Saturday, December 4, 2010

Kings Canyon, Days 5 and 6

Day 5: A Day of Rest, Relaxation, Mountain Climbing, Golf, and Fishing

Day 5 dawned bright and clear. I got out of bed shortly after sunrise, just in time to watch the other group of hikers that had been in the camp hike out on their way to Rae Lakes. Except for the work crew building the bridge, we now had the campground to ourselves. The work crew was also up and about, but their early start did not seem to translate into any significant progress on the bridge. In fact, they seemed to spend most of their time standing around what looked like a large cauldron, and closer inspection revealed that the cauldron was actually a large pot of laundry, which as everyone knows, is a delicious way to start the day.

The work crew was an amiable group, though singularly ineffective. They had been camped here at Upper Paradise all summer long, but apart from one partially constructed rock footing on the near side of the river, and a trail worn through the brush to the apparent landing site on the other side of the river, nothing much seemed to have been done. Hikers still had to cross the river on the logjam lodged just below the confluence of Woods Creek and the South Fork. However, the members of the work crew would be the first to admit that, despite their lack of progress on the bridge, they had had a great summer, and would be really sad to pack up their camp and hike out at the end of the month.

The morning passed pleasantly. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of oatmeal, coffee, and fruit, a meal we all agreed would have been much more enjoyable if the work crew was not preparing bacon and eggs. The smell of the bacon wafted our way and filled the morning air with its pungent aroma, and somehow, our reconstituted instant oatmeal seemed diminished in comparison.

The day was wide open, which meant that in addition to the usual morning milling around, we would occasionally stop our milling to consider possible activities for the day. Dan wanted to nap and read, Oliver wanted to play at least three rounds of tournament disc golf, and I wanted to fish. Beyond that, there was nothing on the schedule.

After considering the possibilities, we agreed that the first order of business would be to climb the rounded knoll behind the campground to see if we could get a view down the Paradise Valley. It was steep climb, and we spent a good hour clambering up to the top, but the view was worth it. From our wide, rock ledge at the top of the knoll, we could see all the way down the valley to the confluence of the South Fork of the Kings River and Bubbs Creek. The air was intermittently smoky from a lightning fire that had been burning on the other side of the ridge for about 10 days, but when the air would clear the view was spectacular. From our viewing lounge at the top of the knoll, Dan opted to return to camp while Oliver and I continued over the knoll and down to the river on the other side.

There are no trails up the South Fork canyon, and it was the wildest area we saw the entire trip. The slopes on the backside of the knoll are heavily wooded, but every once in a while we could catch a glimpse of the huge, white escarpment called the Muro Blanco, which looms over the steep gorge through which the river flows. Above the gorge, the river continues on for several miles through a long meadow, where it eventually meets up with the John Muir Trail. Both Oliver and I agreed that a return trip to explore that canyon would be worthwhile, especially since there were no trails, which would make it both challenging and exciting, and probably really hard and maybe really scary. What could be better? Ironically, our intermittent musing about climbing the canyon came at the same time that Oliver was telling a story about taking a friend backpacking for the first time, and apparently scaring him so badly with exciting off-trail explorations that the poor guy was turned off to backpacking forever.

When we reached the river, Oliver and I briefly considered hiking upstream to see what we could see, but decided that, in the interest of all the other things we had to do that day, it was time to return to camp. Our path down the mountain had deposited us about half a mile upstream from the campground. Without a trail, the going was difficult at times, but after scrambling over rocks and pushing through bushes for about a quarter of a mile, we found an unofficial trail running along the banks of the river. The trail wound through two really nice, private, “unofficial” campsites, but as much as we liked the idea, there was no way we were going to decamp and move. So we just continued on down, past the unofficial campsites, through the work crew site, past the bubbling cauldron of laundry, and back to our site, where Dan was anxiously awaiting our return by quietly napping in the shade.

“Back so soon?” he mumbled, obviously relieved that we were okay, before picking up his stuff and moving to his tent to continue his nap.

Happy to see Dan’s palpable relief at our return, Oliver grabbed a quick snack and then set off to establish a disc golf course, while I grabbed my fishing gear and headed back upstream to try out a couple of fishing holes I had seen as we were hiking down. Back past the bubbling cauldron of laundry, which, curiously, was bubbling and steamy hot even though there was no fire burning and no stove in sight, up the trail and past the first unofficial campsite, to a spot where a huge boulder was perched in the middle of the river, creating a deep fishing hole. In three hours, I caught 11 fish, a personal best. Most of these fish were small. Two were very tasty.

When I returned from my fishing trip, Dan was up from his nap, and Oliver was back from his expedition to establish a tournament-level disc golf course. Dan filleted the fish while Oliver and I got a small fire going, and then Dan fried them in butter with salt, pepper, and garlic and served them on flat-bread crackers. It was a delicious repast, and very welcome considering it was after 3:00 and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

 Our campsite at Upper Paradise

A nap seemed in order after such a hard day of climbing, hiking, and fishing, but Oliver was determined to play at least one more round of golf. He had already played two: one to set up the course, and a second round with Dan, who quickly ascertained that his own napping ambitions would not be realized until Oliver golf addiction was assuaged. The course proved to be a good one, long enough to be challenging, but not so long that my arm was ready to fall off once we were done. Oliver won by several strokes. This was a satisfying outcome. His experience playing the course was duly rewarded, and my loss ensured that there would be no chance that Oliver would demand a rematch.

Dinner that night was a pretty decent tuna casserole, cooked over the fire. The tuna casserole taxed even Oliver’s determined efforts to cook on a skewer, but rather than admit total defeat, he insisted on eating the casserole with a sharpened stick. Day passed into twilight, and twilight into night. The moon was rising up through the trees. About that time, Oliver finished his dinner, having stabbed, skewered, poked, and impaled every noodle and piece of tuna that he ate. Dan and I had long ago finished dinner, the dishes were done, and we were getting ready for bed. All that remained to do was to enjoy a wee dram of scotch and put out the fire.

Oliver insisted on burning his skewer, an offering to the gods of cooking on a stick. However, the offering was not readily accepted. The skewer, damp from the casserole, smoldered for a time, and then belched an acrid black cloud of smoke before finally bursting into flames. The smoke hung heavily about our camp, and through the smoke, looming in the darkness, strode an eerie, dark figure, hooded against the damp, cold air of the river valley. The hooded figure made a beeline for our camp, looming larger as it came. Perhaps the gods of cooking sticks were angry? As the figure entered the dim light from our dying fire, it raised its hand and said, “Hi! How are you all tonight?”

This was not the greeting we expected from an angry deity, but the truth was rather more mundane. The large figure turned out to be a rather small woman wearing a large backpack. Her name was Rebecca, and she was a forest ranger who was starting out on a two-week stint patrolling the backcountry. We learned a lot about Rebecca in a very short time, including her preference for taking her vacations in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, her love of the wilderness, and her desire to put down her very large pack. However, neither the late hour nor her strong desire were enough to discourage her from asking to see our wilderness permit. Official duties done, Rebecca paid us a cheery goodbye, pulled up her hood, and continued the last 100 yards to the work camp, where she was greeted with enthusiasm by the assembled work crew, who were talking and laughing around their boiling cauldron of laundry. It was a rather mystical and bizarre scene, but at that moment, we knew deep down in our bones that it was not the bears that we needed to be worried about.

