Return to Bear Lakes
These are pictures of a Sierra hike that began at Lake Edison, wandered through the Seven Gables Basin, visited Vee and Sandpiper Lakes, and ended up at Florence Lake. David Hoekema’s journal of the expedition is also available.
A report by David Hoekema:
Notes on the sojourn of the Bytwerkians in the Sierra, 2001
Written on the trail by David Hoekema; transcribed 9/12/2001
Sunday, August 5, 2001 7 pm
Vermillion Resort, Lake Thomas Edison
Instead of a two-hour wait in LAX yesterday, I had a wonderful eight-hour excursion with Albert Cohen and Faith Sand, longtime friends whom I see far too seldom. They picked me up in their Honda electric car (not hybrid but all-electric–completely silent when it’s not in motion, so that I kept thinking it had stalled) and went with me to the museum and gardens of the Getty Center, perched atop a hill a few miles to the north with a commanding view of the Pacific shoreline. The museum buildings by Richard Meier are striking and attractive, more conventional (fewer wall cut-outs, fewer odd-shaped open spaces) than the High Museum in Atlanta, but they emphasize their relationship with the surroundings. What they contain is a surprisingly modest collection, with a few areas of strength (classical Greek and Italian Renaissance are the ones that stand out) and then a lot of pretty good paintings by major artists from other periods. But what takes the breath away is the elaborate gardens–architectural in their size and complexity, filled with surprising twists and turns of the path, with as much attention given to textures of foliage and bark, and to the varied sounds of a running stream (artificial, of course) as to plantings. There are many places to sit and talk, which we did–with Faith and Albert I always feel as if we each have about four times as many things that we want to talk about as we have time for–amid a wonderful mélange of people of every color and nationality and language. Admission to the museum and gardens is free, and it is well served by public transit (in Los Angeles! how heretical in that empire of the auto). Normally a visitor in a car needs to reserve parking weeks in advance, but we were waved right through to a small bank of mostly empty spaces reserved for electric cars, complete with free charging hookups.
After a late lunch/early supper in one of the museum restaurants Faith and Albert wanted to know what else I might like to do in our remaining two hours–it was like having two patient and endlessly attentive tour guides–and we settled on the Santa Monica Pier, where, once more, we went right past the “parking full” barricades to a reserved electric car spot. We chatted for a while with a young French man who was flying a kite modeled on a full-rigged sailing ship over the pier’s crowds, walked along the beach under the pier, wet our feet in the ocean (well, my two feet anyway), and watched the sun setting amid picturesque billows of ocean mist while sipping margarita’s at the end of the pier. I was worried about whether I could get on the last plane to Fresno, having been warned that my ticket from Priceline did not allow any changes in schedule, but Faith marched confidently with me into the Admirals’ Club and persuaded the desk attendant to give me not just standby status but a reserved seat. Unfortunately my delay meant that–contrary to what was printed on my reservation–I arrived at the Fresno airport after Budget’s rental counter had shut down for the night, so I had to take a cab to my hotel, which was about a 10-mile trip. Oddly enough, when I went to the airport to get my rental car the next morning and then drove back to my hotel, following a map, my route was only about 4 miles long.
The rest of our hiking party gathered on schedule back at the airport just past noon: they were Henry De Vries, a Calvin colleague; Dan Vandersteen, a social worker at Pine Rest; Dan Vander Woude, Ferris State instructor in automotive engineering (and spouse of a Calvin colleague); Bob Kragt, an Ameritech manager; and the redoubtable Randy Bytwerk, my onetime Calvin classmate and current Calvin colleague who is the organizer of these annual trips. I learned on the trail that Randy has gone hiking in the high Sierras nearly every year since college days, when he worked in Yosemite National Park, first in a park ministry program and then for a concessioner. He has never taken the same route twice, though he has crossed his own previous path several times (and would once again this year). Some of the guys in this year’s group have hiked with him six or eight times before. In 1999 he labeled the outing a Calvin expedition and invited colleagues to join. Only one took the bait that year–Henry–and he made up the party with Randy and Dan VS. I believe six is about as large a group as he has mustered. Our ages ranged from 48 to 57; nobody in the group is a competitive athlete, but I often wished I had as little extra baggage around my middle as most of the others have. Dan VW and I were the two new recruits this year, both us having plenty of experience hiking but little with overnight or longer outings. Seven nights on the trail looked fairly daunting.
Fortunately Randy’s own sense of advancing age and creeping decrepitude led him to hire a packer for the first day, to carry all of our backpacks. He and Dan VW will ride with the packer tomorrow, on a 9-mile ascent from 7500 to about 9500 feet, while the rest of us will hike with daypacks. We’ll carry our packs up a challenging climb to the next campsite, but then settle in for three nights while we make day trips up into the high lakes and passes.
