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.