A Shoplifter, the Sheriff, and Dynamite… The Sierra Trek Series

Tiger and Leopard Lilies are among the most beautiful flowers found in the Sierras and other California mountain ranges.


I’d actually had two good days on the Trek and we had put another 25 miles behind us. I was beginning to feel good, allowing myself an optimistic thought, or two. Foolish fellow. But we had passed the halfway mark. We were on our way home!

Today’s photos reflect some of the colorful  flowers that brighten our way as we hike through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.


Mule Ear flowers can fill dryer slopes.


On day six, we hiked into Foresthill, a small community 20 miles above Auburn. It was a long, hot, dusty, 15-mile hike in and out of steep river canyons with temperatures soaring over 100°F (37.7°C). Along the way we passed through Michigan Bluff, which had once been an important gold rush community. Leland Stanford got his start here, running a grocery store for miners. It was a much surer way of striking it rich than gold panning. For example, eggs cost $3 apiece. Expensive huh? Taking inflation into consideration, the price would shoot up to $80 today.

Stanford continued to prove his smarts. His future included becoming one of the Big Four in building the Transcontinental Railroad, serving as the Governor of California and a US Senator, and giving Stanford University its name.

Monkey Flowers are always a favorite of mine and are usually found near streams. You can enjoy their beauty while refilling your water bottle.

In Foresthill, we had arranged to stay in the little city park that came with a swimming pool. Given the excessive heat of the day, it was something to look forward to. I certainly did. But my plunge into the refreshing water was not to be.

First I had to make sure we could find our way out of town and back onto the trail the next morning. We were now into the territory that Steve and I hadn’t reviewed— me because I was off on Vancouver Island deciding on my future with Jo Ann, and Steve because who knows why. I hiked out of town for a mile or so down the road until I found the trail and then followed it for another half mile. It seemed well-marked, so I said a little prayer to the trail gods and headed back toward camp. It would be Steve’s job to lead the next day. He would have to deal with any surprises.

Shooting Stars are one of the early flowers, coming up soon after snow has melted. They are all over our property now.

Back in camp, the situation quickly made me wish I had just kept hiking. Charlie made a beeline for me. My always dependable backup, ex ice hockey player, ex-bomb de-fuser and IRS dodger looked like he was about to break down and cry.

“Someone stole my Grandfather’s watch,” he blurted out.

It was a valuable family heirloom, precious to him. I did what I could to console Charlie and headed over to the pool to ask around. None of my Trekkers had seen anything suspicious or had even seen Charlie’s watch. I had a hard time imagining any of them stealing it. He had done everything possible to help them down the trail. There were other folks at the pool, however. Fortunately, as I recall, Charlie found the watch at his campsite, where he had left it.

Columbine with its unique shape.

My next challenge was Lose Yourself Dick, the forty something school teacher who had wandered off on his own. He had tackled his ample supply of snake bite medicine and was feeling no pain. In fact, he was challenging all of the teenage boys to wrestle him or at least jump on his stomach. I was sorely tempted to join the latter activity. He had also discovered a flagpole he insisted on climbing. I reasoned with him as best I could, but even when he was sober persuading Dick not to do something was close to impossible. I had just completed my highly ineffective effort when a Sheriff’s car came cruising in to camp. I walked over. One of our Trekkers was sitting in the back seat.

The Mariposa Lily is another member of the lily family. Its bulb was eaten by Native Americans and early pioneers.

“Can I help you?” I asked politely.

“Yes,” the Deputy Sheriff had responded, “I need to talk with the person in charge.”

I had another of those gut-wrenching feelings. Just three more days, I thought. Just get me through three more days. I desperately wanted to tell the deputy that the man in charge had checked out and gone home or was still on the trail.

“You’ve found him,” I said, putting on a brave smile.

“We just caught this young woman shoplifting,” the deputy reported in his official lawman voice.

“Shit!” I thought. But I said, “Okay, what do I need to do about it?” My unhappiness and resignation must have shown.

“Nothing this time,” he replied. “Because she is raising money for the American Lung Association, we are going to let her off with a warning.”

And me as well, I read into his statement. “I am sorry, Curt,” she had apologized and I had just sighed.

Indian Paintbrush is a colorful and common flower of the West.

Could anything else go wrong? Of course it could and likely would. I escaped by leaving camp when Steve came in and wandered off to a restaurant in town where I wasn’t likely to find any Trekkers. I drowned my sorrows in a large steak and a couple of well-earned beers. I seriously considered drinking more but I let my commitment to getting the Trekkers back to Sacramento in one piece over-rule my temporary insanity, which was demanding a six-pack.

Fleabane is the unusual name for this many petaled flower.

We rolled our Trekkers out of Foresthill early the next morning. I breathed a sigh of relief as I followed the last one past the city limits. Once again, Steve was leading and I was playing rear guard.

Fortunately, we had a short day. I had quickly discovered that being trail leader was a lot more fun than being rear guard. For one thing, you tended to get into camp a couple of hours earlier. For another, you weren’t constantly being bombarded by the question, “How much farther?” I had begun to respond with a stock answer, “Oh, it’s about twenty miles,” and had found that Trekkers stopped asking. If they persisted, my next response was, “It’s all up hill.”

Steve told me he had been moving some of the slowest Trekkers down the trail by telling them rattlesnake and bear stories and then walking on ahead. He said people made a real effort to keep up. Years later I would use the same technique in Alaska  with grizzlies. I suspect that neither of us would have qualified for the Boy Scout Leader Seal of Approval. Or even the Sierra Club’s.

Phlox hug the ground and add a real splash of color.