Vermillion Valley Resort is a charming if rather ratty trailside retreat, where through hikers trade stories around the campfire. The facility itself is a motley collection of cabins and campsites scattered around the main building, where there’s a store with food and other necessities and a restaurant with a limited menu whose organizing concept seems to be “a big hunk of meat and a big pile of vegetables.” Just outside are “hikers’ barrels” outside the store where those heading out leave the food and supplies they didn’t need for others to pick up. I found a few things there that I had forgotten, such as hot chocolate and instant soup, and a small (and filthy–go figure) bottle of biodegradable soap. I probably could have picked up my fuel there as well and saved all the hassles of getting it out to California and back. There were several large RV’s parked at campsites–it’s hard to imagine why anyone would haul a big rig over the terrible road, but I can understand the appeal of coming off the trail and settling into a real bed.
Getting to the lodge was quite an adventure, however. The first fify miles from Fresno were hot and flat, the next twenty winding and steep but well-paved, with plenty of room. Then we came to the infamous Kaiser Pass Road, a narrow single-lane paved track that hugs steep slopes, meanders through forests, and plunges down steep ravines (an amusing Web site prepares one for the trip), . Several times, as I reached the top of a steep climb, I could see only empty space from my windshield because the road dropped away so quickly, and I had to go on in faith that sooner or later I would find out whether the road went straight or cut abruptly to one side. Passing another car was difficult; passing an enormous Suburban Environmental Assault Vehicle, as we often did was terrifying. And once we had to negotiate our way around an oversized pickup pulling a large RV. Not a guard rail in sight. The first 70 miles from Fresno took us about 70 minutes, but the last 20 took longer than that.
It’s surprisingly hot, despite the altitude. After repacking for tomorrow’s hike I took a walk along the shore of Lake Thomas Edison, a large artificial lake, and went for a dip. The water was a little chilly, but swimming out into the lake and looking at the forested slopes all around it felt marvelous. The only sounds I could hear the lapping of the waves and an occasional call from a crow (or raven?). That makes three bodies of water in three days: on Friday I was swimming in Lake Michigan, in 75-degree water and crashing waves; on Saturday wading in the surf in the Pacific; and tonight swimming in a lake high in the mountains.
Monday, August 6 3:30 pm
The rest of the gang went off to bed right at dark, figuring there was no point in staying up when the generator was going off at 10, coming back on at 7. Not being very sleepy, I spent some time by the campfire, listening to stories of bear encounters in Yosemite, getting advice on places to visit next time I come, hearing reports of how friendly and helpful the people at Vermillion are to through hikers, in contrast to the brusqueness at Muir Trail Camp farther south. Someone was speculating, though, that much of the food for sale in the Vermillion store had been pulled from the hikers’ barrels and repriced. Perhaps half the people around the fire, ranging from college age to 65 or so, were undertaking the entire 220-mile Muir Trail from Yosemite to Mount Whitney, or vice versa. I sat beside a young woman who is a follower of the ultralight hiking school. She carries a tarp rather than a tent, one set of clothes, a few days’ food to get to the next maildrop, and little else. So she can get by with a frameless pack weighing only a couple of pounds and a total load of only about 20 pounds.
A young Armenian man asked out help in composing a poem–a haiku, he suggested (it sounded less intimidating than a sonnet or villanelle, I suppose)–to send to his grandmother. “I must include a poem in my letter,” he said, or she would think him uncultured and rude. Here’s my feeble attempt to help:
Brilliance of the fire,
Coolness of the glimmering stars:
Vermillion Lodge by night.
I got a good night’s sleep, even though the beds were too soft and the blankets too harsh. I think the blankets were bought second-hand from a furniture moving company after they got too rough to use as moving pads. (Unfortunately this would prove to be my last night of uninterrupted sleep until our last night in a motel.) After a big breakfast, which we knew would be our last food except freeze-dried for a week, we used the one car at this end of our route (yesterday we shuttled the other one to the endpoint) to reach the trailhead. There’s a ferry many hikers use to cut off some miles, but we decided to hike up through the slopes alongside the lake instead.
We set out about 8:30 and climbed steadily for two hours, stopping frequently to rest. It was very warm, but fortunately we were in the shade and had a cooling breeze much of the time. Vermillion is at about 7500 feet, and after two hours’ hard work and an hour’s gentler ascent we reached the junction with the Muir Trail (also, in this section, the Pacific Coast Trail) at 9600 feet. While stopped for lunch at that point we were passed by the pack team carrying our two lazy companions. The remaining couple of miles, dropping back down to about 9000 feet, brought us to a lovely streamside campsite.
