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October through December 2017

It's officially Winter Post date: Dec 14, 2017 12:50:10 AM Sonora and Tioga Passes are closed for snow. The temps are dropping down into the kind of territory that makes you happy to be sitting indoors by a warm fire.

And the outside gear catalogs are giving the postman a hernia. Time for P to pick up a paintbrush again, and look through the trips of years past to select a few nice shots. And stock up on maps and books about hiking, so that we can start to plan our summer adventures for 2018.

Hope you and yours have a very happy holiday season.M & P

Reader Response Post date: Dec 10, 2017 5:38:40 PM We love hearing from the readers of our blog, and one of them, in particular, always has something interesting and often funny to say. Walter read our post about advice for beginners, and he sent us this note. After laughing out loud at it, we asked if we could post it here, and Walter kindly gave us permission.

" Deer M and P

"We are not beginners, but I still enjoyed reading your blog today. You write so well, and the advice is just so sane and reasonable. There was one little problem. I was reading your blog at breakfast this morning and noticed a few typos. I mentioned this to my wife, who is an editor, and suggested that she offer her services. For example, I pointed out your recommendation that people should bring a “top map” (you left out an “o”). This led to a short and unpleasant exchange.

"Wife: A topo map! Did they mention that you have to know how to READ A TOPO MAP? Like what the little lines MEAN?"

Awkward silence. It was kind of a rhetorical question.

"Me (quietly): Yes, I think they mention that.

"We have not spoken since. Apparently she has a long memory and has not yet forgiven me for some perfectly honest mistakes concerning certain summits that had to be climbed. Yes, I realize (now) that you need to pay attention when all the little brown lines are close together. But I really don’t know why there is a problem. It’s not that important, is it? You are in the mountains. It isn’t flat. What do you expect?"

Your advice on many different topics has been very useful. I would add a few things to your list of things to take on your next backpacking trip.

"First, a sense of humility. The Wilderness is big, and you are small, and the wilderness doesn’t care. Be very, very careful, especially if you are hiking solo. And even if you are experienced, you can and probably will screw up. Allow for mistakes, and forgive yourself. If everything went according to plan, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure.

I would add that dehydration and hypothermia aren’t the only things that can make you stupid. Fatigue works just as well, at least if you are my age. Why did I pitch my tent on this nest of ants? Why did I leave my stove out in the rain? Why did I think i could rock-hop this stream (and how long will it take me to dry off)?"

Second, a sense of humor. A comedy of errors is still a comedy. The wilderness is full of jokes for those who keep their eyes open. I know it’s a drag looking at photos from other people’s trips, but for an amusing time check out “Death March” on my wife’s site, , concerning a trip we took a few years ago.

Also, if you are going solo, as I often do now, it’s good to have an imaginary friend to share funny stories with. I’m not going to tell you my friend’s name (it’s not “Wilson”), but we have a pretty good time together."

Third, a sense of wonder. My wife wonders how she got talked into taking another trip. But seriously, it is a wonder how easy it is to get lost in some of the most beautiful wilderness in the world and have it all to yourself. You just have to walk for a couple of days. In a state in which more than thirty million people live, you can go bed at night and know that there is no one else within three miles of you in any direction. Once or twice, late in the season, it was more like five miles. The moon, the stars, the dark mountains all around. It takes your breath away."

You guys are an inspiration. I intend to keep backpacking until I just can’t do it any more.Walter J"

Thank you for sending this to us. Walter. We loved the humor---and love the suggestion of taking those three things along. P thinks everybody has made that topo map mistake at least once. He did it memorably in Yosemite with a Nat Geo map that had so many different color codes on it that you couldn't see those tiny little lines to well. But we found out what we were missing once we starting climbing and climbing.

That's when M asked to look at the map.He knows we're in trouble when M does that!

