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home : columns : columns July 23, 2016

8/20/2013 12:26:00 PM
Tenas Lakes great for swimming
At the destination point of a pleasant five-mile day hike just over McKenzie Pass, a hiker wades into the largest of the Tenas Lakes for a refreshing break. photo Craig Eisenbeis
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At the destination point of a pleasant five-mile day hike just over McKenzie Pass, a hiker wades into the largest of the Tenas Lakes for a refreshing break. photo Craig Eisenbeis

By Craig Eisenbeis

On hot summer days east of the Cascades, it's easy to forget that, just over the passes, there are cool green forests and countless lakes and ponds. My hiking buddy has a golden retriever's predilection for jumping into bodies of water; so I tend to look for possible swimming holes on the map when planning hikes.

In this case, I really don't know how many lakes and ponds there are in the Scott Lakes Basin west of McKenzie Pass; but, at the very least, there are several dozen. From warm puddle-ponds to bone-chilling lakes, if you are looking to get wet, there is much to choose from south of Scott Mountain on the west side of the Mckenzie Highway.

Amid all these choices, however, it's hard to beat the rock-lined Tenas Lakes. There are several of them, and the largest is only is 4.5 acres. The remainder are much smaller. The maximum water depth here is reported to be only 19 feet. That means that these lakes warm up faster than the big, deep windy ones. Still, it's not exactly bathwater.

We estimated the water temperature last week to be about in the mid-sixties, which is cool enough to be mighty bracing upon first entry, but warm enough that it's pleasant after a few minutes. Plus, since these are small lakes, they are easy to swim across. After acclimating to the water, I swam across the "largest" lake in less than half a minute.

Actually, it is somewhat redundant to describe the Tenas lakes as small, since "tenas," in the Chinook trading jargon, means "small" or refers to a small child. Chinook jargon is not a true native dialect, but it was a clipped, pigeon language that developed in the Northwest for trading among the native tribes and early European traders.

Chinook jargon flourished primarily in the nineteenth century. A handful of words, however briefly, made it into the general English lexicon. One example is a word that is still sometimes used today, "skookum."

Skookum is generally understood to mean "strong," "good," or "powerful." "Chuck" is Chinook jargon for "water," and the Skookumchuck River in Washington is a Chinook jargon reference to that stream's turbulent water and rapids, translating to "strong water." That is just one example among many; and the words of Chinook jargon survive in many Northwest place names such as the Tenas Lakes.

The water at the Tenas Lake we chose is extremely clear, and we had the whole lake to ourselves for the hour or so during which we swam and ate lunch. The lake bottom is soft and silty, so footing is not too difficult.

The trail to the Tenas Lakes is well-defined, well- maintained, mostly smooth and needle-carpeted. From the trailhead parking lot, it is only 2.5 miles of gentle uphill climb. The total elevation gain over that distance is less than 700 feet. Benson Lake is passed at about the midpoint of this hike, but the most popular access to that lakeshore is currently closed for habitat rehabilitation.

The trail begins just beyond the Scott Lake Campground. Scott Lake and nearby Scott Mountain are named for Felix Scott, Jr., who was instrumental in the development of the Scott Trail through this area and over Scott Pass in 1862. If a five-mile round trip isn't enough, there are options for longer hikes along this trail, including the summit of Scott Mountain.

The hike passes through a mature (unburned!) mixed- conifer forest, predominantly featuring lodgepole pine, firs, hemlock and whitebark pine. The trail has many natural highlights, and the walk in the woods alone is enough of a reason to make this trip. Bear grass - which is past it's prime now - and lupine dominate among many wildflowers, but the paintbrush display is extremely impressive right now. We found some huckleberries along the path; but, sadly, this is not looking like a good year for berries.

To enjoy this hike, take the McKenzie Pass Highway (242) west from Sisters. From the pass summit, continue west for another 5.6 miles and turn right (west) at the Scott Lake turnoff. There is a sign advising of the approaching turn, but there is an intervening turnoff, as well; so wait until you are abreast of the brown Scott Lake sign before turning off. The trailhead is 1.1 miles farther, at the end of a good gravel road.

When we took this hike, earlier this month, mosquitos were not too bad on this trail or around the lakes. Hopefully, these annoying, bloodthirsty critters are past their peak for this year. Still, I recommend carrying insect repellent.

This is a fee-use area, and there is a self-service kiosk where parking permits may be purchased if you do not have an annual pass. The Tenas Lakes are inside the Mount Washington Wilderness Area, so wilderness permits are also required and are free at the same location. The kiosk also provides other useful information of local interest.

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