Now I am sitting beside a rushing stream, Bear Creek, as it hurtles down toward the waterfalls we passed an hour ago. Randy assures us that this was our most strenuous climb and, at nine miles, our greatest distance in one day. [It wasn’t, by any means!] Far less demanding than it would have been with our packs, however. I kept trying to get my basic gear kit down from about 43 pounds, which is what I carried on my trial overnight run with Klaas a month ago at Jordan River Pathway, to 40 or less. I succeeded, in a sense: replacing my two-man tent with a tiny one-person Eureka Solitaire and my four-season down bag with a new three-season EMS bag shaved six pounds or so, and even after I added stuff I hadn’t needed for an overnight (better first aid kit, water filter, extra camera film, a couple of books to read) I was close to 40 pounds. But then I had to add a week’s worth of food and two liters of water, and I had 60 pounds to carry. So watching the horses go by with my pack was a distinct pleasure.
My left foot is giving me some trouble on the descents, but apart from that I’m feeling good, and I find I can match the others’ steady but not too ambitious pace as we climb. We are all finding that, no matter how good our overall physical condition, climbing at these high altitudes quickly exhausts all the energy you have, and we rest far more often than we would if the air were thicker. On the flats I can keep up easily. But tomorrow’s route, which takes us up over a pass and then cross-country into the Seven Gables basin, carrying full packs, will be more of a test.
We are on one of the most-traveled routes in the West, here on the Muir Trail, yet we met only two parties of hikers today. The silence when we stop is profound: there’s nothing but an occasional birdsong (or a raucous call from a crow or Stellar’s jay), the wind in the tall Ponderosa pines and Western hemlocks, and the gurgling of the streams that are seldom out of hearing, even if they are not within sight.
Tuesday, August 7 5:30 pm
I am in my tiny tent at the lower end of Seven Gables Lakes basin, listening to yet one more rainshower–this after Randy just announced that the sun was coming out and the weather was clearing up at last! So I’m imprisoned in my quarters for a while, and wondering whether it was worth the weight savings to have to live in a tent so small that I cannot sit up. I can’t even reach to the bottom of the tent to stow gear there–I have to use my feet to push it down and snag it again. I think the Eureka designer must have started out making coffins, and modeled the tent on a slightly roomier than average one. It’s just long enough for me, but not my pack. But the rainfly seems to be effective, and I am staying dry. The only problem I discovered last night is that I hit the sides of the tent if I try to roll from one side to the other, which wakes me up and, in this loose and gravelly soil, pulls the tent stakes out of the ground. So no matter how tightly I manage to pitch the tent, it sags heavily by morning. I hope the rain doesn’t stay with us in coming days–Randy says he’s seen more today than in all his previous backpacking trips in August. Changing clothes outside the tent isn’t much fun in the rain.
About 2:30 today is when the rain hit us, after we had watched a line of thunderstorms moving in from the peaks to the southwest. Caught along our route, we quickly pitched our three biggest tents and took shelter–just in time, as our tents were pelted with heavy rain and even a brief shower of hail. After half an hour the storm was moving on past us, and we discovered that we had only half a mile to go to reach an established campsite just south of the first of a chain of lakes that we will explore in the next few days. This will be our campsite for three nights, which means no carrying full backpacks again until Friday.
The hike today left us all exhausted and grateful for the stopover. Our first three miles were on a good trail, with just a few hundred feet of ups and downs. The worst of that section was constantly swatting away swarms of mosquitoes. Across Hilgard Creek there was a challenging series of not very stable stepping stones, and I lost my balance. Fortunately I held onto my backpack and caught myself in a sort of squat, and Dan VW helped me up again. I had untied my waistband for better balance–nobody else seems to do that, but I remembered it as a precaution I always used to take–and I suspect that if I had been fully buckled up I would have ended up at some much less favorable angle. As it was the only damage was one wet boot and a sprained finger. But when we got across I asked Dan whether my Sierra cup was still attached outside my pack (another habit from years ago, when it used to be the custom to drink water unfiltered from mountain streams as you hiked past). It wasn’t, and when we both looked back we saw it sitting on a rock where I had slipped, then watched the water capture it and float it quickly downstream and out of reach.
After three miles we left the Muir Trail for an unofficial trail–a “use trail”–up to the Seven Gables basin. That proved to be quite a challenge: it was pretty well marked (by the tracks of hikers on soft ground, by ducks of stones when traversing rock) most of the way but involved some difficult scrambles up and down rock faces, across talus fields, and over steep ridges. The five miles or so after our first rest stop, just where we left the Muir Trail, took us nearly five hours (only four of hiking, since we made a leisurely lunch stop).
My sleeping bag and pad–both new–are fine, but I’m not sleeping well, waking frequently. But sometimes I think I haven’t slept a wink, then realize that I’ve just awakened from a long and elaborate dream. I hope my body will grow accustomed to the harder ground–and perhaps I will stop worrying that turning over in my sleep will collapse my tent. All my other gear is working fine as well–water filter, propane stove, and backpack (a Kelty external frame pack that is much better contoured than my old one). It’s remarkable how much better and lighter backpacking gear has become in the two decades I’ve been away from it. I do wish I had carried less food, though–I didn’t really know what I would need, and I think I ended up with twice the weight and twice the bulk of some of the more experienced hikers. By the time we shoulder the packs again I will have eaten a few pounds’ worth.
