Emigrant Diaries: Coming off the Trail

Oct. 1, 2015: from Grouse Lake to San Francisco

Mileage: 4 trail miles, 4 city miles

We woke up to the morning light and the sound of light rain. Our last campsite at Grouse Lake was a short 4 miles to the trailhead, so we decided to get there quickly. Skipping breakfast, we put some trail mix and snacks into our pockets and packed up camp for the last time. The trail proceeded up a steady climb, then back down the ridge we had traversed a week ago. As we walked, the rain slowly grew heavier, and we put on our rain jackets for the first time on the trip. I quickly grew sweaty in my jacket with all of the uphill walking. Puddles began to gather on the trail and our boots were caked in mud. My trekking poles accumulated leaves on their tips; it was definitely autumn.

21957145412_88e5a02063_oEventually, the parking lot came into view through the trees. Our hike had reached its end. We were wet, muddy, and hungry, so the rental car waiting for us was a welcome sight. The first thing I did after resting my backpack near the parked Nissan was pull out the Ziploc of packed-out toilet paper and triumphantly toss it in the trash bins.

The drive to San Francisco was about 4 hours. We stopped in Sonora to get hot tea, coffee, and pastries, and I used my cell phone to find a hotel room in the city. Upon arriving and walking into the hotel lobby, I was very conscious of how terrible we must smell to the other people waiting in line to check in. We were wet, dirty, and our large backpacks felt cumbersome compared to all of the little suitcases on wheels. Upon receiving our room keys, we quickly retreated to our room (I made a quick stop to the gift shop to buy overpriced deodorant).

There is nothing like the first shower after a long camping trip. I relished the  hot water and scented shampoo, and watched the stream of dirty water disappear down the drain. Once we both felt clean and refreshed, we hand-washed items we’d need (underwear, sports bras), hung up coats that needed to be aired out, emptied the water bladder and cleaned the filter. We decided to go across the street and buy some new clothes than pay the insane prices for downtown hotel laundry service. It felt a little jarring to be buying 4 pairs of socks for $12 at an H&M when just that morning, I was sleeping on the ground near a lake.
21943118366_92b80d232b_oFor the next two days, we ate hot food, drank cold beers, and walked around the city. Kurt had never been to San Francisco before, so we went sight-seeing: Alcatraz, Lombard Street, Golden Gate Bridge. With some lucky timing, we ended up in town during the weekend of Strictly Hardly Bluegrass, a free music festival in Golden Gate Park, so we checked that out with a daypack full of boxed wine and snacks. Nearly two weeks earlier, we had camped and hiked along the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and now we were staying in the city that got its water supply from that very place. Talk about full circle.

21764208700_ffcbb632d6_o

On Oct. 3, we flew home to Chicago. It’s always good to be back at home, to sleep in your own bed again. I was excited to see my dog and our friends, to share the stories from our trip and post photos and blog updates. Quickly, we fell back into our normal daily routines. Until the next adventure…

Emigrant Diaries: Our Last Night in the Backcountry

Sept. 30, 2015: From Wood Lake to Grouse Lake

Mileage: 12.19 miles
‘Floors’: 52

21979092951_cd7184fc5c_oDespite my fraidy-cat status when I went to bed the previous night, we slept soundly and disruption-free. The mornings were definitely getting colder in the final days of September, so we had a hot breakfast of eggs and dehydrated hashbrowns with coffee and tea.

On our way out of the site and back to the trail, we ran into the two hikers we had met the previous day, and ended up chatting with them for nearly half an hour. They had been hiking buddies since high school and had spent tons of time in both Yosemite and Emigrant. When we said we were from Chicago, one of them replied “And you came here instead of Disneyland?” They were excited that we had heard of Emigrant and made our way here. The two of them were gearing up to do the John Muir Trail in the next few years. After discussing trekking poles, the Chicago Cubs, and Levi’s Stadium, we said our goodbyes and continued on our way.

