resort to pick up some firewood (for my eventual fire failure). It was much as I had remembered: rows of small cabins, a general store, a marina, and a restaurant. It retained the old-school feeling that stood out when I’d visited with my mom. The cabins small and rustic, the other buildings simple wood structures with creaky screen doors. It was utterly charming. We bought two piles of firewood and made our way back to camp with happy thoughts of a warm campfire and evening of chatting, reading, and enjoying the stars. But you already know how that went for us.

It’s storied that The Lake of the Woods was found by Captain Oliver Cromwell Applegate of the Mountain Rangers. He and a group of Native Americans were camped nearby, but after he heard the singing of many birds he went to investigate. He found the lake itself and named it “Lake o’ the Woods” in 1870. Not long after, he returned to build a cabin, which was the first of many private residences to come. The resort was originally built as a fishing camp, and two of the original buildings remain: the general store (built in 1924) and cabin #3 (built in 1922).

It’s touted as one of the premier getaways in Southern Oregon. And for good reason. It’s quite a ways, well, away. Halfway between Medford and Klammath Falls, it’s definitely set far enough off the I-5 corridor to feel like you’re truly in the woods. It felt especially secluded during our off-season visit. But when I’d been there in the summer it had been packed full of families enjoying all the lake has to offer: boat rentals, fishing, camping, hiking, swimming, and the general outdoor fun that comes with the feeling of escaping to simpler times.

The next day we layered up and set out north along the lakeshore to find the High Lakes Trail. It had been recommended to us by the guy working at the marina store. It was easily found and we spent a good part of the day wandering through forests and lava rock formations. The trail was entirely ours. I can’t recall seeing any other people in the many hours we hiked. Without a real destination in mind, we turned around after a few miles and made our way back toward the campground. But by the time we made it, the temperature was beginning to drop, and Shonna had one thing on her mind: French fries.