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Posts from Dec 2009 to April 2010

Post date: Apr 1, 2010 1:37:50 AM

Just back from a few days in Death Valley, hiking but not backpacking. This was perfect weather, with lows in the sixties and highs in the eighties. But Death Valley is a different kind of National Park. There are very few serious hiking trails (perhaps the most clearly marked is the Golden Canyon trail, which we loved) but visitors are encouraged to explore the park at their own risk. Adventures up interesting canyons often lead to spectacular beauty—but also to dead ends at dry waterfalls or steep cliffs. And yes, we saw at least one person free climb the cliff like it was a staircase, and just keep on going. But we’re not quite that agile.

And yes, there were tons of wildflowers. Perhaps not like the great displays in some other parts of the state, but you have to make allowances for the fact that this is one of the least hospitable places on earth…and then appreciate how really wonderful the flowers are.

Having said all of that, Death Valley isn’t really about the flowers, it’s about the rocks. This is what Mother Earth looks like when she is stark naked. Unbelievable. Without plants or even soil to smooth out the rough edges. If you’ve ever wondered what rocks look like underneath it all, Death Valley shows it to you like an x-ray. And it is stunning stuff.

Post date: Mar 22, 2010 4:47:00 AM

This past weekend we couldn't stay indoors another day, so we headed out on Friday morning to the Hite Cove trail in the Sierra National Forest. We'd read about this trail, because it's famous for its wildflowers. But it's also only about 1800 feet in elevation, so we were sure we wouldn't get snowed in!

The trail leaves from Savage's Trading Post off Highway 140, between Mariposa and Yosemite, which is just past the one-lane section they still haven't completely fixed after the big rock slide. After maybe 100 yards of climbing to get up on the slope, the trail follows the South Fork of the Merced River about 4.5 miles into an old mining camp on the river. There are some nice views up and down the river, and during fishing season this must be more fun--the river has some beautiful pools.

But the real spectacle was the wildflowers. Unbelievable concentrations of poppies, sometimes looking like bright orange frosting layered over the rocks. And not just poppies--we didn't bring our wildflower book, so can't list them all, be we counted at least ten different kinds of flowers...and on the way out, more than 40 California newts, all looking for love on the trail.

We hiked this on Friday, so we missed most of the heaving traffic. We saw about ten people as we hiked in--and they were all on their way out. We had the campsite and old mining equipment to ourselves for the evening. And on the way out, we saw crowds heading up the trail...but by that time we were on our way home...and into Yosemite for a little sight-seeing in the spring.

The photos don't do the hike justice. Simply stunning!

Post date: Mar 9, 2010 2:03:13 AM

Great hiking this weekend outside of King City.

I (P) had visited the Pinnacles National Monument numerous times as a child, and looked forward to going back and visiting some of my old haunts. What he found was that things had changed, but the Pinnacles are still a great hiking destination, and this is absolutely the best time to visit!

Friday focused on the East Side, with a hike up through Condor Canyon and onto the Peaks trail. This is a steep climb, about 1500 feet in two miles, but the views are certainly worth it. And it did feel good to get out and HIKE! The trail joins the Peaks Trail and then wraps around, up over and through the rocky volcanic pinnacles that gave the park its name.

The weather was cloudy without rain, and that made for a perfect temperature for the hiking, even if the colors were more washed out than they would have been in bright sunlight. The advantage was that the heat was nothing like this park in summer--it can be an oven! This hike was lovely, and I was completely unprepared for the green mosses and lush plant growth in the canyons, particularly on the north slopes.

I didn't have a flashlight (although the ranger actually offered to loan me one if I could get back by 5 p.m.!) so I didn't go through the caves this time. It wasn't that I didn't like that trail--just that I didn't want to get wet!

The next day I returned with a friend to the West Side, which I don't remember having visited before. Rather than climbing back up to the Peaks Trail, we wandered down towards the Balconies, which I had seen from the Peaks the day before. Another lovely hike with some great water features (try to find THOSE in the summer!) and another set of caves--this one with water up to your knees. We passed on that, but had a great hike, eventually taking one of the rock climber use trails up out of the canyon onto the top of the ridge.

They have changed this park a bit since I was young--the campground is now in a very different and less attractive area--but they have also added in about a dozen California Condors. They were not visible during the hike, but that didn't stop me from stopping and staring at the peaks hopefully.

