21
Sep
18

Backpacking in the High Sierras

I was so busy at my job from 7/1/17 to 6/1/18 that I never was able to take a vacation day. So I decided that after I left work on June first, I’d go to Alaska for a few months, then I’d take an extended backpacking trip in the High Sierras. I had the idea of hiking from Bridgeport to Lone Pine–surely a great trip—an I applied for a permit that would allow me to cross Donohue Pass, just south of Tuolumne Meadows, but I did not win a permit in the daily lottery on any of the 14 days I entered my name. So I decided to enter the mountains just south of that pass, from the June Lake area, but in the spring I was working hard all week and moving out of my apartment on weekends, so didn’t have time to plan the trip. What needs to be planned?  The resupplying of food and a few other things like batteries. No big deal, I thought, I’ll pull it together once I arrive in the Owens Valley, on the east side of the Sierras. But after a couple days in the towns along Highway 395 I realized I had to shift to plan C. I couldn’t get a single horse or mule packer to take a supply of food into the mountains for me. Back-country lodges who offer resupply services to thru-hikers require that you mail them your provisions at least 3 weeks in advance.

Well, I’ve seen most of the country I was going to hike–been on most of the trails already. Plan C: go hike some sections of trail I’ve never seen.

My first hike began at South Lake, West of Bishop. The route would take me over Bishop pass (11,972’), down to LeConte Canyon, Northward, over Muir pass and into Evolution Valley, and then up the Piute Canyon heading Eastward and over Piute pass to North Lake. I would then try to hitchhike back to South Lake. It would be a 56 mile route if I didn’t deviate from the trail, but I wanted to explore the high lakes near Piute pass. So it would be 60 miles in 6 days.  Just right.

The first day retraced the route that I hiked in 2010 with Lauren and Dan–over the pass and into Dusy Basin. Dusy is such a beautiful setting—many small lakes at the feet of granite peaks—that on the last trip we laid over for a day and explored the basin and the high granite beyond it to the south without backpacks. This time I blew right through to the West end of the basin, trying to get some miles to allow me to be near Muir Pass the next day. Notable during the hike was the collection of about 15 deer carcasses in the talus just below the pass. I’m guessing they gathered on a cornice in winter and the cornice broke. They fell and the cornice toppled on them burying them in snow. After the hot summer all that was left was bones, some dried and hardened sinew being picked by ravens, and a little fur.

I found a good camp at the lowest lake of the basin as light rain began. A few aspirin helped me sleep with the elevation headache that I expect–a guy from sea level arrives to the Sierras and carries a pack over an 12,000’ pass.

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Dusy Basin

The morning light was good, and I got a few photos before I descended to LeConte. That descent was so beautiful (again) that it made me a little mountain drunk and I took a brief video of the experience:

And that was before descending into the grove of huge, ancient Junipers that made Lauren cry on the last trip. There trees are spectacular and have stood on these slopes for many centuries.

At the bottom of the canyon I hit the Pacific Crest Trail (also the John Muir Trail) and turned North instead of the South turn we made last time. Heading into new country, I hiked for a few hours among thick-trunked old growth pines with sheer granite walls overhead. Eventually the forest dwindled as I gained elevation and in the late afternoon I was hiking in a barren rock landscape towards Muir Pass (11,955’). There is a series of lakes on the approach to the pass, and they are surrounded with talus, so tent sights are few and far between. A hiker who was descending told me he saw a good camp on a hogsback between the trail and the stream about a half-mile ahead, and I was looking forward to dropping my pack. When I got there another hiker had taken the site. I pushed on to the next lake which was in a bowl of talus and had no place to camp. I dropped my pack and looked all over, finally finding a flat rock just big enough for my tent. It had a bunch of marmot shit on it, and a puddle of water from last night’s rain right in the middle of it, but it looked good to me. 

In the morning I was over the pass within an hour of breaking camp. This pass features a stone hut with an igloo-like dome roof. It was built in 1930 for hikers to take refuge if needed. 

Down I went, through Evolution Valley, where the granite is more broken and fractured than I had hoped. Funny how we respond to the aesthetic quality of unbroken granite; its resistance to erosion, its clean lines. I was reminded of the forward that Thomas Campbell wrote for Moved By A Mountain. 

This basin has many features named by John Muir: lakes named for his daughters (how did he support them if he was out screwing around in the mountains all the time?) and peaks named for scientists with insights about evolution.

After about 11 or 12 miles, I wandered through the woods, way off the trail to the edge of Evolution Creek and made camp on a smooth granite bench beside a small waterfall.

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Evolution Creek

A big tree fell in the middle of the night.