21969313995_95c13896d5_oThe trail to Grouse Lake involved a long stretch of downhill climbing over massive rocks, which I personally found more difficult than going uphill. Stepping down large boulders and over gravelly surfaces while wearing a large pack without rolling an ankle took a lot of concentration, and using my trekking poles was a huge help. When we finally reached the bottom, we passed another couple. “How’s it goin’?” we said in greeting. The man greeted us back and replied “It’s a tough day.” The downhill stretch was immediately followed by a long uphill climb, and then finally, thankfully, the trail leveled off. While passing through a wooded area, I saw two mule deer dash across the trail ahead of us.

The closer we got to Grouse Lake, one thing became apparent; the trail in this area got used for livestock quite often, and very recently. Manure was scattered over the trail at intermittent distances, as if the horses were trying to poop out a Morse code message to us. Upon reaching the lake, we walked around until we found a campsite with easy water access. I noticed hoof prints in the mud, more horse hair strands hanging from tree bark, and a few random horse turds. We set up the tent in a turd-free zone and went through the normal motions: gathering firewood, filtering water, and setting up our bear cans away from the tent.

21969311205_7297da0ee1_o

After the long hike, I wanted to wash up a bit. Jumping into a lake was getting progressively harder now that the weather was cooling down, especially now that the sun had been hiding behind clouds for the last few days. It would be my last time to ‘bathe’ before going back to San Francisco, so I took a deep breath and submerged myself into Grouse Lake. When you’ve been hiking for miles covered in dirt from head to toe and the smell of your own armpits can knock you out, it’s quite amazing how refreshing a 2-second dip into freezing cold water can be.

Just before sunset, the birds and squirrels started going nuts. Kurt and I both remarked on how many kingfishers and chickarees we could hear chirping away in the trees. It made me wonder: were they alerting us to something, or alerting everything else about us? We built a nice warm fire and made our last campfire meal of curry rice. The moon was once against hidden behind clouds so we had little light beyond the fire. As we warmed our toes near the flames, a light drizzle began to fall. It was the first rain we’d seen since arriving in California. The fine mist wasn’t enough to get us wet or affect the fire, so we stayed outside for another hour or so. Eventually, we retired to the tent and read books by headlamp while listening to the soft pitter-patter of rain.

Emigrant Diaries: Dark Night at Wood Lake

Sept. 29, 2015: from Buck Lakes to Wood Lake

Mileage: 7.61 miles

After two nights at Buck Lakes, we were ready to move on to some new scenery. Kurt was interested in going cross country to reach Karl’s Lake, which was off trail a ways. To get there, we crossed over a ridge, then down a large expanse of rock towards a forested area. One thing about backcountry camping is that it makes you aware of your strengths as well as your limitations. For me, I discovered my uneasiness over going off-trail for an overnight stay, even though it was just a few miles. While Kurt was confident navigating with a topographic map and a compass, I was afraid of a potential scenario where he was injured or incapacitated,and I had to find my way back to the trailhead to get help. I wasn’t confident that I could do this, so I asked Kurt if we could stay at a lake closer to the trail instead. He saw that I was outside of my comfort zone so he agreed to end our little off-roading adventure early. I felt a little bit like a wimp, but I also knew that it was the right choice for me at that time. Just a few years ago, I had been nervous about camping in the backcountry where bears were present, but with time and experience I was now doing just that for close to two weeks straight. Learning to be comfortable navigating off-trail would be a new future goal for myself.

21943146616_2b24a2c527_oWe continued along the trail to Wood Lake, and spotted a possible good campsite across the water. To get there, we crossed a series of downed logs (as we learned later, we took the long way). While I was setting up the tent, I heard Kurt say something like “Is this human?” That piqued my interest, so I went to see what he was looking at: a clump of long black hair intertwined in some tree bark. The sight creeped me out, but when I looked closer, I realized that it was most likely horse hair. The strands were long, coarse, and at the perfect height  to be left by a stock animal rubbing up against a tree.