Day 6: Lower Paradise, Trail Mysteries, and Cold Beer (9 miles)

Despite our unease, the night passed uneventfully. We slept untroubled by bears, irate gods, or forest rangers. But it was time to go. Dan had another backpacking trip scheduled somewhere down in Sequoia National Park, and Oliver and I were facing the long, six-hour drive back to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Hence, I was up at first light, knocking on tents and urging my companions to action. Tents were struck, packs were packed, water was boiled, coffee was quaffed, and oatmeal was consumed. Our camp was a blur of activity, and by 9:00 we were on the trail.

On every trip there are events and instances that are mysterious and beyond casual explanation. This trip was no different. On the hike down from Upper Paradise campground to the trailhead, we passed through Middle Paradise campground, and then Lower Paradise campground. These are well-worn places denuded of campfire materiel, numbered, and scattered generally in a pattern around the Pit Toilet. Numbered sites? Pit toilets? Sacrilege.

And yet, these sites are apparently not without some appeal. As we left Lower Paradise behind—sporting six days of beard, a truly manly odor, and dressed in translucent shorts—we passed a group of 12 women, many of them quite attractive, hiking into Lower Paradise for the weekend. If all it takes is pit toilets to induce twelve women to explore the joys of Lower Paradise for the weekend, then maybe those pit toilets really aren’t so bad.

Still the mysteries were not done. Shortly after our encounter with the LA Sirens Hiking Squad, we came upon a really fine swimming hole. We knew that we were close to the junction of the South Fork of the Kings River and Bubbs Creek, but we didn’t realize just how close. All we knew was that swimming was in order. I grabbed my towel, threw off my clothes and jumped into the river. Quick as a blink I jumped back out, because the water was really cold. Seeing how relaxed and refreshed I was following my dip, both Dan and Oliver followed suit.

It was right about then that another group of hikers came along. The two grandmas really seemed to be enjoying the scenery. The two grandpas were of a sterner quality, and one simply could not stop staring at Dan, who stood naked, sporting only in his cool demeanor. At the first sign of trouble Oliver left his warm, comfortable, sunning rock in the middle of the river for the icy waters. Better to be frozen than embarrassed. I was clad in a beach towel, which required neither Dan’s self-confidence nor Oliver’s frozen body parts. Our last view of the aged couples had the women in front, chatting gaily about the joys of nature, while the two men trudged along sourly behind.

But the real mystery is this: Why wasn’t it the LA Sirens Hiking Squad that passed us by while we were swimming? I have no doubt that they would have wanted to join in, and there is no question that their participation would have livened up the party.

 Relaxing after a refreshing swim.

With the swimming behind us, the long trail just a dusty memory, there was still some magic in the moment. Upon returning to the cars, we retrieved our coolers from the bear boxes and commenced sorting the food and supplies that we had left behind. After six days, the two remaining beers were not only there, they were still cold! All said, a very fine trip. Cheers!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Kings Canyon, Day 4

Day 4: Arrowhead Lake to Upper Paradise Campground, or The Coolest Bridge Ever (14 miles)

From our campsite at Arrowhead Lake, we figured that we still had about 22 miles of hiking, which seemed to call into question our hope for a lay day. We had been averaging a little over seven miles per day, which was just fine with us. The existential questions had been clearly answered, and we had reached a point where we were not feeling any angst about not wanting to hike 18 miles. But we did want a lay day. Oliver and I discussed our options. All of them required getting up early and getting an early start. With that in mind, we were on the trail by 9:00 a.m. Books are written about this kind of extra effort.

The trail from Arrowhead Lake to Junction Meadow, which we figured was about 7 miles and where we thought we would spend the night, turned out to be an easy, pleasant hike. The weather was fine, the streams were full, the meadows were full of wildflowers, and Dan was feeling none of the ill effects of his bout with altitude sickness. Moreover, we were once again reminded of our good fortune in being routed backwards along the loop, as we had the trail to ourselves. The hike went very quickly, and we arrived at Junction Meadow by 11:30 a.m.

The last couple of miles of the trail from Rae Lakes to Junction Meadows passes through one of the most curious and wonderful forests I have ever seen. The cedars, firs, and pines are big and gnarled, and spread out in the most oddly open way, like sculptures in a garden. The ground underfoot is soft and in many places sandy, making for comfortable, easy hiking. And at the end of the forest, where the trail meets Woods Creek, is the most fabulous suspension bridge. The bridge sways in the wind or as one walks across it, undulating in time with each step. Everyone starts across the bridge confidently, but by the eighth or tenth step everyone is holding onto the wire at hip level. (Everyone except Dan, that is, who has the uncanny ability to undulate in time just so.) 

 The most fabulous suspension bridge.

We stopped to have lunch at Junction Meadows, but there was no way we were going to stay there. The place is used up. The ground is denuded of all forest duff, and every flat spot appeared to have been camped on virtually every night all summer long. Traces of the passing hordes were everywhere in evidence, from the small pieces of garbage on the ground to the trampled vegetation along the stream and the trail. Were it not for the suspension bridge, it would have been the most miserable spot we encountered the entire week.

Nonetheless, it was a fine spot for lunch. Several large slices of logs had been thoughtfully distributed about the site, providing a perfect seating arrangement for groups up to 50. The capacious site prompted a flurry of activity from Dan, who was instantly whisked back to his days as a caterer. While Oliver carved a dozen skewers, Dan set about making tuna salad on tortillas. I was in charge of the serving dishes, which, truth be told, comprised two Frisbees that were carefully wiped out with a dirty t-shirt. The finished tuna wraps were skewered and set out in a beautiful floral pattern. The artistry of the presentation had to be assumed more than truly observed, because the petals disappeared just as fast as they were placed on the platter.

Dan was sorely tempted to nap after his exhausting catering gig, but the schedule did not allow it. We had arrived at Junction Meadow early enough to now entertain thoughts of reaching Paradise Valley and the South Fork of the Kings River, which would allow us to have a lay day before hiking out. However, the South Fork was still seven miles further on, so all we had time for before setting out on the afternoon hike was a brief dip in the creek, a quick game of Mountain Frisbee, and three holes of disc golf.

By 1:00 p.m. it was time to go, or would have been except for the suspension bridge. Only one person is allowed on the bridge at a time, so we had to take turns crossing. But the crossing turned out to be so much fun that we all elected for cross back, then cross again. But even this wasn’t enough, because, after all, a moment this delirious had to be recorded with photographs. By 1:45 p.m., having taken advantage of every conceivable bridge crossing opportunity, we were on the trail.

Good times on the coolest bridge ever.

Our campsite on the fourth and fifth nights was at the Upper Paradise Valley Campground, at the confluence of Woods Creek and the South Fork of the Kings River. And a campground it was. Hikers are required to camp in designated sites and to store their food in bear boxes. Fortunately, the campground was not full, and on our second night there, the only other folks in the campground were the work crew building a bridge over the river.

If we had known how quickly we would make the hike from Arrowhead Lake to the Kings River, we would chosen to have spend an extra day at Arrowhead Lake. However, Upper Paradise wasn’t bad. And it was a good thing we chose to stop there. No camping is allowed except in designated campgrounds between Woods Creek and the Road’s End trailhead, and Upper Paradise is a whole lot nicer than Lower and Middle Paradise. The Lower and Middle Paradise campgrounds feature both designated sites and pit toilets, and you’re required to use them. It is car camping without the car, the hygiene afforded by running water, cold beer and barbecued steaks.