In the morning it was onward to low elevation along the creek, only to turn up Piute Canyon and make for the high pass. I am always trying to travel light, and water is heavy, so if I think I can get water ahead, I will allow myself to run out of the life-giving liquid. Sometimes I make a mistake. The big side-valley on the north side of Piute Creek  had been baked by the sun all summer and was bone dry. I was parched by the time I hit water about 4 miles into the ascent. I drank a liter and refilled for the rest of the day’s  ascent. I positioned myself for the off-trail exploring the next day, and made camp by Piute Creek, well below tree line. Besides the beauty of being in old-growth forests of pines and aspens, and being able to get more oxygen from the air, there are two good things about the low country in the valleys between the high granite of these mountains. One is the ability to have a fire at night, the other is the ability to bathe in the streams (the water and air are a bit warmer, making it tolerable). This year all fires were prohibited, but I got clean two nights in a row.

On day five I approached Piute Pass (11,9460’), but left the trail a half-mile before the pass to cross a tundra valley, and scramble up talus to the shore of Muriel Lake, and from there on up to Goethe Lakes, a pair of tarns sitting in a cirque with the same name. As the sun lowered, the views from the ridge above the lake were rewarding. The granite walls of Goethe Cirque were well-lit.

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Goethe Cirque

And Mt. Humphreys, to the North, took on a glow:

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Mount Humphreys from camp in Goethe Cirque

My last day was an easy descent to Piute pass and on down to North Lake. I got lucky and was back at my van at the South Lake parking lot an hour after hitting the road, thanks to a pair of kind drivers.

After a few days of eating in Bishop, including the traditional steak at the bowling alley and a few fine ales at the new brewery, Mountain Rambler, I was ready for another hike. 

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from the Pine Creek trailhead

A bartender at the brewery became my friend, and he recommended the country above Pine Creek. It was a good idea. I had no set plan of travel. The idea was to ramble around the high granite and lakes in the area. I went up into the Granite Park area, but drifted off trail towards an inviting pass where I made camp at 11,800’ on the shore of the upper Royce Lake.

At this elevation the sky on a clear day is dark blue, and if I had better eyesight I could probably see stars.

Before my dinner of instant mashed potatoes and butter and jerky, I reconnoitered the next pass to the North and found it passable. So in the morning, after a night under the brilliant full moon, I traversed the talus and slid through the pass on a snowfield, and descended into the Granite Park, an impressive amphitheater. I was on a mission to cross two more passes that day, so I didn’t linger. I had lunch in the lee of a big boulder in Italy Pass, in the NW corner of the “park”, at about 12,000’. The wind was stiff and chilly, so I didn’t hang out long. Through the pass, I immediately traversed the talus bowl around Rubble Lake to walk through the pass to White Bear lake to the South, and then to the shores of Black Bear Lake, which is nestled up against the west side of the wall that forms the west side of Granite Park. Here was my camp, at 11,600’, and I had time to go explore the neighboring lakes, all with bear names. These are the Bear Lakes, at the Eastern foot of the majestic peak called Seven Gables. 

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Seven Gables from Black Bear Lake

There is a pass from Black Bear Lake into the Granite Park, and it looks like a cakewalk from the lake, but having been through the park the day before, I knew it was very steep on the other side, and I was working on deciding where to go in the fine morning. The other passes in the area all lead to valleys that drop below tree line, and I didn’t want to leave the high country, so I decided to negotiate that steep pass. I was on no mission this day, so it was a lazy morning, and only a one-hour ascent to the pass—easy, at times following deer prints in the scree which gave me confidence. If deer can do it, I can. Another lunch in a pass (cheese and jerky). I walked along the top of a tiny glacier (the remnants of a much bigger one on the map) hanging in the pass, trying to see what challenges were below, and I couldn’t see. It was that steep. But off to the North side I found a route through the steep talus and scree, and took it, slow and steady, for an hour until I was able to traverse out of what was a very wide couloir, and on to a ridge that led back into the “park.” I was crossing the bottom of the amphitheater when I turned around to see the granite spires beyond a nearby small waterfall, and was stunned. What a gorgeous place! Why go anywhere else? It was only noon, but I dropped my pack. This would be my camp. I wrapped my pack in my silver groundcloth and took off to see the rest of the amphitheater.

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Camp (tent at right) in Granite Park

After all this time in the high country I had produced more hemoglobin to carry every bit of oxygen that I could grab out of the thin air, and with no pack I felt good scrambling around the big basin, but when I climbed the central knoll, I was still breathing hard—“Sucking the wind”, we used to say as oarsmen. I typically breathe like Darth Vader if I’m ascending a slope at over 12,000’.