Around three, I came on Steve and our Trekkers milling about a closed gate. A vehicle was parked behind the gate and two official looking people were leaning against the vehicle. I was about to learn that we were paying the price for not reviewing the final section of the trail.

“What’s up Steve?” I asked, wondering if we had managed to do something else to bring officialdom down on our heads.

“No problem,” Steve said, “they are just blasting with dynamite in the canyon.”

His words were punctuated by a rumbling sound. The guards were blocking the road so big rocks wouldn’t come rolling down on people using the canyon trails. It sounded like a good idea. In 1974, plans were underway for building the Auburn Dam and flooding another section of the beautiful American River. Land speculators were greedily selling property along the future edge of the lake. Later, building or not building the dam became one of the most contentious environmental issues in Northern California. The dam still isn’t built, and will likely never be.

“Um, how long do they plan on continuing to blast?” I asked. I pictured our Trek coming to an abrupt end. It wasn’t a totally unpleasant thought.

“We are in luck,” Steve reported. “They are just closing down their operations and won’t resume until Monday.”

Since it was Friday afternoon and we would be out of the canyon by Sunday, I had to agree. It was refreshing to see luck lean our way, although it made me nervous. That night we celebrated the winding down of our adventure by feeding our Trekkers steak and fresh salad. The feast went off without a hitch except it was amusing to see the Trekkers eat steaks out of bowls with spoons. (Forks, knives and plates normally get left behind when backpacking.) Fingers became the primary eating utensil. It wasn’t pretty, but no one seemed to mind. Civilization had definitely taken several steps backward. Everyone went to bed happy, including me.

The Sierra Thistle can be a little prickly.

I’ll close today with a wild rose.


Friday: You are in for a treat. Lots and lots of fun and unique Burning Man sculptures.

Monday: Still thinking about it.

Wednesday: The final Sierra Trek blog.

Dog Stew, A Rattlesnake Bite and Hypothermia… Reblog

This is the fifth and final of a series of Blogs on how the Peripatetic Bone was found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I will respond to comments when I return from Burning Man.

It was a pleasant hike down to Carson Pass on Highway 88 and relatively dry since we were on a south-facing slope.

Kit Carson came through here in February of 1844 along with John C. Fremont. It wasn’t pleasant then. The snow was deep and food was limited. They ended up dining off of their horses, mules and the camp dog. The dog apparently went quite well with pea soup. Later, the trail they discovered would become a major entry point for the 49ers and run through the foothill town of Diamond Springs where I was raised.

There was nary a bar, restaurant or gas station near the Pass so we hiked on another three miles to Lake Winnemucca. Rain was threatening and I set up my tube tent, a large sheet of plastic shaped into a round tunnel. It wasn’t particularly sturdy, but it was light and dry.

Tom, on the other hand, was carrying a luxurious three-season tent. He stacked the women in head to toe and ended up smelling April’s feet all night.

The next day was all downhill: down to Fourth of July Lake, down to Summit City Canyon, and down Summit City Creek to Camp Irene on the Mokelumne River. After dropping 4000 feet in 14 miles I found myself bone tired again. Camp Irene provided an attractive campsite but turned out to be rattlesnake country.

I had discovered the perfect toilet spot, dug my cat hole and was baring my behind when one buzzed at me. It’s amazing how fast you can pull up your pants. I was lucky the snake didn’t bite me on the butt.

I grabbed a stick and chased him away with a couple of sharp prods for good measure. He was lucky I was something of a nature boy. Otherwise he would have been smashed. The next time I did any serious bathroom duty was when I was parked on a flush toilet at Lake Alpine.

Backpacking out of Camp Irene is a challenge. The 4000 feet we dropped the day before in 14 miles we were now expected to re-climb in five. Low clouds filled the canyon. It wasn’t raining but it was cold and damp. Somewhere in the mist a male grouse made its familiar ‘whump, whump, whump’ sound, working to attract a female companion. I empathized. Dripping wet Buck Bush grabbed at our legs.

To stay warm and dry we broke out our rain gear. Lynn moved from being cold and miserable to shivering and not caring. She was on the edge of hypothermia, a very dangerous state. The body loses its ability to maintain warmth and the rational mind ceases to function. Coordination spirals downward. It is very easy to die.

Tom and I acted quickly. I fired up my Svea and Tom had Lynn stand over it wearing her cagoule, a dress like poncho. We positioned the stove carefully. While this wasn’t a solution to hypothermia one found in survival guides, it worked. (The recommended solution is to break out your sleeping bag and crawl in naked with the victim.) Within minutes, Lynn was ready to tackle the rest of the mountain.

Hypothermia can strike fast but it can also be quickly cured… assuming of course you catch it in time. Tom was next.

“Curt,” he called plaintively from off in the brush where he had gone to pee. I rushed over and begin laughing. He had managed the first half of his chore but couldn’t zip his pants up. His mind was working fine but his coordination had gone south. He was all thumbs. I called Lynn over to help as I returned to the trail chuckling. There are some chores a trek leader doesn’t need to handle.

We hiked the rest of the way into Alpine Lake without undo difficulty. Since our ride wasn’t coming until the next day, we rented a one-room cabin to share. Rain poured down outside as we relived our adventures and made up tall tales way into the night. Our journey was winding down, but it wasn’t over.

I was shaking the dirt out of my pack at home when the bone fell out. Apparently I had been carrying it all the way from Winnemucca Lake. “Darn Lovering,” I thought to myself, “I am going to get even.” I decided to keep the bone. There would be an opportunity on a future trip to slip it back into Tom’s pack. I would have revenge!

And that’s it, the story of Bone’s discovery. It started like so many things in our lives often do, as a non-event. Bone didn’t come up as a subject during our night in the cabin. Naked jumping ladies, lost trails, swollen rivers, gorgeous country, rattle snakes, the physical challenge, hypothermia and even the upside-down map were the stories of legend, not a small, insignificant bone that came from who knows what.