By the time we reached Upper Paradise, we were tired, and some of us were in decidedly ill humor. We had hiked about 14 miles, and though most of the miles were easy, there were still 14 of them. None of the campsites looked good. They were not private, there were two other groups in the campground, the sun was nice but shade would be nicer, the campsites were too close to the trail, our feet hurt, and at least one of us smelled really bad. The litany of complaints was endless. I was very fond of site number 2, because it was private, Oliver preferred site number 4 because it was shaded and closer to the stream, and Dan just wanted us both to shut up and pick one. After much horse-trading, I agreed to site number 4, but I got to pick my sleeping spot first and the first three dark chocolate pieces were mine.

Our mood improved significantly once camp was set up and we had a few snacks in us. We were once again below 10,000 feet, so we were able to light a fire, and Oliver was happily experimenting with a series of pesto and cheese toastettes on a single skewer. With the right technique and a long enough skewer, it was possible to perfectly brown three toastettes at a time. Dinner was a simple spaghetti, which lacked the culinary excellence of the jambalaya, but avoided the gastric horror of the lentils. All in all it was a fine meal, and we all went to bed fat and happy.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Kings Canyon, Day 3

Day 3: Kearsarge Lakes Trail to Arrowhead Lake, or I Thought I Felt Bad Before the Lentils (5 miles)

Because of the early night, we were up and out by 9:15 a.m. The rapid-fire pace of our early morning activities was a source of some concern, and perhaps even introspection. (Are we budding LDHs? Will we soon be shedding every possible comfort in order to be able to go one more mile? Who are we really?) These are hard questions, questions that easy-going and fun-loving MountainGuys are loathe to ask. Actually, that’s not true. The questions are easy. It’s the answers that are hard. Fortunately, we are also easily distracted, and on the John Muir Trail there are distractions aplenty.

The John Muir Trail is perhaps the busiest trail in North America. There are signal lights at all the major intersections, but with so many hikers on the trail, accidents are bound to occur. We saw an overturn accident on the switchbacks coming up from Vidette Meadow the previous day (an angry girlfriend was rumored to be involved), and just ten minutes into our hike we passed a four-hiker pileup at the junction leading off to Charlotte Lake. Apparently the uphill hikers failed to yield, but fortunately there were no serious injuries. Emergency personnel from the Charlotte Lake and Rae Lakes ranger stations were on the scene to sort things out and help with the insurance claims. The timing of the accident could not have come at a better time, for us anyway, because it put an immediate end to any existential questions that we might have been wrestling with, and we were able to just focus on enjoying the hike and greeting the many hikers headed in the southbound direction.

 Enjoying the hike

Over the course of the morning, we observed a number of curious characteristics that were shared by the long-distance hikers we encountered. First and foremost, they were all in a hurry, but insisted on stopping at each chance encounter to tell us why. Second, all of the hikers referred to the John Muir Trail as the “JMT”. With all day to talk about walking you wouldn’t think that an acronym would be called for, but you’d be wrong. The JMT hikers all had a story to tell, and their stories always involved how far they had hiked yesterday, how far they were going today, and where they figured they’d end up tomorrow. Eighteen miles and two significant passes was the average JMT daily regiment. Finally, after dutifully describing their self-inflicted hell, the LDHs would announce that they had to rush off in order to keep the pace. These chance encounters became a trifle tedious, but they did serve one useful purpose: any lingering doubts about our LDH status evaporated at the first mention of an 18-mile day.

Glenn Pass is the only pass on the Rae Lakes loop, and it sits just about in the middle of the loop. At 11,978 feet, Glenn Pass is about 7,000 feet higher than the Roads End trailhead, which explains a lot about why we were feeling so spent each night. We reached the top of the pass about 11:30 in the morning. There was one other group of hikers at the top when we arrived, but three more groups reached the summit in the brief time that we were there. Since we had passed four groups that were heading down as we were hiking up, the large number of hikers was not just a chance occurrence. 

Part of the view from Glenn Pass.

Without doubt the view from the top of Glenn Pass is phenomenal. Everything is above treeline and the mountains are barren, windswept rockscapes. The view to the north stretched out probably 50 miles, and to the south perhaps 30 miles. Glacial moraines were filled with ice-blue water, and on the north-facing slopes small patches of snow still lingered. The sun was bright in the cloudless sky. The rock slopes were many colors—red and yellow, white, gray, black. Glenn Pass is a spectacular spot amid a spectacular landscape, and even the disturbingly large number of people congregating there couldn’t dim the beauty of the land itself.

 Photo shoot at the top of Glen Pass. Rae Lakes in the background.
We had originally planned to have lunch on the pass, but the crowds convinced us otherwise. After a quick snack and a brief photo shoot, we shouldered our packs and headed down towards Rae Lakes, our intended destination for the night. The north side of Glenn Pass was considerably steeper than the south side, and the rubble-strewn trail was a broken ankle waiting to happen. Despite that, Oliver gleefully set out to ski down the trail, and while that may sound like a bit of an exaggeration, it is so only because he was not wearing skis. Over the years, I have become accustomed to watching Oliver’s pack disappear down the trail ahead of me, but even so I was amazed to watch him go. He glided and jumped and ran and cut and slid, demonstrating a fearlessness that would put your average lion tamer to shame. Though the steep section was only about half a mile, Oliver reached the bottom easily ten minutes before I did, and Dan was a couple of minutes behind me.

When I reached the bottom of the steep section, Oliver had taken his pack off and was laying down on a big, flat rock next to a small stream. It was a lovely spot, and offered a degree of privacy that would have been impossible at the top of the pass, especially since we had crossed paths with four more groups that were heading up as we were heading down.

By the time Dan showed up, Oliver and I had gotten out the lunch buckets and were struggling to figure out what to eat. Now Dan is usually a reliable lunchtime player, but on this particular day he was not much in the mood. He said his feet hurt, his head hurt, and he wasn’t really feeling all that well. So he spread out his sleeping pad, laid down, and took a nap. So at least this part of his behavior was normal.

Oliver and I enjoyed our lunch of salami and cheese bagels, trail mix, and dried fruit, then, out of solidarity with Dan, decided to spread out our pads and lay down. Of course, the two of us were ready to go, but we figured that our ailing companion could use the rest while we simply reveled in our non-LDH status.

Even with the long lunch, we were skirting Upper Rae Lake by 1:30. Dan had napped for the entire break, and it was clear that he wasn’t feeling well. Still, he is a gamer, and though struggling with some of the effects of altitude sickness, did not want to be the reason that we would have to settle for a less-than-excellent campsite.

Rae Lakes are big alpine lakes, and as one hikes down the trail off the pass, there are spectacular views of the lakes and surrounding mountains. The green edge of the shoreline melds into light blue shallows, but quickly turns dark blue where the water turns deep. In the shallows one can see large fish lazily swimming about waiting for some attention. I longed to give it to them, but we were determined to get far enough down the trail to make a layover day possible on either day four or five. The trail from the pass follows the shoreline of Upper Rae Lake along its western and northern edge, and from there passes around the eastern side of Lower Rae Lake.

Between the two lakes, a couple hundred yards off the JMT, is a good-sized campground. Hikers are required to camp in designated sites and use the large, steel bear boxes to store their food. Although the Rae Lakes are spectacular, this is not a wilderness site. There is a ranger station at Lower Rae Lake, and the area was home to at least half a dozen groups at the time we passed through.