The view from the knoll was impressive:

My camp was stunning, at the base of a granite outcropping, with a large tundra meadow carved by deep rivulets of pure water, home to young trout. Wandering about the meadow, I enjoyed the last sun of the day and got in bed once that heat source was gone and the temperature dropped. I was up at midnight though to enjoy the moonshine that lit the park well.

By morning the slow-moving sections of the rivulets were capped with ice, and the meadows were alive with flocks of pipits looking for breakfast. 

After breakfast I was almost out of food, so I walked about 10 miles and descended about 3,500’ to the trailhead, with great pleasure. See video:

My lunch spot was a sweet crossing of Pine Creek that, lower down, tumbled off steep slopes of granite. I sold books in the trailhead parking lot, and took the money to Bishop to buy food and ale at Mountain Rambler. 

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An ancient juniper overlooking the Owens Valley

I was running out of time before my school started in September, but had a few days to spare, so I decided to hike up to Mono Pass from the Mosquito Flats trailhead, which is way up a road from Tom’s Place. This was an easy hike up to Ruby Lake, where I dropped my pack, and then a steady climb to the pass (10,600’).

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The ascent to Ruby Lake

In the pass there is a small lake that has good water. From there I ascended the ridge between the pass and the Fourth Recess. Years ago, on another backpacking trip with Dan and Lauren, we camped at the Fourth Recess and explored Pioneer basin. We entered the mountains from Lake Thomas Edison, about 15 miles to the west, down Mono Creek. It was interesting to look down on all that country, and so much of the country to the North to study the lay of the land. in the distance were the Minarets, which I wrote about in this blog just a couple years ago. See video:

 back at the lake I had a little bivouac in some small firs on a granite ledge overlooking the glacial tarn, and watched trout breaking the surface for bugs at sunset. See video:

 

I would hike out the next day and make my way back to the Bay Area, making the traditional stop at the Iron Door Saloon, the oldest continually operating saloon in California, for their spicy “Rimfire Burger” and a local IPA.

The high granite is medicine for my soul that makes me feel more alive, fills me with appreciation for this planet, and appreciation for my strong body.  The views are stunning, but when you’ve spent so much time up there that you no longer get stunned, its time to leave.

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23
Aug
18

The Aleutians

It’s not often that a guy gets a job because he rowed lifeguard surfboats through the waves, and rafted many whitewater rivers. Alaska Maritime Expeditions needed someone to drive an inflatable skiff to take marine biologists from the 72’ steel hull Puk Uk to stellar sea lion rookeries in the Aleutian Islands. I was recommended for the job, and though I have more hours in oared boats than in motorized, I got the job.

I flew to Dutch Harbor, where we began a 900 mile round-about sojourn back to Homer, visiting rookeries and haul-outs along the way so that the biologists could track the many animals that they had branded.

See video on GAP facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/TheGraniteAvatarsOfPatagonia/videos/1843020929079379/

I have surfed beside stellar sea lions out on the wild coast of Northern California, so being close to these beasts was to be nothing new, but I was hoping to photograph the fantastic volcanoes of the archipelago, and maybe I’d get the thrill of seeing a walrus.

The Aleutians sit on the downstream side of a tectonic subduction zone; the Aleutian Trench–a 2400’ deep arching crease in the floor of the North Pacific. Here the sea floor is being thrust Northward and slides under the floor of the Bearing Sea. Once down in the Earth’s boiler room, some of the crust boils back up to the surface to form cones of basalt. These are the chain of islands; a necklace of volcanoes in various states of erosion. Those in the Eastern half of the chain are sitting on top of the continental shelf–relatively shallow water

But the wild waters of the two seas (North Pacific and Bearing) do not honor this boundary of trench and volcanoes. The waters mix, and they mix violently. I have never seen such intense currents, especially the tidal currents between islands. Running the skiff was often more similar to running on a river than on the ocean, with tall standing waves in a current of 8 knots or more. We had to time our travel with the tides to avoid wasting time and fuel by fighting the current.

https://www.facebook.com/TheGraniteAvatarsOfPatagonia/videos/1842177039163768/

 

 

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For 16 days we did this, and unfortunately, in high winds and  rough seas. But my problem was that the skies were almost always cloud-covered, and often socked-in with a low dark ceiling. I only had two opportunities to see a volcano, and both times I saw the same one, Mt Shishaldin, once from the West, once from the East, each time through a hole in the clouds.

