With the scent of Spring in the air our preparations are underway

While the winter has seemingly flown by, we find ourselves again scattered across two continents but preparations are well underway for this years hike from Truckee, CA to the Canadian Border.  We have mainly been focusing on permit applications and gear preparation.  Permits?  To walk in the woods?  Yeah this is not the world John Muir lived in, and to avoid any legal unpleasantries along the way we are applying again for the free long distance hiker permit, which will enable us to pretty much camp anywhere that is ecologically sensible (away from stream banks and the immediate trail).  We also need to apply for the Canadian entry permit (also free thank you very much friends to the North) so that we can keep hiking from the end of the PCT into Canada without having to backtrack after reaching the Northern terminus.

As far as gear goes we have retained our old sponsors while also picking up a couple of new ones.  Foremost on our list of gear gratitude has been and continues to be Gossamer Gear, who supplied us very generously last year with their ultralight but super spacious Mariposa packs.  I feel like one of the key’s to a successful business, and the creation of great products, is being able to really work with the feedback a company gets from their clients.  Gossamer Gear has apparently done just that.  From what we hear they have made some rather major upgrades in overall durability and comfort while somehow not increasing the weight of their line of ultralight packs.  While the older version served us incredibly well last year we especially look forward to testing out their new and improved Mariposa bags.  Cliff Bar as well has been good to us in keeping our snack urges diversified.  I loves me some venison jerky, but a cliff bar now and again, and again, and again, especially with the flavor diversity they offer, hits the taste buds.  Based on last year we have winnowed down our list of favorite flavors…and our list of those that we don’t plan on packing this summer.  (The former list is longer than the latter.)

New to our sponsor community are Superfeet and Petzl.  These are two brands that I have been using for many years, so we are happy to have their support…under our feet and on our foreheads.

As for field guide preparations, I have  been spending 11 and 12 hour days in the UC Berkeley Jepson Herbarium finishing up my identification work on the hundreds of plant specimens we collected last summer.  I have had enormous help from Andy Sanders of UC Riverside, as well as generous support from Lawrence Janeway at Chico and several here at the Jepson Herbarium including Prof Strother and Margriet Wetherwax.

It was not the typical spring break but going back through those specimens was actually incredibly enjoyable as it enabled me to also relive parts of last years hike in a really detailed way.  Miles for me were often not marked by towns or road crossings but rather by new species met along the way.  As there were so many of them it makes for a lot of memories.

So when do we head out?  That is the question on my mind.  My classes will be over May 9th, and Li An will be finished teaching her course at Erasmus University in Rotterdam at the end of May.  The larger question is whether or not this scanty dry winter will remain so, or whether we will continue to get some late spring dumpings in the mountains.  This past winter couldn’t be more different from the previous.  We went from a near record breaking amount of precipitation in 2010-11 to a record breaking? lack of precipitation (in the Sierra, not the northern Cascades) this winter.  That doesn’t bode well for the farmers in the valley’s but for us heading up high this means we stand a good chance of getting onto the trail (and actually seeing some vegetation) far earlier than last year would have allowed.  As it stands now things couldn’t be working out better.  The late summer last year meant we hiked nearly all summer in ‘spring time’.  The dry winter this year could well mean we are able to get going up in northern CA early enough to actually make it to Canada in one last 1200 mile push.


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Northern Sierra, the last stretch for the year

From Agnew/Mammoth Lakes to Donner Pass/Truckee/ (mile 914.5 – 1155)

Written by both of us in fits and starts… posted famously late, but better than never!

