I needed to hit reset by way of adventure, nature, and novelty. It”s so weird that I could actually achieve that in such a short period of time! I”m spending my night at home now, typing on my laptop on the dining table, even though the morning of this very day began atop the Sierras hundreds of miles away. Such is the phenomena of modern life.
For a mere nine miles, I was my own transportation: these two 42-year-old limbs. It had been a good long while—decades for that matter—since I have done any significant amount of backpacking in the wilderness. While an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I had picked up the pastime, through a student activities organization on campus called Outdoor Adventures. This time, I was going to go backpacking alone for the first time, and for just one night on the Lakes Trail in Sequoia National Park. Destination: Emerald Lake.
Going at it alone does require additional precautions. I read up on it on the interwebs, and ended up bringing mace, per recommendation of this kindred spirit, Ali Gates.
But why even?
The winter had bestowed an unusual amount of precipitation upon the Sierras. My last trip to Yosemite after a markedly wet winter rewarded me with unforgettable views of swollen rivers and waterfalls and verdant foliage. I did not want to miss the opportunity this year to see the Sierras rehydrated after five years of drought, even if no hiking buddies had time to join me. Plus, the wilderness had been calling me for a long time, and this moment seemed like the right one to carpe diem.
I shoved off from Pasadena midday on a Wednesday and got to Kaweah Oaks Campground in the town of Three Rivers about 3.5 hours later. During the trip-planning phase, I had discovered the Visalia Transit Sequoia Shuttle service, which stops at a handful of pick-up points between Visalia and Three Rivers and takes passengers to the Giant Forest Museum, the heart of Sequoia National Park. For a $7.50 each way, you can leave the 1.5 hours of driving up the windy, construction-ridden 53 miles to a pro. In a way, it was perfect, as the Three Rivers stop is at the town’s Historical Museum, just next door to Kaweah Oaks Campground. I paid the grounds manager an extra fee to leave my car in their shaded parking lot for the night I”d be tenting in the forest. Known as a “cyclist’s campground”, the outdoor lodging is perfectly no-frills. Capacious individual sites to pitch even Coleman-sized tents, plenty of water of the non-potable variety, a common port-o-let, and a common booth shower. If one truly is a cyclist camper, I noticed that each Sequoia Shuttle is also fitted with a rack to carry two bicycles.
That night, bats careened over me, as I walked in the dark from the sink and back to my tent. I prefer to exercise my natural night vision as much as possible, before resorting to the flashlight. It is amazing how many more details you see in your peripheral vision, without the harsh spotlight of a lightbulb. At first, I was a little leery, because I was the only guest at the campground, but by 9pm, company showed up, as in a couple with three coolers full of drink and victuals. They seemed jolly enough. I walked up and thanked them for their presence. They smiled and said no problem, as if there wasn”t ever anything to worry about.Across the street, behind the karaoke bar, the Kaweah River roiled and raged, emboldened by the meltdown of this year’s oversized snowpack. The snarls of current were ready to pull in anything that got close. The overlapping roars created a white noise, that drowned out any sudden sounds that might disturb sleep, if it weren’t for the nocturnal 85-degree heat. Without the respite of a breeze, I lay in my tent slightly sticky.
Somehow, I got through the night, precarious with a heavy-headedness the next morning. Let’s give this a good pour-over of freshly ground coffee beans and leftover Saag Paneer with brown rice from last night. Reheated on my compact MSR stove, it was supremely delicious, elevated by the magic seasonings of my extraordinary fatigue and hunger. Recounts of such details would often perplex or sadden my family members, prompting them to ask why I subject myself to such so-called miseries. In my perspective, these are the small sacrifices for larger gains which, in this instance, was the experience of being in the wild. Oddly enough, I also do achieve a re-calibration of my senses through operating close to baseline. For some, this may be deprivation but, a session of it can make you realize how little you need to feel sated and powered up for the next undertaking.
