An Ugly Pit Viper Drops by for a Visit… Let’s go backpacking: Part 2

I heard a noise and looked up. A Diamondback Rattlesnake had come to visit.

 

Today’s post finds me out on a backpacking trip I went on last week. Friday’s post introduced the trip and took me off into the woods by myself.

 

I decided to remain camping where I was and go day hiking. That way I could explore the surrounding area early in the morning and late in the afternoon, while hiding out under a shade tree during the hottest part of the day. I had a number to choose from including incense cedars, ponderosa pines, white firs, and lodgepole pines. There was even a large sugar pine in the neighborhood with its 18-inch-long cones.

The Sugar Pine.

Staying in the shade involved moving as the sun made its way across the sky. This was a good thing; it forced me to get up every so often.

I create a very comfortable nest for myself in the woods, the type I can snuggle down in and read a good book, or write, or prepare a quick snack, meal or cup of coffee. My ‘kitchen’ is always on my right; my ‘living room’ and ‘office’ on the left. The Therm-a-Rest mattress converts to a chair and my backpack forms a great back rest. Everything is easily reachable from where I sit. Moving’s a bit of a bother (grin). It involves two trips and about five minutes to transfer everything. I quickly establish which trees provide the best shade and breeze for the time of the day.

Here’s my home away from home in the woods. Everything I need from entertainment and food to water and mosquito repellent is conveniently located. My clothes bag in the front rests behind my knees and adds comfort. My journal is resting on my chair.

I was in my five o’clock spot under a lodgepole pine when a movement caught my eye. I looked up from my Baldacci book and saw a Diamondback Rattlesnake slithering toward my tree through the pine needles. An ugly pit viper had dropped by for a visit! Keeping a close eye on my guest, I quickly pulled out my camera. The Diamondback kept coming. When it was about 10 feet away I said, “Ahem, Ms. Snake, do you see me? Do you even have a clue I am here?” (It might have been a male, but how in the heck do you tell the sex of a snake? I looked it up, actually, since I knew you would want to know. Male snakes have a couple of tiny penises under the skin inside their cloacal opening (vent under their tail.) You shove a snake probe up there. It goes up farther for a male than a female. Now you are an expert. I don’t think my snake would have cooperated.)

Ms. Snake came to visit me when I was sitting under one of the Lodgepole pines behind my tent.

The rattlesnake was close to four feet long and had ten rattles which suggested she was around five-years old. Note the triangular-shaped head that is typical of pit vipers.

She stopped abruptly as her neck and head rose into the air. Out came a forked tongue. Her spade shaped, pit viper head and yellow-slit eyes pointed in my direction, checking me out, fangs poised for action. Who or what had invaded her territory? Was I food or foe? Heat seeking facial pits that work something like infrared detectors determined that I was too big to eat and might be trouble. So, she started slipping off to the right. Naturally I had to get up and follow. (This is where Peggy normally urges me to do something else, anything else, but she wasn’t along.)

She raised her head and checked me out.

I walked a respectful few feet behind. You never want to get within striking distance. The Diamondback is responsible for the majority of snake bites in the US and its toxin loaded injection can be fatal. The snake kept twisting her head back Linda Blair-like, watching me. Her rattles were pointed up, ready to explode into the loud buzzing sound rattlers are famed and named for. Twice she almost coiled. I could have forced the issue— it makes for a great photo-op. A timely prod with a stick would have had her coiling and buzzing in a flash. But I figured she wasn’t bothering me so I wouldn’t bother her. At least not much. Finally, she slipped off into some brush and waved goodbye with her tail. I wished her good hunting. I think I heard something like “fat, juicy mouse.”

Her rattles were pointed up in the air, ready to start buzzing. The circles on the tail and diamond shapes above them identified the rattlesnake as a Diamondback. The pinecones are from a Lodgepole Pine.

While I wasn’t particularly bothered by the visit, I did move to a different shade tree on the other side of camp. Had Ms. Snake returned, she would have slipped up behind me. I was also more careful about watching where I stepped! Immediately afterwards, I called Peggy and related the story. She laughed. She knows my ways. Or maybe she was laughing from relief that I hadn’t been bitten.

Speaking of ‘my ways,’ one was that I would never carry a cell phone while backpacking. It was more or less written in granite. I go to the woods for tranquility, not the hustle, stress, incessant noise and constant connectedness of modern society. And nothing represents that more than cell phones. And yet, here I was with cell phone in hand. There was even a decent signal from a cell tower on I-80. My decision to break with my long-standing tradition was something of a compromise for my wife. Not many 74-year-olds go wandering off by themselves backpacking. In fact, the number of people who backpack alone at any age is limited to a relatively few adventuresome souls. Peggy is 100% supportive of my backpacking, even when I ramble off alone. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t concerned. My checking in on a daily basis— and being able to check in, if needed, in an emergency— helped allay her worries.

Cell phone service isn’t a given in the wilderness, however, especially in the US where profitability plays an important role in determining where service is offered.  So, I went one step further. I picked up an emergency Gen 3 GPS tracking device named Spot. It’s kind of like Spot, the family dog of Dick and Jane repute, or Lassie, if you will, able to track me down when necessary. But all I have to do with the Gen 3 is hit an SOS button and it immediately sends out a message to local rescue groups that gives my exact location and the fact that I am in a dire emergency situation. Help’s supposed to be on the way within the hour.

There were other steps I took as well— carrying trekking poles, for example. They cut down on wear and tear on the knees and add a degree of balance. More importantly, I did everything I could, minus eliminating my creature comforts, to reduce weight. Modern equipment makes a huge difference. When I first started packing in the late 60s, my pack for a week trip was normally in the neighborhood of 55-60 pounds. By the 90s it was 45-50 pounds. Now it is down to 35-40 pounds.

This is a photo of what I was carrying on my trip. Everything is organized in bags. So there is a kitchen bag, a bathroom bag, a ten essentials bag, etc. Each bag has its place in my pack which is organized for access and weight distribution.

Here’s my stove ready for packing, which will give you an idea on how compact and light backpacking gear is today.

Everything I carry is designed to reduce weight. A plastic spoon, bowl and cup are my dishes. I’ve been carrying the insulated cup for over 40 years. Once it was lost beneath 20 feet of snow. I found it when the snow melted.

Here’s another example of going light. This is my neckerchief, handkerchief, and topographic map. It also serves as an air conditioner! On a hot day, I dip it in a stream and wrap it around my neck.

There is great beauty in the wilderness, if you are willing to slow down and look around. It ranges from expansive vistas down to plants, rocks, and wildlife.  Following are some more photos that reflect what I saw this past week. Enjoy.

Fordyce Creek was a half mile away from where I was camped and filled with snowmelt. The hiking bridge provided a way across the otherwise unfordable creek.

I captured this photo from the bridge. One of the challenges of backpacking early in the season is the amount of water flowing in the streams. Great caution is required when no bridges are available, which is usually the case in the Sierras. It is best to cross early in the morning before the sun begins to melt the snow.

The broken side-boards on the bridge made me wonder about its overall condition!

Thunderheads provided a dramatic backdrop but threatened a thunder and lightning storm. All of my gear was packed away in my tent, just in case.

These circling clouds would have made me think ‘tornado’ had I been in the Midwest or South. BTW… all I had was a few drops of rain with no thunder or lightning.

A small reflection lake was located a hundred yards from my camp. It came with its own water snake. The snake didn’t cooperate for a photo shoot, however.

I’ll close today’s post with this photo that provides a perspective on the size of the lake. Glaciers once worked their way through this portion of the Sierras, carving hundreds of such lakes from small to large.

NEXT POST: Native American rock art at Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California that dates back over 4000 years.

 

Goatsuckers in the Night… Let’s Go Backpacking! Part 1

Putting a pack on my back makes me happy. It means I am heading out for another wilderness adventure. This gorgeous Incense Cedar graced my camp and became the subject of many photos. Incense Cedars are normally found around the 4-5 thousand foot level in the northern Sierras.

 

I’ve been out on a solo backpack trip this past week at the 5000-foot level in the Sierra Nevada Mountains north of Interstate 80, about half way between Sacramento and Reno. Peggy drove me up from Sacramento where she was spending time with her 96-year-old mother.

 

I first started backpacking 48 years ago. Peggy caught this photo as I was prepared to head out on last Sunday.

It was time. Peggy took out her camera for a couple of photos, I shouldered my backpack, waved goodbye, and headed down the jeep road that led to Eagle Lakes. Since it was Sunday, most of the four-wheel enthusiasts were coming out, joyously running their vehicles up and over treacherous rock piles and though waist-deep mud holes. It’s not my thing, but I admire the people who are passionate about the sport. I was raised in El Dorado County, California, home to the granddaddy of all four-wheeling events, the Jeepers Jamboree. Mark Smith created the event in 1953 and it is still going strong.

