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April through June 2015

Mosquito at 11 o'clock! Post date: Jun 24, 2015 5:06:52 PM In mid-June at 10,200 feet, Roosevelt Lake was a wonderland. And it was also wondrously full of close encounters of the flying kind. The mosquitoes were so bad that we were not only wearing insect repellent, we were also fully clad in headnets. And after enjoying a stunning sunset and the alpenglow on the peaks, we were ready to escape the bugs in the safety of our tent. We nimbly ducked through the mosquito netting and zipped it up quickly and carefully behind us.

P settled into his bag and closed his eyes. It had been a long day of off-trail hiking, and he was ready to sleep. M was soon to follow, and there was a wonderful stillness in the tent as she lay down to rest.

And then she sat up again.

"There's a mosquito in the tent!" she cried.

P tried to rest as she pulled out her headlamp and started scanning the tent for the offending skeeter. As he opened his eyes, P saw the beam of the headlamp slowly panning across the ceiling of the tent without success.

He surrendered, and pulled out his own headlamp and added it to the search pattern.

Quietly, out of the side of his mouth, he began to make the slow, mournful siren of the air raid horns from London in the Second World War. The searchlights continued to pan across the ceiling in a random pattern.

"There it is!" M called out as she took a swipe at the MO-109 flying mosquito. She missed. Again the lights searched the sky. Again the air raid siren wailed to life.

"Got it!" she said happily, as the bug got squished against the netting and fell slowly out of the sky. We only missed the sound effects of the tailspin as it went down.

The searchlights went off. The siren signaled the all clear. And we settled in for a quiet night's sleep, protected against the enemy by a thin wall of gauze.

Staying Found Post date: Jun 22, 2015 3:36:26 PM A few people have asked us how we find our way when we leave the trail and hike cross-country in the Sierra. It’s not that hard, but you do need to pay a little attention. While we sometimes are not sure exactly where we are, we are always careful to remember how we got there---so we can always find our way back out again!

On this last trip, we began by following Conness Creek up the canyon out of Glen Aulin. If you look at a map, you can see that there are three creeks that come together to join the Tuolumne River near Glen Aulin, all from the north side. But Conness Creek is the furthest south, so we stayed to the right (south) side of the creeks for a while to make sure we didn’t follow the wrong one. Then it was a question of figuring out how far up the canyon we were hiking. We normally figure that we hike about one mile per hour off trail. That’s slower than usual, because we’re often looking for the best route through the trees, rocks, and brush that we meet along the way. So we hiked for a couple of hours and estimated (navigators call this “dead reckoning,” after deduced reckoning) that we were about two miles up the canyon. From there we began to look for the large ridge on the north side of Conness Creek which would confirm our dead reckoning position.

We found that by looking between the trees in the more open spots along the creek. Then we crossed the creek to make sure that we didn’t miss our next key landmark—the smaller tributary that enters Conness Creek from the north. We found it, right on schedule, and followed it up the small canyon and notch that we saw on the map. At that point things got a lot easier, as we started to climb above treeline, where you can see where you are! We climbed up onto the ridge above Roosevelt Lake and it was clear from there that the lake was dead ahead, down in the valley at the foot of Mt. Conness. And it was.

The next day we wanted to exit the lake on the east side, because the west side is so steep going into the canyon (that’s why we took the route that we took to the lake in the first place.) So we looked on the map and saw exactly where Upper Young Lake is in the cirque of ridges across the way, and took a compass reading (150) for that direction. We also tried to keep a notch in the cirque in view as we descended into the canyon. But we also knew that we would not be able to see much ahead of us once we started to climb the other side. That’s why we also took a compass bearing behind on a peak---and kept that peak at 330 as we ascended the canyon on the south side.

The result was that we hit Upper Young Lake dead center.When it was time to hike down to the lower lakes, we first followed the use trail. But it was so steep, muddy, and slippery that we quickly abandoned it. By looking at our map, we saw that the terrain was much more gentle just fifty yards to the north. So we hiked over there, came down the easier gradient, and joined the use trail at Middle Young Lake. From there it was simple to follow the use trail to Lower Young Lake…and eventually to the maintained trail back to Tuolumne Meadows.

None of this seems hard on paper, and it really isn’t. But we did check our position frequently as we hiked, and we were always sure exactly how to get back to Glen Aulin if the whole thing went wrong.

The whole story--our recent trip in Yosemite Post date: Jun 21, 2015 5:19:15 PM We arrived in Yosemite on Sunday evening and were amazed to find campsites available at Porcupine Flat. In fact, the campground was more than half empty all night…and they had spaces at the Tuolumne Meadows campground as well. It's hard to imagine that the park would be that open in the middle of summer!

