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July to September of 2010

Post date: Sep 9, 2010 4:34:46 PM

After four lovely days on our recent trip to the Emigrant Wilderness without seeing a soul, our last couple of miles back to the Crabtree Cabin trailhead seemed like Grand Central Station. There were large groups, small groups, a dad and son, two couples, a trail ride on horses, and lots of others we've now forgotten.

But one young man really stood out. He was hiking out from the trailhead, with no backpack, and only a bottle of water in one hand. I couldn't imagine he was day hiking so late in the day, with the nearest destination miles in from the trailhead.

"Where are you headed?" I asked.

"I'm just going back to my campsite," he replied. "I had to hike out to my car to charge my phone, so I had something to wake me up on time tomorrow morning."

The nearest campsites were about four miles up the trail.

And we always thought that the sun did a pretty good job...

Post date: Sep 6, 2010 6:45:22 PM

OK! Just back from a wonderful trip this last weekend, leaving from Crabtree Cabin for a series of lakes in the backcountry of Emigrant Wilderness: four days, 34 miles, great views, and some fun adventures.

We started at Crabtree, down into Pine Valley, past Grouse Lake and up over the Groundhog Meadow “pass” into Louse Canyon. All of this is one of the regular routes into the Emigrant Wilderness, and we had hiked it in reverse a few years ago.

But at Louse Canyon we turned right to follow a good use trail with a few ducks down to the route up over the ridge to Resasco Lake.

We had a little trouble finding where the route crossed the creek (What’s new? I think 90% of the time that I lose a trail; it’s at a stream crossing!) but we finally found the route on the far side. And then we started up over the ridge.

This was a very tough climb—about 750 feet in less than a mile, and there was really no easy trail, just a series of cairns over broken rock. See photo at left--that's M and the ducks...and the trees far below! After eight miles on the trail, it was a hard way to end the day. But Resasco was lovely—although we were a bit surprised to see another group camping on the far side of the lake. They were the only people we would see in the next three days.

The next day we followed a rough route down into the next canyon, where we saw ducks marking three trails. One went back up towards the main trail near Wood Lake, but we followed the next one, which headed east to Pingree Lake. A mile up sloping granite ramps and we were there. It’s a lovely spot, but it was too early to make camp—and besides, we didn’t see any fish!

So we enjoyed the view and had a snack…and then headed back down the granite to the bottom of the canyon, where we turned left and followed another route out to Big Lake, two miles away. We followed the creek until we cleared the granite dome on our left, and then turned left across a massive expanse of smooth granite for more than a mile.

As long as we didn’t go up or down much, we would hit the notch on the far side to take us to Big Lake.

This is unbelievable country--solid sheets of bare granite in all directions. The photos don’t do it justice. At times it felt like a sea of white rock, or a solid Sahara. M described it as like seeing the bones of the world. As we hiked, we would stop and just revel in the experience.

The notch was right where it was supposed to be, and from there we dropped down into Big Lake. Another really lovely lake, but it was only lunchtime…and the fishing was lousy. So we packed up and headed to Yellowhammer Lake to camp.

Not the best decision we made on this trip. Yellowhammer is an old ranching site, even has a few old buildings that take away from its charm in our opinion, and the lake is not great—the upper end, where we were, is pretty stagnant and even boggy. And the lower lake seemed to be solid granite cliffs dropping into the water. The solution?

We checked our maps and figured that we just might be able to find a route up over the ridge to our north and get to Leighton Lake. We gave it a shot, following a wonderful sloping ramp up to a bench, and then exploring for about 45 minutes how to get off that bench over the last 150 feet of elevation we needed to get up to Leighton.

And we failed. Yeah, there were a couple of places that might have worked, but it was definitely class 3+…and we don’t like to do that with full packs on. But as we sat down to admire the view and decide what to do next, we noticed Five Acre Lake below us.

