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!”
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.
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.
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.
Days 2-3 on the Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail…
Waking up the next morning, I noticed the condensation on the tent. The rainfall last night raised the humidity a bit and these single wall tents can build up moisture if not ventilated. I had closed the side flaps to keep the rain from bouncing into the tent.
As I went to the creek to filter some water, it was noticeable that the color was slightly turquoise and a bit cloudy. Earlier this year I replaced my sturdy 2-bag Sawyer filter and picked up a Katadyn model. We used it on the JMT and it is fast and effective. Later, I would find out why the water was this color.
After breakfast, I tried to dry the tent out by wiping it down but ended up packing it up wet. The forecast was for cooler temps and a lower chance of thunderstorms. Breaking camp, I noticed several hikers had already passed. Many of the day hikers stay in the campgrounds below and hit the trail early. Labor Day weekend would prove to be a busy time in this area.
The aspens and Jeffrey Pines gave way to firs and lodgepole pines mostly clustered near the north fork of Big Pine Creek. The creek has magnificent cascades and areas of slower, lazy currents as the terrain flattens out. Fishing looks good down there.
The trail enters an area where the vegetation comes up to the edge of the trail and you cross several brooks and streams that drain into the creek. I imagine that in late spring, early summer the water is fairly high through here. I took a break about 10 ft. off the trail and about fifteen day hikers passed by. Not that I was hiding, but none of them ever saw me. I’ve finally learned how to become one with the environment. Also learned that when hikers are exerting themselves, they can only see about three feet-straight ahead.
Around the three-mile mark, I reached a junction by a stream. The trail to the left was more popular and provided a more gradual climb. I watched a small pack-train and eight horseback riders take that trail. Most others were going that way too. I chose the path to Black Lake and began an immediate climb on an exposed slope, but was rewarded with some neat views of the turquoise glacier fed lakes below.
Passing 9,000 ft the chaparral gave way to conifers and the slope levels out as it approaches Black Lake. Appropriately named, the water was darker than the glacier fed lakes below. This area isn’t as popular as lakes 1-5, so if you are seeking solitude, it’s a great location. Finding a flat area for a tent far enough from the trail is a bit of a challenge, but I noticed several spots. I pressed on to 5th Lake for a late lunch.
I climbed a large granite rock and was rewarded with clouds passing nearby. Around 10,000 ft., the air was crisp and noticeably cooler. The trail passes by a small 6th Lake, as you make your way through tall grasses near the shore.
Eventually, I arrived at a junction. Bear right and you can go to 5th Lake, a popular lunch gathering for the day hikers. I found a nice sunny spot on an outcropping where I watched the anglers pull in rainbow trout. After a while, I felt like a lizard sunning itself on the rocks.
I met some people from the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club. They were probably in their 70’s and slowly made their way down the trail. It’s usually humbling for me to meet older people in the backcountry, especially when the trail is tough.
Making my way down, I came up on a junction where some people were taking a break. For some reason, I took a right and within 15 minutes knew that it was the wrong way. I was heading up to the glacier. While this would be a nice day hike, my full pack convinced me to turn around. This time, when I reached the junction, I noticed the trail sign indicating the Glacier Trail.
The trail starts dropping quickly with multiple short switchbacks. Much of the trail is exposed and it was warm. Descending, the turquoise lake came into view. The bank is steep but there are paths to the water. Most of the day hikers come here in the summer to take a dip in the milky-blue-green water.
I started looking for a campsite near the lake and/or creek but the trail for the most part is a hundred feet above the shore. Most of the choice campsites were taken so I trudged on. Almost picked a spot on top of a flat granite boulder, but the sheer drop into the creek convinced me otherwise. Yeah, I imagined getting up in the middle of the night when nature called…..
I ended up near the stream where the pack-train came through and filtered some water. A couple of ladies came by and one, with a Swedish accent said that she had been drinking unfiltered stream water for many years. She dunked her Nalgene in there and took a big swig. I went upstream a bit since I watched the mules pee in the same stream the day before. I’ll stick with the filtered water thank you. The Swedish woman told me the reason for the turquoise color in the lake was glacial ice. She was partially correct, the glacier creates the color as it grinds its’ way over the rock and makes the silty, glacial milk. During early spring, the melting snow dilutes the water and the color is not as distinct.
I backtracked and found a fairly flat area that appeared to be a vernal pond. Unpacking the wet tent, I placed it in the sun and opened it up to dry it out.
I would later see a picture of my last campsite under water. Seems that it is a vernal pond during the spring melt.
Making camp early gave me plenty of time to get some housekeeping done and explore the area. The chipmunks were having a field day in the surrounding trees. Kerplunk, kerplunk! as the green pine cones hit the ground. Their incessant chattering made me want to throw rocks at them but I resisted. After all, this is their neighborhood.
Sunset is amazing up here as the shadows on the craggy peaks provide a different perspective. The breeze picked up and I closed the flaps on the tent. Just after sunset, it started raining and I drug my belongings into the foyer of the tent. It was a steady rain. The distant waterfalls on Second Lake and the rain pushed me into an early sleep.
Dawn brought a nice Sierra sunrise, partially obscured by clouds and the surrounding peaks. I was on the trail before long, only 5 miles from the trailhead. The walk down was peaceful, coming across two fishermen and an early morning pack-train. This area has it all – moderate hiking, water, fishing, and enough scenery to satisfy the most avid photographer. I highly recommend this trail – just don’t do it on holiday weekends.
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