Thursday, September 1, 2016

Reelin' in the Years Along the High Sierra Trail

Your everlasting summer
You can see it fading fast
So you grab a piece of something
That you think is gonna last
But you wouldn't know a diamond
If you held it in your hand
The things you think are precious
I can't understand

A couple of years ago I really started feeling the urgency of time. I don’t know what brought it into focus—perhaps it was turning 50, or maybe the onset of certain old man ailments and conditions—but I suddenly came to understand that there was much I still wanted to do – no needed to do – but the window to accomplish that was narrowing with each 24-hour cycle. That epiphany about the finality of time, something of which I was subconsciously aware but which I had consciously ignored, caused a fair amount of a panic in me and the words of Roger Waters began to invade my thoughts and disrupt my equilibrium like never before:

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

So I began running. To catch up. Trying to tick things off my modest bucket list before the sun could overtake me from behind again. Foolish and futile.

What I wanted to accomplish as much as possible was to freeze the moment—see more of the people and the places that surround me now. I wanted to read books. I wanted to write stories. I wanted to take pictures. But most of all I wanted to ascend peaks and walk trails. I wanted to immerse myself in the Angeles National Forest, the Los Padres National Forest, and the Sierra Nevada before I no longer could. So I began covering the local terrain in earnest.

Most of my explorations were solo endeavors. My kids did join me on a handful of occasions, but mostly they stayed away. They’re young and had priorities other than wandering around the forest with their overly-opinionated father. And they had time that I felt I didn’t. That was me as a youngster too.

But then they started fledging from the nest to go make their own way in the world. First my eldest daughter to San Francisco. And in the space of few days before this was written, my son to the South. So the three of us talked about doing a trip together before they drifted away to become part of the family diaspora. We didn’t want to just go out for the day in the local mountains. Instead, we wanted to do something more monumental, meaningful, and memorable. I did a trip like that with my pops back in the mid-90s when both he and I were younger. A four-day float trip down the San Juan River through the broken desert of eastern Utah.  We floated the cool green waters of the San Juan during the hot day and slept on the sandy riverbank beneath the silent sky during the warm nights. It was time spent with my dad that stands out in memory more than almost anything else from the past. It was a lifetime event that I now wanted for my kids.

So the decision was made and permit secured. We would spend 5 days and 4 nights along the High Sierra Trail in Sequoia National Park. The justly famous trail begins at Crescent Meadow in the Giant Forest, tracks up the dramatic Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, crosses the Great Western Divide, and ultimately terminates atop Mt. Whitney some 60 miles east. But our aim was more modest: we would only go as far as the Hamilton Lakes.

Because you must pick up your wilderness permit the day before your entry date (or risk having them released to someone else), we made our way to the Lodgepole Village the afternoon before our trip was to start. Even though it was mid-week, Lodgepole was thronged with tourists who were as eager to experience Sequoia as we were. The crowds were so intense that it left my son bewildered and dismayed. It took some convincing to get him to accept the idea that where we were going, these folks would not follow. 

Permit in hand, we migrated to our assigned, yet underwhelming campsite—Lodgepole #4—dropped the car and gear, and then started up the Topokah Falls Trail in search of a water hole along the Marble Fork to the Kaweah. I had been along this stretch of easy trail years before and knew the swimming here was fine, but memory ultimately failed me and we never found the exact spot that I intended now to revisit. Instead, we walked the entire 1.7 mile length of trail to Topokah Falls which at this late stage of the season was just drizzling off the granite headwall. There we found a nice pool which we shared with some other folks who spoke a foreign language we didn’t understand. We swam in the dark water, drank a bottle of craft brew that we had carried up the trail for just this occasion, and then returned to our campsite to sit beside the campfire as the day turned into night.