But time has the power to rewrite history. When Tom opened his suitcase in Japan at the beginning of a two-year exploration of Asia, Africa and Europe, he found a surprise, Bone. I had my revenge. When I moved to Alaska and was unpacking my boxes, who should fall out but Bone. The tales go on and on…

Bone Is Found, but Not Before the Naked Ladies Jump… Reblog

This is the fifth and final of a series of Blogs on how the Peripatetic Bone was found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I will respond to comments when I return from Burning Man.

I was up early the next morning and eager to hit the trail. My body was starting to adjust and feel good. More importantly, the resort at Echo Lake was calling. A quick breakfast and we were off.

I took the lead with Tom following and Terry trailing. Soon we had climbed out of Lake Aloha, passed Margery Lake and worked our way across Haypress Meadows where cattlemen once harvested grass for winter feed.

As we began our descent into Echo Lake, I left my companions and the Desolation Wilderness behind. The vision of cold beer and a hamburger drove me on. Short shorts may have been a factor as well. Lynn and April were supposed to rejoin us at the Echo Lake Resort.

There was a decision to make when I reached Echo Lake. I could continue to follow the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail around the upper and lower lakes or I could call the Lodge from a phone located at the end of Upper Lake. It would send a boat taxi to pick me up for five bucks. The trail was hot, dusty and filled with day hikers and I was ready to take a break from backpacking; I made the phone call.

A half hour later, the throbbing of the motorboat’s engine caught my attention as the boat worked its way up the lake. Soon it arrived, coughing slightly. The boat slowed and bumped into the pier. My ‘taxi driver’ was a 16-year old plus teenager who had managed to snag a great summer job.

“Hop on,” he told me. An elderly couple was along for the ride. I nodded at them. I was halfway between the boat and the pier when I heard a commotion.

“Over here, Curt,” a familiar voice shouted. I looked up. A few yards away alders hid another pier. Two very attractive and very naked women were jumping up and down to get my attention.

They succeeded.

It was April and Lynn. They had come over on an earlier boat and were working in a little sunbathing while waiting for us. The young boatman and the old man were all eyes. The elderly woman looked thoroughly irritated and glared at all of us, especially her husband.

“Uh, I think I’ll stay here,” I told my driver.

“Can I stay too?” he asked and grinned at me. The elderly man wisely stayed silent.

I joined the girls as the boat coughed its way back toward the resort. Tom showed up soon afterwards. We were waiting for Terry when the ranger showed up.

“There has been a complaint about naked women jumping up and down over here,” he told us.

“Boy, I wish I would have seen them,” Tom responded. I am not sure the ranger bought our story but he wandered off in search of other criminals.

The same boatman picked us up and told me that the first thing the elderly woman did when she got back was to complain loud and long about the perverted people across the lake. She even cornered a ranger. My new young friend speculated that the ranger came looking for us as an excuse to escape. “Or maybe he wanted to see the naked ladies,” I noted.

We made it to the resort ourselves and celebrated our brief return to civilization with a cold beer (or three). My system complained about the third as we hiked on across Highway 50 and up to Benwood Meadow where we stopped for the night, some 34 miles from Meeks Bay.

Our fourth day started out as a typical backpack day; we climbed. It was gentle at first and then became more serious. Once again snow-covered large segments of the trail. We spread out and searched for tree blazes. I scrambled over a particularly steep section and found myself in a high meadow.

Something half buried in a field of young corn lilies caught my eye. A few days earlier it would have been covered with snow. Curiosity led me to detour through the still soggy ground. Mud sucked at my boots.  My treasure turned out to be a disappointing, short, squat bone. Gnaw marks suggested it had been part of someone’s feast. I was about to toss it when a devious thought popped into my mind.

“Trash,” I hollered at Tom and held up the bone. We had a game where if one person found a piece of trash, the other person had to carry it. But first you had to catch the other person.

Tom sprinted down the trail with me in pursuit. Unfortunately, we had made it over the mountain and our route ranged from flat to downhill. Tom was very fast. We had traveled two miles and were almost to Showers Lake before he stopped, concerned about leaving our companions behind. Very reluctantly, he took the bone and stuffed it in his pack.

“How can you classify a bone as trash,” he whined. I figured Tom would toss his new travelling companion as soon as I was out of sight.

Next: Dog stew, a rattlesnake bite and hypothermia.

A Pounding Heart and a Sprained Ankle… Reblog

This is the second of a series of Blogs on how the Peripatetic Bone was found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I will respond to comments when I return from Burning Man.

I awoke with a Mountain Jay screeching at me from the safety of his perch in a Lodgepole Pine. A faint light announced the morning, but the sun still hid behind the mountains on the east side of Lake Tahoe. It was frosty cold and I burrowed into my bag, pretending for a few more moments that I didn’t have to get up. Nature drove me out.

I could ignore the faint light, I could ignore the Jay and I could even ignore the stirrings of my companions but I couldn’t ignore my insistent bladder. Among muttered good mornings I wandered off into the woods and peed on a willow near where I had seen a coyote the evening before. I was marking my territory.

Back in camp Tom had his stove going. Lynn smiled at me. She, too, was a tall, good-looking woman. Terry had yet to emerge from her cocoon and April had replaced me out in the woods.

I heard a kersplash in Stony Ridge Lake and turned to watch as ripples spread out and announced a trout had snatched its buggy breakfast. Briefly I regretted that I had left my fishing pole at home. The sun was now bathing the peaks above us in gentle light; ever so slowly it worked its way down the mountain.