Our dinner routine is an odd blend of communal and individual. We tend to wait until someone is hungry enough to start up his stove, then all pull out our stoves and meal packages and perch on suitably placed rocks making our preparations. I’m sharing dinners with Dan VW, and some others are sharing, but we are all trying to get as few tools and dishes dirty as possible, so we all eat our meals right out of the plastic pouches in which they cook themselves after boiling water is added. Not the most elegant culinary arrangement, but after a day on the trail it’s amazing how good a sorry-looking mess of reconstituted meat and potatoes can taste.
If the clouds move out the sky should be spectacular tonight. We are in a basin surrounded by tall ridges of white Sierra granite–the reason John Muir called the Sierra Nevada “the range of light.” Our camp is at about 10,800 feet, well above tree line, and the vegetation around us is mostly grasses and wildflowers with scrubby bushes nestled among the rocks where they can find some protection against the cold and wind. Our net gain over last night is 1600 feet, but I am sure we ascended 2500 or 3000, with descents in between.
The thin air certainly does take a toll. I haven’t been bothered by headaches, only by fatigue–the least exertion seems very hard. Tomorrow, we will head farther up, but at least we will be lightly laden.
Wed., August 8 9:45 am and still in camp
I got a better night’s sleep–still no more than an hour or two at a stretch, waking to change my position, but then quickly back to sleep. My back and legs are sore from yesterday’s exertion, but I have no blisters and no sign of the really painful upper-leg strain that bothered me when I hiked with Klaas. That time it seemed as if I was calling on a muscle twenty years’ idle that was not going to take the challenge lying down. This time, I felt a bit of strain in the same spot in the first hour of our hike, both days, but then it went away and did not return.
This is a place that defines tranquility: reflections of the Seven Gables ridge only slightly distorted by ripples on the lake, occasional fish jumping out of the water, birds skimming low over it, and hardly a sound to be heard except the distant rush of streams cascading down from the snowfields high above. It will be a delight to camp here three days. I could stay three weeks if I had a satchel of books I wanted to read.
As of today, unfortunately, our party is reduced to five. Dan VW has been struggling with the altitude, sleeping badly and feeling extremely fatigued, and today he decided to pack up and head out. I’m sorry to lose him–the only other neophyte and a good hiking companion–but he was pretty sure that he was not going to get better even with another day or two to acclimatize. So right now Randy is hiking down the roughest part of the route with him, and he is hoping that once he reaches the Muir Trail he may be able to hitch a lift down with a returning pack team. [Which in fact he did.] Otherwise he will camp out tonight near where we did on our way up and pack out tomorrow. He offered to save us a couple of hours on our last day by shuttling our second car to our destination trailhead, since it will take his wife several hours to come and get him and she can just as easily meet him there. Fortunately his wife and family are in California, where they have spent the summer–if like the rest of us he had flown out alone it would be a lot more complicated a matter to bail out.
So the other four of us are enjoying a lazy morning, recovering from yesterday’s abuse of our bodies but planning to scramble around Seven Gables basin for a few hours to see the next two or three of this chain of lakes.
Thursday, August 9 7:30 pm
Afternoon clouds–very unusual in the Sierras, according to Randy–seem to be a daily feature in the skies this year. We spent the entire afternoon in camp yesterday after our morning excursion, reading our books, partly because we felt a need to recover from yesterday and partly because we kept hearing thunder in the distance and rain appeared imminent at several points. In fact it never arrived–no more than a couple of light showers, at any rate. The clouds never seem to stay into the evening, and the skies in the morning and in the evening are a deep and transparent blue. The thin atmosphere above us, I think, makes the sky’s color more intense, more saturated, less like a firmament above than like a bottomless pool of sky.
Yesterday morning’s hike up the basin was an enjoyable scramble, just an hour up and an hour back, but the lakes are not really very attractive once you get to them. They are completely surrounded by talus fields of broken granite, except where the streams draining the snowfields above enter here and there, supporting some vegetation along their narrow banks. We confirmed the wisdom of stopping where we did, rather than going farther into the basin as Randy had originally proposed. We picked a much better campsite than anything we saw farther up.
Today’s route took us up into a higher valley adjoining this basin, then up again to a steep pass and over into Bear Lakes Basin. The first part of the route was a scramble up rocky slopes, with areas of grasses and brightly colored wildflowers wherever there was water nearby, to Vee Lake, a very large lake that occupies a wide valley and drains into the Seven Gables basin. The last part of our ascent was a steep scramble up a narrow notch. The 400 or so feet we gained should not have been nearly as difficult as they were! But the effects of the altitude don’t wear off quickly, and by the time we reached the lake we were utterly exhausted. The sun’s heat was intense, too, with so little atmosphere to shield us. We took a long rest break, tucked into little patches of shadow where we could find them, while a curious marmot came from his hiding place under nearby rocks and stood up on hind legs to sniff our scent.
