Adventures in hiking…

Archive for February, 2015

Rattlesnakes on the PCT – Should I be Concerned?

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One of my encounters. This one was in a defensive posture.

In one of my tall tales, I wrote about a bad encounter with a rattlesnake on the Pacific Crest Trail:

 https://thelatebloomerhiker.com/2012/09/24/bitten-by-a-rattler-on-the-pacific-crest-trail/

You may be a potential class of 2015 PCT thru-hiker, or are wondering what your chances of encountering a rattlesnake on the trail are.  Based on my experience, the odds of running across one of these vipers in southern California are high.  The more you hike, the higher the odds.  Should that keep you off the trail? No!   It is more likely that you will be hit in a crosswalk than being bitten by a rattlesnake on the PCT.  I know, not very reassuring is it?

The truth is, by understanding the basic behavior of these snakes, you can reduce your chances of a direct confrontation with them.  First of all, they are not the aggressive human-attacking species that people make them out to be.  They want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them.

Behaviour: They are a cold natured species and generally are not found slithering about in cooler temps.  Rarely seen in winter and colder days.  Could you see them in the morning?  Not likely, unless you are cowboy camping and one has climbed into your sleeping bag for warmth.  But, you are more likely to get a scorpion in your bag in the Mojave than a snake.  The most common encounter with a rattler is one laying out in the sun on the trail.  The trails are exposed to the sun and relatively close to brush where they can escape.  Most of the rattlers that I have come across are getting sun in the mid-late afternoon hours.   When sunning, they often stretch out to their full length.   Somewhat nocturnal, they have been known to move about at night  while hunting but do not usually travel far.

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Habitat: In southern California and into the Sierras, mostly found in the dry, arid chaparral which pretty much describes most of the state.   In the mountains, usually below 7,500 ft.  It doesn’t mean you will not find them above that altitude, just not very common because it gets cold up there.  Often found around/under rocks or loose pine needles and leaves.

If you happen to come upon a rattler on the trail, my advice is to give it a wide berth.   If you prod it with your hiking pole, it may get into a defensive posture (coiled up) and can strike up to 3/4 of its length.  Sometimes, a gentle coaxing with you pole may work, but it depends on the mood that it is in.  Be careful when detouring around a snake because they do nest in the brush and chaparral.  Bushwhacking increases your chances of being bitten.

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Oh, we have tarantulas in SoCal too.

 Rattlesnake Avoidance:   Your best defense is to be aware.  This is hard when you’ve been hiking all day and your eyes are focused three feet in front of you.  In my opinion, snake gaiters or leggings are not worth it unless you do a lot of bushwhacking.  Hiking with pets?  Dogs are frequently bitten by rattlers and it is often fatal to smaller breeds.  Larger breeds survive, but the bite can cause intense swelling and permanent tissue damage.  Use caution when taking your dogs on hikes.  While the idea of your dog roaming free sounds like fun, a leash could save them from getting bitten.

If you are bitten:  I am not qualified to give medical advice but can tell you that you will probably not die from a rattlesnake bite.  The bite is very painful and your limbs may swell extensively.  If you carry a GPS locator or beacon, now is a good time to activate it.  If you are with someone, have them get help and stay calm.  If you can walk, make your way to get help.  And no, don’t slice into the snake bite area with a knife and suck out the poison.    The Mayo clinic has some good first aid advice here:  http://www.mayoclinic.org/first-aid/first-aid-snake-bites/basics/art-20056681

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A well camouflaged Pacific Rattler in the San Bernardino Mountains. My hiking poles protected me.

 

My closest encounter: Less than a foot.  While hiking with my wife I often provide a safety brief like what to do in thunderstorms  or first aid, and today I mentioned that a rattler can sound like bacon frying when it is warning you.   Around 7,000 ft near the beginning of our hike, I was walking and unwrapping an energy bar when my wife suddenly sprinted ahead and told me to stop.   The sound was unmistakable and very close.  To my left, was a large boulder and a Pacific Rattler was coiled underneath.   I slowly backed off and gave this critter a wide berth.    Afterward, she mentioned that “the sound of bacon frying was very accurate”.  Moral of the story, eat bacon and you can avoid rattlesnakes.

