Precipice Lake

7/29/2016

Up at 5:45 AM. I took a Benadryl and a Zyrtec last night, because the deer fly and other bites from Mehrten Creek were driving me bananas. I slept heavily, and woke up tremendously thirsty. But well-rested. I have been struggling with my defective air mattress every night, but last night I somehow managed to fill it and get the valve sealed before the air leaked out. Ahhh!

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Looking back at the Hamilton Lake camping area, I hit the switchbacks to Precipice.

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Katy comes up the trail behind me. She was going fast to beat the sun on the switchbacks (we both did).

I hit the trail shortly after 7:00 for the climb to Precipice Lake. I was dreading it, as everyone was talking about how brutal it was. Only 2.5 miles, but these guys were saying it was harder than the climb up to Hamilton Lake. But Katy and I cruised up there in under two hours, leap-frogging each other all the way up. Katy said that a guy told her that only the most in-shape boy scouts can manage it in two hours. Well, all right, then!

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The sun crept over the peaks, where we were headed.

Sunlight kissed the Valhalla heights.

Sunlight kissed the Valhalla heights.

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Looking down a seep to Hamilton Lake far below. Dizzying vertical drops!

There are wildflowers everywhere! Angelica, seep-spring arnica, golden aster, sierra daisy, golden yarrow, black-eyed Susans, western wallflowers, snakeweed, shooting stars, alpine columbine, ranger’s buttons, mountain pennyroyal, pussypaws, paintbrush,to name a few. Katy knew the names of quite a few. Every time the trail crossed a small waterway, the cleansing scent of pennyroyal would rise up to greet me.

The trail is engineered to snake along tiny ledges on the steep cliffs above Hamilton. In this area, there was a canyon wren singing, magnifying his voice in the narrow canyon. And this really cool little tunnel! I am full of gratitude and admiration for the trail builders of the 1930's who made this trek possible for us flatlanders.

The trail is engineered to snake along tiny ledges on the steep cliffs above Hamilton. In this area, there was a canyon wren singing, magnifying his voice in the narrow canyon. And this really cool little tunnel! I am full of gratitude and admiration for the trail builders of the 1930’s who made this trek possible for us flatlanders.

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This is the little lake before Precipice. There's still a lot of climbing to do to get to Precipice. I didn't know what to expect, and considered just camping here instead of continuing. I decided against it, and am glad I did.

This is the little lake before Precipice. There’s still a lot of climbing to do to get to Precipice. I didn’t know what to expect, and considered just camping here instead of continuing. I decided against it, and am glad I did.

From Precipice, you look out at the backs of the peaks that Barbara Higbie and I saw from Elizabeth Pass. I dropped my pack and took a swim. It was cold, but really refreshing. My skin tingled and I felt so alive.

Precipice Lake at last!

Precipice Lake at last!

the outflow from Precipice, looking out at Copper Mine Peak (on the right), near Elizabeth Pass.

The outflow from Precipice, looking out at Copper Mine Peak (on the right), near Elizabeth Pass.

Looking down on Valhalla from Precipice.

Looking down on Valhalla from Precipice.

Katy was continuing on over Kaweah Gap to a campsite down the other side. I decided to walk with her up to the Gap and take a look-see. Such a perfectly beautiful trail, ascending through three little perfect terraced wildflower gardens above the treeline. The view was great, and I just wanted to keep going on down the other side. I hung out there for awhile and saw Katy off. The wind started picking up and getting colder. I hadn’t brought any other layers of clothing with me from Precipice, and just a handful of trail mix to eat. It threatened rain and spit a few drops. I’ll come back up tomorrow.

I couldn't stop taking photos of Precipice. This is taken from the middle of the outflowing stream, looking back at the lake.

I couldn’t stop taking photos of Precipice. This is taken from the middle of the outflowing stream, looking back at the lake.

Here comes Katy, arriving at Precipice.

Here comes Katy, arriving at Precipice.

9 Lakes Basin, from Kaweah Gap, looks so enticing and wild! Tomorrow I will explore it.

9 Lakes Basin, from Kaweah Gap, looks so enticing and wild! Tomorrow I will explore it.

Another view into 9 Lakes Basin from Kaweah Gap.

Another view into 9 Lakes Basin from Kaweah Gap.

Looking down into the valley, into which the High Sierra Trail descends. All those people hiking to Mt Whitney get to walk through this lovely vale.

Looking down into the valley, into which the High Sierra Trail descends. All those people hiking to Mt Whitney get to walk through this lovely vale. But every step down means another two up somewhere farther along.

Eagle Scout Peak rises nearly vertically from Precipice Lake. I met a couple of boy scout groups who were intending to climb that peak. Apparently, there's a trail up the backside, but when you get to the top, there are just these little boulders to stand on. It gives me vertigo to imagine being up there.

Eagle Scout Peak rises nearly vertically from Precipice Lake. I met a couple of boy scout groups who were intending to climb that peak. Apparently, there’s a trail up the backside, but when you get to the top, there are just these little boulders to stand on. It gives me vertigo to imagine being up there. This is the view of Eagle Scout Peak from Kaweah Gap.

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Looking up to Mt Stewart. I thank Col. George Stewart for helping to give this park to us the people.

Looking up to Mt Stewart. I thank Col. George Stewart for helping to give this park to us the people.

Heading back down the trail, I can finally fit all of Precipice Lake in one shot.

Heading back down the trail, I can finally fit all of Precipice Lake in one shot, with Eagle Scout Peak rising above.

Beautiful granite striped with water seeps from snow melt. Water is everywhere up here at this point in time, but i'm sure there's not as much as there used to be.

Beautiful granite striped with water seeps from snow melt. Water is everywhere up here at this point in time, but i’m sure there’s not as much as there used to be.

Katy saw a pika on the way up the trail. I only saw a marmot. Darn. Flycatchers are flitting all over the place, buzzing to each other. When I got back to Precipice, I watched an American dipper (nee water ouzel) work its way around a portion of the lakeshore, diving under the water, swimming on the surface like a duck, and then running out onto a rock to do its little dipper dance. They are the coolest birds! I sat as still as I could while it worked its way towards me. At about 15 feet away, it must have sensed me, and abruptly flew back up the shoreline. When I heard the call, before I saw it, the name “dipper” floated into my brain. My conscious mind didn’t realize that I know their call. Its nice to know that I recognize it. Though I couldn’t describe it.

My little tent site above Precipice. Up here, one is usually sleeping on hard granite. So a sleeping pad that won't stay inflated is a real problem. Grrrr.

My little tent site above Precipice. Up here, one is usually sleeping on hard granite. So a sleeping pad that won’t stay inflated is a real problem. Grrrr.

The view from inside.

The view from inside.

I couldn't stop gazing at the Elizabeth Pass area, remembering being up there in the stormy weather a year ago. It's quite different this year.

I couldn’t stop gazing at the Elizabeth Pass area, remembering being up there in the stormy weather a year ago. It’s quite different this year.

Yet another view toward Copper Mine Peak and Elizabeth Pass. Somehow, the trail finds a way around and through these incredible glacier-scoured expanses.

Yet another view toward Copper Mine Peak and Elizabeth Pass.

Yesterday, I saw a rescue helicopter bringing someone down over Kaweah Gap, maybe headed to a hospital in Fresno. Today I saw it headed out again over the Gap. Really close. I thought they were going to rescue someone else, and I would see them on the return flight, but I never did. Maybe they are stationed over on the other side somewhere. It made me think about how easy it would be to get oneself in a compromised position out here. On the way back down the trail from the Gap to Precipice, I slipped on a slick granite slab and skinned my arm. Somebody call the ‘copters! Oh, wait…there’s absolutely nobody else up here.

The wind is blowing, keeping it cool. No shade to be had almost anywhere. I fixed lunch, and then napped in my tent for a half hour. I have a view of Elizabeth Pass from my tent site. That is so exciting to me. I can start to put together a mental map of the mountains around here. A family of five hikers from Fresno came up the trail.  They come to the mountains almost every weekend, and every year they do a long hike.  They are hiking to Mt Whitney this year, which is what most of the people I meet on the trail are doing. They ask me where I’m headed, and I say I’m just on a walkabout. No particular destination. Just enjoying the mountains. Though I am happy to be by myself, I realize that I DO like running into these other people and spending a few minutes with them. I like having someone to share the experience with. I met another woman, hiking solo to Mt Whitney. She had started out with a friend who turned back because of a knee problem. I feel so lucky that I can just be up here and walk relatively pain-free. Everyone (the hiker family and the solo woman) are taking dips in the lake. I had to, too. It feels so great!

Oh, the water!

Oh, the water!

Photographic proof that I got in the lake!

Photographic proof that I got in the lake.

Looking over the precipice to the lower lake.

Looking over the precipice to the lower lake.

I ate my mid-afternoon snack, and felt like I wish the sun would go down so that I could go to bed. But there are hours and hours of the day left. I am spending it trying to hide from the sun.

I didn’t write any more today, and can’t remember how I passed the hours until bedtime. Just being. Oh, yeah…and taking pictures in the ever-changing light.

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Panorama shot of my surroundings.

Panorama shot of my surroundings.

Shadow play 1.

Shadow play 1.

Shadow play 2

Shadow play 2.

Shadow play 3.

Shadow play 3.

The sun hits the cliffs of Precipice.

The sun hits the cliffs of Precipice.

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Sunset (finally).

Sunset (finally).

Last of the sunlight on the peaks above Precipice.

Last of the sunlight on the peaks above Precipice.

Up, Up, Up to Hamilton Lake

7/28/16

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Leaving the lowlands behind

A punishing day. It started out really nice: up at 5:30 AM and packed up and on the trail by 6:30, hoping to beat the sun for a few hours. At about 9:00 I found myself at Bearpaw, about halfway through the day’s hiking, in terms of mileage. The first few hours of the day, I had the trail to myself. I was the first hiker out, breaking through spider silk stretched across the trail. It felt good!

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The trail cuts across occasional little streams.

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At Bucks Creek bridge, I was plunged back into shade for the climb to Bearpaw Meadow. That worked out well!

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I couldn’t believe the colors on this guy! He looked exactly like one of those touristy artworks that you find all over the Southwest, with turquoise inlaid all down his back.

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Looking east up the Kaweah River canyon toward Lake Hamilton, where I am bound.

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Looking up toward where I know the trail winds. I couldn’t see it ahead of me, but when I came back down and looked behind me, it was easy to spot. You have to know what you’re looking for.

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View from the bridge above Lone Pine Creek. This is near the junction of the Elizabeth Pass trail and the High Sierra Trail, so from now on, I have a new road under my wheels.

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I took advantage of the scant shade along the climb up to Hamilton Lake. I’m thankful for these scrubby live oaks that manage to grow on these exposed south facing cliffs. Thank you, little tree!

