The 2003 Michigan Sierra Nevada Trip
Jim Bradley and David Hoekema wrote the journal entries below. Several sets of pictures are available:
Sunday, August 10 (Jim Bradley)
Six of us — Randy Bytwerk, Ed Van Beek, Dan Van der Steen, John Kapenga, Bob Kragt, and Jim Bradley — gathered at the Grand Rapids airport for a 7:40 AM flight to Reno via Minneapolis. David and Susan Hoekema, the remaining two members of our band of adventurers, flew into Sacramento. Randy was painfully cheerful, but the rest of us forgave him. The flight was uneventful and we arrived in Reno at 10:25 AM PDT, 15 minutes early. Because of his frequent flyer miles, Randy had received an upgrade to first class. Besides more comfortable seats, he got food. This was harder to forgive. The other five of us grabbed a quick bite at MacDonald's in the Reno airport. Randy and Bob picked up the rental car keys while we waited for our luggage.
Our first stop was at the Mono Lake visitor's center where we got a wonderful introduction to this unique ecosystem that's so important to the West Coast flyway for migrating birds. Since 1941, the city of Los Angeles has been diverting water from Mono Lake's inlets to satisfy its water needs; as a result the lake level has dropped fifty feet exposing some unique geological formations called tufa. Also, since the lake has no outlet, its salinity has greatly increased. By 1994, diligent effort by local conservationists produced a compromise whereby the lake will be restored to 25 feet below its original level and maintained there.
The visitor's center also rents bear canisters for $5 per week. The ranger at the desk wanted to charge us for two weeks since we were taking them on a Sunday and returning them on a Sunday. She regarded this as an eight-day rental. Dan made his Dutch ancestors proud and us grateful by convincing her manager that we only needed to pay for one week. After we left the center, we drove to the south end of the lake and walked through the tufa towers, eerily beautiful limestone formations that were produced by water bubbling up from under the lake, rather like stalactites in reverse.
From Mono Lake, we drove to the Mobil restaurant in Lee Vining. This very ordinary looking gas station serves incredible food! Most of us had fish tacos. These are a soft taco with a lightly breaded fried fish that melts in one's mouth. One of the tacos was supplemented with mango and pineapple; the other with purple cabbage cole slaw and a light cheesy dressing. It seemed a most unlikely combination, but was delicious. Ed was not a fish fan and had the barbecued chicken sandwich, which he enjoyed very much as well.
From Lee Vining, it was about a half-hour drive to Mammoth Lakes where we stayed the night. We were already beginning to get a vision of the grandeur of the high Sierras. But far more was to come. When we arrived at our motel, we received a message saying that the Hoekemas had been delayed five hours in Salt Lake due to an airplane mechanical problem. The rest of us concluded our evening with a dip in the hot springs — a unique place where extremely hot water rises out of the earth into a cold stream. The mixture of hot and cold make for an all natural Jacuzzi that's memorable.
Monday, August 11 (Jim Bradley)
We got off to an early start, meeting outside our motel room at 6 AM. The Hoekemas had arrived from Sacramento about 10 PM the night before. They joined us looking much less bleary-eyed than we had expected. We had breakfast at MacDonald's thinking it would be fast. It wasn't but nevertheless we were on the road by 6:30 and arrived at the pack station at precisely 7 AM, our prearranged time.
Randy had arranged to have our backpacks carried up to our first night's campsite by pack mules. This would make the first day's hike a lot easier, given that we needed to go up about 2000 vertical feet in six miles. Randy went up on horseback, David and Bob spotted a car at the base of Bloody Canyon, our intended terminus, and the rest of us set out on foot. It wasn't long before we began to enjoy some spectacular views of the Silver Lake valley and a high waterfall. Perhaps the biggest surprise on the way up was a cable railway going up the mountainside, at perhaps a 45o angle. The first group crossed it several times as they traversed switchbacks designed to make the climb less steep. David and Bob, trying to catch up with the rest of the group, went straight up the railroad tracks. As we entered the pass that took us out of the valley and into the high country, we encountered a second surprise a dam! It had two roles it generated hydroelectric power for the community below and was one of the sources of LA water that had been diverted from Mono Lake. The lake behind it was called Agnew Lake; we hiked past it and met a second dam, at Gem Lake. On reaching the lakeside, we caught our first views of snow capped peaks. What a glorious sight! The hike along Gem Lake was a delight —relatively level with the beautiful lake to our left and the high peaks before us. We also had a spectacular view of a red-tailed hawk soaring just above us.