We grabbed some breakfast for the next morning at the store, and picked up bite for dinner at the grill and took it back to the campground and spent a quiet but cold night there. Down in the little Porcupine Creek valley, the cold air sinks down and the temperature was in the low 30’s…

Day one: After leaving the rest of our food and smelly goods in a bear box at the Cathedral Lake trailhead, we parked just up the road from Pothole Dome and took the use trail for an easy hike to Glen Aulin. We were delighted to see three coyotes on patrol working their way down the river on the far shore…and charmed to meet the Glen Aulin camp manager on her hike back to work, after she’d watched the Warriors win game five. Glen Aulin wasn’t open for business yet (it was supposed to open the coming Friday) but there were still some campers in the backpackers campground. We had a nice chat with two older ladies who had set up their tent there and were dayhiking out of Glen Aulin. Really nice people

We wanted to make sure that we got started up the right canyon from Glen Aulin (not Cold Canyon or Alkali Canyon) so we stayed on the right side of the creek this afternoon. It wasn’t bad going, but as we were off trail, we had to continually choose our route through the trees, rocks, and occasional deadfalls. We found the best route usually was from fifty to 150 feet from the creek….but we ranged from right along the shore to well up on the hillside. The one bit of navigation that was complicated was that the first big ridge to the north of the creek shows trees on the topo map, but it was clearly a bald granite dome. It was only after we saw the second granite ridge that we were sure of our exact progress. After a couple of hours of bushwhacking along the creek, we called it a day. Found a nice campsite perched over the creek, and enjoyed rinsing most of the crud from the trail off our feet.

P caught quite a few trout in the small pools here. Mostly brookies, but a few rainbows. Nothing over 8 inches, although we did see a few larger trout on the hike. They were well protected, down in a gorge and hanging out behind a huge rock. There was no way to cast to them!That night it was pleasant to see that the skeeters weren’t too bad. But down in the canyon, the temperature was around 35, and we slept closed up tightly in our bags.

Day two. We had a lazy start today, and then kept up the creek, staying on the right hand side and trying to sight landmarks. We made it up well past the second ridge on the north, and decided to cross the creek for two reasons. One is that the terrain looked easier over there. The other one was that our next landmark was a smaller tributary creek coming in from that side….and this way we couldn’t miss it. The hike this day was really beautiful.

Conness Creek is full of deep pools, cascades and slabs of granite covered by rushing water. We found the smaller stream with no trouble, and followed it up to the left. This was a bit steeper, but really very easy going, with lots of open space between trees and rocks. It was easy to find the notch we needed to get up on the plateau west of Roosevelt Lake, and we hiked straight up the little valley there. As it opened up, the views became spectacular, with Mt. Hoffman, Half Dome, Cathedral Peak all visible.

We made a small miscalculation and climbed out of this little valley a bit too soon. It gave us great views, but made the approach to Roosevelt Lake more complicated. This was about a mile of big open pink granite…and we finally called a halt and ate lunch up there. When you approach Roosevelt from this side, there are two good options: either follow that little valley all the way to the top, and then descend down to a point well past the middle of the lake; or head down right away to the outlet. We did neither. We tried to aim at the island in the lake, and found ourselves repeatedly cliffed out. It took us about 30 minutes longer than it should have to get down to the lake this way. Be warned.

Campsites at Roosevelt Lake are problematic. There are no trees, so don't bring a hammock. The West side was green and lush, with a few big rock formations to serve as windbreaks (it was really breezy) but it was also absolutely mosquito ridden. We dropped our packs and started to wander around. After a while, we decided to see what life was like on the other side of the outlet stream. The East side was drier, a bit breezier, and with fewer bugs. Guess where we camped? We met three dayhikers who had hiked over from Young Lakes here, and shared a few stories.

The real attraction of this lake is the views (especially as there are no longer any fish in the lake---and there appears to be a net across it right at the island…). You can see Conness as a staggering tower overhead, with Sheep Peak on one side, the south ridge of Conness to the southeast, and Ragged Peak and its cirque to the south. We rinsed off in the outlet stream, noting that there was a snowback still there, melting in the shallows, to give the water just the right amount of chill. And after a dinner eaten in headnets for the bugs, we wandered around, took a few photos of the sunset, and called it a night.

It was a great show at sunset...and because we were on the East side of the lake, we had light (and warmth) longer at the end of the day. After a day and a half of cross-country hiking, we were ready for rest. And then in the middle of the night, a group of three or four coyotes exploded into a howling concert. At 1:30 a.m., it sounded as if they were right outside the tent, but we suspect they were on the other side of the outlet stream. Really wonderful.

