Peggy’s Lake

Peggy’s Lake. The quiet beauty of this small Sierra lake captured me.

Gold prospecting was a lonely occupation for most of the men who came to California as 49ers. Wives and girlfriends had been left behind. Often the only female companionship a miner might have was the type you paid for. Every town of any size had its whorehouse, or possibly several. One way the miners compensated for their loneliness was by naming lakes in the Sierra Foothills and Mountains after their favorite female companions, be it a wife, a girlfriend, or a particularly friendly lady of the evening.

I honored the tradition when I made my solo trip into the Grouse Ridge/Black Buttes/Five Lakes Basin Area. I had hiked out on Saturday from the Basin but Peggy wasn’t coming in to pick me up until Sunday. I didn’t want to hike up the Grouse Ridge Campground and spend the night. It was undoubtedly crawling with people. So, I went looking for a substitute.

A small lake that I had camped on before had been taken over by cattle, lots of them. I hiked on. Another little lake was shallow and also a favorite watering hole for my bovine companions. I hiked on and on, getting father and farther away from the trail. Much to my surprise, I came on a little, unnamed lake that I had never been on before— and I’ve crisscrossed the area extensively. It was shallow, only a few feet deep, and it might very well dry up in another month or two, but it was gorgeous. I decided to name it Peggy’s Lake, after my best friend and wife. It’s nothing official of course. It won’t show up on any maps. But I knew that Peggy would like ‘her’ lake.

Peggy's Lake in the Grouse Ridge Non-Motorized area.

Similar to Five Lakes Basin, Peggy’s Lake is nestled in the granite. Storm clouds hovered over head in this photo. They soon produced rain.

And it rained hard. I hid out under a couple of large pines to stay dry. This Lupine welcomed the rain with open leaves!

Lupine at Peggys Lake near the Black Buttes of the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains.

These pods on the Lupine left no doubt about its connection to the pea family.

After the rain, a convenient rock provided a premier seat for enjoying the lake.

Peggy’s Lake in the evening.

Peggy's Lake in the Grouse Ridge area of the Northern Sierras.

And with the early morning sun.

These two trees, a pine on the right and a juniper on the left, caught my attention.

Here they are early in the morning, backlit by the sun.

The shallowness of the lake encouraged grass to grow. I kept seeing little heads pop up out of this grass and didn’t have a clue what they were. Later I figured out they were baby ducks, catching insects.

Once again, I found a fun monster lurking in the lake’s reflections. I turned it upright for your enjoyment.

This red fir made me think Christmas tree.

As always, I was attracted to the beauty of old wood like this stump.

And these two trees that seemed to continue an embrace that they had shared when they were young and green.

Gnarled wood called to my camera. I liked the patterns here…

And here…

The setting sun lit up the Black Buttes that help define the area.

And I am not going to tell anyone where Peggy’s Lake is! There’s a reason.

The Grouse Ridge Non-Motorized Area is well-loved. Maybe too much so— especially for someone like me who prefers his wilderness rugged, wild and relatively people-free. But I make an exception for this region. It’s an easy place for people to get to and is very backpacking-friendly for families and newcomers to the sport. It serves as a great introduction, as it did for our grandchildren, Ethan and Cody. And as it did for me in the 1970s. There is great value in this— for the people of course— but also for our world. People who experience the wilderness in a positive way are much more likely to appreciate it, and want to protect it. And protecting our wild areas is ever so important, for ourselves, our children, and future generations.

This doesn’t mean that I am beyond selfishly wanting to keep a bit of it to myself, like Peggy’s Lake. So, I’ll share photos, but not location. (grin) If folks who frequent the area are charmed by the photos and go out of their way and find the lake: Welcome.

It was only proper that Peggy, Tasha, Ethan and I ended our backpack trip the following week at Peggy’s Lake.

Tasha points out a white cow that stopped by for a visit, laid down in the grass, and happily chewed her cud while watching us. It was the same cow that had come to visit me up near Glacier Lake the week before. Maybe she was missing her people.

Ethan and Cody explore the shallow lake.

It wasn’t all backpacking. Here Peggy displays her cards in a game with the 9-year-old Cody. This would have been a bad hand for poker. It was even worse for War, which Cody insisted she play with him whenever we camped, including at 6:30 in the morning!

And finally, nestled into the seat of honor, Peggy enjoyed her lake.

I am off to Black Rock City, my friends. And I am excited to return to the desert, the incredible art, and the magic of Burning Man. This year’s theme, Radical Rituals, promises to produce some interesting art. For example, what the heck is the Pagan Bunny Shrine? The creators say it’s all about hoppiness. We’ll see. Anyway, I’ll be away from my blog again for a week. But immediately afterwards, I’ll begin a series of posts on this strange, sometimes wonderful, and occasionally downright weird event. And I’ll respond at that time to any comments you’ve made in the meantime. See you then. –Curt

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In the Beginning… A Reflection on the Grouse Ridge-Black Buttes-Five Lakes Basin Area

A waterfall in the Five Lakes Basin provides water from snowbanks to one of my favorite lakes. The Black Buttes tower above. Hemlocks, pines and firs grow on the hillside.

 

Old Pond

Blue mountain, white snow gleam
Through pine bulk and slender needle-sprays;
little hemlock half in shade,
ragged rocky skyline,

single clear flat nuthatch call:
down from the treetrunks

up through time.

At Five Lakes Basin’s
Biggest little lake
after all day scrambling on the peaks,
a naked bug with a white body and brown hair

dives in the water,

Splash!

A poem by the Nobel Prize winner and the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology, ” Gary Snyder.

I have just returned from my last backpacking trip of the summer, my fifth— one for each decade I’ve shouldered a pack and disappeared into the wilderness. My last two trips included the Grouse Ridge-Black Buttes-Five Lakes Basin area, the same region Gary Snyder refers to above. He lives outside of nearby Nevada City (just above Grass Valley in the map below), and, like me, has wandered and loved the glacier carved country from top to bottom, from the Buttes to the Basin.

The maps below provide information on the location of the area and where I backpacked on my two trips.

 

Yellow marks the general location of my two trips this summer into the Grouse Ridge area just north of Interstate 80 between Sacramento, California and Reno, Nevada in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. (I was raised in a small town just outside of Placerville.)

The area circled in yellow was where we backpacked. I-80 can be seen at the bottom of the photo. I helped achieve the non-motorized status for the area in the 1970s when I was serving as Executive Director of the Sacramento Ecology/Environmental Center.

A close-up of the area. Today I am featuring Glacier Lake and the trail there from Grouse Ridge marked in yellow, which was the route I followed on my first trip. I went into the Basin on the Sand Ridge Trail when I backpacked in with my family.

The first trip into the Basin I made by myself this summer; the second was with my wife Peggy, my daughter Natasha, and her two sons, Ethan and Cody. It was our grandkids’ first backpacking trip and I wanted them to explore the area where my own backpacking experiences had begun in 1969— where I had first discovered the joys of backpacking, and the beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Our daughter Natasha with her two boys, Ethan on the left and Cody on the right. Sierra granite provides the backdrop.

Ethan and Cody contemplate another climb. Both boys, Ethan at 12 and Cody at 9, carried full backpacks. Ethan was like a deer on the trail, bounding ahead. Cody was like a Sierra badger, digging in and not giving up, mastering the trail one step at a time.