The last 2.5 miles of the trail up to Hamilton Lake were very steep and hot. I started to feel physically ill, and took the last mile very slowly.

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Eventually, I got some welcome, albeit temporary, cloud cover, and the views were fantastic!

 

I heard a canyon wren last evening, at Mehrten Creek. That’s a song that always lifts my spirits! Heard it again this morning as I was packing up. I was the only camper on Mehrten last night. There were lots meteors. I was lucky enough to poke my head out of my tent at one point just in time to see a big one that came straight down and exploded in a brief but huge-looking flash of white light toward the east. The crescent moon rose at about 3:00 AM and chased the stars away.

I saw hummingbirds, a white-headed woodpecker, a sooty grouse, flocks of juncos, a couple of nuthatches, and I heard a mountain chickadee calling, “Here kitty, here kitty.” Oh, and the ever-present stellar jays yelling through the woods.

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I saw this lake on my map, and thought maybe I would stay there, rather than at Hamilton, but I see it’s inaccessible, with nary a level few feet for pitching a tent. I was disappointed, because I thought when I got here my hike for the day would be done.

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The peaks of so-called Valhalla rise above me. Stunning!

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A closer shot of that stair-step broken granite. I feel so insignificant, surrounded by this ancient (though in geological terms, fairly young) landscape.

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And still the trail leads upward…

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That little lake is nestled right below this photo, where this caption is. Couldn’t fit it all in the picture.

Here at Hamilton Lake, it’s crowded with campers, and I found a spot to pitch my tent close by a 37-year-old woman who is hiking solo to Mt Whitney. She told me that she was about to accept a very good job at the SF botanical gardens, but just decided against it because she wanted to have the freedom to hike whenever she wanted. So she kept her waitress job. She’s got her priorities straight. I can’t believe the size of her pack! It looks really heavy! I silently thank Betty Wheeler for being such a stickler about weight on our JMT hike. It got me off on the right foot in understanding that less is truly more when you have to carry it all on your back.

Hamilton Lake, at long last!

Hamilton Lake, at long last! Too big for one photo, so here are numerous ones. The constantly-changing light was captivating.

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Looking back toward the peaks of Valhalla. This lake has awesome views!

Looking back toward the peaks of Valhalla. This lake has awesome views!

3:00 PM and I’m already making dinner.

5:00 PM Big windstorm! I had to help secure my neighbor’s tent, which seemed on the verge of flying away. There’s thunder and lightening up higher in the mountains, maybe right at Precipice Lake, where I’m bound tomorrow. I hope it blows through and is gone. Here comes the rain! It’s not cold, but crazy windy. Exciting (as long as we don’t blow away). My tent stayed put, but is full of dry dusty sand, because I didn’t think to close one of the flaps in the excitement while I helped my neighbor.

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Suddenly little whitecaps appeared on the lake and the sky over the peaks became one big plum-colored bruise.

I retreated into my tent, and took a little video of of how it felt in there. I was cozy, but the wind was whippin’!

IMG_31827:15 and I’m in my tent. The sun is back out, and Katy, my neighbor, is just finishing dinner. My phone informs me that today I climbed 51 flights of stairs and hiked 13.52 miles. I’m ready to snooze. I can hear the various groups of campers chatting away around me, and fear they will keep me awake (spoiler alert: they didn’t).

Day 1, High Sierra Trail

7/27/2016

It’s almost 5:00 AM, and I am awake after a fitful night’s sleep. Driving here yesterday, I got super-sleepy around 4:30 PM, and stopped for a pick-me-up. I picked up a cold Blue Bottle New Orleans coffee, in a little half-pint container, and it was both incredibly delicious and effective, but too late in the day for a lightweight like me. Altitude didn’t help, either. But that’s fine–an early start and I’ll be assured of getting the itinerary I want for my wilderness permit.

Sometime in the middle of the night, I heard a branch fall from a tree nearby and hit the ground hard. I imagined it falling on a tent, but I didn’t hear any screams, so I drifted back to my semi-sleep state. It was a good reminder to look around for those sorts of dangers before pitching a tent.

1:50 PM Mehrten Creek

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Crescent Meadow, shining in the morning sun as I start my trek.

I had a forced leisurely morning. I couldn’t get my permit until about 8:00 AM. Cost was $15, and I’m good to go. I ate a breakfast tea and a breakfast burrito at the Lodgepole market, and then drove down to Wuksachi Lodge to send my itinerary to Tom, so that someone would know where and when to start looking for me, should anything happen. There was super-slow internet there, and it took mealiest an hour to log on and send the message. Then back to Crescent Meadow and the start of the High Sierra Trail. It was nearly 10:00 AM by the time I got going. Hot, smoggy, so many dead trees. Out here, I am always aware of the life and death all around me all the time. Lately, it seems like Death is getting the upper hand. Poor trees!

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I balanced my iPhone on my trekking poles, which I leaned up against a tree, to take this photo with the timer. The sequoias are amazing! I’ll be leaving them behind for the rest of this hike, as I climb to higher elevations.

At every little stream crossing, there were dozens of little monarch-colored California Tortoiseshell butterflies that flew up at my approach. I tried to take a photo of one with the wings open, but they were so fast, and uncooperative. Finally, I found a wounded one lying on the trail, and managed to get a photo.

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I saw 9 people on the trail all day. I was really dragging today, wondering why I “like” doing this. My pack is heavy, though I don’t think I’m carrying anything extra. I plodded along, looking out at the visibly brown air below me, feeling hot and cranky. My right shoulder is burning, my hips are hurting. Taking time to adjust my pack straps gives a certain amount of relief.

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Looking back toward the way I had come. That’s Morro Rock on the right side.

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The air is clearing up, but I am still walking past many dying trees.

At Mehrten Creek, I rinsed the trail dust off, washed the sweat from my clothes, and now what? It’s early afternoon, still hot, and I am alone with my tent on a ledge above the creek. The deer flies are really getting to me! Luckily, they are super-slow and I can take some satisfaction in lessening the population by one every time I get bitten. I want a nap, though, and will have to cover up for it.

5:00 PM

It’s clouding over, it’s very buggy, and I am tired. I got ready for bed and got in the tent to get away from the bugs. It started raining as soon as I got in! Just little gentle drops, but it sounds lovely! Didn’t last very long, though.

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Afternoon thundershowers gather over the mountains. Today, it’s stormy where I’m headed. What will tomorrow bring?

 

I have made a decision to boycott all Nestlé products (again), after learning that the company is pumping groundwater from our national forests to bottle and sell. This is the people’s water! I know that nobody reads my blog to get preached to about this sort of stuff, but there’s a lot to this story. You can read all about it here. There are many, many other reasons to boycott this company, but I generally don’t buy any of these products anyway. Here’s a list of Nestlé’s water brands, followed by a list of their other products:

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7:00 PM

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My little home on the trail.

I just woke up from my nap. It looks nice outside. I emerged from the tent, ate some salmon and crackers, and inhaled a tiny piece of fish. I just spent about 20 minutes coughing and wheezing, trying to get it dislodged. I finally feel better, but I wonder what might have happened if I had needed a Heimlich maneuver out here all by myself. Luckily, I don’t need to find out. Now it’s 8:00, and I think I am going to go to bed for real this time. My phone tells me I hiked 8.82 miles today, and climbed 31 flights of stairs. Not too bad. No wonder I’m tuckered out!

 

 

 

 

The Walkabout

7/26/16, Sequoia National Park

This is the first day of a planned 6-day solo backpacking trip along the hight Sierra Trailing Sequoia National Park. Last year, when Barbara Higbie and I hiked from Roads End to Crescent Meadow, we hit the High Sierra Trail for the last 14 miles of our trip. The views up toward Kaweah Gap were entrancing, and I decided right then that I would head up there this year, just to take a look around. Here’s what it looked like then:

Looking east toward Kaweah Gap from the High Sierra Trail, July 3, 2015

Looking east toward Kaweah Gap from the High Sierra Trail, July 3, 2015

I managed to leave Berkeley at 2:45PM, surfing along at the front of the rush-hour traffic wave. Traffic was slow at first, but I still got up to Sequoia in five hours. I happily handed my senior pass to the ranger, and got my free 7-day sticker. There are some things about getting older that I just LOVE! For a one-time fee of $10, I now get in to every national park for free for the rest of my life! Plus, I get discounts in many state parks and campgrounds! By 8:00PM, all the stores and restaurants are closed up here, and I forgot to think about dinner. Luckily, I had half an avocado and some crackers, and that was enough to stave off hunger pangs until morning. When I backpack, my food is carefully rationed in advance, with each meal and snack accounted for, so that I don’t have to carry more than I need. But if I break into the stash before the trip starts, I chance coming out short at the end.

My plan was to just pull in to a campground for the night, and get my wilderness permit in the morning before I hit the trail. The first two campgrounds I passed were full and I started worrying about finding a place without backtracking and heading up on a side trip to Big Meadow. But then, the Dorst Campground loomed ahead, and there were spaces available. I pulled in, found a pretty nice site and pitched my tent in the dark, accompanied by the babble of voices from all the campers around me. There were lots of kids and more than a couple of foreign languages. There was also a campsite that had music cranked up, past the posted official noise cut-off time of 9:00 PM. That reminded me that I had neglected to bring earplugs. Generally, I don’t travel anywhere without them, so that I can deal with noisy air conditioning units, roommates who want to watch TV, noisy revelers in the hotel hallways, whatever might happen. But I hadn’t thought that I would need them in the wilderness. Granted, I wasn’t in the wilderness yet…

I had trouble filling my new inflatable sleeping pad, which had felt so very comfy (and super-lightweight) at REI. Either I don’t know the trick or it’s defective. We’ll find out, but I hope not at the expense of sleep. When I finish blowing it up, lots of air escapes before I can get the valve shut. I found that I actually had to put the entire valve in my mouth, and keep blowing while I tamped the valve into place with my tongue and the help of a finger. Sheesh!

Driving up, I was shocked by the quantity of standing dead and dying conifers. They stretched out as far as the eye could see, which wasn’t as far as I’d like, due to the smog rising from the Central Valley. On the way down, I listened to the weather report on a Sacramento station, and they consistently referred to the smog as “haze.” That seems so innocuous, and actually natural. I wish they would refer to it by what it actually is. Then maybe people would be more motivated to try and curtail it. I was talking to a very knowledgeable fellow last week about the dying-tree problem, and he said that the main cause of death was the weakening of the trees due to air pollution, and further weakening by drought, which makes them easily fall victim to beetle infestations, which finish them off. Generally, the trees fight the beetles by physically pushing them out with sap when they start to bore, but there’s not enough moisture for the sap to run freely. And the beetles, historically, were kept at bay by occasional fires (about every 15-20 years in most forests) and cold winters. The last 100 years of fire suppression coupled with climate change have done their job. Then the man said that some experts predict 100% conifer death in the band between 5,000 and 7,000 feet elevation. Oy. Here, at over 8,000 feet, the trees are looking pretty healthy, though it sure is dry.