Topokah Valley
Meadow Along the Topokah Falls Trail
Forest Views
The Watchtower from the Topokah Valley
Topokah Falls Trail
The Watchtower (8,983')
View Up the Topokah Valley 
Swimming Hole at the Base of Topokah Falls
Looking Back at the Watchtower
The Trail Back to Lodgepole
Over-the-Shoulders Glance at Topokah Falls
Big Tree Country
Looking for a Waterhole Along the Marble Fork of the Kaweah
Lodgepole Swimming Hole
Local Forest Denizen
Lodgepole Campsite #4 - Home for the Night :/
Early the next morning we hoisted 40 lb. packs onto our backs and began walking through the lush and mosquito-rich landscape that is Crescent Meadow. Within the first 15 minutes of our journey, we came face-to-face with a black bear, a big, dark, handsome boy foraging in the thick undergrowth. Although he was uncomfortably close by, he was remarkably unconcerned with us. And strangely enough, we him. So we admired him for just a bit, thrilled by the chance encounter, and then left him to his own devices. After all, bear sightings were getting kind of routine. We had already seen another bear roadside on our way into Crescent Meadow that morning and would see another one, much closer, on our way out.

Beyond Crescent Meadows and out of the Giant Forest, we were suddenly trekking high above the deep valley carved by the Middle Fork of the Kaweah. Here, intoxicating views of Moro Rock, the Castle Rocks, and the Great Western Divide prevail. Water from the Panther and Mehrten Creek drainages splashes across the trail. And wildflowers, long absent from the low country of Southern California, abound. We stopped frequently to drink in both the views and the abundant cold water. 

The trail from here to Buck Creek is very scenic and relatively flat. It snakes its way through a number of drainages and wends in and out of coniferous groves. But there is trouble with the trees. The forest is dying, a victim of the dual scourge of persistent drought and bark beetles. Large swaths of it, in some places up to 70%, are now rust, the telltale color of death. The rangers are justifiably worried. But they are powerless to do anything. So the die-off will continue. At least until the rains return. Or an inferno obliterates the desiccated tree-scape so as to permit a fresh start.

Bear #1 at Crescent Meadow
Obligatory Trailhead Photo
Amazingly lush Crescent Meadow
Early morning light streaming through the forest
Bear #2 at Crescent Meadow
Healthy looking boy
More bear #2
Leaving bear #2 to forage as we go on
Emerging from Crescent Meadows and the views begin to pop
Taking in the immensity of it all
Trailside Tiger Lily

Along the trail
Deer sighting
Beautiful greenery
Capturing the Great Western Divide

Looking back into the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River
Dramatic vistas ahead
Lots of water opportunities between Crescent Meadow and Bear Paw
Nine miles in, the trail dips into Buck Canyon before ascending to Bearpaw Meadow. Buck Creek, which carved this canyon from granite, ribbons through the rocky canyon bottom. We stopped here to cool off in crystal pools in which native trout happily swim. Or at least they did happily swim until some jackass smoking a cigarette illegally scooped a few up in a net and then offered them to us. We scowled and told him no.

Continuing on, the trail steepened and the warm afternoon air suddenly grew uncomfortably still. The water we took in at Buck Creek now drenched our shirts as we ascended to Bearpaw Meadow. I had read that the backpackers’ campground at Bearpaw was a bit disappointing because it was located in a sloping, viewless, dusty, and heavily timbered area. As it turned out, that description is fairly accurate. But we had been walking a long time. And we were tired. So we stopped and stayed.

The night at Bearpaw was long, dark, and spooky. The dense canopy prevented any moonlight from filtering down to the forest floor where our tents sat. And the surrounding trees were continually shedding bark and limbs onto the ground throughout the night. As a result, we were never quite sure if a snap of a twig or the crack of a branch was simply a nearby tree readying to fall upon us, or merely the mother bear and her cubs that we had been told had been frequenting the campground for the preceding week. At dawn we were up and out, happy to be leaving that place. 

Approaching Bearpaw Meadow

Forest canopy at Bearpaw
Backpacker's trail camp at Bearpaw Meadow
Campsite at Bearpaw Meadow
This day was mercifully short on mileage but long on the type of high country scenery that feeds the soul. Past the High Sierra Camp, the trail drops to a footbridge that crosses a deep gash carved by the upper stretches of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah, contours southeast to the Hamilton Creek drainage, and then steadily climbs through appropriately named Valhalla toward the Hamilton Lakes. Smooth granite domes, spires, and fins dominate the landscape hear. Looking at a map from the comfort of your couch, the Sierra appears as but a blip. But don’t be snookered by the map-makers. The enormity of this area is difficult to grasp. The scale is immense.   