21348178313_1754c7b3c9_oWe had just finished setting up camp and were hanging out by the lake when two other hikers came along, looking for a site. They were two men about 15-20 years older than us, both from the northern California area. We chatted with them for a bit; they had stayed on our site during a previous trip. They continued along on the their way to set up at another spot further down the lake, tucked back behind the rocks.

21979093531_f15392c009_oWe made a fire as the sun set, then heated up our dinner of Ramen noodles with added powdered eggs, dehydrated veggies and chicken. It was a cloudy night, the moon completely obscured. Now, I never get afraid of the thought of ghosts or monsters while camping; there’s too many real, practical things to fear like wildlife, lightning, hantavirus, flash floods, etc. I don’t know what it was about that night–maybe the initial unsettling discovery of the hair tangled on that tree, or the lack of any moonlight. But for whatever reason, the thought of The Blair Witch Project crossed my mind. And of course once I tried to shake it, it was all I could think about. Just beyond the fire, the forest was enveloped in velvety darkness. When I turned on my headlamp, a beam would illuminate only the handful of trees closest to us, the light dissipating weakly into the black forest. Once I accidentally turned on my headlamp on the strobe setting, and the intermittent flashes of light on the trees, then pitch darkness, made me think of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which was even more unsettling. That night, I burrowed deep into my sleeping bag like a dog relying on its thundershirt for comfort and security.

 

 

Emigrant Diaries: Hiking, then Relaxing at Buck Lakes

Sept. 27, 2015: From Gem Lake to Buck Lakes

Mileage: 9.38 miles

In the morning, I checked the area around the tent to see if I could spot the tracks of our nighttime visitor. There was a possible big cat print, but it was hard to tell in the light layer of dirt and gravel on top of the rocks. By now, we had our morning routine down: I rolled up the sleeping bags and pads and broke down the tent, while Kurt filtered water and cooked breakfast, then took care of the dishes. Once our bags were reassembled, we got back on the trail.

We blew past Jewelry Lake, our sights set on Buck Lakes, a chain of lakes and ponds that some hikers we had met had highly recommended. We had planned to set up a base camp for the next day, so it sounded like the perfect place to explore a little more deeply.

21781251400_9aae209c6d_oOnce we arrived at Upper Buck Lake, we made our way down and across the narrow strip of land and rocks at the top of Lower Buck, finding a good campsite just off the trail with a view of the water.  We set up our tent, washed up and laid out wet clothes to dry in the sun, then relaxed by reading and journaling (me) and fishing (Kurt). There were a lot of nibbles, and finally, he reeled in a rainbow trout big enough to eat!

We made a warm fire, and Kurt took care of cleaning and gutting the fish. He cooked it over the fire, and we had instant mashed potatoes as a side dish. There was a lunar eclipse that evening, but the clouds threatened to prevent us from seeing it. As the sun set, the sky grew darker than it had been for our entire trip. Finally, the clouds dispersed enough for us to see the moon partially covered in the shadow of the earth.

21943170196_7e2ef87363_o

Sept. 28, 2015: day hiking around Buck Lakes

Mileage: 7.37miles

21348202843_1014cdaecc_oSince we were taking an easy day of base camping/day hiking, we slept in until just before 9 a.m. We had a nice lazy breakfast with coffee and tea, hanging out on the rocks in our nano-puffs waiting for the sun to warm up the rocks. Kurt set out to explore for a bit and climbed the high rock ledge near our camp to get a view of the entire chain of lakes.

For our day hike, we used the tiny backpack that attached to Kurt’s larger bag to carry some Clif bars, trail mix, water, a camera, and our maps.  We followed the trail that wound back on the other side of the lakes up to Upper Buck, then went off-trail for a bit to explore Buck Meadow. The grass was tall and dry; we still weren’t sure if the dried brown state of every meadow we’d seen was typical for this time of year or a result of California’s epic drought. Kurt pointed ahead and I saw an animal leaping through the grass. A coyote!