Does this look like a road to you? It’s the type of challenge that gets a four-wheeler’s heart racing— one they dream of and are long after telling tales about.

I placed my trekking pole on the road to provide a perspective. Yes, jeepers drive over this! As for the dark stain you see, think oil pan…

A series of four-wheel clubs help maintain this road and the camping areas. Most of these groups have a fairly strong wilderness ethic. I thought that the Madhatters was the most entertaining name.

They even carry out their poop!

My goal wasn’t to hike the jeep road, however. It was to hike beyond the jeep road and beyond the numerous four-wheelers who were out for a weekend drive or camping trip. Actually, it wasn’t hard. All I needed to do was to travel a couple of miles past where the jeep road ended. Whereas, four-wheeling isn’t my sport, hiking and backpacking aren’t sports for most four-wheelers. I found a delightful spot and only saw four people while I was there: two hikers and two mountain bikers. One of the hikers, a good Christian fellow, even stopped to bless me… and Peggy… and our children… and our grandchildren… and any pets we happened to own. I was beginning to wonder if he would ever stop, but finally, he ran out of breath. I quickly thanked him and he happily went on his way— his job done.

I didn’t travel particularly far, but it was an adventure for me. I wanted to see how my ‘senior’ body would handle the trip. I’ve been backpacking for 48 years and have several thousand trail miles behind me from the tundra to the tropics, so it isn’t like I’m inexperienced. Mentally, I was ready to go. More than ready. But would the knees, and the hips, and the back, and miscellaneous other body parts agree? Well, I am here to report that they whined a bit. In fact, they whined a lot. They always do on the first outing of the year. But they also knew that whining alone wouldn’t get them back to the easy chair they love so much. I hiked along at 2 to 2 ½ miles per hour, which is a good pace for backpacking in the mountains, and eventually, they shut up.

I was one tired puppy when I found a place to camp, however. I unpacked, set up my kitchen, cooked my gourmet dinner (i.e. boiled water and poured it onto freeze-dried food), put up my tent, and anxiously waited for the sun to go down. I was ready to climb into my sleeping bag. Unfortunately, the longest day in the year (for those of us who live north of the Equator) was only a day away, and the sun didn’t want to cooperate. It lingered until 9:00. There was ample time for the ants, and flies, and mosquitoes, and several other biting bugs to enjoy the fortuitous feast that had arrived in their tiny corner of the universe. And feast they did, apparently giving me an allergic reaction. I sneezed and sneezed and sneezed and sneezed. My nose ran so fast that I had to put on my running shoes to catch up. I was still sneezing when the sun miraculously went down and I crawled into my tent, removing three large ants who had missed out on dinner.

I amused myself while waiting for the sun to set by wandering around taking photos. This was the pond I camped next to.

Lily pads came close to covering the water. This shot reminded me of the work done by the Impressionist painters. Monet would have had his brush out.

Old Man Mountain loomed above me, a reminder that much of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range is composed of granite.

This was my view looking up when I arrived and cooked dinner.

The same view later. It was just about bed time!

I walked out to check out the sunset…

And enjoyed the reflection in the pond.

There was no climbing into my sleeping bag, however. It was too damned hot. When Peggy and I had left Sacramento for our 60-mile drive into the mountains, the thermometer was pushing 109 degrees. It was cooler in the Sierras, but still in the 90s. Hiking in the heat was part of the reason I was so bushed. And now, along with the incessant sneezing, it was keeping me awake. I laid there in my altogether on top of my Therm-a-Rest mattress, took an antihistamine, and waited. Finally, things calmed and cooled down. I began to doze off. That’s when the other shoe dropped. The thousand frogs (slight exaggeration) that lived in the shallow lake next to where I was camping began to croak, all at once. I’d just managed to tune them out when the Goatsucker flew over.

Goatsucker? Was I beginning to lose it? Not exactly. For those of you who aren’t card carrying members of the Audubon Society, goatsuckers are members of a fairly large, noisy family of night birds. Whip-poor-wills are an example. My particular nemesis wasn’t a Whip-poor-will with its mournful all-night jabber, though, it was a Nighthawk, who had his own unique way of making noise. You can tell they are in the neighborhood when you hear their distinct “peent, peent” calls, but that’s only the beginning. In order to win their lady-love’s favor, the males climb high into the sky, close their wings and dive bomb the objects of their affection. Just as they reach the females, they open their wings. The wind rushing through their primary feathers makes a loud bloop sound. The bigger the boy, the louder the bloop. Apparently, it turns the girls on.

As to how the family obtained the name goatsucker, there’s an interesting story that goes way back in time to Europe. It starts with the fact that the birds have tiny beaks that open up to huge mouths they use for catching insects. In Europe, they liked to hang about around smelly goats at night that attracted lots of bugs. But the Europeans believed that the birds had a more nefarious purpose in mind. They believed that they were using their large mouths to grab hold of the nanny goats’ teats and suck them dry. Here’s what Pliny, the Roman Elder, had to say about them in 71 CE. (1601 CE interpretation.)

The Caprimulgi (so called of milking goats) are like the bigger kind of Owsels. They bee night-theeves; for all the day long they see not. Their manner is to come into the goat-pens, and to the goats udders presently they goe, and suck the milke at their teats. And looke what udder is so milked, it giveth no more milke, but misliketh and falleth away afterwards, and the goats become blind withall.

They were bad birds indeed. Not only did they steal nanny’s milk; her teats fell off and she went blind as well. Anyway, with this thought in mind I eventually fell asleep to the sounds of nature: croak, croak, peent, peent, BLOOP!

In my walk-about after dinner, I discovered that the Incense Cedar I featured at the top of the post was actually two trees. Fire, possibly set by lightning, had burned out the space between the twins.

I shot up the trunks for a different perspective.

I’ll conclude today’s post with a picture of the twin cedars being caught in the early morning sun the next day.

NEXT POST: Let’s go backpacking: Part 2… An ugly pit viper comes slithering into my kitchen.

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All’s Well that Ends (grin)… The Sierra Trek Series

Treks have always been about adventure. In addition to the physical and mental challenge, there is a more important element of experiencing nature on a very personal level, both the beauty and the wonder. Imagine, for example, coming on this Aspen that bears have climbed and used as a marking tree to establish their territory.

This is my last post on the first Sierra Trek series. Last week left us in the American River Canyon, waiting while the US Bureau of Reclamation blasted rocks off the hill sides in preparation for building the Auburn Dam. (The discovery of an earthquake fault zone under the dam would lead to its not being built.) Today I will take us on into Auburn, California where the 100 mile backpack trip ended.

As in the previous posts, I have selected photos from other Treks since I don’t have any from the first. There are several other areas in California I would lead Treks besides the Sierras. These photos are from the Trinity Alps. 

Another photo of a bear tree in the Trinity Alps of California. And yes, those are claw marks.

Early the next morning we had an important decision to make: whether to wade across the American River in water up to our belly buttons and then follow the river or climb up and along the steep canyon following alternative trails. I let the Trekkers vote and they voted to cross the river. One woman was deathly afraid, however, and broke down in hysterics. She was the same person who had, at first, refused to ride the Squaw Valley tram. We offered to carry all of her gear and even carry her, all to no avail. Finally, I decided we would all hike the canyon route. I was not about to split our group again. (It was the only time in my years of leading Treks that I ever allowed participants to vote while on the trail. Treks, I decided, were not a democracy.)

This shot of the Trinity Alps provides a great perspective on why the mountain range was given its name. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

A view from farther away. These are rugged mountains that provide challenging, beautiful backpacking opportunities.

Our last night was fifty-fifty on the plus and minus scale. On the plus side, I knew that we had succeeded. Our Trekkers, except for the two or three who were now riding in the jeep, had made it— survived if you will. We had managed to solve each of the crises we had faced along the trail. I could say goodbye to the Trekkers the next day knowing that I had put everything I had into getting them through the nine days. On the minus side, Steve had taken a few of the ‘cool’ Trekkers to camp away from the main group. I hated seeing this, it was a really bad decision, but it was already a done deal by the time I came into camp as rear guard. I could have hiked up the canyon and insisted the group rejoin us, but I just didn’t have the energy to do it, physically or mentally.

The Trinity Alps includes a number of impressive waterfalls.

Another…

And another.

Sunday, we hiked into Auburn Fairgrounds as a group with the Trekkers in high spirits, singing the Ham Cheddarton song. They had a bar-b-que chicken feast to look forward to and then they were going home— home to hot showers, clean clothes and loved ones. They had enough tales to fill the next week and possibly their lifetime. As we approached the fairgrounds, our Auburn volunteers and several Board members were there to cheer our arrival.

