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April to July, 2010

Post date: Jul 6, 2010 3:12:21 AM

There are few things that bring out the creativity in hikers the way stream crossings do. It seems that while following one another on a trail is a simple process, crossing a stream suddenly introduces a wild streak of willful derring-do or note of pure caution that challenges each hiker to choose his/her own path.

This is true even with the two of us.

Now one of us is a gifted dancer, who can waltz or gavotte, and follow any move or rhythm instantly with her clever feet. The other one of us approaches dancing with all of the finesse of a drunken giraffe...trying mainly to stay on the right foot on the right beat. Clearly, one of us has the advantage when it comes to the delicate procedures required to cross a mountain stream.

It's the giraffe.

P grew up hopping on rocks around rivers while he was fishing, and it is absolutely second nature to him. And when it comes to crossing a stream, he usually votes for whatever is quickest: log, hopping on stones, leaping across the gap, and even sometimes trying to walk on water. (The latter not usually working...which is why he reserves it for late in the day on the last day of the trip.) But hopping across stones is fun for P. He leaps, he balances, and he cleverly drifts from rock to rock with ease. With a pack or without one, it's almost automatic. And there's a kind of natural rhythm to it that's a lot like dancing. At least in his mind.

M, on the other hand, gracefully steps up to the creek...and pauses. She looks for a better way. She wants the path that is the easiest, safest, and least likely to get wet. And she is perfectly willing to look for a few minutes to find it. Astonishingly, despite her superb balance on the dance floor, she is not all that comfortable hopping from rock to rock. She doesn't trust their stability. All that time in the dance studio has made her elegant and graceful, but it doesn't help her leap from stone to stone.

It's a source of some amusement for us on every hike. P leads the way, and shows M that his route certainly works. And sometimes, once she has considered her options, M follows him. But just as often she looks over the situation and chooses a different path: something a little calmer, or perhaps something that requires a slighly shorter leap of faith.

And then there is the wading. Wading is always an issue, because we don't like to get our hiking boots wet. Hiking in wet boots is miserable business, and so we always carry a pair of Crocs for this purpose. They work great...but they also take time. You have to pull off your boots and socks, put on your Crocs, wade the river, take off the Crocs, dry your feet, and then put socks and boots back on.

That's not the quickest way to cross a stream, and we don't like to do it. But we do wade across rivers and streams, especially early in the year, when those lovely stones that have been artfully placed by previous hikers are now completely under water. But it's a last resort.

Recently P's brother joined us for a hike, and we were both just a bit interested to see how he would proceed. Would he follow in P's footsteps, and hop across the streams? Or would he follow M's path, and choose the more sedate approach.

Our first big stream crossing brought us our answer. P decided, rather quickly, that the only way across this stream was to wade it. Yes, it was icy and surrounded by snowbanks, but there really wasn't another way. He pulled off his boots, pulled on his Crocs, and waded in. It was icy, but he got across. And waited impatiently for the others.

M was not convinced. She looked carefully for a narrower crossing, or one that was shallower. Or one that offered a few stones to keep her feet dry. Only after minutes of review did she finally relent, and wade the stream where P had crossed. It was icy, but it worked.

But where was P's brother? He finally appeared, after an extensive foray upstream. He had tried to use a log, but the snow gave way beneath his feet, and he showed up with a large scrape on his head. Of course he had tried a different approach. And he remained unconvinced. But in the end, he waded across with the rest of us.

After a few moments of first aid for his head, and a few more to get all of our footwear back on our feet, we were ready to hit the trail again as a team. We were one.

At least until the next stream, when we could each look for a better way...

Post date: Jul 6, 2010 1:32:26 AM

We are just back from a great trip into the West Walker River—which became part of the Hoover Wilderness this year. In fact, the signs are brand new at the entrance! We’ve been a bit frustrated by the snow levels this year, and so we headed east, to where they get less snow to begin with. Leavitt Meadows on the east side of Sonora Pass is a convenient trailhead to get into the West Walker River, an area we’d heard about but never explored.

