Where the Road Ends, the Trail Begins
Sunday, July 29th, 2018
I woke up on the ground. The first of many more, except today I’m in a campground.
Squirrels scatter across the campsites, corkscrewing up the pine trees. They chew pine cones then dismiss them, from the tree tops down to the dry and dusty ground.
The neighbors are getting going, breaking their camp down to fill their car. I assume they have a long drive today, and work tomorrow. I feel fortunate for my time here, and that it’s just begun.
Where the Road Ends, the Trail Begins
The first step today is to fetch our big SEKI trail permits. We head to the ranger station at Road’s end, a short drive from our campground. It’s the point at which the road ends (imagine that) and the trail begins. It’s the furthest you can drive within Kings Canyon National Park.
The ranger station is a small and open wooden cabin, with a small group of people gathered round. It’s still early, and the temps are cool. Other hikers await their departure to be granted by the ranger. We wait for our turn too.
A diesel pickup pulls into the parking lot, a horse trailer towed behind. The ranger helping us looks annoyed by the new arrival which has parked perpendicularly across multiple parking spots. I get the feeling she’s been putting up with this shit for days, if not weeks. With wild fires closing Yosemite, Sequoia Kings Canyon has been getting the run off of people.
“There are no weapons allowed in the national park or in the backcountry. And, bear mace IS considered a weapon” the ranger tells us as she reviews the necessary policies before handing over our permits. “If you brought it, don’t tell me, and leave it in your car.”
Crap. We do have bear mace in the car. It’s a giant econosize can that Rachel accidentally ordered once. We never typically bring mace hiking but since we’d be hiking some lesser traveled trails we thought we might bring it along. Now we have good reason to lighten our load.
After picking up our permits, we eye a bulletin board with the weather and trail conditions posted.
“There’s a storm a brewing.”
I look to my left to see the pair of cowboy hats and belt buckles that rode in on the diesel truck.
“We’ve been getting thunder storms every afternoon. We’ve got a resupply we’re dropping off today. Going to try to get out there and back before she hits.”
We duly note the weather report from our cowboy companions and rush off to stow our economace in the trunk of our rental car.
In apparently no hurry, we decide to eat some breakfast at a picnic table near the ranger station, which is also the trail head for the Rae Lakes Loop, a popular 3-4 day hike.
As we sit chomping on our muesli with coconut milk, hikers filter out from the Rae Lakes trail head. A group excitedly rushes to weigh their packs at the ranger station, competing for the heaviest pack, and fantasizing about the food they’ll eat. Forty-three pounds, we hear one say… Rachel’s jaw drops. That’s a lot of weight.
“Hey, would you mind taking our picture?” We hear the question from several groups over the timespan of our breakfast… and then. It’s time or us to begin.
We make one last visit to the car. We strap on our packs, weigh them. 32 lbs, and 30. Phoo…. more than we expected. But, we have ~14 days worth of food on our backs. And, I hate to go hungry.
Up the Trail, Down the Trail
It’s about 11 am once we finally start up the trail, and the heat is rising. And as the thermometer rises, so do we, from the canyon niche at roads end we rise along the rim of a valley.
Sweat beads ups on our foreheads. Dirt begins to stick to our legs. The sun is intense. The packs our full. Our lungs burn. We have 3,000 ft to climb to our first camp only 4 miles away. We make it maybe a 1 mile. Then Rachel has a thought.
Is there a better way? In the first several days we’ll rise and drop thousands of feet. Is that something we can, or want to do with packs this heavy. The original idea was to do an entire loop. By the time we get to the section of the trail that requires bear canisters, all of our food will fit in just the one container I have. It currently does not. It feels doubtful it will in 4 days either. We look at the map.
A new idea emerges. At about half way through our loop we’ll encounter a leg of the Rae lakes loop trail, which takes us back to the trail head. What if we left stashed our food at the trail head, then went out the opposite leg of the Rae lakes loop to continue the second half of our loop? Effectively, we’d be changing our loop into a large B instead, and reduce our load significantly during the first half of the trip when our legs would be acclimating.
We hike down the hill.
We unload half our food.
We then hike back up the hill.
Even with our lightened packs, the trail does not feel forgiving. Our legs are burning. Two miles feels like twenty. We breath the hazy valley into our lungs, and our hearts beat against the walls of our chests. It’s as if even our organs can’t handle the heat, begging to dip into an alpine stream. But we’re still nowhere near the alpine, and miles away our first friendly stream.
Behind and below us sits the smoke filled valley, below it sits the road, an artery to the world we’re so hungry to escape. We swig from our sun warmed water bottles and set our sites to the north. Up we go. Forward ho.
It’s technically the shortest miles we will hike. We’re only set for 4 miles. But it’s about 3,000 ft up. And, given the smoke, heat, and slow departure, that was a good idea. I question my legs as they question my intentions.
“How many miles do I need to carry you? Wait… how many days?” My lungs overhear our conversation, and assure me we can do this.
A Friend Within the Forest
About 3 miles in, the hillside finally tucks into a forest, a shelter from the sun. We gasp and enjoy the shade, as we walk through beams of light leaking onto the forest floor. And then… a noise. Up and to our left, beyond a patch of trees.
We stop, and peer through the shades of forest, trying to dissect a source from the collage of nature.
The sound of a log being torn, and rot being tossed aside. Then we see it. A young bear, maybe a year old in size. He sits upon a log, focused and determined, front legs digging and scratching. He’s looking for food. He’s twenty feet from the trail where we must walk.
What do we do. Obviously we’ll tread slowly, but we’re uncertain of passing too closely. We toss a few sticks and pine cones in his direction, to hopefully frighten him off. The pine cones bounce on the ground around him. He looks up to us, then lowers his head back to what he was doing. Clearly, he’s very focused, and doesn’t care about what we’re saying.
We slowly approach as the bear continues with his business. We pass him and increase our pace. The sound of rotten logs being torn with abandon fades away behind us. For a moment, the forest again is quite.
Then the sound of a trickle. Our campsite must be near. Voices beyond a creek crossing. We drop our packs along a narrow bank, and thank the stream for it’s water.
Camp Day 1 – Copper Creek
Is this copper creek? This must be copper creek. We confirm our suspicions with the pack of twenty or so young cub scouts. Up above the stream, three of them perform battle of swords with sticks.
It was the hardest 4 miles I ever recall doing, even after lightened packs. The temps must have been in the high 80s… with smoke thickening the air. It felt hard, and I felt weak, it was nice to settle down.
It had been several hours, a few false starts, lots of puffing and sweating, and an encounter with an untimid bear, and we were here at copper Creek. We were at the gateway to the backcountry. With every step now we’d be stepping further from civilization, further into the mountains.
We staked ourselves a camp spot and a few rocks to eat on by the creek. I sit and soak up the fine sounds of trickling… and boy scouts arguing over… water?
I slap a fly off my wrist.
Rachel’s making quinoa with dehydrated chicken. We both feel pretty beat after only 4 miles. We attribute it to elevation. On day one, we must believe. We can’t wait for dinner and sleep. Tomorrow we’ll do it again.
I read this entry to Rachel and she smiles and laughs. I liked that.
When I breathe it kind of burns.