Vee Lake was more than worth the effort, a wide, deep, and exquisitely clear lake. We made an easy traverse along its north shore, following a rather faint use trail most of the way, and then headed up–another 800 feet!–to the pass that leads over into the Bear Lakes. Our lunch stop was at a tiny lake located right in the saddle, adjacent to a large snowfield that cooled its waters. From a nearby rock outcropping–looking down from 11,750 feet–we could see the chain of lakes through which Randy’s party hiked in 1999.
Only Randy and I went on over the pass and down to Bear Paw Lake, a descent of only a few hundred feet, but rough going over fields of huge boulders and sometimes unsteady smaller rocks. A pair of quail greeted us when we reached the meadow above the lake. The female quickly hid behind rocks and stayed stock still, but the male looked us over curiously, quite unafraid of these unfamiliar bipeds staring back at him from 10 or 15 feet away. Our route across the top of the lake took us across a wide expanse of bog, crisscrossed by tiny rivulets.
After an hour in the basin we retraced our steps over the pass and back down, to Vee Lake and Seven Gables Lakes. It was a lot easier coming down than it had been going up, although we founds ourselves in a few tight spots, mostly moving across country without a trail to follow. Back in the vicinity of our campsite, Randy and I chose different sides of the stream, and what looked to me like a shortcut proved to be twice as long as the other route, leading me into a couple of places where it wasn’t altogether clear that I could go either forward or back because of the steep slopes and sometimes impenetrable banks of low trees. But I did make it home, half an hour behind Randy. Our day’s outing had taken about six hours in all. The late afternoon found us all settled into the crooks of trees or leaning against boulders reading our books. This is clearly not an expedition dedicated to logging the largest possible number of miles.
Saturday, August 11 8:30 am
We didn’t put in all that long a day yesterday, but I never found time to write. Now I am waiting for a few things to dry out a bit and for the others to finish packing up as we leave our second campsite and head out on what will be our longest day, far longer than the one Randy told us would be the longest. If we succeed in reaching our intended campsite at Blayney Meadows, we will have covered about 12 or 13 miles. Fortunately, after our initial descent back to the Muir Trail and then a steep climb up to Selden Pass, our route will take us mostly downhill. And we will be on established trails all day. We are likely to meet a lot more people, but the hiking will be a lot easier than in the past couple of days.
Yesterday’s cross-country traverse from Seven Gables over to Sandpiper Lake was quite a challenge. We followed the steep and sometimes treacherous use trail down Seven Gables Valley for a mile or so, back through some of the tight spots that had given some of us trouble on the way up. The worst of them was actually an ascent on the return trip, climbing up over a ridge in an extremely narrow notch. Clambering up this section proved to be a lot less difficult and risky than descending it had been.
When the valley began to level out a bit we left the trail, crossed over the stream, and struck out across the shoulder that separated us from the next valley to the west. We were climbing constantly on rough ground, and our backpacks felt very heavy–this is only our third day hiking with a full load, I realized. But we found some wonderful treasures along the way, including a marvelous chain of waterfalls in the stream that drains Lou Beverly Lake. We were not the first to see them, by any means–we could see that there had been other hikers and a few teams of horses in the areas we were traversing–but they were located far from any established trail.
Finally we made Lou Beverly Lake and stopped for lunch. It proved unsuitable for a camping site, however. The lake is shallow and reedy, and the mosquitoes were numerous and aggressive. So we pressed on, up another 400 feet of taxing switchbacks —
[here I broke off because everyone else was ready to hit the trail, and resumed in the evening]
until we reached Sandpiper Lake, a beautiful spot nestled in a steep valley. . . .
[“OK, I give up! Too much else going on to write tonight!” I wrote. Here a long interval passes. Feel free to imagine a commercial break, or a halftime show.]
Monday, August 13 6:30 am, Fresno airport
At last, waiting to board my plane home (the airline having refused to put me on the same plane with Henry, a one-stop connection in Dallas), I have time to catch up on my trip notes.
Saturday night’s site on a rocky outcropping overlooking Sandpiper Lake was a great find, as lovely a spot as our campsite in Seven Gables Basin. The tent sites once again were fine gravel–easy to push tent stakes into, equally easy to pull them out by rolling over during the night. My tent usually looks rather droopy by morning.
Sandpiper Lake is on a marked trail, and we encountered more traffic than before. A group of two men and three middle-school kids stopped for a while across the lake from us–we could hear bits of their conversation, more than half a mile away–and then moved on into the Medley Lakes area farther in to camp. Later a group of nine high school kids trooped on down another trail from the upper valley that passes near our campsite. Ten minutes behind them came a man and women in their twenties, the instructors for what they told us was an Outward Bound group that had been learning climbing skills, returning to their camp just below Sandpiper. But that is what we consider a busy area: we saw more than a dozen people in a single day.