Swiftly, I refueled and packed up, shedding excess materials in my car and carrying the essentials in my internal frame pack, which also contained my sleeping bag, sleeping mat, and tent. As I waited at 6:50am at the Three Rivers Historical Museum for my shuttle ride, a man living in the house across the street walked over and told me that the shuttle is never quite on-time. Silver hair overflowed from underneath his sun-beaten baseball cap. Eventually, we started chatting about life in Three Rivers. He told me that the place had pretty much been caught in a time warp of the 1970s until recently, when milllenials from LA and San Francisco started coming in with their city cash, and driving up the cost of everything, especially property. As they are not showing signs of reproducing, and the native kids are growing up and moving out to the bigger cities, the class sizes at schools have continuously dwindled. He also said that these millenials imported with them their “city politics” and their liberalism. He said he’d rather take capitalism over Muslim proliferation, and at that point I interceded. Perhaps I was yet another manifestation of the liberalism of which he referred (I don’t know) but I suggested that unbridled capitalism is not the way to go. After all, even good old Sequoia National Park, the glory of Three Rivers and the balm of over-frenzied city dwellers like me, was on the chopping block, under the prevailing administration.
He paused, and said, ok, then we have to have a third choice of moderation. As I nodded in agreement, the shuttle pulled up and I waved goodbye to the conversant neighbor. Transferring to one of the free Seki local shuttles connecting the Giant Forest to Lodgepole Visitor Center, I would obtain the wilderness permit there for my Lakes trail. Since it was one of the few trails whose permit is only available on a first-come, first-serve basis, I wanted to maximize my chance of securing one by getting there as early as possible, which was, by now, 9AM. As luck would have it, Sierra Swinney, the ranger, assigned one to me for a fee of $15 and took notes on the description of my tent, pack, and emergency info. She also gave me the scoop on the trail conditions and the depth of the snow towards the lake. She had a natural and outdoorsy ruddiness, with glowing complexion and a lean strength to her build. Sierra assured me that it was safe for me to backpack solo and that, in fact, she has to backpack alone regularly on various trails for her job.I also rented a bear canister, where I would store my food that night in the forest. These sturdy bulky plastic cylinders have tops that pop open with a turn of a coin or screw driver. Bears cannot get them open no matter how they kick and bang them. Some forego using these and opt to do a bear hang instead, which is a method of hoisting the sack of food with a rope over a proper tree branch 15 feet off the ground. The only problem is, you may not have such the ideal tree branch arrangement where you set up camp.
Taking another Seki shuttle from Lodgepole to Wolverton trailhead, I unloaded even more excess baggage and left a cinch-sack full in one of the several bear lockers that every trailhead has. It’s always hard to figure out how much you’ll eat out there but, more often than not, you eat less than you think and you feel burdened carrying the leftover.
Hitting the Trail
Now, the pack weighed about 30 lbs, which is kind of a lot, especially considering how constant and difficult the ascent was. The trail started out with partial shade, surrounded by many decomposing fallen pines and firs, and dry, hot air, perfumed with sawdust smells. As I proceeded further, I neared creeks, which gave life to tall grasses and delicate blue belladonnas. The moisture cooled the air here. Butterflies of variegated colors and patterns fluttered. The nice relief countered the increasing difficulty of planting successive uphill steps. Along the trail, I sporadically crossed paths with other hikers of all ages and nationalities. Many were day-hikers, doing the roundtrip in one shot. There was also a solo backpacker lady returning from her trip, bouncing down rocks with contentment.
How could one not read the allegory in this backpacking trip? Life is like a long hike and we get so focused on executing the routine that we don”t lift our hands to take in the beautiful environment. It is like life in other ways too. Every time you reach a lake or a vista point, the anguish of the physical journey disappears instantly to make room for feelings of pleasure and joy. You become glad that you stuck it out to this point. It”s also like life in that responsibilities or chance may pull you in one direction or another.
I crossed babbling brooks and clambered over large fallen logs. Many rest stops slowed my ascent. As I got higher, more giant rocks appeared, which made breaks easier, as they helped prop up my pack and gave my bum relief on the cool granite surface. The proximity of rivers on this trail also made it convenient to refill bottles with water, filtered through my hiking pump. I was so thirsty, drinking lots of delicious cold water and passing it through in the form of profuse sweat. Too bad, I couldn’t take more pictures. One discovery during this trip was that my iphone is really just a gadget for the city. It is of no use in the wild. The battery drains quickly for some reason and none of the basic apps work. The best equivalents to carry into the forest are:
- Analog compass
- Topographic map (preferably of durable and waterproof material)
- Kinetic watch (such as a Rolex)
- A real camera
As I was panting up the steepest portion leading up to the ridge before Heather lake, I started to question my own competence as backpacker. Should I simply look now for my spot for the night? Would forcing myself forward only cause more problems, like getting a migraine that would jeopardize tomorrow’s return to Wolverton? Backpacking provokes substantive questions, as it is very analogous to life itself. The wilderness puts you in your place without fail, and you feel very small. At the same time, this sense of inconsequence empowers you to pursue joy. I watched a honeybee collecting copious pollen from a flower while another was riding her. Just at that moment, a descending hiker came into view. I asked him what the trail was like ahead and what wonderful things I could hope to see. He was smiley and encouraging, saying that the trail would get easier, the upcoming snow patches were manageable and that I had got to see the a spectacular sweep of the mountain range across the valley. Such sudden incidents of strangers appearing at cusps of surrender would recur.He was right. This is what I saw. I wish that I had enough juice in my iphone to record the sound. It was thunderous. Every so often, you would hear a pop as a new stream would burst through the snowpack and create another waterfall. I hung out for a while, wondering if this should be my final destination. The thickness and extent of the snow was formidable. While my hiking poles would help a lot and my boots were very solid and waterproof, I did not have snow shoes like the three young men did ahead of me. Smoothly, they proceeded into the engulfing whiteness.