We circled back around the other side of Upper Buck and had our lunch in a wooded area, listening to the bright blue kingfishers and brown chickorees chirping in the trees above us, alerting the rest of the forest to our presence. Kurt laughed to himself for a moment. “One of those birds has a call where the first two notes sound like the beginning of ‘We wear short shorts.'” Once you hear it, you can’t unhear it.

After finishing our snacks, we continued along until we reached the end of Lower Buck, circling the entire chain of lakes. From there, we found a fantastic spot to enjoy the view while eating our baggies of goldfish crackers.

21957175032_be5ff23c05_o

The day-hike had been just what I needed to reenergize. That morning, I had felt myself hitting a bit of a wall where I was tired and missed things like non-dehydrated/rehydrated food, deodorant, and toilets. Going for a scenic walk without a 40-lb bag in a gorgeous place was the perfect boost to my spirits. I could look around and search for wildlife or enjoy the views without worrying about watching my step and turning an ankle under the weight of a pack. I was refreshed and looking forward to another night by a warm fire under the moonlight.

Emigrant Wilderness Diaries: Bobcat Litterbox

Sept. 26, 2015: Bear Lake to Gem Lake

Mileage: 12.65 miles

On our second day in Emigrant, the differences between the national park and wilderness area became more apparent. In Hetch Hetchy, people seemed to be really good about following Leave No Trace. In Emigrant, however, we started to notice trash left behind by previous campers, especially at the lakes closest to the trailheads: pieces of rope still attached to trees, used toilet paper poking up from the ground, an empty liquor bottle, a pile of pistachio shells.

Another difference was the trail markers, or lack of them. At times it became difficult to keep track of which was the correct route; little side paths would split off from the main trail with no signage to indicate which was the correct way. More than a few times, we would  explore another route for a bit before backtracking or questioning our choice, or pull out the map to confirm where exactly we were.

21781269390_b2034f7ff8_oWhen we reached our destination, Gem Lake, we saw a tent already set up on the near side of the water. In search of more privacy, we continued hiking around the lake to the other side and found a nice, solitary spot. We did, however, run into one of the campers, who had circled the lake looking for a good fishing spot. The guy was pretty cool so we chatted with him for a bit; he was traveling from San Francisco with his dad and sister. One thing we noticed when we talked to other hikers in Emigrant is that everyone we met was from California. It seemed to be the locals’ choice for a weekend getaway.

After camp was all set up, Kurt wandered around the area and made a few interesting discoveries. First, after peeking behind a rock, he found what seemed to be a bobcat litterbox (a giant pile of big cat turds). Then later while hanging out at his fishing, he spotted an empty BB gun.

21979148121_058b73f6ac_o

Since we had done a lot of hiking that day, we both needed a shower. We climbed down the rock to the water and immediately gasped once our feet dipped into the cold water. Sucking it up, I dunked my head underneath to rinse the sweat out of my hair. “I love swimming at 8,200 feet!” Kurt exclaimed after immersing himself. Shivering but refreshed, we bundled up in our warm clothes. The nano-puff jacket I had barely used in Yosemite was becoming a regular nightly staple in Emigrant.

After nightfall, we went into the tent to read by headlamp. I woke up shortly after falling asleep, around 11 pm. There was the soft sound of something walking around outside our tent. I admit that when I’m camping in the backcountry I often hear “animals” that turn out to be noises coming from the large mammal in the sleeping bag to my right. This time, however, I could hear distinct footsteps and something sniffing at our tent. I froze, wondering if I should shout to scare it away, or shine my headlamp at the wall. I didn’t need to do either; the animal suddenly ran off on its own. From the thudding of its paws, it sounded larger than our 40-lb dog. I sighed, closed my eyes, and wondered how I’d get back to sleep after that.

