A Grand but Insane Idea… The First Sierra Trek: Part 1

It’s Blog-a-Book Tuesday. Now that I have provided an introduction to my book, it’s time to start rolling out stories. I’ve chosen my first ever 100-mile backpack trek across the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range for my kick-off. Given that I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing was crazy enough, that I chose to take 61 people aged 11-71 with me as a fund-raiser for the American Lung Association was pure insanity. I was lucky to survive with my career and life intact.

As promised, I am going to blog the book in bite sized pieces with each post ranging between 500 and 1000 words. Some of these stories may be familiar to you since I have written about them before in my ten years of blogging.

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 in 1969, I started a lifetime of backpacking. Here, the setting sun lights up the Black Buttes.
I was camping on this little lake when I was inspired by the idea of raising money for the American Lung Association of Sacramento by running a hundred mile backpack trip.

During the early summer of 1974, my life took a dramatic shift. My friend Steve Crowle and I had used a long summer weekend to go backpacking into one of my all-time favorite destinations, the Five Lakes Basin, north of Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s a beautiful area with towering cliffs and jewel-like lakes that were carved out by glaciers some 20,000 years ago.

We were lazing around our campfire on the last night and bemoaning the fact that we had to return to civilization and jobs the next day. Glowing embers provided warmth and pulled us closer to the fire while a full moon bathed the Black Buttes in silver light and focused our attention outward.

“God, wouldn’t it be great if we could make money doing this,” Steve sighed. He had replaced me as Executive Director of Sacramento’s Ecology Information Center when I had become Executive Director of the American Lung Association of Sacramento. In addition to his boundless energy and intelligence, he was a bit 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. 

Suddenly my mind took an intuitive leap. The lights came on, the bells went off, and four and twenty blackbirds sang the Hallelujah Chorus.

“We can, Steve!” I managed to get out as my thoughts played hopscotch. “Look, as Executive Director of Lungland, one of my main responsibilities is fund-raising.” It was a fact I was painfully aware of.

The once Tuberculosis Association and now Lung Association had spent 70 years happily sending out Christmas Seals and waiting for the donations to roll in. While the Golden Goose wasn’t dead, it was ailing. We had conquered the dreaded 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 insult to injury, several 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 and might fire people’s imaginations. It did mine.

“Why not,” Steve had finally said with more than a little awe in his voice as a new fund-raising program was born. It was an event that would keep me happily running around in the woods over the next 30 years and raise substantial funds and friends for the American Lung Association. But all of that was in the future; Steve and I just wanted an excuse to go backpacking. How to get from point a to point b was the question. As folks like to say, the devil is in the details.

My first challenge was selling the event to a reluctant Board of Directors. Running a 100-mile backpack trip as a fundraiser was a huge leap from sending out Christmas seals. At 29, I was the youngest Lung Association Executive Director in the nation and I had already ruffled enough feathers to dress a turkey. For example, a research doctor on my Board was foaming at the mouth because I wanted our organization to focus on reducing the primary causes of lung disease: air pollution and tobacco use. What would he think of me running off to the woods on a backpack trip? Another Board member loved his pipe and was irritated at me because I had persuaded the Board that our meetings should be smoke-free. His irritation was nothing, however, in comparison to a number of California Lung Execs who were livid because I was proposing that Lung Association offices should be smoke-free as well. What a radical idea that was. I heard an older woman exec proclaim at a conference, “I am going to kick that young man in the balls!” She made sure I was within hearing distance. 

“You want to do what?” with a decided emphasis on the first and fifth words is the best way I can describe the Board’s reaction. It was easy to translate: “Why would a 29-year-old executive director with less than a year of experience under his belt want to risk his career on such a harebrained idea?”

I echoed wild Steve, “Why not?”

NEXT POSTS: On Thursday’s travel blog we continue our back roads’ journey along Highway 50 across the Nevada Desert and camp out at the Hickison Petroglyph area with its strange petroglyphs and unique rock structures. Next Tuesday it’s back to blogging a book. The Lung Association Board approves the Trek, I hire Steve, and we begin a recruitment effort. People come out of the woodwork wanting to go…

NOTE: Peggy and I are heading over to the Oregon Coast to celebrate Thanksgiving and our Anniversary, camping out in Quivera the Van at a site that may not have cellphone or Internet connection. If so, I will get back to responding to comments and reading posts next week.