Instant coffee, instant oatmeal and a handful of dried fruit made up breakfast. All too soon it was time to pack my gear and urge my still stiff muscles up the trail.

The troops were in high spirits. The sheer beauty of Desolation Wilderness demanded it. Our backpacking day would take us up to Phipps Pass, down in to the Velma Lakes, across to the Rubicon River, up Rockbound Valley, over Mosquito Pass and end at Lake Aloha, some 13 miles from Stony Ridge Lake. We took a few minutes to make sure our camp was clean.

Almost immediately we began to climb. Flashes of blue lupine, multi-colored columbine and cheerful monkey flowers eased our way along the switch back trail. My pace of travel provided ample opportunity for appreciation. I caught a brief smell of mint at one point and wild onion at another.

We passed by two more small lakes and began our ascent of Phipps Pass. By this point I had moved in to granny gear and could hear my heart pounding in its cage, wanting to escape. Each step was a test of will. I kept moving. I had long since learned that the difficulty of starting outweighed the benefits of stopping. One step at a time I reached the top. A spectacular view rewarded my effort.

Peaks still buried under snow stretched off into the distance. The Sierra is a baby mountain range, the child of plate tectonics. Once, ancient seas covered the area. Volcanic activities left behind vast pools of subterranean granite. Crashing continental and oceanic plates lifted the granite into spectacular fault-block mountains, steep on the east and gentler on the west. The Ice Age brought glaciers that carved peaks, scooped out basins and left behind rocky moraines.

We stopped to catch our breath and enjoy the view.  Soon we would begin our descent toward the Velma Lakes but first we worked our way around Phipps Peak. A series of lakes came into view. Tom and I immediately began to debate which was which.

“And you expect us to depend on your trail finding skills?” Lynn asked. Tom whipped out his topographic map.

“See,” he said decidedly, allowing a note of triumph to enter his voice. While we were the best of friends, this didn’t eliminate an element of alpha male competition between us. He, after all, was the owner of an outdoor-wilderness store, and I, after all, was the leader of wilderness treks. I glanced at his map and an impish grin filled my face.

“Your map is upside down, Tom.” Oops.

We did agree that my decision to detour from the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail and go through Rockbound Valley was a good one. Heavy snow still covered the northern and eastern side of the mountains. It was unlikely to melt by the time of the Trek.

The Trekkers would have enough challenge backpacking 13 miles on their second day out. They didn’t need to slog through five miles of snow while muttering unprintable thoughts about me.

We started our descent into the Velmas carefully. It is hard not to think, “Oh boy, down hill!” after a hard climb. But going down is much tougher on your body than climbing. Stepping down is a form of free fall. Velocity and weight are focused on the joints of your legs and feet. Adding a 40-50 pound pack increases the problem.

It is easy to twist a knee or sprain an ankle, especially at the beginning of the season. And that was what happened. By the time we reached Middle Velma, April was limping.

“I stepped on a loose rock and slipped,” she explained in obvious pain.

While April soaked her foot in the cold lake water and broke out an Ace Bandage, Tom and I mulled over whether to go on or hike out. We arrived at a compromise. Lynn would hike out with April to Emerald Bay and the two of them would stay at a motel. They would rejoin Tom, Terry and me at Echo Lake some 18 miles down the trail.

Next: Raging rivers, kamikaze mosquitoes and marriage on a mountain

The Story of How Bone Was Found… Reblog

While Peggy and I are at Burning Man, I am reposting the story of how Bone was found. This is the first of the series. I will respond to comments when I return from Burning Man.

Backpacking in the Desolation Wilderness… Or, How to Forget You Are Being Divorced

It was the summer of 1977 and my wife JoAnn was divorcing me. Apparently I lacked in stability or at least in the desire to pursue the Great American Dream. She was right of course. I had absolutely zero desire to tie myself to an eight-hour a day job and a large house in the suburbs. None of this made the divorce easy. I was prepared to spend my life as a happily married man.

To keep my mind occupied, I was working on the route for the Fourth Annual Sierra Trek, a challenging nine-day 100-mile backpack trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that I had created as a pledge-based fund-raiser for the American Lung Association in Sacramento.

“So what’s your problem?” my friend Tom Lovering asked over a beer at the Fox and Goose Restaurant. He’d been-there-done-that with divorce and dated a number of women since. Tom owned Alpine West, an outdoor/wilderness store in Sacramento, and sponsored the Sierra Trek.

I had persuaded him to go backpacking with me for six days to preview part of the new route. Our plan was to start near Meek’s Bay, Lake Tahoe and work our way southward 70 miles following the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail.

Tom had invited his girlfriend, Lynn, and Lynn was bringing along her friend Terry. Terry was nice, not my type.

“I have a friend named April who wants to go backpacking,” Tom offered. “Why don’t I invite her to go as well? Maybe you two will hit if off.”

The implication was that this would help me get over my wife.  Actually, I had already met the woman who was going to help me recover but I humored Tom.

A friend drove the five of us up to Meeks Bay. April was gorgeous and Tom was right. I followed her long legs and short shorts up the trail. My gloomy focus on the Soon-to-Be-Ex faded like a teenager’s blue jeans.

Hot feet and screaming fat cells were even more potent in forcing me to live, or at least suffer, in the moment. As usual I’d done nothing to physically prepare for the first backpack trip of the year and I was paying the price.

We climbed a thousand feet and traveled six miles to reach our first night’s destination at Stony Ridge Lake. I crashed while Tom broke out some exotic concoction of potent alcohol.