With these thoughts, I will try and sleep.

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A hillside of mostly dead Ponderosa Pines greeted me as I drove up Hwy 180 from Fresno. The road winds through thousands upon thousands of dead and dying trees. Poor California!

 

Day 7, a day at the beach

Our host is leaving this morning to attend a funeral in Los Angeles, and Kristin and I are left on our own for a day in Big Sur. Before she left, Lygia took some photos of my sis and me, looking very much twin-like.

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The walk to the beach is about two miles down a dirt road that hugs the hillside.

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Now we sit naked, or nearly naked, on the beach, watching seals, dolphins, pelicans, seagulls, cormorants, terns, and some other birds I can’t identify fishing and carrying on in the relatively calm waters and kelp beds. Beautiful!

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The sand was streaked beautifully with pink from the crumbling rock cliffs.

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A floating tree trunk kept us guessing what it might be for quite awhile. the waves would turn it, changing the shape by exposing different sets of truncated branches. Sometimes it looked more animal than vegetable. Like a Nessie sighting.

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Then suddenly: what’s that? A humpbacked whale, surfacing and diving just this side of the kelp beds, very close in to shore! It’s huge black rolling back keeps on showing itself for almost enough time for a good photo, and then it disappears again. It’s rare to see humpbacks here, I think. Usually, it would be the gray whales. I feel lucky!

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OK. They aren’t very impressive photos, but to see a 66,000-pound creature rolling in the waves is impressive. I guess you had to be there.

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There is a little cache of items that might come in handy someday, nestled in a rocky niche

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A little tunnel through the rocks gave us a glimpse of further down the coast.

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I saw a very interesting sight on the beach: on close inspection, I determined that it was an otter who had choked on a seabird, causing them both to die. Weird.

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I had fun taking photos of shadows.

Lulled into complacency by perfect weather, agreeable company and delicious food, I have no more notes about our lovely few days in Big Sur. However, I do have more photos, which I will share here, from our next day’s excursion into the Ventana Wilderness:

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Then we wandered north to another beach, and met a very nice goose who seemed to want us to take him/her home.

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And finally, back home to Berkeley by late afternoon.

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Now that I am caught up with last year’s rambles, I can start on this year’s adventures. I just spent 6 days hiking solo in Sequoia National Park, and there is much to talk about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 6, August 24, 2015

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Very smoky today! Good idea to leave. It’s 7:00 AM and the breakfast bell just rang. There’s already a big line to get food.

At dinner last night–which was delicious, by the way–Kris and I sat with two couples who had just come to hike a short distance of the JMT, going out at Bishop Pass (from Le Conte Meadows). They had decided to scratch the trip and hike elsewhere. We sat with a very sunburned-faced, tense man of about 60, who said he was waiting for his daughter, who was out hiking the JMT solo. She had said she’d be at the ranch yesterday and hadn’t shown up. He said he wasn’t worried, that she was tough and defended death-row inmates in San Quentin. He had flown to Fresno from St. Louis, MO, rented a car and driven to Florence Lake (dodging all the cars full of vacationers fleeing the smoke on Kaiser Pass Road), and walked the 4.5 miles to Muir Trail Ranch. Suddenly, a hiker walked through the gate, and his face lit up. “My daughter!” He ran down to her, they embraced, and there were tears not only from them but in the eyes of all six of us watching the reunion. Kris took a couple of photos of them, which was so thoughtful, and arranged to email them to the father.

It felt so good to sleep in the bed, piled high with blankets. Should I awaken Kris for breakfast? I think so…

After the delicious breakfast, we packed a lunch for the trail, packed up our packs once more and walked the 4+ miles to Florence Lake. The smoke was worsening by the hour, and I was glad to be getting away from it. I’m starting to cough, and have a low-grade headache, smarting eyes, and a chronically dripping nose. No fun!

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At Florence Lake, waiting for the ferry, we watched two guys–a hippie and a cowboy–unload trash and empty propane tanks from a truck into a boat, and exchanged small talk. When we said that we might be headed to the ocean, the cowboy said, “Take me with you! I’ve never seen the ocean, except once from a different continent. Spent most of my life around Elko, NV, cowboying.”

I said, “Well, come along! We’ll take you.”

“Can’t. My boss wouldn’t like that. Got another month of work here.”

“Well, just walk away, and find another job somewhere else later on,” I jokingly suggested.

“A cowboy can’t do that. It wouldn’t be right.”

Good man.

It felt good to get back in the car and drive the crazy Kaiser Pass Road back to Hwy. 168. Very narrow, and many blind curves and crests. It takes an hour to drive the 17 miles or so.

When we got in email range, I wrote to my friends in Big Sur, asking if we could come to Rancho Rico for a couple of days. Then we just started heading that way. My friend Lygia called, all bubbly and sweet, and said, “Yes! Come!”

California is an amazingly diverse state. Driving from the high Sierra to Big Sur in only a matter of five or so hours, we traversed the fertile San Joaquin Valley, and rolled into the rolling and golden grassy hills that eventually became a dense oak woodland with scattered chaparral. Then to the thriving farmlands near Salinas and the artichoke fields of Castroville, on through Monterey and Carmel and the astounding Highway 1 through Big Sur. Darol Anger once said, “There’s no other landscape where the vertical and the horizontal vie so hard for your attention,” or something close to that. The steep hills plunge into the restless surf and the Pacific stretches out to the horizon.

Lygia greeted us warmly with Chappellet Pinot Noir that featured her own label art, a big salad, homemade goat cheeses, ravioli, and conversation. Then we helped to put up the goats and horses for the night, collected eggs, and listened to the coyotes calling from the rugged surrounding hills. Jag, the enormous Great Pyrenees mountain dog, warned them off with incessant barking.

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I didn’t take many photos today, as I was just anxious to get away from the smoke, and then I was too busy driving. Photos of Big Sur tomorrow! Now it’s off to bed in our little cabin under the redwoods.

Day 5, Muir Trail Ranch

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Smoky air makes for some great diffuse lighting!

We awoke early and very quickly retraced our steps down the exposed switchbacks and into the woods to Muir Trail Ranch, where I was able to snag the only room available, from a last-minute cancellation. The MTR folks were really great (I was going to say “accommodating,” but that goes without saying).

 

A little grove of birch along the switchback trail added color. The forests are so incredibly dry! And the smoky air gives me a feeling of impending doom.

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Beautiful Blaney Meadows

Check-in time is not until 3:00, so Kris and I had the day to just wander around. We waded across the San Joaquin to Blaney Meadows with our books, a lunch, and our water bottles, and explored the hot springs there. Some are basically mud holes and not very inviting, but there was one beautiful clear steamy pool that seeped up among granite rocks, and we spent a few hours luxuriating there.

 

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Kristin wades the San Joaquin, looking like a real “lady hiker”!

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One of the Blaney hot springs

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Our lunch spot, beside a venerable juniper.

I read Kristin the Peattie story about Death Valley, and was surprised to find how emotional it was, read aloud (you can access it online from a link in my last post). I got all verklempt, right at the time that our idyll was invaded by other hikers. Even with the smoke (which was still fairly light), it was really lovely to be there. Talked to hikers about their ordeals walking north through the smoke, and others who were still considering heading south. As one who could say what they would be missing by not being able to see where they were, I advised against it. There were rumors that the rangers in Evolution Valley were telling people that they would have to evacuate over Bishop Pass. But what do you do, when you have saved and planned, and only have this possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hike the JMT? I met a group of young Spanish men who had been looking forward to their ramble on the trail for years. Here they were, and couldn’t see a damn thing, to say nothing of having to breathe smoke at high elevations. They decided to keep going. I guess they will have stories to tell.

 

Smoke wasn’t so bad this morning, but last night it hung heavy most of the long night, with the scent of woodsmoke constantly in my nostrils. I tried to imagine I was at home by the fireplace, and remember how much I liked that smell, but it didn’t help much.

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Breathe the morning air!

After checking in to our cabin, Kris and I gathered up our dirty clothes and did a load of laundry in the old washing machine, manually draining the dirty water, rinsing, and then cranking the clothes through the wringer by hand. It feels good to be clean! I got recognized by four people here. I don’t think I really like that. I haven’t seen a mirror in days, and who knows what I look like. Me, I guess. But oh, well. My fan base is definitely aging along with me. I occasionally idly wonder what I could do to attract younger listeners. Probably stop singing songs about death, for one thing. Maybe I don’t even care. My season of popularity has come and is fading like autumn leaves. Although when the 20-something kitchen worker recognized me a little later, it put a spring in my step, I must admit. She was so pleased to have us visiting the ranch. I didn’t want to ask how she knew my music. Generally, I get “Oh, my mom used to make us listen to you in the car.” I thank those moms from the bottom of my heart!

 

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Those strange pink splotches are the color of the sunlight through the smoke. Everything else was in shade.

Of course, we took a good long soak in the “domesticated” hot spring at the ranch, which is very sweet. Here’s a photo from when I was here in 2014:

More comments and stories tomorrow! I’m done writing for the day. Hot springs will do that to you…

 

 

 

Day 4, Selden Pass and Marie Lake

8/22/15

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I slept much better last night. I was in the tent by an un-heard-of 6:30 PM. I wrote, read “The Road o a Naturalist,” by Donald Culross Peattie, and slept until 11:30 PM. (Peattie wrote a wonderful and nerve-wracking story, “Death Valley Christmas, 1849”. You can read it online here) Then I read some more, and slept again until about 5:00 AM. I decided to wait for the dawn chorus to get up, and at about 6:00 AM the Clark’s Nutcrackers started hollering and making a racket. OK! I’m up! No gentle, dulcet tones of thrushes and chickadees this morning…

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The gentle trail to Selden Pass

Kristin and I decided to leave our camp set up and go over Selden Pass to Marie Lake, to see if the smoke conditions are better there. It’s a really nice hike, past Heart Lake and on over the pass, which looks like a movie set. Every rock is placed just so, and the trail follows alongside a little mountain brooklet lined with nodding wildflowers, and through a narrow meadow. It’s quite a different scene from last August, when Betty and I hiked through here headed south on the John Muir Trail. Everywhere is shrouded with smoke, but not nearly as bad as along the San Joaquin. At the top of the pass, Marie Lake appears suddenly spread out below us, appearing rather like a landscape from Norway, with the scoured flat expanses of glacier-polished granite.

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Marie Lake, surrounded by smoky peaks

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While we were enjoying Marie Lake, though, the wind picked up and we could see the smoke starting to drift over the pass. We decided to call it quits and head back to camp and pack out. Unfortunately, it took us so long to pack that we decided to spend another night only two miles from Sallie Keyes Lakes.