Getting Started--a planning guide for winter! Post date: Dec 4, 2017 3:28:07 PM A lot of people have asked us for basic advice on their first backpacking trip. And winter is a great time to start planning. While it's been some time since we went on our first trip (something over fifty years for P!) we've given the question some thought, and would make these basic suggestions:

1. Start with something easy. Keep the mileage around five miles or less, and make sure that there is some kind of water at the end of the trail, either a lake or a creek. A shorter trip allows you to bail out more easily if something doesn't go according to you forget to bring matches to cook all your food. (Don't laugh, it nearly happened to us a few years ago...) And if you do choose this kind of hike, you can be pretty sure that you won't be the only people there. Nice hikes to lakes within five miles of a trailhead are usually popular. For a first timer, that's a good thing, because you may just want to ask someone a question or two...or even borrow some matches.

2. Don't sweat the latest equipment. P's first trip was famously made with a pair of his dad's pants tied up into a backpack, into which he threw his basic boy scout sleeping bag. And he had a great time. Take a tent, take a sleeping bag, and take enough clothes to keep you warm and dry. You may think you need more than that, but the more you hike, the less you are likely to take. Everything you take weighs more than anything you leave at home. Your "list of ten" items should include a flashlight, map, matches or lighter, bug repellent, sunscreen, first aid kit, etc. But you don't need the family size of any of these things--P has been using the little airline tubes of toothpaste on the trail for years.

3. Do stay warm, dry, and hydrated. If you read out section about the dangers on the trail, these are the big ones. Getting wet makes you cold. Getting hypothermia or dehydrated make you stupid. And stupid is bad when you are out in the woods. Don't hike in bad weather--make that decision before you leave the trailhead. Bring enough clothes to stay warm, and use them. Most of all, drink lots of water. If you are not peeing every couple of hours, you are not drinking enough. The higher elevations of the mountains mean that you won't always notice how much you are sweating---but they will dehydrate you much faster than at sea level. Drink lots of water. If you're thirsty, drink immediately. If you're not thirsty, drink some water anyway, to keep yourself from getting thirsty.

4. Don't sweat the food. You won't starve to death on an overnight hike (you can live for a couple of weeks without food) but take enough to feel good about eating it. It doesn't have to be freeze-dried. We know some long-distance hikers who prefer to avoid the time it takes to cook food, so they live on ready to eat things like dried fruit, energy bars, and GORP. On a recent trip, we took ramen noodles for dinner one night, instant mashed potatoes for part of another meal. They were both light, nutritious and reasonably tasty. And we got them at the local supermarket. And don't worry about liquor. You can live without it for one night, and it weighs too much to carry it.

5. Do test all your equipment BEFORE you leave home. Set up your tent in your backyard, or in your living room. Light your stove and cook a meal on it in your kitchen. Try your water filter to make sure you know how it works. The time to find out this stuff is way before you get out on the trail. And this is not just advice for newbies. We do this with every new piece of equipment we take on a trip. It's just common sense.

6. Do sweat the navigation. Staying found is a lot easier than getting lost, and getting found again. Take any kind of navigation tools you want, from GPS to SAT phones, but always take a paper topo map and know what it means. P learned navigation as a sailor, where tracking your course is an absolute must. Every time you come to a junction, a big turn, a lake, creek, or other obvious landmark, mark it on your map (maybe even with the time, too). That will not only allow you to backtrack more accurately if you do get lost, but it will also allow you to make a rough estimate of how long it takes you to hike each section...and plan for future hikes accordingly.

7. Do sweat the weather report. We've cancelled trips because of lousy weather, and will do that again in the future. While it is possible to sit in a tent for fourteen hours in the rain, it isn't fun. Go on your first trip when the weather will be nice, and don't be afraid to bail out if the weather doesn't cooperate. We've done this many times. And on one memorable July hike near North Lake in the Eastern Sierra, the people we met the next day coming out had experienced hailstones the size of large marbles. We didn't, because we didn't like what the weather was doing, and bailed out. We were smart. They looked really miserable.

