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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 🙂
Ask any hiker that ventures into the backcountry what the hardest part of the experience is and many will say “the mental part.” Up until we logged hundreds of miles on the trail, I’m not sure if this would have made any sense. Our recent journey off the path reiterated the mental part. The fun began after we arrived at the Onion Valley Campground parking lot, fifteen miles or so from the tiny town of Independence.
The drive up from the town is an experience. The road starts with a gradual climb out of the valley and the 180 degree switchbacks made it an exciting ride in our old BMW. We saw mule deer along the way. Be careful of the occasional rock in the road, especially at night. The campground isn’t much in itself. It’s pretty much a tent-only camp tucked away in the small valley where summertime temps creep into the 80’s. At over 9,100 ft. Independence Creek flows nearby. We would park in the hiker’s lot and noticed a few hikers finishing their trek. It was mid-late afternoon and some were looking for rides into Independence or Bishop.
The parking lot has a double vault toilet and cool creek water through a spigot. In the summer, there is always someone coming or going here. We started up the path sans hiking poles and my wife found a nice wooden hiking stick that another kind soul left near the trail-head.
The Kearsarge Pass trail is a steady climb, averaging approximately 600-700 ft. per mile. Well maintained, it gets a lot of traffic during the summer. About half are day-hikers and those fishing. The mild winter was kind to the trail and it was in good shape. Since this was a 3 day hike, we packed extra food and enough clothing to change out. Our packs were light compared to our previous JMT hike, but I might as well have been carrying a couch on my back-that’s how it felt after a couple of miles.
For me, hiking is one of those activities that demands everything you’ve got. Unless you are a thru hiker or able to do this every week, it pushes you. That’s part of the reason we do this – it is a mental and physical challenge. Do this, and you can handle anything life throws at you. My takeaway is “mind over matter”.
This hike starts out with typical scrub and manzanita. Expect a warm one in the summer unless you start early. Around 1.5 miles, you’ll pass next to a nice cascade fed from the lakes above. Within another mile, we passed a couple of lakes, teeming with trout. Experienced our first mosquitoes around 10,000 ft., but not too bad.
The terrain gradually changes into a sub-alpine with a mix of pine and deciduous trees. There is ample shade as you pass the 2-3 mile mark and the climb gets a bit harder with stepping-stones that test your endurance. The wind picked up and it started to feel cool. As long as we kept moving, it was ok. Stop too long and it got cold.
We pushed through and around 6:30, began looking for a campsite. The trail map showed a couple of more lakes within two hundred yards of the trail. Nice, or so I thought. The first one – Heart Lake was a disappointing 5-600 ft. descent so we passed it up. My goal is to almost always camp near a water source. Only one more lake on the map before the “summit” so this was it. I took a GPS reading and compared it to my Tom Harrison map. I confirmed there was a lake below when I asked a passing hiker. He was young and had his earphones in so, I asked a couple of times – “Hey is there a lake down there?” He nodded yes, so we began to look for a way in.
It was after 7 p.m, and getting colder so we began our way down crossing through a talus field of assorted boulders. About two hundred feet in, I spotted a primo campsite. Flat, sandy and large enough for our little Eureka tent. We settled in quickly and had dinner going within 20 minutes. At 11,400 ft., the air chilled as the sun settled behind Kearsarge Pass. I scrambled 200-300 ft. down the slopes of Big Pothole Lake to filter some much-needed water. Six liters later, I slowly climbed back to camp. Much of this water was for our base camp. We try to “tank-up” before hitting the trail because water is so heavy.
There was a strange phenomenon up here. Moths, thousands of them inhabited the little pines. At dusk, there were bats. They would swoop in, emitting their sonar like squeaks. It was quite the feast for them. Never knew there were bats this high.
It was a chilly night, windy with temps in the 40’s. Not bad, but the wind chill made it seem cooler. This close to the pass, a stiff breeze was inevitable. We snuggled into our sleeping bags, each of us with persistent headaches. The thought of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) was at the front of my mind. We were camping at the highest we’ve camped yet. A couple of motrin helped to knock the edge off. If the headaches persisted or other symptoms like nausea and dizziness occurred, we would have to descend. Neither of us slept well.
Next: Pillsbury Does a Handstand at Kearsarge Pass.
Take it from this novice, if there are mistakes to be made in the backcountry, I will make them. Here are a some of the most obvious, take em’ or leave em’ but consider how the simplest oversight will change your backcountry experience.
