Dawn mist flows across Waldo Lake like frosty breath. Mountain hemlocks spire to the sky and embrace the shoreline. High in Oregon’s Cascades lies a jewel of international significance: one of the purest water bodies on the planet. Two-thirds of the water comes directly from precipitation and the other third? Snowmelt and subsurface waters trickle through filtering ancient forests–the protectors of the crystalline lake.

Blinking in the first sun rays, I envision Waldo Lake as an immense clear blue eye with depths reaching 420 feet and visibility more than 100 feet down–enough to give you vertigo. To trace the circumference takes following a 21-mile trail. The surrounding intact forests are like eyelids with lashes—keeping the fragile lake safe from danger.

But here’s the rub—very little of the wildlands are preserved in perpetuity. While the Deschutes and Willamette National Forests manage roadless areas outside of the Three Sisters and Waldo Lake Wilderness as “primitive” with no motorized vehicle access, this administrative designation is not secure. At about 100,000 acres, the Maiden Peak/Waldo Lake roadless area harbors more than 100 lakes, the largest old-growth mountain hemlock forests in the Pacific Northwest, and peaks above 7000 feet. Securing protection is critical to connections, wildlife corridors, and wholeness.

Enter the Keep Waldo Wild campaign of the Oregon Sierra Club.

I’d come on a smoke-free, mosquito-free weekend of perfection to learn more from Dave Stowe and Mathieu Federspiel of the Sierra Club’s Juniper Group (Central Oregon)–and joined by several other wonderful folks. The night before we’d pulled out maps to examine the proposed Waldo Backcountry Recreation Area of 75,000 acres, including 15,000 acres as new Wilderness.

The strategic draft proposal is the result of more than a decade of engaging with hikers, mountain bikers, hunters and anglers, boaters, and runners. While I am a strong advocate of Wilderness with a capital W as the best protection we have under the 1964 Wilderness Act, I understand how difficult that would be for Waldo. Mountain biking has become very popular here–a use not permitted in Wilderness–and so has the Waldo 100K ultramarathon run. This backcountry congressional designation would protect wildlands from new development, new trails, logging, and expanding motorized access past existing roads, while allowing for mountain bikes and the Waldo 100K.

As a proposal, the boundaries can be adjusted–I’d say explore making them a bigger area. We have a 100K race, why not a 100,000 acre matching Backcountry Recreation Area? That’s my personal thinking, with deference to all who have worked long and hard on this project.

Mathieu Federspiel and Dave Stowe at Waldo Lake with a special tree behind them (location not to be revealed). Judge John B. Waldo (1844-1907) carved a heart into the mountain hemlock in 1890 commemorating “Camp Edith Waldo Lake” (in honor of his daughter Edith). Waldo’s conservation legacy on behalf of wildlands is monumental .

Now’s the time to bring the magnificence of Waldo’s wildlands to people who do not know it well, and to enlist all those who do to join an inspiring campaign leading to Congressional protection. Senator Ron Wyden is moving a popular bill forward for Oregon–The River Democracy Act. With climate change accelerating, our attention turns to the future of freshwater, beginning at the headwaters. This is the time for both Senator Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden for legacy -let’s not leave Waldo behind. We can do both.

Returning to our day that began in mist…We could have stayed on the established trails leading to lakes, peaks, and even sauntered along the Pacific Crest Trail, but I credit Dave Stowe with providing memorable experiences off trail. Within the first 15 minutes of our morning hike, we sloshed through verdant boggy meadows. Only by soaking our shoes and socks were we rewarded with bushes overflowing in sweet and tangy huckleberries, blueberries, and gooseberries.

Later, we headed upslope beneath forest canopies of mountain hemlock, western white pine, lodgepole pine, and true fir. Zigzagging and catching our breath, we struck a forested divide and descended to a turquoise gem of a lake that must stay forever trail-less, the way Dave has known it since childhood.

Keep Waldo Wild strikes a chord with all who look wistfully back at our favorite haunts we hoped would be there forever. I think of the woods where I climbed maples behind one (of several) childhood homes–this one in Arlington, Virginia. The trees are gone, replaced by streets and houses as if a forest had never existed.

Why not put up our hands and say–stop! Enough with all this “progress”!

Judge Waldo would approve. His words back in 1905 were as prescient then as they are now:

“The still woods; surely they are not all made merely to cut down. Let wide stretches still grow for the spiritual welfare of men. How good they seem here today — the untrammeled . . . wilderness, untouched by men, and that never has been touched. Cannot wide expanses still be preserved?”

Lichen-draped ancient mountain hemlock forests of Waldo Lake–the nitrogen-fixing lichens only thrive where air is clean. There’s foresight, too, in enlisting our very best allies in sequestering and storing carbon–our ancient forests, biggest trees, fallen nurse logs, and long-standing snags after wildfire. The wildlands of Waldo are a climate refugia.

We live in a fast-changing world with many more people wanting to experience wildlands that only seem to shrink. We’ve lost so much and still the travesties continue of logging centuries-old trees, even with so few left.

At Waldo we can stave off destruction before a desperate emergency. What I particularly love about the Keep Waldo Wild campaign is one word—foresight.

Foresight led to our National Park system, the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Oregon Beach Bill, National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Endangered Species Act, and so much more. Consider the countless city parks that would not exist without thinking of future generations—from Drake Park in downtown Bend to New York City’s Central Park.

As evening fell upon our small group of like-minded souls there at the North Campground of Waldo Lake, the setting sun cast a lucent pathway over the rippling patina of the lake surface. In the golden shimmer and shine, I saw a future of protected wildlands. All we have to do is step up and act–together.

Silent waters of Waldo Lake are quiet for a reason–no motorized boats are permitted, with the exception of electric motors (under 10 mph). This 2013 designation by the Oregon Legislature helps protect the clean, clear waters and offers a spiritual experience for paddlers.
Morning sun illuminates a 25-year-old burned forest chock full of renewal. Here, people can see a natural return of a forest after wildfire–with downed trees sheltering seedlings and nourishing the soils, and standing snags offering homes for woodpeckers and more. Everywhere there is life, diversity, and beauty.
If you’ve never noticed lichens draping off tree limbs and catching the light in their filamentous branching…come to the mountain hemlock forests of Waldo Lake. These trees that can live 500 years and possibly up to 1000 offer their tree branches to the beard lichens that fix nitrogen and shelter insects that in turn feed songbirds dependent on ancient forests.
The clarity of Waldo Lake compares to distilled water. I took this photo in shallow water, but out in the middle? Imagine paddling a canoe through the sky itself. In January of 2021, Waldo and Crater Lakes officially became Outstanding Resource Waters–the Sierra Club joined other partners to petition for this designation that protects the lake from polluting discharges.