I didn’t know how things would end. At best, I hoped our Trekkers would recognize that even though we had made enough mistakes to fill a book (or at least a long chapter), we had tried as hard as we humanly could to rectify them. And I had learned, boy had I learned. Mainly, I felt relief. I was going back to focus on our mail fundraising campaigns with a vengeance.

What took me by surprise was the response as Trekkers started to leave.

“Thanks, Curt, for the most incredible experience in my life. Where are we going next year?”

“You and Steve were great, Curt. I would like to help with next year’s planning.”

And on and on. People were excited about their experience. It was one of the most difficult things that they had ever done, and they had succeeded. They left feeling better about themselves, and that feeling translated over to us and the Lung Association. Instead of the negative comments I expected, and in some ways deserved, we were getting rave reviews. While not everyone was eager for next year’s adventure, most were asking, even demanding that we repeat it.

I left that day not quite convinced but leaning toward doing another Trek. One thing was for sure, my experience had matched that of the Trekkers. The event had been one of the most difficult things I had done in my life from both a physical and mental perspective. I came out of the Trek with a new confidence in myself and a new understanding of what I was capable of accomplishing— and an increased love of the wilderness.

One final amusing note: that night as I took my first shower in nine days, I reached around behind me to wash my fanny and it wasn’t there. It had disappeared. Between the trail review work, my trauma with Jo, and the Trek, I had lost 20 pounds in two weeks.

This is Sapphire Lake, one of a series of high alpine lakes in the Trinity Alps.

A reflection shot along a trail climbing up into the mountains.

Peggy caught this luscious scene along a small creek where we refilled our water bottles. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

While this rock caught my attention.

I am the fan of the small as well as the large when out in the woods. This is a shelf fungus.

A dandelion. Have you ever picked one of these and blew on it to watch the seeds go flying off?

And a butterfly on a Leopard Lillie.

EPILOGUE

The Sierra Trek turned out to be a success. We hadn’t raised a lot of money on our adventure, but special events rarely do the first time. What we had raised in abundance were new volunteers, the life blood of volunteer organizations. These were people who, because of their Trek experience, would develop a deep commitment to our organization.

I had several ideas on how to increase our returns and reduce our risks. In the future, we would set a pledge minimum and charge a registration fee. I would also set an age limit of 18 unless the minor was accompanied by a responsible adult. There would be no more 11-year-olds wandering in the woods by themselves. This wasn’t a negative comment on the Mouseketeers, they had been great, but the nature of the Trek made it much more of an adult kind of event. I would also limit group size to 20, and eventually 15, making the event much more manageable and reducing its environmental impact. And finally, our veterans would become the backbone of the program, providing advice and help in planning, organizing, and leading Treks.

From a personal perspective, my “far-out excuse for escaping to the woods” succeeded beyond my wildest hopes. I happily spent the next 25 years of my life leading wilderness adventures. When I worked it right, I could spend most of my summers out in the woods, especially when I supplemented official Lung events with personal outings. Treks also became an important annual event for many of the participants. Eighteen years after I had told Orvis he might be too old to Trek, he was still backpacking. He did his last trip with us when he was 88 years old. Altogether, he had raised the organization well over $100,000. That Trek also happened to be Peggy’s first long distance backpack experience. “How can I complain with Orvis out here?” she had told me with a grin, and hiked up another mountain.

I went on to create bike treks, winter treks, and canoe treks. I also pushed the Trek Program nationwide with the American Lung Association, persuading the organization that the events were valid fundraisers, and becoming the national consultant on Treks. For a while, Treks became one of the top special events for ALA. Charlie had been right that night we had laid our sleeping bags out under the stars at our Last Chance campground and he had declared: “What an experience. I can’t believe I am out here. Someday, people will be doing these Treks all over the nation!”

Having created the Sierra Trek in 1974, I had turned trekking into a national fund-raising  event for the American Lung Association by 1981. This is a photo of me on the cover of the American Lung Association’s national magazine.

16 Miles without Water: a Rattlesnake, a Lost Trekker, and a Rebellion… The First Sierra Trek

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves." –John Muir

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” –John Muir

 

As the physician who had threatened to tell the media I was running a ‘pot smoking orgy’ in the mountains packed up to leave, my thoughts turned to the challenges of our second day’s route. We were facing a hike where the first water and possible campsite were 16 miles down the trail. Considering how much fun I had getting our Trekkers through seven miles on day one, I was not excited about day two. We had one access point approximately half way where a road crossed our trail. Steve and I planned to have the jeep there to resupply the Trekkers with water for the second part of their journey.

Today’s photos are focused on the mountains of the High Sierra. These towering peaks of granite are topped off by Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet (4421.0 m). John Muir loved the Sierras and returned to them again and again. “The mountains are calling and I must go,” he declared. It is a passion I share. In honor of Muir’s love for mountains and wilderness, I am using a different quote of his for each photo. These quotes were gathered by the Sierra Club.

 

I did a 360 mile trip down the Sierras to celebrate my 60th birthday. Mt. Whitney is in the Background.

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” –John Muir (Here I am, keeping “close to Nature’s heart.” Mt. Whitney is in the background.)

 

When the Trekkers were packed and ready to go, I called them together for a final briefing. I reminded them of how difficult the day would be and then gave them very specific instructions:

“If the jeep isn’t there when you arrive at the road, wait for it.” It would not be the last time in Trek history my directions would go unheeded.

As per plan, I sent Steve on ahead as trail leader while Charlie and I provided rear guard support. In retrospect, I should have recalled that this was the section of the trail that the hawk had ‘chased’ Steve for miles, apparently all 16. Far from being a gentle ridge walk, we were climbing in and out of small canyons over hot, dusty trails. By the time we had covered five miles I was beginning to worry and by six, I knew had to come up with an alternative. Otherwise many of our folks would be making a dry camp out on the trail.

I had quickly discovered that the walkie-talkies from Bob-of-No-Name didn’t work because of all the canyons. My only solution was to hustle up to the front of the line and catch the Trekkers before they left the jeep. I dubbed Charlie as primary rear guard and took off moving as fast as my short legs would go, passing the majority of our group along the way. When I arrived at the jeep, Steve was there with 15 people. “Damn,” I thought, “some of the Trekkers have already gone on.” Maybe I could catch them.

“Hey Steve,” I jumped in as he greeted me, “it’s time for Plan B.”

“Which is…” he asked grinning?

“We need to send the Trekkers by road into Robinson Flat with jeep back up. It’s only about 5 miles by road versus 10 by trail plus the jeep can provide water along the way and shuttle people if necessary. But first, how long ago was it when the rest of the Trekkers left the jeep?”

“I don’t know,” Steve confessed. He’d had a group of Trekkers walking on his tail and let them pass (thus breaking one of our cardinal rules). Even worse, Steve Locke didn’t know either. Apparently 15 of the Trekkers had arrived before the jeep and chosen to go on. Another five had actually waited, loaded up with water and then taken off, approximately 30 minutes before I arrived.

“Great,” I responded. Thanks to Steve letting people go ahead, we now had 20 people out on the trail in front of us without a leader— and 15 with limited water.

"In God's wildness lies the hope of the world - the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware." –John Muir 

“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.” –John Muir (Here you are looking from the top of Mt. Whitney east toward Lone Pine and the Owens Valley. The road winds through the Alabama Hills where many Westerns have been filmed.)

This photo looks north from Mt. Whitney into the heart of the High Sierras.

“This grand show is eternal.”  –John Muir  (This photo looks north from Mt. Whitney into the heart of the High Sierras with mountains as far as you can see.)

Day two, which had started with the doctor and his ‘pot smoking orgy,’ had gone from bad to worse. I made a command decision. Steve would continue on with Plan B as I had outlined it, moving the remaining Trekkers via road to Robinson Flat. I would continue along Red Star Ridge and provide backup for the group who had chosen to hike another 8 miles without water access.

I had little doubt about what type of foul mood my wayward charges would be in and who they would blame for their predicament. (It certainly wouldn’t be themselves for failing to wait for the jeep.) We would camp on Duncan Creek and hike the two miles into Robinson Flat the next morning.

“No one is to budge from Robinson Flat until I get there,” I instructed with the fervid hope my instructions would be followed this time.

First, however, I had to go back and retrieve Charlie. I wanted to personally be sure that all of our other Trekkers made it to the jeep. I asked Crowle and Locke to hold everyone. I found Charlie a mile or so back the trail with another broken pack. Boy, were we having fun. If my learning curve got any steeper, I was going to fall off.