The most delightful surprise at Sandpiper Lake was the water temperature, warmed by the sun and the rocky slopes that surround it. I noticed it first when I was filtering water for several people while they scouted for possible campsites on either side of the lake. I was drawing water from a very clear pool near the lake’s outlet, and since I had some time to wait and the water was very inviting I took a quick dip. What a pleasure to wash some of the dust and grime from my body and hair! Later Randy and I discovered that the main body of the lake, which is perhaps a mile and a half in circumference, wasn’t much colder. Where the pool was about 65, the lake was no cooler than 62 or 63, I think. So we both went for a swim–he for a quick dip, I for half an hour of swimming and floating, a lazy and relaxing way to end the day’s hike. Drying off in the sun, with bone-dry air and a constant breeze, took hardly any time.
Since we were above tree line again (around 10,500 feet) we had a beautiful view from our campsite of the nighttime sky. Both on Thursday night at Seven Gables and on Friday at Sandpiper, we all lay out on flat rocks as the twilight began to fade, watching Sirius and Mars emerge from the deepening blue of the sky, then a few other stars here and there, and then hundreds–soon many thousands–punctuating the darkness. Now and then the sky was lit up by the bright flash of a meteor, this being the weekend of the Perseid meteor showers, or the slow and steady movement of a satellite. (One of the brightest of the latter, someone told me later, may well have been Skylab.) The Milky Way stood out in sharp contrast against the deep blackness of the rest of the sky. Seeing the stars from up close, as it were–ten thousand feet closer than normal, which makes no difference at all, and free from any city glare or smog, which makes a huge difference–was an overwhelming experience. It is not so much an experience of smallness or insignificance, I find, as a deep sense of the stillness and orderliness of the celestial realm. We are here, the stars are far above, and in some way past our understanding we fit together into a vast unity.
Saturday was the day we needed to cross over Selden Pass on the Muir Trail and–so we hoped–hike out all the way to Muir Trail Ranch, or more precisely to the Blayney Hot Springs campground adjacent to the ranch. The route Randy had planned involved a cross-country traverse from Sandpiper Lake into the adjacent basin of Marie Lake, just below the pass, at whose western end we could pick up the main trail. Friday afternoon, however, Henry returned from a scouting expedition with a report that the traverse looked quite difficult. One stretch in particular, appearing on the topographical map as a relatively uniform and not too steep slope just like the terrain we had crossed the previous day, was actually a wide and unbroken inclined granite face. Henry feared it would not be safe to cross without ropes and other technical gear.
Randy wasn’t ready to change plans without doing some exploration of his own, however, since the alternate route would require us to go back down 500 feet or so, then back up to the lake, adding a couple of extra miles to what would already be our longest day. Furthermore, he hates to follow a trail if there is an interesting cross-country alternative. It has been a new experience for me to set out in party that stays off established trails much of the time, a strategy that is much more feasible in the high country where you can always find your way by reference to nearby peaks. And in fact I have seldom spent much time in backcountry areas where the low traffic and ever-present granite mean that bushwhacking leaves no discernible trace on the land.
So Randy set out after we had our dinner, just at dusk, to see what he could add to Henry’s reconnoitering, returning an hour later in the dark with his flashlight to guide him home, and then he set out again at first light in the morning. But in the end he agreed that the cross-country route, which looked difficult but passable, was more rugged than he expected, and there were also some questions about whether the traverse around the south side of Marie Lake was passable. For a while we considered breaking up into two parties, but in the end we all headed off down the trail on the longer but more predictable route.
That meant we had about twelve miles to cover in a day–with full packs and lots of elevation to lose and gain and lose again. The beginning was a two-mile descent past Lou Beverly Lake to the Muir Trail junction, and from there, turning westward, we faced a pretty steady climb–on a good trail, for a change–up to Marie Lake and the pass beyond. It was amazing how few other hikers we met, hiking on one of the most popular trails in the West in prime hiking season. On our way up we met two young women, twenty-somethings looking very fit and energetic, each of them using two hiking poles. (Most of the hikers we met, I noticed, were using at least one pole; many of the younger ones who looked like they were setting ambitious goals for their daily mileage were using two.) They asked us about routes into the basin from which we had come and from there up to the “high route,” a cross-country route through the high Sierras that has been plotted out by renowned hiker and climber Steve Roper. It’s not a marked trail but a route making reference to various landmarks, staying much closer to the mountains’ ridgeline than the Muir Trail. The two women had a scheduled rendezvous with friends in two days, and they wondered whether they could make the mileage they needed to cover if they went off-trail. Randy, who knows the various routes through these mountains as well as anyone, thought it was possible but difficult. “It sort of depends on your shape–uh, on what sort of shape you are in,” he said, addressing the more buxom of the two women. They seemed to take no offense.
