How to Take a Bath in the Woods… The Sierra Trek Series

Many trees take on a certain beauty when they die that matches whatever beauty they had when alive. I often find myself stopping to admire them and frequently photograph them. I couldn’t help but wonder what gave this tree its twisted look. The canyon in the background leads up to Muir Pass.

I am returning to the Sierra Trek today. I told the story in my last post about how our second day had included hiking 16-miles without water, confronting a 6-foot rattlesnake, discovering that one of my participants was lost, and having to deal with a minor rebellion. I was not having fun. I ended on a more positive note, discovering that the lost Trekker wasn’t lost. If you missed that post, or any of the others about the Trek, I’ve listed them at the bottom of this post.

Not having any photos of that first Sierra Trek adventure, I have been posting photos from other backpacking trips I have made up and down the Sierras. Today, I am focusing on the beauty of trees and wood grains that hold their beauty long after they have died.

 

I found this unusual knot that resembled a duck when I was climbing over a pass in the Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe.

With Dick, the lost Trekker, back in camp, I declared a layover day and turned around to go retrieve the two people I had left behind at Duncan Creek. Along the way I met the rest of the Trekkers and told them that our lost party had found himself.

“I am beginning to understand what it means to be a manic-depressive,” I told Charlie. My life over the past three weeks had been one constant roller coaster. I allowed myself a slight glimmer of hope that we had made it beyond the low point of our adventure.

The other Trekkers had made it to Robinson Flat the day before without a hitch and I now had everyone back together again. A layover day gave all of us, including me, a chance to recoup. People were able to wash clothes, take baths, read, and just lounge around, swapping lies about their terrible ordeals. Even the Four Mouseketeers were back in high spirits. I came over a hill and found them gathered around one of my older female participants as she sat in the middle of a tiny stream without a stitch of clothes on. They were struggling to appear cool and carry on a conversation while she bathed. I sent them scampering back to camp. At least I had answered my earlier question as to what kind of babysitting services we were providing.

Nan, one of my staff members from the Lung Association in Sacramento, showed up with resupply about midday, including food, cold beer, sodas— and Jo Ann. It was good of Jo to come, but we were uncomfortable. Still, I was glad to share my adventures and frustrations to date with her. I left out any references to hiking and holding hands with Lisa. After Nan and Jo departed and I had people settled in for the evening, I headed over the hill, loaded my pipe with Balkan Sobranie pipe tobacco, and settled in for a smoke. I hadn’t totally abandoned my pipe (adult pacifier?) at that point and needed the solace it provided. I must have sat there for an hour staring up at the stars, alone in my thoughts, sad.

But the sun was shining the next morning, as it usually does in the summer Sierra. I felt glad to be out in the woods and happy to be alive. My body was beginning to tone up and I could almost hear my pampered fat cells screaming in protest.

We hit the trail early. I took over leadership since we were now covering a section of the route I had previewed. It felt good being up with the hotdogs, all younger than I was by a decade. The miles sped by as we maintained our three to four-mile an hour pace. Of course, we were egging each other on. As the old man of the group at 29, I had to prove that the kids couldn’t outrun me. My only problem was blisters. My feet were still doing battle with the new Lowa boots, and the boots were winning. Since I couldn’t ignore the blisters in the same way I was ignoring the piteous cries of my fat cells, I kept slapping on moleskin. There wasn’t much bare skin left.

Camp that night was at an old mining area called ‘Last Chance.’ Obviously, some disgruntled forty-niner had named it as his dreams of wealth were fading. The area was a major checkpoint on the Tevis Cup Horse Race. Veterinarians tested horses to see if they could continue on. It is used for the same purpose today for long distance runners on the Western States 100-mile ultra-marathon. I wandered around and carried out a similar check with the Trekkers. There were a couple of people I assigned to the jeep for a day or two and several whose feet I patched up. I was becoming quite the expert on blisters. People were in an amazingly good mood.

I found this beauty near Benson Lake Pass near the northeastern corner of Yosemite National Park.

I set up camp next to Charlie, which involved unrolling my ground cloth, ensolite pad, and sleeping bag. We were sleeping out in the open at the time, which I almost always did unless weather forced me into my emergency tube tent. We lay there, looking up at the sky and contemplating the myriad of stars the clear Sierra night made available.

“What an experience,” Charlie offered. “I can’t believe I am out here. Someday, people will be doing these Treks all over the nation.”

My thoughts were more along the line of “Thank God we made it through another day.” But things were definitely getting easier as Steve and I adjusted to our group and the group adjusted to its long hiking days. The next day even found several of us trotting along the trail in sheer joy with Orvis trotting right along with us. We still had our share of challenges though.

Food was one. I spent a lot of time listening to complaints about Ham Cheddarton, which the Trekkers were eating every other day. They had even composed a little ditty about the meal and where I might put it. It sounded rather uncomfortable. At least they were developing a sense of humor. Three young people from Auburn had the most legitimate gripe. I discovered they had broken their stove and were eating the goop with cold water. I turned down their ‘generous’ offer to sample a bite and loaned them my stove. (We had three in our cook group so cooking wasn’t a problem, but my stove never quite recovered from the experience.)