Our departure from Mammoth Lakes, finally, began with a section of trail I know well.  We hiked  to Thousand Island Lake, beneath the shadow of the Banner and Ritter peaks, scene of my very near demise eight years ago.  This time around, I thanked those mountains from afar and focused instead on the evening’s meal.  Throughout the Sierra’s we have been using a telescopic fishing rod, some 2lb test and a couple of black or yellow 1/4 oz panther martin lures.  These, and the Scandinavian spoons we picked up in northern Sweden years ago, have provided us with 26 Golden, Rainbow, and Brook trout from 10 different lakes, including Thousand Island.  All trout, including the Golden’s in most locations, are human introductions to the high mountain lakes of the Sierra. The different national parks, forest, and wilderness areas encourage people to fish these non-native trout that negatively impact other indigenous species, such as the yellow-legged frog.  Besides catching trout, on at least one occasion I did a real decent job of snagging a stonefish (aka: a rock).   Thankfully my companion, the polar bear, decided to jump in the ice-cold water and try to retrieve it.  The lake of course got deeper and cooler as she moved away from the side banks, but with remarkable persistence she finally procured the silvery shining lure. The shivering mosquito fest that ensued was well worth it (she said) as fresh trout for dinner always feels so nutritional and connecting.

Overall the climbs in this section were less dramatic, (8,000-9,000 feet), but more frequent.  In many ways, northern Yosemite seemed to be the most challenging section of the high mountains as well as one of the most remote.  At Tuolomne Meadows in Yosemite NP, the John Muir Trail and the PCT separate and the number of people on the trail decreases significantly.  We both reveled in the unthinkably large glacially scoured hunks of granite, and the pace of that sandy steep trail winding its way north and west into and back out of canyon after canyon.  The days of hiking seemed to become internally quieter for both of us.  We both knew that our end date was rapidly approaching.  We often hiked right into sundown.  Dusk is an important time of the day, a time of transition.  There is a phenomenal amount of life shifiting into or out of action all around, if you pay attention.  Mosquito blooms are perhaps the least subtle in this regard.   They won’t take no for an answer, and so much the better then, to keep on walking while their numbers seemingly pulse into existence inversely with the temperature drop…until…they’re gone again.  With the shift of just that crucial degree or two more in temperature drop they vanish back into the night.

On one unforgettable evening, while I was crouched over an unidentified Saxifrage, face buried in a plant key, Li An was marching on ahead.  She suddenly saw a young catlike creature, with a dark brown color and a long thick tail. He was youthfully jumping and running in front of her for 30 full seconds or so. It was truly remarkable that she was able to gaze at that wild animal in awe and wonder for so long, before it too disappeared into the underbrush, as if nothing more than an apparition.  That flash of wild mountain lion became one of the highlights of the whole journey for her.  She wrote:

“After that encounter, it was as if Yosemite’s wildlife and its wildly flowing bloodlines suddenly entered and rushed through my body. With this adrenaline, I wondered: How much does a mountain lion walk on a day? How much does (s)he walk for food and how much to find a place to sleep or to find a mating partner? And how much do we, human beings, still walk for food?  I realized that in this wild context the connectivity of life must be strong in order to create such healthy species and resilient systems, yet at the same time this is very intricate and fragile as it has evolved on the basis of this web of relationships all co-depending on one another for many generations. So one change in those relationships may influence and alter this balance. With that in mind, how much does my presence, as a human being, affect those changes or cause imbalance? “

With regards to the snow pack and potential for botanizing it turned out to be a wise choice to flip flop north and returned south five weeks later.  By doing southern CA first, Nor Cal in early summer, and the high country in late summer we managed to experience essentially 4 months of Spring.  While this was a tough, TOUGH year for the thru hikers (many of whom still made it to Canada) it was really ideal for the plant geeks.  At times we were walking through lush meadows with wildflowers as high as our chest. We climbed over alpine passes and witnessed a similar diversity of shapes of flowers and an intensity of colors and fragrances as at lower elevation but all captured in miniature; the whipping winds and early winters are so clearly expressed in the form of the cushion plants and mat forming perennials of the alpine peaks.  Several times we found ourselves reminding other day hikers of the need to tread extra lightly through those landscapes.  One wrong step up there can be the ecological equivalent of taking a chainsaw to a full grown tree down in the low lands.  As humans used to relatively homogeneous man made landscapes we often forget how heterogeneous our world really is, and how responsive to that heterogeneity we need to be.