This was also the site of one of the most disturbing moments I have ever experienced as a MountainGuy. As we rested briefly, for only the tenth time that day, we met a group of three LDHs who were hiking the JMT and planned to go over Glenn Pass and hike to Vidette Meadows, making for a 22 mile day.

Now, backpacking is not a clean sport, but there are standards. Nonetheless, one of the members of the LDH party was sporting a pair of shorts that were so blackened by dirt and body oils that they were translucent. No doubt these shorts served as a fine bear repellent, and if the guy ever took them off they would probably crawl of their own volition under a rock where they could decay in peace. Even Oliver, fashion maven that he is, was horrified by what he saw, exclaiming, “Guys, if I ever wear a pair of shorts that disgusting just shoot me.” Done.

Our campsite that third night was at Arrowhead Lake, about a mile past Rae Lakes. We had toyed with idea of hiking into Gardiner Basin, which sits in the middle of the Rae Lakes loop, but without any good information about making the cross-country trek out of the basin and down to the trail along Woods Creek, we opted to stay the loop. As we passed the trail junction into the Sixty Lakes Basin, which would also have been our path into Gardiner Basin, Oliver noted with a wry smile that it was a bit surprising that we did not have any good information, since the LDH who had sought so hard to join our encampment that first night had managed to talk about virtually every trail option we might encounter, except, of course, the trail we indicated we were interested in taking. 

 Campsite at Arrowhead Lake, Fin Dome between the trees.

Arrowhead Lake is shaped like an arrowhead. Perhaps that’s why they call it that. We were camped at the northern end of the lake, opposite the pointy end. From our campsite we had a great view of Fin Dome, which caps the ridge that separates the Rae Lakes trail from the Sixty Lake Basin, and of Dragon Peak and Mt. Gould off to the south. This was again a pretty private site, but there were at least two other groups sharing the lake that night.

Dan climbed into his tent as soon as it was pitched. He did not emerge until dinner, but was sorry he hadn’t just opted to continue sleeping. Dinner was an experimental mix of lentils and rice. It was a menu filled with promise, but a sad failure in the act. It might even qualify as one of the worst MountainGuy meals ever. Lentils do not soften very quickly at 10,200 feet. We made the best of it, but were it not for bread and cheese, we would have all retired to bed hungry.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Kings Canyon, Day 2

Day 2: Charlotte Creek to Kearsarge Lakes Trail, or Jambalaya in Paradise (8 miles)

With the departure of the long distance hikers, we once again had the wilderness to ourselves. The morning fire was a pleasant way to start the day, even though it was not particularly cold. Oliver considered trying to cook his oatmeal on a stick over the fire, but time constraints forced him to use the standard boiling water technique. By 9:00 a.m. we were on the trail, barely three hours after the departure of our LDH campmates. We did not catch up to them.

The morning hike was very pleasant. The trail continued its uphill march along Bubbs Creek, though most of the time the going was not terribly hard. The canyon walls on either side of the valley were steep and rocky, but the canyon floor along the creek was heavily forested, and the cool fall air felt crisp and fresh as we wound our way through the shady groves along the side of the creek. 

 The Rae Lakes Loop. A high Sierra classic.

By the time we reached Vidette Meadows, about 5 miles from Charlotte Creek, it was 1:00 p.m. and the sun was high in the sky. The cool morning had given way to a fine, warm afternoon. We had not seen any other hikers the entire morning, but our arrival at Vidette Meadows reminded us that Kings Canyon is a popular National Park, and the Rae Lakes loop is one of the most popular trails in that popular park. There were several groups of hikers in the meadow when we arrived, and more were arriving all the time. Two enterprising young hikers had set up a drink stand at the junction of the Bubbs Creek trail and the John Muir Trail and were doing a fine business, capitalizing on the warm weather and the large amount of foot traffic.

Despite the large number of hikers in the meadow, the crowd was not unruly, and we were able to find a quiet spot in the shade to have lunch. We watched in some amazement as the continuous stream of hikers passed by. Most of the traffic was flowing from north to south along the John Muir Trail, although an occasional renegade party was traveling south to north.

Lunch consisted of crackers, cheese, salami, dried fruit, fresh apple, and orange chocolate. About midway through our luncheon, a tired young couple approached our quiet retreat and asked if we would mind if they shared our lunch spot, seeing as all the other lunch spots in the meadow were full.

“Of course not,” exclaimed Dan enthusiastically, happy to have someone other than Oliver and me to talk to. “You guys look like you could use a rest.”

I nodded my assent since my mouth was too full of crackers and cheese to talk. Oliver looked up briefly, but he was struggling to find a way to skewer his crackers without breaking them. Even though we did not have a fire, he was still determined to eat his food off a sharpened stick.

“Thanks,” replied the young man. “We had planned to spend the night at Charlotte Lake, but we have the screw-top type of bear bin.” This did not make a lot of sense to us, and our quizzical looks must have said so.

The young woman picked up the story. “There’s a bear at Charlotte Lake that has learned how to unscrew the top of the bin, so the rangers are requiring anyone carrying that type of bin to bypass the lake.”

“Yeah,” sighed the young man, “we’d already hiked 12 miles, and Charlotte Lake is three bone-crunching miles from here. That’s 15 miles all together. Today was supposed to be a light day.”

Oliver, Dan, and I looked at each other. Twelve miles did not seem like a light day to us, but of course we wouldn’t want to admit that in front of a girl. We finished our lunch with a flourish of orange chocolate served on skewers, which Oliver had thoughtfully carved for us. I had to admit, the chocolate tasted better off a skewer, as it allowed oxygen to more fully surround the chocolate and thereby react with the taste buds. Or perhaps it was the residue from Oliver’s hands. Either way, it was good.

We bid adieu to the young couple as they carefully portioned out this day’s lunch rations. One of the features of long distance hiking is careful attention to caloric intake in order to maximize the weight to distance ratio. They seemed content with their three pilot biscuits and peanut butter (one tablespoon per biscuit), but I don’t doubt that a slice of orange chocolate on a skewer would have been gratefully accepted had it been offered.

The afternoon hike was hard. The young man was not kidding when he described the trail from Charlotte Lake to Vidette Meadow as “bone crunching.” By the time we reached the cutoff for Kearsarge Lakes, about half a mile from the cutoff to Charlotte Lake, we were tired and ready to stop. We had heard from several hikers that the lake was very popular and would be crowded, so rather than continue on to Charlotte, we decided to scout around a bit off trail to see what we could find. This proved to be a good decision. 

 Private campsite between the trails.

That second night was spent in a relatively wild place, a level spot between the trail to Kearsarge Pass to the east and the John Muir Trail to the west. Although we were no more than 100 yards off either trail, this was the most private site we had the whole trip. We couldn’t see or hear any other groups, and we had a fabulous view of East and West Vidette Peaks to the south. The moonrise was spectacular over the pink-tinged peaks as the sun set behind our campsite. This was also the highest campsite of the trip, at an elevation over 10,500 feet. No fires are allowed over 10,000 feet in Kings Canyon National Park, so we didn’t have one.

 Moonrise over East Vidette Peak

Dinner that second night was superb. I offered to make the Mountain Jambalaya, but this was really a team effort. I put freeze-dried vegetables into a pan to reconstitute, and Dan added some spices. I started frying the onions in a bit of oil, and Dan added Cajun spices and tomato paste. I added Panang red curry tuna and peppered salami, and Oliver took time out from carving skewers to add a bit of red wine. Served over rice, the jambalaya was very, very good, and I don’t think any of us were pining for the freeze-dried fare that is the staple of most long-distance hikers.