After consuming enough of his ‘medicine’ to persuade my fat cells they had found Nirvana, I fired up my trusty Svea stove and started cooking our freeze-dried dinner. It wasn’t hard. Boil water, throw in noodles, add a packet of mystery ingredients, stir for ten minutes and pray that whatever you have created is edible. That night it didn’t matter.

Afterwards, we headed for our beds. The next day would be long. I slid into my down filled mummy bag and looked up at what seemed like a million stars. There were no city lights or pollution to block my view and the moon had yet to appear.

I traced an imaginary line from the Big Dipper and found the North Star. It seemed far too faint for its illustrious history. A shooting star briefly captured my attention. Thoughts of divorce, short shorts, the next day’s route, a rock digging into my butt, and sore feet jostled around in my mind for attention.

Sleep finally crept into the bag and captured me.

Next: A pounding heart and a sprained ankle.

Mono Lake: Four Trillion Brine Shrimp Call It Home… the Desert Series

Strange towers made of lime, tufa, give Mono Lake its unique personality.

Towers made of lime known as tufa give Mono Lake its unique personality.

To say the least, Mono Lake is a strange place. Some people even call it weird. Once upon a time, back when glaciers stretched across North America, it was part of a series of large lakes that covered much of modern-day Eastern California, Nevada and Utah, a region that is now primarily desert. Left behind as a remnant by retreating glaciers, Mono Lake is at least 760,000 years old and could be as old as three million years, making it one of the oldest lakes in North America.

What flows into Mono Lake, stays. There are no outlets. As a result, the lake is 2-3 times as salty as the ocean. Swimmers don’t have to worry about sinking. In fact the lake contains some 280 million tons of dissolved salts, which makes it even too salty for fish. An effort to introduce trout left them belly up on the surface, like the proverbial dead gold-fish destined for a close encounter with the family toilet.

Algae, brine shrimp, and alkali flies thrive in the water, however. The thumbnail-sized shrimp population is estimated to be somewhere between 4 and 6 trillion in the summer. Historically, the fly pupae served as a major source of food for the Kutzadika’a Indians. In fact, the name for the tribe means fly eater.

Today, both the flies and shrimp provide food for some two million birds that migrate through the area. One visitor, Wilson’s Phalarope, a tiny, fist-sized shorebird, takes advantage of the gourmet flies to double its weight and grow a new set of feathers before journeying 3000 miles to South America— a feat that is accomplished in three days of nonstop flying at speeds of over 40 miles per hour.

It isn’t flies, shrimp, birds, or salt water that Mono Lake is famous for, however. It’s tufa, the fantastical, fairy-like structures that grow in the lake and appeal to photographers from around the world. Calcium-rich water bubbling up from underwater springs combines with the lakes carbonate-rich waters in a chemical reaction to create the lime-based structures.  Towers as high as 30 feet can be built under water through this process in a time span that may involve centuries.

The reason these towers are visible today is due to the unquenchable thirst of millions of people in Los Angeles. This thirst came close to destroying Mono Lake, as it did the Owens River and Owens Valley south of Mono Lake. Starting in 1941 the politically formidable Los Angeles Water and Power Company tapped into the streams flowing into Mono Lake and sent the water on a one-way, 330 mile journey south, reducing water in the lake from 4.3 million acre feet in 1941 to 2.1 million acre feet in 1982.

The United States Navy also posed a threat to Mono Lake by carrying out a series of under water explosion tests during the Cold War. The plaque at the site described these explosions as top-secret seismic tests. Whether the navy was searching for a way to predict earthquakes and tsunamis or cause them is the question. Fortunately, public pressure and concerns for public safety led to the navy abandoning its activities at Mono Lake in the late 50s/early 60s.

It was the growing environmental movement of the 70s and the Mono Lake Organization that eventually forced the Los Angeles Power and Water Company to reduce the amount of water it was exporting from Mono Lake’s tributaries.  Today the lake is on the way to recovering its pre 1941 water levels (assuming it isn’t wiped out by global warming and drought). Mono Lake is found just north of Lee Vining off of Highway 395. Following Highway 120 west out of Lee Vining will take travelers into Yosemite National Park.

The Sierra Nevada Mountains provide a scenic backdrop in the west for Mono Lake. Highway 395 runs slog the base of the foothills. Tufa can be seen emerging from the lake.

The Sierra Nevada Mountains provide a scenic backdrop in the west for Mono Lake. Highway 395 runs along the base of the foothills. Tufa can be seen emerging from the lake.

Following Highway 120 east off of Highway 395 will bring visitors to Mono Lake's South Tufa Trail where the photos in they blog were taken.

Following Highway 120 east off of Highway 395 will bring visitors to Mono Lake’s South Tufa Trail where the photos in this blog were taken. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Prior to Los Angeles tapping into the streams that provide water to Mono Lake, this tufa tower would have been underwater.

Prior to Los Angeles tapping into the streams that provide water to Mono Lake, this tufa tower would have been underwater. Now it sits on dry land.

Reflections add extra character to this often photographed tufa island in Mono Lake. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Reflections add extra character to this often photographed tufa island in Mono Lake— as they do in the next two photos. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Tufa at Mono Lake near Lee Vining.Tufa reflection in Mono Lake, California near Lee Vining.

Tufa tower at Mono Lake, California.

I thought of this tufa tower as a frog face topped off by a frog hat. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Tufa towers located at Mono Lake, California near Lee Vining.

A tufa family? (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

A final view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains framed by tufa towers at Mono Lake.

A final view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains framed by tufa towers at Mono Lake.

NEXT BLOG: Having finished our desert series, Peggy and I return to Oregon and visit Oregon Caves National Monument.


The Time I was Buried Alive in the Deep Snows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains

Photo of fresh snow on fir tree by Curtis Mekemson.