A good handbook with lots of info for the backcountry hiker:  The Backpacker’s Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills

Disclaimer:  I am not a herpetologist and can barely spell it.   My observations of rattlesnakes are based upon my experience hiking in California.  Being aware on the trail is your best defense against snakes or any other wildlife that could harm you.  Never go out of your way to kill a rattler – they serve a good purpose in the food chain.  There are fewer rodents out there because of them.


Water Crossings – It’s About the Risk

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A frozen creek crossing near Upper Cathedral Lake, Yosemite.

Have you ever crossed a rushing stream or creek?  I’ve read many a tale from hikers crossing rain-swollen streams up to their chests in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine.  Obviously, they survived to tell about it but was it worth the risk?  This could be a very short blog and I could say – use common sense.  If you hike in the backcountry long enough, water crossings are inevitable.  Most of the time, it will be safe to cross to the trail on the other side.  Sometimes, the choice could be the difference between life or death.

I’ve crossed streams, creeks, and rivers and have never been swept away.  Crossed frozen creeks and have never fallen through.  But, what would you do if you got swept under, fell off the log or broke through the ice?  Here are some ideas.

Assess/Prepare

– Assess water hazards.  Most well-established trails cross water at a location that is fairly safe.  However, rainstorms and snowmelt can turn any crossing into a treacherous ordeal.  Never cross:

1.  In front of or immediately after a waterfall.  Only a Darwin Award contender would do this.

2. Where there is debris, logs, branches that you could get entangled in.  The water pressure can force you under the debris.

3.  Rapid water above your thighs or waist.  Even if it is below your knees, fast-moving water can trip you up.  Assess the risk and look for a safer location.

4. Where there is a sharp bend in the creek or river.  The water speed varies greatly here and it may be hard to climb out.

5.  Where the bank is steep.  You may not be able to climb out.

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A creek crossing in Glacier National Park.

– Night crossings are not recommended unless you are familiar with the crossing and the water is very shallow.  Do you know if there is a waterfall or some other water hazard downstream?

– Remove your socks and boots, strap them to your pack.  I tie the socks in a knot.  I carry a carabiner, tie my shoes in a knot and clip them in.

– If you have trekking poles, extend them to where the handles are above your waist to account for holes in the creek bed.

– Loosen the various harnesses on your pack.  Unbuckle the sternum and waist straps.  This allows for a way to shed the pack if it pulls you under.  Often, the weight of the pack will pull you head first going downstream which is bad.

– Ziploc  or waterproof bags should have been on your supply list.  Put all electronics in those and stow in your backpack lid or high up in your pack.  Depending on the depth of the water, might be a good idea to move your sleeping bag and strap it to the top.  Same with your food supplies.

– If you have two or more people, face upstream and link arms.  As an alternative, you can face upstream and form a conga line with the strongest person in the front.  Hold on to the person’s waist in front of you.  Shuffle feet sideways as you cross.

– If you perform the crossing alone or one at a time, use your hiking poles and face upstream.  Always have three points in contact with the bottom.  Shuffle or take small side-steps.  Some crossings have rope or guy lines.  If you feel comfortable with those, grab on and shuffle across.

– If hiking in a group, there may be someone who has a fear of being pulled under.  Offer to make an extra trip and carry their pack.  The extra weight of a pack while crossing a log or in the water unnerves some people.  You can also tie a rope to their waist in case they trip or fall in.

– Cold water.  Find a shallow spot.  Icy cold water  can cause you to lose feeling in your feet and legs and possibly cause debilitating muscle cramps.   Cross as quickly as possible.  Use a safety line if you are with someone.

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Pretty, but not a good place to cross.

 

Equipment

– River shoes or water shoes with a thick rubber sole.  Some people use waterproof sandals or clogs.  Most waterproof hiking boots still allow water in over the top.  If your hiking shoes get wet, you are just inviting blisters.

– Trekking or hiking poles provide you with additional stability.  Put your hands through the straps in case you drop it.

– If you have convertible hiking pants, unzip the legs and stow them in your pack.  If you are wearing cotton, you might want to cross in your tighty-whities or swimming trunks.  It’s not great to hike in wet clothes.

– Carabiners, rope or paracord to tie loose items or as a safety line.

These work great and are lightweight: Black Diamond Neutrino Carabiner – gray, one size    and strong paracord – Military 550 Paracord from Our School Spirit – Made in the USA (Black)

– Waterproof gear bags, bear canisters for food and ziploc baggies.