In the beginning: It sounds almost biblical. Dan Iles would like it. I met Dan at Glacier Lake on my first trip into the Grouse Ridge area this summer. He introduced himself as the Dean of Graduate Studies at the Shasta Bible College in Redding, California. He’s a serious Christian, and a heck of a nice fellow. I liked him immediately. He had backpacked into Glacier Lake with his 13-year-old grandson and told me that he had been bringing youth groups into the area since the 70s.

The Reverend Dan Iles at Glacier Lake.

I was getting ready to leave the next morning when he came over for a chat. I had told him the night before that I lived in the Applegate Valley near the small town of Ruch in Southern Oregon and he wanted to know if I attended one of the churches there that he was familiar with. I explained that I was a bit more Eastern in my beliefs, a bit more Zen, and something of an Agnostic. I dug into my pack and found Siddhartha, a 1922 novel by Hermann Hesse that a friend had given me in the 70s. The novel describes Siddhartha’s journey to enlightenment at the time of the Buddha. I read it every few years because it reminds me of the importance of living in the present, of the interconnectivity of all things, and the value of a simple life— of not getting lost in our materialistic world.

Reading Siddhartha after dinner beside a quiet Sierra Lake. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Dan and I must have talked for 45 minutes or so about our lives. He described himself as a Professor of Practical Theology and told me of his efforts to help children and women in Africa who had been left homeless and destitute by the seemingly endless conflicts. He also told me that he believed in freedom of religion, that people should be free to worship according to their own beliefs, which is a concept that I strongly support. Still, I could tell he was concerned about my soul, that he would have considered a day spent trying to convert me as a day well-spent. It went with the territory of who he was and what he believed.

As I hiked past his camp to say goodbye on my way down into the Five Lakes Basin he urged that I read the Book of John in the New Testament. “It does an excellent job of describing the miracles of Christ,” he assured me. I’d read John before. In my youth, I had been considered a prime candidate for becoming an Episcopal priest. But I read it again on Dan’s recommendation. Miracles are what have been pulling people into Christianity for millennia. Jesus changes water to wine, feeds five-thousand people with two fish and five loaves of bread, walks on water, heals the sick, revives the dead, and ascends to Heaven.

I should have said, “Thanks, I’ll do that,” and moved on. But I couldn’t help myself. “I don’t need miracles, Dan” I responded. “I’ve got this.” And I raised my hands to take in the surrounding countryside. The towering Black Buttes climbed above the blue-green Glacier Lake. Giant red firs and pines stood as silent sentinels over the campground. Brightly colored flowers called to insects with an urgency that predated man’s sojourn on earth. Massive cumulus clouds spoke of lightning and thunder and rain and hail— of the incredible power of nature. If I needed awe, if I needed inspiration, if I needed a reason to believe, it was right there in front of me, behind me, surrounding me. I didn’t have to travel back in time 2000 years to events that required a leap of faith to believe. I waved one last time, turned, and hiked down the trail toward the Five Lakes Basin.

Photos of Glacier Lake and my hike into the lake.

The Black Buttes of the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains tower over Glacier Lake.

A close up of the Black Buttes as the sun sets.

The moon hovers above the Black Buttes in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.

A small pool fed by melting snow provided this reflection shot at Glacier Lake.

Red fir reached for the sky above my campsite.

Glacier Lake in the Grouse Ridge Area of the Northern Sierra Nevada mountains.

I found these two moss colored elders along the trail to Glacier Lake.

What insect could resist this brightly colored Red Mountain Heather that I took a close up of along the Glacier Lake Trail.

Towering cumulus clouds threatened thunder, lightning and hail at Glacier Lake.

I found a small creek along the trail to Glacier Lake and decided to camp next to it, thinking it might provide a short hike for my grandsons. (They didn’t need it.) I removed bear scat from the campsite so they wouldn’t get too nervous.

This boulder next to the campsite reminded me that the area had been carved by glaciers. The granite rock, known as an erratic, had been left behind by one of the glaciers.

I hid out under my tent’s groundcloth as lightning flashed, thunder rolled, and hail pounded down on my campsite. Later, as the sun set, all that was left of the storm was a few puffy clouds.

 

NEXT POST: It’s down into the Five Lake Basin.

 

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Out of the Woods… For a Day

Ready for another adventure, I look out toward the Black Buttes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains north of I-80. Peggy dropped me off at the trailhead, wished me well, and took this photo. And then I headed down the trail.

I am out of the woods— for a day— and decided to check in. I have just finished backpacking by myself for a week in the Grouse Ridge Non-Motorized Area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains north of Interstate 80. I’m going back into the same area tomorrow with Peggy, our daughter Tasha, and our grandsons Ethan and Cody. It’s a beautiful area, and I have lots of adventures to share. Like how do you persuade a cow that she really doesn’t want to camp with you overnight?

Anyway, here are a few photos to serve as a teaser. I should be home next Monday, which will give me a chance to catch up with fellow bloggers after a summer of backpacking. Of course I will be madly getting ready for Burning Man 2017… (grin).

I expect to see wild animals out on the trail, but this one didn’t seem particularly wild. In fact, I think she wanted to camp with me. Maybe she had seen the same fresh bear poop I had.

Turns out the weather was much more of a challenge than the bear. Shortly after my discussion with the cow, I was in the middle of a thunder, lightning and hail storm!

This is an area of incredible beauty that I have returned to again and again over the years. There are meadows filled with flowers…

That are always forcing me to stop and take their photo.

Numerous small lakes…

And the Black Buttes, seen here at Glacier Lake— lit up by the setting sun.

A final shot from Glacier Lake as the sun goes down, outlining what I considered to be a very strange tree.

See you all next week. —Curt

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No-see-um Camp, a Sacred Grove, and Cougar Poop

No-see-um camp, which we expected to be bug infested, turned out to be nestled among trees that made me think of a sacred grove.

Part II of our hike up Cook and Green Creek to the Pacific Crest Trail through the Rogue River National Forest.

Our goal for the day was No-see-um Camp, which seems like a very poor place to set up your tent. If you have spent much time outdoors, you will recognize no-see-ums as particularly nasty little bugs. I first encountered them when backpacking on the Appalachian Trail in Maine. It had rained for a solid week and every biting bug in existence had considered us fair game. While mosquitoes had treated our bug repellant as an hors d’oeuvre, no-see-ums had come after us with knives and forks. Later, I watched a moose in Alaska dash wildly about and roll in a snow bank to escape the tiny, nefarious fiends. Fortunately, we didn’t find any no-see-ums in No-see-um camp. It was quite the opposite. I decided we had arrived in a sacred grove.

Sacred groves go almost as far back as humanity. Think of the Druids and their oaks. In West Africa, where I served in the Peace Corps, huge cottonwoods were thought to contain living spirits and I often found offerings at their bases. It’s important to keep the forest spirits happy.

No-see-um camp had more species of trees than I have ever found in a single location, many of them were giants. From our camp, I could see Douglas fir, sugar pine, white fir, blue spruce, chinquapin, big leaf maple, and yew. Just up the trail I found a ponderosa pine. Cook and Green Creek with its cool, refreshing water bubbled and burbled and roared its way down the canyon just behind our tent. I figured it was an excellent place to commune with nature spirits and Peggy found a camp guardian up in the trees, which I thought was quite pagan of her.