Fresh snow decorates a tree on Donner Summit, Interstate 80’s pass over the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range of California.

Fresh snow had just fallen and the draught-stricken forests of the Sierra Nevada mountain range were breathing a momentary sigh of relief. A few inches decorated the ground and trees. Peggy and I stopped at Donner Summit on our way between Reno and Sacramento on Interstate 80 last week to enjoy the view. Normally this area is covered in white stuff; the annual snowfall is over 400 inches. It can be dangerous as well as beautiful.

The ill-fated Donner Party learned this the hard way in the winter of 1846-47. They arrived a tad too late in the year on their way to California and were caught in an early snowstorm. Unable to get over the pass, they built cabins at its base to wait out the winter. When their food ran out, they started eating each other. There’s a marker at the site– it is now a state park– that shows how deep the snow was. I used to camp bike treks at the park and would always announce the first evening’s meal as mystery-meat stew. I know, I know, bad taste, so to speak.

Donner Party plaque at Donner Summit, 6 miles from where the Donner Party met their unhappy and tragic fate.

Donner Party plaque at Donner Summit, 6 miles from where the Donner Party met their unhappy and tragic fate.

I am quite familiar with how deep the snow can get. A friend owned a cabin at Serene Lakes near the summit. (Serene Lakes were known as Ice Lakes before a land speculator showed up.) I was there a fair amount of time in the late 70s and early 80s. It was a two-story cabin and the second story door became our entry way during the winter.  One year, the cabin actually disappeared under the snow. I spent my time shoveling a few tons off the roof.

Whenever snow was predicted, we would put bamboo poles at the front, back and side of our car. Vehicles could be buried overnight. The poles were there so the big road-clearing, snow-eating machines would see where the car was before consuming it. Crunch. We saw a car that had met that fate. It wasn’t pretty.

Once, when I was planning a seven-day winter camping trek through the Desolation Wilderness, I decided to do an overnight training out of the cabin. I recruited a pair of winter backcountry experts, Paul and Diana Osterhue, to help. Paul and Diana had us cross-country ski a few miles from the cabin and build emergency shelters to sleep in. Most of my fellow trekkers opted for snow caves, but I went for a trench.

A snow trench looks a bit like a grave. In fact it looks a lot like a grave, but it is quick and easy to build. This is quite important when bad weather and hypothermia are threatening. I dug mine three feet deep by two feet wide and put my closed-cell foam sleeping-pad and sleeping bag on the bottom. Next I covered the trench with my skis and a poncho. My backpack served as the door.

It was quite cozy, assuming you didn’t have claustrophobia or mind sleeping in a grave.  I slept toasty warm all night but was concerned when I woke up in the morning and found my tough cross-country skis sagging in the middle. It had snowed in the night and I was buried under the snow! I pushed at my backpack. It refused to move. Did I panic? Heck no. I kicked the backpack with all of the strength of Arnold Schwarzenegger on steroids topped off with a mega-dose of adrenaline– when he was 20. Grudgingly, the pack gave way.

I wormed my way out from under three feet of the new snow, creating a gopher-like pile of the fluffy stuff. I was met by a white wilderness. No one was to be seen. Curt was alone in a silent world. So I yelled, loudly, and was met by muffled responses. I didn’t move because I wasn’t sure where all the bodies were buried. A few seconds later, the first head popped up out of the snow, and then another and another. Soon, we were all accounted for and okay. It was a grand adventure. The type I love.

The only thing left to report on our trip was that it was tough skiing back to the cabin. If you have ever cross-country skied in mountainous terrain through three feet of fresh powder, you’ll know what I am talking about. We took turns breaking trail. I couldn’t have asked for a better training experience for my fellow trekkers– or me.

Photo of snow covered trees on the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains by Curtis Mekemson.

This time, there were only a few inches of snow. They were beautiful, however…

Snow covered trees at Donner Summit Rest Area on Interstate 80. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Snow covered trees on the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Blue skies, sunshine, and bright green moss added to the beauty.

Snow covered log at Donner Summit. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

I enjoyed this snow-covered log but it didn’t look like an inviting seat. BTW: by this time Peggy was wondering where I had wandered off to. Fortunately, she is used to my wandering ways. Sort of…

Photo of Peggy Mekemson throwing a snowball.

No snow play? Is there a Grinch in the woods? Peggy threatens me with a snowball for my absence. (She didn’t throw it Cal Trans, so you can’t arrest her.)

Snow covered trees in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

NEXT BLOG: We return home to be greeted by our next door neighbor and his proud announcement of having baby goats. I am surprised he didn’t offer us a cigar. I’ll close this blog with a final photo of Sierra snow.

Snow covered woods at Donner Summit. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Properly attired, I could have wandered for hours (and have) among theses snow-covered woods.

Earth Day 2013

The Sierra Nevada Mountains of California have always reminded me how precious our wilderness areas are. To celebrate my 60th birthday, I backpacked 360 miles from Lake Tahoe to Mt. Whitney, the hunch baked mountain behind me.

The Sierra Nevada Mountains of California have always reminded me how precious our wilderness areas are. To celebrate my 60th birthday, I backpacked 360 miles from Lake Tahoe to the top of Mt. Whitney, the hunch-backed mountain behind me. At 14,500 feet, it is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.

In the wilderness is the preservation of the world – Henry David Thoreau

Forty three years ago I was recruiting for Peace Corps Volunteers at the University of California at Davis when Earth Day I took place. It was a beautiful spring day so I took a break and walked around campus visiting various booths featuring everything from recycling to wilderness protection. It changed my life.

Within a month, I was Executive Director of the Ecology Information Center in Sacramento, one of the nation’s first environmental centers, working seven days a week for a hundred dollars per month. While I would go on to spend a significant portion of my life fighting public health battles and wandering the world, I never travelled far from my environmental roots.