Recalling traveling on snow during a past hike through the Anselm Adams Forest in Inyo National Forest, I remembered that it is much easier if you step into someone else’s footsteps. So, I decided to go for it — this time down the mountainside. Careful not to barrel forward and turn into a snowball, I leaned back a bit and planted my poles hard. There were a few unforeseen slips and falls but fortunately nothing major. The air was still warm, so I didn’t feel as cold as the scenery would suggest. At the foot of the descent, a brook ran, and there again, I would filter refreshing snowmelt and drink it with satisfaction.
It is amazing to see how eagerly the new season of greenery takes root and sprouts. These little plants poke out of every patch of thawed earth. They don’t skip a second to start growing. The snow around the trees and rocks are the first to melt, and it was clear that many rivers gushed invisibly beneath the whiteness. You have to be careful to make sure not to sink and fall into one of those streams. If not a stream, there could be tangle of branches and rocks underneath that could really mess up your ankle or leg. Then, you’d have to contend with injury and immobility with no one to hear you and with freezing snow all around.
Just a few yards ahead was Heather Lake, half-frozen and mysteriously awesome. Of the three hikers ahead, one had already stripped down to shorts and got ready to jump into the chilly water. His shout was silenced by a splash. After a few seconds, he scrambled out, laughing. Without regret, he said he had become too dirty and sticky. He had to do it.
I walked slowly around the perimeter of the lake, admiring the translucency of the lake’s water and the opacity of the remaining ice. The bordering mountainside blended into the floating whiteness. I could only imagine how wonderful it would feel to swim in it in about two month’s time.
At this point, I was dead tired. Heather Lake is 2,000 feet higher than the trailhead, which was already 4,000 feet above sea level. Plus, struggling through the snow takes up lots of upper body strength. The jury was done deliberating. The verdict was to set up camp on the next ridge, which divides Heather Lake from the valley adjacent to Emerald Lake, which would be surrounded by even more snow. Emerald, Aster, and Pear Lakes would all have to wait until another time.
And it wasn’t bad either. To say the truth, the views from this ridge were stunning and immense.I started to set up my tent on the soft snow when two more hikers showed up, two young men who had the build of waterpolo players. They were wearing shorts, t-shirts, and mountain running shoes, and only carrying the most compact of backpacking packs. I said hi and asked them if they were cold. They looked at me incredulously and asked me why I wasn’t heading to Emerald. It’s only a mile or so away, they said. The forest clearly behold many animals, even a variety just within the human species. When I told them that I was exhausted, they hunted around for a better place for me to set up my tent and found one a bed of pine needles, softened by freezing and thawing and propped up by a single vigorous pine. No sooner did I thank them did they start skipping down the mountainside of snow. I relocated my gear and started to put together my kitchen, on a cluster of big rocks. It’s best to eat before sunset, as things get harder to see and the temperatures start to drop.
The good thing about camping around snow is that you don’t have to hike down to the river to get water. The water is everywhere! You just have to melt it. As I enjoyed a cup of green tea, I boiled more water to make mac-n-cheese from a box. Adding some real cheddar and powdered milk, I made it extra rich. It was soooo yummy! It was the most satisfying meal I’ve had in a long time. After eating a sizable serving, some celery and carrot sticks, an apple, and a piece of chocolate, I boiled yet more water for a sponge bath and finally completed the toiletry rituals. All food and fragrant things had to go into the bear canister, which got shut tight and crammed into a crevice. At last, I rolled into the tent about the same time that the last bits of light retreated from the sky. I spread out my spent limbs. The bed was so soft and relaxing. Sleep came in no time.