At the western end of Gem Lake, we rested and had our first unpleasant encounter with insects, in this case, flies. While they were a nuisance, fortunately, they didn't bite. We took the trail to Waugh Lake and met a few people along the way. Perhaps the most interesting was Lisa, a single woman with a young golden retriever who was definitely being a golden retriever. She had just completed a successful backcountry fly fishing trip and was heading home. She was the Policy Director for the Mono Lake association. After she left, we shared a bit of envy of someone who could hike in this country and count it a workday.
Randy was waiting for us on the trail about a mile from our campsite located on a gorgeous mountain stream, just below Waugh Lake. We were in a dense grove of large evergreens (dense, that is, by Sierra standards.) The stream was lined with willow bushes but still provided us a lovely view. Just outside camp, a large waterfall carried all the water flowing out of Waugh Lake. Waugh was also dammed, to our disappointment. Fortunately, we couldn't see the dam from camp.
We set up camp and prepared for dinner. Randy and Bob had tucked a box of white wine into one of the mule packs, so we leaned back and totally relaxed. Ed did an excellent job of building a fire and we used it for cooking as well as ambiance. We also found another good use for bear canisters — they make nice stools for sitting around the fire. After supper Randy (whose other name is Bobby Fisher) killed Jim in two games of chess, then quietly and mercifully put his chess set away for the rest of the trip. We talked for a while around the campfire then headed to bed early. Between the full moon and the wispy clouds that had moved in during the evening, we didn't have much hope of seeing the Perseid meteor shower. Ed and Bob tried briefly, but without success.
Tuesday, August 12 (Jim Bradley)
Ed arose first and got a nice fire going for us. We cooked our breakfast and hit the trail about 8:45. Our goal for the day was Thousand Islands Lake, a site made famous by Ansel Adams. Dan had brought the food for both himself and John, his nephew, except that Dan had forgotten how much 19 year old men eat. Dan sacrificed his daily ration of granola bars and the rest of us chipped in; this was not a problem as most of us had all brought more food than we could consume. John also was able to sustain a faster hiking pace than the rest of us old-timers. At one point, one of us who was trailing a bit behind asked an on-coming hiker if he had seen the rest of our group. The hiker replied, "Was it a group of older folks with a guide?" After that John was known as the guide.
We hiked past Waugh Lake with more grand vistas and came to a junction where the trail for Donahue Pass splits off. This was a beautiful site with a log bridge over a mountain stream. We met two very tired looking hikers from the Virginias, one of whom remarked on Jim's Calvin tee shirt. We bantered with them for a few minutes about Presbyterians and Reformed folks before heading up a long trail to Island pass. The pass itself consisted of a long, relatively level alpine meadow resplendent with wild flowers and greenery. The purple lupines were dazzling and a small flock of mountain bluebirds had settled beside a small lake. However, the trail had many false summits in the meadow, so we kept being disappointed by having to go up again. Finally, the trail opened into a magnificent view of Banner Peak. Susan commented, "That's my screen saver!" A long gradual downhill brought us to Thousand Islands Lake. While very beautiful, it's also at the junction of the John Muir trail and the Pacific Crest trail. David suggested the name should be changed to the Thousand Hiker Lake.
We were pretty tired after the six mile, mostly uphill hike. So we just ate and relaxed, each in his or her own way, for about an hour. Jim watched a large white cumulus cloud gradually disappear as the westerly winds carried it over the dry Sierras. We had two choices for the return hike —another six-mile trail or bushwhacking via a much shorter overland route to Weber Lake where we could pick up a trail again. We opted for the overland and after following the Pacific Crest Trail for about a mile (encountering several more groups of hikers and a mule train), we left the trail and started climbing a rocky ridge looking for the lowest point where we could pass over. Somehow it seemed much steeper walking than it had appeared on the map. But we all made it to the top and then, a bit dismayed, looked at a pretty steep drop down the other side. Nevertheless, we found a route down, often on our butts, helping each other out, even plowing through a willow thicket. The rest of us saw David fall off a ledge at one point. We were pretty alarmed till we heard Susan say, "Nice fall!" David announced that nothing was hurt except his dignity. After a few minor false starts, we found the trail and made it back to camp about 6 PM. After devotions and dinner, we relaxed around the fire till bedtime. About 9, a young woman named Cindy who was camping near us joined us for about half an hour. She's a single mom with an eleven and a twelve-year-old and she was doing a four-day hike on her own. We exchanged trail lore and when Randy explained the rest of our itinerary, she told him to expect a mutiny. We talked a bit about how such a coup might occur, but went to bed with Randy still in charge.