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Marie Lake

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Distorted panorama of Heart Lake

The light is so strange–rosy-orange in color. I hope the smoke doesn’t do damage to us overnight here! Tomorrow we’ll head out early, hopefully (OK. Kris is a great backpacker and trail companion, but she packs up more slowly than anyone I have experienced) to Muir Trail Ranch and see what can be done about our reservations there for 8/26.

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Rosy-orange light on the lodgepoles

Marie Lake is noticeably lower than last August. Somewhere, I have a photo to prove it, I think. Poor California! Burning up and desiccating in the wind.

We hiked about six miles today. Tonight we’re above Sanger Creek, only three miles from MTR. We shall see what conspires in the morning. My niece, Chloe, Kristin’s daughter, will be racing in Italy at about 4:00 AM Pacific Time in the World Cup Mountain Bike race in Val de Sol. I think that’s in the Dolomites. So by the time we wake up and get to the Ranch, we will be able to get some news of how she did.

At first, I found this campsite almost devoid of charms, but a second look reveals that we are among a real, mature, un-“managed” forest of lodgepole pines. Every age is in evidence everywhere, with beautiful openings filled with now mostly-spent wildflowers. A red sun is setting slowly through the smoke.

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Kristin filtering water, an ever-present task

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The lovely lodgepole forest

Day 3, a change of plans…

8/21/15

Stayed awake most of the night planning and replacing our trip to try and avoid the smoke. If we didn’t have a paid reservation at Muir Trail Ranch in six days, I would suggest aborting the whole thing and driving north into better air. But that non-refunadabl reservation puts a crimp in those plans. Sallie Keyes Lakes and Selden Pass may be better, but today it looks like the smoke is butting up against the steep slope that gives access to that area. I guess we’ll head to Evolution Valley as planned and talk to the ranger there, if he or she is around.

 

8/21 continued

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About 20 minutes later, the smoke started pouring in. Scratched plans for Evolution Valley and Goddard Canyon. Sallie Keyes it is! We packed up and I went with Kris to the cutoff to Muir Trail Ranch from the JMT, so that she would stay on the right trail heading out. This is that damn section of the JMT that I said I never wanted to hike again. Endless switchbacks on a hot, south-facing steep ascent through chaparral. Not many trees to shelter from the sun. I wanted Kris to get as early a start as possible. I stashed my pack in the trees and hiked unencumbered the mile to the Ranch. I used the computer there to inform Tom of our change of plans. Really slow connection! But it’s a way to communicate with the outside world, and that’s what counts. Then I poked around in the free bins of hiker stuff, and headed back out and up. It’s a very nice service that MTR provides for hikers. You can leave anything you don’t want to carry, and take anything that you might need that you find in the bins. Generally, there’s lots of oatmeal in there, but often yummy things to eat and many useful items. I heard that Evolution Valley and environs were super-smoky, though the actual fire is miles away. Talked to a hiker who came down Goddard Canyon, and couldn’t even see the canyon walls. The fire is out of control and burning rapidly. It’s a mess–a perfect storm of 100 years of fire suppression, a long drought, higher temperatures, and who knows what else.

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I saw a little movement along the trail, and stopped to watch this perfectly-camouflaged grouse walk nearly right up to me.

It’s almost 6:00 PM now and we are camped above the first of the Sallie Keyes Lakes. The sky is clearing! It was terrible today. Every step was difficult, with the combination of lack of sleep last night and the heavy, smoke-filled air. I hope I sleep better tonight! I have to fix whatever is wrong with my left shoulder and the bottom of my right rib cage. Neither side wants to be slept on, and I have never slept well on my back or stomach.

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My little tent at Sallie Keyes, among the lodgepole pines.

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Evening at Sallie Keyes

Day 2, World on fire, and a bat attack!

8/20/15

 

Kris and I got up pretty early, and while we were packing up, the campground manager came around to check us out. She was riding in a little golf cart decked out with red, white, and blue bunting and American flags. For some reason, she made me feel like I was breaking some rules that I didn’t know about.

We continued up Hwy 168 past Shaver Lake, which looked pretty socked-in with smoke. The air was thick and scratchy in my throat. The water level was way down, as evidenced by the bathtub ring on the exposed rocks along the shore.

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A little way further up the road, we took the turnoff onto Kaiser Pass Road, a beautiful 20-mile winding path through the mountains. Our average speed was probably under 10 mph, due to the narrowness of the road, the lack of visibility, and the many twists and turns. We stopped at the ranger station to pick up our wilderness permit, and drove on to Florence Lake (I just Googled “Florence Lake” and discovered that she was a comedic film star. I wonder if the lake was named after her). The air was thankfully clearer, but the lake was so low. I was going to blame it on the drought, until I found out that they had emptied it out in order to do work on the dam.

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Florence Lake, with the exposed dam to the left, and the high country rising above it all.

Kris and I took a little swim while waiting for the boat that would ferry us to the other side of the lake, cutting out something like 4 miles of dusty stock trail. It was a hot, hot day, and the water felt deliciously cool.

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Woo-hoo! On our way!

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Once on the other side of the lake, we hiked about 6 miles to a beautiful campsite along the San Joaquin River. We dropped our packs and went into the river to rinse off the salt and dust from ourselves and our clothes. We changed into dry things and hung our wet clothes to dry on some bushes by a nice sweet-smelling Jeffrey pine. It was getting on to dusk, and I noticed a bat flying around. I pointed it out to Kris, and then it suddenly became apparent that the bat was attacking us! It flew at our faces repeatedly, expertly dodging our attempts to swat it away. It chased us all around the campsite, and at one point landed on Kris’ back, holding on to her t-shirt. We feared rabies, of course, but thought that we also might be close to its nest and babies, up in that Jeff pine. It was beautiful to look at and absolutely fearless, and scary as hell!

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Site of the bat attack

Kris was fending it off with her shoes, and accidentally made contact when she swatted towards it. The bat fell to the ground, stunned. She felt terribly guilty, but a few seconds later, it was back up and flying at us again. We grabbed our stuff and retreated to a second-rate campsite (still beautiful) a little ways away. It didn’t follow us, and went off to hunt bugs above the river. We sneaked back over and collected our wet clothes. Kris said, “Beauty has an underbelly.”

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Our campsite on the San Joaquin

It was an exhausting day of less than 6 miles. I am out of shape! It’s 8:00 PM, the sliver of moon is setting over the pines and we’re hoping that the winds favor us and keep the smoke away. The fire in Kings Canyon is out of control completely and burning many acres. We are out of danger as far as the actual fire goes, but the smoke is real. I’m worried about our friend Mike W’s cabin in King’s Canyon, and him, along with other things (like the critters and trees…). I crawled into my tent fairly early, but sleep eluded me for a long time. Too much to think about, with the fire and the bat.

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Hiking from Florence Lake, we skirted beautiful big meadows.

 

 

 

 

August 2015, smoke and surf

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Shaver Lake, shrunken and enshrouded in smoke

I took one other High Sierra hike last year, which I never wrote about. I just recently discovered my notebook while cleaning up my desk, and reading it made me want to relive the experiences in public. Also, I just got back from a few days in Desolation Wilderness, and I feel like I can’t write about that until I get caught up. So here goes!

My older sister, Kristin, flew out from Colorado on August 17 to join me on a hike that was intended to be about 6 days, and take us from Florence Lake along the San Joaquin River up through Evolution Valley. Then we planned to hike overland from Lake Wanda (named for one of John Muir’s daughters, btw) to Goddard Canyon, and thence back down to the San Joaquin and a night at Muir Trail Ranch before we headed back home. It didn’t turn out that way.

 

8/19/2015

Kristin and I finally managed to get out of town into early rush-hour traffic at about 3:30 PM. We arrived eventually at the Dorabelle Campground, just off Hwy 168, at 5,500′ above sea level, in Fresno County. Such a strange place: clean to the point of obsessiveness. It is situated among a grove of dusty pines, and I can’t help but feel that if the campground manager were able, she would vacuum the lower boughs, at least. All the camping areas are freshly raked, with no footprints in evidence, like a Japanese sand garden. Plus, it’s a pretty expensive place to pitch a couple of tents for the night at $24/campsite. But oh, well. It’s quiet. I can smell woodsmoke, and there are no campfires. Kris and I set up our tents and crawled in. It’s 10:30 PM and I am off to Dreamland.

July 4, the last day

End of the Trail

End of the Trail

Early on the morning of July 4, 2015, Barbara and I rose from our warm sleeping bags in the chilly crepuscular light. We ate our final breakfast of oatmeal, tea, and dried fruit, broke our camp, and packed our bags. By about 6:30 we were on the trail to Giant Forest Museum and the shuttle bus that would take us to Visalia. I left our mostly-full gas canister for a young couple who were hiking to Mt Whitney. They had started to worry that they would run out of fuel, and I was glad to give them what we could.

The day broke slowly and beautifully over the Keawah Valley and on the high country all around us. The clouds were ever-changing along with the light and I couldn’t stop taking photos.

Beautiful morning sky!

Beautiful morning sky!

more clouds

more clouds

We hiked for a long time before seeing anyone else on the trail that early, and it was a great way to start our last day. Over the tops of the tallest pines in the distance, I saw the bushy tops of the Sequoia Gigantea, unmistakable in their broccoli-head fullness and their lighter green that distinguished them from the other trees over which they towered. I was excited by the prospect, not just of seeing them, but of watching Barbara experience them for the first time.

Babz, ready to hit the trail

Babz, ready to hit the trail

Flowers grew in profusion along the High Sierra Trail

Flowers grew in profusion along the High Sierra Trail

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Perfect design!

Monzanita is so picture-worthy.

Monzanita is so picture-worthy.

It was a bittersweet hike out of the mountains. As the day grew brighter, we could look down to the west in the direction we were headed and see a dark band of pollution hanging in the sky. I tried to keep my focus on the surrounding peaks, but there was no escaping our future

Babz

Babz

Civilization encroaches in the shape of a floating band of smog.

Civilization encroaches in the shape of a floating band of smog.

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Looking west into the Central Valley. I want to turn around and go back over Elizabeth Pass. Well, maybe not…

Finally, and quite suddenly it seemed, we were among the Sequoias, and it was a beautiful sight. It was still early in the day, and the park visitors were scarce. We decided to forgo the free shuttle through the park and walk the extra mile or so to the Museum. We wandered through the Sequoias, stopping for photos and just enjoying the wonder of these giants. The Sequoia woodlands are particularly quiet, I think in part because the birds in the canopy are so far away. And every being seems to know not to raise one’s voice in church.

The Big Trees surrounded us.

The Big Trees surrounded us.