There is very little wildlife at Roosevelt Lake. As noted, there are no fish. There are plenty of marmots and Belding squirrels, pikas, one or two birds, and two lonely seagulls. Since there are few trees, it’s not surprising the birds were headed elsewhere. It was cold again that night, with the condensation on the tent turned to ice by morning. So that added a few minutes to our prep time. But the stars were stunning, the Milky Way popped out of the sky and the dark channels were amazing.

Day Three: Roosevelt Lake to Young Lakes. This was a piece of cake. The next morning we had an easy hike down over the edge of Conness Canyon. I took reciprocal hearings on both the ridge ahead and Sheeps Peak, so that we could stay on track. But it wasn’t hard. Heading down, we kept the notch in the ridge east of Ragged Peak dead ahead. Once across the creek, we couldn't see anything ahead, but kept a point of Sheep Peak at 330 behind us.

And we hit the Upper Lake dead center. What a beautiful spot. Glorious lake, surrounded by a well-tended lawn and clouds of pink flowers. And pestilential mosquitoes. There is a reason nobody was camped there. They were the worst on the trip by far, and rated as bad as mosquitoes can be. We could not help but breathe some of them in, they were so thick. The headnets went on, and after a quick and early lunch, P tried fishing for 45 minutes, and then we ran for our lives. It would not be this bad at the other lakes.

The use trail to Middle Young Lake was really steep, rough, muddy, slippery...and M refused to take it. So we took a saner route along the ridge just to the North. Easy peasy, and it dropped us right into the lake shore just a few yards past where the use trail comes off the cliff. Middle Young Lake was grassy, with some nice views, no people, and the bugs weren't quite so bad...they were only horrible. We kept going.

Although it may sound like Goldilocks, Lower Young Lake was the best of all. We set up camp on the sandy ridge to the northwest of the lake, nestling our small grey tent in among a cluster of small trees. That was a mistake. Nobody saw us there, and by nightfall we had found other groups camping near us, including two who were within 75 feet. The rest of the lake was empty, except for one group of young men on the far side. Crazy.

There was also more trash than we’d like to see here. We counted three half-eaten apples slowly desiccating in the sun, a fishing float, lots of micro-trash, some used TP in the rocks, and somebody left behind an entire rain fly on a rock. We asked everyone about it…then toted it back to the visitor center in Tuolumne Meadows. The skeeters were really better here. Sure, we put on our headnets at times, but only when we were stationary for a while. P fished for 90 minutes and caught at least ten really nice brook trout, all pushing a foot long. M took the camera and tried to capture some of the beauty.

After dinner, we went on a short stroll to see the views, and were stunned to see the surface of the lake literally jumping with fish. It was like watching popcorn pop. At one point M counted 75 rings on the surface in just one small section of the lake. What fun!We then climbed into the tent for a night’s sleep. This had been a pretty easy day, and we now had visions of hamburgers dancing in our heads for tomorrow. Temps here were warmer by a few degrees, and we think the difference in elevation also affected the mosquitoes, since there were fewer in Conness Canyon and here. Below 10,000 feet seemed to make a difference.

The last day we were out on the trail a bit earlier, leaving everyone else there pretty much asleep. The hike out via Dog Lake is just wonderful, and we love the section across the shoulder of Ragged Peak, where the high peaks of Yosemite are all on parade as you hike across the alpine meadow. Suddenly we were back in among the crowds, and it made for a different kind of walk for the last couple of miles. After seeing only three people in two and half days off trail, we were now meeting someone every five minutes. We ate lunch outside the visitors center at Tuolumne Meadows, and then hiked the quick two miles back to our car. We stopped to take a couple of quick photos in the meadows, climbed into the car, and began to plan our next trip.

Fire! Post date: Jun 12, 2015 4:50:11 PM If you read this blog much, you'll know that we are not big fans of campfires in the backcountry. While P is a real pro at building small cooking fires in campgrounds, he doesn't like the fact that it takes forever for one of these fires to burn itself out---and he'd rather go to sleep at night than stay up for hours making sure the fire is out.

And making sure the first is out is the first thing you need to consider when you build a fire.That said, we loved this story about campfire shape in today's Yahoo news. It concludes that the best shape for a campfire is a perfect isosceles triangle, where the base is the same length as the sides of the pyramid. P already knew this--although it may also be because that's the easiest shape to build anyway.