For precisely this reason, and despite having to traverse approximately twelve dodgy snowfields, one of our favorite parts of the trail was Sonora Pass.  This region is predominantly formed by volcanic rock, and as such it is full of alpine life and diversity that we had otherwise not yet encountered.  The ten miles leading up to Sonora Pass were a decidedly wind whipped several hours, but the area immediately went into the notes as a ‘must return again.’

From Sonora Pass, we headed in to Bridgeport (mile 1018.3) for food resupply.  After being skunked on hitching, we lucked out and were gifted a lift all the way by local Sonorians, Craig, Ree and Amy, who made a detour of 60 miles on our behalf.  Our luck continued in town as we met some more locals while eating dinner in our raingear and waiting for our clothes to de-grime at the laundromat.   John & Kim from Walker, CA very kindly gave us a ride out to the Travertine hot springs. Under a sky with the Leo full moon and shooting meteorites, we took several dips and camped out there. The next morning, Dave, a wetland ecologist and climate change researcher, gave us a short lift from the hot springs to the post office. Coincidentally, we had met one of his colleagues at the Bluesapalooza festival in Mammoth Lakes the week prior.  At the post office, we fetched our resupply food box, and in completing a now classic thru hiker scene, we spread and sorted all our food on the pavement in front of the post office.  Sherry, a recently retired USFS forester happened by on her bicycle and after a brief conversation, she offered to bring us back to the trailhead at Sonora pass.  Amazing.  Disregard any “guide book” that might lead you to believe that Bridgeport has no ‘trail angels.’  Indeed, it is full of them, and near as we can tell, so is the world.  What special encounters we have had with so many beautiful and friendly people. Although we are strangers to one another, there is an openness and curiosity that creates these beautiful relations.

Days later, having arrived in Echo Lake (1094.5 mile) we met a couple named Ann & David who spontaneously invited us that evening to their lake-house. They shared their dinner meal with fresh salad and wine with us.  Along with Ann’s sister Regna, her husband Tom, Ann’s son Lucas, and his girlfriend Scarlet, we had very interesting conversations by gas light. We also had the luxury of taking a hot solar shower (the last one we had was at Mammoth Lakes twelve days prior).  After dinner, Lucas encouraged us to grab a canoe and glide into the middle of the lake.  Looking up at the bright starry night we couldn’t help but wonder at the unpredictability of the evening, of the trail, and of life.

Two nights later, our last day out, we arrived at Donner Pass (mile 1155) that leads to Truckee and Tahoe City. The reliable thumb went up and the first car that went by picked us up, Zarko from Serbia made a detour and dropped us at Truckee. From there we got another short ride and lastly we were picked up by our special trail angel Ron from Granlibakken who brought us back to his resort & conference center. For the third time he booked us a room where we enjoyed a shower, hot tub and next morning’s grand breakfast buffet with lots of fresh fruit, omelet with avocado, quiche with gruyere cheese and green tea. Mmmm

For the year, the gallivanting has ended.  We covered 1455 miles, little more than half of the total PCT.  This will seem like a lot to some, and not much to others, but for all the miles, and the worn out shoes, shirts, bags, for all the Snickers, peanut butter, dried venison and fruit leather, for all the spaghetti, and rice, and beans… and yeah for all the bean-o, we seemed to find strength in each other, in the people we met, in our love for the land, and our love for movement and transformation.  For the many ‘thru hikers’ who got caught up in the rhetoric over what truly is a ‘thru hike’ and what is purity, I can only shrug my shoulders and remember that everyone’s walk is theirs alone.  Some need speed, others need solitude, and still others need broken records.  Whatever it is, don’t come back without it.  We went seeking experience, adventure, and little more than a chance to meet our world…species by species, ecosystem by ecosystem, and bit by bit.  Eventually the pieces all start to reflect something larger, something more meaningful, something whole.

We now have a lot of processing to do, both personally and technically, not least of which is the twelve and half thousand pictures that somehow are going to get organized this winter…  For now I am back in Berkeley elbow deep in classes, and Li An is back in Europe reconnecting with many friends and family, designing a course curriculum, and is active in several conferences in the UK.