With dinner done and no fire to amuse us, it was soon time to retire. It was a beautiful, clear night, and all that much more beautiful from the warm cocoon of our sleeping bags and tents.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Hiking Kings Canyon, 2005

MountainGuy News©
Volume 5, Special Edition
Insights, Out-takes, and Entrails

Kings Canyon 2005

The first view of the canyon of the South Fork of the Kings River comes as you round a sharp bend in the narrow two-lane road that connects the park entrance to Cedar Grove. The land simply falls away in a 2,000-foot drop to the floor of the canyon. A huge dark-gray monolith perches above the river on the far side of the canyon, in striking contrast to the lighter-colored rock that makes up most of the canyon walls. At this moment, I have but one thought: “I am so glad that I am not driving a 45-foot RV on this road.” My joy, however, is tempered by the knowledge that there are others, perhaps more skilled at driving than I, but perhaps less, driving their 45-foot RV on this very same road, and with a second vehicle in tow that is itself three times as large as my Corolla.

This tension will be the theme of our trip. The landscape is truly spectacular. And I use that word carefully, as could only a jaded MountainGuy who has viewed a thousand really neat sunsets, who has stood at the top of passes that have seen no more than ten thousand pairs of boots in a year, who has been in a hundred places that no more than a microscopic fraction of American manhood will ever see. The landscape is truly spectacular. But it is also crowded. This trip was not a wilderness experience. It was spectacular, magnificent, awesome. But it was also crowded. We happened to choose the most popular part of Kings Canyon for this year’s trip. The Rae Lakes loop, right in the center of Kings Canyon, feels like a large urban park; it was not wilderness.

 Awesome view looking south from Rae Lakes

When I arrived at Cedar Grove, it was relatively quiet. It was the second week of September, after all. Perhaps half the sites in the campground were taken, but the other campgrounds in Cedar Grove were already closed for the season, so all of the remaining campers were in the one area that was still open. I got the sense that if a landscape could speak, this one was heaving a sigh of relief. The summer crowds had fled, on to whatever activities come after the camping season is over, and the trees, the animals, the very rocks were relishing the quiet and the chance to regenerate and rest after the long summer.

Each campsite is fully equipped with a table, a fire pit, ground that has been scraped clean of forest duff, and its own large, brown, steel bear box. All food, all scented items must be placed into the box within twenty minutes of arrival. Any campers who ignore this rule face fines, banishment from the park, and possible jail time. Repeat offenders are actually fed to the bears. These boxes demonstrate that it is all-out war between the die-hard RV driver and the bears. The bears are winning.

I got to Cedar Grove about 4:00. Oliver and Dan showed up at about 6:30 p.m., just as I was starting the fire to cook dinner. Once again, the ranks of the MountainGuys were depleted by the prospect of a rigorous trip, the week-long format, and what can only be described as bad attitudes. Dinner that night consisted of steak, potatoes, onions, yellow squash, and zucchini
grilled over the open flame, served with Bass Ale and Mount Vernon Vineyards “Girly Man Mountain Red Wine.” I kid you not.

The dinner was very good, the ale was great, and the wine was excellent. But good as was the repast, it did not compare to the after-dinner entertainment: the grand food sorting! With dinner done and the dishes washed, the table was cleared except for the must-have red-and-white-checked vinyl tablecloth that is the staple of Italian restaurants. All the food was laid out in a large heap, to be sorted in the bright light of a gas-powered lantern by gas-powered Girly-Man-drinkin’ MountainGuys.

Chili or freeze-dried chicken? Oatmeal or cold cereal? Cookies or munchies? Hard decisions all, and all the more difficult because all of the food had to fit into the four bear canisters that we were carrying. In Kings Canyon, all food must fit into a bear canister, because the bears are winning. Tortillas were carefully pasted to the inside of the canister, crackers were discarded, air was bled from packaging, every square inch was filled. With a flourish, dark chocolate pieces were the last item to be added to a canister by removing them from their bag and letting them settle into the nooks and crannies. Snacks won out over cookies and desserts, although the fight was bitter and protracted. By 11:30 all that remained was the red-and-white tablecloth.

Day 1: Cedar Grove to Charlotte Creek, or The World is My Cheese Toastette (8 miles)


To be a MountainGuy is to be in tune with the environment. A MountainGuy feels the rhythm of the earth, of the trees, of the very rocks. Things are done in a thoughtful, deliberate manner, without haste or waste. In other words, we got a late start from Cedar Grove. The Girly Man wine might have had something to do with it.

Our plan was simple: we would hike until we were tired. At this point we still harbored dreams of spending time in Gardiner Basin, which would have meant going off trail into the area at the center of the Rae Lakes loop. The farther we got on the first day, the more likely we would be able to do a couple of days off trail. 

 We did not get far before we were tired. So we stopped for lunch.

By a quirk of fate, we were sent around the Rae Lakes loop backwards. Fortune smiled upon us. The counterclockwise trip is steeper going up and more gradual coming down, so most people elect to go clockwise, up Woods Creek and down Bubbs Creek. Our path meant that we were out of phase with the other hikers, which was good, because there were a lot of other hikers to be out of phase with.

About two miles or so out of Cedar Grove, the Bubbs Creek trail heads east-southeast, while the Woods Creek trail veers north along the South Fork of the Kings River. This first section of the Bubbs Creek trail is very steep, going up almost 1,000 feet of elevation in just a mile. The trail levels out somewhat after that, but it is still decidedly uphill. By the time we reached Charlotte Creek, about eight miles from Cedar Grove, we were beat.

It was in the selection of campsites that our good fortune in being routed backwards was most evident. Charlotte Creek is the first place that camping is allowed along the Bubbs Creek trail. As seasoned MountainGuys, we were immediately aware that we had reached a camp-worthy spot. Perhaps it was the trampled appearance of the ground, the numerous paths running through the forest and the ferns alongside the creek, or perhaps it was the sign indicating that we could camp there provided we stored our food in the big, brown, steel bear box. Subtle clues all, but they were not lost on us. 

 Campsite at Charlotte Creek

We arrived at Charlotte Creek at about 3:00 p.m. We were the only ones there. We chose a site up the trail a bit from the bear box, but still close enough to make use of it. Dan and I had tents, Oliver had a tarp, and in short order camp was set up. With plenty of daylight and a chance to enjoy it without packs, Oliver suggested that we play some disc golf. We had long ago learned that the Frisbee is essential camping equipment: rolling tray, food service tray, cutting board, and entertainment device all in one. Since both Oliver and I brought Frisbees on this trip, we had the first-rate option of Mountain Disc Golf. After a long day of bone-crunching hiking, what better way to rest our weary, tired, exhausted, fatigued, limp, and sore bodies than by throwing a disc and climbing over logs and into bushes and under rocks? Why didn’t we think of this before? With the addition of multiple discs, it was now possible to completely wipe out our arms and shoulders to match our broken back and legs.

The disc golf game was a huge success, and since we had the entire campground to ourselves, we were able to establish a nine-hole course without having to venture into areas where the bushes weren’t already trampled and the trees and rocks already worn by the passage of a thousand other hikers. “Leave-no-trace” and disc golf are competing wilderness visions, but at least in this instance, we could feel good about both the golf and our environmental selves.