The hike past Marie Lake was just stunning. It’s a long and convoluted lake with many inlets, even a peninsula that nearly cuts it in half, and we took a break in whatever shade we could find along its banks. Then we hiked on to its upper end and began an ascent, switchback after switchback, to Selden Pass about 800 feet above. With each switchback we could look back over a broader vista, with the intense blue of Marie Lake set against the white granite and spotty green vegetation of the valley. As we got higher we could see farther and farther down the twists and turns of the valley farther below. It almost made up aesthetically for the feelings of exhaustion and the intense heat of the sun beating down on us.
At last we reached the pass and took another break. Just arriving from the other direction was a very friendly family group–parents, three girls and a boy, evidently their children plus a friend or two, all of the kids between 10 and 13–from Olympia, Washington. We learned that they were just headed into the backcountry for five days, planning on traversing some portions of the High Route. We chatted quite a while–for the adults the climb on either side had been exhausting, though the kids seemed hardly to be slowed down despite their full packs. It made me wish our family had done overnight hiking, not just day hikes, when our kids were younger.
From there we set out on a long and mostly pleasant descent–very steep only for the first mile or so–past Hart Lake and the Sally Keyes Lakes. This is prime fishing territory, it appears, and later in the day we met several people who were headed up to Sally Keyes with rod and reel. Unfortunately this was when my left foot began causing me a lot of pain: I have a neuroma that flares up from time to time, and when it is in one of its moods it causes intense pain every time I place my weight on the ball of my left foot. Descending seems to be the worst, ascending not as bad, and walking on flat terrain (a rare occurrence here) is usually OK. My worries about having to rest a lot, or even stay off the foot for a day, had so far proven unfounded. On this descent I got to the point several times where I was limping pretty badly, trying to keep all the weight on the outside of my left foot. But each time we stopped for a rest it got better, and keeping myself dosed with ibuprofen helped.
Randy usually keeps a steady pace somewhat slower than the rest of the group, and we regroup at our rest stops. This time, as he pulled in ten minutes after we had flopped down near Sally Keyes Lakes, he discovered that his tent had fallen off the back of his pack, sometime since the pass two miles and a thousand feet behind us. It’s an expensive Stephenson’s Warmlite tent he has had for many years, but he wasn’t willing to climb all the way back to the pass in hopes of finding it. But I told him I had a mental picture of him with the tent, in its red stuff sack, still attached to his backpack from a point on the trail alongside Hart Lake, only a mile and a gentle ascent away, and he decided a return trip that far was worth it. So he left pack and boots behind and backtracked in his Teva sandals (not a good idea–blisters developed that really bothered him the next day), carrying a two-way radio, while we headed on down the trail. I feared that my memory might have been playing tricks on me, but it wasn’t. Within half an hour Randy radioed the good news that he had located his tent, lying right on the trail just below Hart Lake.
The three or four miles after Sally Keyes were among the loveliest miles of the whole week. We were now down below tree line, sheltered from the heat of the sun by tall pines and Western hemlocks. The trail skirted the edges of huge Alpine meadows, filled with green grasses and dotted with wildflowers. Often we were within earshot of water–a trickling stream or a larger creek rushing down cascades of rapids–and the descent was seldom very steep. The twelve miles we had to cover no longer seemed so daunting.
How little we knew! The slopes gradually grew more open until we reached the top of an enormous northwest-facing slope that would be our final descent to Blayney Hot Springs and meadows, along the San Joaquin River. The family from Olympia had warned us that the last few miles would be the worst, and they were entirely right. The whole hillside, as we emerged from the trees, was covered with manzanita bushes and other low shrubs but utterly barren of trees, meaning there was no shade at all. The trail plunged steeply down in a series of huge switchbacks, each of them a quarter mile or more long, so steep that it was not easy to keep our footing. Descending isn’t as tough on the heart and lungs as ascending, but it sure takes a heavy toll on knees and ankles. Down and down we went, with no relief anywhere from the intense heat of the sun. We felt ourselves slowly cooking, and used up every drop of water–unable to replace it because there wasn’t a single stream or spring on the whole slope. We dropped from nearly 10,000 to less than 8,000 feet in less than two miles. What I wouldn’t have given for a nice, quick, two-mile zipline!
We met only one party on the way up, a father resting in a scarce spot of shade with his son of about 8. I wanted to file a child abuse report with his social worker–nobody should attempt that brutal a climb on a hot and sunny afternoon, least of all with a child. In the first light and the cool of morning it would still be rough going. But we found our way to the bottom of the slope, where at last there were trees to shade us, even though there was still another 600 feet or so to descend, along a trail much abused by pack teams. At last we passed the sign to Muir Trail Ranch and reached the Blayney Hot Springs campground along the San Joaquin.