Post date: Feb 20, 2010 4:52:15 PM

As we were hiking through Henry Coe State Park last weekend, I found myself humming Chopin's Funeral March as I trudged up the long, steep hills on the last day. Admittedly, I was humming it a bit faster than the usual tempo, but still...A funeral march? When I mentioned this to M, she shared her own song of the day--The Star Spangled Banner. hmmmm. Must be an Olympic thing. It still seemed a better choice, but you can't always pick your tune!

At some point on every hike, I find myself marching to a tune in my head. With luck, it's something I really like, and it can really shorten the day's hike if it is. But M is more likely to find herself droning on to a song she actively dislikes, but unable to get the tune out of her head. Poor M. Her worst fear is a day full of bubble-gum pop music in the High Sierra.

I was trained as a classical musician, so I take this stuff pretty seriously. In fact, I've been known to pre-select a tune for my hiking pleasure, just to make sure that I like what I'm hearing. Think this is crazy? The next time you get a song stuck in your head, stop the music. Literally. Stop thinking about that song, and insert another one, one that you like a lot more, in its place. It works, but you have to pay attention!

Speaking of paying attention, I have even focused on a piece of music I am trying to learn, making sure I am getting the timing just right. There is something about putting one foot in front of the other that really drives home the downbeat. And all those little grace notes and syncopated accents fall into place very clearly when you have to hit the next downbeat with your right foot!

(If you want a real challenge, forgo the typical 4/4 beat of the march, and tackle a piece in 3/4, 6/4 or 6/8 time. That means that you will be alternating the downbeat between right a left feet as you walk. Don't try this while you are chewing gum!) This has the added advantage of getting you to waltz up the Mist Trail with a pack on your back...something the other hikers will have never seen before, and will certainly share with their grandchildren!

So who needs an i-pod? We carry this music right in our heads--and we can adjust not only the volume but even the rhythm of the song to match the pace we need: slower in the uphill sections, faster once we hit the open plains.

From the Halls of Montezuma to I took my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry, marching tunes are a part of our hikes every year.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda... go ahead. Try to get that one out of your head!

Post date: Feb 16, 2010 3:33:22 PM

So this weekend was a three-day weekend, and we decided that we had spent enough time at home. It was time to get out into the woods.

The only problem was that our favorite haunts were covered with many feet of snow, and we have yet to contract the snow-camping bug. So we looked for something warmer, along the coast. After a lot of research, phone calls, and even a trip to a couple of stores, we decided on the Los Padres National Forest, south of Monterey. We bought the maps, charted our route, and then, at the last minute, decided to go to Henry Coe State Park instead.

Why? It's a shorter drive for us, and and we'd always wanted to see the park. And once P called the ranger station, and got a great recommendation for a trip, the die was cast.

Sunday morning we drove down to the park, and watched the fog disappear as we drove. By the time we got to the entrance, it was sunny and even a bit warm. And as we climbed up out of the canyon into the park, it got positively steamy. whew!

For those of us accustomed to the High Sierra, this trip was different in many ways:

The elevation was lower, so while we were sweating up a storm, we weren't breathing so hard---and our recovery time was a lot shorter.

The humidity was a lot higher, so while we were sweating up a storm, it just dripped down our faces and covered our bodies. ugh.

The trails in this park have their own unique logic: most of them follow old ranch roads, so they tend to follow the tops of the hills and ridges. If they ran along the side of a hill, the old trucks would have rolled over sideways. So they go straight up and straight down--rather than going around. Steep grades, sometimes only to lead to an equally steep grade on the other side, going down. Up and down, over and over. oof. The trail we took had about 2500 feet of climbing in five miles, and we counted a total of two switchbacks. Why go around when you can go straight over the top? We know why.

Did we mention the humidity? Daytime temperatures were in the high 60's so it was hot, going uphill in the sun. Evening temps dropped quickly into the 40's---and everything was covered with dew. Everything--even in the inside of our tent. Luckily, it didn't drip on us all night---just soaked whatever touched the inside of the tent.

Finally, we have to talk about those short days. One of our concerns about snow camping is that we would have to spend a lot of time sitting in the dark in the cold. Night came at 6 p.m., and we finished our dinner by headlamp. A quick cleaning up, and then we looked at the stars until our clothes started getting wet from the dew. By 7:30 we were in the tent, reading. By 8:30 it was lights out---and we were only mildly concerned that we might wake up at 5, unable to sleep longer.