8. Be smart and have fun. Despite the stories you have read and seen on TV, backpacking is not about you against the primal elements of nature. It's about having a lovely time in a beautiful place. Don't be stupid and make it epic. Be smart and make it pleasant. If you really want epic, you can binge-watch something horrible on TV. This includes crossing rivers in high water, climbing steep snowfields, or taking a look over the edge of that cliff, just for a second. There are no guard rails in the wilderness. The guard rail is your brain. Please use it.

Hiking Herring Creek Post date: Nov 27, 2017 1:59:32 AM Over the Thanksgiving holiday, we spent a few days at our cabin up above Sonora, and while some of the time was spent doing the usual "getting ready for winter" yardwork, we also found time for a nice day hike.

We had tried to get to Herring Creek Reservoir at least four times before. In each case, we were stopped by gates, bad roads, bad weather, or distractions that took us in another direction. But on Saturday we finally made it. It's a perfectly easy drive. The road leaves 108 to the right just a few miles past Strawberry. The first few miles are paved and two cars wide. Just before you get to the second gate (the first one is right at the highway itself) the road narrows to one lane. And just beyond the gate the pavement stops, leaving a dirt/gravel/mud road for the rest of the way. This road makes a large loop around most of the Herring Creek drainage, but we turned right at the junction and 100 yards later saw the road down to the campground and the reservoir.

Because we were in a 2wd car and the road was both muddy and steep, we parked there and walked the last 1/4 mile to the campground. We could have driven it in a pinch--but it stops at the campground, so it didn't make much difference to the length of our hike.

And from the end of the road the trail leads past a few campsites, then to a walk-in campground with a few more campsites, and finally to Herring Creek Reservoir, about a half-mile in. We checked out the reservoir, noted the thin layer of ice and slush in the shady coves, and the followed the clearly marked trail for another few miles up the creek. Lovely. We found a nice spot for a quiet lunch.

We saw absolutely nobody once we left the campground, and wandered past quiet meadows, gushing cascades, and the always burbling Herring Creek. Eventually we turned around and headed back to the cabin for dinner. It was a great day in the mountains, and it reminded us that you don't need to tackle an epic hike to have an amazing day in the Sierra.

Sometimes just a quiet walk in the woods will do.

The rest of the photos are here:

So what did we take?

Post date: Oct 17, 2017 4:28:04 PM A number of people have asked us what we took with us in our bags when we took a load of things out of Napa during the recent fires. It was an interesting, if somewhat anxious, experience. And with time to think about it, we might have done something differently. But we began with deciding that we would put everything in our van. The van is now our backpacking/camping mobile, and it would give us a place to live if everything went completely to hell.

And in that van we also put all of our backpacking equipment, because it was almost ready to go anyway, and it would give us everything we would need to live for a few days, or even a few weeks, except for food: first aid kit, water filter, sleeping bag, clothes, raingear, etc. And the van even had 3 gallons of drinking water, just in case.

What else? Photos. We took every damn photo we could find. We didn't stop to decide which one was best. We generally kept all of our photos in boxes in one room of the house,. and I just grabbed every single box and album, and put it in the van.

Financial stuff: M collected the latest statements from our accounts etc. and put them all into one folder, so we would be able to track it all down later if we needed to do that. And our passports, since they are a real pain to replace, and would serve and foolproof I.D.

And then M grabbed most of her knives. As a chef, that's the one thing she didn't want to try to replace. I took my computer, because despite my occasional efforts at backup, I didn't want to have to try to find or recreate those files again. No thanks.

And of course our phones, for obvious reasons. M took a family heirloom afghan, as well as her most treasured jewelry. A few bottles of her homemade nocino liqueur. All of that pretty much fit into one large box, except for the afghan.

And I took most of my recent watercolor paintings. Yeah, I had photos of them, but photos wouldn't look all that good on the wall...