– Not using a checklist. Oops, not enough toilet paper. (Leaves are single-ply though)
– Check available water sources ahead of time: Ranger station – Oh, sorry they’ve been furloughed! , online blogs.
– Check trail conditions at ranger station – Don’t forget the permit. You can be a renegade and stealth camp. That just sounds like fun.
– Bring a water filter or purification tablets. Results from failure to do so will take 7-10 days.
– Take the proper clothing. Cotton is almost always a no-no as it retains moisture.
– Bring a backpack cover or large trash bag for rain.
– Enough food and a 1-2 day backup supply
– pre-cooked bacon is like manna
– Bringing too much stuff – Setting your tent up on uneven ground or in a drainage area
– Not using a footprint under your tent and finding out there were sharp rocks there.
– Camping far from a water source
– Not bringing a mosquito net or bug repellant
– Not having adequate land navigation skills or maps makes for a longer hike
– Not having important spares like flashlights or matches
– Wearing shoes that fit just right and then finding out your feet swell another size and a half.
– Everyone smells bad after a few days in the backcountry
– Bees like Dr. Bronner’s lavender soap. Alot.
– Learned how important sock liners are. They cut down on moisture and abrasion.
– Permethrin sprayed on your clothing ahead of time repels bugs. This stuff works very well: Sawyer Products Premium Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent Trigger Spray, 24-Ounce
– Long sleeves, convertible pants and a headnet work better. Columbia Men’s Bahama II Long Sleeve Shirt
– Light-colored clothing makes it easier to see the ticks.
– Leave the perfume and cologne at home and off of your skin. Unless you want to attract bees, bears and moose’s in mating season.
– Take extra batteries. Lithium ones last the longest but are expensive
– Learn the international rescue signals in case you need to signal the rescuer. It would be bad if you needed help and gave the ok signal.
– Hiking poles save the knees These are highly rated: Pair of Pace Maker Flip Lock “Expedition” Trekking Poles with Vulcanized Rubber Feet and Attachments
– Rattlesnakes can blend in with the leaves. Use hiking poles, chances are a rattler may strike the pole instead of your leg.
– Slow down, stop and take it all in. You’ll be surprised what you can see and hear.
– Most wildlife doesn’t want anything to do with silly humans.
– I’m a tick magnet. (not chick)
– I don’t fear most bugs, except ticks.
– Ticks almost always end up near the groin.
– Always let someone know where you are hiking, and for how long.
– Consider getting an emergency beacon or GPS locator, especially if you do a bit of solo hiking. Read my blog “Bitten by a Rattler on the Pacific Crest Trail”
– If you have pets at home, especially cats – check your pack before you leave. They like to leave presents or hide inside things.
– Bear canisters can be hard to open when its cold or wet. Try opening one ahead of time for practice. When camping, turn them on the side to keep rain-water out.
– While in the backcountry, if you pack it in, you should always pack it out. Except for poop and used toilet paper, that’s where I draw the line. If you hike Mt. Whitney, take care of your “business” ahead of time or you must use the wag bag. Yuck.
– Campfires are great for morale. Sadly, many areas out west in the backcountry prohibit them due to the risk of wildfires.
Bottom line, life’s lessons are better learned from others’ mistakes.
So, this is the real McCoy. My previous blog was written for fun during my furlough.
If you hike long enough in the backcountry, you will inevitably have to do a water crossing. It may be on a log, stepping on rocks, or fording through it. Over the past several years, I have done quite a few crossings and learned a lot along the way.
Honestly, I didn’t know much about the topic beforehand so I researched the Internet, read about it in my backpacking field guide and various articles in Backpacker magazine. I’ll share my experience crossing various bodies of water including an ocean inlet, streams, creeks, brooks and rivers. By no means am I an authority on water crossings – it’s mostly common sense. If crossing over or through water intimidates you, you are not alone – it’s very common. With a little planning and will power, you can conquer this.
My first real water crossings were on the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. This remote part of the Appalachian Trail has plenty of water. There were two of us and we used the buddy system on some crossings.
Methods for crossing (Fording the body of water)
Always – Put on your water shoes, roll up your pants. Loosen your backpack straps and unbuckle the sternum and waist strap. This may help if you slip. A pack can pull you under.
Solo – Facing upstream, use hiking poles. side step and try to keep three points in contact with the bottom at all times.
Two or more – Couple of methods here. You can face upstream, lock arms and side step your way across. You can also form a single file and face upstream. The person in the front forms a barrier. Place the weakest at the back of the line where there is less resistance to the current.
