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.

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