Adventures in hiking…

Hiking

Hiking in the Desert

While hiking is a great solo experience, it helps to have a hiking buddy.

For those that love the outdoors, living in southern California has a few advantages.  The beach, deserts, and mountains are all within a couple of hours of each other.  As the slight changes in weather occur, you can shift your activities to another ecosystem.  In the fall and winter, the deserts in California are simply amazing.

In this article, I’ll be speaking about the Colorado Desert which is actually part of the larger Sonoran Desert.  While not necessary, a four-wheel-drive vehicle can transport you to more interesting places to hike.

Why hike in the desert?  Many reasons, but here are a few:

  • The solitude is prevalent.  Living in an area like SoCal with its millions of people can give you the feeling of being surrounded.  The desert with its wide open spaces is like being transported to another world
  • The flora is astonishing.  There is always something blooming and growing in the desert.  The variety of chaparral and cacti will bring out the botanist in you.
  • There is wildlife, you just have to look for it.  Hummingbirds, chuckwallas, roadrunners, foxes, jackrabbits, and hawks.  Some days you will see many, some days – none.
  • The terrain can vary.  The desert isn’t all flat and sandy.  The Peninsular Range in SoCal brings some variety to the landscape, especially in the Anza Borrego area.

There are many slot canyons in the Anza Borrego Desert.

We combine hiking with off-roading and exploring.   Using a local guidebook named Afoot and Afield: San Diego County we copy a couple of pages from the book, stick it in our packs and head out.   This resource is loaded with amazing hikes providing detailed explanations of the surroundings.  There are slot canyons, wind caves, and fossil fields all over the place.  We have seen palm oasis’, desert streams and the strangest geological formations.

A hike near the Salton Sea.

A few precautions on desert hiking.  Trails are often not well-marked or maintained.  There are no trees and very few references on the horizon.  It is a great way to develop and improve your land navigation skills.  We have been turned around on more than one occasion.  The compass and GPS are great companions.  While the weather doesn’t change quickly in the Sonoran desert, the winds can be strong and blowing sand is annoying.

Waterfall in Palm Canyon, Anza Borrego Desert.

Look for upcoming desert hikes on my blog.  I’m excited to share some of the more interesting ones with you all.   A good resource for the Anza-Borrego region is listed in the link below,

http://amzn.to/2nW7Dbu

 


Hiking Late in Life – Piece of Cake

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We started hiking around the time I turned 50.  As a Baby Boomer, I’ve heard the term “late-bloomer” used when someone does something later than normal in life. So now you know why I named my blog  thelatebloomerhiker 

Living in crazy California certainly made it easier to get out and enjoy the numerous trails available.  After a few times out, I was hooked.  The freedom and fresh air were awesome. Within a year, I did a four-day trek into beautiful Yosemite.  This trip was with Marines who were half my age, and the hardest physical challenge in recent memory.  While in the Sierras I discovered how much I loved camping in the backcountry.  A couple of years later, I convinced my bride of thirty-one years to go with me for a 70-mile journey along the John Muir Trail.  It was an experience that we will never forget.

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For awhile, I was impressed with my ability to venture out and hike above 10,000 ft. with a 40lb pack on my back.  Then, I started running across people who were at least 20 yrs older than me.  My ego was level-set after a few encounters with these senior citizens.  Physical disabilities aside, I discovered that hiking is one of those things that doesn’t have an age limit.  From toddlers in backpacks to an 80-year-old Japanese man on Mt. Baldy,  I’ve seen some amazing people.   To date, the most impressive hiker was a blind senior citizen on Mount Cuyamaca.     Basically, if you can walk and have a fair sense of balance, then you can hike.

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So, for the rest of you Late Bloomers, shake off the nay-sayers and hit the trail.  You will be glad that you did.


How to Lose Your Toenails When Hiking

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Oh, I can relate to this one.  My first year of hiking was almost my last.  My big toes hated me.  Even lost some of my second nails.  Either that or I developed some kind of fungus and they decided to fall off.  By year two, I was down to an occasional black/blue toenail.  Eventually, I learned how to hold on to my nails and it wasn’t because I was producing more keratin.

My problem was simple.  I was losing toenails because my boots were too small.  Of course, they fit when I purchased them, but little did I realize the dynamics of human physiology.  When hiking, you exert a lot of pressure on those feet, especially when going downhill.  For those that are not flat-footed, you arch helps to absorb some of the force – like a built-in shock absorber.  Afte a while, the feet swell and flatten out a bit.  Unfortunately, the toes are on the receiving end of the punishment.  The solution is simple!

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Time to cool off those feet!

Buy your hiking shoes/boots 1/2 size larger than your normal size.  This requires some adjustment.  I typically hike with a synthetic sock liner and a light wool blend hiking sock.  The synthetic sock wicks away moisture and the wool blend will provide some cushion and keep your heel from sliding around.  If your heel moves around, you will normally get blisters.  You can keep the 1/2 size larger shoe from moving by tightening the laces a bit.

Another thing that you can do to keep your toenails is to trim them.  Trim them like you normally do and you should be fine. Don’t pull your black/blue nail off, let it fall off naturally.  If you do let it progress naturally, you may find a fresh, new nail underneath. This process could take several months!  You should also use trekking poles to lessen the impact on your knees and feet.  I use these and they are awesome: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue

For more tips on hiking or trekking poles, refer to an earlier blog: https://thelatebloomerhiker.com/2013/05/10/hiking-poles-are-not-for-wimps/

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Oh, you knew I had to have a pic of some real toenail damage. Not my feet mind you, but it brings back memories.


Food Choices When Hiking in the Backcountry

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I remember my last day on a section hike of the Appalachian Trail in the Maine 100 Mile Wilderness.  All I wanted was a cheeseburger.  Well, a huge cheeseburger and fries.  After eating mostly dehydrated food for 8 days and losing 14lbs, I was beginning to be obsessed with real food.  Imagine the through-hikers doing this for weeks on end.  When they do exit the trail for resupply, they often have binge eating episodes.

A backcountry trip requires quite a bit of planning and food is a major part of it.  There have been many innovations in the area of dehydrated food.  I’ll discuss some suggestions for other foods that may work for you on the trail and a few that may not.

Dehydrated meals

Mountain House makes quality meals.  My favorites are grilled chicken breast with mash potatoes, lasagna with beef and beef stroganoff.  Backpacker’s Pantry has some good selections too. Rounding out the top three is Alpine Aire Foods.

My favorite: Alpine Aire Foods Black Bart Chili with Beef and Beans (Serves 2)

A good variety pack:  Mountain House Best Sellers Kit

Another good one:  Backpacker’s Pantry Jamaican Jerk Rice with Chicken

When cooking dehydrated meals, you have to account for higher altitudes.  Let it soak longer when you are above 8,000 ft.  Undercooked freeze-dried food is just gross.

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Try cramming 7 lbs of food in a bear canister.

 

Dry Soups

– Ramen is the most portable.  You can put it in plastic baggies.  Add some pita bread or tortillas and you have a meal.  Good when you don’t have much of an appetite.

Some meats and fish

– Foil packed meat like chicken, fish like tuna, salmon do well.  Pepperoni, summer sausage do ok.  Beef or turkey jerky-oh yeah.

Fresh Fruit

– Apples, oranges last up to a week.

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Eggs and bacon, thank you.

 

Nuts or Trail Mix

A mixture of nuts with dried fruit and/or yogurt chips will last.  Chocolate chips can melt in hot temps.

Energy Bars

Energy chews, gels.  My go to bars are Clifhttp://amzn.to/1KKNmLs and for a quick boost these Honey Stinger gels: http://amzn.to/1FOxmId

Spreads

Packets of peanut or almond butter are nice for apples or crackers.

Coffee, tea

– Starbucks Via worked well.  Also have used instant coffee.  Powdered milk or creamer mixed with sugar in a baggie.

Seasonings

– I carry a portable spice container: http://amzn.to/1KKNEli that holds about 8 different spices.  Nice to be able to spice up your meals.

Breakfast

– Pancake mix with powdered or crystallized eggs is excellent.  A little maple syrup in a small bottle goes a long way

– Oatmeal

– A brand name Ova Easy Crystallized Eggs tastes close to real scrambled eggs. http://amzn.to/1KKNN8B  Much better than powdered eggs.

Oscar Mayer or Hormel Pre-cooked bacon worked great, just heat it up for a few minutes in a pan.

Things that don’t work well on the trail:

Soft fruit like bananas, pears, Chocolate, Bread that doesn’t have preservatives, canned food-you have to lug the empty cans around.

Planning Meals, Carrying your food

Before your trip, plan out your menu and carry an extra day or two of supplies.  Lay out your food and pack it as individual meals so you aren’t digging through your canister or food bag for each meal.

Depending on where you hike, bear canisters may be required, check with the Forest or Park Service Rangers ahead of time.  Canisters are bulky and add a few pounds but will keep the critters out of your food.  In non-bear areas, a waterproof food bag will work.  You will still need to hang it to keep the little vermin out.  Those shelters on the Appalachian Trail are hosts to plenty of well-fed mice.

Remember the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles.  Pack-it-in, pack-it-out.  I carry some extra gallon baggies to store the used packaging.  The plastics and foil packaging is not biodegradable and doesn’t burn well in a camp fire.  Please pack it out.

Blacktailed Jackrabbit off the Palm Canyon Trail.

California jackrabbit in the backcountry.


Struck by Lightning on the Appalachian Trail

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Thinking back, I remember the tingling feeling of hair rising on the back of my neck, like when you are really scared.  Yes, that was it – then the brightest flash ever.