Swollen, fast current. This is a judgement call. My general rule is if the current is fast, I don’t usually cross if it’s higher than my waist. It’s difficult to keep your footing in a strong current with a slippery bottom.
Obstacles. Never cross upstream close to logs, tangles or debris in the water. If you slip, you may end up getting sucked under the obstacle.
Rapids, bends, waterfalls. Avoid crossing near these if possible. Water flows faster in curves and bends. Rapids are full of hidden hazards. Slip near a waterfall and well, you know…
Temperature. A cold mountain stream will numb your legs and feet within a couple of minutes. It can be shocking and cause you to panic. Move as quickly as possible to avoid cramps.
Some thoughts here. Did you know in Maine (other parts of New England as well) a brook is what most of us would call a stream or creek? A stream can be a large creek or what many out west would call a river.
Crossing over on a log
This is challenging if you are afraid of heights. The sound of rushing water just adds to the fear factor. I find it easiest to hold my poles out like a tightrope walker as it provides a bit more balance. One foot in front of the other and keep moving. If you are with others, it may help to carry the pack of the person who is struggling. That 30-40 lb pack lets you know that it’s there. Unbuckle the waist and sternum, loosen the shoulder straps. If you do fall, roll out of the pack to avoid getting pulled under.
Crossing on rocks, boulders
Choose your stones wisely. Most rock crossings are on shallow streams and creeks. I often use my poles for more stability and have slipped off many rocks. Your best tool here is a pair of hiking shoes with sticky soles like the Camp Four 5-10’s. Avoid moss-covered ones and test to see if the rocks are wobbly. Boulder hopping with a full pack is tricky. Lean to far and you’re going in. Believe me, I know.
While I’ve done a few, it’s a bit sketchy. Always use a headlamp and test the water depth with your hiking poles.
Equipment: You really don’t need much, but here are some ideas.
Water shoes – A good pair of waterproof shoes provides traction and forms a barrier between your feet and a rocky bottom. Hiking shoes with good soles for rock hopping.
Trekking poles – Gives you that third or fourth leg for added stability. Also can be used to pull you out if you fall.
Paracord – If you need to fasten it to your buddy, it can provide some assurance.
Extra socks – It’s no fun to hike in wet socks.
My hardest water crossing was an unplanned one. On a beach hike, my wife and I crossed a tidal inlet to a lagoon at low tide. On our return, the tide was rushing in and the 10 foot crossing at 1 foot deep became a 50 ft. wide crossing up to our shoulders. We put our daypacks above our heads, locked arms and barely made it across. Before and during the crossing, I briefed her what to do if we lost our footing. Fortunately, the current was coming into the lagoon. If the current had been going out, I doubt we would have risked it.
We’ve run across many solo hikers in the backcountry where there are an abundance of water crossings. It’s all the more important to understand the hazards when you are alone. Find the safest place to cross and never cross at night when you’re alone, it’s just not worth it.
Some final thoughts. Hike long enough and you will have to cross water. With the proper gear and techniques, it’s just mind over matter.
If you hike in the backcountry long enough you will eventually come across a brook, stream, creek, river or ginormous mud puddle. You will be faced with a decision. Do I cross it, go around or turn back?
I once came upon a large mud puddle filled with the smelliest black mud ever on the Appalachian Trail and noticed half of someone’s hiking pole. Wow, that was a run-on sentence. I wondered, where the other half was and if the person fell into the bog. Actually did meet the owner of the broken pole at a lean-to later. I did make it across the bog and learned how to do the splits that day. Now, I can sing tenor.
Most of you will cross the creek, especially if there is a bridge. I’m sure there are some out there that even have bridge phobias. Kind of like driving on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and realizing midway that 23 mile long bridges with little or no guard rails scare the crap out of you.
What if there isn’t a bridge when you come upon that creek that is swollen to twice its’ size due to the thunderstorm that just occurred? No fear, the purpose of my blog is to help you. Actually, blogging just gives me something to occupy my time during my government furlough and keeps me from writing angry letters to my representatives.
Let’s assume there are no bridges, logs or rocks to step on to cross this creek. You have many options, most require some prior preparation. Still, you always have options in life. Unless you are a congressional representative up for re-election that is.
Your first choice for crossing is this:
Of course this method requires rope or a homemade hemp vine found only where they grow marijuana in the national forests of California.
The next method still involves rope, but it must be fastened to something on both sides of the creek. Once, there was a rope strung across the Little Wilson Stream in the Maine 100 Mile Wilderness, but it was too high to reach. Very funny.