Here's the full story, complete with diagrams and academic verification:

Tent City Post date: Jun 1, 2015 5:18:30 PM We've had quite a few questions over the past few years about the tents that P made for us. And a recent email even asked us for the pattern. So here is what P wrote in response:

I am sorry, but I don't have a pattern for that tent, or for the previous one. (If you look closely, you can tell that, because there are all kinds of small problems with it that wouldn't be there if I had used any kind of pattern!)

But I can describe more or less how I got there. I started with a big chunk of some waterproof nylon material. I rolled it out on the ground and measured off about how much I needed for the floor of the tent. About 7 or 7.5 feet? Maybe a bit more. Then I kept rolling it out, until that same single piece of material was long enough to fold right back over the floor to become the top. I left it plenty long, so I would guess that the total was close to 16 feet long. That's the tent.

If it were a one-man tent, that would be enough. But since it was for two of us, and the material was only 54 inches wide, I added a little bit of material to make eaves around the head, or higher end of the tent.Then I sewed triangles of the same nylon between the floor and roof to close in the foot of the tent. And then I added in the mosquito netting (I just bought a mosquito shelter at a local hunting and fishing store, then cut it up along the seams for my use) to fill in the sides and the head of the tent. A zipper in each corner and across the floor makes access easy for either side. And I added reinforcement for the grommets where I attach the guy lines in each corner. I sealed all the seams, and that worked perfectly.

I also built a not great, but functional, pocket in the eaves where we put the ends of the hiking/tent poles. Without those pockets the poles tended to move around and eventually fall down---which is why I set the tent up in our backyard and played with it a bit before we ever took it hiking! I also learned that the eaves weren't cut and sewn right, so I took in a little material there to give it a tighter fit. What I learned from my experiences on this tent: Four guy lines are great, but I should probably have two more to pull the sides out a little more, and tauten everything up. But it would require more tent stakes and more lines...and thus more weight.

I thought about putting poles at the foot as well, to hold things up ( I did have poles at both ends with my older tent) but it would have formed a nice bowl or pocket for rain and snow to collect. So I nixed that one. As it is, the foot is a little bit low if you stake it right to the ground as designed. It works better if you can find trees or rocks to hold the foot guys up a little more. What I didn't like about the old tent was the pole right in the middle---exactly where you enter and exit the tent. The last tent we had used Velcro to close the entrances. Every time we packed up the tent, the Velcro caught on the mosquito netting, and eventually ate holes in it. This time I used a zipper. You'll want to hike with someone who uses hiking poles, or there is no way to hold this tent up. But in a strong wind a few trips ago, we learned that we could lower the adjustable poles, tighten up the guy lines, and the tent became less roomy, but very stable in high winds. You'll want to pitch this tent with the foot towards the wind....but you do that with most tents anyway.

We didn't use the hiking poles for the old one, but made two small poles, one for each end. Basic structure is the same, with the floor and roof all one piece. We added an extra section around this one as well...and filled in between the floor and roof with mosquito netting. The new one uses lighter material and no poles, so it's about 9 oz. lighter. And it has a higher roof because M wanted more space.

Starting out right Post date: May 28, 2015 4:45:50 PM We recently got this note from a reader of our blog:

My middle son (12) has become interested in backpacking after reading a book about the AT.

We've done a lot of day hikes and a few multi-nighters with their grand father on a horse pack (he likes to fish but can't walk up the mountain any more)I found your site last night researching multi day hikes in California and have very much enjoyed the calm practical advice. Thanks very much for taking the time to post your advice and experiences. Tom M

How nice is that? We were enchanted.

Hiking the Santa Cruz trail in the Andes Post date: May 2, 2015 4:55:53 AM You may remember that we had a great time on our hike to Machu Picchu a few years ago, and we'd always said that we wanted to go back to Peru and see more of that amazing country.Well, we did just that over the past two weeks. (That's why we've been a bit quiet here.)

We flew into Lima, spent a day there, and then took the eight hour bus ride up to the town of Huaraz, which nestles in a valley in the foothills of the Cordillera Blanca. The foothills, in this case, start at 10,000 feet and go up from there. The Cordillera Blanca has a number of peaks over 20,000 feet high. It's time for your big boy pants!

After two days of poking around Huaraz to get acclimated, we joined our guide Hector and his assistant Clemente, and took off for four days into Huascaran National Park, where we hiked up the Santa Cruz Valley, over 15,500+ foot Punta Union Pass, and then down the Huaripampa Valley to our exit at Vaqueria.