On a one-week solo section hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT), I hopped on near Fontana Dam in North Carolina.  It was mid-August and the weather forecast for the week was for scattered thunderstorms with highs in the 80’s.  Most of my experience has been hiking the PCT and in the mountains of southern California.  While we do get thunderstorms, they are infrequent and not as intense as the ones I remember while living back east.

My ride dropped me off on Hwy 28 near Fontana Village where I picked up some last minute supplies.  I walked to the trailhead and stopped to take in the view at the dam.  It brought back memories from my honeymoon 33 years ago.  That was a glorious week spent exploring the Smokies and hanging out on Fontana Lake.

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Today would be a short day and I would only knock out about 7 miles.  Hoping to make Mollies Ridge shelter, I extended my hiking poles, took a deep breath and started walking.  Fontana Lake was to my right and had plenty of water in it.  Man, I was jealous because California has been in an awful drought and our lakes and reservoirs were almost empty.

Making good time, I thought about going for Double Spring Gap.  It is a couple of miles west of Klingman’s Dome, the highest peak in NC/TN.  At 6,643 ft. it provides awesome views of the surrounding landscape.  It was no Mt. Whitney, but the trail wasn’t any easier.  The SUDS (senseless-ups-downs) were just as tough as the switchbacks in the Sierras.

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Shelter on the AT. Photo credit: sectionhiker.com

 

As I passed over a ridge, I took a snack break and noticed the cumulus clouds gathering to the west/northwest.  A cool breeze picked up and it felt like the swamp-coolers we have in the desert.  The pine trees started waving their spindly branches as the wind made a waterfall like sound.  I caught the first whiff of rain, a refreshing smell.   About 10 minutes later, I heard the first rumblings of thunder.  Passing a fellow hiker who was getting out his rain gear, I thought to do the same and stopped a few minutes later.   The hiker walked past me and I asked where he was stopping for the day.  He mentioned that he was trying to make the Mount Collins shelter about 7 miles away.

Decent waterproof hat:  Columbia Men’s Eminent Storm Bucket Hat

I dug out the rain cover for my pack and rain jacket.  Back west, I used the jacket more as a windbreaker and only remember using my pack cover one other time on the AT up in the Maine wilderness.   Back on the trail, the thunder became more frequent and I saw the first flashes of lightning.  Hmm, those clouds became fully developed thunderheads now, nice and dark with flat tops.  I started looking for a place where I could ride out the storm when a lightning strike hit too close for comfort.  A flash and almost immediate boom made me speed up my search for shelter.  Of course, this part of the trail had no shelter, just plenty of pine and oak trees.  The rain came next, almost immediately a downpour.  Well, this sucks.  I know, if you hike the AT long enough, this is fairly common. For this California acclimated dude, this was going to be interesting.

What followed happened quickly.  I remember feeling the hair rise on the back of my neck, a tingly feeling- like when you are really scared.  My training kicked in and I dropped my pack on the side of the trail and began to sit on it.  The flash came and occurred at the same time as the crack.

I woke up with the rain pelting me, the sound of it bouncing off my jacket.  My vision was blurred and I was looking at a tree trunk sideways.   Disoriented and dizzy,  my ears were ringing.  I laid there on the ground for a bit and got on my hands and knees and moved over to my pack.  I had one hiking pole still strapped to my hand.  My fingers were a bit numb, but no other damage. The storm continued as I sat on my pack to minimize contact with the ground.  I looked around and saw an oak tree that was smoking about 30-40 ft away.   The lightning had struck it about halfway up and split a large part of the trunk.   Hoping that lightning wouldn’t strike twice in the same place, I sat for another 10-15 minutes and made sure I was ok.

As the thunderstorm passed to the east, I put my pack on and got back on the trail, thanking the Lord that it wasn’t a direct hit.  My ears were still ringing when I strolled into the Double Spring Gap shelter.  I met about three other hikers there and shared my tale of woe.   They stared at me with wide eyes and said they were pelted with hail about an hour ago.  I rested well that night but remember waking once to the sound of distant thunder.

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Well folks, for the 10 or so people that follow my blog, you knew this was another one of my tall tales.  I have hiked around thunderstorms and know about precautions to take.  If there is a chance of lightning where you hike, consider the following:

– If you are with people, spread out.  One lightning strike can take out an entire group if they are close to each other.

– If you ever do feel the hair rising on your neck or arms, immediately drop to the ground into a crouching position.  Try not to touch the ground and drop those poles.

– If you have time, sit on your pack to minimize contact with the ground.

– Don’t seek shelter under a tall tree.  If you can, seek a medium sized grove of trees, head there.

– Don’t go into caves or sit on rocks.  They conduct electricity very well.

– If someone does get struck, they will quite possibly go into shock.  Check for pulse and treat for shock by keeping them warm and covered.  Seek immediate help.

Bottom line, there is no sure way to prevent lightning strikes.  A strike can occur 30 miles or so from a thunderstorm.  Tents provide little protection from lightning but may get you out of that pelting rain.  If you do go into your tent, sit on a pad or your pack to minimize contact with the ground.

This is an awesome rain jacket and has never leaked: Marmot Mens Precip Jacket

We actually do get nasty thunderstorms in the Sierras and hikers have died from lightning on Half-Dome in Yosemite. Thunderstorms in the Sierra Nevada are generally mild compared to the ones on the Appalachian Trail.  Enjoy the trail, you will be talking about that hail and stinging rain for years to come.  🙂

Inexpensive pack cover for occasional hiking: KLOUD City ® Black nylon backpack rain cover for hiking / camping / traveling (Size: L)

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Mule Doodles on the Trail – A Trek Through the Sierras

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Approaching Sunrise High Sierra Camp in Yosemite.

Hike long enough in the Sierras and you inevitably notice the FedEx and UPS carriers of the mountain trails.  There are around 16 commercial outfitters or packers in the Sierras.  Most often, you will see evidence of their passing littering the trail.  Initially, you complain about the smell and of the doodles, but then you realize that it’s just part of the experience hiking in one of the most amazing places ever.

The pack or mule trains in the  Sierra Nevada Mountains are the primary way of supplying the remote camps throughout the region.  Thru-hikers on the JMT definitely appreciate the deliveries of their supplies to the Muir Trail Ranch.  Without the mules, people would be exiting the trail for resupply or carrying much more weight.

These sure-footed creatures usually weigh in around 600-800 lbs and can carry around 20% of their body weight.  The trains are as short as four mules or big as ten.  They are fairly docile and move along at a steady pace of 3-5 mph.  As you may know, all mules are sterile, the result of a male donkey and a female horse.  The scientific name of the species is Equus asinus x Equus caballus (donkey x horse).

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Quite the load you have there fella.

 

Our first encounter with pack mules was on the John Muir Trail.  They were on their way to a High Sierra camp and were loaded down with supplies for the “glampers”.   The train drivers are usually cowboy types and almost always friendly.

Trail etiquette:  Always give the pack trains the right of way.  When you see them coming, find a safe area to stand or on the uphill side if you are on a narrow part of the trail. Generally, they are not skittish, but it’s best to be quiet.  If you take pics, ensure your flash is off!

 

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Get your water upstream here. On the JMT in Yosemite.

 

Lessons learned: When getting your water refilled, do it on the upstream side of the trail.  Once, I was taking a break next to a creek near the Palisades Glacier.  A pack train passed by and several of the mules did their business as they passed over the stream.  Ten minutes later a couple of hikers came by and one of them started drinking right out of the stream.  I was actually filtering some water upstream.  I mentioned that a pack train just came through and well, you know.  The hiker continued to drink water and mentioned that she has been drinking out of the streams for over 20 years and hasn’t gotten sick yet.   Well, if it wasn’t for her Swedish accent, I would have thought she was a direct descendant of John Muir.  Even John would have gotten his water upstream. 🙂

These are awesome light-weight trekking poles:

 

Each year around Memorial day, an event named Bishop Mule Days Celebration  http://www.muledays.org/   is held to commemorate the impact that the mules have had in the Sierras.  The town of Bishop, located on Highway 395 in the eastern Sierras puts on a spectacular event that showcases these hard working equines.  Looks like fun.

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A passing train on the JMT. My wife off to the side.

The pack trains of the Sierras.  Yet another part of an awesome experience.

“Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.”  John Muir – My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) chapter 2.

I use this type of camera on the trail and am very pleased with it: Nikon D3300 DX-format DSLR Kit w/ 18-55mm DX VR II & 55-200mm DX VR II Zoom Lenses and Case


San Bernardino Mountains – Cedar Springs Trail

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Where the pavement ends, the fun begins.

 

U.S.D.A. Identifier: Cedar Springs Trail-4E13

Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil, rocks.

Distance as hiked: 6 miles

Approximate elevation: Trailhead-5,400ft., Top of trail- 6,800ft.

Temps:50-57 degrees

Difficulty: moderate

The Mountain Fire in the summer of 2013 devasted a large area of the southern San Bernardino Mountains.  Located near Mountain Center and Idyllwild, Ca. the fire eventually spread to over 25,000 acres and burned in steep, difficult terrain.  I don’t know of any deaths, but unfortunately homes were destroyed.   Some info and pics here:  http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=81677

The fire affected an approximate 10 mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail and a half-dozen trails throughout the San Jacinto Forest area.  PCT hikers in 2014 and again in 2015 will have to detour onto Hwy 74 before getting back on the trail near Idyllwild.  It also destroyed one of our favorite trails – Spitler Peak.

We would find a trail just south of the burn perimeter named Cedar Springs Trail. It’s located off of Hwy 74, about two miles from the junction with Hwy 371 and four miles south of Lake Hemet.   There is a trail marker along the highway and a paved road takes you up and over a ridge several miles to the trailhead.  The trail is located on private land, named Camp Scherman – a 700 acre camp owned by the Girl Scouts of Orange County.   The pavement  ends about 100 yards past the trailhead and parking is very limited, you basically have to angle your vehicle on the inclined hill.

