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July through September 2013

Post date: Sep 25, 2013 6:12:29 PM The scenery in the Sierra is spectacular, and we never get tired of seeing new mountains, new views, and new areas. It seems that every time we hit the trail, we see new visions of beauty--some vast landscapes, and some that are much more intimate. It's like walking through one of the great art museums of the world, mile after mile.

But some trails are different. When the trail goes steeply uphill, we always find plenty of reasons to stop and enjoy the view--and catch our breath at the same time. Pant, pant, gasp, wheeze....Look at that mountain over there! gasp, wheeze.

It's different when we're in a dense forest. On those trails, we often have to keep our eyes open for a break in the trees to catch a sight of the surrounding territory. That's why those meadows can be so wonderful--they open up vistas of the peaks that we're missing as we walk in the woods.

But along some trails, sightseeing is just plain hard. The trail may be steep, or filled with rough rocks, or along the edge of a cliff that requires you to keep your eyes carefully trained on the trail itself. We hiked one trail this summer that really met this description: Virginia Lakes over Virginia Lakes Pass to Summit Lake, on the east side of the Sierra in the northern section of Yosemite National Park. It's a steep trail, and it runs through some spectacular country.

But it is also quite rough, and every step requires at least some attention. If you don't make a conscious effort, you can hike the whole trail staring at your feet, and never seeing the sights of this amazing area. We stopped, from time to time, as we hiked down the switchbacks that mark this route, to take a photo and enjoy the view. An amazing day.

But on the fifth day of our trip, as we hiked back up the switchbacks to get over the pass and down to our car, we stopped a lot more often. Somehow, the photos ops seemed better in this direction. Gasp, wheeze.

Post date: Sep 24, 2013 10:38:57 PM One of the truly memorable nights of our backpacking summer was up at Return Lake above Virginia Canyon. It's a few miles off the trail, but it's also pretty easy to find if you are in the area and have a decent map. But because it's off the trail, you won't run into many people there.

We didn't.

What we did run into was a wonderful place. Perched underneath Virginia Peak, Return Lake sits in a small bowl. There were fish to be seen (and a few to be caught) but it was the scenery and the wild nature of the area that really got our attention.

It was a cool, blustery August afternoon when we arrived, with a few whitecaps on the lake. We were charmed by the view, by the solitude, and by the wild mint that was growing everywhere---adding its scent to our footsteps around camp.And that wind didn't die down--we ended up getting in our tent about 8 o'clock in the evening--not before we had watched the shadow of Virginia Peak creep up the face of the peak across the canyon during the sunset. Spectacular. In the middle of the night, we were awoken by the scream of a fox (or was it a mountain lion? --apparently they can be very similar) that came from quite nearby. In the morning, the Clark's Nutcrackers were noisy at dawn, calling to each other from the tops of the trees, whacking away at the pine cones above our head. We took our time packing up. It was too nice a place to hurry.

From there we hiked up the saddle to Soldier Lake, where the views were even more astonishing, and then returned to pick up our packs and begin the long hike towards the trailhead and home. We've never sure exactly how to describe what we are looking for on our trips to the Sierra, but we certainly found it at Return Lake.

Post date: Sep 23, 2013 7:00:51 PM During one of our trips this summer, we came upon the following charming scene. It was an idyllic place: the sun was sparkling, the meadows were lush and green, and the surrounding mountains seemed as if they were waiting for Julie Andrews to start singing. "The hills are alive...."

And there, in the middle of the meadow, were a couple of pack llamas taking a bit of the breather. Nearby, a young family was taking a bit of a breather as well. The kids, aged from about 4-10, were having a snack in the shade, and mom was pulling a few more tasty morsels out of a pack for them. They looked hot, tired, and reasonably happy.But as we approached them, the father of the family came out to greet us as we descended down from our cross-country adventure to Return and Soldier Lakes.

"Is that the trail to Virginia Pass?" he asked, a note of worry in his voice.

We assured him that it was not. It wasn't really a trail at all, although it led to some beautiful country. It sure wasn't on the way to anywhere else at all.

"Can you tell me where the trail to Virginia Pass is?" he asked, a little desperately.We remembered passing a large cairn on the trail below where his family was resting and mentioned it to him. The cairn also had a huge arrow next to it to point the way.

"Yeah, it's not very easy to follow." he said. "I guess it might get better as you get higher up."