This old stump might be a bit frightening at night. I found it in the Granite Chief Wilderness behind Squaw Valley.

Keeping the troops clean provided another interesting challenge. Some people simply didn’t bother. I suspect our Four Mouseketeers weren’t overly concerned about missing a bath or two. But nobody was squeaky clean. People have a way of deteriorating in unison on the trail. Even the most conscientious develop a certain look, a certain patina. You don’t really recognize this state of deterioration until you arrive back at civilization and meet disgustingly clean people at trailheads.

There are numerous approaches to bathing in the woods. The one I developed on the first Trek and have used most often since is the yellow bucket routine. It simply involves going down to the lake or stream, filling my collapsible plastic bucket with water, and disappearing into the woods.

Like in real estate, location is everything. At a minimum, wilderness ethics require that I be far enough away from the lake or river to avoid getting soap in the water, even biodegradable soap. Beyond that, I tend to wander around searching for the perfect site. I like to find a spot where my bucket won’t tip over. Few things irritate me more than to be standing out in the woods naked and see my bath water go happily splashing off down the hill. It’s been known to make me forget my bath for the day. It’s doubly irritating if I have already soaped up. Having something smooth to stand on is another requirement. My tender feet do not appreciate pine cones and other sharp objects. Being greedy, I also like a view. I actually find such places on rare occasions.

As with location, water temperature plays an important role in determining bathing pleasure. Early season, snow-melt streams guarantee a fast bath with minimal attention to detail. I’ve developed headaches from really cold water. When the water is icy and I am feeling particularly wimpy, I boil up a pot of water and add it to the bucket.

I found this ancient tree blaze in the Desolation Wilderness and could only wonder who had used it to mark their way several decades earlier. Insects and woodpeckers had also marked this wood, telling another story. Speaking of bugs…

The true bane of outdoor bathing, however, is insects. A bare butt in the woods is like a huge neon billboard announcing your presence. You can almost hear the clarion call go out:

Major target located in northeast quadrant. Proceed at once to location. No invitation is necessary, BYOB. (Bring Your Own Beaks)

A half-dozen or so mosquitoes almost always come with the territory. It’s when they swarm in the hundreds that bathing becomes impossible. I’ve mastered the 30 second bath for such occasions. This involves dumping the bucket of water over my head and then whipping myself dry with a towel to keep the mosquitoes off. And no, there is nothing kinky about this. Depending on where I am backpacking, I have also had black flies come after me with a knife and fork, no-see-ums disappear up my nose, and horse flies hit me repeatedly on top of the head kamikaze style. The latter are about as easy to kill as an enraged grizzly bear. When my flying friends aren’t enough to keep me amused, there is usually an ant around to bite me on the toe, or some more tender location that falls under the TMI category, too much information.

Many backpackers today have switched to using lightweight, backpacking showers that they fill up with water and place out in the sun so can enjoy a hot bath. The showers make washing and rinsing much easier and also solve the problem of cold water. But they can’t do anything about the insects.

This old pine reflects the tough life it had led existing on a high granite ridge in the southern Sierra.

Probably the easiest solution to bathing is to just jump into a convenient lake or river. Again, you can’t use soap because it damages the water supply. Truly lazy or tired Trekkers may jump in with their clothes on, thus rinsing their clothes as well as their body. By now, I am sure the reader is beginning to grasp why backpackers gradually become scruffier as the trip progresses.

One issue that is always present is the question of privacy. Do you slip off into the woods by yourself or do you shed all of your clothes and jump into the lake regardless of who is present. The latter range from folks who jump in and make lots of noise, to more shy folks who quietly slip in business like. Our first Trek, a true 70’s type event, incorporated all types. I already mentioned the woman and her coterie of the Three Mouseketeers. She would have preferred a private bath but had to put up with her youthful admirers.

Two of our Trekkers, who I will call Y and Z, were definitely of the Hippie Generation when it came to bathing. Y was an amply endowed woman who floated in a most interesting way, but it was her boyfriend Z, who drew the most attention. Orvis, at 70, still had a fine appreciation of the female body and could be depended on to check out the action at the local swimming hole. We were camping on the middle fork of the American River when he came up to me with an impish grin on his face.

“Did you see Z, Curt?” he asked with wonder in his voice. “His dong goes all the way to his knees!” I just started laughing and couldn’t stop. I couldn’t help myself. But I also made an innocent trip by the swimming hole. Sure enough, Z, who was a skinny guy, had equipment that would have sent a mare running in the opposite direction.

A final photo to wrap up today’s post. I found this tree near Mt. Whitney.

Have you missed one of my posts on the Sierra Trek? Here they are in the order I’ve written them.

1.  A Far-Out Excuse for Escaping to the Woods…

2. What Do Burning Down a Bank and the Sierra Trek Have in Common?

3. From an Ex-Ice Hockey Player, to a Ballerina, to a Witch…

4. Bears, Rattlesnakes, Heart Break, and Ham Cheddarton…

5. It Takes a Worried Man…

6. A Pot Smoking Orgy in the Mountains?

7. 16 Miles without Water: A Rattlesnake, a Lost Trekker, and a Rebellion…

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