We've had a lot of people ask us about what we use for sleeping pads. "How can you be comfortable sleeping on the ground?" they ask. They seem to think that sleeping on the ground is...hard.
Well, to be fair, the ground is hard, and we've made some adjustments over the years.
P slept for many years on a 1/2 inch piece of closed cell blue foam. M was always trying something new, and usually in combination with at least one other pad--the best combination was a Thermarest Z-rest mattress over 1/2 of foam pad.
But then one year for her birthday, P bought her a Thermarest Neo-Air mattress--the modern version of that old inflatable plastic thing that we used as scouts. It was a revelation, and she was in heaven.
P remained unconvinced. "Goldurn fancypants foolishness" or something like that, was what he could be heard to mutter under his breath.
Until, that is, one day when he accepted her offer to borrow her Neo-Air to take a nap in the afternoon. Holy Mackerel was that nice! He quickly bought one for himself. One order of fancypants foolishness to go, and make it snappy!
You can see them above, showing yellow underneath our bags.
They are relatively light (about 12 ounces, all in) and inflate to a VERY comfortable 2 inches or more. Of luxury. All part of our home away from home.
So we used these pads for about four years, and were pretty darn happy with them. Over time they began to leak and flatten out over the course of a night. And after living with them for a couple of years that way, re-inflating them in the middle of the night, we finally contacted Neo-Air about getting them fixed.
Very simple process, and they made it easy. We sent them our mattresses, and they promised to fix them for very little money indeed--all in the course of a promised 4-6 week turnaround. Can't beat that.
Well, you can beat that.
Because about two weeks later, instead of fixing all of the leaks in our older model mattresses, they sent us brand new ones that don't leak.
We're sold. Again. We can hardly wait to sleep on them. Again.
But that doesn't mean you shouldn't hike. This is a glorious time to be in the mountains. Pick routes that offer easy "escape hatches" in case you need to bail out early, and we usually try to avoid getting our car trapped on the East side of the Sierra...
That long drive down around the southern end of the mountains is not much fun.
We're continually puzzled by those who make backpacking sound like some kind of survival adventure, particularly when it's in the Sierra Nevada. And no, we're not talking about those idiot survival shows that take a star and a helicopter and camera crew somewhere and then act like everyone's life is in danger. Give us a break.* Very pleasant seventy year-old couples regularly hike the John Muir Trail from one end to the other. It's not life or death. It's not even exciting. It's beautiful. it's relaxing. It's not a survival show.
Survival is pretty simple. In terms of basic needs, you need water, shelter, and food, more or less in that order. You can die after three days without water---but you are never more than an hour or two from water in the Sierra. Shelter? That's what you have in your pack, unless you are really trying to be stupid. A tent and a sleeping bag will get you through anything that can happen to you in the summer in the Sierra. And food? You can live for a couple of weeks without food. By that time, you will have hiked out. It's hard to get to somewhere in the Sierra that is three days from a trailhead.
Of course, you can die in the mountains, but it's far more likely that you'll die driving on the highway to the trailhead.
If you do die in the Sierra, chances are it is because you have drowned--that's the leading cause. Swimming in ice cold water, particularly in roaring springtime rivers, is not smart. And you can become hypothermic if you don't pay attention. Or lost.
We try (successfully) to avoid those things.
That's not to say that we always know exactly where we are and what we're doing. We hike off-trail often, and sometimes we don't know exactly where we are, or how to get to where we want to go. Fair enough.
But here's the important fact: we've never been in a situation where we didn't know how to go back the way we came, and get out and get home safely. That's pretty darn key.
Because whatever we do in the mountains, we never take a risk that says: OK...that was so difficult and dangerous that we have to keep going forward, because going back is not an option.
Common sense. Not something found on some of those TV shows.
When we get to one of those kinds of places, we look it over carefully and think it through. And if we're not convinced that it's safe for us to proceed, and will be safe on the way back, we find another route.
Which means that we sometimes find ourselves making decisions based on what would be nicest, easiest, or more comfortable. Backpacking is recreation, not a life and death struggle.
We like nice, easy, and comfortable. And we hiked to amazing places. Staying alive.
*The new Dual Survival show with Grady Powell, an American Green Beret, and Josh James, a Kiwi outdoorsman is much better--primarily because they don't try stupid stuff, they don't act like the are about to die at every moment...and they use pretty good common sense to solve the usual problems of water, shelter, food, and getting found.
