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!


  1. Sounds like it was a great hike! Don't know if I will ever make it down there but it sure sounds like a nice area. If your ever in Northern Idaho I take you for a nice stroll around here.

  2. I would love to hike in northern Idaho. So many trails, so little time!