A Perfection Loop, Almost

Last year in the Kaiser Wilderness, C and I had a fun trip where we caught plenty of smaller trout, but then I heard that more sizeable ones might be found in a few off-trail sites.  I picked out an entertaining route that offered the chance to sign a summit register.  We started our journey at 6 AM, following a winding trail through the forest that offered a consistently steep climb without much scenery.  An hour into the slog, I heard the faint murmuring of human voices along with an uncanny tinny buzz.

“Is someone playing music down there?” I turned to C, who just shrugged and kept going.  Surely enough, during an ill-timed bathroom break, I heard the music growing closer and closer until it erupted into conversation.  C was talking to some guy who had speakers strapped on top of his pack.  I have no objection to listening to music in the wilderness but playing it out loud while moving was something else.  Still, he seemed friendly, so C didn’t mention it, and I was in the middle of my activity.  A minute or two later, his wife came by and noted two backpacks and one C.  Embarrassed, I stepped forward and introduced myself.  She told us she was from the central valley and enjoyed hiking this trail several times a year.  We didn’t see why until half a mile later when we turned around to a view of a massive reservoir dotted with boats rising from the trees below.

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We eventually topped out onto a slanted alpine plateau decorated by pink puffballs, plunging steeply to a chain of lakes on one side.  Wind whipped at my jacket, rustling my hair and forcing me to squint.  This gorgeous region sparkled several hundred feet down but we were not headed that way today.

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When we detoured to the peak, we could find no register, but to more than make up for that, we had clear views in all directions.  If I were better at peak identification, I would be able to name some of the peaks visible from our perch, however, I contented myself with simply taking in the scenery.

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We descended a little and I tried to make a beeline for the lakes, sliding down a gravelly bank.  C declared that there must have been a less steep route so I backtracked.  C was right, as usual and another quarter mile along the ridge revealed a faint narrow use trail that zigzagged down gray and bubblegum scree.

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Here, we began our tentative dance of stability against speed so precise I dared not to breathe and walk at the same time.  Eventually, the route became reasonable again and three glimmering jewels presented themselves below.

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C wanted to look at the lower two lakes so we plunged through willow tall enough to engulf us completely.  We had to employ some unkind maneuvers, including stomping on branches and bouncing off them like a springboard.  Scooting through a maze of damp and dusty rocks, I managed to avoid some of the worst brush.  C was not so ruthless and took a while to show up, a long enough gap in time that I worried we had been separated.

All was well though.  The lake showed signs of life, brook trout rising confidently all around the shore.

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I pulled out two burritos C had packed, each one filled with steak and french fries.  Apparently this was a thing.  I couldn’t argue with it, and they were so amazing that I inhaled mine in a matter of minutes.  With rods in hand, C and I fished around the shore, each of us making dibs on a different segment.  Between the two of us, we landed around 20 fish in this larger lake, the largest being 13″ and reasonable in girth.  This is nothing impressive but the combination of numbers and decent size reflects an experience rarely found in backcountry lakes with brook trout.

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At the next lake, the brook trout suspended themselves as black shapes against a glowing green background.  C and I sight fished to these and caught the largest within the first few casts.  After that I scrambled onto small cliff and brought in a few smaller ones, so naturally, we made our return to the other lake.  With C’s handpicked waterbug nymph, I caught three larger brookies in a row, losing a forth one that broke me off on a hard run.

We had the option of making a loop hike but I found out that recently one of the lakes along the way had gone barren.  So without further fishing opportunities we retraced our steps back to the car with ample sunlight remaining.  At a burger place in Shaver Lake, C and I enjoyed the contradictory combination of beer and coffee while witnessing an awkward-at-best bachelorette party.

Not even that somewhat amusing sight could keep me awake on the road though.  I pulled over at a random spot.

“Where are we?” C jerked awake.
“Madera.”  I spit out before unconsciousness enveloped me.

A couple hours later, I finished the drive back.  It was one of those rare trips where things mostly went right, for once.

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All That Glitters

Not quite satisfied with our previous venture, C and I went to Desolation again for golden trout.  There are three reasonable routes to reach the off-trail lake we wanted to investigate, however, being the fan of minimal red tape, I picked the least popular path because it involved less driving but also provided an adequate parking area.

We were on the trail by 7, a forested climb that was steep throughout and had my ankles questioning their flexibility.  We had to wonder what we had done to deserve this.

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I kept eyeballing my map, trying to pick out the appropriate place to take a dramatic right turn, when finally it appeared at an unassuming switchback in the middle of blooming corn lilies.  Here, C and I made a diagonal path towards a shallow saddle in the distance, hoping it was the right one.

In the sandy slope, I spotted what looked like human footprints, but neither of us could be sure.  Perhaps a prancing deer had us all fooled but I was going to keep following the tracks, because often, animals know the path of least resistance the best.