Another view looking up from our campsite on Cook and Green Creek. This one features big leaf maples.

There is a reason for their name!

We also had chinquapin growing in the grove. This prickly thing covers the trees nuts, which are said to be tasty.

Giant sugar pines with their large cones and giant Douglas firs with their small cones surrounded us.

I found a large ponderosa pine near by. Do you know what made the line of holes? It was a sapsucker, a kind of woodpecker. It will return to eat any insects that have entered the holes.

Cook and Green Creek flowed just behind our tent. It was burbling here.

Small waterfalls added a slight roar.

And I found the way the water flowed over a rock to be intriguing.

The downed tree next to our tent provided a good perspective on the size of the larger trees.

This odd tree growth just above our site served as Peggy’s camp guardian. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

The Guardian’s tree was also impressive.

We used our layover day as an opportunity to do a nine mile hike up to the pass and back. Going up, we entertained ourselves by enjoying flowers and other plant life while looking for signs of wildlife. And yes, I have more animal poop, scat, to share with you. I’ll bet you’re excited.

A shelf fungus.

Any idea what is happening here? Carpenter ants were making their nest. They are a fairly large ant that literally cut off small, sawdust-size chunks of wood and then bring it out to the edge where they dump it on to the sawdust pile at the bottom of the photo.

Peggy poses beside a fallen tree.

Which happened to feature another wood sculpture that Peggy determined was a dragon.

We found these unusual cones that actually grow directly on the limbs of the trunks and limbs of the knob cone pine.

Okay, I put up pretty, or at least I hope interesting photos, and then I put up poop. Why? Half the fun of wilderness travel is knowing what you are seeing around you. Scat (poop) is one way of telling what animals are using the trail you are on. This happens to be cougar, or mountain lion scat. The twisted piece on the end is fairly definitive of the cat family. Size suggests cougar. It was dry, so we were in little danger of an immediate encounter.

Since we are on animal signs, any idea of what made this? Odds are it was a porcupine. They chew off the outer bark to get to the nutritious, inner bark.

This attractive small waterfall, provided cool water to drink with our  lunch. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

After lunch on our way up to the pass, we found this attractive Blue Spruce…

And a flower, which is known as Ranger’s buttons.

On top, we met Rambo, Dogondo, and Double D: three PCT through hikers. Their names are their trail names. They had started at the Mexican border and been backpacking since April, covering close to 1000 miles. They were skinny and ever so eager to reach Oregon, which was just up the trail. One of them told me that Sasquatch (Big Foot) had been rooting around outside his tent the night before.

Rambo, a PCT through hiker from Riverside, California.

Dogondo, a PCT through hiker from Chicago.

Double D, a PCT through hiker from Kansas City.

We raced on our way back down from the pass. I was careful to keep Peggy behind me. She thinks that she is a greyhound when she gets out in front going down a hill. I once sprained my ankle trying to keep up with her coming off of Muir Pass on the John Muir Trail and had to hobble another 80 miles before we finally climbed up and over Mt. Whitney and out. Taught me.

Peggy, all set to go, wearing one of her favorite T-shirts.

The Cook and Green Trail and Some Really Weird Trees… Part I

The way madrone trees shed their bark is strange enough without having a pair of eyes staring out at you. We found this specimen along the lower end of the Cook and Green Trail.

 

Today’s post will take you along with Peggy and me on our latest backpacking adventure. This time, the trailhead was a mere 30 minutes from our house! The Cook and Green Trail follows Cook and Green Creek up to Cook and Green Pass where it connects into the Pacific Crest Trail, the PCT. (That’s a lot of Cook and Green; they were gold miners who worked the area in the 1870s and 80s.) Starting at the pass, we could have made a right turn and hiked to Mexico or a left turn and hiked to Canada. Another time. (grin)

Peggy points out a PCT marker showing the trail south. Had we followed it, we could have been to Mexico in a thousand miles.

We were greeted by a pair of signs at the Cook and Green trailhead, which I found amusing. Both were products of the US Forest Service. I don’t think the hand on the first poster is that of America’s preeminent spokesperson for fire prevention, Smokey the Bear; I think it belongs to Bigfoot! The second sign warned us about bears. Serious stuff.

Did this sign use Bigfoot to emphasize fire prevention? Or is it a clawless Smokey? It’s puzzling.

It’s smart to be aware of bears when backpacking, but you should not let them keep you out of the woods.

I am a veteran of the backcountry of Yosemite, where the bears actually run a school on how to steal backpacker’s food. (Fake news, but just barely.) So I wasn’t too worried about the bears of the Rogue River and Klamath National Forests. Still, the poster is worth reviewing. Avoid confrontation: That’s always sage advice when you are dealing with a grumpy animal that can outrun you, outweighs you, and comes with long claws and sharp teeth. You don’t want to surprise them and you don’t want to get between a mother and her cubs. That having been said, bears aren’t particularly interested in eating people.  If they were, they would move into towns where there are lots of people to eat. Mainly, they prefer to avoid humans, like most sensible wild animals.

Your food? Well, that’s a horse of a different color, or at least a bear that has hung out around careless people. When I see bear poop that includes bits and pieces of the plastic used to package  freeze-dried backpackers’ food, I know to be on the lookout. BTW, a Yosemite bear would laugh at the advice to hang your food high in a tree. Guess what, bears climb trees. And if mama bear can’t climb a tree in Yosemite to retrieve your chow, she sends her babies up. The advice in Yosemite used to be that your food bag had to be at least nine feet off of the ground and nine feet away from the trunk, with no ropes hanging down! I’ve watched bears play tether ball with food that wasn’t hung high enough. Now the park rangers want you to carry plastic bear-proof barrels. I’ve never worried much about bears when away from Yosemite. Still, care is called for.

It’s good advice about dogs. Way back in history, I was out backpacking with my first father-in-law’s Springer Spaniel, Sparky, and came across a bear. Sparky jumped behind me and then stuck her head out between my legs and started barking vociferously. The bear stopped and growled before ambling on. I told Sparky that if the bear had charged I would have picked her up and tossed her out in front of me.

The Cook Green Trail begins its journey through a burned-out area. In 2012, we watched from our home as huge billows of smoke climbed above the forest and a fleet of helicopters used large buckets to dip water out of Applegate Reservoir, one mile above our home, to fight the Fort Complex fire. It was only a few miles away, and we watched nervously. Today, new growth is returning to the area as nature performs one of her miracles.

This photo captures the area where the Fort Complex Fire stopped burning along the Cook and Green Trail. It’s a good example of burned and non burned forest. On the burned side, the green near the ground shows where the forest is beginning to recover.

While the hike through the burned-out area was interesting, our fun began on the other side. Peggy came across a mile marker that she felt needed to be decorated, a madrone tree featured eyes peering out from its strange, peeling bark, several oak trees were dressed in moss, tree roots created weird sculptures, and the Mother of All Roots stood higher than me.

Someone, probably the forest service, had placed mile markers along the first section of the Cook and Green Trail. Peggy decided to decorate the marker by adding sugar pine cones beside the marker and rocks in front.

