Adventures in hiking…

Archive for September, 2013

Encounter With a Mountain Lion on the Pacific Crest Trail

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Mountain Lions hunting while we sleep..

I shined my headlamp in the direction of the rustling sound.  What I saw made the hair rise up on the back of my neck.  Forty feet away, two yellow eyes were staring right at me.  I yelled at the eyes but they only blinked and did not shift.  This was now a chess game and it was my move…

It was late spring in southern California and I was hiking another 100 mile section of the PCT.  I couldn’t take the five or six months off of work to hike it in its’ entirety;  well that and my wife wouldn’t appreciate my extended absence.  Thru-hikers that trek the entire 2600+ miles are special in the sense that they are driven to spend days of solitude, pain and hunger to accomplish the task.  Me, I was content to eak out another section of this glorious trail. Emerging from the Mojave Desert, I felt like a beat up fender in an auto body shop.  The sandblasting effectively removed one or two layers of skin.  My tent survived the 50mph gusts, the ground-hog stakes worth every dime.    Hiking at night, my encounters with scorpions were frequent and uneventful.  The tent was zipped up tight to keep out those critters.

Eventually, crossing Hwy 58 in the early morning, I realized that I was technically entering the Sierras.  It still looked like a desert, but with foothills.  Eventually, there were some trees and shade.  Taking a break near a stream that I had almost missed, I thought about not having seen anyone since the highway.  Sometimes on the PCT, you can go all day without seeing another human.   Not one to use a headset while hiking, I began to hum and sing to myself.  Those good ol’ gospel tunes that were stuck in my head since childhood.   As I was filtering some water, I sensed that something else was around but didn’t think much of it.  If you hike solo long enough, you tend to not worry about the boogeyman.  Besides, I often carry a “stinger” when in the backcountry.  While the likelihood of being accosted out here is slim, my little pistol provided me with peace of mind.

Around the 12 mile mark, I started looking for a suitable campsite.  Something near the trees, no widowmakers (big dead trees) and not in a gulley where a flash flood would wash me away.  The wind had died down and it was quiet and calm.  One of the first things to do is pitch the tent and get my bedding situated. I  prepared my food about 50 ft away from my tent and the Ramien noodles cooked quickly.  This is a great meal when you just don’t have an appetite, but need to eat.  Add a little pita and it fills you up.  As my daughter recently explained to me – Ramien means noodle in Korean.  Why would we call it Noodle noodles?  Hearing a branch snap got my attention and I thought that maybe another hiker was coming through.  Most of the PCT thru hikers had passed through last week, but there were some stragglers that were taking advantage of the famous hospitality and trail magic in this area.  After a few minutes and no hikers, I didn’t think anything of it and went about my camp chores.

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The last bit of sun in the southern Sierras.

Sunset was coming quickly; the colors from the desert would gradually change the cumulus clouds various hues of purple and pink as the horizon turned a darker shade of blue.  I think that sunsets are more enjoyable – maybe because I’m awake.  It’s hard for me to enjoy the beauty of a sunrise until I’ve had that first cup of coffee.  No campfires tonight, most of this area is under a fire ban.  Many of the wildfires around here are caused by campers and hunters who are careless with their fires.  I carry two lights, one a portable LED lantern that hangs from the tent and my headlamp for when nature calls.  At my age, nature calls often – especially when you drink several liters of water each day.  Since I was entering into the Sequoia National Forest, I carried a bear canister for my food and stowed it 50 ft. away from camp.

When camping alone, I often hit the sack early.  At home, seven hours of sleep is good.  Here, eight or nine broken hours of sleep is ok.  As I switched off the lantern, I heard a shuffling sound out in front of the tent.  I listened intently.  It was quiet, the crickets were the only other sound.  I counted the cricket chirps for 14 seconds , ok 10 chirps, add 40 – that’s 50 degrees out.  It’s an old trick that I read about, count a cricket’s chirp for 14 seconds, add 40 and you can estimate the temperature within a few degrees.  I discounted the shuffling for some skunks or racoon and was almost asleep when I heard it again.  Ok, have to see what this is.  I put on my headlamp and unzipped the door on the tent.  Not wanting to tick off a skunk, I stayed in the door of the tent and scanned the area nearby.  I was in a small clearing, near some scrub brush.  As my lamp scanned the forest, I froze when a pair of yellow eyes appeared about 40 ft. away.  The eyes were about two feet off the ground.  The first thing I did was to yell, like “Hey, get outta here!”  It didn’t move.  I grabbed my whistle from within the tent and blew on it.  No good.  Whatever it was didn’t move.  I was thinking should I leave the relative safety of the tent to scare this away or should I stay here and make some noise?