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These mixing waters stir up lots of nutrients in the waters and they are rich with fish, bringing many whales to feed. We saw more than 50 humpbacks, sometimes very close to the boat. There are rafts of northern fulmars numbering in the tens if not hundreds of thousands of birds; birds on the water every in direction as far as you can see.

https://www.facebook.com/TheGraniteAvatarsOfPatagonia/videos/1842192922495513/

Immense flocks of tufted puffins–ten thousand swirling over the water like starlings in tight formation. There were frequent flocks of storm petrels, auklets, murres, and then there were the occasional loners: the laysan albatross, with an 8’ wing span passing by, hugging the contours of the waves, the parasitic jaeger in a direct flight, a few red-necked phalaropes bobbing.

As we traveled Eastward towards the Akmak Island rookery, we passed near the southernmost enclave of walrus. Off the bow I saw what looked like a whale, but it was rust-colored. Immediately I grabbed the binoculars, and during brief window of sunshine, a big walrus rose up from the water and looked right at me; tusks, whiskers and all.

24
Jun
18

Rowing Kachemak Bay

 

 

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The text of my book, Moved By A Mountain, describes me finding my land above Alaska’s Kachemak Bay and building my cabin with a view of the majestic Throneroom. It does not mention the fact that I built the cabin to have a small living space on the first floor (more space above), and that most of the footprint of the timber frame was a woodworking shop. The shop was 20′ long and 16′ wide; big enough for me to build a 16′ two-man rowing dory.

As mentioned below in the post titled “Big Water,” I was an oarsman. I began rowing as a kid when I was a mascot to the lifeguards on the beach of my small home town on the southern tip of Absecon Island in Southern New Jersey. Later I joined the rowing crew and rowed for 4 years at Holy Spirit High School, winning several championships in 8-man shells, and culminating in an undefeated senior year (1974) that brought us the National Championship as well as the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta in England.

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At the age of 16 I began working as a lifeguard in the summers, and began competing in rowing races. My rowing partner was the Virginia state wrestling champion who’s parents had a summer house in my town; Kevin McFadden. We had a few years as our town’s champs, which earned us the right to represent the town (Longport) in the big inter-city races. Kevin became an exceptional oarsman and we loved our daily evening workouts on the ocean. He was such a fine person, that it was pure joy to be in his company, and we became like brothers. Rowing was at the core of our brotherhood, and I associated rowing with a feeling of being vibrantly alive.

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So, when I was first looking at beautiful Kachemak Bay, I had a yearning to row on it, which was the reason for the large workshop. I built a dory to resemble the South Jersey surf boat, but with a flat bottom and hard-chines. It would not need to go through surf, just be seaworthy in rough water. It was built for two oarsmen, but I rarely had someone in the stern, as most people have no rowing experience, and think of it is what you have to do when your outboard breaks down. The boat was not easy to to row because it has a narrow bottom, and traditional thole pins instead of oarlocks. There are no collars on the oars, so the oarsman has to maintain balance with feet and center, not with hands. The dory was named “Itality” which was a play on the Jamaican Patois word “Ital” — “vital”, so Itality meant Vitality–what you needed to row this boat on Kachemak Bay.

Itality was launched from the tip of the Homer Spit one late spring afternoon in the mid 80’s, after a bottle of stout was poured over the bow. I rowed it solo across the bay and up Sadie Cove, a fjord, to another boat launching celebration (about 10 miles). A boatbuilder in the fjord had just finished the hull of a wooden fishing boat, and was going to let it slide down greased rails into the water, so it was a good way for me to celebrate my wooden boat’s launch. On the way up the fjord I was followed by a curious bull orca and three cows; an experience I will never forget.

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I rowed around Kachemak Bay to camp on the beaches and continued to have several wonderful experiences for a few years, then the boat got stored in my pole shed and hung there for decades until it was recently splashed. The occasion: Kevin McFadden, still a great athlete at the age of 60, came to row it on the bay with me. We spent 4 days rowing around Kachemak Bay (about 25 miles total distance) and camping on beaches, cooking on campfires and drinking beer. The weather was less than fair, but the bay was calm and the rowing good. We did get to negotiate the choppy shoals outside of Peterson Bay, but once past that, we were riding a small swell entering the bay from the gulf of Alaska, speeding by otters floating on their backs and sitting up to see a rowing dory for the first time in their lives.

It was an event that made the building of a 2-man rowing dory worthwhile, or “vale la pena” as they say in Spanish–worth the trouble. Its only now that I realize that I built that boat for Kevin and I to row, so the trip was the boat’s coming to fruition. The trip was a landmark event for us, and deeply satisfying.

 

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31
May
17

the runoff of ’17

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Now that I work in San Francisco, I’ve been taking 3 trips into the Sierras every summer; adding a day to the 3 day weekends. The memorial day trip has to be in the valleys or low mountains because the snow is still deep in the high passes. This year there are drifts up to 50′ deep in places. But if you can find a steep-walled glacial valley, the falls and cascades that are fed by the spring runoff can be quite dramatic, and even awesome (as most of you know, I only use that word when appropriate).