Finally, we arrived at the museum, and were stunned by the number of visitors to Sequoia National Park. They lined up in droves for the shuttles to see General Sherman (the largest of the giants) and the other sights. So many different languages blending together! German, French, Chinese, Japanese, Norwegian (or maybe it was Danish), Spanish, and some I couldn’t recognize. There was a strong penchant for red, white and blue clothing, hats, earrings and necklaces. We joined them and took a shuttle to the lodge at Cedar Grove to find some lunch.

An actual seat! And a moving vehicle. How novel!

An actual seat! And a moving vehicle. How novel!

Close-up of Babz's feet-saving shoes: New Balance Minimus trail runners. they're a discarded pair of mine that she brought to use  as water shoes and around-camp wear. Now they are REALLY worn out!

Close-up of Babz’s feet-saving shoes: New Balance Minimus trail runners. they’re a discarded pair of mine that she brought to use as water shoes and around-camp wear. Now they are REALLY worn out!

Lunch wasn’t as exciting as I thought it would be. Not much of a step up from our particular MRE’s. But honey in my tea was a real treat!

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Goodbye to the trail. We turn around, and walk through the tree trunk into the reality of 21st century living.

I am happy to say that Barbara is now a backpacking convert, and even through our travails her spirit and love of the trail remained bright and alive. Whew! I was so afraid that I might have killed it with an excess of nature’s bounty. The most eventful part of our trip home was our ride from Visalia to Fresno with a talkative Uber driver. I keep getting flashbacks of the trail over Elizabeth Pass. What an amazing place we have been! I feel so lucky!

Day 5, the High Sierra Trail

Day 5, the High Sierra Trail

July 3

Looking up the High Sierra Trail toward Kaweah Pass. I'm still posting yesterday's photos.

Looking up the High Sierra Trail toward Kaweah Gap. I’m still posting yesterday’s photos.

Yesterday was an exercise in being trip leader. When it looked too threatening to go over Elizabeth Pass, I figured out a new route for us: back to Roaring River, through Sugarloaf Valley and over Silliman Pass. But the sky, while not exactly clearing, indicated that the weather might hold for long enough for us to get over the pass, so new plan scratched and old plan reimplemented. We did get our 4 hours of clear weather, but it wasn’t quite enough time for us, as the going was so slow.

I realize in looking back through the photos of yesterday that I didn’t take any pictures of the path right in front of my feet. I should have. Often, it was invisible. There was foliage of various kinds up to and past our knees, and our feet just had to make educated guesses as to where the actual trail was. And then, more often than not, for miles, the foot came down in a stream that was temporarily utilizing the path to get downhill. It was, as I say repeatedly, very beautiful, but a little like bushwhacking, and we stayed very wet most of the day. When we got above the foliage, the trail was mostly clear and dry to the pass, but coming down the other side, it was extremely steep and we had to keep an eagle eye out for the cairns that marked the trail, or we could easily just start following a stream bed (they were everywhere) rather than the trail. That trail down the south side is amazing: it just snakes along these little ridges and switchbacks and you wonder almost all the time how it will manage the descent. It does, of course, but if you walked off the trail it’d be a nice long free fall.

The view from the bridge over the creek. this is the third bridge (at least) that has been built on the trail. The creek washed out the other two. I don't think it can reach this one, though!

The view from the bridge over Lone Pine Creek, Looking back up toward Elizabeth Pass. This is the third bridge (at least) that has been built on the trail. The creek washed out the other two, leaving remnants of mangled steel struts. I don’t think it can reach this one, though!

The High Sierra Trail snakes along a tiny ledge. Recognize those two peaks? We looked down on them from the other side from Elizabeth Pass.

The High Sierra Trail winds along a tiny ledge. Recognize those two peaks? We looked down on them from the other side from Elizabeth Pass.

We got caught in big rain coming down the Kaweah side of the Kings-Kaweah divide. When it finally cleared and the trail became relatively level, we stopped for our hot meal. While we were there, we were startled to see another hiker coming down the trail. Our first sighting of another human since we saw the ranger at Roaring River two days ago. Turns out he was an ultra-marathon runner from New Mexico, out for a little 180-mile jaunt. He had gone all the way from Roaring River and over the pass, and after chatting for awhile, he passed us and went on. He complained about the trail maintenance and said he thought the mileage listed on the map was wrong, that it seemed lots longer to him. We were happy to hear that, as we certainly thought so! But I did love the fact that nothing had yet been cleared or trampled down by humans this year. We saw only one other set of footprints on the trail, heading the opposite direction and at least two days old (otherwise, we would have passed whoever it was). He took the only good campsite between the Tamarack Lake turnoff and Bearpaw Meadow backpacking camp. I would have liked it for us, but that was OK. We continued on and hit the High Sierra Trail, which was/is an incredible feat of engineering. It winds along a teeny ledge high above the Kaweah River valley. It’s like no other trail I’ve ever been on (though maybe like the Grand Canyon in its spectacularity and steepness).

We finally approach civilization, any trail miles from a paved road, at High Sierra Camp. I confess, I wanted someone to invite us in for dinner.

We finally approach civilization, many trail miles from a paved road, at High Sierra Camp. I confess, I wanted someone to invite us in for dinner.

Our deer friend. Barbara didn't like him.

Our deer friend. Barbara didn’t like him.

When we finally got in to the backpacking camp last night, we took the first two tent sites we saw, and never even saw the many beautiful sites in the campground proper until the next morning. A big buck with velvet-covered antlers was snooping around, and we later found out that he hangs around hoping for salty items to lick. He could have had a time licking us! Today we were hoping for sunshine and time for washing and drying of clothes, but it still looks like it’s threatening rain. Oh, well…

Our campsite, Bearpaw Meadow.

Our campsite, Bearpaw Meadow. Barbara said she woke in the middle of the night to find her tent collapsed on top of her. From this photo, I think I can see why. Too tired to set it up right.

I had a great night’s sleep on the most level piece of ground I’ve found yet. Bearpaw Meadow is a very civilized backpacking camp, with running water. There are comparatively lots of folks on the High Sierra Trail, which continues to be spectacular. The sun is out! We stopped at Buck’s Creek and washed up, which was a very welcome activity. Clothes even dried, which we hadn’t experienced for a couple of days. Nobody came by the whole time we were hanging out there, except one young woman, hiking alone. After a very leisurely day strolling along the High Sierra Trail, we made camp early at Mehrten Creek. The only level place for my tent seems to be right in front of the bear box, so out of consideration for whoever else might want to use it, I found a less-than-ideal location. It’s hot and dry this side of the mountains, and that mean one very important thing: NO MOSQUITOS! Or, rather, very few. Yay!

Sun! Views!

Sun! Views!

Little Blue Dome in the foreground, looking out across the Keawah River valley

Little Blue Dome in the foreground, looking out across the Kaweah River valley

We take turns posing.

We take turns posing.

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It's so nice to walk in the sun on a relatively level trail.

It’s so nice to walk in the sun on a relatively level trail.

Lazing around on Mehrten Creek, at our last campsite.

Lazing around on Mehrten Creek, at our last campsite.

Happy trees.

Happy trees.

water cascading over lovely speckled granite.

water cascading over lovely speckled granite.

Mehrten Creek sang to us as the sun shone down.

Mehrten Creek sang to us as the sun shone down.

Our last campsite, above the creek.

Our last campsite, above the creek.

I’m watching thunderclouds form over the mountains to the east. Tomorrow, we have to pack up early and hike six miles to Crescent Meadow where we can get a shuttle to the Giant Forest Museum to catch the 2.5-hour bus ride to Visalia to contact Uber for a ride to Pat’s house in Fresno to get my car to drive 3.5 hours home. Whew! I do hate to leave these mountains.

Storm clouds gather (again), but only over the high peaks. We are at about 8,000' now

Storm clouds gather (again), but only over the high peaks. We are at about 8,000′ now

Day 4, Elizabeth Pass!

Day 4, Elizabeth Pass!

7:30 AM

It has been the longest night. More thunderstorms rolled through and near us all night long. Seemed like the lightning never stopped. I lay awake trying to count the seconds between the flashes and thunder. So much lightning that you can’t tell which thunder roll belongs to which flash. From about 1:00 to 5:00 AM, the rain abated. Now the rain has set in and is falling steadily. I am aborting the hike over Elizabeth Pass. Today we’ll go back down to Roaring River. Fording the stream may be difficult after all this rain. Tomorrow, we’ll head of Sugarloaf Valley and Silliman Pass, and see how far we get. That pass has a much better chance of being good weather-wise, as it’s quite a bit farther west and 1200 feet lower in elevation than Elizabeth Pass. Last time I left my tent during the night, the mosquitos attacked en masse. At least rain gear is impenetrable for them. We’ll wait out the weather a little while longer. I feel so responsible, if anything bad should happen. Not sure if I like being the “trip leader.” I barely slept. It’s going to be a hard day.

8:00 AM

The rain has finally stopped. Barbara and I are getting up and having breakfast, hoping our tents dry out a bit before we have to pack them up. Barbara thinks we should go ahead over the pass. I’m not so sure. I estimate we need at least four hours of clear-ish weather in order to avoid getting caught in the open in a thunderstorm. I’d hate to be responsible for getting Babz hit by lightning! She has decided to stop wearing her hiking boots in favor of my old pair of trail runners that she threw in her pack at the last minute. She claims that her feet are pain-free in them. Yes!

9:30 AM

The weather seems to be holding. We’re going over Elizabeth Pass.

The trail towards the pass. The actual pass is around the slope on the right, and can't be seen from here.

The trail towards the pass. The actual pass is around the slope on the right, and can’t be seen from here.

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Columbines. They came in all colors, but the pure yellow we saw only on the north side of Elizabeth Pass

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Somebody likes the rain!

Barbara is in harmony with her surroundings.

Barbara is in harmony with her surroundings.

The trail leads up and to the other side of these babies, and up some more.

The trail leads up and to the other side of these babies, and up some more.

Looking back the way we came.

Looking back the way we came.

Wildflowers everywhere.

Wildflowers everywhere.

The last stream crossing on the north side of the pass, Kings River watershed.

The last stream crossing on the north side of the pass, Kings River watershed.

The landscape up here looks like Scotland highlands or Norway.

The landscape up here looks like Scotland highlands or Norway. Barbara trudges upwards.

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The trail cuts west, and we can finally see the pass above us.

Elizabeth Pass, 11,327'

Elizabeth Pass, 11,375, looking back toward the Kings River watershed’

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The view east from the top.

Ahhhh...

Ahhhh… looking south into the Kaweah River watershed.

Little did we know that these peaks would be obscured in a matter of minutes.

Little did we know that these peaks would be obscured in a matter of minutes.

The first cloud whips up from the valley.

The first cloud whips up from the valley.

Another one follows. It will round that ridge and come right up our valley.

