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.


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.



Yosemite Diaries: Tourists in the Valley

Sept. 24, 2015: A Day of Sightseeing in Yosemite Valley

We ate breakfast in Curry Village. It was nice to be able to simply pick and choose food items for our trays, as opposed to the usual routine: filter water, start up the Jetboil, roll up the sleeping bags, take down the tent. On the other hand, the lodge was packed with people and voices, the opposite of the solitude of wilderness.

21961243711_23c5004e6c_oWe had a few errands to attend to for the day: buy some new socks to replace the ones we had accidentally melted while drying them by the campfire, treat some blisters, mail back some extra food we wouldn’t need. But first, some sightseeing was in order; after all, that was why we came to the crowded valley. We hopped into the car and headed to Glacier Point, where you could get a 270-degree view of the entire valley. There were tons of people jockeying for spots along the railing, but once we got our turn, it was beyond breathtaking.


From one spot, we drank in views of Half Dome, El Capitan, North Dome, Basket Dome, the Royal Arches, Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap–the list goes on. After getting some good photos, we fell back to let other people in and went to the gift shop to get some caffeinated drinks (might as well enjoy the conveniences of civilization while we could). Nearby along a stone wall, a couple of backpackers had spread out their gear while cooking a meal in an alcohol stove. I looked at their array of dehydrated bags of food, wet socks drying in the sun, and folded-up trekking poles, then smiled in recognition.

21957238362_fa9745b787_oWhile driving our rented Nissan through the winding forest roads, Kurt suddenly shouted “Look!”

“What?!” I swerved to see whatever he had been pointing at. “Was it a deer?”

“No!” Kurt said. “If it’s a deer, I’ll say ‘deer!’ If I say ‘look!’ I want you to check out the new Mustang’s daytime running lights.”

That about summed up the extent of our animal sightings for the day.

In the afternoon, we repacked our bear cans for the next leg of backcountry, boxed up extra meals to mail home from Yosemite’s post office, did a bit of souvenir shopping in the stores, and bought our new socks. For dinner, we had pizza a second night in a row , because you can do that while backpacking. We picked up a bottle box of wine and retired to the wifi lounge to chill for the night. A table of 20-something guys sitting near us had climbed Half Dome that day, so we eavesdropped in on their conversation for a bit. We also chimed in on another couple’s argument over whether or not Fritos are great chips or the greatest chips (Kurt’s opinion: “They’re great for calorie density on the trail, AND they even work as firestarters!”).  The couple thanked us by giving us the rest of their bag of mac & cheese-flavored Lays. When we were finished with them, we handed them off to the Half Dome hikers. Just a bunch of drunk campers, continuously payin’ it forward.


Yosemite Diaries: From Bears to Beers in Yosemite Valley

Sept. 23. 2015: Hetch Hetchy to Yosemite Valley

Mileage: 15.59 miles
‘Floors’: 90

IMG_5972One of the great things about camping trips is that it’s easy to change your plans around, “Choose Your Own Adventure” style. After 4 days of hiking in the Hetch Hetchy area, Kurt and I decided to check out Yosemite Valley. It would be an hour-to-90-minute drive from where we left our car at the backpacker campground, so we woke up bright and early at 6:30 am to get an early start to the day. We had trail mix for breakfast instead of cooking a hot meal to make packing up easier.

P1070114The trail back to the trailhead took us past Rancheria Falls, which was already dry for the season. Someday, it would be awesome to go back to Yosemite earlier in the year to see all of the big waterfalls gushing at full volume. The high season means more crowds and harder-to-get trailhead permits, so it’s always a toss-up when picking what time of year to travel. The last 5 miles of trail wrapped around the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Back at a lower altitude, we were quickly reminded how HOT it was outside. It was close to 90 degrees, and the sun was unrelenting on the unshaded trail. Once we were close enough to see O’Shaughnessy Dam, we became eager to finish. All I could think of was ice-cold Gatorade from the nearest gas station. We ran into a couple out on a day hike who was surprised to hear that we had been camping for the last 4 days, and offered to give us a beer from their cooler. We told them that since we were coming out of the backcountry, there was a 6-pack apiece with our names on them in the near future.