A note for those cross-countrying from Thousand Island Lake to Weber & Sullivan Lakes. Take the John Muir Trail from Thousand Island until it turns SE (about .5 mile). Follow the trees up to the ridge in a generally northwesterly direction. Once at the ridge top, continue down in the same general direction. The route down to the west side of Sullivan Lake requires a bit of route-finding, but it is not difficult. The cliffs above Weber Lake looked less appetizing.
Wednesday, August 13 (alternate scribe David Hoekema reporting)
Jim Bradley having kindly offered to alternate scribal duties this year, I will pass quickly over the journey from Grand Rapids and the first two days on the trail. Susan’s and my experience flying out turned into a lesson in the advantages of traveling by some swift and comfortable means of transportation—stagecoach, for instance, or packing crate—rather than subjecting oneself to the whims of an airline. We had to make two stops, in Cincinnati and Salt Lake City, and at the latter airport we boarded an insufferably hot plane whose pilot implored us to be patient until we left the gate and fired up the air conditioning. But nothing changed while we taxied across the airport—and then back to the terminal, where we sat for nearly five hours while mechanics replaced an AC unit. We arrived in Sacramento not at noon, as scheduled, but 5 pm, and as soon as we had our rental car we hurried to the REI store to buy stove fuel. Then we headed up US 50 into the mountains, crossing the Sierras about 75 miles north of Yosemite National Park. It is a thrilling journey, the pavement excellent, the traffic (after we got through a few cities in the foothills) was relatively light, and the scenery spectacular, with many switchbacks along exposed slopes offering distant vistas. We decided to press on and enjoy as much of the driving as possible in daylight—a wise decision, since the road that cut diagonally from US 50 down to US 395 was a tortuous and often steep two-lane secondary highway. Along 395 we stopped for dinner just at twilight, a comfort food meal to fuel us for the trail—meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Alas, Whoa Nellie’s Deli (the restaurant in the Lee Vining Mobil station, referred to above by Jim) was already closed when we arrived there, hoping for some dessert. Randy was still up and about when we arrived at the Motel 6 about 10.
Jim has already described our early departure and the side trip to spot a car that Bob and I made, which involved climbing an indescribably rough and steep gravel road to a trailhead at the foot of Bloody Canyon, where we expected to hike out (but didn’t, in the end). Along the way, at a large clearing, we passed a large group preparing for what looked like an all-day gathering of some kind. Judging from their dress and their beat-up campers, and the circle of young people in tie-died shirts and dresses dancing in the sunlight to their friends’ drumming, it appeared to be something of an exercise in nostalgia for the flower power of the sixties. We thought about asking for samples of their tofu casseroles and strange brownies but pressed on instead. By the time we returned to the original trailhead we were about an hour behind the main group when we headed up the trail—an hour more for the sun to build up its strength and bake us on the initial few miles of steep and exposed climbing. Thanks in part to a shortcut along a cablecar railroad line that seemed to rise straight up, we caught up with the others along Agnew Lake.
Our campsite along Rush Creek is a lovely spot sheltered by tall pines, near the stream, which here spreads out into some tranquil pools. True, trees block the night sky, and the mosquitoes are ferocious, but we are well situated for a number of trails into the higher country. Camping here is a very different experience from the previous two Sierra trips, since we are much lower in elevation—not much over 9000 feet, where last year we camped above 11,000—and we are still in the upper reaches of the alpine forests. A major advantage over the high country is being able to build campfires at night, which not only provide a lovely center for conversation and contemplation but also reduce the bulk of our trash by more than 90 percent. (Something I would never have known had I not returned to backpacking: “foil” packaging is mostly plastic, with a very thin layer of metal lining the inside. An armload of food packaging, placed in a hot fire, burns down to a pocketful.)