A Journey into the Five Lakes Basin

Five Lakes Basin in the Grouse Ridge Non-Motorized area north of I-80 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

I call this small gem in the Five Lakes Basin, Hidden Lake, because there are no trails to it. It’s my favorite of the five. Our grandson Ethan, had great fun leaping off the cliffs into the fairly deep water with encouragement from his grandmother. Mom looked on nervously.


The Five Lakes Basin called to me this summer. I’ve backpacked in numerous areas over the years— up and down the Sierras and other mountain ranges in California, Colorado, Maine, Alaska, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana, North Carolina and the Canadian Rocky’s.  But my first trips in the late 60s and early 70s were into the Basin. Maybe these were like getting your first driver’s license, which is something you don’t forget. But it’s more; the Basin is special, it has a beauty of its own that can match any place I have ever been.

Eliminating four-wheel vehicles and motorbikes helped. It happened in the 70s. The jeep trail is still clear on Sand Ridge. If fact I rode over it in a jeep. Another time, a jeeper rescued me when I had a badly sprained ankle, and forever put me in debt to four-wheelers.  Once, however, I was camping next to a meadow below Sand Ridge and I heard the sound of a motorbike going around and around in circles. Out of curiosity, I walked out to the meadow and discovered a guy cutting brodies and tearing up the grass and flowers, leaving scars that would take years to heal. He saw me and took off, obviously aware of the damage he was doing, and not giving a damn. I went home and used my position as Executive Director of the Sacramento Ecology/Environmental Center to join with the Nevada City Chapter of the Sierra Club in its efforts to have the area declared non-motorized.

The trail Peggy, Tasha, Ethan Cody and I followed into the Five Lakes Basin over Sand Ridge. The motorbike guy was tearing up a meadow just below where the Glacier Lake Trail and the Sand Ridge Trail meet.

The old Jeep trail that I once rode over is still obvious on the top of Sand Ridge. The predominant plants are Mule Ears. Sand Ridge was created as the terminal moraine of one of the glaciers that carved through the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range during the last Ice Age.

The hike up Sand Ridge is a doozy. The first time I ever tried it, I thought I might die. I had zero concept of climbing up steep hills with a full pack on and I was in terrible shape. But that was long ago and many mountains in the past. I sailed up with relative ease this time, being in better shape at 74 than I was a 26, and ever so much more experienced. I have to say my companions hiked up it with relative ease. I’m sure it was my fine leadership. (Grin.)  Rudolph was waiting for us on top.

Cody, Tasha and Peggy climbing up Sand Ridge. The steepness and loose rock on the trail made it a challenge. The look on Cody’s face says it all. Interstate 80 can be seen on the upper right in the distance (the light color against the blue backdrop).

Ethan celebrates his climb up Grouse Ridge. Rudolph looks on.

Here’s how he really felt about the climb.

Peggy promptly named this wood sculpture at the top of the ridge with its prominent nose and antlers, Rudolph.

Of course the boys had to go for a ride. I later put a piece of white quartz that Peggy had found on Rudolph’s nose and the boys immediately broke out in a rendition of Rudolph the White Nosed Reindeer.

The Five Lakes Basin sits at the end of Sand Ridge. As the name suggests, you have to hike down to reach the lakes. There’s a trail, but I prefer hiking over the granite. My basset hound, Socrates, used to regard it as a freeway. And relatively speaking, it is. If you pick your way down the rocks, the going is easy up until the last 50 yards or so. My favorite lake sits right at the bottom. I call it Hidden Lake. It isn’t, but the fact that it is away from the main lakes, has no fish in it, and has no trail to it means that it gets less traffic. At least it did until the Boy Scouts discovered it. They’ve turned it into a mecca for building granite chairs and tables.