Then the gravel ended in an abrupt cliff of beige scree, sliding precipitously into a perfectly round bowl of blue, already obviously bubbling with rising trout.  C and I gaped at what we had ahead of us, a hair-raising controlled slide into the basin, using our hiking poles for all they could do.

2012-07-01 09.36.49_editOur path weaved through the line of trees depicted below:

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I dug my shoes hard into the dirt, knees bent, focused intently on the patch of talus that promised a few flatter surfaces.  Somehow we made it to one shore without any mishap and immediately set up with royal coachman dries.

Right off the bat, C and I landed several healthy cutthroats averaging 8″, each one a fast flash of silver curving away from a once-floating tuft of feathers.

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I could swear there were goldens too, but they were more easily spooked and would slowly float up to warily examine the fly before diving back down and continuing their mindless patrol.  Before we could develop a new strategy, C pulled out lunch, prosciutto and swiss on delicately buttery bread.  I ate two in the span of a few minutes, both because I could not possibly eat these incredible sandwiches slower and because I still had to catch a golden.

The cutties were not too picky about fly selection, but each golden wanted something entirely different.  I tied on a mosquito using the thinnest tippet and tried repeatedly to get their attention, many of them in a zombie-like trance.  For every two or three that saw nothing, one would sail up to sniff the small dot and half-seriously nip at it sideways.  Finally, we managed to hook and land a few between 1 and 2 PM before they turned off for the day.

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C expressed no desire to return the way we came, so we went towards the opposite shore.

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After heaving our way up crumbling rock, we were hit in the face by mildly gusting wind and a full view of the mountainside down to the highway.

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I would not say this was extreme exposure but the view gave me slight vertigo and now the talus pieces were larger and required more thinking.  C knew this was the harder way back immediately but we pushed on, pausing whenever we stood on top of an unexpected rocky seesaw.  After we reached the lip of the bowl again it was an easy and comfortably soft drop down to the car.

We went to dinner at a local inn, where I popped a handful of caffeine pills without realizing it was several times the recommended dosage.  Dinner was not awful but not stellar either.  I assume they had an off day.  On the drive home, I witnessed myself skipping conversational topics at a faster rate than I could comprehend, making for an alarming if not absurd situation.  After many a torturous hour, the effects finally faded and I was able to catch some sleep.

Striking Out on Gold

I remembered last year’s Labor Day fishing trip for goldens rather fondly and I was craving another taste of gold this season.  Rumors of goldens being found in the Desolation Wilderness intrigued me.  Were these reports still true?  A brief history of the region reflects the ability of some lakes and streams to hold trophy fish despite the high pressure and cessation of stocking decades ago.  However, the golden trout population was hard hit, vanishing from several drainages, some due to lack of airdrops, some due to gillnets.  The lakes I wanted to check out had been reported on a couple years ago, providing some hope but every winter is a threat to a small isolated population, even if this one was rather mild and short.

C and I were willing to participate anyway, so we hit the road to the trailhead, which had recently opened, though not completely, requiring us to hike on the road for a short distance.  The morning started off in a disorganized fashion.  I forgot sunscreen as we had just walked 20 feet and after applying it, I realized I forgot my hat a quarter mile down the road and I went back for it reluctantly.  We passed a mom and son group in front of us.  They were going to fish the lake closest to the parking lot, but in my usual fashion, I left that for later.

The trail was uneventful at first, wrapping around forest ground and climbing steadily in rocky steps but eventually, it turned into lines of stones on top of granite slabs, some strikingly visible, others thrown into disarray by melting snow or careless hikers’ feet.  C argued that this was a poor excuse for a trail although it was more pleasant to look at than a dynamite blasted work of engineering.  Natural but impermanent and unassuming, it made us feel like we were heading into the unknown.

We passed a hiker coming down, indicating that we were on the right track.  Another half hour and we were at the shore of a windswept lake, trying to negotiate the outlet crossing.  Before I could jump over the narrowest point, C found a dam.  Too late though, my feet were already wet.  The lake just gave off a vibe of small fish so I didn’t bother to set up.  Now we ran into some snowbanks, careful to walk far from the overhangs that hovered above the water, not knowing how deeply diagonal the cornices were cut.  C pointed to a duck in the middle of the next lake and I began to question my assumptions of wildlife, since I had thought normally ducks were lower elevation creatures.  We bypassed another smaller lake and reached one of our destinations, a lake with many islands and an irregular shoreline.

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Here we paused for lunch, laying our backpacks down and eating while fishing.  I tossed nymphs because of the wind and caught a few 10″ brook trout while I ate a granola bar and some dried mango.  However, I was not the only one that loved those snacks.  C shouted and I looked over to witness two marmots bounding down from the rocks, their eyes fixated on our packs.

I didn’t remember any so aggressive.  They made a beeline for the packs, despite our shouting and arm waving.  I sent a stone hurling across the cove, smacking my pack dead center, which scattered the terrified critters, but only a few minutes passed before they regained their boldness.  Several more rocks bounced off the shoreline and splashed the water but the marmots didn’t even flinch this time.  Normally I hold a special contempt for people who throw rocks at lakes, but we were the only ones here as far as I could tell and we actually had a reason to throw them.  Giving up, C and I packed the rods and grabbed the backpacks before we ended up with frayed straps or damaged fabric.