First day was a very comfortable stroll 7 miles up the West Walker River, punctuated by some nice lakes

( Roosevelt and Lane) and great views of Tower Peak and the West Walker River. Then we came to the ford. Our trail to Fremont Lake was supposed to cross the river, but it was flowing high and fast. Happily, a pack train driver suggested we use the hikers' ford a bit further up the river…and we did that. Icy water, moving quickly, up to our crotches! What a wake up! Man, the next mile up to Fremont Lake was a climb, but the combination of adrenalin and hyper-cooled legs made it a lot easier! Fremont Lake was gorgeous…

And I caught a couple of nice 12” rainbows there. But the skeeters were fierce. This is only the second time in our lives that we’ve used the headnets during dinner---lifting them up for each bite of food. 8.5 on a 10 point scale…And that was despite a breeze that gave us a respite from time to time. Because this was early in the year, we didn't see many other people--but we did meet a pack train that was leaving as we were on our way in. Which was convenient. An evening hike up the ridge also led to some great views...and fewer mosquitoes for a while. The next day was up to Cinko Lake, and we got on the trail early—if only to avoid spending more time with our biting friends.

We managed to take the trail to Walker Meadows (not exactly intentionally, but it seemed like a nice enough detour). Only once there, we discovered another icy ford (only mid-thigh!) and about a mile of trail under water and basically disappeared underneath the meadow and mud. Thank goodness for our water shoes…but the views in the meadow were well worth the detour.

The trail from there headed up the Walker River…and we just decided to cross country to the PCT, which we met right at the bridge across the river. Easy navigating, not so easy walking. And then when we followed the trail up to Emigrant Pass, we did the same thing. The trail was under snow once it crossed the river, so we stayed on the south side and kept climbing until I decided we must be near the junction. And sure enough, the trail to Cinko Lake appeared right under our feet. It was an easy, if wet, walk up to the lake….and that was stunning.

Sunny forest on the south side, forbidding snow to the west. We spent a lovely night there, caught about ten nice 8-11” brookies, and saw about three mosquitoes all night. Paradise. And we were the first people here this year. That's it at the afternoon. If you click on the photo, it should take you to the rest of the shots from this hike...which include some amazing reflections of Cinko lake the next morning.

Truly a wonderful spot to have all to ourselves for a night.

The following day we hiked out towards the PCT to the south of the Lake, then tried to get to Lake Harriet—but decided that it wasn’t worth the effort to ford the stream twice. Instead we headed down Cascade Creek to the West Walker. a brutal trail that drops 700 feet in a mile. It was warm, and we were grateful we were going down! Down at the river, we still needed another ford to get on the south side…and so we hiked down river past the junction with the Long Lakes trail. We kept watching the river, but it never looked very welcoming. Just as we were about to give up and try to hike all the way back to the Fremont Lake Ford, a pack trail appeared that looked perfectly doable. It was—crotch high again, but very slow moving water. Piece of cake. M was greatly relieved, as she really didn't enjoy the first ford to get to Fremont Lake.

Once on the south side of the river, we thought we’d head up Long Canyon—and just keep going until we got high enough to avoid the skeeters. We were certainly the first people to go up this trail this year. What we didn’t know was that the first mile and a half of that trail goes straight up—and so did we.

But with the occasional views of distant peaks keeping us entertained, and a couple of stunning waterfalls, (photo at left) the trail managed to encourage us to get up into the meadows at about 9,000 feet or so, about 2.5-3 miles into the canyon. Amazing site---with breathtaking views. Yes, they were wet meadows. But they were also at 9,000 feet. The skeeters were bad during dinner, but the temperature dropped soon after, and they disappeared. And soon after, we dived into our bags. It was getting cold!

Next morning we found a touch of ice in our water bottles, and no skeeters. We quickly packed up and started back down. As we dropped, the temps warmed and the skeeters came out to play. By the time we were back down to the West Walker, every stream crossing was a battleground—and we were armed with DEET. No fun. Lovely trail. Flowers on every rock and in every patch of green.

Lunched overlooking Roosevelt Lake, then decided to take the Secret Lake bypass. That added about a half-mile to our trip back to the car—and about 700 feet of elevation gain. And then 700 feet of elevation loss. From snowy meadows and freezing temps, this trail led us to almost desert like conditions, and real warmth.

The final stretch had views over Leavitt Meadows and the West Walker River.

It was an amazing day of hiking from one biosphere of the Sierra to another. Finally got to the trailhead about 3:45—a long day that was full of adventures.

A note about this area and the National Geographic Map of this section of the Sierra---there are lots of use trails that are not on the maps, and not every junction is marked either. There is no sign at the Secret Lake Junction with the trail to Poore Lake, for example. Twice we came to erroneous conclusions because of this, and we've been hiking and following maps for decades. Happily, we knew where we had to go, and just headed that direction when the trail seemed to disappear. And the strong colors of these maps also seem to obliterate the contour lines in many cases…which just adds to the sense of adventure!

Post date: Jun 18, 2010 8:42:50 PM

We're pretty big fans of maps, and not just as an aid in navigation as we wander around in the mountains. Sure, they're helpful there as well, but they are also fun to study some evening when you can't get into the mountains and wish you could.