We would like to have helped, but our route was in another direction, and he didn't seem to want to hike with us down to the we offered him encouragement that we were sure that was the trail.

And then we hiked off and left him in the middle of the idyllic meadow, with his llamas and his little kids. We hoped that he would find his way up to Virginia Pass. And we made a note to tell the Rangers in Bridgeport where we had been hiking, and to check the backpacking websites when we got back, to see if a family was reported missing. All has been quiet, and we are happy that it must have turned out well. was awkward to just leave them there. Maybe we should have hiked the route past the cairn with them, until we were sure that they could find the trail. But wasn't on our way at all. And the kids had food and water. And the trail to Virginia Pass could really only lead one direction---up over the ridge and down to the trailhead. Still...

Post date: Sep 20, 2013 9:49:34 PM It's a beautiful time to head up into the Sierra right now.

The days are shorter, the mosquitoes are fewer. And there is something about the light in autumn that just seems to make everything look better.

But it also requires a bit more awareness, all the way around. There are not so many people on the trails, so if you count on others for occasional help---you may wait a while in late September. And the weather, which is always a factor in the Sierra, can turn downright nasty if you are not careful. A sudden snowfall will not only make things a lot colder and a lot harder to walk---it also makes the trail a lot harder to find.

If you are not used to hiking in these conditions, then you better keep a close eye on the weather.Even in summer, the weather can be unpredictable. On our two long trips this summer, we had hot weather one week, and three weeks later we were actually cold most of the time. In August, at Summit Lake above Virginia Canyon, we found ourselves moving around the campsite during dinner, trying to find a spot that was in the sun and not too windy. It was about 50 degrees, and blowing hard. And it got even colder at night.

We've been in rain and snow in the Sierra in you expect that it could be even more dramatic in the autumn.

Be careful, and have fun. And if the weather looks like it is going to change for the worse, don't leave any 10,000 foot passes between you and the car.

Post date: Sep 17, 2013 3:32:15 PM If you've read our comment page, you know that we have some issues with the way Google manages its sites--particularly in the area of allowing you to make comments on our blog.

You can't do it, despite the fact that Google seems to offer this option. It just doesn't work. The web has some innovative and very complicated suggestions for fixes...and they don't seem to work for us either.

Well, they've done it again. We load all our photos here from Picasa, where we keep our trip logs and photo files. A few years ago, Picasa started automatically adjusting every photo, whether in vertical or horizontal format, to load it onto Picasa. Great.

In the last few weeks, it's become clear that when we link to those photos, all the portrait format photos are now distorted. So we've spent the last few hours going through the website and re-loading any photo that was in portrait format, and adjusting it so it looks right on the website.Now all we have to do is go through our thousands of photos on Picasa and do the same.Sigh.

Gotta love the big boys.

Post date: Sep 16, 2013 9:19:53 PM This past weekend we were at our cabin, and we even had plans for another backpacking trip. But life, as they say, intervened. No worries. We decided to take a quick day-hike from our cabin to the top of the Mt. Elizabeth fire lookout in the Stanislaus National Forest. We expect an easy stroll on dirt roads to the top, but P had printed out a few maps to follow, and they turned out to be...somewhat illusory? In actual fact, almost no relationship to what we saw on the ground. We eventually had to navigate by compass and eyeball to get to the summit.

The good news? We found our way to the top. And we had quite an adventure following the roads and trails. On the other hand, the tower itself was closed, because apparently it was being used by someone to watch for additional damage by the Rim Fire. Ooops. Best of all, we had a great time. And instead of hiking to the top of the mountain and having a picnic up there....somehow we ended up back in our own yard, having a picnic on our picnic table at the cabin.

Lovely day.

Post date: Aug 25, 2013 3:56:19 PM Thanks to everyone who has inquired about the fate of our cabin up in the Sierra. The cabin is west of Twain Harte, for those of you following the fire on the internet.

So far, so good. The fire is southeast of our cabin, and would have to jump the North Fork of the Tuolumne River, and the Highway 108 corridor before it reached our cabin. So we are quite grateful for that. We were at the cabin this week, but came back early because of this fire.

We had initially planned to go backpacking with our daughter there, but she was so tired from her long trip ( Argentina to NYC, then on to SFO) that she begged off. We puttered around the cabin, swam in the lake, and generally enjoyed ourselves. But on the third day, the smoke was way too thick to be breathing it for very long...and we were at 3600 feet, more or less north and west of the fire. Further east, in the Emigrant Wilderness, the smoke must be horrible.