The short climb was getting long and the mid-morning sun whose warmth we would have welcomed earlier was now starting to annoy. And then a miracle. Hamilton Creek washing across the granite trail at a spectacular vista point. Something about the universal attraction of water. Resistance was futile. So we stopped. We drank. We wallowed. Then we just loafed around in our drenched clothes listening to the hum of the place and absorbing its palpable energy.  

And we were not the only ones. Here we ran into a fellow doing the exact same thing we were doing. After he was done lying prone in Hamilton Creek, he told us he was going all the way through to Mt. Whitney. That was a common story we heard from other folks we met on the trail. And we met quite a few folks during the time we were out. We met sun-cured old men with white stubble on their chins, salt rime on their collars, and fire in their eyes. We met gregarious and pretty ladies accompanied by taciturn boyfriends who projected suspicion about any male who dared offer a kind word or glancing smile to their women. And we met solitary and bearded young men who lived entirely within themselves, preferring the comfort and ease of the trail to the awkward and potentially complicated camaraderie of others. Dirty, tired hungry, and thirsty folks all, but mostly friendly, happy, and sociable. Mountain people tend to be that way. And how could they not be? The mountains demand it. 

The youngsters
The old man

Canyon carved by the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River. The HST traverses the granite face to the right.
Nearing the bridge over the Lone Pine Creek gorge

Looking up toward the Hamilton Lakes basin
Hamilton Creek spilling across the trail. A welcome respite.
A fellow traveler cooling in Hamilton Creek
High altitude wildflowers at Hamilton Creek crossing

Lower Hamilton Lake
Dramatic Valhalla
Not far beyond where the trail crosses the creek, we crested a small rise and entered the basin holding picturesque upper Hamilton Lake. The day was unseasonably warm so we plunked down in the shade of a small evergreen poking out of the granite slabs, stripped to our skivvies, joyously jumped into the cool, blue waters, and then sat lakeside admiring our admirable surroundings.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly), there were already a good number of backpackers at the lake set up for the night. In fact, most of what appeared to be “existing” camp spots were already taken. As a result, we were compelled the set our tents on a couple of bare spots separating the sheets of granite that form a patio of sorts on the lake’s northwestern edge. As we did, billowy, gray cumulous clouds began to build above the Great Western Divide. The dull thud of thunder boomed in the distance. And then the winds came. The unmistakable whoosh initially announced their arrival. Then we watched as they traversed the lake from east to west, transforming the water from still and cyan to frothy and white.

We and everyone else took shelter and waited for the downpour that never came. The winds, however, blew ferociously for almost an hour, filling our tents with fine Sierra grit. And then as suddenly as they began, the winds stopped, the air became still, and the lake placid. 

Upper Hamilton Lake

Another look at Upper Hamilton Lake from our front porch

The fruits of our labor: enjoying time and place
Camp at Upper Hamilton Lake
Later afternoon light

So you grab a piece of something that you think is gonna last...
Big granite
One of many camp visitors
Fellow campers
Bring on the night
As dusk approached, the deer began to arrive and troll through camp. Lots of them. Healthy and aggressive animals that were unintimidated by us and that would not be deterred in their search for a salty snack. Shirts, pants, sliders, bandanas, and hats were all on the menu. Another backpacker had told us about his encounter with one of these creatures at Precipice Lake the day before, and how it had stolen his trekking pole in order to use the handle as a salt lick. Appropriately warned, we hung our textiles as high as we could in the adjacent trees that night, but it wasn’t enough. The next morning, a fellow camper returned one of our bandanas that he had wrestled away earlier that morning from a marauding ruminant.