Hiking with a friend certainly makes it easier to cross water, especially when you have to ford it.
The buddy system, while loads of fun when doing chicken fights in the neighborhood pool can be especially treacherous with 40 lb. packs. Always remember to loosen your straps and unbuckle those waist fasteners.
Sometimes, the body of water requires something more than rope and a friend. There are places in the middle of nowhere that require a boat ride to get to your resupply. Why do they always put it on the other shore? And why can’t you blow the horn more than once to get picked up?
I mean, really. Who gets off the trail to resupply at some resort? It’s only 40 miles to the next town.
So, there you have it. The most common ways to cross water. Why is it in Maine that a brook is bigger than a creek and a stream is wider than a river? Everywhere else it’s not that way. Well, maybe in other parts of New England. But, they were here first, so I guess they can call it what they want. Ayuh, that’s wicked cool.
P.S. – I must be passive aggressive because the WordPress grammar checker always underlines my writing and accuses me of “passive voice”.
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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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
The title should really have peaked your interest. How does a husband convince their wife to do anything? As we say in the military – here’s the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF): It takes time.
Most things worthwhile take some effort. Typical of our manly ways, we tend to go for the gusto – straight away. Backcountry, or multi-day hikes take a bit of planning especially for someone who has never been. Specifically on the backcountry hiking, it’s easier when you live in an area that is conducive to camping and hiking. Either that or you have enough time and money to vacation in beautiful wilderness areas.
Living in southern California, we are within a days’ drive of the High Sierras which has made it uber-easy to do this outdoor activity. However, every state in the union has locations for hiking. From the Appalachian to the Continental Divide to the Pacific Crest Trails, including the national and state forests – there are many areas where you can get off the beaten path. Imagine Denali in amazing Alaska, or Waimea State Park on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
For me, I was determined to do an outdoor activity with my wife that we could enjoy together. We started by day hiking. I bought a book on trails within San Diego County and we began going out on Saturdays. We would pack a lunch and make a day of it. The more secluded, the better. Eventually, the hikes got longer with more elevation change. While flat terrain is a good break, the challenge of a good cardio workout made it more than a walk in the woods.
We would mix up mountain hiking with desert treks as the seasons allowed. We developed a love of the outdoors and an appreciation for the creation. As believers, we observed God’s handiwork in the land and His animals. We also enjoyed each others’ company as we took breaks and drove to/from our hikes. The time in the car is a great time to talk about your marriage – and life.
You really don’t have to be equals as far as physical conditioning. In our case, she kicks my butt on the trail. However, consider the physical condition of your spouse. Start out with easy, short hikes and make a date out of it. It helps to start out with a trek that has awesome scenery. End with a sunset and/or dinner at a new café. We’ve discovered some decent eateries while out on the road. We also established a tradition of celebrating with a cup of hot tea after reaching each summit.
There were times when I pushed us too hard or it was too hot, but we learned from our mistakes. Once, we were almost swept into a lagoon in a rushing tidal inlet. We often share that story with others and always laugh. Another time, we got off track on a snow-covered mountain in the Sierras and bushwhacked for a couple of hours. Every year, there are new stories to share.
Day hiking presented an opportunity to do some camping. We eventually combined car camping with some hikes. If your spouse hasn’t camped before, car camping is a great intro. It allows for conveniences like coolers, chairs and bathrooms. If your kids are grown, go to campgrounds when school is in session. Much less crowded….
During this time, we also visited epic locations like Yosemite. Some places just leave you yearning for more. The Sierras are this way. I imagine the Rockies and so many other areas are similar. Eventually, we did a 3 day backcountry trip to the highest peak in our area – San Gorgonio. It was difficult, but rewarding. It really proved that she could hike in the backcountry with a full pack and sleep in the wilderness. We still laugh about being awakened at midnight by the spotlight of a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s helicopter looking for a lost hiker. Wilderness hiking builds memories.
I won’t exaggerate, it took a few years to get my wife into the backcountry on an extended trip. We worked up to it. I made sure that her needs were taken care of and that she felt safe. I gradually built up trust and gained some knowledge on our wilderness treks. Over the years, We’ve been lost a few times, but a handy GPS and some map skills would get us back on track.
I really could have made this blog a lot shorter by stating that backcountry hiking with your spouse (or significant other) isn’t going to happen quickly. Start out with day hikes, progress to car camping and do a short backcountry trip that has awesome scenery. “Now you’re cooking with peanut oil” Phil Robertson-Duck Dynasty, A&E.
