Yosemite Diaries: All the Bears

Sept. 21: Laurel Lake to Lake Vernon

Mileage: 7 miles
‘Floors’ climbed: 69

In the morning, I peeked out of the tent door to check on our bear canisters like a kid on Christmas Day, wondering if they’d be knocked out of place in with fresh claw marks on the side. But they were just as we left them the night before. We made a breakfast of powdered eggs, dehydrated hashbrowns, coffee, and tea, then packed up our tents and packs.

The route to Lake Vernon traveled out of the grassy meadows and onto the granite rocks that Yosemite is famous for. We quickly learned that the trail, when traveling over rocks, was much harder to follow. Looking ahead for cairns quickly became a habit. The hot sun bounced off the white rocks onto our arms and faces. After we crossed over the peak, the rest of the trail snaked downhill towards the lake. We followed the trail halfway around the lake, looking for a spot where it got close to the water; we needed a good entry point where we could filter clean drinking water. After going a bit off trail, we found a grassy spot where Kurt could crawl out onto a log and dip the gravity filter bag into the lake. We took a lunch break while filtering 3 Nalgene’s worth of drinking water, then came up with a game plan to backtrack and continue along the trail to an area on the opposite shore that looked like a small sandy beach.

As we bushwacked back to the trail, Kurt pause in front of me. “It’s a bear,” he said. About 25 yards away, I saw the furry rounded back behind a bush. The bear briefly lifted its head, looked at us, then returned to its bear business. “HEY BEAR!” we shouted, waving our arms to look bigger, following the ranger’s advice. Slowly, we backed away, keeping an eye on him while continuing to wave our arms and make noise. He showed zero signs of wanting to follow us, or any interest in us whatsoever, so as soon as we reached the trail we walked away like normal humans (with pounding hearts).

IMG_5954On the other side of the lake we found an ideal campsite–a sandy beach with easy access to the water, and a primitive trail leading into a wooded area with a fire ring and enough space to pitch our tent. We set up camp and relaxed; Kurt fished while I read my trashy time travel romance novel. At one point while sitting on the beach, I heard the padded footsteps of something behind me. I spun around; a young bear had spotted us and ran away. I remembered the ranger’s words: “they’re afraid of us.”

At dinnertime, we took our Jetboil and baggie of dehydrated mac and cheese and hiked partway up the ridge to watch the sunset. No picture can capture the beauty of a Yosemite sunset. The tops of the granite bluffs took on a rose hue as the sky darkened, reflecting its mirror image into the glassy lake. Further up the ridge and in the distance, we spotted the shape of a black bear rambling along the rocks. As the last remaining light waned, we walked back down to camp. Kurt noticed a fresh pile of bear scat by our fire ring.

We made a toasty fire and laid out the socks that we had rinsed and wrung out earlier on the rocks to dry (camping laundry). With the moon behind the ridge, the stars began to come out. I caught a glimpse of a shooting star. When we turned off our headlamps, the nighttime view was breathtaking; the white rocks glowed in the moonlight, creating an otherworldly vision of another planet. In the warmth of the fire, we reflected on the views, the stars, the stillness. This was everything we came to the backcountry to experience.

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Yosemite Diaries: Hiking Out

Sept. 20, 2015: From Hetch Hetchy to Laurel Lake

Mileage: 12.68 miles
‘Floors’ climbed: 164

We woke up just before 7 a.m. Pacific time and immediately began to pack up our stuff. Our first day was going to be our hardest; besides the fact that we’d be carrying full food and water (as the rangers mentioned, most rivers in the area were already dry), we’d also be climbing out of Hetch Hetchy Valley on a switchbacking trail, gaining about 1,200 feet in about 2 miles. We’d be adjusting to the heat, the altitude, and pack weight all at the same time.

After a breakfast of almond oatmeal, we were ready to go. We filled our water at the campground and took our last pee in toilets; the women’s room door was covered in warning signs mentioning bears, mountain lions, and plague (transmitted by squirrels). We were not on a Club Med Vacation; that much was clear.

IMG_5931The trail began by taking us over O’Shaugnessy Dam and through a tunnel dug into the mountain ridge. We took our obligatory first day photos, then got down to the business of the trail. There was a handful of other people out and about, mostly day hikers with tiny packs or no gear at all.