Today (Wednesday) was Randy’s day to bag a nearby peak, and the chosen target was Donahue Peak, a wide rockpile with commanding views back down our valley and, to the northwest, over into Lyell Canyon toward Tuolumne Meadows. In the end, though, we went only as far as Donahue Pass, which already offers dramatic vistas. Our hiking party numbered 5 today: Susan, Bob, and Jim decided to hike only far enough to find good spots in which to sit and read. The rest of us (Randy, Ed, Dan, Jon and I) set out at about 8:40, skirting the steep sides of Waugh Lake, crossing Rush Creek and two other small streams via log bridges and stone fords, and we reached the John Muir trail junction at 10 (40 minutes quicker than yesterday—evidently we are getting acclimated to the thin air). The crossing there is a bit of a challenge: you have to hop between widely spaced dry rocks or take your chances on slippery wet ones, and we met a hiker who was taking a rest to dry out his boots and socks. (There is a downed tree just upstream, an easy scramble over the stream, but I noticed it only after I had crossed on the rocks three times.)
Joining the JMT, a main artery through the Ansel Adams Wilderness, we headed northeast along a well-graded trail that ascended another 1400 feet in 3.5 miles. Our route took us initially through cool pine woods, often within the sound of Rush Creek’s many cascades or the quieter music of one of its many small tributaries. Soon we left the last vestiges of pine forest and emerged into broad meadows brilliant with wildflowers: Indian paintbrush in shades of red and orange and magenta, tall penstemon spikes in shades ranging from purple to red to white, delicate little upturned cups of Sierra gentian, drooping monks’ hood, several varieties of columbine and thistle . . . everywhere we went we would find another exquisite little plant still bedecked with bright flowers that we had not seen earlier. In damp and sheltered areas we encountered masses of larkspur (delphinium), the intense violet of the flowers nearly obscuring the green of their leaves. Among the most unusual sights were the fuzzy white clusters of ranger buttons, shaped rather like Queen Anne’s Lace constructed from little cotton balls, and an exquisite three-petaled flower, the Mariposa lily, that seems to ride the air perched atop a long, fragile filament of a stem, with tiny and scarcely visible leaves clustered at its base. Susan’s favorite was the yellow Seep Meadow Monkeyflower, which marked the courses of tiny streams winding through alpine meadows. And then there are the resourceful lupines: tall, deep blue spikes with their distinctive finger-like leaves along stream banks, giving way in the dry and rocky soil to miniature versions, just a few inches tall, with tiny leaves that cling to the ground. Indeed, there was no terrain so utterly inhospitable that some flower or other had not taken root there and opened its blossoms to the sun. (Samples of several flowers can be found on Ed’s and my photos—see the link above—or on this page from a history of the Owens Valley: — follow the link at page bottom for two more pages of Sierra flowers.)
We could not see our destination ahead as we hiked. The trail, we eventually discovered, passed to the east of an outcropping that hid the pass and the peak from our view, then turned to the NW. Along the way we crossed and recrossed tiny runoff streams from the snowfields just above us on the slopes to the west. This is a beautiful stretch of trail, seldom really steep, and unlike nearly all the other trails we have been on its steepest switchbacks are separated by more level stretches. Still, the heat of the sun beating down on us after we left the protection of the trees made it a hot and strenuous undertaking.
Along the way, half-hidden in the shadows of the trees beside the creek, we saw a young woman stepping from stone to stone with a net in her hand. Kim was more than happy to tell us about the frog and fish census she and a colleague are conducting for the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, the national park and wilderness authorities, and a consortium of universities. (“Kim the Friend of Frogs,” we dubbed her.) Her special concern is with the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog, unique to the high Sierras, whose population has declined 90 percent in the past two decades but seems to be making a modest comeback. They need a lake or stream environment where the tadpoles can burrow into the soil for the winter, because they do not metamorphose into adults until their second or third summer. A similar adaptation to short summers is characteristic of insects at these altitudes is found in insects, many of which remain in their larval or pupal stage through the winter, Kim told me. The tiny fish I thought I saw glimmering in small pools in the streams above Waugh Lake are insect larvae, she told me, and no fish have been observed very far above Waugh Lake—fortunately for the tadpoles, who look like lunch to the trout. Alerted by Kim, we looked carefully at some pools a mile farther up the trail and found it busy with hundreds of tadpoles, ranging from _ to _ inch in length. I also located two very small adult frogs clinging to a rock just at the water line--little creatures about an inch long, covered in yellow with black spots. Brand new hatchlings, apparently. (A photo of this charming amphibian and an account of the threats to their survival can be found here; another photo here.