“I’ll hike on with you Curt to provide support and company,” Charlie insisted.

I knew I was tired and could only imagine how he must feel given his extra 25 years and 50 pounds. I was beginning to realize that older people are often tougher than young people half their age with twice their strength. The journey we were on was as much psychological as it was physical. Maybe more so.

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness. (Treks down and across the Sierras are tough for everyone, but especially so for people without experience. It always seems that there are more mountains to climb and more canyons to drop into.)

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” –John Muir

"Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life." –John Muir

“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” –John Muir (Over the years, I have known numerous people who have decided to change their lives while backpacking for a week through the Sierras.)

"Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue." –John Muir (The same photo as above a couple of hours later as alpen glow colors the ridge. This is in the Dusy Basin near Bishop.) 

“Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue.” –John Muir (The same photo as above a couple of hours later as the setting sun colors the ridge. This is in the Dusy Basin near Bishop.)

We initiated phase two of our journey around 2:00 p.m. In a little over 30 minutes we caught our four eleven-year-olds, who we had nicknamed the Four Mouseketeers, crawling along at a pace that a turtle would find embarrassing.

“Joe is really slow,” one of the urchins informed me.

Yeah, I thought to myself, and you guys are so glad he is because it provides all of you with an excuse to move at the same pace.

After about an hour of moving along at ‘Joe speed,’ Charlie plaintively informed me he wasn’t going to make it into camp if he couldn’t move faster. Having determined that three of our Mouseketeers really were good hikers, I assigned them to Charlie and took Joe on as my personal challenge. The experience was similar to moving my Basset Hound down the trail after he spent a full night of digging. Joe would go a quarter of a mile and stop, plopping down onto the dusty trail. We had managed about a mile of this when I came on Charlie again, standing beside the trail and pointing off to the left.

“Careful, Curt,” he began, “there is a huge timber rattler coiled up there.”

Adrenaline gave me a spurt of energy I didn’t know I had. Huge was hardly an adequate description. The snake was as thick as my wrist and about six feet long. Joe, either out of exhaustion or not caring, came to a shuffling halt mere inches away from the poised pit viper and kicked dirt into its face.

“Um, Joe,” I whispered trying to sound calm and not wanting to frighten him or the snake into precipitous action, “if you will look down to your left, you will see a snake. Don’t move.”

Had I received such instructions, I would have been 20 feet down the trail in one prodigious leap. Joe, on the other hand, looked down at the huge, coiled rattler, said ‘oh,’ and shuffled on down the trail. The snake didn’t budge; Joe was not food, friend or foe. We left the snake guarding the trail.

"Man must be made conscious of his origin as a child of Nature. Brought into right relationship with the wilderness he would see that he was not a separate entity endowed with a divine right to subdue his fellow creatures and destroy the common heritage, but rather an integral part of a harmonious whole." (Granite rules in the Sierras and reminds us of our place in the world.)

“Man must be made conscious of his origin as a child of Nature. Brought into right relationship with the wilderness he would see that he was not a separate entity endowed with a divine right to subdue his fellow creatures and destroy the common heritage, but rather an integral part of a harmonious whole.” –John Muir

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike." Few chunks of granite are more beautiful and famous than Half Dome in Yosemite.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” –John Muir (Few solid chunks of granite are more beautiful or famous than Half Dome in Yosemite.)

"Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality."

“Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.” –John Muir

Charlie went on ahead with his three charges and I continued to herd my half dead companion. It was after dark when I heard the stream that I knew meant camp. It was an extremely welcome sound; Joe and I had been traveling for at least 30 minutes by flashlight. Charlie was waiting for us outside camp.

“We have a problem Curt…” he began for the second time that day, although the day had already stretched out forever and I hadn’t known one minute when the ubiquitous problem did not exist. As supportive as Charlie had been, I had thoughts of killing the messenger.

“What’s it this time,” I asked, struggling to keep the grump and whine out of my voice.

“One of the Trekkers is lost and the rest of the Trekkers are ready to string you up from a tree,” he reported matter-of-factly. But then, it wasn’t his neck. “I’ve calmed them down by telling them all you have done today,” he went on. “Now they are just going to give you the silent treatment.”

I am not a praying type of person but I looked up at the sky and said, “God, get me back to Sacramento and I promise I will go back to running Christmas Seal Campaigns with my 80-year-old, lady volunteers and be perfectly happy.” The odds against any future Trek program had just hit 1000 to 1.

Before going to bed, I insisted that the Trekkers gather around so I could learn what I could about the missing person, Dick. Silent treatment or not, I needed to think through an action plan for the next day. Dick was the school teacher who had claimed he could carry his weight in booze. He had been hiking alone and hadn’t talked to anyone about leaving the route. The Trekkers could only give me an approximation of where they had last seen him.

I decided to get folks up early in the morning. I would high-tail-it the two miles into camp and see if Dick had shown up at Robinson Flat. If not, I would check with the ranger station and help organize a search party. Two of my strongest hikers would stay behind in camp in case Dick showed up there. Charlie would bring the rest of the Trekkers on to Robinson Flat.

"When one is alone at night in the depths of these woods, the stillness is at once awful and sublime. Every leaf seems to speak." –John Muir (I sometimes backpack by myself in the wilderness and spend nights with nothing but myself and nature. I highly recommend the experience.)

“When one is alone at night in the depths of these woods, the stillness is at once awful and sublime. Every leaf seems to speak.” –John Muir (I sometimes backpack by myself in the wilderness and spend nights with nothing but myself and nature. I highly recommend the experience.)

I was exhausted and couldn’t go to sleep but somewhere in the wee hours I must have dozed off because I woke with a start as Charlie lobbed pebbles at my sleeping bag. I was up and packed in a zip. After a few words of encouragement to the troops, who had made a miraculous recovery over night, I was bounding off up the trail like a hare with the hounds of hell in hot pursuit. Just as I came into camp, Dick came hoofing in from the opposite direction. I didn’t know whether to kiss or to kill him, but he was too ugly for the former and possibly too tough for the latter.

I settled for, “Are you okay Dick?”

“Sure,” he replied in a why-wouldn’t-he-be tone.

“What happened,” I demanded, allowing my irritation to surface.

“I got thirsty,” Dick explained. “I could see French Meadow Reservoir at the bottom of the ridge so I hiked down to get a drink. When I got there, I was tired so I set up camp.”

My irritation boiled over.

“Why didn’t you tell someone you were leaving? Didn’t you realize we would be worried sick and mounting a search and rescue effort?” I was on a roll and Dick was on the receiving end of a great deal of frustration I was feeling. Fortunately, guilt had driven him to get up before dawn and make his way to Robinson Flat as quickly as he could. It might have been worse, much worse.

The crisis was over, but I still had chores. First up was to go back and collect the rearguard I had left at Duncan Creek. I could have sent Steve but I needed the down time. As I hiked, I made my second command decision of the day. Even though we had only hiked for two days, the group could use a layover day. Hell, I could use a layover day. In fact, I needed a layover day. I deserved a layover day. The next day could wait for its turn. What else could go wrong? Hah!

"God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts..." (Wise words in these troubling times of division.)

“God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts…” –John Muir (Wise words in these troubling times of division.)

"It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods -- trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries ... God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools -- only Uncle Sam can do that." (Something to think about as 'Uncle Sam' moves to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency.)

“It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods — trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries … God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools — only Uncle Sam can do that.” (Something to think about as ‘Uncle Sam’ moves to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency and the regulations that protect these forests from destruction.)

"Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And after ten years of wandering and wondering in the heart of it, rejoicing in its glorious floods of light, the white beams of the morning streaming through the passes, the noonday radiance on the crystal rocks, the flush of the alpenglow, and the irised spray of countless waterfalls, it still seems above all others the Range of Light." (With 50 years of wandering the Sierra Nevada Mountains behind me, I agree.)

“Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. –John Muir (With 50 years of wandering the Sierra Nevada Mountains behind me, I agree.)

NEXT BLOGS:

Friday: An amazing octopus and rhino. More on the mutant vehicles of Burning Man.

Monday: Sully and his airplane.

Wednesday: Sierra Trek: The layover day where all sorts of interesting things happen.

A Pot Smoking Orgy in the Mountains? No Way… The First Sierra Trek: Part 4

The high Sierras are chockfull of beautiful alpine lakes. Except for very dry years, water is rarely a problem. Often the opposite is true, especially when it comes to crossing creeks and rivers filled with rushing snowmelt.

The high Sierras are chockfull of beautiful alpine lakes. Except for very dry years, water is rarely a problem. Often the opposite is true, especially when it comes to crossing creeks and rivers filled with rushing snowmelt. Obviously, that wasn’t a problem here.