Another one follows. It will round that ridge and come right up our valley.

Where's the view?

Where’s the view?

Hearing thunder rolling in the distance. We hurry to get off of the exposed pass.

Hearing thunder rolling in the distance. We hurry to get off of the exposed pass. It’s a steep descent!

Looking toward Tamarack Lake. That side trip calls to me, but not today...

Looking toward Tamarack Lake. That side trip calls to me, but not today…

We regain the tree line.

We regain the tree line.

Thunder rolls and the weather closes in.

Thunder rolls and the weather closes in.

Wet manzanita. So pretty!

Wet manzanita. So pretty!

I have to stop myself from taking photos of every darned juniper.

I have to stop myself from taking photos of every darned juniper.

Pathfinder points the way

Pathfinder points the way

We stop for lunch and have a visitor.

We stop for lunch and have a visitor.

A glimpse of blue sky finally appears.

A glimpse of blue sky finally appears.

9:00 PM

My flashlight died. We’re at the High Sierra backpacking camp. Extremely hard day over Elizabeth Pass. Incredible beauty. Amazing views. Too tired to write. I have nothing but admiration for Barbara. She’s a real trooper. I’m going to sleep well tonight!

July 1, two days in one.

July 1, two days in one.

IMG_0290Went to bed early last night, about 8:00 PM. At a little before 10:00, I was awakened by the full moon’s light filtering through the Ponderosas. Three very loud jets chose that time to fly overhead, from the nearby air force base, I guess. I had heard stories of fighter pilots practicing flying up and down the canyons of Kings Canyon National Park, but for some reason, I thought that they had stopped doing that. I guess not…

Ponderosas basking in magic light

Ponderosas basking in magic light

Remains of Native American encampment. You can't really see the rock-lined indentation, but I know it's there.

Remains of Native American encampment. You can’t really see the rock-lined indentation, but I know it’s there.

I woke again at 2:00 and at 4:00 and finally got up at 5:30. Babz and I had our breakfast of oatmeal and tea (just like John Muir!), and hit the trail at around 7:00 AM, heading over the lip of Moraine Ridge and down to Roaring River. Before we headed out, I discovered the remains of a couple of old Native American storage pits, shallow round indentations lined with rocks, perched on the lip of the ridge. I certainly can see why they would choose this area as a camp!

A view of where we're headed, as we take the trail down from Moraine Ridge

A view of where we’re headed, as we take the trail down from Moraine Ridge

The day started with a high overcast and a muggy feeling in the air. We got down to Roaring River, and were glad that we chose to stay higher: there were people everywhere, and riders with mules loaded with chain saws and such, going off to do trail maintenance. Very busy! The ranger was listening to the weather report, and told us thunderstorms were forecast on Elizabeth Pass. We pressed on. Once we started up Deadman Canyon, it started to rain steadily, from about 9:00 AM until now (2:00 PM), where I am huddled in my tent at Upper Ranger Meadow. It’s a beautiful spot, but then again, it’s all beautiful.

Follow the sign to Deadman.

Follow the sign to Deadman.

the trail into Deadman Canyon

The trail climbs over glacial till into the mouth of Deadman Canyon

Babz is walking slowly, but seems to be enjoying herself. I am loving it, rain and all. The bugs (mostly mosquitos) kept us going until now.  Finally, the rain seems to be abating. Thunder is rolling far off in the peaks.If it doesn’t clear, we are thinking we may need to spend another day here, which would probably mean that I miss Peter Rowan’s birthday party. But we have plenty of food and will be fine.

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A large fungus. So puffy and light-looking that I just had to climb up on the fallen logs to get a photo.

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Fungi were profuse at the mouth of Deadman Canyon. Must be the rain!

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Sprouting life out of death.

Getting water today in the creek, I slipped and tumbled and lost my water filter, which Babz quickly rescued, though she had to get her boots wet. Lesson: remove pack before hunkering down on wet rocks. Luckily, everything stayed dry in my pack. It was a funny feeling, like an overturned beetle maybe, to be clawing at the air as my feet slipped out from under me and I fell sideways into the running water. All slow-motion.

The creek where I took a tumble.

The creek where I took a tumble.

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The canyon walls rose above us and started closing in.

Deadman Canyon got its name from this gravesite. A Basque shepherd died here in 1881. I stopped and sang

Deadman Canyon got its name from this gravesite. A Basque shepherd, Alfred Moniere, died here in 1887. I stopped and sang “The Lone Pilgrim” for his memory.

Dressed for the weather

Dressed for the weather

Approaching Ranger Meadows, aka Rain-grrr Meadows

Approaching Ranger Meadow, aka Rain-grrr Meadow

Our first campsite of the day, Upper Ranger Meadow.

Our first campsite of the day, Upper Ranger Meadow.

The rain stopped, the sky cleared, and by 3:00 PM the sun was out. We dried everything on the big granite boulders, and decided we should hike farther up toward the pass. We probably hiked about 9 miles today. The day became indescribably gorgeous, and the campsite we found near the wall of the canyon is spectacular. It’s in the last stand of Lodgepole before the pass. The stream is running over smooth granite slabs, and down a steep spillway (not quite a waterfall). I’d hate to slip at the top of this drop!

The stream flowed over steep glacier-polished granite.

The stream flowed over steep glacier-polished granite.

We forded the stream barefoot today. The water was cold, but not icy (no snow left to melt), and the gravel felt good on my bare feet. Mosquitos are still a problem, but not bad up here, comparatively.

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What are these, Heather?

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This morning, I heard a deep thumping sound on the trail. It took me a few seconds to zero in on it and figure out where it was coming from. A gorgeous golden honey-colored “black” bear was digging at a rotten log. It didn’t notice me, and I motioned for Barbara to hurry up. She got to see it, too. I took out my camera and tried to move to a vista that was less obscured by trees, but it saw me and went galloping off upstream, huge hindquarters swiftly disappearing into the forest. That was the last we saw of it. I had been imagining a bear digging for grubs in a rotten log yesterday. And there it was, just as I had seen it in my mind’s eye! Wish I had taken a photo even though the trees were in the way…

Near our second campsite of the day, at the last stand of lodge poles before Elizabeth Pass.

Near our second campsite of the day, at the last stand of lodge poles before Elizabeth Pass.

Today was like two days, with two complete camps, two tent-pitchings. I had never done that before. At the first camp, as soon as we got our tents up and got inside, the sky let loose. I love a good tent!

The stream opened up and flowed down slick granite.

The stream opened up and flowed down slick granite.

Glacial polish

Glacial polish

The view towards the pass from our campsite.

The view towards the pass from our campsite.

Alpenglow, as photographed from my tent.

Alpenglow, as photographed from my tent.

And the storm clouds began to gather on the peaks.

And the storm clouds began to gather on the peaks.

9:30 PM.

I have been listening to far-off thunder and thinking it was jets, cursing the pilots for interrupting my wilderness experience. But a huge lightning storm is bursting upon us, moving fast in our direction. From my tent, I can see the lightning on the peaks around us. Four miles away, then 3, and now it’s raining really hard. My heart is pounding and I’m definitely scared! I called to Barbara, and she seemed quite calm. But she can’t see the lightning hitting the peaks. It’s a beautiful sight, no doubt, but the tough of it striking one of the trees near us, or us, is really scary. I realized I left clothes out to dry. Oh, well…Every time the lightning flashes and the thunder rolls, I jump. Now the flash and crash are almost but not quite simultaneous. It really was amazing, watching it come closer and closer. Now it’s moving past and I feel a flood of relief. Hope the morning is clear so we can get over the pass. Today we were so hopeful.

It seems that all that is left now is heavy rain. And it’s only been about 15 minutes’-worth of storm I think. Whew! Disaster averted so far…

Day 2 of feeling like an ant

June 30, Moraine Ridge

There were crazy mosquitos on the north side of Avalanche Pass. As soon as we were out of our tents in the morning, we hurriedly packed up in order to escape them. It was a rude awakening for me, who had gotten very blasé about the critters, based on my Muir Trail hike last year, where I could count the number of mosquito encounters on the fingers of one hand. Now there were 20 on each arm and swooping in on my face and neck. I occasionally inhaled one. Not fun! The only thing to do was to keep moving through them, hoping they would dissipate as we climbed higher. The mosquitos seemed to prefer me to Barbara, which made her happy (not me so much).

a lovely juniper at the top of Avalanche Pass

a lovely juniper at the top of Avalanche Pass

We slowly climbed toward the pass, and were suddenly there sooner than I had anticipated. It’s a wooded pass, at 10,013′ elevation. We should have lazed around at the top longer, as we descended into another cloud of mosquitos and had to keep moving.

Barbara on Avalanche Pass, our high point so far

Barbara on Avalanche Pass, our high point so far

As we descended from the pass, we walked along a beautiful somewhat marshy (read “mosquito-rich”) drainage, full of wildflowers. I kept thinking I would take photos of them all, but the bugs kept me moving. No people in sight, no fresh footprints on the trail. However, we did come across some fairly fresh evidence of bears.

Nice bear scat! My hand is there for size comparison. We saw lots of this, but so far, no bears.

Nice bear scat! My hand is there for size comparison. We saw lots of this, but so far, no bears.

Here are a few of the flowers that graced our trail. The entire mountains were exploding with blossoms!

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Sierra Tigerlily

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Common Parsnip

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Penstemon?

Above Moraine Creek, on a south-facing slope where the mosquitos seem to have disappeared, we stopped for our hot meal at about 1:00 PM. We ate a backpacker pre-packaged meal of “chicken risotto,” which I DO NOT recommend. Plus, there was so much of it.

We stopped at little Moraine Creek where the trail crossed, and  took a break to bathe in the last running water we’d have today. There wasn’t anybody around, and the place was ours completely. It felt so good to rinse off the salt and grit, and dunk my head in the cool water. The sky was mostly sunny, though little clouds would pass overhead on occasion and spit raindrops at us. We had decided to camp high on Moraine Ridge, to escape the mosquitos we felt certain would be waiting us at Roaring River.

Stormy weather threatened as we walked through an old fire area.

Stormy weather threatened as we walked through an old fire area.

There was rain off and on for a few hours in the afternoon. Now, at 4:00 PM, we are already camped for the night, overlooking Roaring River and with a great view of tomorrow’s hike, up Deadman Canyon. We haven’t seen another person in 27 hours, and that one was just at a distance at the Sphinx Creek campground. We don’t expect to see anyone until we hit the Roaring River ranger station tomorrow morning.

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Looking back the way we came.

Looking ahead to the ominously-named Deadman Canyon

Looking ahead to the ominously-named Deadman Canyon

I saw a Clark’s Nutcracker today, and heard more of them, making a racket in the trees. I know we’re in the mountains now! l also saw a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, flitting among the low-lying shrubs and flashing his red crest. And of course, the ubiquitous juncos, robins and jays, which are everywhere.