As we prepare for our section hike of the JMT, I am enjoying watching my wife pack, unpack the bear canister. Her frustration mounting, I assure her that it will all fit or we will hang the non-essentials from a tree. Hopefully, by the time we hit Yosemite where bears come to feast, we will have mostly empty bear cans. Whoever created the saying it’s like packing 10 pounds of “stuff” in a 5 pound bag must have invented the bear canister.
The logistics of a section hike in the backcountry are significant. Permits, transportation, food, clothing, checklists, on and on…. Watching her pack, it’s obvious that organized people can get more in their canisters than the rest of us. If you’ve ever crammed a bear canister into an ultralight backpack, you realize that you may be wearing the same clothing all week because it’s either food or clothing.
Keep in mind the pack-it-in, pack-it-out rule. While I agree that we should be good stewards and not leave our trash in the wilderness, it literally stinks to carry your garbage around for a week. I would advise that you rinse out those foil tuna packs after you empty them or your apples will smell like Chicken-of-the-Sea by day three.
Should you pack your bear can with each day’s meals? Like day 5 on the bottom, day 4 above that and so on. I guess if you are OCD then yes. Otherwise, it’s fun finding your food, kind of like the treat in the bottom of a Crackerjack box.
When I got our bear cans, by the way I picked two different types, a Garcia and a Bearvault, I got some reflective tape and made smiley face designs on them. That way, if we need to find a bear can in the dark after Yogi rolls it away, it will be smiling back at us. Along with my phone number, I added a little graffiti like “eat me” and “sorry Yogi” on the reflective tape with a Sharpie. If I have to use those darn things, I will make the best of it.
The old standby canister used by the Park Service: Backpackers’ Cache – Bear Proof Container
BearVault BV500 Bear Proof Container Bear Vault – This one is my favorite, roomy and you can see your stuff.
Always stow your bear canisters between 50-100 ft. away from your tent and wedge them between rocks or trees. Never place them around a cliff or near water unless you plan on fasting for a few days. Enjoy packing them, practice or watch others pack a bear can for cheap entertainment. It’s better than watching Duck Dynasty.
It’s funny how much time you waste piddling around the campsite. By the time we loaded up, it was almost 9 a.m. We had a 7 mile descent ahead. Other than the difficulty of carrying a full load uphill, going down is harder. You tend to slip more and your toes feel like they’re coming out the front of your shoe. The talus was steep and the trail angled, which caused us to compensate by putting more weight on the uphill foot. It was slow going but we were ready to finish this. The focus required to maintain footing was intense. When you think about every step on this terrain being calculated, your brain gets a real workout too.
The volunteer trail crews have done an amazing job out here. On a previous scouting hike of Momyer Creek Trail, I counted no less than 10 blow-downs blocking the trail. By Memorial Day, they had cleared them all. Sometimes, I will make a note on the position of a trail issue and report it back to the ranger station on the way out. The hiking community is tight-knit and are good stewards of the trail. By noon, the exposed areas on the trail were heating up. It was a blessing to go in and out of the forest as the temps would drop 5-10 degrees in the shade.
Toward the end, we started to run into day-hikers and people who seemed to be out for a stroll. As we neared Mill Creek, we heard groups of people and lots of kids. We passed a family heading uphill, their daughter asking us “where the river was?” “River? Oh, you mean Alger Creek, it’s 3.7 miles that-a-way.” I doubt they made it that far as they towed an elderly woman who was inching along. They also had their sodas and snacks in a clear trash bag. Please don’t take me wrong, I don’t mean to make fun of them, it’s the contrast between a few days away from society and being thrust into an urban picnic. We came across another family and after we told them about our 27 mile hike, the daughter asked to take our picture. Of course, we agreed. Wow, we were puffed up now!
We entered Mill Creek Wash and the atmosphere was that of a park, with people gathered around the creek, umbrellas, blankets and picnic supplies. It was too much for us – as in culture shock too much. Civilization smacked us right in the face. What we saw as a simple wash with a creek running through it became a beach front resort to the people of metro San Bernardino.
After getting back to the car, we laughed for a long time about what we just witnessed. Imagine, going into the backcountry for a few days without having time to acclimate to society. We still giggle about it. In the end, our trip to Gorgonio was hard, but great practice for the JMT. Time spent together as a couple was primo. Taking the bear canisters gave Mary an idea what it was like to pack everything (including trash) in a can. One more hike up San Jacinto and we will be ready for one of the best treks in the country.