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Mammoth Lakes

Here you see some pictures of our views before arriving in Agnew Meadows from which we hitch-hiked (in a very full Prius) to Mammoth Lakes where we left you with our last blog.

The weekend 6-7 August we arrived in Mammoth Lakes (914.5 mile), which also happened to be the weekend of Bluesapalooza, a beer and blues festival. This meant that, literally, all hotels were fully booked. Outside a full motel, I asked some exiting festivarians how much it would cost to get into the festival. Before we knew it, we were headed to the festival with their entrance wristbands.

Into the festival we went and yes we were still carrying all our hiking gear; two homeless hikers in town, who hadn’t seen a shower for 14 days and with one more night without one ahead of them (yip that’s us). So we were wearing our sweaty unwashed clothes, carrying backpacks, bear canisters and as icing on the cake our ice axes. This look became our festival ‘currency’, as we received all kinds of ‘hiker-deals’ on festival food: two mounded plates of garlic fries for free; beer, nachos, and salmon & rice all with an attractive hiker-reduction. We temporarily set our food ethics a little aside, Maslow pyramid you know: first fulfilling our basic needs…. We sat down at a round table in the back and soon engaged into an interesting conversation with Keith & Mary. Their friends, Kevin & Nancy, joined our conversation and soon offered us to spend the night at their place, a spacious condo in Mammoth. Wow. Unbelievably, 1.5 hour later we were relaxing in a giant hot tub, taking a shower, doing laundry, and sharing stories with Keith and Kevin about their PhD experiences and finally sleeping in beds. Especially after our longest contiguous stretch in the depth of the high Sierra’s wilderness, this was such an unimaginable magical get together of place, people and circumstances (and music and beer!).

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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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Northern California

16 July 2011

A full moon later. Updating our posts seems to be a harder thing to do than we imagined. So here we go in a small nutshell I’ll run you through our walk and adventures. We tried to avoid the snow and we so-called ‘flip-flopped’ many times around in all four wind directions, but always made it to walk north bound. In total we hiked around 960 miles. Since our last post we hiked 210 miles: the stretch from Old Station to Dunsmuir/Mt Shasta (129 miles) and from Seiad Valley (all northern California) to Green Springs Summit (81 miles), just north of Ashland in Oregon. Over the past five weeks, snow transitioned melting off from hitting snowline at 4800 feet to where the snow is at now around 6800 feet and at the north-northeast facing slopes only.

In Mt. Shasta, our friends Julian, Kristen and their children Miles and Finneas and their place have been our hub of comfort, a place to come back to and part from our crazy logistics. We feel extremely thankful with their wide warm arms embracing us all six times we passed through.

We’ve had many different hitch-hikes again and feeling very thankful for those who’ve stopped for us. One in particular stands out. As it turned out, we were at an intersection without much traffic heading out to Seiad Valley on a Saturday evening at 6pm.  Eventually a car with people dressed for a wedding stopped and gave us a ride and an awesome Oregon microbrew beer. Twenty miles before our destination, they reached theirs in Klamath River at the ‘Barefoot Oasis Speakeasy’. There we were back on the side of the road hitchhiking again. After 20 minutes, without a single car driving by, they hollered to us to join the party and so we did. Jennifer, one of the owners, poured our glasses and introduced us to the infamous walking taco. In the dark that night, we pitched our tent next to the Klamath River. The next morning, we started hitching again from 6am but without any luck until 8am when one of the party folks, Neil drove by and made a 40 miles detour for us to bring us to Seiad Valley. We started our steep climb with over the course of 8 miles gaining 4500 feet in elevation out of the river valley into the Klamath mountains. After four miles awing the fact of sheer diversity and being acquainted with a whole different community of plant species, I heard stomping on the soil and tearing of the bark off of dead trees. A bear was there. I stopped and gestured Justin to be quiet. We both awaited a glimpse, but we just kept on hearing the bear and not seeing him or her. The sounds were approaching and so we stepped backwards to create a distance of maybe 70 feet (maybe 15-20 meters). My heartbeat was pounding with excitement. Then suddenly two big brown ears appeared out of the bush and a young bear poked his head out from under the shrubs exactly where we had just been standing. The bear was the size of a large dog.  Sniffing around he could clearly smell us and beat a quick retreat into the thick brush where (s)he came from. It was my first time I saw a bear on land in the wild. One other time I had seen a bear from a canoe up in Canada. This felt different. Sharing a place and sharing the same soils with these creatures is something truly special.   When looking into the eyes of a deer for example, or the intricacy that every flower has with its own character, uniqueness, and pattern, or the many eyes of the spider, and the infinitude of bees in their high activity on flowers, these interactions all feed that same emotion and quality of attention.