It's great fun to study the mileages, check out the contour lines, and try to decide if you could really make those twelve miles over the pass without feeling as if you were on a death march...or cross that creek that might be swollen beyond belief in the early summer runoff. Are there fish in that lake up there?

When we plan our trips, we usually start with an idea or two of where we want to go--generally an area within a park or wilderness area. But then the fun begins. As we study that area, we start looking for the best trailhead, best campsites, and best routes to get from one place to another. All of that is done on our collection of maps--both paper and on-line. If you haven't visited the USGS topo map store, or the ACMEmapper site, you have been missing the fun. We print out our own maps from both of these places.

We also like Tom Harrison's maps (great that they have the mileage indicated for every leg) but find the scale of those maps just a bit too small. We'd like a little more detail. And the National Geographic map of Yosemite is very nice--except that some of the colors are so damn dark and intense that you can't read the topo map behind them. That's a problem. So is the fact that some of the mileages are simply inaccurate. We've learned to mistrust those little red numbers by the trails.

Once on the trail. P is religious about checking the map against the territory traveled.

He tracks our progress from one point to the next, noting junctions, lakes, and notable peaks. And we have to admit we've never been lost, even in some of our more adventuresome cross-country treks--although we never did find that one lake in the Trinity Alps. Then again, we didn't have a map on that hike.

But he has been doing this for years, and even enjoys it. We're always a bit worried by people who just go hiking and trust the signs on the trails. We've found a few that were confusing at the very least.

In one way, the best map we ever had was the one from Henry Coe State Park. P took a photo of the map at the trailhead with our digital camera. And for the rest of the hike, we found that by using the zoom on the camera we could navigate just fine. How cool is that?

We've spent this winter poring over maps of Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and Emigrant Wilderness, and have planned out three terrific trips into the back country of each.

Now let's see if the real work lives up to the expectations we have from our maps!

Post date: Jun 14, 2010 9:22:33 PM

There is something really wonderful about walking through the Sierra and coming face to face with a massive boulder that looks as if it has been delicately placed there by the hand of God. The one in this photo was on top of a bare granite ridge overlooking Spicer Reservoir, and is about ten feet in diameter. I can't imagine how much it must weigh.

You might think that it had rolled here from somewhere else---but there's nowhere else to roll from. It was on top of the ridge--and it was all downhill from there.

Nope, it was dropped on top of the ridge by a glacier that picked it up miles away and carried it this far. And when the glacier finally melted, this massive boulder was let down easy--delicately balanced on top of the ridge for all eternity--or least the foreseeable future.

The name for these rocks is "erratics," meaning that they don't always make sense in relationship to their surroundings. Sometime they are of a complete different geologic make-up, and only the slow glacial train can account for their location.

But I also think of them as iconoclasts--a bit like us backpackers. We often march to a slightly different drumbeat, and find ourselves where few have ever gone before. Or at least we like to think of ourselves that way. And much like the glaciers, we aren't exactly speed demons. With the speed at which we hike, it takes us a long time to get anywhere, too.

So we hike for hours, cover a few miles, and the sit down on top of a ridge, or along a stream, and rest for a while.

Just call us erratics.

Post date: Jun 9, 2010 4:46:56 AM

For the past twenty-five years or so, we've used a pair of red plastic cups when we go camping. They aren't particularly attractive, and the have a few ridges and creases that are a bit hard to clean. So for a couple of years now, we've been looking for something just a bit better. It's not a big upgrade, and not a top priority, but it's been in the back of our minds.

And last summer, in the Tuolumne Meadows store, we found a new set of cups. They're a nice sort of green color, with very clean styling and the same closed loop handle that allows them to clip onto the carabiners on the back of our packs. They weren't expensive, and we didn't think long before buying them. Problem solved.

We've used these cups now for the last few trips, and they work just fine. They're just a bit easier to clean, and there is simply nothing wrong with them.

But last week, when we went for a trip with P's brother, we loaned him one of our old red cups. And we couldn't help but notice how jaunty it looked on the back of his pack. There is something just a little sporty about that red color, and we missed it.

So after a very short discussion, we've decided that we'll keep the green cups for visitors and guests. The red one will go where they belong, on the back of our packs, looking perky and stylish. In a backpacking kind of way.