The scene at Mill Creek showed us one thing – people love to get out and away from the city. Imagine how much more fun it is to venture a few miles out. I encourage you to go higher and farther. Amazing times await you…
Day hiking is definitely a good way to warm up for section hiking. Just like car camping is a good way to warm up for wilderness camping. At least that’s how we approach it.
The first day up Momyer Creek Trail was a challenge. With 3,000 ft. of elevation gain and difficult terrain, we were ready for a quiet night. Our first task after getting camp set up was to get water for dinner and the next day’s trek. I’ve had a Sawyer 2-bag water filtration system for a few years now and it is dependable, albeit a bit bulky for two people. It does require an adequate water source and doesn’t work well in small puddles. The gravity feed from the dirty bag to the clean bag through the filter is slow and takes awhile to filter 6-7 liters.
Dinner consisted of dehydrated meals. Mountain House makes some decent ones that are fairly palatable. We use the portable Pocket Rocket stove with propane-butane fuel. Also found a MSR knockoff stove to use as a backup.
We settled in for the night into our tent as the temperature dropped quickly. After a full day of hiking, it’s amazing how fast you can go to sleep. The first night takes some getting used to, kinda of like sleeping in a strange room or hotel. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. At first, the sound of the helicopter was distant as we heard it pass through nearby canyons. Suddenly, the sound of the blades were overhead, followed by a bright searchlight. I was like, what the heck? I unzipped the door to the tent to see what was going on when the searchlight illuminated me like a Sci-Fi movie where the spaceship beams you up. The pilot announced through his speaker that they were looking for a lost hiker. I shook my head no, and the pilot proceeded a couple of hundred yards uphill where he lit up the camp were the boy scouts were. This continued for about 10 more minutes and then it was gone. That was midnight. The rest of the evening was uneventful. We never did find out who was lost.
Morning was brisk and breakfast consisted of crystallized eggs and pre-cooked bacon. Crystallized eggs, sounds yucky huh? Actually it is one of the best inventions in a long time when it comes to freeze-dried type food. I don’t know how they do it, but when mixed with water and cooked in a skillet, it is exactly like scrambled eggs. Well, they are eggs. The pre-cooked bacon was also near normal taste and texture. Overall, a tasty breakfast with hot tea. Maybe coffee next time.
Today, we would hike from our base camp at 8,400 ft. to the summit at 11,500. I had Mary drop her main pack and carry a Camelbak hydration pack that I use for mountain biking. I dumped most of the stuff out of my backpack and used it to carry our days’ supplies. We hit the trail and continued through a sub-alpine forest before emerging on the edge of a meadow. Another small stream a mile away provided the last water until our return leg. Crossing above Plummer’s Meadow, we would see the first of many awesome views that day. The switchbacks up to Dollar Lake Saddle junction were steady and steep. This portion of the trail gained about 700 ft. per mile.
At the junction, we ran into a group of boy scouts trying to melt some snow. They had quite the quandary as they did not bring adequate water with them for the summit. It takes a lot of fuel to melt snow and in the end, I believe they failed to make the top that day. Planning, especially water – is everything on this mountain.
As we continued, the elevation ticked off, 9,000, 10,000… No altitude sickness today. It helped that we camped above 8,000 ft. last night to get acclimated. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is nothing to mess with. It could begin with a persistent headache, nausea or dizziness and can affect the healthiest of people. Don’t confuse it with a hangover because the symptoms are the same! For a mild case, often hydrating and a couple of ibuprofen help. For persistent or worse symptoms, the only cure is to descend.
We could see Mt. Baldy on one of the switchbacks and the views only got better. We passed through the last trail camp and the tree-line was around 10,700. Up the next switchback, Mt. San Jacinto came into view. The closest of the Three Sisters, its’ majestic peak stands out as a sentinel to the sprawling desert below. Streaks of snow remain at her higher elevations. The trail intersected with Vivian Creek Trail, the shortest-steepest route to the summit. We began to see more people as the trails converged on the summit like freeway ramps.
There are several false summits along the way. Unless you’ve been there before, each view to a taller hill appears to be the top. It’s only when you see people nestled in the boulders like eagles on their nests do you realize you are there. We would take our pics, write in the journal, text our families and have lunch right there – only feet away from people you’ve never met before. The summit had a celebratory atmosphere to it, with everyone smiling and quietly chatting.
You could see for miles or as far as the L.A. smog would let you see to the west. It actually wasn’t that bad today. Big Bear Lake to the north, the high desert to the east and the Peninsular Mountain chain farther south. By the time we left, there were over 100 people up there. Oh well, it is Memorial Day weekend.