I looked carefully for a use trail but did not find it so I picked an arbitrary line up the side of the hill, often the most direct path possible.  The slope was loose and rocky but there were enough flat spots for footing and when in doubt I hedged myself with brush, knowing that they could not have survived so long clinging loosely to the mountain after all.

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Towards the top, we started following a faint use trail now and then.  The view towards the lake we came from was spectacular, deep blue ringed around with the tallest snowy granite peaks of the Crystal Range, although this traverse was completely snow free.

That is, until I peered over the top.  Nearly solid white paved the other side of the saddle, all the way down to the lake, which had just thawed out completely.

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“Oh we are in for some dicey moves,” I told C, who was right behind me.

“How about we go around and descend that rock?”  C pointed to a scree chute far to the right that would take us down until the slope became more mild.  It looked far and loose so I voted for the direct line we were on.  Microspikes on and hiking poles in both hands, I led the way, kicking diagonal steps into the crust, which was firm but sticky, in perfect condition.  We descended at a glacial pace, no pun intended, inching painfully down the headwall.  I took a break at a small jutting boulder below a tree to wait for C.

Halfway down, C was leaning aggressively into the slope and lost traction instantly, sliding out of control and losing a hiking pole in the process, trying with futility to scrub off speed.  Lucky for C, the tree was in the way.  Hiking pole and composure regained, C and I gave up the slow descent and went straight for a controlled glissade.  Technically, the only proper way to do it is with an ice axe, but for a slope of this degree and length, hiking poles were acceptable.  The ride was brief but fun and seconds later, C and I meandered down the gentle bowl.

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I was impatient and tried to cross the inlet of the lake without noticing the poor quality snow bridge and took a brain-freezing dip into the water.  After some audible regret, I wringed out my socks and lay back against a slab to warm up and have lunch.  C and I brought Lunchables pizza, but either I have grown so much since childhood that the portions seemed tiny or they reduced the size to cut costs.  We were barely satisfied so we also ate some Probars, which promised juicy fruit bits surrounded by savory granola but instead delivered with sickeningly sweet lumpy chalk.  Having had better meals, C and I moved on to fishing.

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Nothing stirred in the lake, no cruisers could be seen, not a single shred of activity alerted me to signs of life.  Not a good sign, so C and I circled the lake, hoping to catch a glimpse of a golden retreating into deep blue.  I began to sweat, as I put on a caddis and placed it repeatedly on the lake with no response.  I bit off the caddis and swapped it with a hare’s ear, but still no reaction.  C’s fly similarly had no attention.  Naturally, I began to question if the lake had gone barren from two winters ago.  I remember someone had found fish in the outlet stream, so after an hour of poking around, we followed the barely trickling stream down until it reached a nearby lake.

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Both the stream and the other lake were equally quiet.  This was about as much time as we had for the day, so we decided to finish our loop.

Now we just had to find the trail again.  After a few false starts that ended in brush and some debating, I spotted a section of flattened tread showing from under melted snowbanks and downed trees.  The relief was short lived, however, because the trail started dropping through what looked like a steep creekbed and we tumbled down with the imaginary water.  Then we ducked into a forested swampland where mosquitoes started to show their hunger.  At this point, I could see the trailhead was still quite a bit below us and groaned with impatience.  Our feet were hurting a bit by this point, not pleased with the mostly rocky hike.  C brought ginger candy, which made the downhill much more enjoyable.  I stuffed a piece into my cheek and let it dissolve gradually.

When we reached the final road, the golden hour was upon us and the lamp-like soft light cast gently upon clouds and clouds of mosquitoes trailing me.  C and I ran while waving our handkerchiefs.  While the trip for golden trout had failed in terms of catching goldens, C and I were pleased to have done the route, an overall fun and scenic loop, and we were also glad to roll through Placerville at a reasonable hour to enjoy a fine Mexican dinner at Cascada.

A Study of Contrasts

In 2011, I started hiking too early given the record high snowfall, but in 2012, a careful study of snow levels showed that a trip in Sequoia/King’s Canyon on Memorial Day weekend was within reach.  C and I rested well during the so-called off season and we had some new gear to test: two larger packs, a bear canister, and a tent.  As the day approached, the forecast indicated a sprinkle of snow that would probably happen on Thursday and continue on Friday.  But Thursday came and the updated report announced snow for Friday, then for Friday evening and Saturday morning.

I tend to be wary during the border season because of the possibility of being snowed in but this time C and I accepted the risk.  Saturday morning dawned bleak and cloudy with a few inches of snow on the ground while the gray skies continued to sift more flakes downward.  I was amused because even then, a line formed outside the ranger station right at opening hour.  I was nervous and afraid that everyone would grab the trail we wanted but as it turns out, nobody was headed our way, at least not starting today.  Our issuing ranger expressed some doubt about our destination but reassured us that any campsite before then would be fine as well.  The blackboard promised the snow would stop this morning, so we headed up the trail in high spirits.