On our way home we could see the plume from more than 100 miles away.Very sad what is burned already: Lake Eleanor, the Clavey Canyon, Miguel Meadows...and it looks like the Beehive is next...those are all areas that we know well, and have hiked through on previous trips.

Post date: Aug 19, 2013 6:43:26 PM On this last trip, we experimented with a few new ideas in the food and nutrition area. Usually we stick with our favorites: oatmeal with nuts added in for breakfast, salami and cheese with crackers for lunch, and a combination of instant Miso soup and the usual freeze-dried entrees for dinner. Add in assorted bars, dried fruits (apricots, blueberries, craisins, raisins, prunes...) and that's about it.

But (Full DISCLAIMER here) a very nice person from Tasty Bite had contacted us, and suggested that we might like to try a few of their dinners as trail food. We explained that we had some pretty specific criteria for our trail entrees: lightweight, high in calories, and they have to taste reasonably good. She suggested that we look at their offerings and see if we saw anything that might fill the bill. And (Full DISCLAIMER again!) she would send them to us free of charge Hard not like a deal like that! Admittedly, these are a bit heavier than our normal dinner entrees, at between 8 and 10 ounces per package. And the calories are in the 200-250 range...not as high as some of the freeze dried offerings, but certainly in the ballpark with others. Sure enough, a few days later, the package arrived with six different entrees.

Now you have to understand that we are not about to take an untried dinner entrée along on our backpacking trip, and run the risk that one of our precious dinners isn't edible. So we tried the first one of these at home: The Kung Pao noodles. We heated them up in a pan in about three minutes, let them sit there for another three minutes, and they were ready to go---couldn't be easier. How did we like them? Well, they were just a bit too spicy for M--she isn't as wild about spicy food as P, and she was not sure she'd want to eat these on the trail.

But we were convinced enough that we wanted to give the company another shot---and we would do it on the trail.So the first night in Virginia Canyon we heated up and served the Tasty Bite Pad Thai. Just like at home, this heated up easily in our pot...although we could have also done it by submerging the entire package in boiling water. Did it taste like Pad Thai from our local restaurant? Nope. But after a long day on the trail, this stuff tasted pretty darn good. The veggies were crunchy, the flavors were rich, and the noodles were filling.

A complete success, from our point of view.Now, if we were taking a 10 day trip, and every ounce mattered, we would leave these at home, just based on the weight. But on shorter trips we often take a little something heavier in the pack for our first night, knowing that we won't have to carry the weight the rest of the way. And this was perfect along those lines. Even better, since our daughter is a vegetarian, Tasty Bite offers a lot of different and interesting options for her---so when we hit their trail with her, we are certainly going to take some of these along. She's already excited about the choices.

Oh--and the Tasty Bite website has a bit of additional information about the company that we liked:

Over the years, we have engaged our community in a variety of unique ways. As part of our commitment to our employees, we provide amongst the best health insurance available in both the US and India. We have a scholarship fund for the education of the children of our factory workers. Tasty Bite has a disaster relief program, where food is moved to provide relief in the case of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the Asian Tsunami and the earthquake in Haiti.

Tasty Bite also has unique programs in energy and agriculture. Today, 80% of the energy used in the Tasty Bite factory comes from renewable sources such as sugarcane byproducts and food and crop waste. Also, the Tasty Bite farm is used as a demonstration farm to educate community farmers on high yielding, sustainable agricultural methods. As we work toward delivering great-tasting flavors of the world to you, we strive to make a difference in our own community as well.Sure, it may just be puffery. But it's on the internet---so it must be true, right?

At any rate, these are worth a look. In fact, we liked them enough that when our current small supply runs out, we'll PURCHASE a few more for our trips. Can't ask for more of a recommendation than that.

Post date: Aug 18, 2013 4:03:54 AM On our last trip to Virginia Canyon, we ran into a group of students from the Athenian School, a high school in the Bay Area. They were on a 26-day backpacking trip as part of a graduation requirement from the school...and we enjoyed chatting with them. Nice kids, having fun.

But one thing struck us as a bit odd. We met at the junction where the Pacific Crest Trail fords Return Creek in Virginia Canyon, and as we hopped on the rocks across the creek, we noticed that the kids in the group were all sitting down, with their boots off, and wringing the water out of their socks. When we asked about it, the bright young woman who was guiding them explained that "We don't rock hop across streams."