What didn't we take? Almost everything else. We looked at this and that, and decided that we had enough. And that we could replace the other stuff if we had to. The Christmas decorations and kids artwork in the attic got left behind, as did the artwork on the walls, mainly because we didn't want to take it all, and we didn't have time to select what we really loved.

Sometime when we have a day, that would be a good exercise for us..

.Most of all, we took each other.

More Fire News Post date: Oct 13, 2017 6:51:09 PM We made it through another night last night. But tonight they are concerned about high winds and very low humidity again, conditions expected to continue through Saturday evening.

The winds will be highest on the ridge tops. No telling what that will bring. We're fine in our house in the downtown part of Napa. The smoke is still quite thick in Napa, and the streets are pretty quiet. No tourists, and even some of the local have left for greener or safer pastures. We've taken a carload of our most treasured items to M's father's house in the East Bay for safe keeping.

Calistoga remains completely evacuated, while in parts of Napa those evacuation orders may be lifted. Others have already lost their homes. Many businesses, including official offices, are closed due to the smoke.And it all depends on the wind tonight. None of these fires is more than 10% contained...

Thanks again for all who shared their thoughts and concerns.

Update from Napa Post date: Oct 11, 2017 11:39:10 PM Many of you know that we live in Napa. And if you've been following the news, you know that Napa has been suffering through terrible fires this week. Here's what we know. We're in downtown Napa, so far so good.

The fires are mainly in the hills above the valley floor, between Napa and Sonoma, between Calistoga and Santa Rosa, and between Napa and Fairfield. But none of the fires are close to being under control, and there seems to be no timeline for when that might happen. They are just too massive.

They've just announced mandatory evacuations of the town of Calistoga to the north...and lots of people in the outskirts of Napa itself are either evacuated or, frankly, burned out by now. We expect to have some house-guests tonight, who live up in the hills and haven't been home since Monday. But so far we're OK.

What happens next all depends on the wind--which direction, and how strong. There are major fires both East and West of us....but to the North we have vineyards, which don't burn very well. And to South it's clear, so far. But who knows what tonight and tomorrow will bring...I've seen weather reports of winds from 5 mph, which would be great, up to 35, which would be utterly disastrous. In winds like that, embers can carry more than 1/4 of a mile, and jump any barrier the firefighters might set up. And the winds are projected to be from the that's the best direction for us, really. We can only hope, and suffer with those who are less fortunate than we have been so far.

Thanks to everyone who has sent us their wishes and prayers.

Hi ho!, hi ho! Post date: Oct 9, 2017 4:45:00 PM I (P) am back from a three day trip to Summit City Canyon with a trail work party. Spectacular weather and a group of really nice guys made this a real pleasure.

I began by leaving Napa at a little before 5 a.m. to get to the trailhead in time to meet the group, At about 9:30 the first team hit the trail, while others stayed behind to load up the mules with the heavy lifting: tools for the trail. My little group of three split up at the Horse Creek Trail junction, when Greg headed back over the ridge to take care of his ailing wife. Dave and I continued down for another mile or so and set up camp.

By the time we had the tents up, the pack team arrived, and everyone else got there soon after to join us for lunch.

By 1:30 we were at the first major obstacle of the trail: a massive tree that blocked things from the far side of the river to the granite cliffs on the other side of the trail. And since the only way to get past it was to get on your hands and knees and crawl under it, this one had to go. Ranger Chip had been there some weeks before, but had been unable to cut through the monster. In fact, he'd had to leave two wedges stuck in place in the saw cut. The damn tree was still alive, with some of its roots drawing water from the creek, and the wood expanded around every cut and wedge.

So we set to work. The buck saw would bind up completely after a few strokes, despite the wedges we were pounding into the cut. We cut from below, then we started another cut on the other end to reduce the tension, and final hacked out the wedges and Chip and I began a second cut parallel to the first one, whacking out the material between the two cuts with a small saw and a hatchet. Bear in mind that all of this was done with hand tools, as any engine is prohibited in the Wilderness Area! After a couple of hours, we began to make progress, and finally cut through the first cut.