The path starts out on a fire road and makes its way into a wooded area through a gate.  There are several gates on this hike; not sure why but suspect there are horses or maybe some free range cattle.  We paralleled a dry creek bed and the trail becomes a rocky, rutted path that appears to be a dry creek.   The oak trees are the dominant tree and offer nice shade.  We came up to a picnic area consisting of two tables near a meadow.  To the right, the trees and shrubs are concentrated in a riparian area.  We noticed a ribbon of a stream about 25 yards off-trail.   Ahead was an ominous sign that made us giggle.

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An ominous sign

Up until this point, it was a leisurely walkabout along a fire road and a riparian path through the woods.  Now, we would hit some switchbacks and begin a gradual climb.  The views usually get better when you have switchbacks.  If nothing else, the perspective changes.  The hillside was covered with young yucca plants and skeletons of the old ones.  It’s an interesting plant and can live for many years.  I suspect the average life of this variety is less than ten years.  Some species live to be over a hundred.

We rounded a switchback and were confronted with a mixed breed Rottweiler off-leash who was barking angrily at us.  I got in front of my wife and held out my poles in case he charged.  Three women were about 50 ft. behind and his owner tried to get him to stop advancing and barking at us, but he wasn’t very obedient.  Eventually, she got him under control and we passed.  I love animals, but some breeds are a bit intimidating on the trail.   I reigned in my frustration over the incident and hiked on.

As we hit a summit and intersection with the PCT, we also saw some other signs which were disappointing.

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Sign at the junction of Cedar Springs Trail and the PCT. Aww man!

Oh well, we will just hang a right and go south on the PCT for a bit.

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We removed the graffiti sticker on the PCT sign.

The wind picked up as we trekked south and eventually we found an area sheltered from the wind looking down into the desert.

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View from the PCT into Anza-Borrego Desert.

As we enjoyed the solitude and had our lunch with some hot tea, I noticed someone passing about 30 ft. behind us moving fairly quickly.  I don’t believe he saw us because we were down behind some rocks.    After lunch, we hit the trail for our return trip.   Within a few minutes, we ran into the guy who passed us.  He looked a bit frazzled and stressed.   He had a distinct British accent and mentioned that he had been lost for several hours just south of here and was supposed to meet his wife at a restaurant nearby.  I assured him that he was on the PCT heading back in the right direction.  This gentleman was out alone, no map, no backpack, a GPS with a dead battery and a 20 oz. bottle of juice.   We made sure he was ok and followed behind him.  He was moving quickly and eventually disappeared.

Our descent was uneventful as I reflected back on another enjoyable day on the trail.  While the beautiful Sierras are the ultimate eye-candy, the short hikes on the PCT near our home are a good prescription for the office cubicle doldrums.

Lessons Learned:

– When hiking alone, pack the 10 hiking essentials and always let someone know where you are hiking.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Essentials

– When day hiking, I carry a little extra water and snacks in case we run into a lost hiker.

– If you get lost, take a break, calm down and try to get reoriented.

– If you are hopelessly lost, do not get off the path.  Stay put, eventually you will be found.

Gear we use:

Garmin Foretrex 401 Waterproof Hiking GPS

SPOT-3O Spot Gen3 GPS Satellite Messenger

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A yucca looking down from the top of the stalk

 


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

Pacific Rattler

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.

 

 

 


Encounter with a Grizzly in Glacier National Park – Part 2

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This is the end of a two part story.  Part 1 can be found here:

https://thelatebloomerhiker.com/2014/11/14/encounter-with-a-grizzly-in-glacier-national-park-part-1/

 

We entered an area of bear grass and watched as the breeze caused the creamy white flowers to sway in unison.  Figuring that we had two miles to go, I was ready to hop on to the shuttle and enjoy a nice steak at the restaurant in the RV park where we were staying.  The Piegan Pass – Siyeh Pass Trail had been an amazing hike thus far.   I noticed several piles of huckleberry-laden scat on the trail and slowed to see if it was from a bear.  As I got closer, I noticed steam rising from it.  I froze and raised my arm to signal to my wife who was about thirty feet behind to stop.   Suddenly, there was a rustling to my right and two bear cubs jumped out running across the trail.  Within seconds an adult grizzly appeared and stopped in the middle of the trail, between us.  I spoke in a calm voice and said “hey bear”.  The mother grizzly reared up on her hind legs and let out a snarl that resonated through every bone in my body.  I fumbled for the bear spray in the holster on my hip.

I told my wife to back away and not run.  Time seemed to stand still as the massive bear lowered to all fours and stared me down.  I think that I kept talking to her in a calm voice to avoid an all out confrontation.  At this point, she was probably 20 feet away as I continued to back away.  She was looking at me and snorting while occasionally making glances toward her cubs off trail.  Due to the adrenaline rushing through my body, my ears started ringing.  I flipped the plastic safety off the bear spray and put my finger on the trigger.  Not wanting to provoke her, I backed away and kept talking.   The grizzly rocked back and forth on her haunches, growled took a couple of steps toward me.

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Grizzly mother with cubs. Photo: Britannica.com

 

My mind was racing as I thought about what to do in a grizzly attack.  I avoided eye contact as much as possible since they see this as a challenge.  If attacked with this species, it is best to curl up or lay on your stomach.  Protect the back of your neck and play dead.  It is usually not effective to fight back unless you are being mauled and death is certain.  In the midst of this I prayed a simple prayer – “Dear Lord, please get me out of this alive.  Amen”

I had to put more distance between myself and this mad momma, so I must have done a moon walk or something because she was now 40 feet away.  Suddenly she snorted and charged, closing half the distance in a few seconds.  I raised the bear spray,  squeezed the trigger and swept it back and forth for a few seconds.   It created a cloud of industrial strength capsaicin between me and the angry ursine.

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Mad grizzly. Photo credit http://www.animalsw.com

The cloud of pepper spray floated in the air.  The sow sneezed and let out a roar.  I backed up another ten feet or so preparing to give her another dose.  Everything seemed to be in slow motion again.   She advanced toward me again before suddenly turning and trotting toward her cubs.  Standing there, I came to my senses and started yelling for my wife.  Not hearing anything, I made my way back up the trail, blowing my whistle.  I heard my wife’s whistle and saw her about 100 yards away, standing on a boulder.

We hugged and talked about how we would get back to the trailhead.  Not wanting to back track for ten miles, we proceeded down the same path making a lot of noise.  I even let out a blast of a portable air horn that I kept in my survival kit.  We emerged into a clearing and increased our pace.  Passing a series of cascades that feed Saint Mary Lake, the beauty of the surroundings escaped me.

The remaining mile seemed to take forever.  We passed through one last forest and heard some cars as they traversed the Going-to-the-Sun-Road.  It was surreal as we stepped out on the road and made our way to the shuttle.  Breathing a sigh of relief, we boarded the shuttle and made our way back to the visitor center.  I reported our encounter to the ranger.  He mentioned that this was the second report of a sow and cubs on the Siyeh Pass Trail this week.

Back at the RV park, we went to the restaurant where I had the biggest steak ever.  That night and for many more, I would relive the experience and would wake up in a cold sweat.

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This two-part blog was a work of fiction.  If you have read some of my other tall tales, you probably knew that.  I weave a story together using actual hikes that we’ve done with some creative story telling.   Grizzly attacks are a rare occurrence in the U.S.  Some quick research showed five fatal grizzly attacks on humans in the lower 48 since 2010.   There are probably less than 1,500 grizzlies south of Canada.  Alaska is home to over 30,000 grizzlies.  Sometimes they are confused with equally aggressive black bears.   Bear-spray is probably the most effective deterrent for a charging bear.  Research, experience and statistics show that firearms are less effective than pepper spray.  Understand the risks where you hike and camp.  Take proper precautions and avoid hiking solo in areas with grizzly or black bear activity.  This is a good resource for understanding bear behavior: http://www.bearsmart.com/becoming-bear-smart/play

Hike strong, and for heaven’s sake take out that headset!

Some gear that we use:

Rescue whistle:  Adventure Medical Kits Sol Rescue Howler Whistles (2) , 2 – Ounce

Bear repellent:  SABRE FRONTIERSMAN Bear Attack Deterrent with Hip Holster – Maximum Strength & 30 Foot Range (7.9 oz)

Survival blanket:  Adventure Medical Kits Sol Survival Blanket, Two Person, 3.2 Ounce

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

 


Encounter with a Grizzly in Glacier National Park – Part 1

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……Within seconds an adult grizzly appeared and stopped in the middle of the trail, between us.  I spoke in a calm voice and said “hey bear”  The mother grizzly turned, reared up on her hind legs and let out a snarl that resonated through every bone in my body.  I fumbled for the bear spray in the holster on my hip.

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Our trip to Glacier National Park was on our bucket list for hiking destinations.   We were on the tail-end of a RV trip through Canada and looking forward to  Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.  St Mary is a nice village outside the eastern entrance to Glacier.  The RV park was within walking distance of the national park visitor center so we struck out on foot.   It was a mostly cloudy day and the peaks in the distance were obscured by a cloud layer, but we were determined to get some hiking in.  The ranger in the visitor center recommended the Piegan-Siyeh Pass Trail to get the most bang for the buck in a day hike.  He mentioned awesome views and a steady 2,500-3,000 ft. climb.  It was late August, so there was still plenty of daylight for the eleven mile trek.