Not more than half a mile up, C and I tossed our microspikes into our packs with frustration, since they grabbed the fresh snow and never let go, making the bottoms of our shoes clumpy and heavy.  The trail was moderate and quite wooded, so the hiking was manageable, although I had trouble with navigation.  C had a knack for following reasonable contours, spotting cut trees and prominent waterbars, which almost always led us in the right direction.  The first water crossing felt awkward for both of us and we struggled not to slip on snowy rocks, not being used to so much weight in our packs (an estimated 40-50 pounds).  At the second major crossing, I was not so lucky–not only did I not cross the correct branch of the creek, but I also stumbled into the frigid water, landing on my side and soaking my clothes and part of my pack.  Clearly my usual part agile, part clumy self was now entirely clumsy.  To get rid of some of the weight, we took a lunch break, eating two bagel sandwiches each, with prosciutto and swiss, and strangely, we both had trouble finishing the food and felt like it had no flavor.

As we started up again, C felt significantly more tired.  Sometimes taking a break can do that, you get into a rhythm that you somehow lose and never find again.  I offered to carry the cursed bagels and cheese and some more water, all things that weighed a lot more than they were worth.  At this point, a couple on a dayhikers passed us, carrying only a small camelbak each.  C remarked, “You know it doesn’t feel good to be in this position, usually we are the ones feeling sorry for other people who have to carry heavy packs.”  I nodded, feeling warm with envy, as I kept on their tail.  While they were not hiking incredibly fast, it was quite an effort to keep up, and I’ll admit to being relieved when they reached their destination, a pretty little waterslide of a waterfall.  We took their photo and they headed back to the trailhead.

C felt uneasy and said, “Maybe we should turn back as well.”  We eyed the swirling white flakes with a sense of weariness–the snow had been falling since we began and would only stop for a few minutes before resuming.  Would it ever stop snowing?

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“Let’s get to the first lake and see.” I replied, wanting to see how far we could push it.  Now the trail became rockier and steeper, throwing a few switchbacks before the lake finally came into view.  A man camping there greeted us, but it looked quite unoccupied otherwise.  We discovered that the footprints near the failed creek crossing were his, so if we wanted to go farther, we were on our own now.  C and I checked the time, 3 PM, not late enough to set up camp, so we aimed for the pass, which rose another thousand feet above this basin.

Half a foot of snow covered the trail but it was easy to find, since we now rose above the forest, zigzagging along steep terrain.  I gave up counting the switchbacks after a while.  C paused every few minutes, barely able to walk under the combination of heavy load and estimated pitches of 20% grade trail, while I audibly protested my growing shoulder pains.  Rocks along the trail hung heavy with their decorative icicles and a creeping fog swept the basin below us, shrouding the white and green and blue with gray blur.  Despite the pain, this was a beautiful scene, I reminded myself, as I dragged my legs up and tried my best not to imagine my shoulder blades glowing from the friction and bouncing.

Snow started falling harder, but before we could worry, a group of four came down from the pass, citing their original plans to stay in the backcountry for a few more days but deciding to bail out because of the weather.  We would have fresh prints to reference on the other side, so I urged us to go a bit faster, although I feel I could not have gone faster anyway.  By the time we reached the top of the pass, it was nearly 5 and it had stopped snowing, so we breathed relief and bounded down the slippery backside.  We both doubted we could get to our designated lake, so we had a couple to choose between.

At what looked like a bowl that would lead to one lake, I rounded a corner to see how far we were, but a couple minutes later, I reached an icy ledge that revealed the lake was still hundreds of feet below and over half a mile away.  I shouted to C that we should continue to follow the prints.  I shouted again, this time as loudly as I could.  No reply.  I blew my whistle while I covered my ears.  I sprinted back as quickly as someone with a full pack could sprint.  C said solemnly, “I never heard anything.”

After that, we resolved to not separate in the slightest, trying our best to follow what might have been the trail.  We reached a sign that indicated the lake was close and we reached the shore just before 7.  I pointed to an arbitrary flat spot and deemed it our campsite and immediately threw down the pack and rolled on the ground, putting out the fire that burned my shoulders and legs.

C and I gnawed on some fruit leathers and the lightheadedness that came from altitude and hunger subsided.  I may have spent half an hour just rejoicing in no longer having to wear the backpack before I set up the rod for some brief fishing.  This evening all was still on the front and what looked like small rises were just waterbugs surfacing for quick air.  I had the nagging feeling that the lake was barren but it grew too chilly to find out definitively, so C and I kicked a square of exposed dirt big enough for the tent and gathered some firewood.  I hurled a stone at several pieces of deadfall, effectively chopping enough for two evenings.  We had no cooking to do, so C and I grabbed enough sandwich material and granola for our dinner and I stuck the bear canister a hundred paces from our camp.