Post date: Jun 7, 2010 12:41:59 AM

As noted here before, it's been a cool, wet spring in the Sierra. Snow, rain, and not enough sun to melt the snow off the trails. So we decided to go backpacking anyway. First choice was in Desolation we got our permit weeks ago. And realized there was no way we were hiking in that snow. Then we thought about Carson-Iceberg Wildnerness of 108. Both Arnot Creek and Disaster Creek sounded vaguely possible until a few days before our department. They both entered the snowline with a mile or two of the trailhead.

And that's when we thought about Lost Lake, Sword Lake, and Spicer Reservoir. The top elevation would only be about 6700 feet, and snowline was just about that.

How bad could it be? Or how good? Well...we started from the Wheat's Meadow trailhead, and we had the place to ourselves. Admittedly, day one was a bit of problem. Threatening weather and poor trail conditions made this the longest five miles we've ever hiked. The first two miles were a simple climb up and down a ridge. But that was followed by two miles (and more than two hours) of wandering up the Dardanelles Creek watershed in the snow. The trail was either under snow or under water, but we managed to navigate with map, compass, and a lot of stopping and looking around. The last mile was a piece of cake/ Once at the lakes, we got amazing views--we camped on the western rim of Lost Lake, and admired the views of Spicer, the Dardanelles, and the rest of this part of the Sierra. Definitely one to keep in the back of your mind. And a great start to the summer!

Post date: Apr 24, 2010 3:58:59 PM

It's springtime, and that means it's time to start filing for your wilderness permits with the various national parks, forests, etc. And of course, each authority and region has its own system, which makes it all that much more challenging...which is to say: frustrating. We sent in three applications: one to Yosemite, one to Desolation Wilderness, and one to the Hoover Wilderness.

At one end of the spectrum is Yosemite National Park, which posts its trail quotas and constantly updates them to let you know when their reservations are full for each day and every trailhead. That's nice. I understand that they have to manage these resources, and I appreciate the fact that when I go out into the wilderness areas of Yosemite, I am not going to meet 750 other people who are all doing the same thing.

I am not enthusiastic about the lecture they give when you pick up your permit--after four or five repetitions, this gets a little silly--but still, it's a good system, and it still allows some permits to be available on a first-come first serve basis. It's the best system for a highly visited park, and it appropriate for Yosemite. My only complaint is that they really ought to be able to put the whole system on-line, rather than have you work through their wilderness center. What the heck, if the airlines can do it, so can the national parks.

At another end of the spectrum is the Emigrant Wilderness. All permits are provided as requested--all you have to do is ask. Arrive at the Summit Ranger Station, tell them where you want to go, and they'll write up your permit for you. Simple, easy, and very convenient. Yeah, you may run into a few people at a single campsite...but Emigrant has enough areas nearby that you can always find another place to camp if you are willing to walk another mile, or less. Perfect.

In the ugly middle is Desolation Wilderness. I know that this place gets a lot of traffic, but there is really no reason for them to run the system the way they do. Permits are only available after April 22, so on that day their phone is busy, their fax machine is overworked, and there is no way to find out whether or not you are getting through or getting your permit. And there is nothing on-line to help you. That's just bad organization, and an almost criminal ignorance of modern technology. grump hmph.

Of course, if you don't want to deal with any of this, you can just backpack in a national forest. You can get your campfire permit from any CDF fire station, and you are good to go. We know, because we got one for our hike to Hite Cove, and it is good for all year.

Which may come in handy if we never hear back from Desolation wilderness.

Post date: Apr 9, 2010 3:11:53 PM

There's something really, really seductive about looking at a trail map. The mind wanders from stream to lake, looking for great places to fish. The climbs all seem steep, but perfectly doable on the kitchen table. Eight miles? Ten miles? Twelve miles, but most of it downhill? It all seems so easy. The views from the passes are always amazing, and the campsites are always nicely isolated.

We've just spent a few hours planning our summer adventures, and from the maps we've seen, they should be perfect trips. Of course, our packs always seem lighter before we put them on at the trailhead!

We have plans to explore the northern reaches of Yosemite this year, going where few people go, and seeing parts of that park that are reputed to be both isolated and magnificent. And we're also planning to re-trace a trip I took 35 years ago, up into the Cloud Canyon of Kings Canyon NP...with a hope of seeing some Golden Trout and the Whaleback again.

Add in a few shorter trips, one in Desolation Wilderness for a weekend, and another exploring the Wire Lakes in Emigrant Wilderness, and we've got a lot of fun in store.

Assuming that the trails are all passable, we don't get any blisters, everybody stays healthy...

But what about that other trip--the one that goes right up over the top of the pass, and then cross-country above the you think we could get down the west face of that mountain...