I thought these moss-covered live oaks were quite unique.

This is a close up of the tree moss.

We also found this interesting growth. At first I thought it was stag horn moss but it may be a lichen.

Tree roots can create fun sculptures. I’m not sure I would want to meet up with this one on a dark night!

More ordinary, but still interesting, this root had taken a detour around a rock and captured it.

And here we have the Mother of All Roots!

I stood next to it just before the root connected to the trunk to provide perspective. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

NEXT BLOG: We hike on to No-see-um camp, which turns out to be closer to a sacred grove than a bug infested swamp, and hike up to Cook Green Pass where we find PCT through hikers and mountain lion sign.

 

Azalea Lake and Bigfoot’s Big Foot…

We found this carving of Bigfoot (Sasquatch) on a stump at our campsite on Azalea Lake in the Red Butte Wilderness.

The Red Butte Wilderness: Part II

In my last post, Peggy and I backpacked into the Red Buttes Wilderness, which is located about 10 miles from us at the crow flies. Our objective was to reach Azalea Lake but about half way there, our bodies had another idea. Camp. Today’s post starts off  the next morning. 

Our bodies grumped as we made them get out of bed to finish the hike. Loudly.

Not far from our camp, we passed the lonely grave of Sylvan Gosliner, Ruby Gosliner and Alma Pratt. Their airplane had crashed in the canyon in 1945 on a return trip to Portland from San Francisco. Why, has never been determined. The forest service had retrieved the body of the pilot while relatives of the Gosliners and Pratt had chosen to bury their family members beside the trail. It’s a beautiful location. Wreckage of the plane can still be found in the canyon below.

The rock covered grave of Sylvan and Ruby Gosliner and Alma Pratt along Butte Fork Creek with its simple bronze marker.

Red cedars replaced the pines as we continued our climb through the dry forest, while cheerful tiger lilies and other flowers brightened our way whenever we crossed a stream. Eventually we arrived at Red Cedar Basin. Peggy zonked out on a flat rock while I wandered around the meadow, which was filled with corn lilies. Had there been water, it would have become camp. But Azalea Lake beckoned. We dutifully shouldered our packs and completed the trip. We found an attractive campsite and settled in for the afternoon and next day. Numerous insects greeted our arrival and some came by to take blood donations. By seven PM, Peggy had disappeared into the tent. She’s been known to disappear inside at the buzz of the first mosquito— leaving me outside to entertain our flying and crawling visitors.

Red cedars replaced Douglas fir and sugar pine trees as we climbed in elevation.

While the forest was dry with limited vegetation most of the way, it changed whenever we came to streams, turning into a vibrant flower garden with flowers such as this tiger lily…

Wild iris…

And Indian paintbrush.

I caught Peggy napping at Cedar Basin…

And she caught me in our camp at Azalea Lake.

Azalea Lake is a jewel located in a basin surrounded by peaks and ringed by azaleas. Tall, incredibly straight lodgepole pines provided us with shade on our layover day as we hung out, snacked, read, and went for a hike around the lake, where we found a couple backpacking and carrying a tent, literally. Noisy chickarees (small tree squirrels) scolded us for our intrusion. As did the always vociferous Stellar jays. Quieter birds such as robins, Juncos, and fly catchers merely went about their business of scrounging for food as the sun made its way across the sky. A Pileated Woodpecker caught our attention with a more stentorian call.

Azalea Lake nestles between peaks in the Red Butte Wilderness. I took this photo on our first trip into the area. The peak on the left and the draw is featured below in the setting sun photos.

An early morning shot on this trip…

And an evening shot.

Azaleas surround the lake but we arrived when most of the blooms were gone. We did manage to find these however.

And some interesting bear grass.

A close up.

We also found these two backpackers carrying a tent. “You have to let me take your photo,” I insisted. “We are only moving a couple of hundred yards to find a better campsite,” they explained, a bit sheepishly.

Incredibly straight lodgepole pines provided shade for our camp. The dead tree provides a good example of just how straight these trees grow and why they served as center ‘lodge poles’ for roofs on early pioneer cabins.

As the sun prepared to say goodnight, it bathed the surrounding peaks in soft light, an event that always sends me scurrying with my camera. Peggy and I hiked down the trail but couldn’t catch any clear shots through the trees. A surprise was waiting for us back at camp, however: an ingenious carving of Bigfoot. I don’t know how we had missed it; we had walked by it several times. I considered the discovery a sign that I needed to go out again to capture a photo of the alpenglow— and just possibly the illusive giant.

Trees blocked our view of the peaks above Azalea Lake as the sun began to set.

The Bigfoot carving in our camp at Azalea Lake.

While Peggy stayed in camp, I made my way through the trees to a meadow at the base of the peaks. A half dry, meandering stream had created a small marsh. Looking up, I had an unobstructed view of the rocks above. I worked my way around the meadow for different perspectives. A draw made its way up the mountain, providing access for animals crossing over the peaks. Apparently, it was well used. The meadow was full of deer sign; there were tracks galore.

A meadow with a small marsh sat at the base of the peak.

The small meadow gave me a clear view of the sun setting on the peak.

A draw made its way up the side of the mountain and provided access for wildlife to the lake.

Numerous deer tracks suggested that the draw was well used.

A large track caught my attention and I stopped to check it out. Something heavy had landed and launched on the spot, apparently in a hurry. A huge bear was my first thought since the depression was a good two inches deep. The deer tracks were closer to a half-inch and bent grass was all I was leaving. I looked around nervously. But something wasn’t right.

  • A bear would have left another track beside it. There was nothing.
  • The print was oblong, very long. Bear prints tend to be more rounded.
  • The paw prints weren’t showing any claw marks, which you normally see on bears. In fact, they looked more like toes!

I found myself getting excited. Had I discovered a track of Bigfoot’s big foot?! I rested my boot alongside the track. I have big feet myself, size 14 American (49 European). The track was seven inches longer, over 20 inches long (50.8 centimeters)! I did a more thorough search for other tracks. A more expert tracker may have found something, but I didn’t. My thought was the creature who made the track was bipedal and running. It had traveled from the dry ground to the marshy area and back to the dry ground.

Was my imagination working overtime? Was I creating a Big Foot where none existed? Maybe. I took photos using my boot and 5×3 inch camera case for comparison and returned to camp to share my treasure with Peggy.

The depression stretched from the front of the foot on the left to the heel mark on the upper right. My 3×5 inch camera case is for comparison.

The impression on the left looked like a toe print to me.

My own size 14 shoe was dwarfed by the print.

The next morning, we were awakened at five AM by a loud thump outside our tent. It sounded a lot like a deer. The deer that live in our neighborhood are forever thumping across the wooden deck next to our bedroom. We sat up with a start and stared through the mosquito screen of our tent.

“There’s something huge and brown beside our packs!” Peggy declared. They were located maybe 15-feet away.

We scrambled for our glasses. We’re both blind as bats without them. Yes, there was something big and brown. A big brown doe. We laughed. For some reason, the doe kept circling our camp for the next hour. Sleep was not an option. We were up early and had our breakfast of oatmeal, coffee and dried apricots. By 8:30 we were packed and ready to go. The trip back to the truck took us half the time of the hike in. And yes, our bodies continued to whine, but only half as much.