 

In my last blog about the Sierra Trek, I wrote about how we had survived the first day. Often, as I have learned from over 30 years of experience, that’s the toughest part. But on the first Sierra Trek, it was only the beginning of my problems…

A reminder, the photos I am using are from other Treks I have led over the years. I am sticking with my water theme today, given all of the water problems I had on days one and two of Sierra Trek I. 

Steve, Lisa and I set up camp on the opposite side of a small stream from our Trekkers. I am not sure why. Maybe Steve and I were subconsciously escaping from what we had created, but I suspect we just wanted a good night’s sleep. The Trekkers were noisy and the burbling brook served as nature’s sound maker.

I made my evening rounds before turning in. We had divided the Trekkers into food groups of four and I went from group to group checking for problems. Overall, people seemed in good spirits. There were a few sore ankles and knees, but blisters were the problem that elicited the most complaints. I dispensed sympathy and mole skin. I also gave everyone a preview of the next day and warned that it was going to be tough. My last words were to remind people that 9:00 PM was quiet hour. I wanted everyone fresh for the next challenge.

If there was noise, we didn’t hear it. We were zonked out from exhaustion. Early the next morning we were up in the dark, wolfing down our quick breakfast of instant oatmeal, and throwing our gear together when Charlie arrived. He looked serious.

“We have a problem Curt,” he started without preamble. God, I hate those words. My vivid imagination had a stove blowing up, or a Trekker cutting herself, or one of Steve’s migrating rattlesnakes finding a warm sleeping bag. Or maybe the IRS had arrived to grab Charlie and we were to be held as accomplices.

“What’s up?” Steve threw in, cutting short my growing list of possible disasters.

“We had a doctor from Sacramento come in and camp next to us last night,” Charlie reported. “He says he is going back to Sacramento and tell the press that the Lung Association is running a pot-smoking-orgy in the mountains.”

“Oh hell,” Steve said. I seconded his thought and added a few of my own with much more colorful words. A blown-up stove I could deal with. A cut I could bandage. A rattlesnake I could chase off and frequently have. But what do you do with a physician who has infected his butt with his head. Beg? It took absolutely zero imagination to figure out what the Trek’s future and my career with Lungland would look like one day after ‘pot-smoking-orgy’ made the headlines.

“I tried to reason with him but it was impossible,” Charlie threw in as if he were reading my mind and wanted to dash any hope I had. Just then Orvis came tramping into our camp. Uh-oh I wondered, is the other shoe about to drop? Orvis could backpack at 70 because he had never consumed alcohol or smoked in his life. He was almost as pure as his white beard that decorated his chest. I couldn’t imagine him being very tolerant of misbehavior.

“The man is lying,” Orvis said angrily and forever earned my undying love. “I was there the whole night and no such thing happened. If he goes back to Sacramento and talks to the press, I’ll go back to Sacramento and talk to the press and we’ll see who they believe!”

I wasn’t quite as sure about Trekker behavior as Orvis. It was the seventies after all and we had recruited some interesting characters. I had heard the teenagers giving each other a hard time the night before during my rounds.

“Hey Suzy, why don’t you come over here check out my sleeping bag?” But the response had been, “Why don’t you take your sleeping bag and stuff it?” I had also had a discussion with our younger kids about the Trek not being an appropriate place for tobacco. Who knows what the doctor had seen or had thought he had seen?

“Look, I have an idea,” I said to the small crowd that had gathered around our cook stove.  “I want you to go back to the camp and tell everyone to gather near the rock which is about ten yards away from the Doctor’s camp. Tell them I am going to read them the riot act and I want them to look dejected and apologetic whether they feel that way or not. It’s show time.”

My helpers dispersed to do their job and I carefully thought through what I was going to say. At the appropriate time, I marched over to the rock looking like my dog had just been killed and climbed up on the rock. It was Sunday morning and ever after my lecture was known as the ‘sermon on the mount.’ Sixty expectant but properly humble faces looked up at me. I could see that the doctor had also stopped his activities and glued his attention on what we were up to.

“Last night we made a serious mistake.” I started, making sure the doctor could hear me. “It has come to my attention that there was misbehavior in camp which may have included the use of marijuana. I want to apologize to all of you for not being in camp myself and to let you know I will be from now on. I also want you to know that such activity jeopardizes not only this Trek but the possibility of any events like it in the future. I know that you have all worked hard to be here and that you have worked hard to raise money to fight lung disease and support medical research. I want your word that no such further activities will take place on this Trek.”

Charlie, Steve and company had done their work well. “We’re sorry.” “It won’t happen again.” “You have our word on it,” and similar statements were heard from all sides with everyone looking more serious than I have seen any Trekkers look since. I then dismissed the group to break camp.

As I walked away the doctor made a beeline for me and held out his hand.

“I am Doctor so and so,” he announced. “Although things were out of control last night, it appears you have them under control now and probably won’t have any more problems. Good luck on your trip.”

I thanked him for his concern and breathed an audible sigh of relief. He wandered back to his campsite, undoubtedly pleased with his power and influence while I moved away to avoid expressing my thoughts about his ancestry. The next challenge was how we were going to get our Trekkers through the day. It promised to be a doozy— sixteen miles with very limited water. It left little time to contemplate what might have happened had the misplaced medic carried out his threat.

Continuing on with my theme of alpine Sierra lakes, trials like these that wander along the edge are a delight to hike.

Continuing on with my theme of alpine Sierra lakes, trails like these that wander along the edge are a delight to hike.

Alpine lake along the John Muir Trail.

The views aren’t bad either.

Usually, crossing outlets can provide a bit of a challenge, as Ann Nash demonstrates.

Usually, crossing outlets can provide a bit of a challenge, as Ann Nash demonstrates. We spend a lot of time on logs over water. Often it is much scarier than this! Imagine a roaring river below you.

Ann had a nice view of logs...

Ann had a nice view of water soaked tree trunks under the water.

Reflections are also common and can detract from your concentration.

Reflections are also common and can detract from your concentration.

How about rain drops falling on the water...

How about rain drops falling on the water…

Small ponds like this are always a favorite of mine. Mosquitoes can be a problem, though.

Small ponds like this are always a favorite of mine. So, I will conclude with this photo.

NEXT BLOGS: On Friday I will feature more of Burning Man’s colorful mutant vehicles. Next Monday, we will look at the actual airplane that crash landed on the Hudson River. On Wednesday, I’ll return to the Sierra Trek where we cover 16 miles without water, a person is lost, a giant rattlesnake forces me off the trail, and I face a mini-rebellion. Some fun!

From An Ex-Ice Hockey Player, to a Ballerina, to a Witch: Meet the Sierra Trek Participants

I didn't have a clue what to expect when we started recruiting for the first Sierra Trek. What I quickly found out was that people from all ages and walks of life wanted to hike across the mountains. What I learned one 30 years was that three things determined the success of the program: The people, the challenge, and the beautiful country. That participants were raising money for a good cause was a plus. This is Darth Cathy, who joined us on the 4th year, I believe. Actually Cathy is wearing a a dark mosquito net. Her career was that of an IRS agent.

I didn’t have a clue what to expect when we started recruiting for the first Sierra Trek. What I quickly found out was that people from all ages and walks of life wanted to hike across the mountains. This is “Darth” Cathy (grin), who joined us on the 4th year. Actually Cathy is wearing a dark mosquito net. Her career (now retired) was that of an IRS agent.

 

In my last blog about the Sierra Trek, I persuaded my Board of Directors to support the concept. I then hired Steve to help put the event together and we had located a 100-mile route across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was the beginning of July and the Trek was to take place in the mid-August. The clock was ticking.

A note about today’s photos: As I mentioned previously, the photos for this series on the first Sierra Trek are all taken from later treks. Today’s photos are from the mountains west of Lake Tahoe in the Granite Chief and Desolation Wilderness areas.

 

Our first challenge was whether we could recruit participants. Were there people in the Sacramento area crazy enough to go on a nine-day, 100-mile backpack trip up and over mountains?

The answer was a resounding yes. Steve was able to get an article published in the Sacramento Bee. All participants had to do was raise funds for the Lung Association. Naively, we failed to suggest experience would be valuable, set an age limit, or ask for a minimum amount of pledges. People came out of the proverbial woodwork! We held an orientation session at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District auditorium with close to 100 people in attendance.

Among them were a 16-year old ballerina with legs of steel and a 250-pound, fifty-four year old ex-ice hockey player who had also had a career defusing bombs in South America. At the time, he was dodging the IRS. Four little 11-year old boys came as inseparable buddies and I wondered what kind of baby-sitting service their parents assumed we were providing. There was busty Sunshine who had a skinny partner named Bilbo. (Decades before the movie trilogy, people were already entranced with Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I was.) Lovely Lisa was 19 years old and a perfect 10.