Dream on, literally. We slept until 6:30 or 7, in our cozy new down bags. And by the time we made breakfast and broke camp, it was almost 9 a.m., and the sun was out, drying things quickly (except for the tent, which was in our pack by then!).

Still, 10 hours of sleep?

Felt lovely.

Post date: Feb 5, 2010 12:20:14 AM

"Fishermen are pigs."

The lovely M was looking down into the water, where she saw an old jar of salmon eggs lying among the stones. We were fifteen miles from the nearest trailhead in a stunning part of Yosemite. It was a beautiful, isolated lake at 10,000 feet, with nice-sized trout and gin clear water. Towering peaks loomed over it, rosy in the evening light.

I would have said it was pristine, except that pristine means unspoiled. And this water was spoiled by an idiot fisherman.

I had to agree with my wife. To be fair, I have made the comment many times to her, so she wasn't trying to start an argument. Fishermen are pigs. They leave fish guts in the lake. They leave lures on logs in lakes. They leave strings of monofilament draped on trees and bushes along streams. And they leave paper and plastic packaging on almost every stream in California.

So what is it about fishermen?

Maybe some of them are so focused on catching fish that they don't realize exactly what they are doing. But at 10,000 feet, fifteen miles in? You have to be a real jerk to litter up a lake at that point. You have to be a pig.

And yes, I am a fisherman. I fish every chance I get. And sometimes I lose a fly, or mess up some monofilament leader. When I do, I make every effort to clear up the mess, so the next guy can actually experience the same beauty, the same "pristine" conditions.

But I can't remember the last time I went fishing and didn't collect some kind of debris, detritus, or trash that had been left by a fisherman. I have waded out into lakes to pull that lure off the log. I have spent half an hour winding the monofilament out of the bushes along side the river. I have used my fly to pull up fish guts from the bottom of the lake so that I could leave them on a rock nearby, to be eaten by a raccoon or other friendly scavenger.

Every time I go fishing, I end up with a pocket full of trash left by my fishermen friends. And every time I empty that pocket into our trash back at camp, I say the same thing:

"Fishermen are pigs."

Post date: Jan 16, 2010 5:09:55 AM

Over the years we've accumulated a lot of camping equipment. We've certainly gone through a few tents, and it seems that every few years we add a couple more sleeping bags or pads to the mix. This year was no exception. Sometimes we loan these out, and we often use some of them for our company camp out. But over the years, more and more of the folks have enjoyed camping so much that they bought their own stuff. And didn't need ours.

So when we started to think about where we were going to put the new bags we got for the holidays, M laid down the law. "We need to get rid of some of this stuff!" she said, looking up at the shelves overflowing with excess equipment.

I couldn't disagree. And I was happy to take the bags to the local thrift store or the homeless shelter, in the hopes that they might get used, rather than just thrown out. We took them downstairs and put them by the door, waiting for my next trip.

Then a few days ago, I was in a business meeting and one of the women there mentioned that she was the troop leader for her daughter's Girl Scout Troop. They were just back from a trip to the woods, and had a great time.


I asked her if any of the girls could use a sleeping bag or pad, and was surprised how quickly she offered to pick them up! It turns out that lots of girls in the area would love to do more camping, and it's always a struggle for the troop to include everyone because of the limited equipment.

We were delighted. We arranged to have the scout leader pick up four sleeping bags, six sleeping pads, and a two-man tent the next day, and couldn't stop smiling about it. We loved the idea of these girls having fun in the woods with our stuff!

And when the scout leader arrived to pick up the bags, she brought more than just good will. As she left, she handed us a nice little package of the latest craft projects the girls had worked on: some terrific fire starters made with paraffin and twigs. And on top was a sweet thank you note from the girls of scout troop 3XXX1.

How cool is that? Very cool.

Post date: Jan 9, 2010 2:48:58 PM

I don't get the fascination with big knives for backpacking. For more than twenty years all I have carried is a little 3-inch Buck knife that has two blades. One is pointy and sharp, and does a good job cleaning fish. That's the only time it is ever used. The other blade is more rounded on the tip, and it gets used for everything else, which is usually limited to slicing salami and cheese, and occasionally cutting a piece of line for the tent.