My wife was watching for the shuttle and motioned for me to come along.  Good thing too, because it was ready to pull out.   The shuttle system in GNP is efficient and covers a large area.  The Going-The-Sun-Road was undergoing repairs and the ride to the trail was slow.  As the shuttle traversed St Mary Lake, I hoped that the trail would not be totally in the clouds.  Our stop came up and we were the only ones that got off.  We found the Piegan Pass trailhead sign and took a few pics – of course.

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As you can see, the clouds enveloped the trail behind me.  We checked our gear, I had the bear spray and my wife the bear bell.  The bell was a last-minute purchase.  I found this joke.  Some background: The hiker was buying a bear bell and asked a store owner how to tell if he was in grizzly territory.  They were discussing bear scat (poop):

…Well, what’s the difference?” asks the hiker. “I mean, what’s different between grizzly scat and black bear scat?” “The stuff that’s in it,” replies the store owner. Getting a little frustrated, the hiker asks, “OK, so what’s in grizzly bear scat that isn’t in black bear scat?” he asks, an impatient tone in his voice. “Bear bells,” replies the old man as he hands the hiker his purchases

The effectiveness of the bell is debatable.  In bear country, it’s a good idea to make some noise while hiking.  We definitely made noise, occasional whooping, hitting our poles together and talking in our outside voices.  We did this so that we didn’t surprise a bear.  They don’t want human interaction so, they typically will avoid the noise.DSC_0487

Making our way through the forest, I occasionally made an “aahroooh” sound just to make some noise.  Funny thing, a hiker coming from the opposite direction said people behind him thought that they heard a moose bellowing.  There you go, I can make moose sounds.  Glad that it’s not mating season.

The weather changed to light snow, reminding us that in Glacier it is so unpredictable.  The wind picked up and we added another layer of clothing.  The trail came to a intersection with Piegan Pass going north west and Siyeh Pass to the east.  We went east and reached the summit where the clouds broke long enough to take some photos.  After a lunch break, the clouds closed in and visibility was 50 feet.  The switchbacks helped us descend fairly quickly, and I could see through a break in the clouds where the trail leveled out and entered a bushy area.

From a distance we could see the flowers of the bear grass.  They looked a little like the blooming flowers of the yucca plant that we have in California. DSC_0554

Next:  Hey bear!   Encounter with a Grizzly in Glacier National Park – Part 2

https://thelatebloomerhiker.com/2014/11/22/encounter-with-a-grizzly-in-glacier-national-park-part-2/

Gear that we use:

Bear deterrent:  SABRE FRONTIERSMAN Bear Attack Deterrent with Hip Holster – Maximum Strength & 30 Foot Range (7.9 oz)

Bear bell:  Bear Bell w/ Silencer

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

 

 

 

 


16,000 Steps on Mount San Gorgonio – Fish Creek Trail

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October was a busy month, so we took some time off the trail.  Fall weather is gradually coming upon us in southern California.  Fall in So-Cal?  Sure, the leaves change here too.  We even have aspen trees in the mountains! To really experience the change in season here, we head for the hills.   The hills of the San Bernardino Mountains.

Today, we would load up the Jeep and head to Mount San Gorgonio.  “Ol’ Greyback”, as it is affectionately known to locals, is full of diverse trails.  Many of them converge north of the summit.  It is the tallest of the three highest peaks in So-Cal – San Jacinto and San Antonio (Mt. Baldy)   They all have similar eco systems and have desert terrain around them.

The trails on all these mountains are challenging and well maintained by volunteers.  Some of the treks are heavily travelled, especially on weekends.  Mt. Baldy probably sees the most traffic due to its location north of Los Angeles.  Still, it has some of the most beautiful sub-alpine trails.

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Back to our trip.  Ever since I heard about the three guys from San Diego that went missing for three days off the Fish Creek Trail in the San Gorgonio Wilderness in 2013, I wanted to check it out.  Fish Creek Trail is located on the northeast side of the peak.  It’s quite a haul from north county San Diego, but as most avid day hikers know, the trail less travelled is worth enduring the road most travelled.  Yeah, driving through Riverside/San Bernardino is a lesson in patience.  Making our way through Redlands and Mentone, we would stop at the ranger station to pick up our permit.  It’s usually staffed by the friendliest volunteers, most who have explored this area extensively.

Hwy 38 loops around the west side of the San Gorgonio Wilderness and is a popular route for an alternate route into Big Bear.   You gradually climb to 6,000 ft. and traverse the northern side of the wilderness area.  This area is popular with campers in the spring/summer.  In November, only Barton Flats Campground is open.  The road is very curvy and the highway signs reminded us of the movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.  We arrived at a collection of campgrounds including Heart Bar and the equestrian camps of Wildhorse which were closed.  Due to the mild weather, the fire service roads were still open.  This would be the second time we took the 1N02 fire service road.  On a previous hike we drove the bumpy, rutted dirt road to the Aspen Grove trailhead.  The road to Fish Creek trailhead is a solid seven miles, easily navigated with a 4-wheel vehicle; it would present a challenge to the average car due to the exposed rocks and deep ruts.  As we pulled into the trailhead lot, there were actually a couple of cars.  Now, that’s determination.  Parking here does not require an Adventure Pass since it is just outside the National Forest boundary.

The signs to the trailhead are decayed and in need of some TLC.  The trail was in decent shape.  It is actually a nice way to hike to the summit.  At approximately 9 miles, it’s easily done by the average backcountry hiker.   The trail starts out at 8,000 ft. and meanders around two ridge lines.  At .7 miles, we came upon the junction to the Aspen Grove trail which goes northwest.  We continued on a rocky trail without gaining much altitude.  The land was semi-arid with chaparral mixed in with deciduous trees.  To the right was a meadow that continued to the west.  The terrain changed to a forest and we crossed a small creek several times.  Recent heavy rains through the mostly dry creek bed caused the plants to lie down.  Nearby, skeletons of California Wild Lilies from an earlier season vowed to return to their full glory next spring.

At 2.6 miles, we passed Fish Creek Camp, an area set amongst the pines below the trail.  The path is mostly single track and varies from sand to decomposed granite.  After the camp, the trail begins a gradual climb of 600 ft/mile.  The view constantly changes as you traverse the canyons over mostly easy switchbacks.  We took a lunch break and had a nice view down Hell for Sure Canyon.  Not sure where they got that name from, but have heard that there are a couple of aircraft crash sites there.  Caught nice glimpses of Palm Desert.  It was tranquil as we made some hot tea.  The sun settled slowly behind Ten Thousand Foot Ridge near Fish Creek Saddle.  Looking at the time, we decided to start back down.

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Hike long enough and you can figure out how long it takes you to descend.  The terrain affects your time, but we do about 3 mph downhill.   Sometimes, the only sounds were the clacking of our trekking poles.  As we descended into the ravines and gullies the cool air enveloped us as it sank to the lower elevations.

We emerged at the trailhead with plenty of daylight left and took one last pic.  Chalk up another great hike.

Tip:  When using trekking poles, shorten them for uphill and lengthen them for downhill.  Using poles is like being on a Nordic Track machine.  You will benefit by getting a nice upper body workout.  Today’s walkabout was about 16,000 steps.  I have these poles and recommend them.  Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue   They are light weight and durable.

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Where You Pitch Your Tent Matters

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Big Pothole Lake on the Kearsarge Pass Trail

It was a quiet night in the San Gorgonio Wilderness.  Saxton Camp filled up with a Boy Scout troop, so we retreated a few hundred feet downhill in relatively flat clearing .  Leary of camping near big groups, they actually were well-behaved and turned in at a respectable time.  Surrounded by conifers, our home for the evening was barely visible from the trail.  This would serve as our base camp for our hike up to the tallest peak in Southern California.  We stowed our bear canisters and hung our packs from nearby trees, unzipping the pockets so the little vermin didn’t chew through them.  Settling in for a decent sleep, I was awakened by a bright light shining into the side of the tent.  What the heck?  Thinking that someone was wandering around our site, I listened for the footsteps.  Nothing.  The light continued to shine, barely moving.  Maybe I left a flashlight in my pack and it came on.  A few minutes later, I gathered enough courage to unzip the door and peek out.   The fullness of the moon lit up our tent as it crested the mountain to our east.

Terrain matters when it comes to pitching your tent.  Setting it up in the wrong spot could be the difference between life and death.   That beautiful spot near the lake could be where the water drains during a downpour.

If you are on a multi-day trip on an established trail, chances are you have a trail guidebook or maybe you’ve read a blog that provided mile markers and campsites.  Those are valuable resources.  Prior to our section hike of the JMT last year, I picked up John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America’s most famous trail.  It is an awesome resource.  I was able to set waypoints on my Garmin 401 and get fairly close.  Or you can live life on the edge, just hike until it’s dark and plop down near the trail.

Many locations in the national forest and parks require you to camp at least 100 ft. from the trail and 200 ft. from water sources. Most of us make half-hearted attempts at this rule.  I mean, the sound of rushing water makes for a great night of sleep.  Hikers are generally good stewards of the land and really try to minimize the impact.  You do this by camping on established sites and avoid vegetation like grass.  Rules vary in each area, so check online or with the local ranger if appropriate.  Camp too close to water and the mosquitoes will torment you.

Once, I was solo hiking in the eastern Sierras and started looking for a site.  I found a granite slab that was 25 ft. from a cliff that dropped off about 200 ft. into a lively creek.  The view was amazing, but then I thought about getting up in the middle of the night when nature called and stepping off into the abyss.  So,  rocks are not a good idea for a tent unless it is far away from drop-offs and you have a way to stake the tent down.  Rocks also are good lightning conductors!

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200 ft down to North Fork Creek. I almost camped here. No, really.