As the switchbacks grew more and more grueling,  the view of the valley became even more impressive. We stopped as needed to suck down water (the sun beat down on us on an 87-degree day) or rest our legs. I tried to count how many switchbacks there were on the map, but gave up. Just when we thought we were close to the top, the view would expand and we’d see a whole new ledge of rock we had to climb. Pinecones as big as my head were scattered across the trail. When we finally reached the last switchback, the trail continued to climb uphill but at a less steep progression. Still, it was enough to knock us on our asses.

During a lunch break of trail mix and Clif bars while sitting on some rocks, a ranger caught up with us. We chatted for a bit, and we gave us a heads-up that there had been a lot of recent bear activity at Laurel Lake and Lake Vernon, our destinations for the next few days. “Don’t forget,” he said, “they’re scared of us. Wave your arms, shout at them, throw rocks–not to hurt them, but to remind them to keep away.” We thanked him and said goodbye and he continued down the trail, giving us a view of the large shovel strapped to his pack. “That must be for a lot of poop,” Kurt joked. The ranger overhead and turned back to smile. “It’s for breaking up coals in fire rings,” he explained.

The trail continued to climb; Kurt’s legs were jelly and I was wheezing from the pack weight. When I stopped to rest against a tree and apologized for the pause, Kurt waved it off. “There’s no hike-shaming today,” he said.

Just when it felt like our legs were about to give out from underneath us, we reached Laurel Lake. As we set our backpacks on the ground to eat a celebratory snack of goldfish crackers, I spotted a black bear moving through the trees about 75 yards away. “Look!” I pointed it out to Kurt. Our first bear sighting–that’ll give you an adrenaline rush. We set up our tent, then took a dip into the lake to rinse the sweat and stink off our bodies. Back at camp, we made our dinner of rehydrated broccoli and chicken with rice-a-roni. A mule deer doe wandered through our site, unfazed by our presence. We made a campfire in an existing fire ring and rested our weary limbs while watching the stars come out. I told Kurt that my Fitbit estimated we had climbed 164 stories. Ever the mechanical engineer, he said “That’s almost the Sears Tower AND the Bloomingdale Building!”

Sleep came easily.

Yosemite Diaries: Arriving in Hetch Hetchy

Sept. 19, 2015: Hetch Hetchy Backpackers Camp

Our alarm in Chicago went off at 4:30 am; it was quiet and dark on our street. After groggily rolling out of bed and getting dressed, I took our dog for a walk before leaving for the airport. My brother, who was housesitting for us, would arrive later that day to take care of her and our cats. As River and I walked along our block, I caught a glimpse of a skunk lurking in our neighbors’ front yard. I guess that counts as the first wildlife sighting of our vacation.

We took a taxi to the airport and a little over four hours later, landed in San Francisco (my in-flight move: Pitch Perfect 2; Kurt’s: Focus). After picking up our rental car, we left the city immediately, heading southeast towards Yosemite, with one quick stop at an REI in Pleasanton to purchase fuel for our Jetboil (as we couldn’t carry it onto the plane). There was an attempt at In-N-Out Burger for lunch, but a line snaked around the parking lot so we gave up and hit McDonald’s. My last non-dehydrated meal for the foreseeable future was a Big Mac. After stopping near Stockton to use a gas station bathroom that looked like about 50 junkies died in it, we finally reached the Yosemite area. Our cell reception went from spotty to nonexistent. The pines began to tower over us, and I was reminded of Special Agent Dale Cooper’s first impressions of Twin Peaks: “Oh Diane, I almost forgot. Got to find out what kind of trees these are. They’re really something.”

We arrived at the Hetch Hetchy entrance to Yosemite around 3:30 pm and checked in with the ranger to get our backcountry permit. The ranger checked our packs to make sure that we had bear canisters for storing our food: “A bear got some food at Lake Vernon about a month ago, so they might be a little more aggressive.” She mentioned that one bear near Snow Pass had gotten smart enough to roll bear cans off of cliffs to break them open, allowing her access to the food inside. Oh yes, we were officially in bear country for the next few weeks.

P1060800After arriving at the backcountry campground, we selected a site for our tent and threw our food and toiletries into a bear vault. We drove our rental Nissan around the loop, giving us a fantastic view of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the source of San Francisco’s drinking water. In the early twentieth century, John Muir had unsuccessfully protested the damming of the Tuolumne River, as Hetch Hetchy Valley was one of his favorite sites in the Yosemite River. We took a short walk from our campsite up past a helipad landing area to get a higher view of the reservoir and Kolana Rock.

Tomorrow, our adventure would begin.