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This year’s trip was the first that was entirely on trails that I have hiked in the past, up King’s Canyon, past Mist Falls to Paradise Valley and then back down to ascend Bubbs Creek valley. The entire 30 miles was in old growth forest below steep granite walls. There is the luxury of an evening campfire at low elevations (camps were below 8,000′) but the most amazing aspect of the hike was the violence of the snowmelt making it’s way towards the sea.

 

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This is difficult to capture in still photos, so I will upload videos to the Granite Avatars of Patagonia Facebook page. Go to:   The Granite Avatars of Patagonia

12
Mar
17

Alberta Falls

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Alberta Falls,    10×20″ canvas, signed

Spring is upon us and the waterfalls of the sierras will be raging soon. Such spectacular falls have inspired American artists for over 2 centuries.

Do an internet search for “Hudson River School, waterfall” and you will see many fine paintings of the cascades of North America. These painters of early America recognized the intense and sublime beauty of the North American Wilderness. This was a pivotal stage in the evolution in the development of Human aesthetics, which, up to that time, considered wilderness to be a hap-hazard tangle of disorder. Men like Asher Durand, Thomas Moran, and Albert Beirstadt saw beauty in that hap-hazardness, and I have always distilled this aesthetic appreciation down to the leaning tree, the downed tree, and the dead log. This is the element that places the North American Romantics at a distance from the Europeans that taught them. In a word, it was “wild,” not kept, tended, or groomed. Hap-hazardness had beauty just as it was. This was revolutionary.

Still, one had to find that sweet spot–a best location to view the scene. It fascinates me that this is so–that we have to hunt for the right composition. It raises so many questions about beauty and Nature.

Thomas Cole didn’t bother. He just created compositions of wild scenes that were influenced by what he had seen in his travels. Photographers do not have that luxury. We have to hunt, and I enjoy the hunt.

This image is 90% Hudson River school, 10% Ansel Adams, whose years in Yosemite yielded many photographs of waterfalls, often with dead logs strewn below them.

My image was taken in Rocky Mountain National Park. It is of a small yet quite exquisite wild fall. This is printed on canvas to refer back to the Hudson River School. It is part of a series of prints that have a 2:1 ratio. This one is 10 x20”. Normally it is priced at $250, now you can use your tax return to get it at half-price for $125 (until tax deadline, 4/15/17))

20
Feb
17

big water

 

 

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2010. fellow boatman Chris on a wild ride through Hermit

I just finished reading The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko.  Fedarko did a good job of describing the big whitewater of the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon and the navigation of it. The reading made me realize that all of my writing of canyon river trips focused on the beauty of the rocks and my love of river travel, but rarely did I go into detail about the rapids and the waves in them. So I thought I’d revisit the canyon with some photos of boats, oars, and waves, and a quick story.

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After 6 years as an ocean lifeguard, and 3 years representing my home town in the big lifeguard surfboat rowing races as bow man in a doubles crew with my partner (who is still an excellent athlete), rough water rowing was easy for me. I became a guide after my first day on the river with Sierra Whitewater Expeditions in 1980. That summer I learned to read whitewater as I worked on the American River and rowed private trips on the Stanislaus and Tuolumne before they were dammed. The next summer I was hired as the sole whitewater guide for Alaskan Rivers Touring Company, based in Anchorage. Before the weather was warm enough and the glacial melt was high enough for whitewater trips, I worked as a salmon fishing guide on the remote Deshka River and as a freight runner on the Susitna River System. The Susitna drains the glaciers of the Alaska Range near Denali, and takes the water down to the north end of Cook Inlet. On the Susitna I ran a big pontoon boat similar to the ones used in the Grand Canyon, but this river had only small class I and II rapids. The challenge was that we ran under the power of outboard engines with propellers in a shallow river full of hidden gravel bars. If you hit a gravel bar your prop would be worn to nothing in a few seconds, so you had to read water well. And you had to read it constantly. Glacial rivers are not clear. They carry glacial silt and are typically the color of concrete. The beds of the river are silt, sand and gravel, so the river channel is constantly changing in a never-ending process of erosion and deposition. Even if you are on the river every day, you never run the same river twice. We had large plywood decks on the rafts on which we hauled building materials to remote wilderness cabin-building projects. We would launch from the single highway that crosses the river and run as much as 40 miles downstream before turning up some tributary and fighting the current to deliver the load. Then we would make the trip back up the Susitna in the empty, now over-powered rafts, gunning it open throttle right up the chutes of the rapids. Reading the water could get tricky, especially in the midnight twighlight, or when wind and rain made it hard to see the subtle ripples that indicated shallows. One time I tried to take a shortcut in a bend and hit a gravel bar, disintegrating my prop. We carried several spares.