Sharing the Earth with the "real" ants

Sharing the Earth with the “real” ants

Barbara is doing great, but has blisters on both baby toes. Very painful. She didn’t stop and wrap them soon enough, so we stopped, drained the blisters, wiped with alcohol swabs and bandaged. I hope they are better tomorrow! A blister can wreck a hike really quickly!

Every moment, the light is changing on the glacier-scoured sides of Deadman Canyon as clouds gather and move and the sun appears and is obscured. So quiet, except for a few birds. Actually, quite a few birds–just not really close by. Our camp appears to be in a manicured park-like setting; tall Ponderosa pines and very little undergrowth. Dry and with nice level tent sites. I feel lucky!

Our campsite, Moraine Ridge

Our campsite, Moraine Ridge

Feeling like an ant, continued

Even though I was very concerned with weight, I ended up taking two cameras with me: my iPhone and my trusty point-and-shoot waterproof Nikon. I had forgotten about the Nikon by the end of the trip, and just now discovered the photos I took.

Here are a few from our first day. Looking fresh and hopeful, we arrived at the shuttle stop at 6:50 AM.

Pat Wolk drops us off at the AMTRAK station in Fresno. Ready to go!

Pat Wolk drops us off at the AMTRAK station in Fresno. Ready to go!

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Barbara and I took turns having our picture taken with a peek-a-boo tree

Barbara and I took turns having our picture taken with a peek-a-boo tree

After we crossed the Kings River, we headed up-country and left the crowds behind.

After we crossed the Kings River, we headed up-country and left the crowds behind.

Feeling like an ant

Feeling like an ant

I recently returned from a backpacking trip with my friend and sometimes bandmate Barbara Higbie. She had never been backpacking before, and left it up to me to choose the route for a 6-day adventure. It could be argued that I went overboard in the expectations department, but since we made it through, I personally don’t think so. Barbara did say that she wants to go backpacking again, which is a good sign!

On June 28, immediately following my very fun “jam” gig at Petaluma’s Roaring Donkey, I drove off to meet up with Barbara  to  drive to Fresno for the first leg of our backpacking trip in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (referred to herein as SEKI). Here is my journal from our first day: June 29, 7:30 AM Barbara and I are on the Big Trees shuttle bus, headed to Grant Grove from Fresno. I played yesterday at the Roaring Donkey in Petaluma, with Tom Rozum and Mike Witcher. Keith Little was supposed IMG_0194to be there, from 3:00 PM to 6:00 PM, but the Donkey website listed the start time as 5:00 PM, so he got there just before we quit. He got caught up in the Hwy 37 traffic jam caused by the NASCAR races at Sears Point.  There was soooo much traffic that day, with the convergence of the San Francisco Pride Parade (on the heels of the historic Supreme Court ruling) and the races.

Leaving Tom, Mike and Keith to play a few songs together, I ran out the door, jumped in my car, and proceeded to sit in traffic trying to get home for two hours. By 8:00 I was back home. Babz and I left at 8:30 and arrived in Fresno at 12:30 AM. There was work on I-5, and the freeway was shut down, causing us to spend another half-hour crawling along (that’s when I wish I didn’t have a manual-transmission car), wishing for our beds. I had set my GPS device for the Fresno address, but of course, thinking I knew better how to get there, ignored the nice lady telling me to take Hwy 99. If I had, we would have saved that wasted half hour. There’s a lesson there, which I may or may not decide to take to heart.

Our host, the irrepressible member of the Raging Grannies, Pat Wolk, woke us up at 5:30 and fixed us a lovely breakfast of cantaloupe, toast, coffee and peaches. The last fresh fruit we’ll have for 6 days. Then she drove us to the Fresno AMTRAK station where we caught the 7:05 AM shuttle. We are the only two people on the bus this morning! It must be government-subsidized. Our tax dollars at work, for which I am grateful. Writing is difficult in a moving vehicle. Hope I can read my shaky scrawl when it comes time to write the blog. Not enough sleep. I’m worried that today will be hard. Mike Weinberg will meet us at Grant Grove and drive us to the ranger station at Roads End to pick up our permit and begin our hiking part of the journey.

July 29, continued…8:00 PM

Got to Grant Grove at 9:30 and Mike was waiting for us. He drove us to Roads End, regaling us with stories of The Bench (he’s a retired traffic court judge). He said the three most common speeding-ticket excuses are:

1. I had to pee.

2. someone (wife, mother, father, daughter, son, cousin, self) is sick/dying

3. it’s a rental car, and I didn’t realize how fast I was going.

I used the #3 excuse when I was stopped in Texas a few years ago, and the very nice highway patrolman didn’t give me a ticket.

We stopped every few minutes to take photos of the amazing vistas that opened behind us as we climbed.

We stopped every few minutes to take photos of the amazing vistas that opened behind us as we climbed.

It was a beautiful day of hiking, about 6 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain. Going up the last part, we were really dragging. It seemed interminable. We finally found a campsite at Upper Sphinx Creek, very nice, but with TONS of mosquitos! I’m hiding out in my tent because they were eating me alive. Rinsing off in the creek was maybe crazy, but it felt so good to wash off the accumulated salt and grit of the day. But the bugs attacked me and I had to take a Benadryl. I guess I’ll sleep well tonight.

Parts of the trails are works of art!

Parts of the trails are works of art!

Today, we made our dinner (the hot meal) at about 2:00 PM, and I really liked that. The food tasted better than when you’re bone-weary at camp, and my appetite was better. Barbara and I decided we’d do that every day. Barbara seemed worried about not having enough food, so she brought all these snacks, which won’t fit in the bear canister (which we have to have out here). I hope we don’t get attacked tonight, before we’ve had a chance to eat more, and it can all fit in the canister.

The view from out dinner spot

The view from out dinner spot. We started way down there around the corner to the left.

It rained today–light but with thunder and lightning off in the distance. There’s nobody around, which is really nice. I don’t think we’ll see many people out here. A ranger on the trail looked at our permit and said it was a great itinerary, that we’d really get the “wilderness experience.” I hope so. So far, so good!

I saw a tanager today, and loved hiking up through the golden chinquapin, manzanita, sage, shooting stars, Mariposa lilts, lupines, and the different oaks, pines, junipers, incense cedars and firs. I am so excited to be back up here in the Sierra, to an area I’ve never experienced.

A lone juniper. I'd like to take portraits of them all!

A lone juniper. I’d like to take portraits of them all!

We drove past a campground today: Big Stump Camp. There were enormous Sequoia stumps scattered everywhere, and not one Sequoia still standing in the are. They cut every single one down.

Mystery Rock Explained!

Do you avid blog-readers remember the photo of the rock that I posted on Day 18, at our campsite at Rae Lakes? In case you don’t recall, here is the photo again. A natural formation? I think not...

My caption was “A natural formation? I think not…”

My friend Richard D. Smith was intrigued, and sent the photo along with pertinent location information to his friend Sean Long, a professor of geology at University of Nevada at Reno, who replied with the following message:

“As far as your rock question, to me it looks like a chunk of granite, which makes up the majority of the Sierra Nevada.  The dark-colored, triangular-shaped pieces that you can see I’m pretty sure are what we geologists call ‘xenoliths’ (funny word, I know).  Basically, when the granite was molten, and intruded into surrounding rock (what we call ‘country rock’), pieces of the country rock will often break off and fall into the melt, and will then be transported along in the melt, going along for the ride.  The xenoliths look like they are made of a rock called gabbro or diorite (hard to tell exactly from a picture), so that means they probably are sourced from the lower crust of the Sierras, maybe as deep as ~20-30 km or so.  They are the ‘roots’ that the Sierras are built on.  So…this rock is pretty neat, lot’s of history just in one little piece!  Pieces of the lower crust embedded in a granite melt that then traveled up and was emplaced and cooled and crystallized in the upper crust, and has now been eroded to be at the surface today.  Gotta love geology!”

FYI, the rock is about two feet wide. This made me very happy that I had decided to snap a photo of it. Think of it as a High Sierra jack-o-lantern. I hope you all had a happy Day of the Dead, Hallowe’en, All-Saints’ Eve, Samhain, or whatever other holiday you celebrated or may be celebrating around now.

Laurie

Day, 22, September 3, 2014

Early morning, above Guitar Lake.

Early morning, above Guitar Lake. Photo: BW

Betty is ready to climb.

Betty is ready to climb.

I didn’t write a journal entry for this day, so everything I write here is from memory, which is still very vivid. We’ll see if we can get the important stuff down.

I was awakened sometime in the middle of the night by a flashlight beam raking across my tent. Apparently, many hikers start the ascent up Whitney in time to see sunrise from the summit. That means leaving Guitar Lake by about 3:00 AM. Betty and I opted not to do that. But looking out my tent, it’s a pretty neat sight, seeing small points of light spread out all along the switchbacks ahead of us. They look like stars that lost their way and fell to the ground, moving very, very slowly up the mountain. Seeing all this activity made it difficult to go back to sleep, but I managed for a couple more hours. Then I woke up Betty and we started getting ready for the ascent. First, breakfast. I had my absolute worst meal of the trip, quite by accident. Betty had brought some sort of broccoli cheese thing (just add hot water), which I thought might be good. I had tried this at home pre-trip, and it was pretty tasty. So I decided that I would add a little oatmeal to it to give it more body. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice that the oatmeal was one of those horrible, way-too-sweet mixes. the combination of the salty cheese/broccoli and the sweet oatmeal was ghastly! But I ate most of it anyway, because I needed to eat something and there it was. Yuck! Never again!

A raven talked to everyone passing by, sending us on our way up the switchbacks.

A raven talked to everyone passing by, sending us on our way up the switchbacks. Photo: BW

We set off by about 6:30 AM, I think, and immediately began to climb seemingly endless switchbacks up the side of Whitney. Up, up, up we went, first one direction and then the opposite. The whole mountain seems to be made up of giant broken squared-off boulders, piled up to the horizon far above us. As the sunlight grew stronger, the tarns below us changed colors from deep steely blue-grey to coppery gold. All the way up the miles of switchbacks, I marveled at the trail-building skills of the people who made it possible for us to hike as easily as we did. It seems like a nearly-super-human effort of blasting and grading and moving rocks. We are on a section of the JMT that isn’t open to stock animals, unlike most of the rest of the 200+ miles. John Muir himself disliked bringing stock into the mountains, as he saw firsthand how they degraded and changed the ecosystem so dramatically in the mid-1800’s. Thankfully, these high mountains are no longer open to herds of sheep and cattle to feed in the summertime. But without mules to bear supplies of food and equipment, these trails might never have been built for us to enjoy. It’s complicated…I found myself thinking often how Muir would probably have disliked, if not outright hated, the trail named after him.