NEXT BLOG: Peggy and I head out on another backpacking adventure near our home in Southern Oregon. There’s no Bigfoot, but we discover some really weird natural wood sculptures, and we camp in a beautiful grove of trees where there were more varieties than I have ever seen in one location. Many of them were giants.  I thought of it as a sacred grove.

An Ancient Forest of Giant Trees—and Bigfoot… The Red Butte Wilderness: Part I

Peggy checks out a large sugar pine along the Butte Fork Creek that runs through the heart of the Red Buttes Wilderness. Eventually the creek empties into the Applegate River that runs by our house.

 

A friend once asked (with a grin), why I believed in flying saucers. “Because I saw one,” was my tart reply. And I did. A saucer-shaped object flew into a cloud in Sacramento going one direction and then flew out going another. It accelerated rapidly and disappeared in a couple of seconds. It was enough proof for me.

“And what about Bigfoot?” he followed up, his smile widening to Cheshire proportions. My response was different. I smiled back.

“Because the world can use a little magic; and it’s fun.”

I’m not anti-science or scientific proof. Quite the opposite. Of the magazines we subscribe to, Scientific American is the one I read cover to cover. Religiously. Some 70 books on science grace our library shelves. (I just counted them.) They range from Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe to Richard Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. I’ll confess here, however, that the far-out edge of science looks a lot like magic to me.  Imagine entangled photons mirroring each other’s actions simultaneously over hundreds and even billions of miles. Or how about parallel universes existing side by side on and on to infinity?

Scientifically speaking, however, Bigfoot hardly has a leg to stand on, or a foot, even a big, hairy one. Blurry photos, a few hairs, footprints and little else constitute proof. There’s not even a body or bones. If Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, or Yeti, or any of the other names the species goes by around the world exist, they must have an Einstein-level genius at camouflage, hiding and misdirection.

What exists are numerous sightings, often collaborated by other people. A close relative of mine, who prefers to remain un-named, recently told me that one of the big fellows had run across a logging road in front of him up near Oregon’s McKenzie River in the early 70s. He’d never said anything about the incident. I didn’t get his reticence. Had it been me, I would have been screaming the news from the top of Mt. Hood. But he was working in a conservative industry at the time, and felt they might not appreciate his encounter with the giant. It is such sightings, however, often by responsible, sober-type people, that provide hope for Bigfoot’s existence, the frosting on the magical cake.

The Red Buttes Wilderness, located on the remote, northern edge of California in the Siskiyou Mountains, is prime Bigfoot country. We can see the Buttes from our house in southern Oregon, some 10 miles away as the crow flies. We went backpacking in the area three years ago and decided to go again last week. Giant red cedars, sugar cone pines, white pines and Douglas firs dominate the area. They’re the type of trees that make the logging industry salivate. They would have been cut down decades ago except for the difficulty of getting them out. Now they are protected in one of America’s rare virgin forests. If I were Bigfoot, it’s a place I would certainly want to live.

The Red Butte Mountains of Northern California and Southern Oregon.

The Red Butte Mountains as they appear from our patio.

The world’s only Bigfoot trap is located about five miles from where we live. A miner was once hired to build a cabin beneath the trap and given a tranquilizer gun and a pair of large handcuffs to capture the big guy. Only bears were caught. The doors have long since been welded shut. Otherwise they might have trapped some of the teenagers that insist on spray painting the trap with graffiti. 

Peggy and I drove up a pothole-strewn forest service road to the Shoofly Trailhead to begin our adventure. Just beyond a large parking area, the trail dropped quickly for a half mile or so to the Butte Fork of the Applegate River and then followed the creek uphill for 7-8 miles to Azalea Lake, which was our destination.  We made a leisurely trip of it, letting our time-tested bodies adjust to being on the trail again. At about five miles, they decided they’d done enough adjusting and went searching for a campsite. It was a wimpy thing to do, but our minds gave them leeway for being out on the trail at all. Following are some photos of what we took along the way.

The Butte Fork of the Applegate River is right where the Shoofly Trail meets up with the Butte Forks Trail. It makes for a wonderfully refreshing stop, either going or coming.

Another photo of Butte Fork Creek.

Portions of the Red Butte Wilderness resemble a rainforest. Other areas are quite dry.

Peggy and some of the large trees that live along Butte Fork Creek.

She holds up a sugar pine cone we found beside the trail.

An old cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corp out of red cedar in the 1930s, still exists along the trail. For a while it was used by the forest service to house a forest fire fighting crew. Given its age, I decided to show it in black and white.

A view of Rattlesnake Mountain and Desolation Peak from the Butte Fork Trail.

There came a point, just under these trees next to a small stream, that our bodies decided it was time to camp. While I ranged far above and below the trail looking for a suitable campsite, Peggy found one nearby!

There was just enough space for our small tent.

It came with a bower…

A small reflecting pool with cool water…

And a pair of shelf fungus that seemed to want to talk.

I soon whipped up a quick dinner and we crawled into the tent as soon as the sun had dropped behind the canyon walls.

NEXT POST: We hike on to the pretty Azalea Lake and I (possibly) find proof of Bigfoot’s existence! (Peggy and I are off on another backpacking trip. I’ll respond to comments and check in on blogs when we return.)

 

An Ugly Pit Viper Drops by for a Visit… Let’s go backpacking: Part 2

I heard a noise and looked up. A Diamondback Rattlesnake had come to visit.

 

Today’s post finds me out on a backpacking trip I went on last week. Friday’s post introduced the trip and took me off into the woods by myself.

 

I decided to remain camping where I was and go day hiking. That way I could explore the surrounding area early in the morning and late in the afternoon, while hiding out under a shade tree during the hottest part of the day. I had a number to choose from including incense cedars, ponderosa pines, white firs, and lodgepole pines. There was even a large sugar pine in the neighborhood with its 18-inch-long cones.

The Sugar Pine.

Staying in the shade involved moving as the sun made its way across the sky. This was a good thing; it forced me to get up every so often.

I create a very comfortable nest for myself in the woods, the type I can snuggle down in and read a good book, or write, or prepare a quick snack, meal or cup of coffee. My ‘kitchen’ is always on my right; my ‘living room’ and ‘office’ on the left. The Therm-a-Rest mattress converts to a chair and my backpack forms a great back rest. Everything is easily reachable from where I sit. Moving’s a bit of a bother (grin). It involves two trips and about five minutes to transfer everything. I quickly establish which trees provide the best shade and breeze for the time of the day.

Here’s my home away from home in the woods. Everything I need from entertainment and food to water and mosquito repellent is conveniently located. My clothes bag in the front rests behind my knees and adds comfort. My journal is resting on my chair.

I was in my five o’clock spot under a lodgepole pine when a movement caught my eye. I looked up from my Baldacci book and saw a Diamondback Rattlesnake slithering toward my tree through the pine needles. An ugly pit viper had dropped by for a visit! Keeping a close eye on my guest, I quickly pulled out my camera. The Diamondback kept coming. When it was about 10 feet away I said, “Ahem, Ms. Snake, do you see me? Do you even have a clue I am here?” (It might have been a male, but how in the heck do you tell the sex of a snake? I looked it up, actually, since I knew you would want to know. Male snakes have a couple of tiny penises under the skin inside their cloacal opening (vent under their tail.) You shove a snake probe up there. It goes up farther for a male than a female. Now you are an expert. I don’t think my snake would have cooperated.)