The tree didn't move. Now we started on the second cut, with Tom and Dave pulling much of the work. But now we were able to use the wedges with some effect, and about 4 p.m. we finally cut through on the second side. The middle section was now held up by the branches we had propped under it, and with a few whacks we dropped it to the ground.

With much heaving and hollering, we slowly inched it up onto a smaller branch, rotated it, and rolled it off to the side of the trail. After that, it was back to camp for a well-deserved rest and dinner.

It was a beautiful evening, with fall colors all around, but after dark the temperature dropped quicker than that big log, and we were in bed soon after.

The next day we left our camp and headed down the trail for more fun. This time it was a large aspen that had fallen almost directly on the trail. And while the tree was smaller, it was lower to the ground and still green. Tom, Dave and I sawed away on it for more than an hour before we finally cut it through on both ends, and then maneuvered it off the trail. Chip had gone farther down the trail to scout out our next project: a maze of trail braids through the jungle of ferns above the first crossing. He arrived just in time to see us polish off the aspen. From there is was a short walk down to the ferns, where the trail had become quite confused due to a large tree blocking the route. We used a MaCleod, a shovel, some loppers and lots of hard work to mark the best trail through, and then lined it with larger branches to make sure it was easy to see. By the time we had done this in two different sections of the trail, it was lunch time.

Meanwhile, Mark and Greg got off to a late start, but hiked past us to head down to the second crossing to get to work down closer to the Mokelumne River.

After lunch our team hiked down to within a mile of the second crossing, hitting the trail with the Macleod from time to time, lopping off a few branches, kicking bigger logs out of the trail, and occasionally restacking a cairn for better visibility. We stopped at a glorious granite plateau by the creek, refilled out water bottles, and started to hike uphill back to camp. On the way back Tom, who had never been down the canyon before, led the way so that we could get a fresh pair of eyes on the trail. We found a few places where it wasn't clear, and did what we could to mark it better.

Chip raced down to chat with Mark and Greg below, and then joined us in camp for the second night's dinner. It was another stunning evening in the wilderness.On day three Tom and Chip were going to hike down and join Mark and Greg, while Dave and I hiked out. But we weren't done with our work detail. We took the post hole digger along for the ride, so that we could dig new holes for two of the posts that Chip was having brought in by mule that day.

The first one, at the junction of the Horse Creek Trail, was a cakewalk. Dave wiggled it a bit and pulled the old pole neatly out of the perfectly preserved post hole. It took all of thirty seconds, and we were a bit gleeful about that.

(You may remember that sign post from our trip report a month ago.) But the second post hole, at the junction with the Fourth of July Lake Trail, was not so much fun. It had broken off right at the ground, and as we dug a new hole we discovered that the old hole had been packed with rocks to hold the post tight. They worked, and so did we, digging it out one rock at a time. But after twenty minutes of combined sweat, David and I declared the second post hole dug, and left the tool beside the trail for the mules to collect. Our work was done.

We hiked out and made the trailhead by noon, and I managed to get back to Napa through the stunning aspen trees around Carson Pass by 4 p.m. As I drove into town I noticed a fire burning in the grasslands by the airport south of town. Later that night, Napa would be surrounded by fires on three sides, with blustery winds blowing them quickly across the landscape. Our own home only suffered a light coating of falling ash, but our more rural neighbors found themselves in dire straights.

We can only hope the easing of the winds will make controlling the fires possible today.

Making an effort... Post date: Oct 4, 2017 11:21:42 PM After out last trip into Summit City Canyon, we received a note from a ranger who has been working to upgrade and maintain the trail there, part of the link from Tahoe to Yosemite. And he invited us to help the next time he got to work.Which explains why P will be hiking back into that canyon over the weekend. It should be absolutely beautiful, and we hope to get some work done to make the trail just a bit easier to follow, at the very least.

M is tied up at home, so she'll have to hear about it all after I get back....just like everyone else!

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