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The fire was dangerous, drawing us in closer with its radiant heat, but it didn’t offer the insulative warmth we needed and we should have gone into the tent right after eating. We did finally climb in after the twilight had mostly gone.  C was becoming hypothermic, shivering violently and starting to panic.

“I can’t feel my feet!”  C shook the entire tent.

“Okay, we’re going to be fine, let’s get into the sleeping bags.”  Mine was rated for 20 F and C’s may have been good for 0 F.  I was not clear if these were comfort ratings or survival ratings, as I uneasily tried to settle in, hearing the undeniable soft pittering of snow falling on the tent and feeling the temperatures drop into the 20s.  I convinced us that this was just snow billowing off the surrounding pines, although I couldn’t muster the will to see for certain.  I noticed I still had a whole Toblerone bar in my pocket.  We had to eat this or risk becoming bear fodder.  I swung the bar against my thigh, breaking off a third and commanded C to eat it, while I stuck the rest in my mouth, and twisted off a piece.  Bitter chalk crumbled and melted into drying brown paint speckled with wood chips.  I gagged but forced myself to swallow it.  C dutifully consumed the dark almond chocolate but refused to have more.

“Just eat it!”  I was growing angry with concern.  A calorie is a unit of heat energy, and heat is what the body needs to get through cold weather like this.  Don’t eat and you die.  C didn’t budge so I sighed and ate the rest.  It was too quiet in the tent, C was drifting into a weary sleep.

“Talk to me,”  I shook C with my free arm.  I considered wrapping myself against C to share body heat but our bags are entirely different and more body heat would be lost that way.  C was better off in a small enclosed bag alone.  Still, I tried to scoot as close as possible to C’s right side, throwing down our bags against C’s left side to block the cold air from outside.

“Talk…about…what is there to talk about?”  C was giving into exhaustion.

“How are you feeling?  Are you warm?”

“So cold, I can’t feel warm, I can’t…”

Despite my best efforts to spur a conversation, I listened as C’s ragged, nervous exhalations slowed in cadence, dropped in pitch from high and frantic to measured and deep, peaceful.  Right?  Not in danger.  Still I could not sleep, periodically holding my breath for up to a minute to make sure C’s breathing was regular and normal.  When the sun hit the tent at around 6, I felt we were finally safe and fell into a deep sleep until 9.

We didn’t leave the tent until it was almost 10 AM, an incredibly leisurely day.  C didn’t carry a pack and I took the absolute minimum.  The air remained cold and crisp like the previous day but sunlight made the same scene more hopeful and gentle.  Our map was outdated so it showed significant distance to our destination, motivating me to find a shortcut.  However, I once again ended up on a steep rocky outcropping with no lake in sight and I had no desire to descend icy slabs.  We backtracked and found the trail, which turned out milder than I expected.  Right as I started to struggle with staying on it, we ran into a group that headed the opposite direction.  The day looked to be much better now.  A gentle descent turned into a gentle ascent until we reached the shore of a half forested, half granitoid lake, shimmering with promise.

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I saw someone on the slabs but by the time we rounded the lake, he had gone elsewhere.  I had just started to feel bad for crowding him out when I noticed ample surface feeding from half a dozen brookies.  All methods of fishing produced equal interest, including sloppily hurling a spinner from the fly rod, which we ultimately deemed strange yet effective.  I admit we did not have to harvest any trout for food but even thinking about sandwiches made us lose our appetite, so we took about 7 total.  One not very bright brookie willingly slurped down my alimony fly, swayed confusedly after release, and went straight for C’s black ant, staggering again after another release.  It almost went for my fly again, but I pulled it out of the way.  We thought there was something off about this one, and maybe we should eat it before it suffers a worse fate but somehow it disappeared after that.

C and I stretched our incredibly sore muscles against the warm, sloping rock as we listened to shattering ice echo from peaks above.  As the snow melted and slid into the ground, so did the tangles of uneasiness in our minds.  Too soon, we had to return to camp, which was now a world apart with its tattered patches of white.  Campfire roasted fish vanished immediately, tasting so much better than sandwiches, warm and tender, wrapped in a rich skin layer with just a hint of piney bitterness.

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Careful not to hover around the fire too long, we headed to bed early.

Day three was yet another world apart from the previous days, and as the sun torched the tent, I felt the distinct buzz of warmth.  Better get going or today may be too hot to tolerate.  C and I made slow progress back up the pass, again amazed by how little snow remained.  At the first lake, I took a fishing break, catching brook trout that were arguably just as big as the ones we ate.  C noticed mosquitoes starting to awaken, so we didn’t stay long.

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Now without the snow, the trail unfurled in a series of gentle curves, looking picturesque along every stretch, making it hard to believe we were simply retracing our steps.  A solemn, harsh beauty transformed nearly overnight into saturated spring, glowing with hope, having finally thrown off the last cloak of winter.