Here, for the first time on our trip, we found ourselves setting up camp in others’ company. We were sharing a large clearing with an extended family group who had joined up with a son and his girlfriend, recent graduates of UC Davis, for the middle portion of their Muir Trail through hike. A tent too small to sit up in, let alone to get dressed in, is not an ideal home in a campsite shared with several other people, but I just waited until after dark to undress.
A hundred yards below the campsite was the river, a wide and rushing watercourse in a bed of large stones. What bliss after our exhausting hike to sit with our feet in the water! I filtered a liter of water and drank it down immediately. The only way to cross the river is to wade carefully from stone to stone through the rapidly flowing current, with a couple of logs too wobbly to walk on but adequate for holding onto as you wade. On the other side awaited a reward more than worth the effort: down a short trail across a lush bog, where the ground gives way gently under your feet, was a muddy hot spring pool, about ten feet across. The water looked uninviting, but it felt absolutely heavenly–about 100 degrees, with several bubbling springs on the bottom, feeding steaming water in constantly. Even better, just a little farther down the trail was a large rock-sided pond, perhaps 100 by 200 feet, whose water was tempered by the hot springs to the perfect temperature for swimming, about 70 degrees. So I adopted the same routine as most of the other visitors: soak in the healing warmth for twenty minutes until you felt a bit like a boiled vegetable, then cool down with a swim, watching teenagers leap off high rocks into the deep pool, and repeat as necessary.
Randy and I enjoyed a soak and a swim before dinner, joining a diverse group of perhaps fifteen campers in one or the other of the pools. Some were clothed, some not, as they chose, and nobody took much notice either way. After dinner, as dusk was settling in, all of our group but one returned, picking our way by flashlight, and sat in the hot pool for an hour or so, watching the stars and counting meteors (only a few). To my surprise, we had the pool entirely to ourselves. It was a perfect end to a grueling day.
Until Saturday night we had been in the high country and hadn’t needed to worry about bears, but we took at least minimal precautions now that we were in an established campsite below tree line, tying our packs up in trees if we did not have bear canisters. In the morning we learned that there had been a nocturnal visitor to our campground. The young woman in the family group and her boyfriend had decided to sleep in their bags without a tent, since the night was so mild. Sometime during the night she had awakened, in the middle of a dream in which her dog was breathing in her face, only to discover that the warm breath was that of a bear, sniffing around her sleeping bag. She made enough noise to startle him into flight, and the only damage in the morning was an overturned pail of trash.
Sunday morning we broke camp and headed down the trail to Florence Lake by 7:45 in order to catch an 11:00 water taxi to Florence Lake Resort, where our cars were waiting. It was a relatively easy hike of just under five miles, climbing up over several ridges and traversing meadows and pastures. An hour earlier than we needed to we were already at the ferry landing–no dock, just a sloping granite surface from which you can step carefully into a boat as it stands by–and we flopped down to rest in the shade. There seemed to be far too many waiting passengers, all with heavy packs, for the small boat that eventually pulled in. But the boatman–a heavily muscled man with shaved head, looking like a pro wrestler–was unfazed. He wrestled twenty packs up onto the roof of his cabin at the back of the boat, eight more in the middle of the bow, and then invited all of us to squeeze onto the benches along the gunwales. Half an hour more and we were at the resort, where we found both cars and loaded trunks and back seats with our dusty packs. In my pack are perhaps three or four pounds of food of various kinds, plus two of my three propane canisters, that I didn’t need and should have left home. But I suppose–until I get a more precise sense for what I need–I am better off carrying a few extra pounds than running short of food or fuel.
And the rest is re-entry and travel–twenty exciting and nerve-wracking miles on the Kaiser Pass Road, then twenty more miles of two-lane highway gradually descending into the Central Valley, with a stop for our first “real food” in a week at a burger joint in Shaver Lake. Then fifty more hot miles into Fresno, where we checked into a Motel Six. I can’t remember when a shower has been such an intense pleasure, or when I have felt fewer twinges of guilt about ordering a full rack of ribs, baked potato, and a large beer for dinner. The meal was such a pleasure after a week of freeze-dried dinners eaten directly from the plastic pouch. (But it did cause some heartburn and keep me awake for part of the night.)
Looking back, what were the most lasting images and impressions of the week? Among them are:
- reaching a pass or saddle after a long climb and knowing that I won’t need to rest every hundred steps for a while
- hearing the sound of rushing water, faint or loud, for hours at a stretch
- catching the first sight of Vee Lake, a huge expanse of clear blue water, after scrambling up a steep and trailless notch to reach it
- plunging into the cool waters of Sandpiper Lake, floating on my back in the warm sun
- -hearing a band of coyotes howling in the night
- looking back down one beautiful valley, past Marie Lakes toward the beginning of our hike, and then a few minutes later down the other side of the pass toward our destination
I came back to civilization determined not to let another two decades slip by before I shoulder a week’s worth of food and gear and head for the wilderness again.