OK. We do. We also use trees, where possible. We like dry feet, and dry boots. At any rate...We stopped there and pumped some water for the hike up to McCabe Lakes, and as we were finishing up, M noticed that their group was getting ready to hit the trail. No worries. Those young people were going to leave first, and were certainly going to hike uphill faster than us old folks.

Not so. In less than 100 yards we were right behind them, and they kindly let us go ahead. And fifty yards beyond that we came to the ford of McCabe Creek...which we rock-hopped across, and headed up the hill. And we couldn't help thinking that they were going to stop after that one, sit down, take their boots off, and wring their socks out again. Seemed like a slow way to hike in the Sierra.Then again, the next day M was carelessly rock-hopping across a small stream, slipped, and dunked her feet nicely into the water. She grimaced, swore, and then hiked up out of the stream and let her feet dry out, more or less, on the trail. That afternoon she set her boots in the sun and completed the drying process.On the other hand, where there are no rocks, we just take off our boots and wade in our Crocs.

Post date: Aug 4, 2013 4:05:51 PM It seems that the best flowers in the Sierra also come with added companions. And no, we’re not talking about bees or butterflies. The same warm temperatures and water that bring those flowers to life also create the perfect conditions for mosquitoes. We had both of them in spades on the last trip, and we are looking forward to our next trip with some enthusiasm. Fewer flowers, that for sure, but there will be compensation for that, in terms of fewer bugs to bite us, fly around our heads, sing in our ears, and pester our spirits.

Post date: Aug 3, 2013 11:55:52 PM Now that we have a small cabin up above Sonora, we’re getting to know that area a little better. And we can make a few recommendations for food stops along the way. The best burgers we’ve found on the way to the cabin are at Hula Burgers in Escalon. Good, honest hamburgers, and you can order a beer if you want one.

We also like Cocina Michoacan in Groveland for good homemade Mexican food, Just be prepared to eat a lot when you go there—the portions are large. Then again, that’s usually not a problem for us, as we are stopping in there after a trip to the backcountry, and our appetites are as big as all outdoors.

In the same area, the little café at the top of Priest Grade is worth a stop. Honest food, well-made, including the yummy pies. Nice people, too.

And you can’t beat the Twain Harte Market for good food supplies. This is a classy supermarket in a small town—great fresh produce, freshly-made sushi every day, a wonderful cheese selection, and nice wines and beers, too. It’s become our favorite market anywhere. Better than Whole Foods, with better prices, too.

If you are in Sonora itself, take Parrot’s Ferry Road towards Columbia, and eat at Patty’s Shack. This is really good down-home cooking, with friendly service and a good and inexpensive wine list. You won’t find Duck a l’Orange here, but you will find yummy meatloaf, waffles, and other delights cooked by someone who knows what good cooking tastes like.

Post date: Jul 30, 2013 12:39:33 PM For a first night dinner, we took along a couple of packages of Ramen noodles on our last trip. We usually avoid these because they take up so much space in a bear canister. But the first night’s dinner never needs to go into the bear can—you eat it before you pack up everything into the can on the first night. And the Ramen tasted great after a long hot day on the trail--all that broth rehydrated us nicely.

We even took along a couple of pairs of chopsticks as well—and in most years, they would make a dandy fire-starter, if that were allowed. This dry year, of course, no fires are allowed at all in most of the National Forests.

And to finish off the menu for this trip, we had a truly remarkable last lunch. We started with imported crostini crackers from Italy, and combined that with gator jerky and pepperoni from New Orleans. Dried pears from the famous Boqueria market in Barcelona added to the mix, and we finished up with a tasty selection of home-made GORP. An international gourmet feast!

Post date: Jul 29, 2013 4:13:22 AM We sure appreciate the work that the CCC trail crew was doing in Jack Main Canyon this summer. It was hard, dirty work, but the results were works of sound engineering. We made sure to thank them as we passed them on the trail. But ya gotta wonder about their bear prevention techniques in camp. Really? A cooler and a couple of plastic garbage bags out by the trail? Somehow, that doesn’t seem quite right…

Post date: Jul 27, 2013 3:48:55 PM Yvon Chouinard says that it isn't an adventure until something goes wrong... It was the first trip of the season, and we were a little slow at getting back into the swing of things. But what could go wrong? We’d done this many, many times in the past. Well, we are pretty darn experienced, but we still run into a few challenges along the way.

