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.

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