Another woman, who claimed to be a witch, informed me, “I’ll be over to bite you around midnight on the Trek.” And no, she never came over to bite me; but had I encouraged it, I am pretty sure it could have been arranged. We had a 40-year-old teacher from Auburn who would never sit down during the day because she claimed she would never get up, and a 45-year-old teacher from Davis who claimed he could carry his weight in booze, and probably did. There was also a young man named Dan with flaming red hair who wore moccasins, juggled and played a harmonica as he walked down the trail.

And there was Orvis.

Three weeks before the Trek, an elderly, white-haired gent with a long flowing beard and twinkling eyes walked into my office and announced he wanted to go. His name was Orvis Agee. He was 70 years old and a carpenter. He couldn’t have weighed over 100 pounds fully dressed and soaking wet. I made a snap decision.

“Uh,” I said searching for a gentle way of telling him I thought he might be too old for the Trek, “this is going to be a very difficult trip. Do you have any backpacking experience?”

“Well,” he announced proudly, “I went on a 50 mile trip with the Boy Scouts last year.” That was 20 miles farther than I had ever backpacked. “And,” he added as he warmed to the subject, “I’ve climbed Mt. Shasta several times since I turned 60.” I had never climbed Mt. Shasta or any other mountain of note. Mainly over the past ten years I had been sitting around becoming chubby.

“Welcome to the Sierra Trek,” I eked out. What else could I say? (Seventeen years later at age 87, Orvis would do his last Trek with me. It was Peggy’s first trek. He had personally raised the Lung Association well over $100,000.)

People from all walks of life joined our treks over the years. Many would come again and again. Nancy Pape, who is an interior decorator, first joined us in 1977. 40 years later, she still calls me each year to see if I am going on a backpacking trip she can join. She's family.

People from all walks of life joined our treks over the years. Many would come again and again. Nancy Pape, who is an interior decorator, first joined us in 1977. 40 years later, she still calls me each year to see if I am going on a backpacking trip she can join. On this particular trip she took a hand full of pills and choked on them. Another long-term trekker, Ken Lake, gave her the Heimlich Maneuver and quite possibly saved her life.

Here's Ken, enjoying a quiet moment. Peggy's sister, Jane, and I hired Ken to run our first 500 mile bike trek in 1977 and help out with programs. Prior to going to college, he had been a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. He, along with his wife Leslie, are also part of our extended family.

Here’s Ken, enjoying a quiet moment. Peggy’s sister, Jane, and I hired Ken to run our first 500 mile bike trek in 1977 and help out with programs. Prior to going to college, he had been a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War.

Bill Braun, shown here with Peggy, is one of my all time favorite trek characters. Bill's job was that of chief mechanic on the huge container ships. He, along with Cathy, often helped Orvis down the trail in his later years, once leading him by hand when he couldn't see because of cataracts! Bill and Cathy working together to help Orvis would eventually lead them to get married.

Bill Braun, shown here with Peggy, is one of my all time favorite trek characters. Bill’s job was that of chief mechanic on huge container ships. He, along with Cathy, often helped Orvis down the trail in his later years, once leading him by hand when he couldn’t see because of cataracts! Their work together in helping Orvis would eventually lead them to get married.

Speaking of family, this is our daughter Tasha standing with me in the Desolation Wilderness next to a trail sign. She went on several treks with us.

Speaking of family, this is our daughter Tasha standing with me in the Desolation Wilderness next to a trail sign. She went on several treks with us. And no, she isn’t seven feet tall. She was standing on a rock.

And our son, Tony. When he graduated from Annapolis, I promised to take him on a 100 mile trip including climbing Mt. Whitney. He jumped at the opportunity.

And our son, Tony. When he graduated from Annapolis, I promised to take him on a 100 mile trip including climbing Mt. Whitney. He jumped at the opportunity.

As the Trekkers rolled in, Steve and I focused our energies on the next task. What were we going to feed the mob that we would apparently be leading through the mountains? Breakfast and lunch could be pulled off the shelves in the local grocery stores. Dinner was the problem. Freeze dried food was in its early stages of development and somewhat expensive for my budget.

There was another possibility. Lipton had a lightweight, off-the-shelf dinner, which was inexpensive and sold through grocery stores. The meals came in four flavors and featured tiny amounts of turkey, chicken, beef and ham with gourmet names attached. I bought all four and Jo and I did a taste test. Except for the Ham Chadderton, they were actually decent. The Chadderton resembled something a bird might regurgitate and tasted slightly worse. “What the heck,” I thought, “three out of four isn’t bad.”

Steve suggested that he call Lipton’s headquarters back east and see if we could get the food donated. We would offer to ‘test market’ and publicize their food for the growing backpacking market. Lipton bought it. We had our dinners, and Steve had earned his $16 for the day.

We also wanted a backpacking store as a sponsor. An outdoor store would provide some much-needed credibility and be a valuable source of advice and recruits. I did a scientific search by looking in the Yellow Pages and picking out the first store I came to, Alpine West. It was only a few blocks away at 10th and R Street so I walked over. A bushy bearded, hippie-like character in his mid-twenties was behind the cash register.

“Excuse me,” I asked, “is the owner or manager in?”

“I am the owner,” was the somewhat terse reply. “What can I do for you?”

I did a quick regrouping, “Hi, my name is Curt Mekemson and I am the Executive Director of the local Lung Association,” I said as I offered my hand. He gave me a ‘what donation are you about to ask for look’ but took my hand and introduced himself as Tom Lovering. I explained what we were going to do.

“That’s insane,” Tom had replied with an assuredness that would have intimidated Attila the Hun. It certainly intimidated me. What do you say when the expert you are seeking advice from tells you flat-out that the idea you are already implementing is crazy.

“Um, it’s been nice chatting with you.” Or, “I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone.”

I opted for the “Why do you say that?” wanting to know how far out on the limb I had crawled. I quickly learned that the event we were planning was the equivalent of the Bataan Death March. People might do it but they were going to be miserable and say nasty things about the Lung Association and me for the rest of their lives.

After having said all of that, Tom agreed to sponsor and promote the Trek through his store. I left feeling a little confused. Did he want people to say nasty things about him and Alpine West?

Tom and I would go on to having numerous adventures. And he remained as wild as ever. Here is on a trip down the Colorado River that Peggy and I went on with him a few years ago.

Tom and I would go on to having numerous adventures. And he has remained as wild as ever. Here he is on a trip he led down the Colorado River that Peggy and I went on with him a few years ago.

Back at Lungland, the clock was ticking. The Trek was three weeks away and then two. It was time to go out and preview the route. Given Tom’s pessimistic assessment of our adventure, Steve and I felt the preview was all the more critical. We agreed to a long weekend where each of us would hike three days of the route. The final three days were saved for the following weekend just before the Trek. Could we plan things any tighter? There was no room for error…

We took our second trek south through the Desolation Wilderness, which is just south of the Granite Chief Wilderness and both west of Lake Tahoe. Here I am checking out the terrain.

We took our second trek south through the Desolation Wilderness, which is just south of the Granite Chief Wilderness and both west of Lake Tahoe. Here I am checking out the terrain.

And here's Peggy hiking down one of the trails in the Granite Chief Wilderness. The pack looks almost as big as she is.

And here’s Peggy hiking down one of the trails in the Granite Chief Wilderness. The pack looks almost as big as she is.

There is a series of four small lakes in the Desolation Wilderness called the 4 Q Lakes because of their shape. I took this reflection shot from my favorite camp location.

There is a series of four small lakes in the Desolation Wilderness called the 4 Q Lakes because of their shape. I took this reflection shot from my favorite camp location.

Flipped 90 degrees, it reminded me of an African mask.

Flipped 90 degrees, it reminded me of an African mask.

One of my favorite memories of Orvis was his expertise on flowers. Trekkers were always asking him for their names. I didn't know this one on our first trek so I asked Orvis. "Oh, that's a DYC," he told me. I dutifully told other trekkers it was a DYC. At the end of the Trek , I asked Orvis if the DYC stood for anything. He got a twinkle in his eye and said, "Dam yellow composite."

One of my favorite memories of Orvis was his expertise on flowers. Trekkers were always asking him for their names. I didn’t know this one on our first trek so I asked Orvis. “Oh, that’s a DYC,” he told me. I dutifully told other trekkers it was a DYC. At the end of the Trek , I asked Orvis if the DYC stood for anything. He got a twinkle in his eye and said, “Dam yellow composite.”