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By the time we reached the road, we were dripping with sweat in the middle of a hot day.  I volunteered to run to the car and pick C up, shortening our time under the packs.  After I returned, we downed a heavy pale ale each and I wasted half an hour sloppily casting to picky trout in the river while reckless parents and children splashed around along the banks.  When we determined we were good to drive, we had some pizza at an infamous restaurant just outside the park.  The trip was not quite what we had hoped but it was an incredible learning experience.

Ice Twice

My ice fishing adventure with C piqued L’s interest to come along on a similar trip.  C was unavailable for the weekend, but this was just as well, because L didn’t have thicker pants for colder weather.  The downsides though?  February had arrived and snow had finally started to pile up.  It was not a lot relative to a typical year, but it was more snow on the ground than last time.  On the other hand, a month passing meant a longer day and that was preciously in our favor.  I weighed the pros and cons and called it a go. L and I headed out at 4 AM sharp to get to the rental as early as possible.  L was unconscious most of the way there, and sadly, so was I for a short stretch on the 680, falling into microsleep every few minutes.  Luckily traffic was incredibly light and it was rare to have another driver within visible distance, and I somehow shook off the drowsiness without needing intervention.  Still, I am not pleased when this kind of thing happens.

I rented the auger right when the store opened and got to the same trailhead as last time, taking the prime parking spot since nobody was there yet.  This time, L and I took a left at the junction and dropped a couple hundred feet in elevation, reaching a few patches of trail that had melted down to dirt.  Was this a sign that the snow was not so deep after all?  Granite steps led us up and our shoes were crunching through powder once again.  After we reached the top of a waterfall, which looked half thawed, the footprints mostly ended, with only an estimated two people continuing higher.  It was mostly cross country navigation from now on.

A topo map indicated that the best route was on higher ground so we followed the snowshoe prints that matched that idea.  L weighed a good twenty pounds less than I did and didn’t carry the auger, which made it a notable study in snow, because where L tended to float on top of the crust, I punched through all two to three feet of it.  That thirty pound difference meant the difference between fast travel and endless postholing.

The terrain became less friendly, requiring some class 3 moves across ledges and through rocky streambeds.  On a memorable upslope, as I paused midway to catch my breath, L announced that we were in trouble.  Snow started to dust the entire place, for as far as we could see, starting slow and reaching a thicker flurry in a few minutes.  I squinted into the falling powder and pondered our options–the weather forecast hadn’t seen this coming, so it may not be so major, but snow could easily obscure footprints and be too dangerous for two fairweather hikers.  L was game to keep going so I said we would wait and see.  If it got any worse than this, we would have to abort the trip.

The trail now ducked into the forest, indicating that we were closer, I hoped, and mercifully the snowfall lightened up.  I whipped out my inadequate car GPS and it said we were a mile away, and L was thrilled that we were closing in on the lake.  Except the forest had plenty of downed trees and even our unknown friend with the snowshoes had clearly slipped and stumbled over some.  Next our footprint guide took us through a steep climb on top of manzanita bushes, and L and I cursed enough to make soup with our words as we grabbed branch after branch and hoped the springy branches underfoot would not decide to give out.  Once again, the GPS promised the lake was just around the corner and it was now past noon.  L was just about fed up when we realized that neither of us had consumed a single bite of food or drop of water since 4 AM.

We stuffed ourselves with some banana chips, chocolate, and dried fish, and felt alive again.  We would need it though, because the print trail went over and around more downed trees, until it reached the crux of the trip, which a few sources online claimed was an awful bushwhack across the outlet creek.  As predicted, we stumbled through young saplings and other bushes as we tried to stay on top of water, rotting ice and slushy mixture.  I was frantic, swinging from branch to branch, sometimes on top, sometimes under, sometimes in the middle of these dormant plants.  It was futile though, both L and I broke through ice and ended up waist deep in the water at some point in time.  After this, the footprints stopped abruptly.  Again, the GPS promised the lake was so close, just a quarter mile away.

L and I turned due south, jumping over another branch of the stream and crested another hill.  The lake was right there, guarded by steep rugged slopes above, and sunlight broke through the clouds to welcome us.  I drilled the first hole right away, since we were tight on time.  This lake had drier ice, and though I almost expected to hit slush at some point, after 18″ of fine crystal powder the auger clacked satisfyingly against the water filled hole.  It took me twice as long this time, since the hike in was much harder.

L came back from an unfortunately timed bathroom break and got to work on the next hole and soon we were both bouncing up and down to stay warm, eyeing the clouds with helplessness, as the smallest tuft would always wind up blocking the sun and lingering there for too long.  I got a sudden bite, and stepped back to set the hook, and pulled up a flopping 10″ brookie.  The nice thing about ice fishing is the guaranteed preservation of the meat so I could just leave the dispatched trout on the ice, keeping it fresh.  L kept getting nibbles but nothing took, and I pulled out another two brookies about the same size.  I pointed to a bowl up high that spilled powder with each gust of wind, “That’s where that other lake is, I heard it’s got better fishing!”  Another cruel little cloud wisp curled around the sun, and I found myself muttering under my breath to please move away, but it seemed to grow with my shivering, feeding off our impatience.  L was done and I couldn’t wait to get out any faster.