Ms. Snake came to visit me when I was sitting under one of the Lodgepole pines behind my tent.

The rattlesnake was close to four feet long and had ten rattles which suggested she was around five-years old. Note the triangular-shaped head that is typical of pit vipers.

She stopped abruptly as her neck and head rose into the air. Out came a forked tongue. Her spade shaped, pit viper head and yellow-slit eyes pointed in my direction, checking me out, fangs poised for action. Who or what had invaded her territory? Was I food or foe? Heat seeking facial pits that work something like infrared detectors determined that I was too big to eat and might be trouble. So, she started slipping off to the right. Naturally I had to get up and follow. (This is where Peggy normally urges me to do something else, anything else, but she wasn’t along.)

She raised her head and checked me out.

I walked a respectful few feet behind. You never want to get within striking distance. The Diamondback is responsible for the majority of snake bites in the US and its toxin loaded injection can be fatal. The snake kept twisting her head back Linda Blair-like, watching me. Her rattles were pointed up, ready to explode into the loud buzzing sound rattlers are famed and named for. Twice she almost coiled. I could have forced the issue— it makes for a great photo-op. A timely prod with a stick would have had her coiling and buzzing in a flash. But I figured she wasn’t bothering me so I wouldn’t bother her. At least not much. Finally, she slipped off into some brush and waved goodbye with her tail. I wished her good hunting. I think I heard something like “fat, juicy mouse.”

Her rattles were pointed up in the air, ready to start buzzing. The circles on the tail and diamond shapes above them identified the rattlesnake as a Diamondback. The pinecones are from a Lodgepole Pine.

While I wasn’t particularly bothered by the visit, I did move to a different shade tree on the other side of camp. Had Ms. Snake returned, she would have slipped up behind me. I was also more careful about watching where I stepped! Immediately afterwards, I called Peggy and related the story. She laughed. She knows my ways. Or maybe she was laughing from relief that I hadn’t been bitten.

Speaking of ‘my ways,’ one was that I would never carry a cell phone while backpacking. It was more or less written in granite. I go to the woods for tranquility, not the hustle, stress, incessant noise and constant connectedness of modern society. And nothing represents that more than cell phones. And yet, here I was with cell phone in hand. There was even a decent signal from a cell tower on I-80. My decision to break with my long-standing tradition was something of a compromise for my wife. Not many 74-year-olds go wandering off by themselves backpacking. In fact, the number of people who backpack alone at any age is limited to a relatively few adventuresome souls. Peggy is 100% supportive of my backpacking, even when I ramble off alone. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t concerned. My checking in on a daily basis— and being able to check in, if needed, in an emergency— helped allay her worries.

Cell phone service isn’t a given in the wilderness, however, especially in the US where profitability plays an important role in determining where service is offered.  So, I went one step further. I picked up an emergency Gen 3 GPS tracking device named Spot. It’s kind of like Spot, the family dog of Dick and Jane repute, or Lassie, if you will, able to track me down when necessary. But all I have to do with the Gen 3 is hit an SOS button and it immediately sends out a message to local rescue groups that gives my exact location and the fact that I am in a dire emergency situation. Help’s supposed to be on the way within the hour.

There were other steps I took as well— carrying trekking poles, for example. They cut down on wear and tear on the knees and add a degree of balance. More importantly, I did everything I could, minus eliminating my creature comforts, to reduce weight. Modern equipment makes a huge difference. When I first started packing in the late 60s, my pack for a week trip was normally in the neighborhood of 55-60 pounds. By the 90s it was 45-50 pounds. Now it is down to 35-40 pounds.

This is a photo of what I was carrying on my trip. Everything is organized in bags. So there is a kitchen bag, a bathroom bag, a ten essentials bag, etc. Each bag has its place in my pack which is organized for access and weight distribution.

Here’s my stove ready for packing, which will give you an idea on how compact and light backpacking gear is today.

Everything I carry is designed to reduce weight. A plastic spoon, bowl and cup are my dishes. I’ve been carrying the insulated cup for over 40 years. Once it was lost beneath 20 feet of snow. I found it when the snow melted.

Here’s another example of going light. This is my neckerchief, handkerchief, and topographic map. It also serves as an air conditioner! On a hot day, I dip it in a stream and wrap it around my neck.

There is great beauty in the wilderness, if you are willing to slow down and look around. It ranges from expansive vistas down to plants, rocks, and wildlife.  Following are some more photos that reflect what I saw this past week. Enjoy.

Fordyce Creek was a half mile away from where I was camped and filled with snowmelt. The hiking bridge provided a way across the otherwise unfordable creek.

I captured this photo from the bridge. One of the challenges of backpacking early in the season is the amount of water flowing in the streams. Great caution is required when no bridges are available, which is usually the case in the Sierras. It is best to cross early in the morning before the sun begins to melt the snow.

The broken side-boards on the bridge made me wonder about its overall condition!

Thunderheads provided a dramatic backdrop but threatened a thunder and lightning storm. All of my gear was packed away in my tent, just in case.

These circling clouds would have made me think ‘tornado’ had I been in the Midwest or South. BTW… all I had was a few drops of rain with no thunder or lightning.

A small reflection lake was located a hundred yards from my camp. It came with its own water snake. The snake didn’t cooperate for a photo shoot, however.

I’ll close today’s post with this photo that provides a perspective on the size of the lake. Glaciers once worked their way through this portion of the Sierras, carving hundreds of such lakes from small to large.

NEXT POST: Native American rock art at Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California that dates back over 4000 years.

 

Goatsuckers in the Night… Let’s Go Backpacking! Part 1

Putting a pack on my back makes me happy. It means I am heading out for another wilderness adventure. This gorgeous Incense Cedar graced my camp and became the subject of many photos. Incense Cedars are normally found around the 4-5 thousand foot level in the northern Sierras.

 

I’ve been out on a solo backpack trip this past week at the 5000-foot level in the Sierra Nevada Mountains north of Interstate 80, about half way between Sacramento and Reno. Peggy drove me up from Sacramento where she was spending time with her 96-year-old mother.

 

I first started backpacking 48 years ago. Peggy caught this photo as I was prepared to head out on last Sunday.

It was time. Peggy took out her camera for a couple of photos, I shouldered my backpack, waved goodbye, and headed down the jeep road that led to Eagle Lakes. Since it was Sunday, most of the four-wheel enthusiasts were coming out, joyously running their vehicles up and over treacherous rock piles and though waist-deep mud holes. It’s not my thing, but I admire the people who are passionate about the sport. I was raised in El Dorado County, California, home to the granddaddy of all four-wheeling events, the Jeepers Jamboree. Mark Smith created the event in 1953 and it is still going strong.

Does this look like a road to you? It’s the type of challenge that gets a four-wheeler’s heart racing— one they dream of and are long after telling tales about.

I placed my trekking pole on the road to provide a perspective. Yes, jeepers drive over this! As for the dark stain you see, think oil pan…

A series of four-wheel clubs help maintain this road and the camping areas. Most of these groups have a fairly strong wilderness ethic. I thought that the Madhatters was the most entertaining name.