I'll conclude today with this tree blaze from the Desolation Wilderness. One of the joys of wilderness travel is finding old, long since forgotten trails and following them. Early sheepherders, ranchers, foresters, mountain men and explorers often marked their trails by cutting into the bark of trees. Many of the blazes would last for years and years, such as this one.

I’ll conclude today with this tree blaze from the Desolation Wilderness. One of the joys of wilderness travel is finding old, long since forgotten trails and following them. Early sheepherders, ranchers, foresters, mountain men and explorers often marked their trails by cutting into the bark of trees. Many of the blazes would last for years and years, such as this one.

NEXT BLOGS

Tomorrow: A review of Three Hundred Cups of Tea and The Toughest Job, a book by two Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, Asifa Kanji and David Drury, on their experience as Volunteers in Mali, West Africa.

Friday/Saturday: The first of my photographic essays on Burning Man in preparation for the 2017 event.

Monday: Back to Boston and the Freedom Trail

A Far Out Excuse for Escaping to the Woods… The Sierra Trek Series: Part 1

The Black Buttes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains are lit up by the evening sun.

Inspired by the beauty of the Five Lakes Basin found north of Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, I started a lifetime of backpacking in 1969.

 

At Five Lakes Basin’s/ Biggest little lake /after all day scrambling on the peaks/ a naked bug /with a white body and brown hair/ dives in the water/ Splash! — Gary Snyder

As I think about backpacking 500 miles this summer, my mind wanders back in time to the first major backpacking trip I ever made: a nine-day, 100 mile trek across the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The trip in itself would have been a bit crazy considering my lack of experience. But I ended up leading 60 people aged 11 to 70, most with less experience than I had. It was a new definition of insanity. I was lucky the participants didn’t leave me hanging in a tree somewhere along the trail. It came close.

It’s a good story, one that I’ve been planning to tell for a long time. My Wednesday blog will be devoted to it over the next couple of months. So grab whatever you like to drink, sit back, and join me on the first Sierra Trek.

 

During the early summer of 1974 my life took a dramatic shift. My first wife Jo Ann, friend Steve Crowle, and I used a long summer weekend to go backpacking into one of my all-time favorite backcountry destinations, the Five Lakes Basin north of Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s a beautiful area with towering granite cliffs and jewel-like lakes that had been carved out by glaciers some 20,000 years ago. It’s also a favorite area of the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Gary Snyder, whose haiku poem on the area is featured at the top of this post.

Gary Snyders Haiku poem "Old Pond" was based on the Five Lakes Basin.

The Black Buttes looming above the Five Lakes are where the poet Gary Snyder went ‘scrambling.’

My first backpacking trip ever had taken me into the region in 1969 and I had returned again and again, sometime with Jo, sometimes with friends, and occasionally by myself. On one of the latter trips, I had taken my Basset Hound Socrates and camped out on a small lake that is somewhat hidden from the other lakes. I’ve blogged about the Socrates trip. Here’s what I wrote:

One of the five Lakes in the Five Lakes Basin north of Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

This is the lake where Socrates and I camped and where the Sierra Trek was born. This photo also shows how granite dominates the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Sharing the lake with Soc was close to being totally alone. His concept of a quality wilderness experience was disappearing into the woods and seeing how many holes he could dig. He never seemed to catch anything, so I am not sure of his motivation. I’d get up in the morning and cover his handiwork. I almost felt like I needed to file an environmental impact report. He always limped home on sore feet.

On this particular journey, I packed the Carlos Castaneda book that features things that go bump in the night. Don Juan takes Carlos out into the middle of the Sonoran Desert on a pitch-black night and abandons him. Not long afterwards, the monsters come hunting. It wasn’t the best book for a solo night in the woods. As I read into the evening, I found myself paying more attention than usual to wilderness sounds.

I ingested a little medicinal herb to lighten things up. It was the 70s, after all. Bad idea; instant paranoia set in. Soon I could hear the wind stalking me through the treetops. An old snag turned into a ghoul. Off in the distance something big and ugly was digging and snorting. Socrates, I hoped.

This tree turned into the ghoul as the sun set and night approached.

This Jeffrey Pine turned into the ghoul as the sun set and night approached.

Ghost tree in the Five Lakes Basin of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

A close up of the dead ghoul tree.

“Here Soc,” I called. “Come here boy.”

The digging continued and grew more desperate.

“Come here!” I yelled. Still no response but now I could hear large claws scratching at granite.

“Does someone want a Milk Bone?” I added in a quiet, conversational voice.

The digging stopped. ‘Someone’ started coming through the brush toward me. Whatever it was, it was apparently interested in Milk Bones. Soc’s head, long body and wagging tail made their way into the firelight. He might love digging, but he loved food more. There was the reason why our low-slung pooch weighed 70 pounds.

“Good boy,” I said while digging out a Milk Bone. I knew I was buying companionship but it seemed like a good idea on this strange, dark night. Meanwhile, Socrates had started to drool in expectation. Soon he was shaking his head and shooting dog slobber off in a dozen directions. I ducked to avoid being slimed.

Unfortunately, my supply of Milk Bones was limited. I tied Soc up to assure his faithfulness. It was time for bed. I put the fire out and was greeted by a moonless, dark night. But hey, who needed the moon when I had my faithful companion and a million stars. I invited Socrates to snuggle up on my sleeping bag and laid my head down on the coat I was using for a pillow.

CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH!

“Damn! What’s that?” I sat up straight and grabbed for my flashlight. Socrates joined in by barking at my sleeping bag.

“No, Soc, out there,” I urged and pointed the flashlight off into the woods. Soc glanced up at me with a curious ‘what are you talking about’ look and started barking at my pillow.

“Look Socrates,” I pleaded, “just pretend there is a garbage man out in the woods.”

Soc had never met a garbage man he could resist barking at and I wanted his teeth pointed in the right direction.  What Soc did with my advice was make three dog circles and plop down on my bag. I gave up and reluctantly laid my head back down on my pillow.

CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH!

I sat straight up again. Soc growled at me for disturbing his rest and started barking at my sleeping bag again.

“Fine watch dog you are,” I growled right back at him while straining my ears for the smallest of sounds. When Soc shut up, I was rewarded with a faint ‘crunch, crunch, crunch.’ It was coming from under the sleeping bag. I had a proverbial monster under my bed! Gradually it dawned on me that what I was hearing was a gopher tunneling his way through the ground, innocently on his way to some succulent root. I put my head down on my pillow. Sure enough, the ‘crunch’ became a ‘CRUNCH.’

The ground and the mystic weed were magnifying the sound. Soc had been right all along. I was lucky that he only barked at my sleeping bag and hadn’t started digging.

Don Juan would have appreciated how I had been tricked. Reality isn’t always what it seems.

Jo Ann, Steve and I had ended up camping on the same lake. Steve had replaced me as Executive Director of Sacramento’s Ecology Information Center when I had become Assistant Director of the American Lung Association of Sacramento. In addition to his boundless energy and intelligence, he was more than a little on the wild side. He had hobbies like jumping off high bridges into shallow water and experimenting with various mind-altering drugs. But mainly he loved life and had a vast appetite for new experiences.

One such experience was backpacking. We were lazing around our campfire on the last night bemoaning the fact that we had to return to civilization and jobs the next day.

“God, wouldn’t it be great if we could make money doing this,” Steve sighed.

Suddenly my mind took one of its intuitive leaps where the lights come on, the bells go off and four and twenty blackbirds sing the Hallelujah Chorus.

“We can, Steve!” I managed to get out as my thoughts played hopscotch. “Look, as Executive Director one of my main responsibilities is fund-raising.” (That spring, I had become Executive Director of the Lung Association.)

I was painfully aware my money-raising responsibilities. TB/Lung Associations had spent 70 happy years sending out Christmas Seals and waiting for the money to roll in. While the Golden Goose wasn’t dead, it was ailing. We had conquered TB and selling lungs wasn’t nearly as easy. Easter Seals had kids, the Heart Association the most appealing organ in the body, and the Cancer Society the scariest word in the dictionary. We had emphysema, bronchitis, asthma, the remnants of TB and diseases with unpronounceable names such as coccidioidomycosis. Adding injury to insult, dozens of non-profit organizations had added seals to their fund-raising arsenals. Competition for bucks to do-good was tough and the well was running dry.

“What if,” I pondered out loud, “we ran a backpack trip through the mountains as a type of multi-day walk-a-thon with people raising money for each mile they hiked?” I liked walk-a-thons. They involved people in healthy activities as well as raising money. They gave something back to the participants.

Steve’s attention jumped from low watt to high intensity. “When? Where? For how many miles and days? How can I be involved?” The questions tumbled out.