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Don’t be a Darwin Award Nominee. Nevada Falls, Yosemite.

 

What to do if you fall in:

– In rushing water: If you followed the previous instructions about unbuckling the backpack harnesses before crossing, and it begins to drag you under,  roll out of your pack and point your feet downstream to protect your head from rocks and debris.  Try to navigate to the creek or river bank and grab on to overhead branches or anything along the bank.

– Once you crawl out of the water, assess your situation.  If it is daylight, look for your pack downstream.  You may see it washed up on some rocks or caught up in a tree root.  Be careful when pulling it out., it would suck to fall back in.   If a friend has a carabiner and rope, someone can attach it and pull it out.

– Falling through the ice:  If your pack pulls you under, roll out of it.  Frog kick and try to propel yourself onto the ice.  If you are with someone and still have your hiking poles, extend one so they can pull you out.   A rope and a branch can come in handy here too.  Once out on the ice, spread your body out to increase the surface area and crawl toward the bank.  Don’t stand up until you are at the bank.  If you have a change of clothes, it would be a good idea to get some dry ones.  Hypothermia is the real enemy now.

 

One of the nicer log crossings on the JMT. Most were a single, narrow log with a torrent of water below.

 

Do you have any tips for water crossing based on your experience or something you’ve read?  Please share them with us in the comments section.

A great guide for backpackers:  The Backpacker’s Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills

I like this guide in paperback form, but is also available in Kindle format.

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Lastly, a true story and lesson learned from one of my crossings:  Hiking on a southern California beach with my wife, we crossed a 10 foot inlet where the Pacific fed a lagoon.  Up to our shins, it was easy.  On the return leg 4 hours later, the inlet was 60 ft. wide and ultimately up to our shoulders as the tide rushed in to the lagoon.  We made it, but it was scary.  The salt water also caused a chemical reaction with my magnesium fire stick and almost caught my pack on fire.  Whew!

Good, affordable trekking poles:  Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue

Disclaimer:  The information in this blog is for informational use only.   There is no guarantee that following the recommendations will protect you from harm.  Use common sense when hiking.  Most seasoned hikers are not competing for the Darwin Award.


Never Trust a Marmot

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A marmot sunning above Thousand Island Lake on the JMT.

 

The hike today had been a long one.  The John Muir Trail was all that we had expected and more.  Imagine Ansel Adams pictures in living color.

Rounding Emerald Lake, I proceeded down toward Thousand Island Lake to look for a suitable camp.  To the left, a solid granite landscape rose up but appeared to level out after a few hundred feet.  It looked promising so I climbed it with my pack.  Reaching the top, it was mostly rocky with a few areas where one could pitch a tent. It was almost a caldera like depression, but the car-sized boulders made it obvious that this area was formed by ancient glaciers.

Dropping my pack, I retreated down the face of a granite hill to see how my wife and brother were doing. The final push toward Thousand Island Lake had been a hard one and my brother was experiencing a bit of acute mountain sickness (AMS).  We had to find a place to make camp soon.

I took out our JMT maps and discovered the area up the hill was off-limits.  It wasn’t worth getting caught by the ranger, so I went back to retrieve my pack.  Starting up the granite escarpment, I noticed something moving in the area where I had left my pack.  Marmots!  Those sneaky pests found my pack and were checking it out.

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Yellow-bellied marmot, Yosemite NP.

 

I yelled “Hey, get outta here!” and one of them perked up like a meerkat.  Still far off, I looked for rocks to throw, but they were too big.  Continuing to climb, it was difficult to scale the rock and yell.   Kinda like chewing bubble gum and walking.   Anyhow, I did find some rocks and started slinging them at the vermin but my shots all fell short.   I think one of them snickered something to the other one and they didn’t budge.

It seemed like it took forever to reach my pack and I was worried now that they ripped it open trying to get to my food.  Most of it was in a bear canister, but I did keep some snacks in the outer pockets for easy access.  As I got to within 20 feet, the two burglars scattered and disappeared down a hole.  Man, they’re like Orcs living underground.

Checking my pack out, everything was intact and I was able to meet my wife and brother back on the trail.  We ended up camping on the north shore of the lake with Banner Peak as our backdrop.

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Our view for the evening. No marmots here, but plenty of mosquitoes.