The six-mile trip down was pleasant as we would run in to a few more people making their way up to camp at the top. We did not see anyone else after two miles. The constant downhill was harder on the feet and we took a “foot break” at Dollar Lake Saddle. There was a cool breeze as we aired out our socks. The pounding takes a toll on your arches and toes.
By the time we got to camp, we had logged 12 miles and were ready to eat dinner and crash. After filling up our reservoirs at the creek, we had a spicy Mountain House chili meal. It was actually pretty good and one bag was enough for two people. Well, one hungry dude could probably eat the whole thing. After cleaning up, we nestled into the tent around 8:00 with the intent to relax and read a bit. By 8:30 we were in la-la land.
I would be awakened some time later by a bright light next to my head on the outside of the tent. “What is that?” Mary was like – “huh?” I said “that light, what is it?” The flashlight in my backpack pocket must be on I thought. I unzipped the tent and stepped out into the chilly night air. The full moon in all its’ glory had crested the ridge and lit up our tent like the spotlight from the rescue chopper. We laughed and went back to bed.
The wind picked up a bit that night and made a soothing sound as it passed through the conifers on the exposed ridges. Soothing, but a bit eerie as the pitch would vary. Our campsite was on a downhill slope and not affected by the wind. Eventually, we would drift off only to be awakened by the woodland birds at dawn. Most were pleasant to listen to, except for the woodpecker.
Next: Mount San Gorgonio – A Three Day Journey – Day 3: Talus Is Hard To Walk On.
As part of our workup to a section hike of the John Muir Trail this summer, Mary and I decided to do a 3 day practice hike to the summit of Mt San Gorgonio via the Momyer Creek Trail. The tallest of the Three Sisters (San Antonio, San Jacinto, San Gorgonio) it stands out at 11,503 ft. Southern California isn’t necessarily known for its’ majestic mountains, but these peaks are often used to warm up for longer backcountry trips into the Sierras, especially Mt. Whitney.
It’s always good to check in with the rangers to get the latest on trail conditions. Also, get an update on the water flows at the creeks and streams. The office is often staffed with volunteers who are a wealth of knowledge. Having obtained the backcountry permit several weeks prior at the Mill Creek Ranger station, we arrived at the Momyer Creek Trail parking area around 0900 on what we expected to be a busy Memorial Day weekend. Altitude at the trailhead is approx. 5,450 ft.
This was Mary’s first time out with her new Gregory 60 liter pack, complete with a few days worth of food in a bear canister. While the canisters are not mandatory here, I suggested it to get used to our next backcountry on the JMT where they are required. She has the BearVault 500, and I picked up the Garcia canister. Both are highly rated, and I’ve rented the Garcia type in Yosemite. They are cumbersome and take up a lot of space in the pack, but we just dealt with it. My wife is an amazing hiking partner. She really kicks it on the trail and doesn’t complain a bit.
We began our trek by crossing the Mill Creek Wash, which has two sections of the creek that are fairly easy to cross. The terrain gradually changes from the rocky, sandy wash to a single track laced with chaparral. We passed through several wooded areas before breaking out into the open. You want to hit this section of the trail early because it does get hot by midmorning during spring and summer.
The trail begins a gradual climb (around 400-500ft. per mile) with a few switchbacks and moves in and out of deciduous forests. The acorns from the oak trees are among the largest I’ve ever seen. Due to the weight of our packs, we would stop every mile or two for a break.
The first water source on Momyer is Alger Creek, about 3.8 miles up. We climbed to 7,300 ft. before dropping into the canyon at Alger Creek Camp at 7,000 ft. Prior to the creek, I noticed a brightly colored snake on the switchback below. Knowing that it wasn’t a rattler and not poisonous, I slowly approached it. It didn’t budge, so I gently coaxed it with my trekking pole and it slithered away. Come to find out, it was a California King Snake. The water flow was decent with several cascades nearby. We dropped our packs, pulled our lunches out and enjoyed a break at one of the cascades. Taking our shoes off, we dipped them into the stream and laughed at how cold it was. We would also spend some time doing our couples devotion. It was time well spent.
We noticed a Boy Scout troop pass by. We would see them many more times throughout the weekend. We packed up and began a steep climb out of Alger to the next checkpoint – Dobbs Camp junction. We passed through an area of many fallen trees and a 500 yd. gauntlet of thorn bushes. Long pants are advisable through here.