Dan was still napping when we returned to camp, so I got a small fire going while Oliver retrieved the food from the bear box. Oliver quickly set to work grilling cheese toastettes on a spit over the open flame. Traditionally, the cheese toastettes have been cooked on a frying pan over the fire, but Oliver was determined on this trip to cook his food on a stick. As is the case with any new technology, or more accurately, new technique, since sharpened-stick technology has been around for a long time, the initial efforts were not entirely successful. The bagel slice that formed the core of the toastette stayed in place reliably enough, as did the small piece of salami, but the cheese did not. What proved interesting was how fast the cheese went from not-quite-hot-enough to liquefied-and-now-in-the-fire. But persistence is a virtue, and Oliver is not one to give up easily, at least where toasted food is concerned. By putting the cheese between the bagel and the salami, the entire hors d’oeuvre could be satisfactorily toasted without serious risk of loss.

 Cheese Toastettes, cooked on a stick

Oliver’s attention to detail proved to be a lifesaver, at least for him, for it was at this time that we came into contact with one of the native species, the “long-distance hiker.” The long distance hiker is often a friendly sort, and in this particular case, way too tame. Our quiet solitude was interrupted late in the afternoon by the arrival of a weary pair, who had started their hike from Cedar Grove early in the afternoon, but had made good time running up the trail. One of the pair, the older of the two, set down his pack near the bear box and immediately hustled over to our campsite to say hello. “Hello,” we responded (except for Dan, who was still in his tent reading). For the next fifteen minutes Oliver and I were treated to a vast array of information about the hiking trails in the region, our trail options, places we could go off the trail, and of course, a long dissertation about how far this pair had hiked today, how far they planned to go tomorrow, and what their ultimate goal would be. Perhaps it was something in the way we said hello. Finally, after using our map to dissect the options that lay before us, the long-distance hiker retreated to his own campsite, his last words being, “I’ll be back.”

And soon he was. While the younger member of the pair set up their camp, the friendly long-distance hiker (LDH) returned to give us still more information about all the places we could go, all the ways we might get there, and what he would do if he were in our place. But despite his best efforts, we were now prepared. Oliver sat stone-facedly contemplating the toastette on the end of his skewer, determined to not yield even a flicker of interest in the stories being spun by the LDH. I tried not to be rude, with as many variations of the non-committal guttural grunt as I could muster. Finally, seeing that we could not be persuaded to parley, the LDH retreated from our fire-warmed party to his own cold and dreary campsite, replete with a cold and lifeless pair of sleeping pads and a cold and dreary dinner.

Oliver and I never did figure out exactly what the guy was after, but we think it may have been an invitation to join our happy little group. Dan emerged from his tent shortly after the LDH departed, and in hushed tones expressed just how thankful he was to have been hidden through the whole, trying episode. The sun had set by the time we finished our dinner, and by the time the dishes were done it was fully dark. With a fire and a bit of scotch to keep us warm, we managed to stay up quite late, till maybe 9:00 p.m. even. All was quiet in the LDH camp, where I think they turned in as soon as the sun went down, the next morning, they were gone before I could even get our morning fire going. Some people just know how to live.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sailing Lake Sonoma

Sailing Lake Sonoma
Boat Camping Close to Home

 Lying at anchor, Buck Pasture campground

“This has been the crappiest summer I can ever remember in the Bay Area,” lamented Craig, who has been living on his 57-foot Chinese junk in Marina Bay for two years now.

I wanted to laugh at his plight, because Marina Bay is cold in the summer, and we all told him that before he moved onto his boat. But Craig has also been sailing on the Bay, mostly out of Berkeley, for 35 years, so he knows a little bit about local summer weather. And I had to agree with him. Bay Area weather had gotten stuck on June, maybe May. It was early July, and I was still barbecuing in a parka. And that was in Fremont, which is a whole lot warmer than Marina Bay.

“You want to go boat camping?” I asked. “I’m thinking about going to Lake Sonoma.”

“Lake Sonoma? Never heard of it.”

“I hadn’t either. But it’s a big lake, with 14 different boat-in campgrounds. I found it while searching for ‘boat camping’ on the internet.”

Craig thought for a moment. “Okay. It’s got to be warmer than here.”

The first thing you discover is that Lake Sonoma is a motorboat lake. I had suspected as much, since most lakes in California are motorboat lakes, but my suspicions were confirmed when I was picking up my parking pass at the Lake Sonoma Visitor Center. An officious and unfriendly woman wearing an official uniform with a U.S. Army Corp of Engineers patch on the sleeve handed me a form to fill out. I entered the information she indicated and handed back the form.

The woman reviewed my information. “What type of boat do you have?” she asked in an exasperated tone, pointing to a line she had not asked me to fill out.

“It’s a Chebacco sailboat.”

“A sailboat.” She seemed to scowl at the very thought. “We don’t get too many of those.”

The woman handed me a parking sticker to put in the window of my truck, and then quickly reviewed the lake rules and regulations. “It’s a no wake zone here and here and here, and you can water ski here and here, and the speed limit in these other areas is 50 miles and hour.”

“Fifty miles an hour!” I was shocked. “Not really much of a limit.”

“Oh, some of the bass boats that come out here will do 70 miles and hour,” she said proudly, “but we limit them to 50.”

“Bass boats are an abomination,” I said. I was pretty sure that the woman behind the counter had a bass boat.

“Well, the kind of people that use our lake like them.” With that she went back to her officious duties, and I returned to my car. One thing was certain: Lake Sonoma is a motorboat lake. But, as it turned out, Lake Sonoma is also a pretty good sailboat lake.

Map from

Lake Sonoma lies about 11 miles west of Healdsburg at the end of Dry Creek Road. The road winds through beautiful vineyards, and dozens of wineries offer the traveler a chance to taste wines and relax while taking in the view of the valley.

The public boat ramp is one and half miles past the Visitor Center, directly across the lake from the Warm Springs Dam. There is a large parking lot at the top of the hill with spaces reserved for preparing the boat for launching. However, to get from the lot to the ramp one has to go under the Rockpile Road bridge, and clearance is only sixteen feet. I had to take my boat down to the ramp to raise the masts. The ramp is large, so rigging on the ramp was no problem, at least not on a Wednesday afternoon. However, the ramp is shallow, and a deep boat would require a tongue extension to float free.

My sailboat, Inspector Clouseau, is a cat-yawl with gaff-rigged main, 19’6” long with a beam of eight feet. The boat features a full keel rather than the centerboard of the original design. Even with the keel, it draws only 20 inches. Eliminating the centerboard case opens up the cockpit and the small cabin, and makes the boat much easier to move about in. I had modified the design with exactly this kind of boat camping in mind. Three years later, it was time to try it out.

Craig showed up while I was rigging the boat, and together we loaded the boat with all of our stores and camping equipment. By the time we had finished piling stuff into the cockpit, I had to wonder where it would all go. But somehow it all got put away, and we were ready to launch. I was just climbing back into my truck when one of the other boaters stopped alongside.

“Hey, nice sailboat!” he said.

“Thanks,” I replied,

“Yeah, very pretty. We don’t get too many of those on this lake.” With that, he hustled back down the ramp, hopped into his bass boat, and sped off in search of a good fishing spot.

There are fifteen campgrounds on the lake. Seven of the campgrounds are on the Warm Springs arm, and all of these campgrounds can be reached by boat, on foot, by bike, or on horseback. There are also seven campgrounds on the Dry Creek arm. All of these campgrounds are accessible by boat, and two of them can also be reached on foot or by horseback. Large sections of the lake are no-wake zones, which is where most of the campgrounds are located. The last campground is on Bummer Peak, and is not accessible by boat. There is no piped-in water at any of the campgrounds, but one can drink water from the lake provided it is properly filtered.

