When this year started, I had planned two excellent backpacking excursions, but had to cancel the July outing due to a knee injury (I was riding hills on a bike in Wyoming with a too-short seat and strained my knee). By the time August rolled around, I was definitely stir-crazy, and anxious to be up in the mountains. In my non-hiking life, things were going slow. I had had to cancel all my concerts after I lost my voice due to a viral infection in early July. I was in a deep funk, and couldn’t wait to spend a week just walking. Luckily, I had planned a trip with my friend and neighbor Margaret, and though we had to cancel the first two days of it due to canceled flights (for me) and smoke fears, we thought we’d take the plunge. We ended up spending 6 beautiful, clear days in Kings Canyon National Park and the John Muir Wilderness. Here’s how it went down.
Day 1, August 26, 2021
Margaret and I left Berkeley at about 6:30 AM, heading off in the crepuscular light to drive to Florence Lake, about 6 hours south and east of home. Although I had played music at Margaret’s wedding some 20 years ago, we didn’t really know much about each other, so we chatted and filled each other in on our families and our histories. The sky was smoky and the land we drove through was incredibly parched and dry. We gasped at the devastation wrought by last year’s Creek Fire, and worried for the future of the Golden State. Arrived at Florence Lake at 1:30, after a long, slow drive over Kaiser Pass Road. It’s only 22 miles long, but took at least an hour and a half to navigate the potholes and hairpin turns. Purchased tickets for the ferry that would take us across the lake to the trailhead, and had time for a lovely swim beforehand.
Sharing our ferry ride was a group of four men, all probably in their early 50’s, three of whom gone to high school together. The four had been backpacking together every summer for 30 years. We had similar itineraries, to hike up alongside the San Joaquin River into Evolution Valley, and on up to Evolution Lake. We figured we would be leap-frogging each other for the next few days, anyway. Originally, I had wanted to hike up to Lake Wanda and then head overland to Goddard Canyon and back down to the San Joaquin. However, our shortened trip made that feel too ambitious for my one-and-only outing of the year. Better to take it easy and have no expectations.
” I have stayed at Muir Trail Ranch twice before, the first time being when I hiked the John Muir Trail in 2014 (see Day 12, Muir Trail Ranch, August 24, 2014″) and second time when my sister and I tried to do the same route that Margaret and I had planned, in 2016 (see “Day 5, Muir Trail Ranch, July 12, 2016”). That hike was aborted by forest fires. So the first part of the trip was very familiar to me. I recognized particular inclines and declines, meadows and streams, from years before, and it felt a little like coming home again. On our first night, Margaret and I ended up staying at the same camp that my sister Kristin and I had stayed at, alongside the San Joaquin just about a mile or so past Muir Trail Ranch. This is where we were attacked by a bat and forced to make a hasty retreat (see “Day 2, World on Fire, and a Bat Attack!”). Luckily, there were no attack bats present, though I assiduously avoided the tree where the bat’s roost had been.
Margaret brought too much food for the first night, and we had to eat it all because there was no extra room in the bear canister. I felt a little over-full, and very tired after all the driving, swimming, and hiking. We had a lovely dip (a splash, really) in the very low San Joaquin, rinsing off the sweat and dust. The river runs languid and cold here. I think there’s more algae than in previous years, but who knows? It’s a low-flow, warm year.
8:30 bedtime. My hip flexers are tired out. It was a hard and long first day, but I am so glad to be here! I have this feeling like my voice will return, which is welcome. The anguish of having lost the ability to sing has been weighing heavily on me this last month. I forgot to bring a book. Margaret brought her Kindle and crossword puzzles to do while the food rehydrates.
“I’m not superstitious, but I’ll knock on wood.” —Margaret Norman
Awake at midnight, I watched the waning gibbous moon climb through the Jeffrey pines, and listened to the owls calling each other: who whoooo who who, and the response a fourth higher. Sometimes they would overlap for a note or two, sounding like gentle ocarinas in the night.
My phone says that we hiked 7.2 miles today. Not too bad for the first outing of the year, with a fully-loaded backpack. The Jeff pines welcome us with their butterscotch scent, the river burbles along, mumbling to itself, and my muscles are talking to me in a gentle tone, saying they will try their best but lease don’t push too hard. I am happy to wake often, see the slow circling of the stars, and drift off into sleep again.