Of course, we were not quite in hiking shape, so we were moving a bit more slowly than usual. And it was really hot, so we were drinking more water than usual, and consequently pumping more water than usual.And the mosquitoes were really going gangbusters for the first few days as well. That was no fun.

We now have two kinds of trips in our memory: regular trips, and mosquito headnet trips. This was a headnet trip.

And then P threw out his back on the morning of the second day, and M discovered that she had somehow forgotten to pack her foam seat pad. It seemed as if the fates were against us. But a series of stretching exercises, a lot of patience, and some determination got us going again. And that got us over the pass and into Yosemite. That hot weather began to change, but not necessarily for the better. We went from very hot and dry to cloudy and then thunderstorms for the rest of the trip. But the rain came only on one afternoon, and by then we were set up in camp, with the tent ready for the lightning, thunder, rain and blustery winds. And it wasn’t until the last day that the water pump really started to clog up, and we still had our Iodine tablets as an emergency solution for that. All things that we will think about the next time we head out on the trail. And it won’t be long until we do that again.So what could go wrong? Lots. But none of it kept us from having a great trip.

Post date: Jul 17, 2013 4:06:14 PM What does Ultra-light backpacking mean? Most people use a definition that sets a weight limit of 12 pounds on your pack, not including food and water. To get to those levels, you have to pack pretty carefully, and you have to spend at least some money on a light but warm sleeping bag, tent/tarp, and pack.

We’re close to that level. M starts her trips at between 11 and 13 pounds, and P does the same—except we ALWAYs carry a bear canister with us. And that adds two pounds to P’s pack. So technically, he’s at 14 pounds. But if we count the canister as part of the food and water (after all, if there were no food, there would be no bear canister) they he is right at the upper edge of Ultra-light as well.

But since P is a cyclist, he has another way of looking at weight. It doesn’t matter how much you carry, it matters how much you weigh, pack included. In cycling, a lightweight bike will only get you so far—then you have to start dropping the pounds off your body, not off your bike.

So it might make more sense to measure how much total weight you have to carry on the trail and over that pass. P weighs in at about 175, and if you add the 14 pounds of his pack and clothes, the total is 187. Of course, we have to come up with some way of balancing this against the size of each person. If you are 6’10”, you are going to carry more weight, and you can easily do that.

And that leads us to our weight per inch of height ratio. Divide your total weight on the scale by your height in inches, and you should get a number between 2.5 and 4. Since P is 5’10”, (seventy inches of height) and his pack is 187, he gets a PPI (pounds per inch) of 2.67 without food and water. With food and water for an eight day trip, the PPI goes up to a nice round 3.0.

As long as you are packing light, and your weight is within the suggested guidelines for your height, you should be about the same. But if all those dollars you have spent on ultra-light gear are being off-set by a heavier than average body, then you know what you have to do: buy even lighter equipment, obviously.

M’s PPI? That’s classified. Sorry. But it is certainly less than P’s.

Post date: Jul 4, 2013 2:07:53 PM During our last hike at Sonora Pass, one thing was clear: PCT NOBOs are supposed to get to Sonora Pass by the end of June. (For those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, those people hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in its entirety, from Mexico to Canada--North Bound--are NOBOs.)

We met at least ten of these hikers on the few miles of trail we hiked on June 30th, and they were all right on schedule. They were also young, friendly, and seemed to be having a great time. They were also really looking forward to the food (and showers) they were expecting at Sonora Pass. The section they had just completed was a long one, from Tuolumne Meadows to Sonora Pass, and the next few stages will be much shorter and easier. At least one of the next stages, from Carson Pass to Echo Summit, can easily be done as a day hike. It was fun to see them on the trail.

Here's hoping that they all make it!

Post date: Jul 3, 2013 5:43:55 PM The good news? I am now healthy again, and able to hike. How do I know? Because over the weekend we went up to Sonora Pass and headed South on the Pacific Crest Trail for a day hike. On the way, we managed to find a couple of peaks to climb, including one that was 11,845 high. And that went just fine, thank you very much.Plus, the views from up there were simply stunning. It sure felt good to be able to hike again, and we're already making plans for a longer stay in the Sierra, this time, with backpacks!

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