Justin keyed out hundreds of new plants. In total we have made 8000+ pictures so far. We are stunned that still every day we meet new species, at times even a new genus and occasionally one with a ‘rarity symbol’ in the Jepson plant key.

Family and friends have been asking how I feel. I feel enormously grateful to be able to do what we are doing. I enjoy our journey intensely and I feel strong and healthy. The occasional snowy north slopes are a real challenge for me having not grown up with much snow and certainly not any slopes in the Netherlands. Thus I practice while we are walking. And Justin is patient with me. One time, my technique (or lack thereof) and the microspikes that I use while crossing these steep snowfields didn’t cut it for me and I slid down a couple of feet. A rush of adrenaline and emotions flushed then through me.  However, all is well, we are careful and we try to avoid the snow as much as possible for safety reasons and also to be able to botanize. Hence, the many logistical flip-flops the past weeks.

In the meantime, there have also been many days without hiking when I worked for the Sustainable Food Lab summit in Stevenson Washington and participated during their Learning Journey in and around Portland.  It was a fantastic week with many fruitful meetings. Justin and I also went down to Berkeley to look for housing for when his PhD program starts when finishing the first half of our walk at the end of this summer.

Today, we said goodbye to our friends in Shasta, had breakfast with our trail friends Marmot and Roe in Dunsmuir and are now heading to Belden to hike the coming 5 days another 88 miles up to Old Station.

Back on the trail.


Tehachapi – Trail Pass, CA, mile 558 – 744

The past days were record breaking for us thus far since the border. We had the longest section of consecutive hiking 10 days 186 miles (300 km) and also the longest time without shower or laundry. We experienced the two hottest days in the high 80sF maybe 90F (28-29⁰C). We had the longest stretch without water. Further north of the dry desert area, we had our first real swim in the South Fork Kern River. This section we carried nine days worth of food and with all the water we were also carrying, our packs were the heaviest since the border. Being on the edge of the Mojave desert, against the high Sierra mountains and having the coastal/maritime influences, the Tehachapi mountains were an ecotone, an area of high diversity especially where geological rock types changed. Justin collected the most plant samples during one day and at the end of this section his plant press was bulging of hundreds of plants to be identified. We encountered three rattlesnakes in three days (six in total). With the full moon last week, I saw my first scorpion, a big black one walking towards us in the sand while we had cooked dinner on the campfire. Without seeing one ourselves, we sensed most bear presence in tracks and other people’s stories. In the High Sierras just before Trail Pass, we climbed at our highest point so far at 10,650 feet (3246m) onto a ridge overlooking Owen’s valley. The valley used to have a lot of water from all the snowmelt running down its foothills, but with the aquaduct made for the Los Angeles sprawl, the valley is now a much drier land with white and pink salt residue. Our pine tree count is now up to eleven including the species Foxtail – Pinus balfouriana. We reached furthest north now having hiked 744 miles (1197 km) in total.