Once the whitewater season got going, I ran the Matanuska River which charged out of the melting glacier of the same name. This river flowed through a rocky gorge above and eventually spilled out into a typical glacial flood of braided channels across an outwash plain of cobbles. In the gorge there was one big rapid that featured a giant hole with a big wave below it. All other guides of the other rafting companies avoided it, but I’d usually run right through it. I had a big Campways Havasu raft which featured 30” diameter tubes (an extra 6”) and for some reason this gave me confidence.

It was this summer that the rain began in late July and never stopped, which is when my book Moved By A Mountain begins, and it is exactly for that reason–that I moved myself to build a cabin by that Alaska mountain–that I never guided again. I was disillusioned with guiding because I was fascinated with the rivers, and their hydraulics, and how they acted as a geomorphological agent, and I had a good grasp of the ecology, and I wanted to share my knowledge with the customers, but the customers just wanted a roller-coaster ride and a party.

Coming from a wooden boat rowing tradition, I had an attraction to the dories of the Grand Canyon and had been considering applying for work there in 1981, which would have put me on the scene as the Emerald Mile raced down the Colorado during the flood of ’83. But I didn’t know who Martin Litton was, and at the time the company was billed as “Martin Litton’s Grand Canyon Dories,” which sounded kind of like a knife scraping a plate to me after my experience with rafting company owners and their egos that could eclipse the sun. I also declined to work for SOBEK International rafting company because they wanted me to work for free until I was approved to be a guide. I would have had to pay my own fair to fly to New Guinea to run tropical whitewater without pay and I declined. The decision to quit and enjoy the wilds of Alaska (I found work as a freelance instrument man with various surveying companies who had wilderness projects) was one that changed my life more than most decisions I have made. I might have remained a river guide for life, working the grand canyon in the summer and in the tropics during the winter.

This would have but me right in the years that the book describes. As a former world champion oarsman working for Grand Canyon Dories, who knows how that would have changed the crew on The Emerald Mile in 1983.

The Emerald Mile’s author had done some guiding in the Canyon, and though there are a few mistakes, he writes well about the river, the water, the rapids and how to run them. Reading the book made me miss the life of a river guide, or, more so, life on the river while rowing on a private trip.

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2009. life on the river: for 18 days every morning there is the necessary ritual of loading the boats and securing the cargo.

What I have never written about is the excitement of the whitewater. The nervousness while scouting a big rapid, that stillness above the rapid when you are 100% committed but still sitting in calm water that is about to drop, the chaos when big water has its way with you as you struggle to make the boat go where you intend, and the alarm when something goes wrong–you bounce off a rock and spin, or miss a crucial eddy. This book covers it all.

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2009. the calm water approach to a rapid

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2010. scouting a rapid is a team effort. here I am giving my read of the dynamics and how I plan to navigate the torrent (I may change my mind after hearing the next boatman’s plan)

In later years I was lucky to be invited to row many different rivers in The West, many of them desert canyon rivers, and I had the good fortune to row the Canyon 3 times. First in 1990 in my own little 13’ tub-floor boat, solo–the boat would fill to the brim on some big rapids and I’d have to row the ton of water into an eddy below and bail the boat out with a 5 gallon bucket.

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1990. I’d occasionally roll a cigarette after lunch–something I’ve only ever done in the wilderness.

 

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Fedarko writes at length about Crystal rapid, which ate all boats in 1983. in 1990 the water was not quite as big. my strategy here was to row stern first for the power to break through the lateral wave. failure to do so would mean getting drawn into the hole you see beyond me–certain catastrophe.

Second time was in a rented 16’ self bailer, and third in another rental, this time an 18’ raft that was the kitchen boat of a 12 person trip. I hauled all the steel and cast iron and propane tanks and tables. The boat weighed about 1800 lbs. I’d launch from the beach in the morning after singing a line from the B-52s’ Love Shack to my passengers: “Hop in my Chrysler, it’s as big as a whale and she’s about to set sail!”.