We mostly backtracked our own footsteps until we had to cross the brushy outlet again.  Somehow we lost the path in and L started wandering further off familiar territory.  After some debate, we tried to locate our prints and got a hold of them again in half an hour.  Not a great time to be lost.  The steepish hill in the middle was now a ski-less skiing chute, so L and I had fun with it, throwing ourselves down slick gullies and landing softly on pristine powder.  Although the sun did its minimum part to keep us warm, it had softened the snow, and now I was really postholing.

“Hey you lost your shoe!” L told me from behind.  No wonder the hiking was feeling lumpy.  This was a bad sign, my feet had no sensation at all and balancing on them was becoming a challenge.  L had on a pair of ill-fitting boots but they were not waterproof, so both of us grew sloppier as time went on.  Now we were rushing to meet the store closing time, but an hour out from the trailhead, there were only a matter of minutes left.  Luckily with one bar reception, I called and we worked out a strategy for auger return.  Shortly after, the fishing rod I had been using as a hiking pole shattered at the reel butt.  I shook my head because this was the same rod that frayed at the tip, got stuck together, and had reeling problems on and off.  The other rod was doing fine, so I shoved the broken plastic into my backpack and continued.

Above the waterfall, I started descending too early and L caught on and corrected our trajectory.  By the time we got to the end, I was leading by looking out the corner of my eye, because only my peripheral vision worked in the nearly complete darkness.

We headed to a burger place to eat some warm food, and nothing could have been better.  Our clothes were soaked and fogged up the car, and combined with highbeams-happy oncoming traffic on highway 50, there were a few dicey moments.  Despite that, L slept almost all the way back too.  L would regain toe sensation in the next 2 days, whereas it took me a month to do the same, but we never gained insight on what happened with the hiker before us.  Did they double back so perfectly that no additional tracks were made?  Did they choose to go elsewhere and we hadn’t figured it out?  Maybe they simply vanished into the cold, but I shiver to think about that.  I hope not.

Backcountry Ice

What was a false alarm at first, a couple early snowstorms in October, turned into another kind of alarm altogether.  Was this year going to bring us drought?  A dry November and December passed without much fanfare but by mid-January, many of the highways remained open, and it was eerie to hear of the barren ground.  C and I thought that we might as well take advantage of the unusual conditions and try an ice fishing trip.  Desolation was the first candidate because of the nearby towns and shorter trip options.

Microspikes and snow pants in stock, we left for South Lake Tahoe at 5 AM and got into town to rent an auger.  The store manager was surprised, because he didn’t often meet people who wanted to go backcountry with that thing.  The auger was 8″ and weighed somewhere between 8 and 10 lbs, and C picked out an ice scoop which weighed another couple of pounds, so it was obvious this was no ultralight sport.

The trailhead was covered with snow but a small pullout was available on the side of the road.  The trail itself started out quite consolidated and well traveled and immediately switchbacked into a wooded hillside.  Microspikes were welcome here, making steps in the hardpack secure, although I do not feel they were necessary on the lower angled trail.  Soon there were drifts that went past our knees and a bit of chaos as footprints diverged, and a spectacular vista emerged to the side.

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We took the path most trampled until we saw a gully leading up to two towering peaks.  A few cross country skiiers greeted us and examined our packs, amused, and headed up the gully.  C and I groaned and felt sort of envious, since our uphill toils had no downhill payoff and we had to go even further.

Except we didn’t.  C realized we were at the lip of a lake because there was a perfectly flat plane of treeless snow.  Exuberant, I threw all caution away and half slid, half sprinted, half rolled my way down the slope until I reached the edge.  The ice was coated in a thin dusting of powder but snow had otherwise blown off, so walking across the lake was pure enjoyment, each step crunching firmly, spikes biting eagerly into the gummy surface.

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I wasted little time in setting up the auger, ripping the pieces from the velcro on the back of my pack, and got straight to drilling.

The top few inches were dry and dense with little air so perfect ice shavings gushed up from the hole but soon I hit the beginning of slushy ice.  This seemed to decrease the effectiveness of the auger blade, like how a blender blade sometimes struggles with liquefying during the middle of the process.  I switched arms but this was worse, so I switched back.  My shoulders were burning and I wondered how much longer it would take.  C helped by tossing away the slush with the scoop while I rested.

I expected a sudden final crunch but the auger merely stopped hitting ice and dipped dramatically into the lake as pure water rushed to fill the hole.