On topic of conversation we had in SEKI with Ranger Cindy was the use of bear boxes in the remote backcountry of the park. We were wondering how they got those heavy steel bear boxes into the wilderness areas of the park. And while a few of the newer ones disassemble for transport, Cindy told us that most of them were flown in by helicopter.
They are installed in areas of heavy use, where backpackers might be tempted to leave food around.
Since we carry our food in Bearvaults at all times now, we barely (!) used the bear boxes in SEKI at all. In the upper Cloud Canyon there were none. But the one in Comanche Meadows made a perfect bench for our lunch stop--shady, flat, and just right for both sitting and spreading out our picnic.
Joe saw our post and sent us this:
On a recent trip to Emigrant Wilderness, a group of us setup camp on the south end of Upper Buck Lakes. Later that day, we encountered a group on of people on horses accompanied by an unleashed dog (looked like a Foxhound). They were looking for a campsite somewhere around the east side of Upper Buck Lake.
Later that night, we could hear the hound barking and some yelling by the owners. It didn't last long, but it sounded like the hound happened upon some night critters. The next morning, shortly after waking up, we heard the sound of an animal calling out, somewhere in the southwest side of the lake. We also heard the hound barking. We were surprised to hear the hound in this area since his camp was clear on the other side of the lake.
After a few minutes of this, we decided to take a look, but we did so cautiously, because we thought that the dog might have chased a bear cub up a tree. It turns out that the hound had trapped a fawn on a hillside. When we got closer, we could see the fawn was exhausted, laying down, and appeared to give up. The hound was holding the fawn by the hind leg, in his mouth.
We decided to move closer and start yelling at the hound to get him to release the fawn. We even threw some rocks in his direction (not at him), and after numerous attempts, he eventually let the fawn go. I tried to put myself in between the hound and the fawn, to keep him from going back. He was set on trapping this fawn. I'm guessing he is a skilled hunting dog.
During this time, the fawn was able to join up with 2 does nearby. I wasn't sure if the does and the fawn stayed together or not. I wondered if they might have abandoned the fawn because of the scent the dog likely left on the fawn. I'm not sure if that happens with deer.
We ate breakfast after that and we think the group on horses with the hound left the area. Later that night, we heard a pack of coyotes on the north side of the lake howling. We worried the worst happened, that maybe the does didn't stay with the fawn, but we really don't know. We were kind of bummed out about this.
Of course, it could have been different prey. That is nature, and nature happens. We reported the issue to the ranger station when we got back. Later that day, I got a call from a very concerned Fish & Game officer and told him the story.
There's probably not much they can do, but I'm hopeful the rangers will continue to reiterate to people with dogs that they are required to keep the dogs under control.
Before and After, above.
We've come to a sad realization about our summer backpacking trips to the Sierra. It used to be that one the most dependable elements of those trips was the deep blue skies that we would find above. There is something about being up at 10,000 feet that helps make those skies truly memorable.
But they may well be a thing of the past. Over the past few summers, those skies have almost always been smoggy with the smoke of forest fires, either near or far. You can see this as you explore our photos. What was once blue, blue skies and views that went on for tens of miles are now dingy skies, and the distant peaks are barely visible through the smoke.
It's sad. And given the state of our trees (Will they ever recover from the combination of drought and beetle infestations?) those vistas of deep forests that cover the lower slopes like a blanket may also be a memory that we can only tell our children about. Or show them our photos from years ago.
One slightly happier note is that we noticed both blue skies and healthy trees in our last trip up to the Caribou Wilderness, just to the north of the Sierra--as in the photo at right.
It was lovely. And it made us just a little sad to realize that we hadn't seen either skies or trees like that in a number of years in the Sierra.
It was a quiet weekend at our cabin up by Sonora. P was clearing away the last of the leaves in the yard to create more than the usual defensible space, and M had decided to join our daughter in a quick dip in the nearby lake.
It was quiet. Too quiet.
Suddenly loud CDF planes starting flying by overhead--their engines roaring what seemed like only a few yards above the trees. Then a CDF chopper came almost overhead, thumping away and creating its own downdraft in the trees.