One fact relevant to the frogs’ fate that I didn’t know before this trip is that there are no fish native to the Eastern Sierra ranges. Evidently the streams drop too steeply down waterfalls and cascades for any of the fish native to the western side, such as Golden Trout, to swim up and take residence. For decades, however, many of the high country lakes have been stocked with trout—Brown and Rainbow as well as Golden, raised in ponds that take advantage of the many hot springs in Owens Valley to temper the water. Stocking used to involve mule teams carrying barrels of fingerlings up the trail, but the current method is simply to drop thousands of bewildered fingerlings from low-flying planes. After they get over their initial surprise, it turns out, 98 percent of the skydiving fish survive, as many as survived the mule team trip. Flyfishing in lakes and streams is a major attraction in this area, but the short season doesn’t allow the fish to grow very large. The largest trout I heard of anyone catching were 8 or 9 inches.
As we climbed toward Donahue Pass, our views to the SE kept opening up to encompass broader and more distant expanses. Looking back toward our starting point, the ski trails of June Lake carved out of the wooded slopes emerged in the notch of the valley, while the White Mountains of Nevada loomed on the horizon, perhaps 30 miles distant. At the pass—not marked with a sign, but shown on our topo map at 11,040 feet—we found a small lake nestled in the saddle, past which the view to the NW opened up dramatically, revealing the lush green floor of Lyell Canyon stretching toward Tuolumne Meadows in the distance. Lyell Peak was a commanding presence to the west, its lower slopes concealed by a closer ridge, and we had a beautiful view of Lyell Glacier clinging to the very top of its north slopes. All about us were snowfields in sheltered spots, and the brisk wind through the pass sent us all to our daypacks for jackets.
Our original plan to set out across country to Donahue Peak now looked imprudent, since it was already well past noon and it looked like an hour and a half’s venture at the very least, leaving us too little time to be sure of getting back to camp in good light—nor were any of us feeling all that ambitious anyway. So we spent a leisurely hour eating our lunches and exploring the immediate area of the pass. Some went over to the nearest white spot to engage in a snowball fight, while I clambered up a nearby ridge hoping for a better view—and, finding no improvement, tackled yet one more ridge. This time it was well worth the effort: in 15 minutes I was standing atop a small knob with spectacular views in every direction. From this point, but not from the pass, I could see a small kettle lake nestled under a peak just across the pass, and I could identify both Waugh and Gem Lakes without difficulty by the shape of their dams (a set of concrete arches in the former case, a single arch in the latter). A marmot waddled over and watched attentively as I ate my lunch, but he didn’t insist that I share it with him.
The route back to camp was far less taxing than the ascent, of course, but it took me only an hour less, because I had to stop and rest several times until the neuroma in my left foot stopped burning—always more of a problem going down than going up. I had another chat with Kim, Friend of Frogs, who had been joined by her coworker Lacey, and they were able to answer a lot of my questions about the ecology of the high streams and meadows—and confirmed my hunch that the reason the wildflowers are still in their glory is a very late snow melt this year. They also told me about two readily identifiable mushrooms worth seeking out, one of which we had seen yesterday, its huge crown nearly the size of a soccer ball with a crackly brown surface. But I don’t think I will try any such culinary adventures without a companion who can give a positive identification. I also talked on the trail with Cindy, the solo hiker whom Jim mentions as our guest at last night’s campfire, who was headed up over Donahue Pass to camp tonight on her way back to tomorrow’s pickup at Tuolumne Meadows. She is eager to know how our route out through Bloody Canyon turns out. Strange to have a resident of the Yosemite region asking us for advice on hiking routes! She is always looking for new routes that will be adventurous enough, but not too strenuous, for her 10 and 12 year old children.
The profusion of wildflowers, the pure (if thin) air, the crystalline streams, the warm sun—all have been wonderful gifts this year, and the smoke that bedeviled last year’s outing is mercifully absent. Nighttime star and meteor viewing have been a disappointment, however. An early moonrise, and of a full moon at that, make it hard to see any but the most brilliant visitors from the Perseid meteor shower, which peaks today and tomorrow. Worse yet, clouds haved move in over us each evening so far, concealing all but the brightest stars from view. So far, in two hours’ patient viewing over two nights, I have seen exactly one meteor—a meteor trickle, not a shower. And yet last night’s moonrise over the White Mountains was an amazing sight: a huge, luminous disk sliding into the expanse of the sky from behind a distant line of peaks, then hiding again behind a bank of clouds just above. The beauty is enhanced by the absolute stillness of the mountains by night, with few insects and only a breath of wind to disturb the deep stillness.