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I cheered and roared in victory, C gave me a thumbs up.  It took a while to clean up the hole and estimate a depth to set the rig.  I put on a newly purchased Gulp worm, much preferring to use a real one, but it is almost not worth the trouble to keep live bait in these conditions.  As C started drilling in deeper water, I jigged the worm vertically and let more line out, until I hit the bottom and slowly worked it up to the surface. Since we don’t have electronics this was one way of gauging the depth, and here the water registered around 15 feet.

C started to fatigue, so I left the rod in moderate depth and scooped ice.  Eventually, C had broken the ice as well, and high fives were thrown around freely.  Now the real test began, the wait for a nibble as the body heat boost from handling the auger faded.  I jiggled my line and C matched it.  The soft sound envelope of the powdered hills made it seem like we were standing next to each other, and conversation was easy.  C felt a tug and finessed a plump 13″ brook trout over the hole with the 7 foot rod, an impressively awkward feat.

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Then, there was no activity for a couple hours.  I got restless so I marched over and drilled another hole and walked back and forth between them.  The sun swooped below the peaks, covering the lake in long shadows, soon making the fishing unbearable.  Ice formed instantly over the holes and lined the guides.

We nearly jogged down the trail to the car, trying to keep warm, but soon we were sitting in a Swiss chalet restaurant in town, having a couple beers with dinner.  This crazy idea that I came across online turned out to be a productive and refreshing twist on backcountry fishing.

Sluggish Brookies and Cold Mornings

It had recently snowed and the major mountain passes were closed for a few days, so the possibility of another trip was in jeopardy.  Somehow, the weather warmed up just enough to open the roads for a brief period and by Thursday the plows had done their work, and C and I were ready to explore a section of Yosemite.

C huddled in the car until the thermometer read 32 F, which happened around 7:30 AM.  We could clearly see our breaths coming in puffs in the still air, but at least the day would be sunny and calm.  The only downside was a stream crossing in the beginning.  Some generous trail users had placed a few stones and branches in strategic locations but neither of us made it across with two dry feet.  The trail rolled through the forest for a while and our shoes clamped onto the frosted dirt, which was firm but not slippery, a pleasing texture.  Somewhere during a series of switchbacks a large group passed us, making me wonder if our destination would be crowded, but that was the last we saw of anyone, oddly enough.

When we reached the top of the immediate ridge, I was grateful for the sunlight that hit our faces, which is a rarity for me.  Soon the ground was covered in a few inches of mostly unbroken snow.  At the first lake, a pleasant place against a granite dome, C and I raced each other to the water and got set up quickly.

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I could see a rise every few minutes.  C and I both tied on a caddis, our ultimate litmus test for rising fish, and stared at the fur tufts for what seemed like an eternity.

A whirlpool formed under my fly and it went straight down the throat of a 14″ brookie but as I lifted my rod tip, I felt something was off.  Everything went as usual, the hook sank in as the tension traveled up to my wrists, signalling a secure hookset, but the fight was nonexistent.  He wiggled his tail sluggishly and let me tow him in–if I had not caught him on the surface, I would have wondered if I hooked a stick.  I gave him a thorough examination, seeing nothing wrong, except that he was on the skinnier side.

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I caught another trout identical in size and behavior a few feet away.  C suggested we have a look at the other lakes.

The second lake was further off the trail than we expected and we ended up bushwhacking downhill for a bit before getting to shore.  It showed absolutely no sign of life and no hint of a nibble either.  We took a break here, hoping that patience would reveal otherwise, as we ate spicy trailmix of some sort and I stole most of the rye chips, a good snack for cooler weather that almost mimicked warm food.  It could have been a low density lake, with a handful of larger trout or a barren lake that was winterkilled, but it is impossible for me to speculate either way.  The adventurous side of me hopes it was just a low activity day but my ego would prefer the latter explanation!

The third lake was a replica of the first, except surrounded with trees and even less trampled in recent days.

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It was almost like the fish knew to rise even further away, past the point of my roll casting range.  I took a stroll around the lake until I reached the opposite shore, which was grassy and open.  The trout here required more delicate presentations, but I eyed one easy target brookie rising near a submerged log and sent it a flying ant.  Once again, it rose to the fly leisurely and in a peaceful demonstration, allowed itself to be dragged to shore, barely even turning its head.  I touched the water, trying to estimate the temperature, and my hands came away tingling pink and white, so I guessed around 40 F.  Could it have been that the lakes had become so cold in recent days that the cold blooded fish were sapped of their usual vigor?  Future trips in mid-fall may answer this question.

The afternoon began to mature, and I wanted to complete our loop, but C thought the fishing was best at the first lake, so we doubled back.  This time, we tested the opposite shore, at the base of the rock formation, where grass lined the shallows and the rare brookie could be seen drifting in and out of visible water.

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C and I took turns targeting the bunch, resulting in one more for each of us.  At 4 PM, the activity died down and we packed up and said goodbye to a hectic fishing season, and even though the snow levels looked half as high on the way back, already showing signs of thawing, we took this to be the end of safe backcountry trips for the year.  Farewell 2011!