Things that Go Bump In the Night… Backpacking with Socrates in the Sierra’s

Socrates was not actually built for backpacking but he loved it. His grand daddy, so his papers claimed, had been the the American-Canadian champion for his class.

Socrates was not actually built for backpacking but he loved it. His grand daddy, so his papers claimed, had been the American-Canadian grand champion for his class. Check out his digging paws!

I’ve been following a fun blog called Animal Couriers where these folks travel around Europe delivering pets to people. They were just in Greece and that reminded me of a Basset Hound I once owned named Socrates. Or maybe he owned me. It was hard to tell at times. Anyway, Greece plus dog brought Socrates to mind.

About the time Socrates came into my life, I took up backpacking. Naturally I decided that Soc should go backpacking with me– you know, a guy and his dog. So off we went to my all-time favorite spot in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, a small lake basin that had been carved out by glaciers north of the I–80 Freeway half way between Sacramento and Reno.

The Five Lakes Basin north of Interstate 80 in the northern Sierra's of California.

This is one of five lakes snuggled down in a small glacier carved basin north of Interstate 80 in the northern Sierra-Nevada Mountains of California. This is the first area I ever backpacked and I have returned dozens of times over the years. The Black Buttes, which can be seen from I-80, are in the background.

Sharing the lake with Soc was close to being totally alone. His concept of a quality wilderness experience was disappearing into the woods and seeing how many holes he could dig. He never seemed to catch anything so I am not sure of his motivation. I’d get up in the morning and cover his handiwork. I almost felt like I needed to file an environmental impact report. Socrates would end up limping back to the car with sore feet.

On this particular journey, I packed the Carlos Castaneda book that features things that go bump in the night. Don Juan takes Carlos out into the middle of the Sonoran Desert on a pitch-black night and abandons him. Not long afterwards, the monsters come hunting. It wasn’t the best book for a solo night in the woods. As I read into the evening, I found myself paying more attention than usual to wilderness sounds.

I ingested a little medicinal herb to lighten things up. It was the 70s, after all. Bad idea; instant paranoia set in. Soon I could hear the wind stalking me through the treetops. An old snag turned into a ghoul. Off in the distance something big and ugly was digging and snorting. Socrates, I hoped.

This long dead pine turned into a ghoul in my imagination.

This long dead pine turned into a ghoul in my imagination. The mountains in the background are the Sierra Buttes.

“Here Soc,” I called. “Come here boy.”

The digging continued and grew more desperate.

“Come here!” I yelled. Still no response but now I could hear large claws scratching at granite.

“Does someone want a Milk Bone?” I added in a quiet, conversational voice.

The digging stopped. ‘Someone’ started coming through the brush toward me. Whatever it was, it was apparently interested in Milk Bones. Soc’s head, long body and wagging tail made their way into the firelight. He might love digging, but he loved food more. There was the reason why our low-slung pooch weighed 70 pounds.

“Good boy,” I said while digging out a Milk Bone. I knew I was buying companionship but it seemed like a good idea on this strange, dark night. Meanwhile, Socrates had started to drool in expectation. Soon he was shaking his head and shooting dog slobber off in a dozen directions. I ducked to avoid being slimed.

Unfortunately, my supply of Milk Bones was limited. I tied Soc up to assure his faithfulness. It was time for bed. I put the fire out and was greeted by a moonless, dark night. But hey, who needed the moon when I had my faithful companion and a million stars. I invited Socrates to snuggle up on my sleeping bag and laid my head down on the coat I was using for a pillow.

CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH!

“Gads what’s that!” (A translation of what was actually said.)  I sat up straight and grabbed for my flashlight. Socrates joined in by barking at my sleeping bag.

“No, Soc, out there,” I urged and pointed the flashlight off into the woods. Soc glanced up at me with a curious ‘what are you talking about’ look and started barking at my pillow.

“Look Socrates,” I pleaded, “just pretend there is a garbage man out in the woods.” Soc had never met a garbage man he could resist barking at and I wanted his teeth pointed in the right direction.  What Soc did with my advice was make three dog circles and plop down on my bag. I gave up and reluctantly laid my head back down on my pillow.

CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH!

I sat straight up again. Soc growled at me for disturbing his rest and started barking at my sleeping bag again.

“Fine watch dog you are,” I growled right back at him while straining my ears for the smallest of sounds. When Soc shut up, I was rewarded with a faint ‘crunch, crunch, crunch.’ It was coming from under the sleeping bag. I had a proverbial monster under my bed! Gradually it dawned on me that what I was hearing was a gopher tunneling his way through the ground, innocently on his way to some succulent root. I put my head down on my pillow. Sure enough, the ‘crunch’ became a ‘CRUNCH.’ The ground and the mystic weed were magnifying the sound. Soc had been right all along. I was lucky that he only barked at my sleeping bag and hadn’t started digging.