Looking down at Hidden Lake in the Five Lakes Basin nestled in the granite.

The granite chairs built by the Boy Scouts or someone else. They weren’t there when I first started backpacking into the area.

Tables have been added in more recent times. My bowl is there to provide perspective. It has to take several scouts to lift these granite boulders.

The unique way that granite splits naturally is what enables the chair and table building.

Some of the rocks must weigh several hundred pounds. Peggy, Tasha and the boys were quite impressed and took full advantage, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the scoutmaster might better serve the boys by teaching them minimal impact. Possibly it isn’t scouts. Maybe it’s a church group, or Druids. They were good with stones, right? I could see them sitting around on a full moon night chanting and doing whatever Druids do.

We had the lake to ourselves, however, as I did the week before on my solo journey. No Boy Scouts and no Druids. We were able to enjoy its beauty and the fact that it makes a very nice swimming hole.  This was the lake where I came up with the idea for the Sierra Trek in 1974, the hundred-mile and hundred-kilometer fundraising backpack treks that kept me happily out in the woods for close to 30 summers. It’s also where Socrates and I had the encounter with the underground demon. Go here for that rather funny story if you missed it the first time around.

The lake is always good for reflection shots.

Another example.

Some are a bit strange. I decided that this creature would fit right into 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

And this fellow, turned on edge made a great monster insect. The tree provides antennae. And check out the scary slitted eyes just above the snout! It looks like one mean dude, or dudette.

The Black Buttes rise up in the background. Our day hike would take us over to their base on the left. Glacier Lake, which I featured in my last post, is just below the Buttes on the right.

The swimming is great at Hidden Lake. Cody, however, was a bit worried about its mud bottom. “It’s not like a swimming pool,” he groused.

Sunset in the Five Lakes Basin of the Grouse Ridge Non-Motorized Area.

Sunset from our camp on Hidden Lake.

I planned a layover day so Tasha and the boys could explore the rest of the Basin. I had Ethan, who is also a Boy Scout, use his compass and path finding skills to lead. He was quite good. I was really impressed with his ability to lead us back using his trail memory. The following photos provide an overview of our journey.

This map shows our route into Hidden Lake and then our day hike through the Basin to Upper Lake at the base of the Buttes..

Jeffrey Pine in Five Lakes Basin of Grouse Ridge Non-Motorized area.

I explained to Ethan the importance of memorizing prominent landmarks, such as this impressive Jeffrey Pine, to remember his route.

This Juniper wasn’t large like the Jeffrey Pine but it was still distinctive and provided another landmark.

Once your expertise in route finding improves, even something like this small but unique Manzanita sculpture can remind you that you are on the trail.

Gary Snyder’s ‘biggest little lake’ in the Five Lakes Basin from the poem, Old Pond, that I included in my last post.

This is the middle lake above and to the right of Snyder’s lake on the map.

And this is the upper lake that nestles up against the Black Buttes. An old stream bed (the curved line) is in the middle of the lake. Trout hang out in the bed during the warmer summer months. This is the first lake I camped on when I came into the Basin.

My second camp was just above the waterfalls in this stream that feeds the lake.

Tasha reaches out to fill her bottle with the cold water that comes from a snow bank above.

The snowbank. It is unusual for snow to be in left in the Basin during August. it speaks to the very heavy snowfall the Sierras had this last winter. Naturally, such snow led to a snowball fight.

And Ethan sliding down with Peggy waiting to catch him.

Tasha and Ethan hiding out behind the snowbank.

Peggy and Cody found a niche to hang out in the granite rocks above the snowbank.

I like this photo I took next to the upper lake because it shows the contrast between the white granite of the Five Lakes Basin and the dark basalt of the Black Buttes.

The late snow also left an abundance of August flowers including this Sierra Tiger Lily…

Corn lilies galore…

With their white flowers…


And many other flowers.

A final family photo with Peggy, Cody, Tasha and Ethan at the waterfall before heading back to Hidden Lake.

Next Post: We conclude out trip into the Grouse Ridge Non-Motorized Area with a stop over at Peggy’s Lake.