“I don’t know, I don’t know and I don’t know,” I responded, laughing at his enthusiasm although mine was hardly less. “But,” I added, throwing out some crazy figures, “what if we made it for nine days and 100 miles?”

That quieted us down. Neither of us had ever backpacked for nine days straight, much less 100 miles. A long trip for me had been six days and 30 miles. I threw out the nine days because it included a full week with both weekends and the 100 miles because it sounded impressive.

“Why not,” Steve had finally said with more than a little awe in his voice as a new national fund-raising program was born. It was a program that would occupy much of my time over the next 30 years, involve thousands of people, and raise substantial funds for the American Lung Association. But all of that was in the future; Steve and I just wanted an excuse to go backpacking.

Here are a few photos from the Five Lakes Basin:

Beautiful flowers such as this Mariposa Lilly...

In the summer, the Basin is filled with beautiful flowers such as this Mariposa Lilly…

Penstemon...

Penstemon…

And a butter cup.

And Cinquefoil.

Snag in the Five Lakes Basin .

Both live and dead trees decorate the landscape.

It was in the Five Lakes Basin

This impressive stump was located about 50 yards from camp.

In addition to their beauty, the lakes make great swimming holes and provide opportunities to add trout to dinner.

In addition to their beauty, the lakes make great swimming holes and provide opportunities to add trout to dinner. This was a view from my campsite.

Fun lakes and interesting reflections...

They are also good for reflection shots!

And interesting reflections.

This reflection of this tree was so clear it could have been real.

This reflection of this Lodgepole Pine was so clear it could have been real.

The sunset on the Black Buttes and, finally...

Another sunset photo of the Black Buttes and, finally…

A dramatic sunset.

A dramatic sunset.

FRIDAY’S BLOG: A photographic essay on the Glass Forge in Grants Pass, Oregon and its beautiful glass creations.

MONDAY’S BLOG: We will return to the Oregon Coast and visit the scenic Sunset Bay.

WEDNESDAY’S BLOG: Part 2 of my Sierra Trek series. I have to persuade a reluctant Board of Directors (“You want to do what?”), decide on a name, hire Steve, and determine our route.

Things that Go Bump In the Night… Backpacking with Socrates in the Sierra’s

Socrates was not actually built for backpacking but he loved it. His grand daddy, so his papers claimed, had been the the American-Canadian champion for his class.

Socrates was not actually built for backpacking but he loved it. His grand daddy, so his papers claimed, had been the American-Canadian grand champion for his class. Check out his digging paws!

I’ve been following a fun blog called Animal Couriers where these folks travel around Europe delivering pets to people. They were just in Greece and that reminded me of a Basset Hound I once owned named Socrates. Or maybe he owned me. It was hard to tell at times. Anyway, Greece plus dog brought Socrates to mind.

About the time Socrates came into my life, I took up backpacking. Naturally I decided that Soc should go backpacking with me– you know, a guy and his dog. So off we went to my all-time favorite spot in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, a small lake basin that had been carved out by glaciers north of the I–80 Freeway half way between Sacramento and Reno.

The Five Lakes Basin north of Interstate 80 in the northern Sierra's of California.

This is one of five lakes snuggled down in a small glacier carved basin north of Interstate 80 in the northern Sierra-Nevada Mountains of California. This is the first area I ever backpacked and I have returned dozens of times over the years. The Black Buttes, which can be seen from I-80, are in the background.

Sharing the lake with Soc was close to being totally alone. His concept of a quality wilderness experience was disappearing into the woods and seeing how many holes he could dig. He never seemed to catch anything so I am not sure of his motivation. I’d get up in the morning and cover his handiwork. I almost felt like I needed to file an environmental impact report. Socrates would end up limping back to the car with sore feet.

On this particular journey, I packed the Carlos Castaneda book that features things that go bump in the night. Don Juan takes Carlos out into the middle of the Sonoran Desert on a pitch-black night and abandons him. Not long afterwards, the monsters come hunting. It wasn’t the best book for a solo night in the woods. As I read into the evening, I found myself paying more attention than usual to wilderness sounds.

I ingested a little medicinal herb to lighten things up. It was the 70s, after all. Bad idea; instant paranoia set in. Soon I could hear the wind stalking me through the treetops. An old snag turned into a ghoul. Off in the distance something big and ugly was digging and snorting. Socrates, I hoped.

This long dead pine turned into a ghoul in my imagination.

This long dead pine turned into a ghoul in my imagination. The mountains in the background are the Sierra Buttes.

“Here Soc,” I called. “Come here boy.”

The digging continued and grew more desperate.

“Come here!” I yelled. Still no response but now I could hear large claws scratching at granite.

“Does someone want a Milk Bone?” I added in a quiet, conversational voice.

The digging stopped. ‘Someone’ started coming through the brush toward me. Whatever it was, it was apparently interested in Milk Bones. Soc’s head, long body and wagging tail made their way into the firelight. He might love digging, but he loved food more. There was the reason why our low-slung pooch weighed 70 pounds.

“Good boy,” I said while digging out a Milk Bone. I knew I was buying companionship but it seemed like a good idea on this strange, dark night. Meanwhile, Socrates had started to drool in expectation. Soon he was shaking his head and shooting dog slobber off in a dozen directions. I ducked to avoid being slimed.

Unfortunately, my supply of Milk Bones was limited. I tied Soc up to assure his faithfulness. It was time for bed. I put the fire out and was greeted by a moonless, dark night. But hey, who needed the moon when I had my faithful companion and a million stars. I invited Socrates to snuggle up on my sleeping bag and laid my head down on the coat I was using for a pillow.

CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH!

“Gads what’s that!” (A translation of what was actually said.)  I sat up straight and grabbed for my flashlight. Socrates joined in by barking at my sleeping bag.

“No, Soc, out there,” I urged and pointed the flashlight off into the woods. Soc glanced up at me with a curious ‘what are you talking about’ look and started barking at my pillow.

“Look Socrates,” I pleaded, “just pretend there is a garbage man out in the woods.” Soc had never met a garbage man he could resist barking at and I wanted his teeth pointed in the right direction.  What Soc did with my advice was make three dog circles and plop down on my bag. I gave up and reluctantly laid my head back down on my pillow.

CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH!

I sat straight up again. Soc growled at me for disturbing his rest and started barking at my sleeping bag again.

“Fine watch dog you are,” I growled right back at him while straining my ears for the smallest of sounds. When Soc shut up, I was rewarded with a faint ‘crunch, crunch, crunch.’ It was coming from under the sleeping bag. I had a proverbial monster under my bed! Gradually it dawned on me that what I was hearing was a gopher tunneling his way through the ground, innocently on his way to some succulent root. I put my head down on my pillow. Sure enough, the ‘crunch’ became a ‘CRUNCH.’ The ground and the mystic weed were magnifying the sound. Soc had been right all along. I was lucky that he only barked at my sleeping bag and hadn’t started digging.

Don Juan would have appreciated how I had been tricked. Reality isn’t always what it seems. Following are a few photos I have taken of the Basin over the years. It’s an easy place to love.

Five Lakes Basin north of I-5 between Sacramento and Reno in Northern Sierra's.

The five lakes are small and intimate. This photo is from my campsite.

Five Lakes Basin in Northern Sierra mountains.

I camp out on a small peninsula. This reflection shot is also taken from my camp but looking in the opposite direction.

Juniper snag in Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

Junipers thrive in adverse conditions. And they make great snags.

I also liked this snag form what was probably a sugar pine tree. Granite rock forms the base of the Sierra's. Socrates considered the rock as freeways.

I also liked this snag from what was probably a sugar pine tree. Granite rock forms the base of the Sierra’s. Socrates considered the rock as freeways.

Mariposa Lilies are a common flower of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Both Native Americans and early pioneers considered their bulbs as food.

Mariposa Lilies are a common flower of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Both Native Americans and early pioneers considered their bulbs as food.

One of the first things I did when I met Peggy was introduce her to backpacking. (I took her on a 60 mile backpack trip.) Here she sits beside a small waterfall in the Five Lakes Basin.

One of the first things I did when I met Peggy was introduce her to backpacking. (I took her on a 60 mile backpack trip.) Here she sits beside a small waterfall in the Five Lakes Basin.

I liked this pine tree silhouette against the fluffy clouds.

I liked this pine tree silhouette against the fluffy clouds.

Sunset in the Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains.

A golden sunset lights up the Black Buttes.

Sunset north of I-80 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California

This dramatic sunset in the Five Lakes Basin was created by sun being filtered through smoke from a forest fire before lighting up the evening clouds.

NEXT BLOG: We return to Europe and Portugal.