Perfect. We slipped, scrambled, and followed deer trails down to a perfect little lake with ideal campsite and tons of rising fish. After a long (and at times frustrating) day on the trail, it was heaven. By the time we were done, we figured we hiked another 8 or 9 miles on day two…and had adventures we would remember for a lifetime. We hadn’t seen anyone at all since breakfast at Resasco Lake.

That evening we got out our topos, and figured we could probably get to Leighton from Five Acre, if we followed a different ramp…and then turned hard left back along the bench that runs between Leighton and Red Can Lakes. And if we couldn’t do that by about 11 a.m.; then it was time to go back the other way, and backtrack to Big Lake and out.

But by 9:30 we had found an easy route up the ramp, climbed a short but very steep notch up over the last granite wall, and found a series of ducks leading us forward. Within a couple of minutes we were at Red Can Lake (not Red Canyon, which is what it is called on the National Geographic topo Map!) and from there it was an easy walk over to Leighton.

We spent the rest of the morning enjoying the view from the southern edge of Leighton Lake (which overlooks all that territory we had just clambered around on…as well as a clear shot to the Sierra crest) and then walking up the west side of nearby Karl’s Lake. Camped there and took the afternoon to hike out about a mile past the west end of Leighton Lake to Kole Lake—and from there saw a clear route back to Pingree Lake, where we had been two days before. That's Leighton Lake, on the right, as seen from our hike back from Kole Lake.

So with packs we only did about 3.5 miles this day…but added another 3 miles of day hikes around the lakes. And we had spent another day in this magnificent area without seeing another soul.

That evening we climbed the little knob west of the lake.

The last day was pretty straightforward---a hike out from Karl’s Lake to the main trail at Wood Lake… less than a mile…and then straight back to the trailhead for ten miles.

By 3:45 we were back at the car, and by 5:45 we were eating dinner and enjoying a cold beer. And our conversation over dinner was about how crazy people are.

This was Labor Day Weekend, but we were amazed that we only saw that one group of campers at Resasco Lake…and didn’t run into anyone else until we got to within about two miles of the trailhead. Then all hell broke loose---it was like Grand Central Station. Pack trains, dads with little kids, single men with dogs, large groups of hikers, young couples…all going in or coming out…but all staying within four miles of the trailhead. Parking at the trailhead was more than full…but we didn’t see a soul for three days.

This was a great hike—the route finding was not really hard, and with a few exceptions, the routes were pretty darn comfortable. The off-trail just added a bit of fun and adventure…and the time together was priceless.

Post date: Aug 27, 2010 4:16:07 PM

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly...

As far as we're concerned, any trail that takes us up into or around the High Sierra is a good one. They all seem to have their own charm and delights. But let's be honest here. Some are more pleasant than others, for lots of reasons.

What's a good trail? Well, we have our favorites, but there are lots of possibilities. A good trail should have great views every once in a while, just to remind you how wonderful the high country of the Sierra really is. And not too many people, either. After all, if we're going into the mountains to escape from our urban lives, it makes sense that we don't want to have to say "excuse me" every few minutes on the trail. We'd like shade for at least part of the way, and it's always nice to have a stream nearby in case we get thirsty, or just want to rest and watch the water go by. None of those are absolute requirements, but they help. A nice lake at the end is always good. The trail itself can be a smooth earthen path through the woods or meadows, a solid slab of granite marked with stones, or just about anything in between, as long as we can hike it. It's all good.

What's a bad trail? Ah...this is easier. If you have to watch your footing so carefully that you can't enjoy the views, that's not so good. Big cobblestones or lots of scree and debris in the trail makes this a problem--often where there are too many horses.

Mud? Water? Snow? None are deal-killers, but if we have to take our shoes off every few minutes to navigate the water hazard, our Russian judge will mark that trail down a few points. And it won't ever win first prize. And while we don't mind switchbacks, those huge blocks of granite that require us to lift our entire body and pack up sixteen inches with the tired muscles of one thigh are not popular in our camp. Going up, they begin to make you feel like your knees are going to explode. Coming down, your knees explode. And as per above, with those kinds of steps, you can never take your eyes off the trail to see the views.