They even carry out their poop!

My goal wasn’t to hike the jeep road, however. It was to hike beyond the jeep road and beyond the numerous four-wheelers who were out for a weekend drive or camping trip. Actually, it wasn’t hard. All I needed to do was to travel a couple of miles past where the jeep road ended. Whereas, four-wheeling isn’t my sport, hiking and backpacking aren’t sports for most four-wheelers. I found a delightful spot and only saw four people while I was there: two hikers and two mountain bikers. One of the hikers, a good Christian fellow, even stopped to bless me… and Peggy… and our children… and our grandchildren… and any pets we happened to own. I was beginning to wonder if he would ever stop, but finally, he ran out of breath. I quickly thanked him and he happily went on his way— his job done.

I didn’t travel particularly far, but it was an adventure for me. I wanted to see how my ‘senior’ body would handle the trip. I’ve been backpacking for 48 years and have several thousand trail miles behind me from the tundra to the tropics, so it isn’t like I’m inexperienced. Mentally, I was ready to go. More than ready. But would the knees, and the hips, and the back, and miscellaneous other body parts agree? Well, I am here to report that they whined a bit. In fact, they whined a lot. They always do on the first outing of the year. But they also knew that whining alone wouldn’t get them back to the easy chair they love so much. I hiked along at 2 to 2 ½ miles per hour, which is a good pace for backpacking in the mountains, and eventually, they shut up.

I was one tired puppy when I found a place to camp, however. I unpacked, set up my kitchen, cooked my gourmet dinner (i.e. boiled water and poured it onto freeze-dried food), put up my tent, and anxiously waited for the sun to go down. I was ready to climb into my sleeping bag. Unfortunately, the longest day in the year (for those of us who live north of the Equator) was only a day away, and the sun didn’t want to cooperate. It lingered until 9:00. There was ample time for the ants, and flies, and mosquitoes, and several other biting bugs to enjoy the fortuitous feast that had arrived in their tiny corner of the universe. And feast they did, apparently giving me an allergic reaction. I sneezed and sneezed and sneezed and sneezed. My nose ran so fast that I had to put on my running shoes to catch up. I was still sneezing when the sun miraculously went down and I crawled into my tent, removing three large ants who had missed out on dinner.

I amused myself while waiting for the sun to set by wandering around taking photos. This was the pond I camped next to.

Lily pads came close to covering the water. This shot reminded me of the work done by the Impressionist painters. Monet would have had his brush out.

Old Man Mountain loomed above me, a reminder that much of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range is composed of granite.

This was my view looking up when I arrived and cooked dinner.

The same view later. It was just about bed time!

I walked out to check out the sunset…

And enjoyed the reflection in the pond.

There was no climbing into my sleeping bag, however. It was too damned hot. When Peggy and I had left Sacramento for our 60-mile drive into the mountains, the thermometer was pushing 109 degrees. It was cooler in the Sierras, but still in the 90s. Hiking in the heat was part of the reason I was so bushed. And now, along with the incessant sneezing, it was keeping me awake. I laid there in my altogether on top of my Therm-a-Rest mattress, took an antihistamine, and waited. Finally, things calmed and cooled down. I began to doze off. That’s when the other shoe dropped. The thousand frogs (slight exaggeration) that lived in the shallow lake next to where I was camping began to croak, all at once. I’d just managed to tune them out when the Goatsucker flew over.

Goatsucker? Was I beginning to lose it? Not exactly. For those of you who aren’t card carrying members of the Audubon Society, goatsuckers are members of a fairly large, noisy family of night birds. Whip-poor-wills are an example. My particular nemesis wasn’t a Whip-poor-will with its mournful all-night jabber, though, it was a Nighthawk, who had his own unique way of making noise. You can tell they are in the neighborhood when you hear their distinct “peent, peent” calls, but that’s only the beginning. In order to win their lady-love’s favor, the males climb high into the sky, close their wings and dive bomb the objects of their affection. Just as they reach the females, they open their wings. The wind rushing through their primary feathers makes a loud bloop sound. The bigger the boy, the louder the bloop. Apparently, it turns the girls on.

As to how the family obtained the name goatsucker, there’s an interesting story that goes way back in time to Europe. It starts with the fact that the birds have tiny beaks that open up to huge mouths they use for catching insects. In Europe, they liked to hang about around smelly goats at night that attracted lots of bugs. But the Europeans believed that the birds had a more nefarious purpose in mind. They believed that they were using their large mouths to grab hold of the nanny goats’ teats and suck them dry. Here’s what Pliny, the Roman Elder, had to say about them in 71 CE. (1601 CE interpretation.)

The Caprimulgi (so called of milking goats) are like the bigger kind of Owsels. They bee night-theeves; for all the day long they see not. Their manner is to come into the goat-pens, and to the goats udders presently they goe, and suck the milke at their teats. And looke what udder is so milked, it giveth no more milke, but misliketh and falleth away afterwards, and the goats become blind withall.

They were bad birds indeed. Not only did they steal nanny’s milk; her teats fell off and she went blind as well. Anyway, with this thought in mind I eventually fell asleep to the sounds of nature: croak, croak, peent, peent, BLOOP!

In my walk-about after dinner, I discovered that the Incense Cedar I featured at the top of the post was actually two trees. Fire, possibly set by lightning, had burned out the space between the twins.

I shot up the trunks for a different perspective.

I’ll conclude today’s post with a picture of the twin cedars being caught in the early morning sun the next day.

NEXT POST: Let’s go backpacking: Part 2… An ugly pit viper comes slithering into my kitchen.

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Lost in a Sierra Snow Storm… When the Stakes Are Survival

There is beauty in freshly fallen snow, but there can also be danger. Avalanches, hypothermia and getting lost are three frightening possibilities. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

 

This is the second of three stories about  my years of hunting and fishing during my 20s. I wrote about escaping from a massive lightning storm in my last post. This time I am going to write about another hazard of wilderness travel: getting caught in a snow storm. Once again, I was out hunting with my friends Bob and Hunt, along with another friend we had grown up with in Diamond Springs, Phil Dunlop. As usual, I was enjoying the excuse to be out in the woods. Deer season had come down to its last weekend…

Pushing the season to its limit meant risking bad weather. We were hunting north of Highway 50 in El Dorado National Forest about 30 miles west of Lake Tahoe one Saturday afternoon in late October when the snowflakes started drifting lazily out of the sky.

It wasn’t much to worry about; we zipped up our coats and continued hunting. If anything, the gently falling snow added an enjoyable element to the trip. But it kept snowing and the flakes became more serious. After a couple of hours there were six inches of the white stuff on the ground and my tracks were beginning to disappear. I decided it was time to make a judicious retreat to the T-bone steaks that were waiting for us back at the jeep. I soon ran into Hunt who was walking with Phil.

“Have you seen Bob?” I asked. He and I had parted an hour earlier at the edge of a large thicket of brush where Bob had been convinced he would jump an evasive buck.

“I haven’t seen him since it started to snow,” was Hunt’s reply. Phil hadn’t see him since lunch. Normally we wouldn’t have been overly concerned; we were used to traipsing around through the woods on our own. But evening was coming, the temperature was dropping, and the snow was continuing to accumulate.