Thursday, August 14 (Jim Bradley)
Today was a fun day. Six of us left our Waugh Lake base camp about 8:40; David and Susan were busy with laundry and other chores and followed a bit later. We hiked to Davis Lakes, a distance of about 3.4 miles. The first 2.6 miles were primarily along the now familiar side of Waugh Lake. The last 0.8 mile was primarily uphill, through a sequence of alpine meadows, spectacular in the their colorful wildflowers. We also passed a beautiful waterfall.
Davis Lake is at the base of the Ritter Range that includes Davis, Blacktop, Donahue, and Lyall mountains. Since we were north of these mountains, we could see their north faces, each with snowfields tucked into crevasses, and one with a glacier. While Randy and Bob stayed by Davis Lake and relaxed and read, the rest of us climbed an additional 300 feet to Upper Davis Lake, a several acre lake tucked into a small depression on the side of Davis Mountain. The hike up brought us to several snowfields, bright white with their streaks of pink resulting from the red algae that live their entire lives in the snow. The outlet to Upper Davis descended in a narrow canyon with an almost vertical rock wall on one side and culminated in a large waterfall. Ed and John descended through the canyon to the top of the falls; the rest of us took tamer routes down.
About 2 PM, the sky began to cloud over. We were worried about rain so headed back toward camp. By 2:30, the clouds were much less threatening. Nevertheless, the hike back seemed hot and dusty. We had dinner about 5 and relaxed around the campfire for the evening. The National Forest Service policy is that fires are not allowed above 10,000 feet in elevation. Since our campsite was close to 9000 feet, we were able to enjoy a fire every evening. Furthermore, we were allowed to burn our trash. Thus the burning of the trash became a major high point of each day. We were astonished to see how much trash (almost entirely food packaging) we generated over the course of the day. Watching it all disappear into the fire, knowing that meant that we didn't have to carry it back out (save for the tinfoil) was remarkably satisfying.
Friday, August 15 (David Hoekema)
This morning—shouldering our packs for the first time!—we set out on a hot and dusty march to a new campsite at the Clark Lakes. This represented a dramatic change in our original plans, actually. Randy’s original idea was to spend the second half of our outing in the high country above tree line. According to that plan we would have hiked today over Gem Pass to camp at the Alger Lakes, continued the next day through Koip, Parker, and Mono Passes, and then on our last day descended 3000 scenic but rugged feet down Bloody Canyon (so named because of the toll that the sharp rocks and narrow passages would take on the sides of pack animals when it was a major route through the mountains). Some of us were still lobbying for that plan, but the combined effects of high altitude and advancing age planted doubts about its wisdom. (It hadn’t increased our confidence when our neighbor Cindy, hearing this ambitious plan outlined at Wednesday night’s campfire, exploded, “Randy, they’re going to kill you if it doesn’t kill them!”) In the end, after taking a sham vote, Randy exercised his autocratic powers as hike director and decided on a shorter hike that would keep us in the June Lake area, where there were still many enticing day hikes to fill our remaining days.
Getting to the Clark Lakes, a chain
of five lakes on either side of a broad saddle, was our first challenge, and
finding a campsite was the second. I arrived first at the lake nearest the
trail, which was reedy and surrounded by what looked like rather swampy ground,
so I hiked on up the trail another mile to scout the next two lakes on the
far side of the outlet stream. To no avail: I found only a few flat spots,
and they were either very rocky or very distant from water. When the whole
group arrived, it seemed that our only option was to move in right next to
another party on the lower NE lakeshore. But Susan wanted to show us another
spot she thought had looked promising, a wide open meadow along the lower
SW shore. Jim and Ed decided to cross over to that side with us, and as we
began pitching our tent they noticed, just out of sight in the trees, an established
group site with a rock-lined firepit and plenty of room for everyone. So everyone
moved across. The raucous shouting and laughter from the party who would have
been our neighbors, late that evening, made us all the more glad we had done
so. (By 10 or so, thankfully, all was quiet.)
At midafternoon, our tents pitched
and our feet rested from the morning hike, five of us (Ed, Dan, Jon, Susan
and I) decided to go exploring on the ridge that loomed over us to the southwest,
leading up toward Carson Peak. We followed a marked trail past the upper lakes
I had scouted, then cut over to the SW and scrambled up the rough terrain,
sometimes following a lightly used pack trail. Soon the terrain changed dramatically
under our feet and we were traversing a very dry slope composed wholly of
jagged volcanic rock, sculpted by wind and water along the nearby ridge into
mysterious-looking knobs and twisted pillars. It felt as if we had just hiked
to the moon.