Not good.

But there just aren't many ugly trails in the Sierra. Yeah, horses can leave behind enough manure to make it a little tiresome. And in the early season there are enough mosquitoes on some trails to make you want to sprint--as if there were any where you could go to escape. Deep sand is never much fun, which is one of the reasons we usually avoid the John Muir Freeway. And we will occasionally find something that is so steep and badly maintained that it takes a certain amount of courage to follow it wherever it may lead...

But we've never been on a trail that was so bad we stopped and turned around. Because we know that sooner or later, it will take us to where we want to go. And once we get there, we always seem to agree that it was worth it. Even the Russian judge.

Post date: Aug 20, 2010 4:05:01 PM

We've written about those silly survival shows on television--the ones that show you exactly what NOT to do when you are in the wilderness--but this post is about something else entirely.

Every evening that we spend in the Sierra, we look forward to the greatest show on Earth. Dinner has been served, the dishes (both of them) cleaned, water pumped, and everything is tidy around our camp. P may go fishing for a bit, and M may pick up a book. But at some point the light begins its slow and almost imperceptible change from bright to golden...and we put away our childish things and sit back to watch the show.

The shadows grow longer in camp, and the glow from the surrounding peaks begins to turn golden, then rosy, then downright red. And we sit closer together and watch, and watch, and watch.

And then sometimes, particularly later in the season, when the days are shorter and night comes sooner, we even stay to watch to stars come out: more stars that you can possibly imagine. So many stars that even the most obvious constellations are hard to find among the glittering jewels.

One memorable night at Lyons Lake in Desolation Wilderness, we lay out on some large flat granite slabs that were still radiating heat from the warmth of the sun. And we lay, toasty and warm, on this granite and watched for hours.

It's better than any TV show we've ever seen, and we never get tired of watching it.

Post date: Aug 16, 2010 4:20:22 PM

Just got back from seven days of bliss in Northeastern Yosemite and the Hoover Wilderness—on the Twin Lakes to Benson Lake and Matterhorn Canyon loop. This is one to put on your list: great scenery, some really fun fishing, and by doing it in seven days, we managed to give ourselves plenty of time to enjoy the whole thing.

We left Twin Lakes Resort (Pay $10 to park your car there for a week) about 11 a.m. and it took us most of the day to get to Peeler Lake.

The first few miles are pretty easy, but the last few up to Peeler are tough, especially for a first day on the trail. Camped by the lake and were later joined by a troop of By Scouts doing the same hike. Sigh. They were well behaved, especially after I asked them to quiet down once, but it wasn’t quite the solitude we were seeking. Mosquitoes were not bad (3/10), but I saw only very small fish in the lake, so didn’t bother unpacking the rod.

Left early the next day and walked down into Yosemite National Park and through Kerrick Meadow---a simply stunning open alpine valley with huge chunks of granite on all sides. We loved every minute of this part of the hike, even running into ANOTHER group of scouts heading the other direction.

We also met three young biologists from the NPS who were surveying alpine mammals, and not finding much,. But the skeeters were finding them! We were interested in their mosquito clothes…shirts and pants that were bug netting. We had lunch at the last contact with Rancheria Creek, and I fished for about 45 minutes, catching and releasing a nice selection of trout of all sizes. Really fun. The climb up over Seavey Pass is quite steep but short, and the broken terrain across the top of Seavey has some lovely lake---next time I think we would camp here instead of Benson. And we ran into four middle-aged guys, one of whom was wearing a bear bell!