Don Juan would have appreciated how I had been tricked. Reality isn’t always what it seems. Following are a few photos I have taken of the Basin over the years. It’s an easy place to love.

Five Lakes Basin north of I-5 between Sacramento and Reno in Northern Sierra's.

The five lakes are small and intimate. This photo is from my campsite.

Five Lakes Basin in Northern Sierra mountains.

I camp out on a small peninsula. This reflection shot is also taken from my camp but looking in the opposite direction.

Juniper snag in Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

Junipers thrive in adverse conditions. And they make great snags.

I also liked this snag form what was probably a sugar pine tree. Granite rock forms the base of the Sierra's. Socrates considered the rock as freeways.

I also liked this snag from what was probably a sugar pine tree. Granite rock forms the base of the Sierra’s. Socrates considered the rock as freeways.

Mariposa Lilies are a common flower of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Both Native Americans and early pioneers considered their bulbs as food.

Mariposa Lilies are a common flower of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Both Native Americans and early pioneers considered their bulbs as food.

One of the first things I did when I met Peggy was introduce her to backpacking. (I took her on a 60 mile backpack trip.) Here she sits beside a small waterfall in the Five Lakes Basin.

One of the first things I did when I met Peggy was introduce her to backpacking. (I took her on a 60 mile backpack trip.) Here she sits beside a small waterfall in the Five Lakes Basin.

I liked this pine tree silhouette against the fluffy clouds.

I liked this pine tree silhouette against the fluffy clouds.

Sunset in the Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains.

A golden sunset lights up the Black Buttes.

Sunset north of I-80 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California

This dramatic sunset in the Five Lakes Basin was created by sun being filtered through smoke from a forest fire before lighting up the evening clouds.

NEXT BLOG: We return to Europe and Portugal.

16 comments on “Things that Go Bump In the Night… Backpacking with Socrates in the Sierra’s

  1. What a great story. Gotta chuckle. Have a similar story camping alone in the Snowy Mountains in Oz. You’ve no idea how much kangaroos hopping gently from spot to spot as they graze sound like men walking in the bush – all around my tent! Terrified! Until i caught them at it 🙂

    • Kathump, kathump, kathump. Pretty amusing what our minds can conjure up on a dark night in the middle of the wilderness, Alison. (grin) A deer’s whistle, a moose stripping leaves off a tree, a beaver slapping the water with his tail have all set my heart pumping at some time or the other. The classic is the breaking branch near your tent. –Curt

  2. Think dear Socrates had the right approach – we’d always take the dog’s reaction to sounds as a clue to whether to panic or not! Beautiful scenery. The photo of the dead Junipers almost looks like Unicorns battling.

    • Ah, I see that someone else is good at creating creatures out of snags. Maybe if Soc had been barking at something out in the woods instead of my sleeping bag I might have taken him more seriously. (grin)

  3. I love this blog entry! I, too have many memories of Socrates…I remember babysitting him a few times, when you couldn’t take him with you. I don’t think “babysitting” is the right word to use, more like giant sitting! He was a great dog!

    • And I remember the stories how he would rush down your hallways chasing after the kids and not be able to put on his brakes… crashing into walls and doors. LOL –Curt

  4. What a wonderful story, and such a cutie-patootie…. And such gorgeous land. Funny, another blogger just posted about the Sierras. Hmmm… I’ll take that as a sign that I need to hike these beautiful mountains soon. 🙂

  5. Truly enjoyed the amazing storytelling. So jealous of the backpack trip to these amazing places. We have flower fields here in Holland but no spectacular mountains like these. 😉

  6. This is a funny story that I can relate to as well. I’ve done my share of camping, and have had my share of things bumping in the night, both real and imagined. One involved horny buffalo (see this post: http://gallivance.net/2012/12/05/frisky-buffalo-in-our-tent-camp/ ), and the other involved “medicinal herb”, and to my stunned amazement, was nothing more than cows grazing in a nearby pasture. Also, I had forgotten about Castenada. One of his books was the focus of a philosophy course I took in the Paleocene. BTW, great photos. ~James

    • The buffalo story is indeed funny, James. And you always have to be careful when mixing cows and grass. (grin) My most bothersome night in the woods was waking up with a bear standing on me. That got a reaction.

  7. This design is spectacular! You definitely know how to keep a
    reader amused. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Excellent job.

    I really enjoyed what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it.

    Too cool!

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