The next morning about 6am, bird chirps and the first sunrays woke me up. The bear canister was exactly as I had left it. My pots and cookware were undisturbed and now dry. I guess no quiet visitors came last night. That’s nice. Knowing that I had to catch the Sequoia – Visalia shuttle from Giant Forest in the late afternoon, I did not laze through the morning. A breakfast of fresh coffee, more mac-n-cheese (it was so good), and fruit materialized pretty quickly. I broke down the tent, consolidated all equipment and took a moment to make sure to leave no trace. This location had served me well and I gave it a little prayer of thanks.So longThe return hike up the mountain of snow was much harder than I thought. It’s like three steps forward and 2.5 steps worth of sliding back down. After trying this a few times, I realized that it would totally exhaust me without reward, so I devised another plan. Given that there were scattered dry spots, I made freestyle switchbacks between them and eventually zigzagged my way up the mountainside. The only problem was that now I was completely off the trail. I had no idea where it was anymore. Time to consult the compass and the map. Hmm, I could hike in the trail’s general direction. After about 200 feet of cutting through bushes and branches, the brightness of a magenta silk rose on the sunhat of a woman hiking with her husband caught my eye. I waved to her and shouted that I couldn’t find the trail. She stopped and pointed it out. All order was restored. They were heading in a different direction and zipped away. (I’m always impressed about how my presumptions about age and diminished vitality are continuously dashed.)
Hiking downhill was much easier than hiking uphill, though the knees and the quads work harder to stay engaged. Be that as it may, at last, I could thoroughly take in the scenic richness of this trail, without concentrating so much on breathing and energy flow. I saw fur-fluffed marmots, wild grouses, lots of chipmunks, and even a lithe doe, who carried on feeding upon moss without a care about my presence. The early morning and quietude offered so many precious encounters. On the way down, I met a solo hiker with a surfer”s aura in his late 40s, who proclaimed he was from San Diego and explained that he loved doing solo hikes, including 160 miles over nine days along the Pacific Crest Trail between Yosemite and Inyo. I asked him if he ever got nervous. He said that he trusted his judgement and found exceptional fulfillment in communing with abounding nature. He recommends it to anyone with the physical strength. I looked at his wiry and moderately muscular build, his wild hair, and the leatheriness of his skin. This guy was the real deal. Another remarkable variety of the human species.And it was Friday, the gateway to the weekend, and the stampede of hikers was on its way. For example, a 14-member squad of the Sierra Club hiked past me. Whole families with preteen kids, receiving hands-on inculcation into the ways of the outdoors. They are lucky!By 1PM, I arrived at Wolverton trailhead. Such a surprisingly quick trip back! I had to return my bear canister to Lodgepole and then go to Giant Forest to catch the Visalia shuttle, but greed, untamable greed, intercepted me and I hard-lefted to the Giant Forest grove to be surrounded by the Sequoia Trees. I’ve been to this park before, so I thought I could bypass this familiar grove but I still really wanted to see them one more time. It never ceases to amaze me how these powerful and gigantic creatures originated from a small seed in the soft earth. Over the course of thousands of years, they soar towards the sky. They are truly magnificent and mesmerizing, no matter how many times I see them. My silent reckoning with their telluric persistence seguéd to the brevity of my own, by comparison.
Back to Civilization
Alas, shuttle I must catch, and downhill to Three Rivers we rode. It was still hot as hell down there. Though initial plans involved staying one more night at Kaweah Oaks, I felt at this point I would much rather drive the three hours or so back home to Pasadena, take a shower, and sleep in my own bed. I did exactly that, passing by farmlands and fracking fields. It was weird to face the terrain of very evident human influence after being in the forest. I guess we need to do this to survive, or do we? As much as I tried to minimize waste and take public transportation at Seki, the ridiculousness of me driving 200 miles to a location, just to hike nine miles — it”s nuts. To make it worth it, I need to make it a longer trip next time, and bring friends. And that might even actually be more fun.
On Solo Backpacking
My assessment of solo backpacking now is that it is overall good. One must have one’s calm, wits and resourcefulness about herself. One must also be ready to carry slightly more weight than when hiking with another. I’d do this again sometime. As for the being able to touch the water, I went a little early. I think late August or September may be better, insofar as the rivers will not be so pernicious and of a more soothing temperature for a good swim.