 

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pushing the Chrysler into a rapid

It was hard to get it moving, but once it was moving it was hard to stop, and that helped me bust through a lot of big waves. It was on this trip that the damnedest thing happened in Lava Falls:

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’09. Fellow boatman Sandy entering Lava Falls

There’s a giant hole in Lava with two waves below it breaking in a V. I was hoping to get to the left edge of the thing, but the river sucks everything into that hole, nobody ever gets around it, and I hit it about a quarter of the way in from the left. A 10’ wall of water slammed us and knocked us into the center of the hole. The flow took us back into the wave and roared over the entire boat and blew one of my passengers right overboard. All I saw was his red life jacket flying by me as I myself almost went out from the same impact of water. While the entire boat disappeared below a curtain of white, the splash lifted me from my seat and was carrying me overboard when my elbow got pinned on my oarlock–the only part of my body touching the boat for a second–my elbow pressed on my ribs, and that resistance held me in. I got back in my seat. We were still in the hole! Again we surged forward, and with all my strength I pushed and we passed through the giant wall. The next move is to avoid “cheese-grater rock” (not mentioned in the book) and after that I was searching for my lost passenger. I saw him and rowed to the same line in the river so he would come to the boat,  I bent over to grab the rescue throw-line and turned around to see where he was–gone. I stood on my seat (another thing never mentioned in the book). I love to stand on my seat to get a good view over waves and over the horizon at the top of a rapid. I stood high to see where he was–gone. I looked all around in all directions–gone. He disappeared, and his girlfriend was still in my boat, worrying. Imagine what was going on in my mind. For a few seconds that seemed like minutes I was trying to make sense of my reality. Meanwhile he was doing the same, but he was underwater. The turbulence of the river after Lava Falls is tremendous. Imagine a man floating in a lifejacket in green rolling waves when two masses of water collide and so the water just decides to go down. He got sucked straight down and held in the cold green depths for about 10 seconds. And then he popped up right before my eyes. What a relief! I threw him the line and got him on board quickly. Soon we were at Tequila Beach–at the eddy below the rapid, passing the traditional bottle around to celebrate the success and to end the nervousness and anxiety and tension and chaos of Lava Falls, the last major rapid of the river. The tension builds for days as you approach this gauntlet. It was about 11:30 in the morning on a hot sunny day, and the crew were not drinkers, but the bottle of tequila was emptied.

 

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1990 running the little tub through Lava Falls. thats my head at top left. you can see a bit of my blue boat being to bulge out of the muddy water. at this point the boat is overflowing with water and I have little control–about the best you can do in this rapid.

18
Sep
16

The Minarets

About 20 years ago I backpacked in to the sierras for the first time. I went with two friends. We made a base camp and climbed a few mountains in the area of the Ansel Adams wilderness between Lake Thomas Edison and Mammoth Mountain. From the top of Silver Peak  (8,878’) I saw the distant Ritter Range in the Northeast.

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me and a buddy on top of Silver peak, about 20 years ago

There, Mount Ritter is accompanied by The Minarets–spires of metamorphic rock; sediments that were baked by the granitic intrusion that the Sierras are famous for. These pinnacles remained in my memory, and I finally had a chance to get close to them 13 years ago, but I had just begun the course of events that would intensify to cause a ruptured disc  in my spine, and at the time I was backpacking to the feet of The Minarets with my girlfriend, I had to rely on her to tie my boots because I couldn’t bend that far. Suffice it to say that trip was not a long one. We only got a taste of The Minarets, and I’ve always wanted to go back. I decided to do so a few weeks before the Labor Day Holiday, but by then almost all back-country permits were gone. I did find one opening that would allow me to hike south from Lake Mary to Duck Lake, and then do whatever I wanted. So a created a round-about tour: heading south from Mammoth Lakes, over a 10,787’ pass to high Duck lake, and westward to the Pacific crest trail which would take me north to the country I wanted to explore. There would be two difficult days of hiking just to get to the beginning of the string of lakes at the feet of The Minarets that I wanted to visit.

My Hiking partner of the past 6 years, Lauren, was learning of my plans by text message, and on the night before I left, she couldn’t stand to miss this hike, so she found a cheap flight and flew to Reno the next day from her Vermont farm. She didn’t know what she was getting into.

Crossing a 10,787’ pass on your first day in the mountains is not a wise move, and it was made worse by the need to make miles so that day two would be less grueling. For a guy from sea level, Darth Vader breathing sets in at about 8,700’, and we needed to stop frequently to oxygenate, But we crossed the pass to spectacular Duck Lake (not a great name for a high mountain lake surrounded by tall granite walls) and dropped out of its west end spillway through old growth pine forest to the Pacific Crest trail.

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Duck Lake

Once on the PCT we headed back North until Lauren had to stop because of elevation sickness making her nauseous. We bivouced at just over 10,000’ on a little flat terrace looking directly across the upper reaches of the deep valley of Fish Creek towards Silver peak. Despite beginning our hike at 1 pm, we manage to put twelve miles behind us in the day, leaving us with only sixteen miles for the next day, but it would not be an easy sixteen miles.