I decided to confront whatever it was to show who was in charge here.  Grabbing my hiking poles and cooking pot, I went out the front of my tent and banged the pot, raised the poles over my head and walked a few steps toward the creature.   Adrenaline must have been surging through my body because my ears started ringing.  I kept my distance, continuing to make noise and that’s when it became apparent who my visitor was.  My headlamp illuminated the body of a mountain lion!   It slid away in the brush with its’ long tail twitching on the end.   This creature didn’t run from me, it just walked away.  I had almost forgotten about the small pistol tucked within my waistband.  Not in the mood for hunting a cougar, I retreated to my tent and turned on the lamp.

Within 10-15 minutes, there was shuffling outside the tent.  This time it was to the left.  Oh boy, this was going to be a long night.   I banged on my pot and blew the whistle for a bit and waited.  Now, the crunching sound was behind my tent.  This critter was circling my tent trying to reconnoiter its’ prey.  Knowing that I couldn’t go to sleep with a predator stalking me and the thin-walled tent would not provide protection, I decided to go on the offensive.  I got my camera with the flash ready and in the other hand my pistol.  I really didn’t want to shoot the big cat but needed to scare it away.  Emerging from my tent, I turned my headlamp on to the brightest setting.  The light caught the yellow eyes and I pointed my camera in the general direction and started taking a few night pics.  After a few flashes, it took off and I could hear the shuffling grow fainter.  Here’s what I saw:

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It was a long night after that.  Like a little kid, I left the light on and laid there listening.  Chirp, chirp, chirp……   At one point, I remember thinking about my GPS locator.  Normally, it’s used to send my position with an OK message to my family and friends.  However, underneath a protective flap is the SOS button.  If I was in dire straits or hurt then I would press it.  I can hear it now:  “You pressed the SOS button for a big kitty?  Come on man!!!”  The thought did cross my mind though.

Not really being able to sleep, I would cat-nap until sunrise.  After eating some oatmeal, I checked out the area and must have flushed out some quail which scared me more than the mountain lion.  I ended up going back to my tent to catch a few hours rest.  I was awakened by the scream of a wild cat ripping into my tent.  Sitting up in my sleeping bag, I struggled to unzip it to reach for my gun.

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Mountain Lion in woods. Photo credit – Darren Smith

Within a few seconds, I realized that I had been dreaming.  My tent was intact and there was no cougar attacking me.  I decided to pack up and hit the trail.  After all, there was 53 miles of trail to cover. 🙂

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If you haven’t figured out by now, this is one of my fictional blogs.  While there are mountain lions in the western most sixteen states and Florida, encounters with humans are rare.  However, this past summer an Australian PCT thru-hiker was harassed by a mountain lion all night in the Sierras.  She actually did a video of her incident and pressed the SOS button on her SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger – Orange messenger.  The cat never attacked, but it took over six hours for rescuers to show up.   While it is unusual for these big cats to stalk humans, they are predators and can view us as prey.  In daylight, your best defense is to appear as large as possible and raise hiking poles or sticks over your head and make a lot of noise.  Never run or crouch down as this may trigger their instinct to attack.  When hiking with children in mountain lion country, it’s best to keep them close by. To my knowledge, mountain lions have never attacked humans in a tent.

I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it.  It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures.  It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips.  Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle


How I Convinced My Wife to do Backcountry Hiking

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The title should really have peaked your interest.  How does a husband convince their wife to do anything? As we say in the military – here’s the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF):  It takes time.