Before long we reached a saddle from which we could see down into a steep valley, with a large talus slope against the ridge opposite—the most direct route to the plateau and to Carson Peak, but not one we wanted to attempt. Instead we bore right and stayed as high on the ridge as possible. Soon we faced a forbidding cliff, perhaps 150 feet in height at the end nearest us but sloping downward. The rock was mostly granite again here, but basalt had intruded in some places, and the fallen rocks at our feet were of every shade from white to dusty brown to black. At the far end of the cliff the rocks were not difficult to climb, and we were soon pushing our way through bushes and trees to the middle of a broad plateau, from whose SW edge we could see areas of the wilderness we had never glimpsed before. In the foreground we looked down into the steep and wooded valley of the San Joaquin River’s Middle Fork, and between that valley and the distant horizon, stretching perhaps 30 or 40 miles, stood rank on rank of peaks and ridges receding into the distance. There was one very distinctive peak with a pyramidal top and a skunk stripe of snow on its north face that may have been Mt. Whitney—the highest point in the continental US—but we never made a positive identification, and the compass bearing did not seem quite right for Whitney. We saw a number of birds we had not seen before, including a peregrine falcon who zoomed past not far over our heads and pair of raptors—we are pretty sure they were immature golden eagles—who would place themselves in one spot and ride the air currents, seemingly motionless, for a minute or two, then abruptly dive to investigate something below or just to chase each other in circles. From the eastern edge of the same plateau, we looked over Mono Lake and its surrounding volcanic craters, with the mountains of Nevada beyond. After savoring the views on all sides, we came down the NW slope through thick tangles of manzanita and other bushes, where we surprised a deer just 30 yards ahead of us. This route, fortunately, saved us from the necessity of climbing back down the cliff.
As usual, Ed built a carefully designed fire to brighten our evening. Tonight, at Jim’s request, we had a vigorous discussion about the viability of pacifism and the requirements of just war theory. This focused session was unusual: most nights we just sit and talk, or, entranced by the glowing embers, just sit and watch the constantly changing fire.
Saturday, August 16 (David Hoekema)
This is Jim’s day to report, but since Susan and I were the only ones who did the hike Randy had suggested when we decided on Clark Lakes as our base of operations—down into the San Joaquin Valley and up to Garnet Lake—I will record a few notes on that very rewarding route. The Carson Peak party, meanwhile—Dan, Ed, and Bob—retraced yesterday’s route to the plateau, then traversed another mile along a ridge to the peak, where they were rewarded with panoramic views back into the valley and westward across Mono Lake. (See Ed’s photos for samples.) For our part, Susan and I followed the trail through Agnew Pass past Summit Lake, then down to the river. A small sign—“Foot Trail only”—marked the route up to Garnet Lake, which may well be the steepest stretch I have ever seen that is called “trail” rather than “cliff” or “wall.” It’s not long, just 0.6 mile, but it climbs 800+ feet, first through tall pines, then lower scrub pines, and finally over wildflower-bedecked meadows and rocks to this jewel of a lake. We looked everywhere to see how the trail would lead us around a steep rocky slope just below the lake until we finally realized that it wouldn’t—we just had to climb the rocks. Deep blue in hue, nestled against the lower slopes of the ridge that connects Banner Peak with the mountains to the SE, Garnet is the perfect example of a high Sierra lake. Wildflowers brighten every spot of soil along its rocky banks; just below the lake, inaccessible in the middle of a cascade, we saw a lovely stand of Western blue flag, a wild iris.
Saturday, August 16 (Jim Bradley)
Having moved to the Clark Lakes area on Friday, we were well settled into our new campsite at this point. We camped by a very lovely little lake partially surrounded by reeds, up a gentle hillside in some trees about a hundred yards from the water. This provided us lovely views of Banner Peak and a range of lower mountains.
We were also about two hundred yards from another camp, where a small group with horses and guides arrived shortly after us. The Frontier Pack Station had equipped it with large tents, a picnic table, and a grill and had reserved this site. This provided us abundant opportunities to consider charitably volunteering to go over and offer to help them finish up their uneaten steaks or leftover beer. A mother bear and her cub visited these neighbors Friday night and tore open one leather pouch before one of the wranglers drove them off. But we never saw them.