When looking for a site, envision what it would look like in a raging downpour.   Will the water funnel through your site like a drainage ditch?  Will that Fiat sized boulder up the hill come loose and roll over you like a bowling ball?  In the Sierras, those granite covered slopes shed water quickly during rain and can create flash flood conditions.

Widow-makers:  Those dead trees that are still standing.  Pitch your tent under those when a strong wind hits and you won’t know what hit you.   If you do pick a site under trees, make sure it’s not  under the tallest group of trees, nor the shortest.  Go for the medium stand, you will be less likely to get struck by lightning.

Common sense, but find a site that is relatively flat without roots or rocks.   A good sleeping pad helps knock the edge of those little rocks that feel like boulders at night.   If you must sleep on an incline, your head should be at the highest point.  Even the slightest hill may cause you to gravitate toward your tent-mate in the middle of the night. That may be good, or bad.  If you have to pitch your tent on a hill, have your door on the downhill side so water doesn’t come rushing in.

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Camping on the AT in Maine.

Some other tips:

Don’t cook or eat within 50-100 ft. of your tent.  Stow the bear canister or bag the same distance.  If not you may get some late night company looking for food.

Align your tent so the smallest surface area is facing the prevailing wind.  This isn’t always possible, especially if you have a square tent.  🙂    At a minimum, place your opening away from the wind to avoid the parachute effect.

For backcountry camping, shop around and spend the money on a quality tent.  The $20 one in the discount store will not hold up during a gusher.  Use a tent footprint.  It’s like a light weight tarp that fits under your tent.  It is slightly larger than the floor of your tent and will protect the floor from damage due to rocks and roots.  I know, if you are a thru-hiker, ounces count.

Invest in a good set of tent stakes.  Most low-end tents come with lousy stakes that bend easily.  There are a couple of brands like MSR GroundHog Stake Kit that are light weight and sturdy.  These are virtually indestructible.  I usually find a rock and bang them in.  I also carry extras in case they get damaged or if it’s really windy.  Carry some extra para-cord or nylon line in your tent bag in case you need to tie on some extra guy lines.

Klingers:  People who camp right next to you, even though there are other places to camp.  Don’t be a Klinger.

Lightning:  No tent can protect you from 150,000 volts, but it can keep you dry.  During bad thunderstorms, you can do the following:  If you believe in God, pray and minimize your body contact with the ground or sit on your pad, sleeping bag or backpack.  If you are an atheist or agnostic, just curl up in the fetal position, put your headset in, crank up the volume and close your eyes.

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Near a glacier fed stream and under some aspens. Works for me.

In the morning, the tent may be wet from dew or the overnight shower.  If you don’t have time to dry it out before hitting the trail,  use your camp towel to wipe it down.  If you are camping in Washington or Oregon, just resign yourself to the fact that it will never get dry.    Never stow a wet tent at the end of your trip.  It is guaranteed to ruin it with mold and mildew.  It’s a good idea to vacuum out a tent and wipe it down with a mild soap.  I treat mine along the seams with a waterproof sealant that I got here:  Gear Aid Tent Sure floor sealant with foam brush, 8-Ounce.

I like positioning the door of our tent for easy access if you have to get up during the night.  Hey, you’ll understand when you get old.  But the most important thing is a site with a view.  You will know it when you see it.

 

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Thousand Island Lake, John Muir Trail

Do you have some tips or lessons learned about setting up your tent?  Please share them in the comments!   Most importantly, don’t be a Klinger.


Yosemite – A National Treasure That Will Capture Your Soul

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Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.   John MuirThe Yosemite (1912)

Thank you Abraham Lincoln for signing the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864.  This laid the foundation for others to preserve the beauty and sanctity of Yosemite National Park, which was established in 1872.

I think Yosemite is the crown jewel of the Sierras.  It is a land of majesty, iconic mountains, with ancient forests, waterfalls and endless vistas.  In Yosemite Valley one can experience the four seasons. In spring, the melting snow makes the water burst from the mountains with a roaring thunder that resonates in your bones.   In summer, the ground floor of the valley is bustling with flowers and tourists seeking views of Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and the Mist Trail.   Fall in the valley provides a glorious display of the deciduous flora in its fullness. Winter is a quieter time where you can take leisurely strolls while catching glimpses of snow-capped peaks in the distance.

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Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

John Muir captured the essence of this land through his writings.   After visiting the park  a couple of times,  I read My First Summer in the Sierra and The Yosemite.  Walking through Tuolumne Meadows, dipping my feet in the Merced River and experiencing the enveloping mist of Nevada Falls – this is where he walked.  Awakening to the sun cresting behind Cathedral, drifting through the moraine fields near Lembert Dome and listening to the gurgling Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River are but a few memories that I will take with me.  It is a respite that you will cherish long after you go home.  While at work, my mind drifts to thepanorama of the Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir and how it must have looked 100 years ago before they built the O’Shaughnessy Dam.

I see the Almighty’s  handiwork in the granite sentinels surrounding the valley.  They beckon me to venture higher and explore further the miles of trails.  Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands, in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society. Nowhere will you find more company of a soothing peace-be-still kind.  – John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)

I am blessed to live within a day’s drive of Yosemite.  If you ever make it to California, this should be the first stop on your list of destinations.  Venture into the valley, wade in the Merced River and drive the Tioga Road where the views at Olmsted Point will make you want to linger.   Stroll down to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias and notice the Steller’s Jays as they follow you along the path, flitting from tree to tree.   Savor the waving blue lupines hanging on the edge of a precipice near Yosemite Falls.  Is it strange to fall in love with a place?  Spend some time here and you may come away with a desire to write poetry. 🙂

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.  John MuirOur National Parks, (1901)

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On the John Muir Trail, Yosemite

 

I’m thankful for John Muir and the love he held for The Yosemite.  He was a true visionary who inspired others to cherish and become good stewards of this national treasure.  Come see for yourself and experience this gem.


I Always Get Blisters When I Hike – What Can I Do?

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No, really I always get blisters on multi-day hikes.  I’ve tried different shoes, socks, band-aids, tape, lubricants, on and on… I have managed to reduce the number of blisters, just can’t get away from the heel.  It must be a result of my days as a tap dancer.   Here are some suggestions to help you reduce the occurrence of your blisters using a common sense approach.

Let’s talk about what a blister is.  In the hiking realm, it is your skin reacting to heat and abrasion.  If the rubbing and heat continues along with some moisture, the damaged skin forms a small pocket of fluid under the first few layers of skin.  This fluid is your body reacting and trying to protect the skin underneath it.  Rarely do blisters form quickly.  Usually, you will start to get a hot spot.  Detected early enough, you may be able to prevent the mega-blister.

Thru-hikers have gotten blisters every where you can imagine, but most are on the heel, toes and balls of the feet.  As a hiker, if you put enough miles in and have prolonged periods of flat terrain or downhill – you will get a hot spot or blister.  Calluses are usually the result of a hotspot or blister in the same location.

Here are some tips to reduce the number of blisters:

– Pick your shoes wisely.  The heel should be snug, not loose.  Your feet will swell so you need a little extra room in the toe-box.  Don’t wear the new pair of boots on your week-long backcountry trip.  Break them in on some day hikes first.  If you have bunions, talk to a healthcare professional to see additional considerations when choosing shoes.

– Socks.  I wear a synthetic liner with good quality wool socks.  The liners wick away sweat and the wool socks provide some cushioning.  I’ve also used the synthetic socks with toes to cut down on the toe blisters with some success.

– Take a break after a few hours of hiking, remove your shoes, socks and air those feet out.  Bonus:  Stop near water and dip those puppies in there.  Awesome!    Use this opportunity to check for hot spots.  Keep some moleskin in your first aid kit and apply it to those spots.  It may prevent a full-fledged blister.

– When crossing streams, recommend you change out your non-waterproof boots for river shoes or sandals.  Hiking in wet socks and shoes is asking for trouble.

First aid for blisters:

– There are different types of blisters.  If you see blood, keep an eye and use some Neosporin to ward off infection.

– Don’t pop blisters unless they are too painful.   The fluid is protecting the skin underneath and may keep it from bleeding.  If you have to pop it, use a sterilized needle or safety-pin.  Hold the needle under a flame to sterilize.   You can actually run thread through the blister so the fluid drains out.  I have done this as a last resort and don’t recommend it unless you have the blister from Hades.  Again, use an antibiotic ointment.

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No blog about blisters would be complete without real pics. I ran thread through this Godzilla size blister to help it drain. Yuck.

– In your first aid kit, keep moleskin, scissors, waterproof medical tape (duct tape will work) and even a needle and thread.  Use moleskin for smaller blisters.

– For your heels, you can apply duct tape to keep a hot spot from developing into a blister.  I wrap duct tape around my hiking poles; you can peel off what you need.    You can use a lubricant like Mueller Lube-Stickª for Runners Skin Barrier – 0.6 oz Stick – Each # 420206N . It helps to cut down on abrasion.

Oh, I really wasn’t a tap dancer, but I can hike like a billy-goat.  Do you have some tips for keeping the blisters away?  Please share them.DSC_0089


Yosemite – Frozen Lower Cathedral Lake

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Sometimes there are not enough words to describe Yosemite.  It is a land of enchantment, meaning one will fall in love with it. Today, we had another opportunity to venture out near the Tioga Road and explore.   We actually stayed in a hotel in Bishop and drove in to the park through the east gate.    I am jealous of fellow blogger http://califraven.wordpress.com/ who lives nearby.  Her blog is refreshing and provides a neat perspective on this beautiful area.

It was a chilly 19 degrees F when we pulled into Tuolumne Meadows.  Our plan was to hike up to Lower Cathedral Lake and poke around.  No one else was silly enough to hike this early but we were prepared.  Bundled up with a couple of layers, we hit the trail crunching through the old snow.  The snow was from a storm last November.   Unfortunately, it has been a light snow year in the Sierras.  It was New Years Day 2012 and a great way to start the year.