IMG_6031We got off the trail in the mid-afternoon, and drove straight down to the valley, stopping at a visitor’s center to inquire about a place to spend the night. All of the campgrounds in the valley were full, but we found a vacancy in the tent cabins in Curry Village. As we drove into valley, El Capitan suddenly appeared before us, with Half Dome looming in the distance. “It’s our screensaver in real life!” I saved. “It’s our whole Mac operating system in real life!” Kurt replied. We pulled over, joining the clusters of cars and tourists on the side of the road getting their first pictures in.

Upon checkin, we stuffed our food and bear cans into the bear vaults (a bit redundant, but we couldn’t bring the cans into our soft-sided tent) and ran straight for the showers. I attempted to hand-wash our nastiest clothes in the shower with me, which we hung dry on a rope strung across the top of our tent, pure camp-style.

Once we were feeling fresh and clean for the first time in days, we walked into Curry Village and ordered a giant pizza with beers, which we ate outside on the patio. There was a wi-fi lounge across the way with a wraparound porch full of rocking chairs, so we picked up a 6-pack of beers from the gift shop, grabbed some seats, and spent the rest of the evening Instagramming (me) and catching up on Packers news (Kurt). That night, we went to sleep in a real bed, listening to drunk tourists stumbling to their cabins instead of the hooting of owls.



Yosemite Diaries: All Downhill From Here

Sept. 22, 2015: Lake Vernon to Tiltill Valley

Mileage: 11.51 miles
‘Floors’ ascended/descended: 74

In the morning, I went to filter some water at the edge of the lake.  A loud whooshing noise approached, like a swiftly moving plane or train. I looked up into the sky; three birds in formation, their wings steady in a V,  swooped down over the lake at an incredibly high speed. In seconds, they were gone. “What was that?” Kurt called from inside the tent where he was rolling up our sleeping bags. “It sounded like a car driving right at us.”

21939545792_2814d294ea_oAs we finished packing up, we spotted a bear across the lake near the water, our fourth sighting in 24 hours. It was time to hit the trail again, and it was a 750-foot climb to get over the ridge surrounding the lake. It didn’t feel as hard as I thought it would be; as they say, you get in shape on the trail. As we climbed higher, we got a great view of Lake Vernon, including a bear walking along the water (probably the same one I saw earlier continuing his stroll).

21763764508_4e6c0d6bed_oAt the top of the ridge, the trail flattened out and we found ourselves in an alpine forest. “It’s the forest moon of Endor!” Kurt said. In the fresh mud, we saw a bear print and what could possibly be a mountain lion paw print. The trail meandered through a high meadow, and as we entered the deep brush we heard a crash to our right; we had startled a mule deer. It hopped away from us about 25 yards, then looked back to check us out, hanging around to nibble on grass while keeping an eye on us.

somebody got got :(

somebody got got 😦

When we reached the far end of the ridge, we started a long climb down (1800 feet, to be exact). The switchbacks took us back and forth through thorny bushes that made me wish I had left the legs on my convertible pants. At the bottom of the steep descent, we reached Tiltill Valley, our destination. However, in the search for a perfect campsite, we continued another .75 or so of a mile to see if we could find a scenic view on the other side of the valley. It turned out there wasn’t a decent water source, so we backtracked closer to the trail marker, where we ended up finding a pretty cool well-hidden spot across the river and over a large rock. Tucked away from the word, we set up camp then took a dip in the bubbling creek to clean up. The rocks created a small pool, our own personal spa (that happened to have freezing water).

While climbing up the rock to our ‘kitchen’ area where we cooked dinner/kept our bear cans away from the tent, I heard Kurt exclaim “Snake!” I ran over to check it out; he had found a Sierra Mountain kingsnake, which is very colorful but not poisonous. After the sun set, we went into the tent (we were now at too low an elevation to legally have a campfire) for a “tent party,” which basically meant that I journaled by headlamp while Kurt went over our maps, and then we both read our books until falling asleep while listening to the hooting of owls.



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.


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.

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.