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.