After 20 minutes of hiking through snow, we had to peel off a layer of clothing.  Funny, because the temps were still in the low 20’s.  As long as we were walking, it was warm.  Stop for too long and the cold sets in.  We hit the main junction going up to Cathedral and the elevation change was around 600-700 ft. per mile.  In the spring/summer, this is a very popular trail.

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As we ascended, the silence of the forest enveloped us.  Sometimes the only sounds were my labored breathing and crunch of the snow under my feet.  As the sun broke through the clouds, it began to warm up some.  A Steller’s Jay followed us, watching us from a distance.  They are curious birds and like to observe humans.

The trail comes to a junction where the JMT keeps straight and the path to Lower Cathedral Lake breaks right.   There were multiple frozen streams to cross and it was difficult to follow the trail.  While it was a low snow year up here, the temperatures are still below freezing each night.  The creeks appeared to be frozen instantly in time.  It was an amazing sight to see.

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A creek that appears to have frozen instantly

I so wanted to slide down the frozen creek, but wisdom prevailed.  We picked our way around the icy streams and managed to follow the trail where it emerged in a meadow.  By following the frozen streams, we made it to the lake.  A strange sound emanated from the shore.  It sounded like humpback whales clicking and groaning.   It was an awesome experience.  By now, the temps were around 40 and the sun was out.  The granite slabs that surrounded the shore were flat and warm.

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The sound of the ice shifting was amazing.

We observed a few brave (if not foolish) souls venturing out on the lake about a half mile away.  We had lunch and took plenty of pics and listened to the sounds of the ice as it shifted and bumped against the granite shore.   I imagined how the glaciers of long ago formed this area.  This wonderful landscape has a way of capturing your soul.  For me, it reminded me that places like this were created for our enjoyment.  I wanted to linger, but knew that the days were short and the trip down could be slippery.  Some spots were steep with ice that melted and refroze.

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Cathedral Peak from the frozen shore of Lower Cathedral Lake.

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It looks like we are right on the water, but actually 8-10 ft. above on a granite slab.

The wooded area near the lake looked the same from the shoreline.  Fortunately, I set a waypoint  on the GPS and used it to follow our course in reverse.  We came across a few more people and pointed them in the direction of the lake.  The descent was a little challenging as we tried to keep our balance.  After this trip, I would get us some microspikes that slip over the boots.  Found some good ones here:  Kahtoola MICROspikes Traction System

This hike was quite the adventure.  If you have the opportunity to make it to Yosemite in the winter, see if the Tioga Road is open.  The trek to Lower Cathedral Lake is one that you shouldn’t pass up.  It’s not far from the Tuolumne Visitor Center which is closed during the winter.  You can park along the road.  Bonus:  If you enter through the east gate on (Tioga Road)  in the winter, you don’t pay the $20 park fee because no one staffs the entrance gate.  Round trip on Lower Cathedral Lake trail is approximately 7-8 miles from the trailhead.

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How to Win the War on Mosquitoes When Hiking

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Camping near a stream is great. Notice the head-net and long sleeves?

Hike in the backcountry long enough and you will understand the saying “I’m being eaten alive”.  Eaten by mosquitoes that is.  Some of the most beautiful vistas in the U.S. are also the most infested by those pests.  Actually, you may find mosquitoes anywhere there is an abundance of water and mild-hot temperatures.  From sea level to over 10,000 ft. they will find you.  While the risk of West Nile and chikungunya viruses is there, those illnesses will not kill you.  Chiki-what?  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chikungunya  To my knowledge, yellow fever and malaria aren’t that common in America.

I remember the time we met a family near Devil’s Postpile, on the John Muir Trail.  They had passed through Lyle Canyon and bore the bites of many, many mosquitoes.  It was a bit scary to see their skin covered in itchy, red bumps.  They all had shorts, short sleeve shirts and no headnets. Ok, I could end this blog on bugs right here.   One could probably eliminate 75% of bug bites by wearing a headnet, long sleeves and long pants.

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Thousand Island Lake on the JMT. Beautiful, yet heavily infested with mosquitoes in the spring, summer.

Do some research on why mosquitoes in particular are attracted to humans and you will see that it has to do with our movement, carbon dioxide that we exhale, body odor and body chemistry.  According to one researcher  “One in 10 people are highly attractive to mosquitoes,” reports Jerry Butler, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Florida.  That might explain why some are eaten alive and others barely get bitten.  When hiking, it’s hard to avoid the attractants mentioned above.

However, any good mosquito abatement plan has multiple layers.   This will even work for other bugs like gnats and flies.  Let’s start with your clothing.  When on an extended trip in the backcountry, less is better.  The less weight you carry, the better off you will be.  Make your clothes count.  Bring convertible pants that zip off at the knees and long sleeve shirts that can be rolled up and fastened.  Layer your top with a t-shirt that wicks sweat.  I’ve been bitten by mosquitos through a t-shirt, so layering may help.

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So many mosquitoes that we had to eat in our tents. 😦

Prior to your trip, consider treating your clothing with a bug repellant like Permethrin.  It works amazingly well and may last for 5 or 6 washings.  It dries within a few hours and is not known to irritate the skin.  It is highly toxic to cats, so be aware and apply outside or in a well ventilated area.  In my opinion, Permethrin is more effective than spray on repellents and less of an irritant. It is effective on most other bugs including ticks and flies.   This is a good brand that I use: Sawyer Products Premium Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent Trigger Spray, 24-Ounce

Do spray on repellents work?  I believe they do, but will only last for so long.  If you sweat, it tends to wash away the repellant.  It also can get into your eyes and on your food.  We carry it, but use it sparingly.  DEET is still a common chemical and very effective, but in higher concentrations it can melt plastic like sunglasses and synthetic clothing.   Scary, huh?  Here is a lotion that works very well, but be careful around the eyes: 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent Lotion, 2-Ounce

When camping, mosquitoes are the worst, especially if you are near water.  Set up your tent quickly and zip the screen closed.   Wind is your friend when it comes to these insects.   It’s harder for them to fly and find their prey.  Set up your tent where there is a breeze if possible.   Many a camper has pitched their tent near a beautiful lake or stream and are forced to eat dinner inside their tent because of the swarms.  At night, minimize the use of bright lights or use the red lens if your lamp is equipped with one.

This might seem a bit extreme, but when nature calls and you are in an infested area, it may be a good idea to put some bug repellant on your backside.  You are an easy target during this time and it might prevent you from toppling over because you were swatting them.

The $5 I spent on our head nets was probably the best money spent.  You can even run your hydration tube underneath the net.   The nets are not fashionable, but it’s only a matter of time before someone invents some that are.  When not in buggy areas, I usually roll mine up and over my trail hat.  I can pull it down when they start to bite.  This inexpensive one has served us well: Coleman Insect Head Net

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I never said rolling the head net over the hat was stylish. Nevada Falls, Yosemite.

Some last thoughts.  According to the same researcher mentioned above, female mosquitoes do the biting.  They need your blood to fertilize their eggs.  Supposedly there are new inventions coming to aid in the battle including pills and wearable patches.  I’ll try anything once – as long as it’s safe.   So friends, don’t let those Culicidae  keep you from venturing into the backcountry – hike on!  Any ideas for repelling mosquitoes?  Please mention them in your comments.


Trapped! Wildfire in Yosemite Part II

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Wildfire in Yosemite – Photo Credit – Michael Frye/AP

This is the second half of a two-part story.  Part I is here: https://thelatebloomerhiker.com/2014/10/03/wildfire-in-yosemite-part-i/

No time to panic here, first find out where we are at and then determine our options.  Getting the GPS and our map, we determined that we were about three or four miles east of Little Yosemite Valley and the Merced River.  It was hard to tell how far we were from the actual fire at this point, but knew that it was generally to our east around Babcock or Merced Lake.   Our options were limited because the other paths out were both uphill which would slow us down.  We just descended 800 ft. and there sure was a lot of timber fuel back there.  Our only real choice was to head west.

We picked up the pace  when the first chopper flew in front of us – about 1/2 mile or so.   It had a bucket hanging underneath.  Well, at least the calvary was arriving.   As we came across a saddle, we saw a horrifying sight.  The fire was crossing a canyon to our left and climbing the mountain.  Was it moving east or south?  It was hard to tell.   At this point, we kept going but discussed what we would do if we were boxed in by fire.   One option was to find rocky terrain  or a meadow with little or no fuel.   Another was to find a creek or body of water, but the nearest was the Merced River.

A few minutes later, another helicopter was circling less than a mile away.  We heard a loudspeaker but were unable to make out what they were saying.   Two more mule deer ran across the trail about fifty feet behind us.  They were heading in a northerly direction.  The helicopter was making concentric circles and came within 500 feet of us.  This time we clearly heard the loudspeaker as it blared: “There is a wildfire burning to the east and heading this direction.  Make your way to Little Yosemite Valley immediately!”

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Helicopter rescue on Half Dome, Sep 2014. Photo credit AP.

We were around 30-40 minutest from the rally point.  Would they evacuate us from there?   We kept pushing and noticed that smoke was starting to appear in front of us.    Up ahead there was a clearing with a person.  As we got closer it became apparent that it was two people.  One was laying down and the other was frantically waving at us.  It was a woman waving and a guy was laying down.  I asked what happened and she said they were running when he collapsed.  I checked for a pulse and breathing and found both.  He seemed to have passed out, but it was hard to tell if he had suffered a heart attack.  He started to come around and we propped his head up on the pack.  He was delirious and then I noticed that he wasn’t sweating.  I asked the woman if she had any water to give him and she told me they ran out about an hour ago.  At this point I guessed that he was suffering from heat exhaustion or heat stroke.  I gave him a small amount of water and moved him into the shade of a big lodgepole pine.