Most things worthwhile take some effort.  Typical of our manly ways, we tend to go for the gusto – straight away.  Backcountry, or multi-day hikes take a bit of planning especially for someone who has never been.  Specifically on the backcountry hiking,  it’s easier when you live in an area that is conducive to camping and hiking.  Either that or you have enough time and money to vacation in beautiful wilderness areas.

Living in southern California, we are within a days’ drive of the High Sierras which has made it uber-easy to do this outdoor activity.  However, every state in the union has locations for hiking.  From the Appalachian to the Continental Divide to the Pacific Crest Trails, including the national and state forests – there are many areas where you can get off the beaten path. Imagine Denali in amazing Alaska, or Waimea State Park on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

For me, I was determined to do an outdoor activity with my wife that we could enjoy together.  We started by day hiking.  I bought a book on trails within San Diego County and we began going out on Saturdays.   We would pack a lunch and make a day of it.  The more secluded, the better.  Eventually, the hikes got longer with more elevation change.  While flat terrain is a good break, the challenge of a good cardio workout made it more than a walk in the woods.

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We would mix up mountain hiking with desert treks as the seasons allowed.  We developed a love of the outdoors and an appreciation for the creation.  As believers, we observed God’s handiwork in the land and His animals.   We also enjoyed each others’ company as we took breaks and drove to/from our hikes.   The time in the car is a great time to talk about your marriage – and life.  

You really don’t have to be equals as far as physical conditioning.  In our case, she kicks my butt on the trail.  However, consider the physical condition of your spouse.  Start out with easy, short hikes and make a date out of it.  It helps to start out with a trek that has awesome scenery.   End with a sunset and/or dinner at a new café. We’ve discovered some decent eateries while out on the road.  We also established a tradition of celebrating with a cup of hot tea after reaching each summit.   

There were times when I pushed us too hard or it was too hot, but we learned from our mistakes.  Once, we were almost swept into a lagoon in a rushing tidal inlet.  We often share that story with others and always laugh.  Another time, we got off track on a snow-covered mountain in the Sierras and bushwhacked for a couple of hours.  Every year, there are new stories to share.

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Day hiking presented an opportunity to do some camping.  We eventually combined car camping with some hikes.   If your spouse hasn’t camped before, car camping is a great intro.  It allows for conveniences like coolers, chairs and bathrooms.  If your kids are grown, go to campgrounds when school is in session.  Much less crowded…. 

During this time, we also visited epic locations like Yosemite.    Some places just leave you yearning for more.  The Sierras are this way.  I imagine the Rockies and so many other areas are similar.  Eventually, we did a 3 day backcountry trip to the highest peak in our area – San Gorgonio.  It was difficult, but rewarding. It really proved that she could hike in the backcountry with a full pack and sleep in the wilderness.  We still laugh about being awakened at midnight by the spotlight of a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s helicopter looking for a lost hiker.  Wilderness hiking builds memories.

I won’t exaggerate, it took a few years to get my wife into the backcountry on an extended trip.  We worked up to it.  I made sure that her needs were taken care of and that she felt safe.  I gradually built up trust and gained some knowledge on our wilderness treks.  Over the years, We’ve been lost a few times, but a handy GPS and some map skills would get us back on track.

I really could have made this blog a lot shorter by stating that backcountry hiking with your spouse (or significant other) isn’t going to happen quickly.  Start out with day hikes, progress to car camping and do a short backcountry trip that has awesome scenery.  “Now you’re cooking with peanut oil”  Phil Robertson-Duck Dynasty, A&E.

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Big Pine Creek North Fork – Palisade Glacier – Day 1

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2nd Lake, Big Pine Creek – North Fork

Tucked away on a mountain road near the eastern Sierra town of Big Pine is the entrance to one of the most amazing getaways.  The Big Pine Creek collection of campgrounds, lakes and trails are magnificent.

This trip was a last-minute adventure.  My wife was back east helping out with a new grandchild and I knew that I didn’t want to sit around over the long Labor Day weekend.  The Sierras are only 4-5 hours away from San Diego, so I packed up my gear and headed toward the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center in Lone Pine to get my backcountry permit.  I researched a few areas to hike and was prepared to “settle” for whatever was available.  Normally, this holiday weekend is one of the busiest up here.  You should especially avoid Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne unless your plans are very flexible.  One could write a blog on the best ways to get backcountry permits.  The trails in the various areas are under the jurisdiction of the USFS or National Parks and traffic is controlled through the use of permits.  About 40% of permits are reserved for walk-ins, the rest can be reserved through recreation.gov for a small fee.