For 30 years I had the privilege of leading weeklong wilderness backpack trips through the High Sierra Nevada Mountains, following the same paths that the great naturalist John Muir hiked. Today, in honor of Earth Day 2013, I would like to share photographs from a 360-mile backpack trip I took from Lake Tahoe to Mt. Whitney to celebrate my sixtieth birthday.

These are the views that inspired Muir to begin his crusade to save the natural areas of America and the world. We owe him a deep vote of thanks for his efforts. More importantly, we owe it to ourselves, and future generations, to continue his efforts. As John Muir said so eloquently, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”

The beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is found in its distant vistas…

The beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains can be found in its towering granite peaks...

Sierra Nevada lakes

Sierra Nevada Mountains

In its stately trees…

It's towering trees...


tree stump

In its sparkling water…

Falls on Tuolumne River

Sierra Stream

Sierra pool

And in its carpets of flowers.

Sierra Nevada Mountains

Sierra flowers

Monkey flowers

Happy Earth Day… Earth. May you maintain your beauty, wilderness and quiet places for the soul as long as humankind wanders the world.

Chapter 4: The Dead Chicken Dance… Peace Corps Tales

Welcome to “The Dead Chicken Dance and Other Peace Corps Tales.” I am presently on a two month tour of the Mediterranean and other areas so I thought I would fill my blog space with one of the greatest adventures I have ever undertaken: a two-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. Every two days I will post a new story in book format.

When I have finished, I will publish the book digitally and in print.

The Sierra Nevada Mountains about 20 miles south of where we did our training and at a slightly higher elevation.

Graduation from Berkeley, marriage in Auburn, a three-day honeymoon in Monterey, and reporting for Liberia VI Peace Corps training at San Francisco State College transpired in one whirlwind week.

My best man, Frank Martin, played his role superbly… from hosting the bachelor party at the Diamond Springs Hotel to making sure our escape car was appropriately decorated.

Frank grew up with me in Diamond Springs, California. We also attended Sierra College together. Somewhere along the line he discovered he was gay. Later on, he and his partner Hank would host several elegant but offbeat anniversary parties for us at their home on Clay Street in San Francisco.

Given our three-day honeymoon, Jo and I figured we would hold the record for newlyweds arriving at Peace Corps training. But we didn’t. One couple spent their honeymoon night flying out to the San Francisco State.

“Gee, Hon, let’s check out the airplane’s toilet again.”

Upon arrival, the married couples were crammed into one wing of Merced Hall, a student dormitory. Tiny rooms, paper-thin walls and a communal bathroom became our new home. We soon knew a lot about each other.

Peace Corps staff wanted to know even more; Beebo the psychologist was assigned to follow us around and take notes. First, however, they pumped us full of gamma globulin and explained deselection. Our job was to decide whether Peace Corps was something we really wanted to do. Their job was to provide stress to help make the decision. Initially this came in the form of a SF State football coach hired to shape us up.

“Okay you guys, let’s see how fast you can run up and down the stadium steps five times!” I hadn’t liked that particular sport during my brief football career in high school and still didn’t.

Beyond mini-boot camp, our time was filled with attending classes designed to teach us about Liberia and elementary school education. We were even given a stint at practice teaching in South San Francisco. There wasn’t much for Beebo to write about.

In case Peace Corps missed anything, we were given a battery of psychological tests to probe our miscellaneous neuroses. These were followed by in-depth interviews. “Answer honestly. Say the first thing that pops into your mind.” Yeah, sure I will.

A few people did wash out and were whisked away. Naturally it was a topic of conversation. What had they done wrong? Were we next?

The true stress test was supposed to be a camping trip up in the Sierras. This may have been true for the kids straight out of the Bronx who had rarely seen stars much less slept out in the woods but Jo and I considered it a vacation. We had been raised in the foothills of the Sierras and were going home.

The ante was upped when the camp leader arrived the first night.

“Here’s dinner,” he announced casually as he unloaded a crate of live chickens from the back of his pickup. They clucked a greeting.

Fortunately, I had chopped off a few chicken heads in my youth and knew about such things as chicken plucking and gutting. I couldn’t appear too eager in the chopping department, though. Beebo might write something like “displays obvious psychopathic tendencies.”

“Close the door, lock and latch it, here comes Curt with a brand new hatchet!”

My chicken spurted blood from its neck and performed a jerky little death dance, turning the city boys and girls a chalky white. Their appetites made a quick exit in pursuit of their color when I reached inside a still warm Henny Penny to yank out her slippery innards. It seemed that my fellow trainees were lacking in intestinal fortitude. If so, it was fine with me; I got more chicken.

Beebo’s biggest day came when we faced the wilderness obstacle course. Our first challenge was to cross a bouncy rope bridge over a deep gorge. Beebo stood nearby scratching away on his pad. We then rappelled down a cliff… scratch, scratch, scratch. Our every move was to be scrutinized and subjected to psychological analysis. We rebelled.

“Beebo, you’ve been following us around and taking notes for two months. Now it’s your turn. See that cliff. Climb down it.”

“Uh, no.”

“Beebo, you don’t understand,” we were laughing, “you have to take your turn.”

Reluctantly, very reluctantly, Beebo agreed. About half way down he froze and became glued to rock with all of the tenacity of a tick on a hound. We tried to talk him down and we tried to talk him up. We even tried talking him sideways. Nothing worked. Finally we climbed up and hauled him down. Note taking was finished. We wrapped up our wilderness week and our training was complete. Jo Ann and I took the oath and became official Peace Corps Volunteers.