From there we dropped down 2000 feet into Benson Lake—a long, hot, steep trail with lots of rough boulders and bad footing. This was our least favorite section of the hike. Got to Benson in time for cocktail hour, and set up camp. Twenty minutes later the same troop of Boy Scouts arrived, and set up just a campsite away. They actually came over and apologized….sigh. We were tired, and didn’t want to move again. But with about six other groups at Benson ( including a troop of Girl Scouts as well! ) this lake was our least favorite spot on the trip. Yeah, it has a beach, and warmer water. But it also had too many people. And the swamp you walk through to get there was about 8/10 on the mosquito scale. Thank God the wind blew all night long, keeping them to the east of us.

The next day we took a half-day and climbed the steep but well-graded trail to the junction with Rodgers Lake, then down to Smedberg Lake. We’ve been finding the National Geographic topo maps of the Sierra helpful---but they often have the distances REALLY wrong. It makes you wonder what else they got wrong. The colors are also so dark that they often hide some of the contour lines, which is not a good thing. We always supplement them with our own topo maps we print out from AcmeMapper…

Smedberg was lovely. We had decided on an easy day, and I fished a bit while my wife read and snoozed by the lake. At lunchtime a pack train came by—about eight people on horses. One got a bit of a surprised when she walked right up to our discreet camp and nearly dropped her pants before realizing we were there. Ahem! She quickly walked in the other direction…

In the afternoon I took a stroll up to Surprise Lake—a lovely walk over some long granite ramps and then through a collection of small lakes and pools. The views off the southwest side of Surprise Lake were really wonderful. On the way back I climbed up the little knoll southwest of these lakes, and overlooked all of what we had hiked in the last couple of days.

Very nice. With four nice 11-12” rainbows, this was one of the really nice spots on the trip.

The next day we were up and over Benson Pass, and then down into Wilson Creek. Like all three of the higher passes on this trip (Benson, Burro and Mule Pass are all over 10,000 feet) this had a beautiful microclimate that charmed us—lots of flowers, small benches, and tiny canyons full of great scenery. Wilson Creek was crawling with trout, but we didn’t stop to fish. Instead, we made it down into Matterhorn Canyon by lunchtime.

There we stopped and enjoyed fishing (excellent!), reading, and a visit with an NPS staff member, before heading up the canyon to find a spot to camp. We loved this day’s hike. The further up Matterhorn Canyon we got, the better the scenery became. Quarry Peak soon dominated the west side of the canyon, and when we got past it, the Sawtooth Range came into view. Unbelievable. We camped there, and I caught more fish in 90 minutes than I would have thought possible. All brookies, between about 5-9 inches. What fun. And sunset, as the peaks slowly turned pink, was better than any TV show.

Next morning we were up relatively early, and hiking up the canyon and over Burro Pass. This is a great hike, as each step opens up more vistas over the Whorl Mountain and Matterhorn end of the canyon. Once on top we celebrated with a photo, then worked down into Piute Canyon. Snow here was visible, but not really an issue—we skirted anything that looked too dicey. We ran into quite a few young climbers doing the Sierra Challenge—the peak on that day was Finger Peak—so the place seemed full of day hikers racing up and down trails, peaks, scree. But they were all very friendly and perky—I wonder how they felt after day nine or ten of this challenge!

Camped down in Piute Canyon, where the brookies were very wary—but I still caught a couple of nice 8-9 inch ones. This was really challenging fishing—the perfect contrast to the day before. That night the skeeters were out in force—M finally put on her head net after dinner, and they encouraged us to hit the tent early.

Day six took us up over Mule Pass and back into the Hoover Wilderness.

We absolutely loved Mule Pass—a twisting little trail that leads quietly through some of the most intimate scenery in the Sierra, interspersed with views over all of both Piute Canyon and the Sawtooth Range/Matterhorn Peak. Yeah. It was steep and high, but a great WALK as well. Once over the pass, we were grateful that we were going this direction, as the other side is less scenic and far tougher. Within a couple of miles we were down at Crown Lake, where we camped and thought we’d take another half-day to fish and relax. Not quite.

