Archive for August, 2011

Southern and Central Sierra Mile 744.5 to 914.5, July 24- Aug 6th

Mulkey Pass mile 744.5 to Agnew Meadow mile 914.5

We have just completed a 14 day stint in the high Sierra backcountry, our longest stretch without resupply and our longest without seeing pavement. This stretch of the PCT coincides with the majority of the John Muir Trail, as such, we were not in deep isolation, but rather crossed paths often with south bound ‘JMTers’. We were continuing from where we had left off back on June 16th when we left the still wintery high Sierra seeking spring conditions in northern CA. Our journey now to get back down south again included many a miracle hitch, including one from a mother and daughter, and another from a woman, Tamara, who picked us up in Bridgeport at night at a gas station (after we had turned down a ride in the back of a moving van from three guys heading to Bishop.) Tamara ended up giving us a ride to Bishop, where she lives. I fell quickly asleep in the back of the car while Li An utilized her well honed social skills and chatted with her the whole way there. By the time we arrived, Tamara felt comfortable enough to offer us a bed in her spare room. The next morning we rose early and got our thumbs flexing. Before long we had secured a ride with a South African astronomer out on a Sunday trying to get his radio telescope properly functioning. He is, apparently, involved in a project to map the universe. I don’t have any idea what contour interval they use in those maps, but I wish I had asked. From Big Pine we caught a ride with a couple heading all the way up to Horseshoe Meadow (our trailhead about 20 miles past Lone Pine up a steep and windy road). They were dropping a car off for their 17 year old son and two friends who were hiking the JMT. They were then going to drive around with the other car to Kearsarge Pass to pack in about 130 lbs worth of food for the three kids. We marveled at the shopping list on order including 20 apples and pre cooked steaks.

We ourselves also had the heaviest packs yet of this journey, planning to get through in 10-11 days to Mammoth, I had 47 lbs including 10 days food, bear canister, ice axe, rope, micro spikes, collapsible fishing rod, mini tackle box, and one water bottle. Thankfully water was not going to be a significant contributor to pack weight as it was for so many hundreds of miles through southern CA. This is probably about 18-20 lbs more than I would normally carry, and I was concerned about the durability of our ultralight Gossamer Gear bags. Suffice it to say they made it, mostly in one piece, and held up better than expected, although comfort of such packs drops off quickly once you break the 30 lb barrier.

This 170 mile stretch does not include an additional 17 mile detour up Mt Whitney, which we opted to do, nor the additional 16 we did to get out to Mono Hot Springs and back on my 32nd birthday. I suppose that means we covered about 200 miles, but ended up taking 14 days instead of 11. By day 7 or 8 we were really rationing food and our bellies were paying for it, although the trout fishing in the high subalpine lakes is good, and in each of the 6 lakes we fished we were provided for. Good fortune was also had at Muir Trail Ranch where many a JMT’er had paid to have a 5 gallon bucket of food resupply packed in by mule only to discover that their appetite was not what they thought it would be. On offer there for us to pilfer through were about 30 gallons of excess supplies hikers had ditched into the ‘hiker box’ (lost and found). We easily resupplied ourselves with some extra days of food out of the hiker box, which took the pressure off of us to get to Mammoth.

The passes and valleys through which we were traveling command awe and respect, and it would have been a shame to have to rush through simply for a lack of Snickers. Besides summitting Mt Whitney (highest point in the lower 48 apparently at about 14,500 feet) we also went up and over 7 major passes ranging from over 12,000 feet to just under 11,000. Each glacially carved valley has its own unique attributes, and while the high Sierran landscape and vegetation is a fairly predictable pattern, we continued to encounter new plants along the way. The main signatures as you move north are the shift from highly arid Foxtail and Lodgepole pine forests to more lush Whitebark pine, Lodgepole pine and hemlock forests. The other clear shift is in the overall altitude. The peaks as you move north get less and less high, while the treeline (since you are moving north in latitude) also drops. I have wondered about this pattern which can be seen not just in the Sierra, but also in the Rocky Mountains as well. Peaks in Montana for instance are much lower than they are in Colorado, but they appear no less impressive as the tree line drops as well.

Snow and stream crossings were two key aspects of the high Sierra that in June slowed, scared, or forced thru hikers to quit their hike outright. The winter was deep and long, and spring came late so the snowpack in the Sierra was much larger than average mid June when most thru hikers are heading north. We have several friends who did it, and survived, but we also heard of many more who had to get off the trail due to sickness, injury, or plain exhaustion. What a difference a month makes. Our friends estimated that they saw anywhere from 70-90% of the trail under snow in June. I estimate that we hiked over 8 miles of snow in total so far out of about 200 miles, or about 4% of the trail. The river crossings were on the whole a total non issue for us now in late July, with the exception of Evolution Creek which we crossed after two days of rain. That ford hit us at about hip to stomach height, but we were able to manage easily. Actually our most difficult ford was the one which was totally unnecessary.