I told my wife and brother to continue on to Little Yosemite Valley and that I would stay behind with these two.  I gave them our GPS coordinates to pass to the rescue personnel.    I also activated my SPOT GPS locator.  I told the woman to gradually give her friend some water and I would attempt to signal the helicopter.   It was still making circles making announcements but did not see us.  Getting my signal mirror out, I started aiming at the chopper.  One, two-three times.  Wait…..one, two-three.  After 10-15 minutes the pilot turned in our direction and descended.   I immediately laid down on my back with my hands extending out – the international signal for distress-“need medical attention”    The clearing was large enough for them to land.  A rescue crewman jumped out and checked out the downed hiker.   We helped carry him to the helicopter in a stretcher and there was enough room for all of us.

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Half Dome from the “other side”.

Lifting off, I had a brief flashback from my time as a naval aircrewman going through survival training.   Only this time, I was the one being rescued.  Flying by Half Dome,  you could see a crowd of people waiting to be rescued.  We landed in a staging area near the Ahwahnee Hotel where the hiker was taken by ambulance to the medical center.  We would later find out that he suffered from heat stroke but would recover.  Now, concerned for my family, I tried to find out what they were doing to evacuate the people in Little Yosemite Valley.   Within minutes, another helicopter landed and four people emerged.  I asked one of them where they came from.  They said that they were picked up in Little Yosemite Valley and that there were over 50 people left.  I prayed again for my family’s safety and another chopper landed with four more people.  You could see the smoke plumes from behind Half Dome as they went straight up to about 9-10,000 ft. and then blew in a westerly direction.

The landing zone for the helicopters was cordoned off by the park rangers, so I dropped my pack and waited as close as possible to the boundary.  Several more landed and finally by wife and brother emerged.   Hugging them both,  the first thing out of my brothers’ mouth was “Where can we get a hamburger?”  Yep, that’s how it ends.

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While this story was fiction, a wildfire caused by lightning did occur in Yosemite National Park east of Half Dome in September 2014.   The “Meadow Fire” consumed almost 5,000 acres and took several weeks to contain.  Over 100 hikers were evacuated from Half Dome and the area around Little Yosemite Valley.   The National Park Service led an orderly evacuation.  Fire is one of many hazards that one can encounter in the backcountry.  Always let someone know where you will be hiking and discuss events like flash floods, lightning and fire.

 


Wildfire in Yosemite – Part I

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Wildfire in Yosemite – Photo Credit – Jeffrey Trust via Reuters

We were finishing up a section hike of the John Muir Trail in early September.  The trip from Mammoth into Yosemite was filled with the most amazing views.  In Devil’s Postpile Campground, it was nice to gather around the fire to talk about our upcoming adventure.  During our hike, we observed that most of the terrain around the JMT was pristine.  There was an area near Devil’s Postpile that had recently burned.  It was apparently caused by lightning.  The weather was perfect as we skirted thunderstorms for the past couple of days.  Late August or Early September is a good time to do backcountry in the Sierras.  Much later and the chance of snow really increases.   The mosquitoes are not as bad and stream crossings are usually a bit easier.   We met some southbound hikers before Donohue Pass that mentioned how they were pummeled by a storm, hail and all.   Noticed the first bit of snow at Donohue and made the transition from Ansel Adams Wilderness to Yosemite NP. The trek through Lyle Canyon was at a fast pace as the storm seemed to be on our heels.    For most of the week, we went without a campfire since the USFS had a ban in place.

We passed through Tuolumne Meadows and enjoyed some non-dehydrated food.  Next was a glorious day spent near Lower Cathedral Lake where we made camp near the shore.  What a magical place.  The thunder continued to rumble around us through late afternoon,  but it never rained.  The next day we pressed on for 11-12 miles.   We were fortunate enough to nab a site with decent views of Half Dome which appeared a couple of miles away.  In Yosemite, below 9,000 ft. campfires were still allowed.   We gathered up loose firewood and proceeded to make a nice fire.  The site we picked already had a fire pit and we reinforced the edge with some additional rocks.

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Along the JMT

Before dusk, we went down to the creek to filter some water.  The water flow here was poor and the mosquitoes were swarming.  I pumped my water filter faster than ever before while swatting those pesky critters.  All week, we evaded them and wore long sleeves and our head-nets.  Tonight, I was bitten more while filtering than the previous six nights combined.  Oh well, we needed the water for dinner and some extra to put out the campfire.

After dinner, we noticed the skies had clouded up a bit.  We were spared from the rain one more night.   I thought about a previous camping trip where the rain serenaded me to sleep.  Next to a rushing stream, a light rain is the perfect sleep machine.  Sometime during the night, we did hear thunder as well as see the lightning as it lit up our tents.  It sounded like it was 10-15 miles away.  Our site was in a good spot and not in a flash flood prone area.

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Approaching Half Dome from the east

By dawn, the far away storm had subsided.  We noticed the campers above us had packed up early.  They were going to Half Dome.  We ate a light breakfast, packed up and were on our way to finish our trip.  Today would be approximately 7 miles as we would pass the dome, Little Yosemite Valley, Nevada and Vernal Falls.

As we got back on the trail, we passed a small group heading back from a 3 day stay at one of the High Sierra Camps.  They were chatting how “glamping” was the way to go.  Glamping or glamour-camping is luxury camping.  You stay in a yurt, or cabin and receive room service or have your meals prepared for you.  Hmm, sounds nice after all.  At this point, we started talking about real food again.  While it had only been a few days since the cheeseburger in Tuolumne Meadows, the idea of fast-food still sounded good.

Eventually, we emerged from the canopy with Half Dome to our west and Vogelsang Peak to our east.  Suddenly, there was a thrashing sound to our left and a group of 4-5 deer bolted out of the forest in front of us.  What the heck?  Then we saw why they were running.  A white billowing cloud covered half of the horizon to the east.  Was it a cumulus cloud – or smoke?   The three of us stopped to get a better look.  Within a few minutes, it started snowing.  Except this was not regular snow, it was ash.  Now it hit us – forest fire!

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Wildfire near Half Dome, Yosemite NP. Photo Credit – Michael Frye/AP

Next: Trapped!  Wildfire in Yosemite – Part II


Kearsarge Pass – A Thru Hiker Highway

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Ask any Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hiker about Kearsarge Pass and they will confirm that it is a main resupply route.  We would run across more PCT and JMT hikers than ever before.  Generally, they are the most laid back people you will meet.

After a restless nights’ sleep near Pothole Lake, we decided to leave our camp set up and venture out west of the pass.  A nice breakfast of bacon and eggs got us going.  The crytallized eggs are real and when mixed with water, scramble up perfectly.  The pre-cooked bacon is trail ready and is good to go.  We lightened our packs and carried enough supplies for our day hike.  The plan was to drop down into the Kearsarge Lakes area and grab lunch next to the water.

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Our camp was within sight of the pass so the last 400 ft of elevation gain was easy-peasy.  There was one other hiker taking a break and we dropped our packs to soak in the vista.  The views to the west were beautiful.   In the Sierras, one will run out of words to describe the scenery.  There were several lakes below;  one I recognized from the map as Bullfrog Lake.  We wanted to explore down below so we ate a snack and chatted with a thru-hiker going back to town for resupply.  Like so many other long distance hikers we’ve seen, he looked like he was in need of a bath and some good food.  We started down, the slope steady with what appeared to be pulverized granite rocks for the trailbed.

We ran into a few day hikers huffing their way up and stepped out-of-the-way.  Trail etiquette being what it is, the uphill hiker has the right of way.  We ran across a lonely stream making its’ way down to the lakes.  The source of water appeared to come out the side of the mountain.  A bullfrog could be heard croaking steadily.  We never saw it, but heard that sucker for the next 30 minutes.  We made our way down some switchbacks to a trail junction.

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Wishing that we had more time to hike to Charlotte and Rae Lakes area, we hiked another 1/2 mile or so to the Kearsarge Lakes area.  The trail is fairly well-defined and meandered down to the first lake.  It was warmer now, around 75 degrees and other than a few people fishing on the other shore, very quiet.  The only other sound were the streams emptying into the lake.   We took off our shoes and stepped in to the cold, clear water.  After a minute, the bones in my legs started aching.  Well, probably not but that’s what it felt like.  It was brisk and felt good on our hot feet.  The trout were jumping every few seconds.  The Golden Trout Wilderness is aptly named.  We discussed getting our fishing licenses and gear before our next hike into this area.  I can taste the fresh trout cooked in a pan with just a touch of lemon and garlic.

 

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After eating our lunch and filtering some water, we reluctantly started back up the trail.  The climb out was less strenuous than it would have been with a full pack.  We ran into a PCT hiker who had lost the cap to his water filtration chemical bottle.  It was tiny and we struck up a conversation and he eventually found it.    As I was taking a breather on a bend in a switchback, another hiker was coming up behind.  I usually ask hikers where they are coming from or where they are going out of curiosity.  She was a PCT hiker, who had recently gotten back on the trail.   She passed me and struck up a conversation with my wife who  (as always) is ahead of me.  They immediately hit it off and continued talking as we slowly made our way up to the pass.  Conversation is a good diversion when you are in a steep climb.  Of course it helps if you’re not out of breath.

The women continued to chat and it was a nice experience to meet a thru-hiker who took the time to relate their experience on the trail.  PCT hikers run the gambit from those that are on a sabbatical to modern-day hippies.  Sometimes I believe that long distance hikers are a sub-culture within our Americana.  Her trail-name was Pillsbury,  and she was quite the character.  Before long, we reached the pass where we hung out with Pillsbury and the other PCT hiker who went my the moniker Dances with Bacon.  He was a nice guy and we chatted for a bit.  Heck, with a trail-name like that, he couldn’t be bad.