So what's the deal with the JIm Bowie 11-inch machete blade? Or the USMC special Ops drop forged all black bayonet? I really do wonder what people use these knives to do. They certainly aren't backpacking where we go. Track down and hunt a mule deer? Create a bivouac out of a cedar tree? Those things would be illegal in a National Park--and unnecessary just about anywhere else.

Or are these knives for self-defense? Are they expecting to meet rebellious native peoples? Defend themselves from fellow campers? Give you a chance in an encounter with a furious bear? Good luck with that one. The bear will outweigh you by 200 pounds, have nine more knives (claws) than you do, and can rip open the door of a Ford 150 pickup. You take that knife...and run like hell when you see a bear.

Splitting wood? We make small fires from time to time...but I learned a long time ago (back when the only cooking we did was on an open fire) that smaller wood burns better, hotter, and more controllably, than big logs. And there is always more smaller wood on the ground than large logs that need splitting. I mean really--if you need a knife to split your firewood, maybe you are making the wrong kind of fire. Or camping in a group with twenty people, in which case your ex-wife's new boyfriend should carry the ax.

We suspect that these deadly looking blades appeal to the survivalist dreamer...the one who watches Man Vs. Wild and believes those idiotic capers are necessary. He'll spend two days trying to catch 200 calories worth of food. And he'll use his knife to cut up the vegetation to make a rope from lianas. It will take him most of the day. He wouldn't need the damn rope if he just hiked down the other side of the hill. Which would take about 45 minutes.

But then he couldn't justify that really cool looking black steel knife that he has carried for seven years, and never used except to spread peanut butter.

It's all just a bit too "Tom Sawyer" for me--I don't need to pretend there are pirates in the forest to have a good time. Some people do.

Post date: Jan 4, 2010 4:26:46 PM

So last weekend we spent two days snowshoeing through the mountains. On the first day we drove up and then climbed Andesite Peak off the Donner Pass highway. It was a really lovely hike, and the weather could not have been more perfect. Snow conditions weren't bad either, with a pretty good crust over nice soft snow. When we went off trail, we sank in about 6-8 inches (well, P did. M had the good sense to stay in P's footprints, and found the going easier.) And the views from the top of the mountain were really wonderful.

And the next day we went down to the road into Bowman Lake and hiked around the Bear Valley Nature Trail and beyond. Wonderful hiking, and on this day (and at this lower elevation) even the virgin snow was crisp, so walking was really quite easy.

So it's pretty clear that we've become fans of snowshoeing. But we still have real reservations about snow camping. Hiking there and back is great. But we have some concerns about what we would do once we got to camp. Yeah, I know---we'd make a camp. And we'd cook dinner. But in the winter, it's dark 14 hours a day. So somewhere around 5:30 p.m. it's dark. It's cold. And fires are obviously a bit of a snag, since all the wood is wet from the snow. sit in your tent for 14 hours? You sit out in the cold night for four hours, and then get in your tent?

We're thinking that right about 5:30 is a great time to arrive back at the car, where you can drive to a nice hotel and take a warm shower, then go out to dinner. And then sleep in a room in a bed.

But we also realize that we hear that a lot from people we try to entice into backpacking in general. They're fine with the hikes, just not so fine with the overnight accommodations. We always dismiss those concerns.

I am sure snow campers would do the same to ours!

Post date: Dec 20, 2009 4:32:12 PM

Every summer we have a grand tradition--we invite our whole company ( about 15 employees ) to go camping together up in the Sierra. It's a great chance for us all to relax and have fun with each other, and includes children, spouses, significant others, parents, friends, exchange students and all of rabbits friends and relations.

And it's a team building exercise. We break into teams, and each team is responsible for one night's dinner and clean up. That way everybody gets to have a couple of days of real vacation, and the food (and wine) is usually just spectacular. During the day we do hikes, go year it was so hot that a group of the younger people all went into town to watch a movie--the theater being air-conditioned!

The challenge, of course, is finding a site that makes everyone happy. We've tried the coast, and found it dripping with fog and morning dew. We tried national parks, state parks, national forest sites, and private parks. And we are always ready to try something new. The most popular destinations have been Lassen Volcanic, Yosemite, and Lakes Basin in the Gold Lakes area.

So this year we've arranged for Calaveras Big Trees. Great hiking up by Ebbetts Pass, and some nice walks for the smaller kids in the park itself. Plus there is a river. And if it really gets hot, there must be a movie theater in Angels Camp!

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