Every winter Deb and I do a two-night sisters outing to a fire lookout. We’ve been to Clear Lake Butte twice and Fivemile Butte twice. Unfortunately I could not get reservations this year so we opted instead for the Fish Lake Commissary Cabin. There is actually a bit of cool history with this place. Fish Lake lies right along the old Santiam Wagon Road. In 1867 a roadhouse was developed there, complete with barns, corrals, a blacksmith shop, and a store. When the Forest Service was established in 1905 Fish Lake was used as a ranger outpost. In 1921 Fish Lake became the fire dispatching headquarters for what was then the Santiam National Forest, and a dispatcher’s cabin was built. Phone lines were put up throughout the forest to connect Fish Lake to fire lookouts, guard stations, and district offices. More buildings were constructed, including the Commissary Cabin, which was used for tool storage and later converted to a residence. The Forest Service no longer needs Fish Lake for its operations, but many of the old buildings still stand and an organization called Friends of of Fish Lake help look after the place.
Although Fish Lake is located right on Highway 126, winter access is from Highway 20 to the north. So on March 4 we parked at the Lava Lake Sno-Park, geared up, and headed out. There are NO SIGNS telling you which way to go. What you have to do is walk out of the sno-park back to the highway which you will cross. A bit to the left (east) of the sno-park entrance is the road that you will be snowshoeing down. When we were there a blue diamond on a pole was the only marker. The route of the road you need to follow is pretty wide and obvious:
We continued following the trail/road through the forest:
Then we met up with the Santiam Wagon Road at a well-marked junction and turned left:
According to a 2013 newsletter “Work in the Commissary cabin revealed significant bat and rodent residue creating a human health hazard, the structure was removed from the cabin rental program until the damage can be dealt with.” When I visited in 2016 the work was mostly complete:
Commissary Cabin in July 2016
Commissary Cabin interior in July 2016 before the counter and range had been installed
We’re here! (While we appreciated the outside protective walls around the front door, the sheets of plywood were incredibly ugly. I hope they can find a more aesthetic solution that fits the character of the cabin.)
Lots of icicles hanging from the roof:
There is a table and two chairs:
A gas cooking stove and a propane heater (not a woodstove; more about that in a moment):
A sink (no running water and you can’t use the drain) with counter space, and a couch:
At the back of the cabin is a small room with a twin bed:
The front windows look out onto trees. The kitchen window looks down onto the blacksmith shop, oil house, and shed:
The dispatcher’s cabin is right next door (left) to the commissary cabin (right):
After we settled in we went for a walk to explore the area. Fish Lake dries up and becomes a meadow come summertime. In winter it is a wide expanse of white:
What a gorgeous afternoon!
The Hall House is the other cabin you can rent here. It was built in 1924 and named for Forest Supervisor C.C. Hall. Notice the unusual vertical log construction:
Hall House has an awesome porch:
See the old phone line insulator up there?
We cooked up dinner on the stovetop, which worked great. Veggies over rice with roasted red pepper sauce. YUM.
I had heard about snow ice cream, where you take a bowl of powdery snow and mix it with sweetened condensed milk and vanilla. We gave it a try, but our snow was icy. Still, it tasted pretty good!
I tried a night shot of the cabin exterior, but it was too cloudy for stars and it was snowing:
We woke up Monday morning to the slightest dusting of fresh snow:
After a leisurely morning we snowshoed the 1.3 miles back to Lava Lake Sno-Park:
We saw a number of little critter tracks in the fresh snow:
From the sno-park we snowshoed up Road 2067. Some inconsiderate driver had actually tried to drive up the snow-covered road and made quite a mess for all the snowmobilers, skiiers, and snowshoers to deal with:
What a gorgeous day it was turning out to be!
After half a mile we arrived at a junction with a signpost that contained no signs:
Fortunately I had printed the trail map from the Willamette National Forest website so we knew where we were going. We turned right:
We arrived at another junction, this time with signage!
We turned left and traveled about 0.3mi down a spur trail that ended at Lava Lake:
The sunshine felt GOOD:
At first they were kind of obscured by clouds, but then Maxwell Butte and Three Fingered Jack came into view:
We sat there in the sunshine for awhile enjoying the peace and quiet and the warm sun. Then we headed back to the main loop. We found that no one had traveled this 0.9mi section in a little while and it was untracked:
We definitely got a workout breaking trail as we circled back to the sno-park! This Lava Flats Loop was 2.3 miles total (not including the trek from the cabin and back). We were curious to see where the trail came out at the sno-park because we hadn’t seen any signs of it when we started. Turns out this tree covered in broken arrows is the place to start:
We headed back to our cabin, checking out Fish Lake on the way:
From a spot near our cabin we noticed that the very top of North Sister was visible through the trees:
We spent the afternoon relaxing and trying to warm the place up. While we waited for that to happen we had to bundle up:
One of the downsides of staying in a cabin in the forest (versus a lookout on a mountaintop) is that it’s kind of dark inside even on a brilliant sunny day:
As evening set in we turned on the battery-powered twinkle lights that we had brought and settled in:
Deb made dinner that night. With only icy snow outside we “skipped the middle man” and ate the rest of the condensed milk right out of the can. Delicious!
The skies were clear so we went outside to check out the stars. I had forgotten to bring my wide angle lens so I had to make do with my regular lens:
Tuesday morning was sunny and beautiful (and only 16 degrees Fahrenheit at 6:45!) and the sun sparkled off the snow:
The heat had fortunately stayed on through the night so we slept warmly. But once we were out of our down sleeping bags it was a bit chilly. Time for tea!
Before heading home we wanted to take advantage of the clear weather and get a better look at the mountains. We stopped at a viewpoint along Highway 20 on the way to Sisters and saw Mt. Washington:
And two of the Three Sisters:
We stopped for a bite to eat in Sisters, then drove a bit further east for an even better viewpoint of the mountains. The Three Sisters:
Black Butte and Mt. Jefferson:
So that’s our trip! We had a great time at this cool little cabin. This is a great place to rent for families since the trek in is short and relatively flat. I would stay here again, although next winter we are going to try again for a lookout.
Things to know if you go:
- The Forest Service website says it is 3/4 mile from the Lava Lake Sno-Park to the cabin. My GPS said 1.3 miles.
- The cabin has a couch, a twin bed, a table with two chairs, a gas range with stovetop and oven, and a sink (no running water and a sign said not to pour anything down the drain). An outhouse is in the trees behind the cabin.
- The source of heat for the cabin is not a wood stove, but a propane one. It does a mediocre job of heating the place up and I’m sure most of our heat was hanging out underneath the high ceilings. Bring warm sleeping bags and plenty of warm clothes. We also had trouble with it going out and one thing that sometimes helped with this was to turn the thermostat up to 80. There is also a button at the base of the unit that you have to press and hold when re-lighting the pilot light and we found that if we held it in for a full two minutes that worked better than holding it in for the recommended one minute.
- Although there is a picnic table and fire ring outside (it’s right behind the neighboring dispatcher’s cabin) they weren’t usable when we were there because they were buried in snow. Also, it was cold.
- There are lights in the cabin but they are powered by batteries charged by a solar panel. During the short cloudy days of winter when sunshine is in short supply, the battery can go dead quickly so bring some lights of your own.
- There is no water so you’ll need to melt and filter (or boil) snow. Gray water cannot be poured down the sink (according to the sign in the cabin) so you’ll need to pour it in the toilet.
- Our Verizon phones had zero signal of any kind at the cabin (although we had full signals at Lava Lake Sno-Park). Good excuse to unplug from the world!