Yosemite/Emigrant Diaries: Back to Backcountry

Sept. 25, 2015: From Yosemite Valley to Emigrant Wilderness Area

Mileage: 8.45 miles

21782475439_20fb29f381_oWe woke up early, before the sun had fully risen, and packed up the rest of our stuff into our backpacks. It was time to return to the backcountry.  After grabbing some tea, coffee, and pastries from Curry Village, we started the drive to Emigrant Wilderness Area, our destination. Emigrant is part of Stanislaus National Forest and shares a border with Yosemite on the north side of the park. We stopped at the Summit ranger station to get our backcountry permit, then parked our car at the trailhead and said goodbye to it for a week.

Early into our hike, I started to not feel super great. It could have been the wine from the night before, the lack of sleep (I tossed and turned for some reason), the altitude (we were starting out higher than the top of where we’d been in Yosemite), the uphill climb with a full week’s worth of food in my pack, or a combo of all of the above. We decided to take it easy and stopped at the closest water source, Bear Lake. It turned out to be a picturesque spot with lots of rock formations and trees, as well as a good place for Kurt to fish.

21781522458_a32ff93670_oWe found a flat area for our tent and set it up, but the ground was too rocky for us to be able to drive in our tent stakes. Kurt had devised a solution:  threading sticks with a ‘L’ shape through the tent loops, catching them in the crook, then weighing them down with rocks. A wind had picked up, so Kurt tossed our sleeping bags and pads inside the tent while we scavenged for rocks. I was about 25 feet away searching for supplies when I heard Kurt shout, then turned to see our tent go flying off the ledge, tumbling towards the lake!! My heart leapt into my throat at the thought of our tent and gear plunging into the freezing water. Kurt chased after it, the corner of a rain fly just slipping through his fingers before rolling down onto the next rock ledge, the last one before the water. Luckily, it was slowed down by a clump of bushes and Kurt was able to scramble down and grab it, saving it from the drink. I climbed down to help him carry everything back up, then we surveyed the damage. There was a new, small tear in our rain fly, but luckily for us (not so much for the drought-ridden state of California), there was zero forecast of rain for the week.

After our close call, we used sticks and rocks to make sure the tent was nice and secure. For good measure, I put one of our heavy packs inside as well. Finally, we got to relax. Kurt fished in the lake while I read my book on a rock. He caught a small rainbow trout, but it was too small so he threw it back. We had dinner on the rocks while watching the moon rise.

21926403826_d6b4f7fcd8_o

 

The Mountains are Calling…

…and I must go.

It’s an appropriate time to quote John Muir. In just a few days, my husband and I will get on a plane and fly to San Francisco, then drive down to Yosemite National Park and Emigrant Wilderness Area for an adventure. We will spend 2 weeks camping, hiking, backpacking, exploring, and getting incredibly dirty and smelly.  I am greatly looking forward to this trip. I need this trip. It’s been a long time since I’ve fully immersed myself in nature, and this will be the longest time we’ve spent “off the grid” together yet. After months of devouring hiker blogs online, I’m finally going on my own hiking trip! It will be a far cry from a 5-month long thru-hike, but you’ve gotta start somewhere.

My backpack holds: one bear canister full of snacks and dehydrated meals, one quick-drying t-shirt, one sports bra and pair of underwear, two pairs of socks and sock liners, one pair of long underwear, one nano-puff jacket, one set of trekking poles, a headlamp, travel toothbrush, two empty water bottles, a water filter, rain jacket and pants, a sleeping bag and sleeping pad, tent, pocket knife, hat and gloves, a solar charger, a small journal, and a paperback copy of Outlander (because who doesn’t love reading trashy novels in the wilderness?). Kurt’s backpack is similar, plus or minus a few odds & ends we split up between the two of us (he’s reading The Martian). Other than the clothes on our backs, that’s all that we’ll have for 2 weeks.

There may be bears, fires, and plague. We may have to improvise our plans at times, or deal with rough weather. We may want to strangle each other. We may give up after 3 days and get a hotel room in Reno. Who knows?! I can’t wait to find out.