Post date: Apr 1, 2010 3:18:14 AM

So there we were in Death Valley, facing a fractured and towering wall of geology. We were at a tough spot in the hike, where only a very steep ascent over some very crumbly rock would allow us to proceed. I had worked my way most of the way up it, but M had made it clear she was NOT up for the game this time. So I came back down and we discussed our next move. I had to admit that it was pretty crumbly, and a slip could be fatal. We would find other things to do.

As we watched, a fellow hiker calmly picked his way past us up an even steeper face, climbing at times 150 feet above the canyon floor, before disappearing over the ridge and further up the canyon. I was impressed with his skill, but not really with his common sense.

At one point he dislodged a rock high above us, and didn’t call out a warning. That’s a bad move in my book—I was ALWAYS taught to yell a warning to those below. And at another point he crept down a ledge and appeared to lose his footing, only to save himself by grabbing hold of a boulder lower down. When you are 75 feet up, that’s living a little too dangerously for me.

Into this picture walked a young couple who were clearly having a few relationship issues. The young woman was awed by the dexterity of the climber, and said so. I made a non-committal reply, preferring to wait and see if the guy was able to get back down again before I became a believer. (We met him on another trail later in the day, a charming man, and yes, he did get himself down without any problems.)

The young man started tentatively up the slope I had climbed, and I told him that I tried it, and thought it would work—but that the rock was really crumbly. He charmingly informed me with a smile that “she is much better at this stuff than I am.” There was something in the way he said it that made me think she had spent some time on a climbing wall in a gym. And that he wasn’t holding up his end of the bargain.

I noted that it would be better to keep a distance between climbers, so that any falling rocks wouldn’t kill his partner. And she replied to me: “Well, that depends on the state of your matrimony, doesn’t it?”

She was funny, in a tart and clever way, but she also was not happy about something. M said later that she might have been an English Major (an amusing note since M is an English Major herself) but a point well taken, nevertheless.

We didn’t see any reason to let them spoil our day. So we hiked back down the canyon until we found a side canyon that looked like fun. We happily followed its twists and turns and started to explore, leaving the young couple to their worries.

Here again, the canyon narrowed, and a steep wall of marble presented an obstacle. But it was one I was sure we could overcome. M was not so sure. She suggested that I go ahead and see what lay above, while she considered her options. By the time I returned, she had scaled the marble, and together we explored another half-mile of the isolated canyon.

When we returned to the dry marble waterfall, the young couple was there, clearly having words yet again. They had both managed to climb it, and seemed to be at an impasse. He turned to me and told me that he thought he needed a bit of food or something before he was ready to do more exploring…and I could see he was a bit shaken, from hunger, fear, or both. And while he told me this, she started carefully climbing back down the pitch of marble, face to the rock, focusing on each move. I wanted to encourage them to explore—they had done the hard part already—and so I turned to the young man and said: “If you go just a bit further, there is a very nice…”

And here the young woman interrupted me with a forceful: “Would you be quiet please?” And she forced a tight little smile.

Well yes I would. I let her climb down in peace, while he looked at me a bit sheepishly. Once she was all the way down, I told him quietly: “There’s a very cool boulder lodged in the canyon up above. It’s worth a trip—it looks just like the one that chased Harrison Ford in one of his movies.”

The young man nodded his head, then encouraged me to go down the marble waterfall. In fact, he insisted that M and I both go down, before he made his attempt. I don’t think he wanted us to watch him struggle, and I saw no reason to argue. Nor did I see any reason to fully climb down the pitch. The slope wasn’t vertical, and there were enough steps that I simply walked back down it, the way you would walk down a flight of stairs.

M thought about things for a minute, then decided that she would follow the young woman’s example, and face the rock. She climbed a bit, got stuck for a second, and asked for advice. I gave her a little encouragement…but really, she didn’t need it. By the time she asked what she should do next, I was able to tell her that her foot was about four inches above the bottom. She was down.

The young woman was glowing with praise for M: “You showed some very strong leg muscles there!” And so she had. Sisterhood is clearly powerful, at least in the legs. At this point the young woman decided to go back up again and climbed past us. As she went, I mentioned that we had lots of food with us, and would be happy to give them some of it.

“No thank you.” She replied with a controlled edge to her voice.

And so we left them. They were young, and maybe in love. They probably didn’t have enough food or water, and they were having a miserable time.

We spent the rest of the day exploring and chatting. Clambering up and shimmying down. We ate lunch hanging a thousand feet above a canyon, watching people like ants wandering around below.

We were older, probably more than twice their age. But we had food, and plenty of water. And still in love after more than thirty years of marriage. Then again, we’ve learned how to help each other have a good time.

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