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Pillsbury  wanted to take some fun pics, so she climbed an outcropping and asked me to take some pics with her camera.  She got up her nerve and did some hand-stands.  The blustery wind was a bit much and I was glad when she finished.  She was heading into town to resupply and had another 4-5 miles to go.  While it’s mostly downhill from here, the town of Independence is about 13 miles from the trailhead in the Onion Valley Campground.  We enjoyed our time with Pillsbury and parted ways when we reached the part of the trail where our camp was located.

We had time to enjoy our camp this time.  It was nice at the site and we didn’t rush through dinner.  The Black Bart Chili tasted great.  It’s one of our favorites.    As we settled in for the night, the wind was not as strong so the water from the lake was not lapping the rocks as loud as the previous night.  Did I mention that the first night, the sound of the water was like footsteps? We were sure that someone (or some thing) was walking around our tent.   Freaked us out for a few minutes until I stuck my head out of the tent around 2 a.m. and discovered it was the sound of wind-driven water against the shore of the lake.

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No AMS symptoms tonight, we were fully acclimated.  Slept soundly and awoke to a crisp Sierra morning.  Not wanting to cook breakfast, we had some snacks and departed our hidden campsite on Pothole Lake.  We took a different route out and had to do some boulder scrambling.  Not sure that it was a wise choice.  A fall here would have hurt.

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Our walk down was fairly quick and the scenery nice.  The coolness of the air as we went in and out of the forest was refreshing.   The lakes that we had passed going up looked so different.  Still lots of jumping trout though.  We took a break near a cascading creek, the breeze and sound of rushing water enough for one to desire a nap.

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This hike was a good one for many reasons, but it turns out to be our best way in for our JMT section hike next year.   The JMT is a short trek from Kearsarge Pass.  Mt. Whitney, here we come.

Some lessons learned on this trip:

– We experienced mild Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) symptoms on our first night.  Our symptoms were headaches, nausea and a bad nights’ rest.  While we have camped around 10,000 ft. before, on this trip, we left San Diego in the morning from an altitude of 500 ft.  Ten hours later, we were at 11,400 ft.  Our bodies didn’t have a chance to acclimate.  Recommendation:  When hiking at high altitude, camp at a lower altitude on the first night to give your body a chance to adjust.

– Dehydrated foods take longer to cook at high altitude.  In our case, the normal 12-15 minutes of rehydration took almost 30 minutes.

– If given the opportunity, start a conversation with fellow hikers.  You will meet the most amazing people from all walks of life.  Many have funny, interesting stories from the trail.  You won’t find many creeps out here – they’re mostly back in the cities.

– Take the time to kick your shoes off and enjoy a dip in the water.  Next time, I’m up for a swim. 🙂

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Hiking With Children

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As young grandparents, 🙂 we look forward to the time when we can take our grandchildren on the trail to experience the beauty that we’ve seen.  Perhaps you are parents and are wondering if it is safe to take your little ones out on the trail.  Should you strap on the child-carrier and head to the backcountry?  It depends.  Here are some things to consider.

What is the earliest you should take a child hiking?

Well, you can pack an infant into a child carrier if you are comfortable with that.  Toddlers may not do so well in carriers. We’ve heard a few toddlers crying their way up the trail in those things.  It didn’t look like much fun either.  Toddlers also can’t walk very far so the 5 mile hike may be a bit extreme.

In my opinion, the ideal age to introduce a child to hiking is around 6-8.  One idea is to start out car camping and combine it with day hikes near the campground.   The earlier the better, you’ll get less whining that way!  We have seen children as young as 7-8 on long backcountry trips.  Just remember, those little legs have to take twice as many steps as we do.  On a 10 mile hike, an adult takes approximately 20,000 steps.

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Kids will never forget views like this.

Safety:  

– Many trails have wild animals that can present a real hazard to children.  While mountain lions are rare, coyotes are not.  A child who startles a female bear with cubs is in real trouble.  Heck, if an adult surprises a bear, it means trouble. Rattlesnakes are common out west and often do not provide much warning.  Back east you have rattlesnakes, moccasins and more.  The venom may be more potent on a small body, so  consider the risks.  If you take the little ones into the backcountry, keep them close at hand.

– Terrain can present significant challenges to children.  It may be too risky to take them where a fall can cause serious injury.  Start out with easy treks to build up their trail legs and confidence.  Stream crossings can be dangerous – use common sense here.

– Hydration is critical.  Water is heavy, so plan your hike accordingly.  The hydration bladders that fit in packs work best because kids can sip as they walk.  Monitor their water intake to avoid dehydration or heat stress.  Avoid sodas or drinks with a lot of sugar.

– Nutrition is important too.  A good breakfast and plenty of snacks for the trail.  Trail mix, energy bars and food with protein like beef sticks. Sturdy fruits like apples and oranges are great on the trail.

– Sunscreen is important as is a good first aid kit.  If your child is allergic to bee stings, the epi-pen is the first thing you pack.  If not allergic, a credit card is a good way to get the stinger out.  Just scrape with the edge of the card-it works better then tweezers.  It’s good to keep a topical cream for bee stings in the first aid kit.  Just ask my wife, it works within minutes.  Ticks can be a real problem.   Be careful if you use bug repellants like permethrin on small children.  Otherwise, light clothing is best.  Always check the kids at the end of the day for those pests.  Ticks will gravitate to the head, armpits, groin.  Have some tweezers in the first aid kit and ensure you get the critter’s head if you pull them out.  Use an alcohol pad to clean the bite area and watch for any symptoms like fever, spotted rash and lethargic behavior.  If you remove the tick before it gets too embedded, it should be ok.  By the way, ticks freak me out, I hate them.

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Water crossings can be a challenge

When nature calls:

– Keep a baggie with some single ply toilet paper, hand sanitizer or handi-wipes.  Carry a cat-hole shovel if appropriate.  Teach kids early about leave-no-trace (LNT) practices and how to properly bury waste.  Don’t bury the handi-wipes, they don’t degrade easily.    Believe it or not, they will adapt quicker to going outdoors than most adults.  Keep them in sight for safety reasons.

Equipment:

– A pair of trail shoes, small backpack, hydration bottle and a hat are a good start.  As you progress, a set of trekking poles and maybe some gaiters on those dusty trails.

Skills:

Hiking presents amazing opportunities to teach young ones valuable lessons on wildlife and being good stewards with our beautiful land.  You can talk about survival, navigation, meteorology, geology and so many other life lessons.  Give it to them in small doses or you will bore them quickly.

Hiking is a great way to spend time with your children or grandchildren.  It can lead to an appreciation of nature and our national parks.   It can teach young people how important it is to be good stewards of our environment.  So, take a hike! – with your kids.

Hot Wheels 9-Car Gift Pack (Styles May Vary)

Either way, these are tough miles.

Either way, these are tough miles.


Fuller Ridge Trail – San Jacinto Peak

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If you are up for a bit of four-wheelin on a fire road followed by some sweet views, then this is the trail for you.  Don’t forget to pick up your hiking and camping permits at the Visitor’s Center in Idyllwild.

In the past two years, we have hiked almost every trail in the San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness area.   This area has some of the most beautiful alpine hikes ever.

The Fuller Ridge Trail is located approximately 8 miles up Black Mountain Fire Road (4S01)from SR243 north of Idlyllwild.   We did this one in early Nov during a mild and dry fall weekend.  It follows the western ridge up to San Jacinto and is a tough 14.2 mile out and back hike to the peak with approx. 4,000 ft. of elevation gain.  I’d give the full hike a good 7-8 hrs.  We didn’t have enough time for that and just hiked a few miles in.   If hiked in its’ entirety, it is a good practice hike for Mt. Whitney.

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Driving up this single lane fire road is a bit of a bone jarring experience, but believe it or not, a vehicle with good clearance can make it through.  It does require some maneuvering but the Jeep had no problem tackling this one straight on.   The road takes you up the north side of the San Jacinto range with views of Banning and Palm Springs along the way.  Ol’ Grayback  (Mt San Gorgonio) is a close neighbor.  Amazingly, we didn’t run across any vehicles coming down as it would have required some jockeying to make room for two.  You might want to hit the restroom before this drive because it will test the strongest of bladders.   There are a few pull offs along the way for pics.  Around 6,800-7,000 ft., the road comes to an end with the entrance to a campground and Fuller Ridge trailhead.  Only one other vehicle here this fall afternoon.  We began our ascent through a heavy cover of conifers.  It was cool and crisp with the wind whispering through the gentle giants.

 

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The trail meanders through the forest with occasional views into the desert below.  It is one of the most peaceful  and secluded trails that you can hike around San Jacinto.   Most people will not drive 30 minutes up a fire road to hike.  It’s also a nice back way in to San Jacinto Peak.  We would not be doing the 7 miles to the top,  but it is a fairly mild if not long journey there.

The only sounds were the woodpeckers seemingly fussing at each other and the occasional chatter of the chipmunks.  This appears to be a nice trail for runners as the slopes are generally mild and the trail is mostly single-track.  We noticed a fair amount of ups/downs the first few miles.  No water sources were available on this trip, so bring what you need.  If hiked in the spring, you may run across some PCT through hikers on their long trek north.

It is a mostly shaded, well maintained trail with occasional steep slopes on either side.  Almost all trails in San Jacinto are worth the trip.  This one is no exception.

Today’s tip:  Always let someone know where you will be hiking.  We usually send a text to a family member with the trail name, location and when we expect to return.