 

The yellow-bellied marmot, a ground squirrel – a fat one mind you, is an omnivore that eats anything including stuff in your backpack if left unattended.  They hibernate and are generally fattest in the fall.  They can live up to 15 years and are nicknamed “whistle pigs” because of the sound they make when predators are near.  To me, they look like groundhogs or beavers without the tail.  Don’t let their cuteness fool you.  They are sneaky and will steal your lunch.

Lesson learned: Never trust a marmot.

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)


The Pedro Fages to Pacific Crest Trail

Nestled between Cuyamaca State Park and the southern section of Anza Borrego State Park is a nice trek along the Pedro Fages Trail.   As we pulled off the road and read the trail marker, I tried to visualize the path that the Native Americans and later the Europeans took as they made their way through Oriflamme Canyon.   The trail starts on the Sunset Highway (S1) near the junction of Hwy 79 at Cuyamaca Lake.  The California Riding and Hiking Trail which actually starts near Otay Lake in southern San Diego County passes through Cuyamaca and through this area toward Chillihua Valley.

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What makes this hike enjoyable are the wide open views as you start out in Mason Valley.   One of the things that amazes me about southern California is the diversity of the land.  Sure, it is dry and rocky in most areas, but you will find contrast all around.  Today, the deep blue sky with scattered clouds was set apart from the rocky terrain of the Laguna Mountains.

The single track trail with wide open vistas made you want to run, but I’m a hiker not a runner.  The breeze from the Anza-Borrego Desert made the dry grasses wave in unison.  It was tempting to lie down in the meadow and just watch the cloud formations, but we had a goal today.  We would hit the junction with the PCT and see how far we would go.

After 1.5 miles, you come to a Jeep trail.  Out here they call them truck roads, but they’re mostly service roads for the USFS.  Turn right, go through a gate and you will see small signs for the PCT.  Turn right and you’ll follow the PCT to Mexico.  A little farther up on the left is a battered sign for my favorite trail north.  My wife and I talked about setting up some trail magic near here for the PCT class of 2015.  Hmm, we will have to see.  I’ve always had thoughts about becoming a trail angel.  People who bring drinks, food to PCT thru-hikers are trail angels and the stuff they provide is trail magic.  It’s an awesome way to bless people when they least expect it.

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A “classic” Pacific Crest Trail sign.

The trail has been fairly level to this point but as you follow it east-northeast it begins to drop into the canyon.  It appears to descend around 800-1,000 ft.  This is a very quiet hike through here, the only sounds are aircraft passing by and the fluttering birds.   It’s definitely one of the trails less travelled.   We were not exactly thrilled about hiking down and then having to hike back up at the end, but sometimes it is just what you have to do.

At the bottom of the canyon is another Jeep trail and the PCT hikers will take a right and walk along the road before bearing left 1/4 mile up.  We took our lunch break at the bottom on a couple of boulders and took our shoes and socks off to cool down.  It’s always a good idea to remove the boots/shoes on a warm hike.  Helps to cut down on the blisters.  A rare patch of cool, green grass made it even more inviting.  A cool creek or mountain stream would have been perfect, but we are in the desert of So-Cal.

The hike up was a tough climb, and I must have left my trail legs in the Sierras because my calves were complaining.  This would be a hot hike in late spring, summer and not recommended.  Back at the main fire road, we noticed a Forest Service or Cal-Fire concrete water tank.  On top was a steel lid to the inside.   Unfortunately, it was empty but it sure would make a nice sleeping bunker on a cold night.

 

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A valve to the forest service water tank. Of course I had to try it.

After the leg workout, the valley and meadow was a nice way to finish the out and back hike.  About 200 yards out, a lone coyote trotted by.  I tried howling at him, but my throat was parched and all that came out was a failed attempt of a silly human trying to make an animal sound.   He did glance over at us and barely slowed down.

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Looking for the Roadrunner….

Today’s out and back to the PCT was a solid 6 miles.  It was good to be back on the trail with my hiking partner.  This trail didn’t have the best vistas, but any day that you can hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail is a good day.   Thanks for stopping by my blog and remember to take the 10 Essentials when you trek into the backcountry.

  1. Navigation (map and compass)
  2. Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
  3. Insulation (extra clothing)
  4. Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
  5. First-aid supplies
  6. Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
  7. Repair kit and tools
  8. Nutrition (extra food)
  9. Hydration (extra water)
  10. Emergency shelter
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I always hug a PCT marker whenever I get the chance.