We knew that this was the end of the rainy season, so we were taking a chance with the weather. As it turned out, the worst weather of the trip happened at night--one night of very gusty winds, and a second night of steady rain. But during the day we had only a few showers on the third day, and spectacular weather during much of the hike. The combination of tropical latitude and high elevation is a strange one. We were hiking at over 13,500 feet in a cloud forest, with jungle vegetation at times, and looking up at massive rock and ice massifs hanging 5,000 feet or more above us. We rarely needed a warm jacket--a simple windbreaker was enough, when coupled with one of the alpaca sweaters we bought in Huaraz for $15. And some of the time we were actually too hot, even wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt.While we took it a bit easy over the high pass, we had no real trouble with the elevation. We did have trouble with the miles of boulders followed by more miles of pure mud on the third day. But we did finally make it into camp, and the next day was a perfect trail and a piece of cake to finish. (See photo below left for some of that mud...) And then there was the ride back to town from the trailhead, over another 15,000 foot pass, and a road that met every possible standard for an e-ticket ride! Perhaps the most lasting memories are of the truly warm, helpful, and nice people we met at every stage of our visit to Peru; from hotel staff and guides to people on the street, we were always made to feel welcome and appreciated. We're sure that it helped that we speak quite good Spanish, but we saw other visitors who spoke only English getting much the same treatment. And the archeology of Peru is truly fascinating--more than 5,000 years of continuous civilizations, from the pyramids of Caral to the mountain roads of the Incas. Add to that the remarkable cuisine which includes Inca, Spanish, Japanese, African, Chinese, and other influences (including the best avocados in the world and more than 600 kinds of potatoes...) and you have a country that keeps surprising you and delighting you at every turn. Not to mention the sheer verticality of the landscape!And the most amazing ceramics in the world, over hundreds, even thousands of years.

The Myth of Sleeping Nude Post date: Apr 14, 2015 7:07:45 PM We've heard this story for years, even from a salesperson at REI. Well, he wasn't talking to us, but to an attractive young lady, so he may have had other intentions. But the story he told was that you will sleep warmer in a down sleeping bag if you sleep nude.

Hogwash. Keeping warm is all about insulation. The more insulation you have, the warmer you will be. (This was brought home to us as we tried to sleep warm on our most recent trip to Yosemite, with temps into the 20s. P was fine in his bag, M never really did get fully warm that night.)

So where did this silly myth come from? We think it started with a treatment for hypothermia. In that case, the victim is so cold that his body temperature can't warm up the bag....and hypothermia becomes a critical problem. In that scenario (and ONLY in that scenario) it makes sense to put the person into a sleeping bag nude---but you must also put ANOTHER person in the sleeping bag nude. That second person will provide the body heat to warm up both the bag and the victim. Without the warm body, the cold body will suffer even more.

There is also a rare situation where a sleeper will have so many clothes on that the down in his sleeping bag is so compressed that it won't fully reach its insulation properly. In that case, more isn't necessarily better. But the laws of physics are pretty clear on this one: More insulation is better at keeping you warm than less insulation. And dressing in layers on a cold night will keep you warmer than sleeping nude in the same bag. No matter what that young chucklehead at REI tells you.

Before we could write this, we were sent a lovely article about other myths backpackers encounter. Here's a link to that story---which is a fun read. We particularly liked the line about the two man tent, since we prefer a three man tent for the two of us:

When you are least expecting it... Post date: Apr 13, 2015 5:38:31 PM We've written before about stream crossings. P tends to rock hop across, a skill developing over decades of fly fishing in the Sierra. He can't dance a lick, but he can glide from one rock to the next quickly and seemingly without effort.

M, on the other hand, struggles a bit with streams. She uses hiking poles, which help her balance, but she takes a slow, cautious, and even a bit fearful approach. This despite the fact that she dances with great elegance and style, and can never figure out why P is such a klutz on the dance floor.

So on our last trip into the wilds of Yosemite, P struck out across each stream and hopped across easily. M took much longer, slowly picking her way along. At least, until the last crossing of Bridalveil Creek, just a mile or two from the trailhead. In this case, M had really worried about this creek on the way over, and P was determined to find an easier way for her to cross.

So instead of carelessly hopping from rock to rock, he gently eased out onto a larger boulder, sat down on it, and then worked his way around to the other side, where he would reach a series of smaller stones and walk across.

All went swimmingly (!) until it came time for him to push off the larger rock with his right foot. The bottom of that hiking boot had become wet in the process, and when he pushed off, it immediately slipped off the rock and threw him face first into the stream. M hid her delight with expressions of concern, then walked twenty feet downstream where she carefully picked her way along a series of small flat rocks successfully.

With bruises on both knees and wet feet to boot, P hiked the last two miles with a severely bruised ego.

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