Trail Angels

The past two weeks, we got a lot of help from ‘trail angels’. A local named Mary maintains two important water caches with many gallons of water there in the dry desert. One Saturday evening, we made it to a food feast organized by other trail angels who offered us food on the trails at Walker Pass. After a full day of hiking and botanizing, we rolled in latest that day, pizzas had already vanished, but fresh apricots were still there. Around 30 other PCT-hikers were there and we experienced our biggest trail angel event. Here, we were interviewed by Virgo, who is making a documentary on trail angels. We had a mind-blowingly lucky hitch from a remote dirt road with Butch in his Chevy truck from 1964 (from Piute mnt rd at mile 611) to a town called Lake Isabella 35 miles from the trail and we were even more lucky to catch a ride all the way back to the trailhead with Chad who detoured 50 miles for us. In Lake Isabella, we were just in time to be able to get our two (!) food drops from the post office before they closed (they actually waited ten minutes for us after closing time). We spent a morning and afternoon in a relaxing offgrid hiker hamlet called Kennedy Meadows with 40-50 hikers eating, packing their boxes with snow gear, using the internet in one of trail angel Tom’s trailers, praying for the snow to melt in the upcoming High Sierra, amongst lavish portions of beer, Ben & Jerry’s and bratwurst. We have also been blessed by the trail angels offering us their places to stay. Where we wrote you last time, at the Regen COOP in Pomona where we worked for 4 days. Another night we spent at Jerry’s place in Independence where we listened to the best Jazz music this side of the Sierras, drank amazing Scottish whiskey, and ate Rainbow trout from Lake Sabrina freshly caught by Jerry. Lastly, at Ron Parson’s Granlibakken in Tahoe City, we were welcomed with a three-course dinner, an enormously big executive lodge, hot tub and breakfast buffet.

Snow challenge

The mountains experienced roughly 200% of average annual snowpack this past winter. In the exec lodge, we spent the better part of yesterday with logistics and planning in order to avoid the areas that are still covered by snow as it is hard to botanize when the plants are buried beneath a blanket of snow. We would love to share more details of all the stories if we had the time, but our reality now is that we need to prepare our next steps and drive further north to find some lower and snow free elevations to hike. An additional complexity is that next week I will need to work in Portland (a 9-hour drive from the trails) for the Sustainable Food Lab summit. What to do now…? Well, we arrived in Mount Shasta with friends Julian and Kristen, shared a healthy homemade dinner together. We will leave the car here and get a ride back south in order to start hiking north from a little town called Burney for the coming week. So, hiking consecutively had been a bliss, not to deal with juggling all these logistic nightmares in towns – we sometimes wonder ‘what happened to just hiking?! The good fortune we experienced in southern California with respect to the long cool Spring has become our challenge in central and northern California.

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Agua Dulce, mile 455

Leaving Wrightwood we reached Agua Dulce four 20+miles long and wonderful hiking days later covering a total distance of about 90 miles. The first very cold morning we climbed Mt. Baden-Powell (named after Chief Scout of the World) with an elevation of 9,407 feet (2,867 m). We wore our full regale with everything we have with us through the snow and the northern winds. The beauty of the Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis) touched me, as they find their full potential living on those cold windy ridges. From that height we came down the ridge and proceeded to crisscross Hwy 2 around eight times in total.

Within less than 25 miles, and dropping from over 9000 feet to under 5000 we saw 8 out of the 9 total pine species we have seen since the border.  This tops the diversity of pines seen around Idyllwild.   And Justin, the pine cone collector carried a total of four cones by the end including a giant Coulter pine, the largest we’ve ever seen which weighs about 5 pounds at least.  There was a lot of confusion this stretch about the trail markings for detours or rerouting sections. There was a fire in 2009 and most of the trail only recently opened up for PCT hikers. Another section was closed to protect habitat for the endangered mountain yellow legged frog.  Due to all of the confusion, the day we came down off Baden Powell (our longest day yet) we also walked an unintentional extra couple of miles on an alternate route, before realizing what we had done and backtracked.  Other friends of ours were not so lucky and ended up doing the full 18 mile detour, adding an additional 10 miles onto their route to Agua Dulce.