As the sun came up on the new day, the tents of the other backpackers with whom we had shared the lake came down and they all left.  Some went up the trail toward Precipice Lake and the Kaweah Gap, and some went down back toward Bearpaw Meadow, but away they all went leaving us as the only remaining campers. We quickly took advantage of the situation and relocated our tents to a premier, wind-protected site that occupied a flat bench above the lake. Then we swam in the lake, warmed ourselves in the radiant sun, swan again, and generally lollygagged for the remainder of the day.

That’s when it dawned on me. We had only been out on the trail for two days and two nights, but already my sense of time was significantly disrupted. I had become Crocodile Dundee: I didn’t know what day it was and I didn’t care. Time, or at least the measurement of time, was an artificial construct that had no real relevance on the trail. All that mattered was whether it was light or dark. Whether we were hungry or thirsty. And whether the dark clouds boiling up over the Great Western Divide were going to drop precipitation. Others we met experienced similar disorientation.  When we asked one group of hikers from New Hampshire how many days they had been on the trail, they just stared at us with confusion before looking to each other for assistance in remembering. We ultimately figured out that they had been on the trail nine days and eight nights.

Deer were plentiful and quite agressive
And not the least bit afraid
Handsome boy
Morning in the High Sierra
Valhalla served as a dramatic backdrop to our tent site

Early morning reflections off Upper Hamilton Lake
Light and Reflections

Brother and sister
Mad and Maddie
The young man and the old man
The next morning we broke camp and started back with much lighter packs. None of us were enamored with the idea of another night at Bearpaw Meadow, so we set our sights on Buck Creek instead. We could have walked the entire way back to Crescent Meadow that day, but our ride wasn’t coming to meet us until the day following so breaking the return journey into pieces was a necessity.

At Buck Creek, we found the designated campsites buggy, claustrophobic, and unattractive. So we opted instead to spend the night in the open on the huge granite slabs that comprise the Buck Creek drainage. Others who came later in the day followed our lead and chose to camp with us on the rocks instead of in the brush. During the day, we hid in the shade beneath the footbridge over Buck Creek like trolls trying to stay cool and hydrated. At night, we laid on the smooth granite looking up at the cosmos in the ink black sky.

On our last day, we reluctantly walked out. Somewhere west of Mehrten Creek we came upon a ranger coming in the opposite direction. He said hello. I asked him to show me his wilderness permit. We both laughed. Then just before reaching Crescent Meadow, we rounded a bend and startled another bear. This one was big and cinnamon colored. The encounter happened so fast and the bear was so close that neither of us had much time to react. We instinctively yelled. The bear bolted a short distance then stopped and turned toward us. My son picked up rocks. My daughter reached for her bear spray. I told them to hold fire while I yelled again. The bruin moved toward a nearby tree preparing to climb it. That gave us wide enough berth to slip by him without incident and continue on our way.  

Back at Crescent Meadow my friend Chris was awaiting our arrival with Grapefruit Sculpin on ice. Crowds swarmed the meadow trying to get a small piece of what we just experienced. The folks from New Hampshire who we had met on the trail earlier came straggling into the parking lot. Chris snapped an obligatory picture of us next to the High Sierra Trail sign, we waved goodbye to our friends from the Granite State, and then we unenthusiastically loaded into the car for the long drive south down the I-5. 

Breaking camp
A couple more looks at Upper Hamilton Lake
Here comes the sun
Valhalla shadows
Re-crossing Hamilton Creek on the way back
Sierra Alligator Lizard Maybe

Big granite
Back in the forest
Campsite at Buck Creek

Back in Crescent Meadow
It is finished


  1. Dude! What a spectacular trip and photos. I know exactly what you mean about time and the awareness of it once you pass 50. You got some memories for the ages with this one.

    1. Thank you my friend. It was really fun. I wish I had done it sooner, but better late than never I suppose. Looking forward to a trip with my youngest now.

  2. Very awesome trip and report. We both used the word "mosquito-rich" in our respective Sequoia reports. How funny!

    And you gotta be opinionated to write with such length and depth as you. I think it's a good quality.

    1. Ha! Thanks Sean. Crescent Meadow was swarming with mossies. Once we got out into the open, the mosquitoes disappeared but then there was those yellow biting bee/beatle thingies to contend with.