The lakes changed from India ink black to gold as the light changed.

The lakes changed from India ink black to gold as the light changed. Photo: BW

Climbing, climbing, climbing in the shade as the sun rose.

Climbing, climbing, climbing in the shade as the sun rose. Photo: BW

For some perspective, note the teeny figures at the bottom of the photo.

For some perspective, note the teeny figures at the bottom of the photo. Photo: BW

So much fractured rock! No smoothing glacier activity here.

So much fractured rock! No smoothing glacier activity here. Photo: BW

This little lake was constantly changing its face as the sun rose.

This little lake was constantly changing its face as the sun rose. Photo: BW

The mountain walls rose around us, incredibly steep and uninviting.

The mountain walls rose around us, exhilaratingly steep and uninviting. Photo: BW

Finally, the switchbacks ended, at the trail junction with the summit trail and the trail that headed down some 5,000’ and 8.7 miles to the parking lot at Whitney Portal, and the store/restaurant’s ice cream and french fries. People are talking about what they are going to have to eat first. A parking lot! How novel! At the trail junction, everyone drops their packs to make the hike to the top relatively unencumbered. When we arrived, there were probably 20 packs lined up, and it was interesting to see all the different models and hiking styles represented there. mostly very nice technically-advanced stuff, like titanium bear canisters. Betty and I rested for a bit and organized our makeshift daypacks in anticipation of the summit. My “pack” was a small zippered container tied around my waist with Tom’s Roy Rogers bandanna. Such a useful item!

Guitar Lake and our little campsite tarn are way below us to the right

Guitar Lake and our little campsite tarn are way below us to the right. Photo: BW

The trail junction sign, and backpack dumping ground.

The trail junction sign, and backpack dumping ground. Photo: BW

From the trail junction, the summit path gets very rocky, and we sometimes had to use our hands to climb over or around them. The downhill side of the trail drops off precipitously, with views of Guitar Lake, looking like a teeny-tiny ukulele below us, and spires of broken rock rising above us. We crept along the edge, fighting off vertiginous feelings, up and up the long (1.9 mile) spur trail to the top of Whitney. Every once in awhile, the trail comes to a saddle between the east and west sides of the ridge, and a window opens up to the Owens Valley, 7,000’ below us. Breathtaking! Finally, the trail turned west and wended its way over the broken granite slabs that make up the surface of the highest point in the Lower 48, at 14,505’.

The trail from the junction to the top of Whitney was crazy with fractured rock spires.

The trail from the junction to the top of Whitney was crazy with fractured rock spires. Photo: BW

Another view of the trail.

Another view of the trail. Photo: BW

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the "windows" that open suddenly to the other side of the ridge. That is a long, long ways down!

One of the “windows” that open suddenly to the other side of the ridge. That is a long, long ways down! Photo: BW

When we got to the summit, we found probably about 20 or 40 fellow-hikers spread out over the large gently-sloping carapace of broken granite slabs. You could walk straight up to the edge, which fell away to the valley floor far, far below.

Hikers lounging about on the top of the world.

Hikers lounging about on the top of the world. Photo: BW

The weather was perfect, warm and fresh with a gentle breeze. I called my mom from the top, but realized that while I was on the phone I had to close my eyes to prevent vertigo from overtaking me. Move away from the edge! Betty and I signed the log book at the summit hut, and a man told us that this day, September 3, was the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act. It was signed into law by a nearly unanimous Congress. I think there was one lone dissenter (a Democrat defying the Democrat President L. B. Johnson). Can you imagine that??! I am full of gratitude for the trail builders, the preservationists, the visionaries, the politicians who made it possible for us to spend 22 days in such uninterrupted Beauty.

Signing the logbook, Sept 3, 2014, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act.

Signing the logbook, Sept 3, 2014, on the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act. Photo: BW

Betty the Giant and her little sidekick.

Betty the Giant and her little sidekick.

Nice sign, but the elevation listed is no longer correct. Apparently, the depletion of ground water has made the entire Sierra range higher.

Nice sign, but the elevation listed is no longer correct. Apparently, the depletion of groundwater has made the entire Sierra range higher. Photo: BW

This guy really thought there was a good chance I was going to feed him, or at least drop some crumbs accidentally. Didn't happen.

This guy really thought there was a good chance I was going to feed him, or at least drop some crumbs accidentally. Didn’t happen. Photo: BW

We spent perhaps an hour at the summit, and then started our long trek down off the top. When we got back to the trail junction, we were happy to see Kenny there. She was suffering from altitude sickness, and had decided not to go for the summit. We exchanged phone numbers and Betty invited her to come stay with us in Independence that night, if she made it down to Whitney Portal. Neither Betty nor I had any altitude problems, and while we were tired out, we felt like Super Women.  Reunited with our packs, we started the long 8.7 miles downhill to the parking lot, where Dwight would be waiting for us (we hoped). The trail was far more populous that we had experienced in previous days, as there are lots of hikers starting from Whitney Portal and just going to the summit. It was difficult not to feel a little smug, surrounded by all these weekenders and daytrippers. The hike down made me grateful that we had decided to start from the north end of the trail. I would have hated for that climb up Whitney to be our first experience of the trail! Now that the hike was nearly finished, we were motivated to keep moving and get down the mountain. Even so, it was beautiful, and we walked through many places I would like to revisit. For a few miles, I kept a fantasy in my head of swimming in the lowest of the lakes that we would pass, imagining my cold-awakened skin and how refreshed I would feel. So Lone Pine Lake was my carrot. Turns out that Lone Pine Lake is off the main trail about a half-mile or so, and we opted not to spend the extra time or energy when we got to the turnoff. I had thought the path was going to wind right alongside it. A small disappointment.

The view from the top.

The view from the top. We’ll be walking past those lakes in a few hours. Photo: BW

Three rocky points stick up off the side of Whitney.

Three rocky points stick up off the side of Whitney. I forgot their names. Photo: BW

The trail down gave me one last time to visit the various biomes, from high above the tree line, into the stunted lodge poles and flattened willow bushes, through chinquapin and manzanita, into the tall trees, past profusions of wildflowers, and eventually to a paved road, the first that intersected with the JMT since Tuolumne Meadows 20 days earlier. The trek was marred for what seemed like hours, though, by an ear worm I couldn’t seem to exorcise. I kept hearing a loop of Homer and Jethro singing “There were nine buttons on her housecoat, but she could only fasten eight.” I finally had to put my mind to figuring why this wouldn’t go away, and then realized that a few days before we had met a guy on the trail whose nickname was “Jeffro.” We had seen him again up on the summit of Whitney. Ah-hah!

Consultation Lake, far below us. Betty spent the night there last year, when she climbed Mt Whitney.

Consultation Lake, far below us. Betty spent the night there last year, when she climbed Mt Whitney. Farther down is a glimpse of Lone Pine Lake. Sure looks like good swimming! Photo: BW

Almost down to the parking lot, feeling good, but also feeling like I just want to turn back and stay in the mountains.

Almost down to the parking lot, feeling good, but also feeling like I just want to turn back and stay in the mountains. Photo: BW

When we arrived at Whitney Portal, Dwight was there, along with Betty’s lovely dog, Molly. We dutifully bellied up to enormous plates of french fries (which weren’t nearly as satisfying as I imagined they would be. I couldn’t finish them all), loaded our packs and trekking poles into the car, and left the trail behind. I would jump at the opportunity to revisit the JMT, and immediately started wondering whether I could take a month off next year and do it again. The high country has a deep hold on my heart.

Betty and I arrive at Whitney Portal, tired but happy and ready to eat french fries. photo: Dwight Worden

Betty and I arrive at Whitney Portal, tired but happy and ready to eat french fries. photo: Dwight Worden

We pulled into our rental house in Independence, and met up with Tom. First order of business: a shower. Man, that felt good! Dwight had made a lovely spaghetti dinner, but I really couldn’t eat much. My stomach has shrunk and it needs so little to fill it. It was great to be reunited with my guitar, fiddle, and banjo! Tom and I are looking forward to two nights of rest before we played  a concert in Sugar Pine, on the other side of the Sierra above Fresno.

Epilogue:

The next day, Tom and I stayed in Lone Pine and didn’t do much of anything except play our instruments and wander about town. The following morning, September 5, we drove up Hwy 395 to Hwy 120 and crossed over Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park. It was so smoky there that we didn’t want to get out of the car. By the way, driving again was interesting: I actually wandered onto the shoulder on three separate occasions while gazing at the landscape around me. It took awhile to get used to the speed at which we were traveling. Luckily, I got us back on the road again with no problems, and within 30 or 40 miles I guess I was back in the here-and-now and once more trustworthy behind the wheel.

On Sept 6, the dense smoke that had hung over Wawona had magically dissipated, and the skies were brilliant blue. Just a slight change in the wind direction, and you’d never know there was a massive fire burning not so far away. So Tom and I stopped at the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias for a little rehearsal before our show. We pulled out the guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and mandola and walked a short way up the hill from the very busy parking lot to play in privacy. It was lovely, sitting on a perfect log in the dappled shade and quiet, reveling in the joys of music. After awhile, we packed up and headed down to Sugar Pine, about 10 miles and 30 minutes away on winding mountain roads. It wasn’t until we were setting up for the show there that I discovered that my banjo was missing. I had left it just sitting on that log back up the road. I felt sure that it was gone by now, what with the area being so crowded. One of the people at the party worked at Mariposa Grove, and he called the ranger office there and asked someone to go look. There was a tense 20 minutes or so waiting for the return call, and when it came in, the person said there was no banjo to be seen. But our hero of the day, Steve, jumped in his car, taking a hastily-drawn map of exactly where the banjo log was located, and drove up to the park. An hour and a half later, he returned with banjo in hand! Turns out that our log was quite a bit farther off the beaten path than I had thought, and the banjo was undisturbed and undiscovered by any of the many tourists. Walking distances aren’t what they used to be for me. Every stroll is so much shorter than I what have become accustomed to. I am happy to say that I am now reunited with my Deering Goodtime frailing banjo.

I am sad to be finished with my blog. As I think back on our trek, I see that it really was pretty uneventful. No bad weather, not a drop of rain, easy creek crossings, still plenty of water, relatively light packs, very little in the way of equipment or physical malfunctions, easy companionship, mostly good food. How can something so “uneventful” take such hold of me? Finishing writing about it means that it will recede into the past much more quickly, and I mourn that. Next summer, I know I’ll be in the high Sierra again. I can hardly wait. I hope and pray, as we all do, that the drought will break its hold on the West, and we will have abundant snows and rains. The experts do not expect that to happen.

If you are reading this far, I thank you for sticking with me on my journey, and urge you to get out there and make one of your own. See you down the trail somewhere.

Laurie