“Maybe Bob has more sense than we do and has already returned to the jeep,” Phil suggested. That seemed logical so we made the short 15-minute walk back to it. No Bob.

“This is getting worrisome guys,” I said in a definitely worried tone. It wasn’t like Bob to be late for dinner. “Let’s go back to where I saw him last and see if we can find his tracks.” The advantage of snow is that it leaves a trail even a city slicker can follow, assuming that it hasn’t already covered the tracks. Even then there is usually a remnant of dimples in the snow.

These turkey tracks show how clear tracks can be in the snow.

Unfortunately, no tracks or convincing trail-like dimples were to be found. I did spot the tracks of a very large deer, but they disappeared at the edge of the thicket.

“It looks like the buck stops here,” I said to Phil and elicited a weak groan. I suggested we split up and look around.

“We need to meet back here in 30 minutes,” I urged. “Don’t go far and pay attention to where you are going. It is getting close to dark and the last thing we need is a second person missing. If you come across Bob’s tracks, fire your rifle and we will join you.” My degree of concern was reflected in my bossiness. Normally we were a very democratic, almost anarchical group.

Ten minutes later I had made my way to the other side of the thicket and found nothing. Neither had I heard any rifle shots announcing neither Hunt nor Phil had success. Discouraged, I turned around to rejoin my fellow searchers. It was then I spotted tracks leading out of the thicket. Up went my Winchester and I fired off a shot.

“Bang!” the sound of another rifle being fired resounded from the direction Bob’s track had headed. I quickly levered in another bullet and fired again. There was no response. I did hear Phil and Hunt making their way through the brush toward me, though. They sounded like a pair of large bears. We held another council. Once again, we decided to split up.

Phil would return to the road where the jeep was parked and flag down a car. His job was to get a message through to the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department that Bob was missing. Hunt would cut back through the thicket and wait on the jeep trail where the thicket began in case Bob made his way back there. He’d fire his rifle if Bob appeared. I was going to follow Bob’s tracks until dark to see if I couldn’t catch up with him. There was only about 30 minutes of daylight left so the odds were slim. My concern was that Bob had somehow injured himself and was stranded, or that he had become disoriented and become lost.

Following the tracks was a challenge. They would be clear for a few yards and then disappear under the snow. It was continuing to fall and beginning to drift, whipped on by a strong breeze. Each time I lost the tracks I would work forward in a zigzag pattern until I found them again. It didn’t help that Bob was tending to wander or that I was tired from a full day of tramping over mountains avoiding deer. Dusk was rapidly approaching when I came across another set of tracks that crossed the trail I was following. They were fresher, and they were also Bob’s! I yelled but the only response was the silence of the snow filled woods. It seemed to me that Bob was beginning to follow the classic lost person syndrome of wandering in circles.

I wanted to go on, needed to go on, but knew that the decision would be the wrong one. Dark had arrived to reduce an already limited visibility. I was tired, close to exhaustion, and cold. Hypothermia was a real threat. Ever so reluctantly I turned around and begin to make my way back toward Hunt, leaving Bob behind to face whatever fate the dark and snow and cold had in store for him.

The realization of how tired I was really hit me when I came to a downed tree and couldn’t persuade my leg to step over. We had quite the discussion. I reached down, grabbed my pants cuff and gave the reluctant appendage a boost. Hunt was waiting where we agreed and I filled him in on my findings as we made way back to the jeep through the ever-deepening snow.

Phil had had more luck. The vehicle he flagged down had a CB Radio and the driver was able to contact the Sheriff’s office. A team with snowmobiles would be at our jeep at first light, prepared for a full search and rescue operation. Bob, who was manager of Placerville’s newspaper, The Mountain Democrat, was well-known and liked in the community. We knew we would have lots of support in our search.

There wasn’t anything else we could do. We were too tired to set up the tent so we climbed in the jeep, grabbed a bite to eat, downed a Bud, and prepared for a long night. Hunt got the front seat—it was his jeep— and Phil and I shared the back. It was beyond uncomfortable and even exhaustion couldn’t drive me to sleep. Somewhere around two I finally managed to doze off only to be awakened at 5:30 by Hunt’s cussing about how damn cold it was. And it was. Our sleeping bags hadn’t kept us warm and the doors had frozen shut. We had to kick them open. We soon had our Coleman lantern blasting out light and our Coleman stove cooking up a mass of bacon, eggs and potatoes. We were expecting a long day and knew we would need whatever energy the food could supply. The storm had passed, leaving an absolutely clear sky filled with a million twinkling stars.

The Sheriff’s team arrived just as the sun was climbing above the Crystal Range of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, exactly on time. Introductions were made, snowmobiles unloaded and we filled the team in on our efforts of the previous day. The deputy sheriff in charge asked me to climb onto the back of his snowmobile and take them to the point where I had left Bob’s tracks the night before. It was to be my first ever snowmobile ride; except it wasn’t.

Just as the search team was firing up their engines, a wraithlike figure wearing a plastic poncho came slowly hiking up the hill toward the jeep. He looked like a bad guy out of an early Clint Eastwood western. It was Bob. As soon as the sun provided a hint of dawn, he had managed to orient himself and start walking back toward the jeep. Yes, he was freezing, but he was alive. We knew just how alive he was when he demanded his share of breakfast. As we cooked up another mass of bacon and eggs (fortunately we hadn’t eaten everything), Bob told us his story.

He had become disoriented after coming out of the thicket and headed off in the direction he thought would take him back to the jeep. It didn’t. He fired his rifle several times to get our attention but the sound of shots is fairly common in the forest during hunting season. We just assumed a deer hunter had gotten lucky. Bob continued wandering and eventually came across his own tracks. That was when he seriously began to worry.

Knowing he was lost and knowing night was coming on, he gathered wood for a fire. The wood was wet and refused to start burning. Bob’s lighter ran out of fuel but he still had a few matches. He took his lighter apart, placing the innards under the wet wood and used his last matches to light it. The good news was that the fire started. The bad news was that the wind and snow put it out almost immediately. It was some time during this process that I had fired my rifle and Bob had used his last shot to respond. Out of options, he had dug out a packrat’s nest to provide shelter and prepared for the longest night in his life. He had survived in lodging that made Hunt’s ancient jeep seem like a five-star hotel.

“I even fell asleep once or twice,” Bob managed to get out around a mouthful of eggs.

Of course, the Mountain Democrat ran a major story on Bob and he had to take considerable ribbing in Placerville over the next several months. It was a small price to pay considering the alternatives. That Christmas Bob received several compasses for gifts. It was years before he had tolerance for any temperature below 70.

I took this photo out my front door of our home in Oregon. And then went back inside…

NEXT BLOGS:

The Man: It’s time in my Burning Man series to visit the Man— and witness Black Rock City’s premier ceremony, the Saturday night burn.

Big Sur: Noted for being one of the most beautiful coastal areas in the world, my visit is limited by massive landslides.

Patty: My friends and I were on a preseason scouting trip for trout streams in the Sierras when a white van roared around us, lost control, and ended up in a snow bank. We were about to encounter Patty Hearst and one of the scariest terrorist groups of the 70s: The Symbionese Liberation Army.