We were allowed one week at home to complete any unfinished business before flying to New York City and reporting to the Pan Am desk at JFK. Since there wasn’t much to do, Jo and I relaxed and recovered from our tumultuous year that had begun ever so long ago with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.

We wrapped up our brief visit with a going away party in Jo Ann’s back yard in Auburn. Surrounded by friends and family, we talked into the night. It was one of those perfect summer evenings that California is famous for, complete with a warm breeze tainted with a hint of honeysuckle flowers.

Lost in a Snow Storm: Part II

“I leave my friend Bob Bray behind to face whatever fate the dark, cold and stormy night has in store for him.”

In my last blog (see below), I described how Bob Bray, Hunt Warner, Phil Dunlop and I were hunting deer in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and got caught in a snowstorm. With sunset less than an hour away, Hunt, Phil and I realized that Bob had disappeared.  We set out to find him. Thirty minutes later I came across his tracks.

I sent Phil back to the jeep to flag down a vehicle to inform the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department that Bob was lost. Hunt returned to the jeep trail we had been using in case Bob walked out. He would fire his rifle to let me know. It was my job to track Bob down.

Following the tracks was not easy. They would be clear for a few yards and then disappear under the snow. It was continuing to fall and beginning to drift, whipped on by a strong wind.

Each time I lost the tracks I would work forward in a zigzag pattern until I found them again. It didn’t help that Bob was tending to wander or that I was tired from a full day of tramping over mountains. Dusk was rapidly approaching when I came across another set of tracks that crossed the trail I was following. They were fresher… and they were Bob’s! I yelled but the only answer I received was the silence of the snow filled woods.

Bob was beginning to follow the classic lost-person pattern of hiking in circles.

I wanted to go on, needed to go on, but knew that the decision was wrong. Dark had arrived to reduce an already limited visibility to near zero. I was tired, close to exhaustion, and cold. Hypothermia was a real threat. Ever so reluctantly I turned around and begin to make my way back toward Hunt, leaving Bob behind to face whatever fate the dark and snow and cold had in store for him.

The realization of just how tired I was hit me when I came to a low fence and couldn’t persuade my leg to step over. I reached down, grabbed my pants and gave the reluctant leg a boost.

Hunt was waiting where we agreed and I filled him in on my findings as we made way back to the jeep through the ever-deepening snow. Phil had more luck. The vehicle he flagged down had a CB Radio and the driver was able to contact the Sheriff’s office. A team with snowmobiles would be at our jeep at first light, prepared for a full search and rescue operation.

Bob, who was manager of Placerville’s newspaper, The Mountain Democrat, was well known and liked in the community. We knew we would have lots of support in our search.

There wasn’t anything else we could do. We were too tired to set up the tent so we climbed in the jeep, grabbed a bite to eat, downed a beer and prepared for a long night.

Hunt got the front seat, it was his jeep; Phil and I shared the back. It was beyond uncomfortable and even exhaustion couldn’t drive me to sleep. Somewhere around two I finally managed to doze off only to be awakened at 5:30 by Hunt’s cussing about how cold it was. Our doors had frozen shut during the night and had to be kicked open.

We soon had our Coleman lantern blasting out light and our Coleman stove cooking up a mass of bacon, eggs and potatoes. We were expecting a long day and knew we would need whatever energy the food could supply. The storm had passed, leaving an absolutely clear sky filled with a million twinkling stars.

The Sheriff’s team arrived just as the sun was climbing above the Crystal Range, exactly on time. Introductions were made, snowmobiles unloaded and we filled the team in on our efforts of the previous day.

The deputy sheriff in charge asked me to climb onto the back of his snowmobile and take them to the point where I had left Bob’s tracks the night before. It was to be my first ever snowmobile ride; except it didn’t happen.

Just as the search team was firing up their engines, a wraith-like figure wearing a plastic poncho came slowly hiking up the hill toward the jeep. He looked like a bad guy out of an early Clint Eastwood western.

As soon as the sun provided a hint of dawn, Bob had managed to orient himself and start walking back toward the jeep. Yes he was freezing and yes he was starving, but he was alive. We knew just how alive he was when he demanded his share of breakfast. As we cooked up another mass of bacon and eggs, Bob told us his story.

He had become disoriented after coming out of the thicket where I found his tracks and headed off in the direction he thought would take him back to the jeep. It didn’t. He fired his rifle several times to get our attention but the sound of shots is fairly common in the forest during hunting season. We just assumed a deer hunter got lucky.

Bob continued wandering and eventually came across his own tracks. That was when he seriously began to worry. Knowing he was lost and knowing night was coming on, he gathered wood for a fire. The wood was wet and refused to start burning. Bob’s lighter ran out of fuel but he still had a match left. He took his lighter apart, placing the innards under the wet wood and used his last match to light it.

The good news was that the fire started. The bad news was that the wind and snow put it out almost immediately. It was some time during this process that I had fired my rifle and Bob had used his last shot to respond. Out of options, he dug out a packrat’s nest to provide shelter and prepared for the longest night in his life. He survived in lodging that made Hunt’s ancient jeep seem like a five-star hotel.

“I even fell asleep once or twice,” Bob managed to get out around a mouthful of eggs.

Of course the Mountain Democrat ran a major story on Bob and he had to take considerable ribbing in Placerville over the next several months. It was a small price to pay considering the alternatives. That Christmas Bob received several compasses for gifts.

It was years before he had tolerance for any temperature below 70.

This blog completes a series of posts I have written in celebration of the 50th High School Reunion of the Class of 1961 of El Dorado Union High School in Placerville California. Next up I want to address the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in light of the student movement of the 60s sparked by the “Free Speech” confrontation at UC Berkeley where I was a student.