Our plan had been to spend the afternoon sailing, establish our camp, and then decide what to do next. It was a good plan, except that the wind died about 500 yards from the dam. Though we were just happy to be warm, the adventurous spirit is hard to maintain for long at zero knots. So we decided to motor to our site, set up camp, and then go sailing.

Since neither of us had ever been to Lake Sonoma, I had to rely on advice from one of the rangers at the Visitor Center. Her advice was both good and bad. The good part was her suggestion that we camp on the Warm Springs arm; the bad part was that the Quicksilver Campground, which she recommended, was the ugliest one on the lake.

The bay where Quicksilver is located was empty except for a large houseboat beached on the northern side. Two guys were fishing off the stern deck and drinking beer, though not necessarily in that order. The bay is a quiet no-wake zone, but the hills are steep, the sites are small and get sun all day, and the ground is baked hard as rock. There is very little shade, and very little to recommend this campground.

Boat camping is permitted anywhere on the lake, but one can only camp and cook ashore in designated campsites. After a brief swim and a cold beer, we made the decision to take our chances with the boat camping. The whole western end of the Warm Springs arm is a no wake zone, and by our reckoning, had to offer something better than where we were.

The Warm Springs arm is beautiful, with lots of small, shady inlets, and plenty of quiet places to anchor. Neither Craig nor I were enthralled with the first three campgrounds that we came across, although they were an improvement over Quicksilver. The next two campgrounds were much better. The Black Mountain and Buck Pasture campgrounds offered several very nice sites with good places to pull up the boat, and, if one wanted to camp ashore, good places to put the tent.

We talked a bit about sailing as we motored slowly up the Warm Springs arm, but the wind was fitful, and we were a little concerned about finding a place to camp before nightfall. The remains of trees that were drowned when the valley was flooded still line the shore in many places, and the water shallows quickly in many of the narrow inlets. With a draft of less than two feet, I did not worry too much about the water depth—the bottom was visible to depths of at least four feet—but the snags were a hazard, and one that might not be obvious in the dark.

The sun was down behind the hills to the west by the time we decided to poach one of the campsites at Buck Pasture. This worked out very well. There were two unoccupied sites that offered good lake access, level tables, and soft banks on which to pull up the boat. The site we selected had an old tree poking out of the water about 30 feet off the shore, so we were able to tie off the bow to the anchor, which I had buried in the soft ground, and we were able to tie off the stern to the tree. A stake that we could pound into the ground would have been an improvement over the anchor, but I did not have a stake to pound or a hammer with which to do the pounding.

While I set up the stove to make chicken burritos, Craig collected firewood and got a small fire going. At one point, I saw him on the top of the hill at the next site over picking up garbage that I figured had been strewn about that site by some previous tenants. However, later that night, we heard the garbage can being pried open, and the lid banging down onto the ground. Both Craig and I turned our flashlights up to top of the hill, and in the smoky light beams cast by the lights, we could see the beady eyes of the offending raccoon staring back down at us. 

 Craig enjoying the moment at Buck Pasture. What's not to like?

I had originally thought that we would sleep in tents, but sleeping in the cockpit of the boat was easier. The cockpit benches are six-and-a-half feet long and plenty wide enough, so all we had to do was roll out our sleeping bags on top of the cockpit cushions and climb in. Any thoughts of leaving the food and cooking gear out evaporated with the arrival of the raccoons, and I was plenty glad to be able to put a little bit of water and freeboard between me and them. We fell asleep that night watching the stars, and listening to the breeze blow through the rigging while small waves lapped at the side of the boat. I remember thinking as I drifted off to sleep, “ I could get used to this.”

One consequence of hauling all the cooking gear and food onto the boat the night before was that I had to haul it all back off in the morning. Craig was still sleeping, and even with all my banging and grunting and splashing as I pulled everything off the boat, he gave no indication that he was awake.

One advantage of staying in a campground is access to the pit toilets. I have a head on the boat for emergencies, but I discourage people from using it. Although pit toilets are rarely pleasant, these weren’t a horrific example of the type—toilet paper and seat covers were included for the price of admission—and they better than having to clean out the head.

The wind had been blowing down the lake toward the dam all night, but died as the sun came up. As the air began to heat up, however, the wind began to blow up the lake from the dam. Craig and I were happy to see a bit of wind, even if it meant that we would have to beat the length of the Warm Springs arm.

Our plan for the day was to sail up to the marina, pick up some ice, and then explore the Dry Creek arm of the lake. However, these things never really work quite the way you draw them up. I figured that even with light winds we would be able to sail the two and half miles to the marina in an hour and a half, maybe two. Two and half hours later, we were becalmed just shy of the narrows, the sun was high overhead, it was hot, the drinks were warm, and I was getting irritable.

“Why are you so anxious?” asked Craig, as I started the motor to get us moving again. “It’s not like there is anyplace we have to be.”

“I have one thing I want to get done today,” I responded while striking the mainsail, “and that is to buy ice. I just want to get it done. Then I can have a cold beer, and I will feel better.”

“Maybe you should have two,” Craig muttered. “Then we’ll both feel better.”

“Just drive us to the marina,” I snapped.

The Lake Sonoma Marina is a small private marina with perhaps 50 slips, a gas dock, a launch ramp, and a small store. The store offers just about anything the boat camper might need: ice, drinks, charcoal, gas containers, motor oil, barbecue tools, cutlery, paper plates, flotation vests, ski tow ropes, ibuprofen, you name it. They even offered ice cream. With ice in the cooler and ice cream in our bellies, I know I felt better. I imagine Craig did, too.

The Dry Creek arm is much better for sailing than the Warm Springs arm. Afternoon winds flow over the dam and directly up the Dry Creek arm, which is also wider and longer than the Warm Springs side. The day was starting to get hot, and even though we were drinking a lot of water, it was hard to cool off with no way to get out of the sun.

A brief swim out in the middle of the lake offered some relief, and the water was a perfect temperature for swimming. However, climbing back up onto the boat without a boarding ladder proved to be a bit of challenge. A loop of line hung down into the water off the stern cleats was better than nothing, but climbing up to the boat, even with its low freeboard aft, required a lot of upper body strength, and might have been impossible after a long and tiring swim.

Winds were light but steady in the 4 to 5 knot range, so we rounded the boat up into the wind and set the sails. The run down the lake was delightful. Inspector Clouseau really shines in light air with the wind aft of the beam and the big gaff main swung way out to one side. There aren’t many coves and inlets in this big part of the lake, and the whole northern side of the lake is a wildlife management area that is closed to the public. 

 Warm weather sailing

One of the great attractions of the lake turned out to be the abundance of birds, and particularly birds of prey. While sailing past the Falcon’s Nest Campground, we passed a large nest high atop a dead tree at the water’s edge. Peregrine falcons inhabit the wilderness area, but this nest looked more like the nest of an osprey or bald eagle. As we slid silently by, Craig and I could hear the three baby birds clamoring for attention. It was one of the high points of the trip.

 Osprey or eagle nest, with big babies

The high temperature for the day did not exceed 85 degrees, but we had been on the boat for six hours, and the July sun was exceedingly bright. Repeated applications of sunscreen soon proved inadequate. After a cold summer in the San Francisco Bay area, I was committed to the idea of being warm and spending the whole day in a bathing suit, but I was starting to feel half-baked. Cold beer did not help.