The trail changed from dirt to decomposed granite and became even more narrow as it passed through areas of talus and scree. We encountered a volunteer trail crew pushing blow-downs off the trail. The trail crew leader politely asked for our permit and I obliged. Once he knew we were frequent hikers, he tried to recruit us. We are thinking about doing some type of volunteer work for the Forest Service, but trail maintenance is tough. 🙂 The one bit of bad news they provided was that the large Boy Scout troop was heading to the camp we were shooting for. Man, I wasn’t looking forward to camping near a bunch of kids, but knew that we could find another site in the forest. It was slow going as we passed Dobbs Camp junction but the views of Little San Gorgonio and Mill Creek Canyon were getting better. Momyer isn’t the most scenic of the trails around here, but is definitely less crowded.
We crossed another trickle of a stream before crossing a larger stream near our destination. It ended up being 300-400 yards before our site. As we neared Saxton Camp, I saw a clearing in the woods downhill. We bushwhacked to the area and found a semi-level location. There were some smaller widow-makers nearby, but the weather forecast was looking good, so it was a risk I was willing to take. We pitched our tent and set up for the night after hiking 6-7 hours. It was a long 7 miles today.
Next: Mount San Gorgonio- A Three Day Journey – Day 2: Lost Hiker!
You ever heard of the adage “you can learn something new everyday”? Well, maybe it’s not an adage, but it should be. A couple of years ago, some young Marines taught me a valuable lesson on a backcountry hike. The lesson was one that I’ve taken to heart. Disclaimer: The observations that follow are based on my experiences and are not medical advice.
When you think about which part of your body takes the most abuse on the trail, what comes to mind? For me it is the feet. Your tootsies can really take a beating out there. If you’ve been hiking for a while, you have probably suffered from some of the maladies that I’ll discuss. My first cardinal sin of hiking was buying shoes that fit. In other words, I got boots the same size as my everyday shoes. They worked great on short hikes on varied terrain. However, my week of hiking in Yosemite demonstrated the flaw to my thinking. After a long hike, the downhill stretch hurt my toes. You see, the feet can swell and the arches tend to flatten a bit on long hikes. The result can be a foot that is up to one size larger than normal. Since the toes have nowhere to go, they bang up against the toe box in your boot. The result may take a few days, but the toenails turn black and blue and eventually fall off. Lesson Learned – Buy hiking shoes/boots that are at least 1/2 to 1 size larger than normal. You can make up the difference with thicker socks.
Blisters, unavoidable – right? Not always. While the primary cause of blisters is friction, moisture (sweat) is a key contributing factor. Reduce the rubbing and moisture and you will typically get less blisters. After your toes, the heels take the most abuse on your feet. You can reduce heel rubbing by a shoe that fits well. You can also use a lubricant made especially for runners which is somewhat effective. Shoes that are too wide in the back allow for excessive movement and will rub those seven layers of skin off by lunchtime. Some tips to reduce moisture – use synthetic sock liners followed by the appropriate thickness of wool socks. The merino wool works well for me. Together, these socks wick away moisture where it has a chance to evaporate. Lastly, as far as blisters go, dirt in your shoe – it is an abrasive that increases the risk of blisters. The solution is to pick up some gaiters to slip over your shoes. There are many varieties from simple synthetic pullover to heavy-duty trail blazers that resist cactus. They do a great job at keeping debris out of your shoes.
By far, the most comforting thing that you can do on extended treks is to occasionally stop and take your shoes and socks off. This is especially true on those warmer hikes, but the feet perspire on those winter hikes due to the thicker socks. A 5 minute break cooling your jets will go a long way in warding of those blisters. Massaging the bottom and ball of your feet is very therapeutic. Be careful, as I’ve read of hikers losing a boot over a cliff. Can you imagine hiking out in your socks?
On extended backcountry trips, it is imperative that you baby those feet at the end of the day. I usually break out the wet or antiseptic wipes and give my feet a good cleaning. It’s always a good idea to apply some triple antibiotic ointment to any open blisters or abrasions. It is possible to get an infection from an open blister or raw area on your feet within days, especially if you fiord a few streams. Afterwards, I’ll rub some foot lotion or ointment (like Gold Bond or Kerasal) to moisturize, before putting on a clean pair of socks at bedtime. Your feet will appreciate it and the socks will keep your feet comfy. Like many of you, I’ve logged hundreds of trail miles on these feet and they haven’t failed me yet. Take care of them and you’ll be amazed where they can take you. 🙂