Fishing was poor—only a few little brookies. And by 2:30 or so it had clouded up and started to rain. So we hopped into the tent and took a delightful nap. But after the rain the bugs were positively fierce. This lake has one of the great views of all time, but we just couldn’t enjoy it through the headnets. Again, we headed into the tent early. A light rain shower visited us during the night, and we were up early the next day to hike out to Twin Lakes. By the time we got to Barney Lake (9:30 or so) the trail was already full of day hikers and backpackers on their way in.

We loved the scenery on this trip, and the fishing was fun, but there were just a few too many people for our taste. Still, if you haven’t done this trip, you should. And we would go back to Matterhorn Canyon in a heartbeat.

Post date: Aug 14, 2010 2:44:45 PM

This was sent to me by one of the readers of this blog:

It is true, we are but faint-hearted crusaders, even the walkers, nowadays, who undertake no persevering, never-ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearth-side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return - prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again - if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk..

Henry David Thoreau ( from his essay "Walking" - 1862)

Which is a lovely piece of writing..although I am not yet ready to fall completely into the crowd of those who love Thoreau. His epic season at Walden Pond, living the pure life in the wilderness, was much tempered by his sister bringing him cookies every afternoon. So maybe he wasn't ready to leave his father and mother, sister and brother...or at least his sister's cookies.

Still, it's always a good time to go for walk. On that we can agree.

Post date: Aug 12, 2010 4:54:21 PM

These days, everyone is talking about their bucket list--that list of things they absolutely want to see/do/accomplish before they kick the bucket. We don't have a bucket list (the idea of doing something just to check it off a list isn't really appealing to us) but we do have a list of things that we would like to see and/or do next. And it has some wonderful and lovely adventures on it.

But we also have another list. That other list contains the things that we've decided just aren't worth the time or trouble. Bungee jumping is on that list. We're not going bungee jumping. Or climbing all seven summits of the seven continents. Nope---just doesn't seem to be the way we want to spend our time. No criticism is implied towards anyone who enjoys these activities, we've just decided they aren't for us.

We even have a name for this list. It's our Phuket list. Yeah, we know that this isn't the way you pronounce the name in Thailand. We're not in Thailand. And when we know that something just isn't going to happen for us, we place it our Phuket list.

What's on yours?

Post date: Aug 9, 2010 4:33:53 PM

So there we were, resting below a pass over 9,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada, and a strange tinkling noise came to our ears. I looked at my wife in confusion. A bear bell? In the Sierra? We've seen exactly one in the last ten years on the trail. It was 75 yards away, and walked away from us when it saw us

For those who don't know, bear bells are used by some hikers in Grizzly country to give an audible warning. Grizzlies hear a lot better than they see, and the goal of the bear bell is to let Ursus Horribilus know you are coming. In Glacier National Park the old joke is that you can always tell the difference between Black Bear and Grizzly Bear scat, because the Grizzly Bear scat always has little bells in it!

But the last Grizzly Bear in California was shot in 1922, and there have been only 12 Black Bear attacks in the state since 1980--that's thirty years-- and none of them were fatal. (To put this in perspective, over 4,000 people die every year in motor vehicle accidents in the state.) So wearing a bear bell in the Sierra is a bit over the top---particularly if you drove your car to the trailhead!

When the group of middle-aged men passed us, I couldn't help asking: Is that a bear bell your wearing?

Yep, it was. "I really, really don't want to see any bears on this trip!"

Nor any other wildlife, it would appear.

After they passed us by, we waited a bit longer on the trail--we could hear that bell dingling down along the trail for quite a few minutes after they passed. We shared chuckle at their expense, and then finally took up our packs and followed them down the trail in peace ad quiet.

Which would have been an amusing end to the story, but it wasn't. The next day, as we rested in our campsite, we heard a familiar tinkling coming down the trail. Yep--they were hiking the same route and set up their camp across the lake from us. No harm done, and we shared another smile.