In the morning we broke a frosted camp, and hiked four miles to the first stream (September is the driest month in the sierras) where we had a good breakfast, and moved on, continuing northward, dropping 3000’ to cross the headwaters of the San Joaquin River, passing through Devils Postpile National Monument, crossing over a 500’ ridge and back down to the point where we began the 1,200’ climb in the last four miles of the day to Fern Lake. Long day. And Fern Lake is only at 8,720’. It is the beginning of the string of lakes I wanted to see, but it is the least of them. The next day we had it easy, with a three-mile hike up to the next valley’s lakes, choosing  a granite platform above Holcomb Lake at 9,478’ for camp. We had the whole afternoon off to enjoy the clear green water and the sun. We rested, ate and drank a lot to recover from our trek. The next day would be another long day.

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Holcomb Lake

After breakfast we made our way out of the valley, eastward, which involved a climb to a high bench before plunging almost a thousand feet back down to the to the San Joaquin so we could hike a mile north to the next valley, and back up to more high lakes. These would be the gems of the trip and I was excited. Lauren, on the other hand, was not aware of the magnificence ahead, and was suffering from several blisters on her feet. I took some of her weight and she shed her boots for crocks, and she did fine with the 2,000’ climb in the second six miles of the day. She’s a remarkably good hiker.

We arrived at Minaret Lake–quite possibly the most beautiful lake in the Sierras. Odd that I would say that because the minarets are not made of the famous Sierra Nevada granite that makes these mountains so special. The metamorphic process left these dark Jurassic sediments more durable and resistant to erosion than the granite, so the Minarets stand tall and jagged over the lake.

The sierras are known as “The Range of Light” (a name created by John Muir and made famous by Ansel Adams and other landscape photographers) because of the dramatic lighting that comes from the passing of many mountain-made clouds. But on this trip we would be in the wilderness for six days without seeing a single cloud. And due to the east-facing orientation (just as the Granite Avatars of Patagonia), the only dramatic light would be at dawn.

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Minaret Lake at dawn

In the Sierras I am always captivated by the reflections of mountains in the lakes, and on this trip I was especially so, given the lack of clouds to soften the stark rock and blue sky scenery.

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Early morning reflections of the Minarets

Dinner was enjoyed in a nook of a solid rock dome, high above the lake, followed by the traditional cigar and nip of whiskey, having made the destination. All of these nights we were getting a minimum of 10 hours of sleep (often with strange dreams), punctuated by a midnight pee that we looked forward to so that we could behold the depth of the galaxy in the high, dry, clear air. Lauren’s farm was recently visited by alien craft, so I wondered which star the astronauts come from.

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The craft hovering over Lauren’s farm

This fifth day was our stroll in god’s country–the highlight of the trip–three miles on a difficult cross-country route from Minaret Lake up over a pass to 10,239’ Cecile Lake for a long lunch, down to Iceberg Lake, lolly-gaging there, and eventually dropping down to Ediza–the lake I visited 13 years ago. There’s nothing like being in the high lakes of the Easter Sierras and these lakes are among the best, because of the Minarets.

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Cecile Lake

 

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Iceberg Lake

At Ediza we found a bench up on a ridge above the lake to make camp away from the other backpackers. Ediza is a popular destination because of relatively easy access from the road and the spectacular view of the Ritter Range. Ritter stands above the lake at 13,143’.

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looking out over Ediza at dawn

 

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The rising sun lights the flanks of Lake Ediza

Our hike out of this wonderland was an easy seven miles, five of them downhill, to a road where the ranger had told us we can get a shuttle bus, but she was not paying attention to the dates, and the bus service ended for the season the day before we exited, so we got lucky hitchhiking back to my truck, then celebrated with an ale and a steak at the Mammoth Brewery. Visits to a couple of primitive hot springs eased the stiffness the next day.

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The Minarets from the spillway of Ediza

A quick 53 mile sojourn in the Eastern Sierras is food for the soul. It took a few days of good food to recover from, but a week after we came out of the wilds I achieved a goal that had intimidated me for several months: to row eight 30-second sprints and cover 160 meters in each, with 90 seconds of rest between. I am currently 3rd of all 59-year-old heavyweight men in the world who compete on the Concept 2 rowing machine 2000 meter event (and I am the lightest of them, so on the water I would be #1) and I take great joy in this as I approach the milestone of my sixtieth birthday.

Life’s pleasures, for me, are often connected to my physical abilities, so aging is not welcome. I am studying the maps to plan next summer’s eastern sierra trip. Gotta get out there while I can.

Prints from this trip are half-price for blog readers until my birthday–11/01.




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