After hitting up the hiker box at Muir Trail Ranch we crossed over the San Joaquin via a log jam bridge to some primitive hot springs on the other side of the river. The next day when we returned, we decided to try to ford the river thereby avoiding a mile of boulder scrambling, not to mention the log jam. Well that ford was wide, perhaps 80 feet or so, and moving quick, however it was fine up until the last few feet which got just a little too deep for us to cross. While standing in the river, water rushing about us, poles firmly planted in the smooth river stones beneath, we debated what to do, go back, across nearly the whole river again and then face the log jam crossing anyway or continue to work upstream and try to find a better crossing. We opted for the latter, and eventually got ourselves into a nice little eddy in which we were able to make it across. Li An,  lover of water in all forms save frozen and inclined was excited and thrilled by the crossing. I was less enthusiastic, a bit shook up and mystified by the way she assesses relative risk. Coming from the flattest place on Earth, and one totally defined by water and its movements, it makes sense that she would be so strong in river fords. Yet put her on some snow and it can quickly be a different story. Well, her skill has improved substantially in that regard as well, but like I say, we saw so little snow anyway that there was no need for the kind of gear we were hauling. The ice axes proved good for one thing only; digging catholes. Needless to say they have been ditched into the bounce box in Mammoth.

Bears? Nope.

Fish? O yeah! Rainbows, Goldens, and Brook Trout all entered into our diet these past weeks

Mosquitoes? Well yeah, tis the season. But they weren’t bad, and we have thus far managed to avoid using DEET pesticide, opting instead for long sleeved shirts, head nets in the evening if needed, and mostly, just keep moving, like the Caribou do.

O and thanks to so many for the Birthday wishes. It was a memorable one speed hiking down Bear Creek amongst ancient Junipers and multi colored Penstemons, getting lost…ish, but eventually making our way to Mono Hot Springs restaurant with 6 minutes to spare. We sat on their patio after even the cook had left, and by candle light grilled our brook trout, caught that morning on a red and silver Scandinavian spoon, while feasting on fresh salad, rice, and eventually berry pie and cheesecake. It wasn’t the Olive Garden, but I guess it sufficed;) Later, under meteor fireworks we soaked in ‘Old Pedro’ hotspring, feeling more alive and yet more drowsy than ever.

There is a lot more to share, and maybe we will get another post together here one of these days, but the post office will be closing soon, and we need to hit the trail. There is no way for me to put into words the landscapes we have been passing through these past weeks. This is a magical place fit for poets and botanists alike. If you want to see it, google Ansel Adams, if you want to feel it, go there.


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Northern CA: Belden to Old Station, 18-22 July

22 July 2011

The past five days we hiked from Belden to Old Station. It is an 88 mile stretch through Plumas and Butte county and the volcanic Lassen National Park. Two amazing trail angels, Laurie and Brenda, hosted us the first night in the little town of Belden adjacent to the beautiful big Feather River. They are retired teachers, and being section hikers as well, have decided to make their home a haven for hikers passing through. Belden is now also a scene for weekend rave-parties for people from the Bay area, and so on Sunday morning our hike started with climbing out of the river gorge to the tune of techno music beats in the background. We passed an old gold stamp that was used to crush the rocks in order to then leach the dust with mercury to get the gold out. It was a practice short lived as even in the late 1800’s enough people could see the intense ecological damage of hydraulic mining that the practice was outlawed. “So there we were back hiking the PCT” as we have said to each other numerous times this summer… (and we make are little dance to celebrate this – can you imagine us doing that?).

We saw new plants in the lower elevation and the vegetation became more repetitive as we reached higher elevation. The riparian areas (where there are springs, creek and river streams) and the wetlands were exceptions with more diversity. Still, each and every day we continue to encounter new plants. A few miles in, I was eye in eye with a young deer for maybe 20 full seconds. As we were bushwhacking our way through deer brush on the narrow trails with a steep side up and down from us, I was as amazed as this deer was to stumble upon her. We both froze for a moment. I was able to make a picture with the simple camera I carry. Later that afternoon, Justin saw a big buck who probably went for a drink in the creek. We had two river crossings over Chips Creek. There was a fallen tree about four meters above the raging river, which we balanced across over to the other side. Despite all the proud signs hung by the organization involved in doing trail maintenance, this section of the trail was by far the least maintained. Clearly, the many fallen and broken trees were evidence of the avalanches from last winter. Towards the end of that day, with tired legs and a hungry stomach I rushed over a high log, its side branch which I used to step down from snapped and I fell down the slanting downhill of the trail onto my right hip with my pack on. Luckily I was not on my own and Justin took my pack and we checked whether there were any major injuries. Luckily, I suffered nothing more than a bleeding finger, some scratches and good bruises, but it made me more alert to every step we make.