The next morning, as we started out, we found our same group of just leaving their camp. I invited them to go first (since they had passed us the first time, I assumed they were the faster hikers.) I figured that they would be out of earshot within a few minutes, especially if we walked a slower pace behind them

Not so. It turned out that they were quicker to descend a trail, but slower going uphill. Within five minutes we found them sprawled along the trail resting. "We take a lot of rests, so we are probably going to be passing each other all day long," explained one of the men.

Oh joy.

"I hope not," I replied. "You should just pick a livable pace and hold it." I replied. I was not in the mood to hike to the sounds of little bells in the wilderness all day long.

To their credit, they did just that. And it turned out that their pace up over the next 10,000 foot pass was slower than ours. We had a lovely day hiking in sweet solitude, the only sounds we heard being the wind in the trees, the burbling of the streams, and the singing of the birds.

It was only much later that afternoon, after we had set up camp, that I heard the bell again. I was fishing the nearby creek when I heard its now familiar tinkle as the men walked by up the canyon.

We never saw or heard the again. No did we see any bears.

But if you find some bear scat high in the Sierra with a little bell in it, you'll know what happened!

Post date: Jul 23, 2010 4:37:33 PM

There is something truly luxurious about nap time in the mountains. You've done your hike (or not, if it's a lay day!) and the sounds of nature slowly drift away as your eyes close...

Restful? Like nothing I've ever known. True, I'll take a nap when we're at home, but so often it seems as if it is a recovery technique. In the mountains, even after a long hike, it seems like luxury. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, no meetings to plan. Just taking the time to lie down and snooze.

Our new Neo-Air mattresses seems to help, but M often just uses her old Z-rest on the ground, and seems to get the same results. And my brother seems perfectly happy with a tiny slice of thin foam...and a relatively flat rock.

My point exactly.

Post date: Jul 15, 2010 4:36:51 AM

Years ago, when our two girls were still living at home and accompanying us on the occasional summer hiking adventure, we bought them each a small emergency whistle. I don't think they cost more than couple of bucks, and maybe less. As you can imagine, the girls drove us nuts for a few minutes in the car with those whistles, and then promptly forgot them.

Years later, P found them again. He's a big believer in whistles, and so when we started to do more hiking on our own, he brought them out. M wears one tied to the shoulder strap of her pack, and P carries his in the camera case he wears on his belt. We forget about them most of the time. The don't weigh anything, and they are now just part of our equipment.

But twice in the past three years those whistles have come in very handy. The first time was on a day hike in the middle of a pack trip. We were following a rather sketchy trail up a lonely canyon, and there were all sorts of side trails and use trails to confuse us.

Now P always hikes faster than M, so he was ahead...and realized that he hadn't seen M for a while. We do try to keep some kind of visual contact as we go, but when turned around to look. there was no sign of M. And no sign was not a good sign. So he hiked back a hundred yards more or so. Still no M. And then he began to get worried, and noticed all the use trails, and realized that:

1. We were an hour away from camp, and we had not really talked about where or how long we were going to hike.

2. We were up a canyon six miles from the nearest trailhead.

3. We might not have been lost, but niether of us knew where the other one was....and niether of us knew to go forward or back to start searching.

Not a good scenario.

So P started yelling for M. No answer. None.

The scenario just got worse.

And then he remembered the whistle. And sure enough, he blew it twice, and then waited. After a few seconds, he heard an answering whistle, coming not from above him as he expected, but from underneath the bluff he was standing on. And within minutes, we were back together again, and hiking away. Greatly relieved.

All of this came to mind last week, when we were hiking a lightly used trail in the Hoover Wilderness. At one point the trail gets quite confused, and P waved to M at that point, to tell her he was taking the lower trail. But when M got to that point, she was confused. And she remembered her whistle--and started to blow.

Which was perfect, except she didn't wait for a response, she just kept blowing away. Which P interpreted to mean that she was in some kind of serious trouble. And he sprinted back up to trail to save her from ...well. All's well that ends well.

And in the wilderness, there really is no substitute for whistle.

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