We split up and did different things this day. David and Susan hiked to Garnet Lake, a distance of about 4 miles each way. Randy was suffering with a sore toe so stayed around camp and relaxed; Bob chose to relax and read around camp also. Jim climbed a small ridge behind camp that provided a spectacular view of the Ritter range and the valley below. The rest of the group climbed Carson Peak
By this point, we had also found another good use for bear canisters — they served very nicely as buckets for carrying water. Ed decided to take advantage of this property and carried his down to the lake. However, he had forgotten to unlock it before leaving camp and when he got to the lake he discovered that he didn't have the usual opener — a quarter — or a good substitute. In fact, the only tool he could find was the tab on the top of his zipper. We speculated on how the sight of this bearded guy who had been in the back country for a week standing by the lake trying to open a bear canister with his zipper might be interpreted by a stranger.
We ended the day with the usual oohs and aahs as we burned the trash and got ourselves as ready as possible for the next day's hike back to base camp.
Sunday, August 17 – Wednesday August 20 (David Hoekema)
Last day—the sad necessity of packing out—but only our second day carrying our packs. It would have been easier to carry our packs 30 miles on any trail in lower Michigan than to negotiate our 6-mile descent today down the aptly named “steep trail” that cuts along the SE slopes above Agnew Lake. After climbing once more to the upper Clark Lakes, we crossed a series of high meadows—too dry here to be as richly decorated with flowers as those we had seen in previous days—and then descended through a steep, forested ravine, down a precipitous rock canyon, and finally, in a series of closely spaced switchbacks, down to the dam at the outlet of Agnew Lake. From that point, retracing our steps from our first day, there remained only about 3 brutal miles of switchbacks down a rocky slope completely exposed to the hot sun. It was my turn to be the slowpoke of the group, my left foot complaining bitterly much of the way.
By the time we reached the pack station just past noon, a cold sixpack of good beer was already being passed around (Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, most appropriately). Randy brought Susan and me up the rugged road to retrieve our rental car, which—we discovered just after he left—had a flat tire. Fortunately, the doughnut spare went on easily and survived the ruts and rocks on the way down.)
After the others went to a marina nearby and showered the dust from hair and skin (only Jon, I think, shared my penchant for cold lake bathing, but Bob had generously shared his solar shower), we all gathered at the Whoa Nellie Deli for a lunch that would have been memorable even if we hadn’t been eating out of foil bags for a week. Susan and I shared a large rack of ribs, the tenderest I can remember eating anywhere, and a couple of excellent draft microbrew ales. Then everyone but Susan and I headed directly to Reno, where they would catch an early morning plane home. Having scheduled our departure for Wednesday, we moved to the Mammoth Country B&B in Mammoth Lakes, where we had reserved a room. We thought we were in heaven: not only was there a real mattress on a real bed, about 20 times as thick as our sleeping pad, but there was a Jacuzzi in the bath, a marvelous antidote for the aches and pains of the trail. Our adventures of the next three days—not part of Bytwerk Sierra Expedition 2004, hence passed over here very quickly—including scrambling up Lambert’s Dome and Pothole Dome in Yosemite National Park and a richly rewarding birdwatching session at the N end of Mono Lake. From a boardwalk, we watched hundreds of Wilson’s and red-necked phalarope, two small groups of American avocet, and a couple of varieties of sandpipers, all feasting on the brine shrimp and alkali flies along the shoreline. Out on the water, and—so a ranger told us—newly arrived just this week, we saw eared grebes gracefully floating on the water, then disappearing beneath it. We also enjoyed a guided visit to the South Tufa area of the lake and, just at sunset, a scramble all around the wildly variegated rocks of Panam Crater, a volcano that pushed up from the valley floor just 600 years ago. On Tuesday we hiked to Devil’s Postpile and Rainbow Falls, encountering along the way a band of downhill mountain bikers encased in virtually crown to toe plastic armor, preparing to ride the gondola to the top of Mammoth Mountain ski area at 11,000 feet and then hurtle down. We had the impression that their wheels are in contact with the ground only about half the time. The heat of the sun was intense on our valley hikes, and the temperature in the towns climbed to 105 or 110 each day, making us grateful that higher altitudes had kept conditions milder while we were on the trail. Tuesday evening we had an unexpected but delightful reunion with an old friend (all right, I’ll admit it—a former girlfriend) who moved from western Michigan to the Owens Valley town of Bishop 20 years ago with her husband and has seldom been back. Jane and Roy’s tales of peaks they have climbed and routes they have traversed put our modest exertions into perspective and reminded us of how much glorious country remains to be explored. No wonder Randy has returned every year for a quarter century to the high Sierras, never following the same route twice, and finds new adventures and new beauties awaiting him each time.
Flowers near Davis Lake