One morning we quickly hiked 12 miles (20 km) before 12 o’clock in order to see the Lassen Park geyser and especially to be in time for AYCE (all you can eat) salad bar lunch at Drakesbad, a National Park owned ranch hosted by two warm welcoming people Ed and Billie. Their set up is perfect for hikers. There is very good and healthy food for reasonable prices. They supply you with a laundry bag and some loner clothes (straight out of the 90’s) to wear while yours are being cleaned for free. A towel and bar of soap are provided to take a free shower and best of all to enjoy the natural hot springs. Even though it wasn’t the plan, we changed our mind and also stayed for dinner which was the famous Wednesday AYCE barbecue grill with corn, steak, eggplant, salad and Californian wine. A big buck stood unflinchingly in the meadow grazing, while we enjoyed our chocolate cookie for dessert (and meanwhile a squirrel ‘outsquirreled’ another cookie stuffed in Justin’s pack. We spoke with other guests around the fire, drank a beer, and took our last dip all alone in the hot springs underneath millions of stars. What a dream Drakesbad was for our tired legs and growling stomachs. That night, we cowboy camped on the campgrounds just outside Drakesbad.

The next early morning, we started climbing up the ridge. After a couple of miles, while Justin and I were talking about how to discern red firs from white firs and how we were leaving the Sugar Pines behind us and seeing more Western White Pine, we literally ran into a medium-sized bear. (S)he was grazing all she could eat of the ground vegetation. Either (s)he never noticed us or didn’t care of our presence, but we were able to look at her for twenty minutes. At one point, she looked right at us and into Justin’s camera. Soon after that, the bear laid down very relaxed on her belly. In order not to disturb her rest and as a gesture of a big bow, we bushwhacked a loop around the bear back on the trail. We saw some relatively fresh green colored bear scat, now we know what the bear has been eating.

We continued and walked over a fallen log across King’s Creek. Among the many mosquitoes that morning, Justin was happy to identify the name of a small flower with white petals and yellow at the base who grows right after snow has melted, an Erythronium named the Adder Tongue Fawn Lily. Against a giant ponderosa pine whose bark reminds me of a giraffe’s neck, we ate lunch with new trail friends, a French couple, who had came out of the high Sierras after forty days of nearly incessant snow trudging. They looked weary. What amazing stories and a different hike they’ve had.

Our hitch, straight out of a movie

Yesterday 7pm we reached Old Station. Just in time for the one shop to close, we made several hitchhiking signs for us to get back across the Lassen mountains to Belden. A fellow hiker gave us a ride for the first five miles to an intersection. While the sun was setting quickly a pregnant woman from Nevada gave us a ride for the second stretch of 45 miles. She dropped us off at an intersection. It was really getting dark now and cars were passing us fast, likely without seeing our sign ‘PCT Hiker to Chester’… A state trooper officer stopped while I was next to the road with my sign out. He was very friendly inquiring whether we were ok. Then a little later, a second state trooper opened its window and was wondering what we were doing and why. He helped us out and drove us to Susanville, five miles out of our direction. He thought we might have more luck with slower traffic driving from the fair there home to Westwood/Chester. And so I was asking around with people at the gas station while Justin stood next to the road with the sign. While I was asking a woman in a pickup whether she was heading in the direction we needed to go, Justin was approached by a third cop -this time a local police officer- who seemed stern with us and said the opposite of what the cop who had just given us a ride had advised us. He said hitchhiking was illegal throughout the state. Justin asked him which law, specifically states that hitchhiking is illegal, as it seemed pretty unlikely that a state trooper would bring us to a gas station with the express intent of finding us a better place to hitch from. The cop returned to his car and checked his little rule book. Meanwhile the woman, Marvena, I had talked to came and listened and didn’t want this cop to disturb us, so decided that for the first time in her life, she would take hitchhikers. We were so lucky that Marvena and her son Cole, two Maidu natives, gave us a ride out of ghost town Susanville to Westwood. To top the story, as we were driving out of town, she was pulled over. The cop approached the passanger side door, and with his mag light flashed it into the vehicle and onto our dusty faces crammed in the back of the pick-up. He smiled and laughed, ‘Ahh I see you two found yourselves a ride!’ Marvena, happily, got off with just a verbal warning as he told us to “have a safe way home and a good night”. And a good night it was. We camped in Marvena’s back garden, eating some grapefruit, and the next morning she drove us 7:30am all the way to Belden. We stopped for breakfast along the way in Greenville and shared some stories about the territories they and their ancestors grew up. This was real trail magic. We are feeling very thankful.

Having showered in Belden, and back to our ‘bounce car’ we hit the road, giving a ride to another hiker, Dan, who we dropped off in Reno. We continue to Tahoe City at Granlibakken again where we will prepare ourselves for the High Sierra’s! It feels very exciting that this journey will start from Sunday 24 July.

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