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The visitor center was actually not that busy and I was able to easily obtain the permit for the Pine Creek North Fork trail.  Another 40 minutes and I was in Big Pine.  The sign on the road that takes you to the trail is fairly obscure and starts out as Crocker Rd.  The road passes through a neighborhood and gradually climbs several thousand feet.  The rocky, desert landscape starts to change as you approach the sub-alpine area where the campgrounds are.  The aspen and Jeffrey Pines are abundant in the lower elevations and I imagine that this is even more beautiful as the deciduous trees change in the fall.

The overnight parking lot for the hikers comes up on the right.  There is plenty of room, but I found out that the trailhead is almost a mile away.  Oh well, I needed to loosen up a bit.  I passed the pack-train corral and noticed signs for the various campgrounds and Glacier Lodge.  It was fairly busy in the camps as people were getting in their last bit of summer vacation.  The trailhead is well marked at the end of the road.  There is limited day use parking at the end and I recommend to drop off your gear if there are two or more hikers.

The trail wastes no time in elevation change as the steep, short switchbacks get the heart beating.  You cross the first footbridge and the creek is rapidly descending through cascades and waterfalls.  Normally, this time of year many of the creeks in the Sierras are dry.  Not here, the Palisade Glacier ensures a year-round flow.  The trail meanders through the forest but stays close to the creek.  The rushing water provides the assurance that you can follow it all the way up to its’ source.

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View from Black Lake trail

After the second footbridge, the trail gradually climbs the canyon and then flattens out for a bit.  The riparian environment changes to a desert landscape with some cactus hiding under the chaparral.  The trail diverges from the creek, but never far enough to lose sight or sound.  Occasionally, the sound of the cascading water is an indicator that you will be climbing again.  The louder the water, the steeper the incline.  I’m a simple guy, so I tend to associate simple things you know.

One of the things I love about hiking in the Sierras is the change in eco-systems as you ascend the trails.  You can start out in an arid desert and pass through riparian areas to sub-alpine forests with deciduous trees, followed by alpine forests and end up in snow-covered peaks above the tree line.  It’s so cool to see the flora change while you hike.  This trail appears to dead-end in a canyon and one knows there is only one way out – and that is up.  The path diverges from the creek and the long switchbacks quickly take you above 8,500 ft. Evidence of the pack trains litters the trail where their path emerges from the corral.  Fortunately, the trail is wide enough to step around the mule doodles.  The trail is well maintained with many man-made steps carved from the granite.  You round the corner near a significant cascade and the view is impressive.  Temple Crag comes into sight and the trail rises above the creek.  During the afternoon, the wildlife was missing but imagine that this is a place where deer would hang out.

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Big Pine Creek – North Fork – First Fall

Due to my late start and occasional thunder, I started looking for a campsite.  100 ft. from water and trail, that makes it a bit harder.  Well, that and a flat spot for the tent that isn’t in a wash or drainage area.  I found a suitable spot under some fir trees and set up the tent quickly.  The two-person Eureka tent has been a good one.  Lightweight and easy to set up.  The bugs were almost non-existent.  Mosquitoes are bad here in early summer, but this was perfect.  Dinner was a Mountain Home chicken and noodle- too much for one person.  The housekeeping routine when you camp solo is a bit different.  Normally, you split chores like setting up the tent, getting water and cooking but tonight it was all mine.  Within 45 minutes, it started sprinkling and by 7 p.m. a steady rain ensued.  Fortunately, the lightning was distant and the trees seemed to reduce the impact of the rain.

Combined with the drive and a couple of hours of hiking, the rain was a natural sleep machine.  The pitter-patter on the tent was peaceful and the rushing creek was a great combination.  I was asleep by 8:30.

Next: This place has it all

We use the Nikon 3300 series for most of our pics.  An easy to use camera a step up from the entry-level model. Nikon D3300 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR with AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II Zoom Lens (Black)