We hiked through the recent burn areas which are already full of regenerating life forms from underneath. While some of the hikers got a glum feeling about the burn, Justin helped open their eyes at least to the various regeneration strategies that the fire adapted trees, shrubs, and flowers exhibited.  Our last night was a windy one and being up on an exposed ridge we decided to continue by headlamp down hill along a steep and rocky section of trail to the North Fork Ranger Station.  We made it to their by 10pm after hiking 15 hours that day. We cowboy-camped (without our tents, just in our sleeping bags) that night.

Just before reaching Agua Dulce the next day, we hiked through the Vasquez Rocks area that is famous for its many western movies that had been shot there. Arriving in Agua Dulce, we had in one exact month (May 1-June 1) went full circle from where we started our shakedown hike early March. We spent some hours at ‘Hiker Heaven,’ a temporary annual camp set up at the home of  ‘trail angels, Donna and Jeff Saufley. We enjoyed a big dinner with our trail friends Kristen, Eurotrash and Skywalker.

Ah, trail names, we have not yet mentioned that phenomenon to you yet. So many hikers choose a trail name, I don’t know what the main reasoning is, but you hear that the hike is so transformational that you let go of your ‘old identity’.   A lot of the names are dubbed by other hikers. I have been quite resisting the trail name thing and picky. We have a list of potential trail names, but thus far have not committed to any.  Not having trail names gives us an endless source of conversation on the trail.  I don’t know what we would talk about if we didn’t have that as a daily topic of conversation.

Currently, we are in Pomona near LA at Justin’s brothers community coop living place. We are enjoying community meals, and Justin has spent two full days at the Herbarium of UC Riverside.  I have been working hard on research and interviews with Oxfam in the UK and tonight still with a scientist on watersheds in India. It is hard work in the towns, and I am looking forward to the simplicity back on the trails again. This weekend, we will return to Tehachapi skipping the 120-mile stretch we already did in March.  (some pics will be added soon)


Rim of Africa Trail- North America’s long distance trails inspire similar in other parts of the world

I wanted to make a quick link to a project a friend of mine, Galeo Saintz, has been working on in South Africa for several years now.  This really seems like a phenomenal trail being created there in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.  I hope to one day get out there and take the seven weeks or so that it takes to hike it.  Please find out more about the ‘Rim of Africa’ Trail by clicking on the link.

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Wrightwood, CA Mile 369

We rolled into town this afternoon.  Well, ‘rolled’ is an exaggeration.  I hobbled.  Li An strode.  Her feet are doing fantastic, but mine on the other foot, are not in great shape.  Turns out they have swelled.  A lot.  I don’t know if I will ever fit those shoes again, but certainly not anytime soon.  We will try to get into REI in order to buy some new shoes.  Yesterday I had to take a knife to the outer seam of one of them just to relieve the pressure on my little toe.

The week was hotter than we have been getting used to, but not without a lot of water.  We zeroed at Deep Creek hot springs, and spent many hours soaking our feet and legs.  Dips in the cool river felt medicinal as well.

We saw quite a few snakes this week, including many gopher snakes and another big black rattlesnake.  The miles were through mostly recent burned chapparal and scrub oak woodland, as well as higher up in the cooler jeffrey pines and white fir.  We also saw our first big cone doug fir since leaving the Mexican border.

We were also blessed with some true trail magic as a guy we met at the hot springs, made an effort to bring us out some pizzas at the next road crossing 6 miles further the next day.  6 of us enjoyed the treats while meeting Albert’s family.  We have also been graciously invited into this home here in Wrightwood, and have enjoyed getting to know Matt, Becky, Erik, and Kelley as well as some of the other extremely friendly locals here.  Wrightwood is a real breath of fresh air upstream from the Inland Empire.

Now it is time to pack up once again and plan to head up the switchbacked trail to the peak of Mt Baden Powell tomorrow morning.  As the Station Fire Detour has been lifted we will be able to hike nearly the entirety of section D to Agua Dulce, with a couple small detours including one area closed off to protect an endangered frog.


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