Good fortune smiled upon us, however, when we found a nice little shady spot to tuck into at the back end of a no-wake zone. Craig was skeptical that this spot was the best we could do, but I didn’t care. I was feeling the effects of the sun and the compounding effects of the beer; I needed some shade.

The spot in question featured a dead tree to tie off the bow and a sunken log along the shore to tie off the stern, and the little bay proved a delightful place to take a swim. I still did not have a boarding ladder, but this time, we hung the loop of line from the bow. This worked better because the loop could be adjusted so that one would not slide under the boat when stepping onto the line, but it was still a challenge to climb back on board.

I think we spent about an hour and a half in that little shady spot. Several boats came and went in the time that we were there, seeking out their own bit of shade, but ours was the only spot in that entire bay that featured both shade and a way to tie off the boat, so none of the other boats stuck around for long. 

 Hanging out in the shady spot

By the time we left our shady refuge, the steady easterly we enjoyed as we sailed up the lake was replaced by fitful and fluky winds that varied in strength from 0 to 15 knots. But eventually a westerly breeze settled in. For half an hour we enjoyed brilliant sailing, first exploring a couple of small bays that included sailing amongst and around submerged trees, and then sailing a ways up the main arm in 15 to 20 knots of wind. Spray was coming over the bow, and I found myself quickly trying to stow all of the food and gear and clothing that had been allowed to accumulate around the cockpit on a long day of lazy breezes.

Despite the joy of sailing in wind, our destination was either the Thumb or the Skunk Creek campground, which were tucked well up into the northern end of a large bay. The entire bay is a no-wake zone, so we would have been obliged to slow down in any case, but the wind pretty much died as soon as we entered the bay. This was, at first, a real letdown, but only briefly. The steep hills surrounding the narrow entrance caused what little wind there was to swirl around, and any efforts to trim the sails were entirely ineffective and counterproductive. As soon as I would achieve trim, the wind would shift.

Craig had been lying motionless on the starboard bench with a bemused look on his face, as if to suggest that I was working too hard by half (or perhaps three-quarters), and though it galls me to admit it, he was right. There was no way to keep up with the change in wind direction, and eventually, I gave up. With no way to keep up with the shifts, I just dropped the sheet and pointed the boat in the direction we wanted to go. Somehow, the boat kept sailing. The water was flat, and the breeze was so light that you couldn’t even feel it on your cheek, but the boat kept sailing. 

 Submerged forest

We slid past the skeletons of a submerged forest, marveling at the reflections on the water and the wood ducks on the logs. Wood ducks are notoriously shy, but these ones seemed content to let us sail within twenty feet or so. As we rounded a corner, our quiet reverie was shattered by the shout of a little girl on the far shore. “Look mom, it’s a sailboat!”

“Yes, it is. Sure don’t see many of those on this lake.”

Craig and I waved. The little girl and her sister both waved back. “Mom! They waved at us. Just like all the people on the motorboats!”

“Yes, sailors can be nice, too,” replied the mom.

“That’s not what daddy says. He says sailors are ass. . .”

“Don’t say that,” interrupted the mom, “they might hear you.” She smiled and waved.

We smiled and waved back. No use demonstrating that daddy might be right.

As we slipped along, the breeze steadied and filled in from behind. It was still not blowing hard, but at least we could tell where it was coming from. The Thumb and Skunk Creek campgrounds are immediately adjacent to each other on the eastern side of the bay, separated by a narrow inlet. To our surprise, there were a lot of folks set up at these campgrounds, and plenty of other boats pulled up on shore on the western side.

It was at this point that we learned that campsite poaching is a competitive business. As Craig steered the boat through the drowned trees toward a nice site in the Skunk Creek campground, I lowered the main so that we could sail in under mizzen alone. With less than 150 yards to go, we noticed a small cabin cruiser heading the same way. As soon as the driver realized where we were headed, he sped up a bit, then a bit more, and finally, no-wake zone be damned, he just gunned it. As he passed by our bow, both he and his girlfriend smiled and waved, happy to leave us bouncing in their wake.

The loss of this site might have seriously damaged our good time, except that there were two other sites that were almost as nice just around the corner. So we took one of those.

The site we chose featured its own small inlet in which to beach the boat, a nearly-level table, convenient but not-too-close access to a pit toilet, and a great view of the bay. Dinner that night was a simple jambalaya, cobbled together from items I had stocked away at home, with cookies for dessert. 

 Camped at Skunk Creek

The raccoon showed up at nightfall. Raccoons may look cute, but they are nasty creatures with sharp claws and fangs and some kind of parasite that can damage human brains. This raccoon was very tame, and would not leave until I put the fire between him and me. I figure that this bugger had learned that a flashlight beam was followed by a meal, which is bad for the raccoon, and bad for the people in the campground.

Once the quarter moon disappeared behind the hills about 10:00, the sky was riot with the light of a million stars. The breeze died with the setting of the sun, and with the exception of the people out drinking on a 30-foot cabin cruiser anchored in the middle of the bay, the singing of the crickets was the only sound disturbing the night air.

The decks were wet the following morning without any wind to keep the air moving, and everything on the boat, including our sleeping bags, was damp. I nudged Craig awake, and then hefted the cooking gear off of the boat. We opted to hang our food bags from the hook that is conveniently supplied at each site for hanging a lantern, but I didn’t want to leave my cooking gear to the whims of the raccoons, the crickets, or the staggering drunks that had vacated the cruiser in the middle of the bay and taken up residence in one of the campsites on the next hill over.

Our plan was to reach the launch ramp early to avoid the crowds and to get home before the Friday traffic really got thick. So all we had time for was a quick cup of coffee and some hot cereal before loading up and heading out.

The cool morning air felt a bit chill once the boat started moving. We had stowed all of the cooking gear and the food, but since the sleeping bags were still damp, we left them out to dry. So I figured I’d climb into mine, and I was mighty glad I did. Leaning back against the cabin with the sleeping bag pulled up around my chest, I was able to watch the world slip by at 4 knots from the cozy warmth of my bed. This was too much for Craig. I had reached a state of casual comfort well before he even knew he was uncomfortable, which was a source of some chagrin. Craig has dedicated many hours to the study, dynamics, and sources of casual comfort, and he was not to be outdone. So he too climbed into his sleeping bag, and not only was he watching, he was driving the boat at 4 knots from the cozy warmth of his bed. 

 Dry Creek Arm in the morning mist, the dam in the background

We motored the five and half miles to the ramp in about an hour and a half, stopping only once to let some of the coffee out. Over the two days, I figured we motored about 12 miles, and we used only ½ gallon of gas, which is just about what it takes to fire up the motor on a bass boat.

Just before reaching the ramp, we saw a bald eagle light upon the top of a pine tree, a reminder that even with all the boats and skiers and fisherman, this place still had some wildness to it. The moment was short-lived, however, because then we were at the ramp. It was 9:15 on a Friday morning, and the ramp was already crowded with boats and people and cars. We had not been at the dock for more than two minutes before a lady with a bass boat and a cross voice demanded to know if we planned to be there long.

“No,” I replied, “I was just on my way to get the car.”

“Okay. Good. But don’t be slow,” she added. “Nice sailboat, by the way. We don’t get too many of those on this lake.”

Lake Sonoma might be a motorboat lake, but it’s not a bad lake for sailing. And who knows. If enough of us sailors show up there, we won’t be such an oddity when we do.