As P continued to work, a neighbor stopped by to chat. The fire, it turned out, was only about a mile away in the Stanislaus National Forest. And while the wind was blowing towards the fire, that was still a bit close for comfort.
Then P saw the chopper headed for the local lake, to pick up a load of water to fight the fire.
The ladies were in for some exciting action.
Over the next twenty minutes or so, the chopper made four trips to the lake. Then the planes disappeared, the noise stopped, and P kept working away on those pine needles.
A few minutes later, M and Estelle returned. They had left all of their things, including towels, books and clothes, on one of the swim platforms in the lake and swum to the far side just before the chopper first arrived. It blew everything all over the surrounding territory. And every time they decided it was safe to swim back across the lake, the chopper returned again.
When they finally got back to the platform, the towels and clothes were in the water, on the beach, in a tree...and in one case, a red t-shirt was never seen again. The books fluttered and flapped in the down-wash. and every single page had a light coating of water and sand on it.
The ladies themselves were in much the same condition as the books, with their hair blown into wild knots and their bodies covered with grit and sand by the 100 mph+ winds from the chopper.
We're delighted to note that the CDF crews stopped the fire in its tracks and had it well under control by the time M and E returned from the lake. Very impressive.
Just another quiet day at the cabin.
Correction: Just about everywhere that dogs are allowed in the wilderness they are required to be on a leash or under vice control. In California's national parks, they are not allowed on trails at all--in fact, the rule in most national parks is that dogs are allowed only on paved areas--anywhere you can take your car, you can take your dog. That doesn't include any trails that aren't paved.
But we'd estimate that of the fifty dogs we've seen in the backcountry this year, about three of them have been on leashes. It's the single most frequently broken regulation that we see in the wilderness.
On our last trip to Caribou Wilderness, we ran into quite a few dogs, and only one of them was on a leash. But that dog was within a mile of the trailhead, just starting out, and we wonder how long he stayed on that leash. We don't say that because the owners looked untrustworthy--but the trails the Caribou Wilderness are rife with deadfall trees. We had to climb up and over, or around more than 75 trees on our hike there. And we can't image what you would do with a dog on a leash in that scenario. Our guess is that you would get pretty darn tired of the tangles.
Of course, some dogs we've met are extremely well trained and behaved. But not all are. And we worry not only about dogs interacting with other hikers. More of a concern is how they might interact with the local wildlife.
We're just back from three days of some of the most peaceful and relaxing hiking we've done a many a year: twenty-three miles of lake after lake in the Caribou Wilderness.
It all started from Chester, where we used the wonderful maps from the Lassen Hiking Association to find our way to the trailhead. They also have just about the best maps we've ever seen for hiking in any area: clear, comprehensive, and easy to print out. Check them out here: http://lassenhiking.org/
It's a good thing we had those maps, because there are no signs from the county road as to where to turn off to the Caribou Wilderness. (If you are interested, take route A21 to Mooney Road, and follow it to the Silver Lake Campground...then follow the signs towards Cone Lake for a couple hundred yards. That dirt road to the left is the one to the trailhead.)
It's ironic that there are no signs to get to the trailhead, because once you get on the trail, the signage is very comprehensive and even repetitive at times. Every junction had at least one sign, sometimes two. And every lake was identified by a sign as well!
It was a long drive from Napa, so we didn't get started until well after lunch, and we hoped to hike in about six miles.
Leaving Caribou Lake itself, we went up towards Turnaround Lake, passing Jewel and Eleanor Lakes on the way, as well as a few smaller ponds that haven't been named yet.
Turnaround Lake (Photo left) would be a perfect spot for a lunch on a day-hike, or even a campsite, but we pushed on past the Twin Lakes to camp at Triangle Lake. We weren't sure that we would make it all six miles, but as it turned out the six miles included only about 500 feet of elevation gain, and that was done very gently, with only one serious switchback.
In fact, in twenty-three miles of hiking we counted only three switchbacks in the Caribou Wilderness. This is pretty easy hiking. The only real challenge was the number of deadfall trees across the trail...which were every where. But there was usually a quick route around them, or they were low enough to step over.
There were quite a few good campsites at Triangle Lake, and even though the first two were occupied, we soon found a place that would work just fine--albeit designed for a group of twenty. We fit our tent into a small corner of the site, and sat back to enjoy the peace and quiet.
And cool temperatures. It never got above 70 degrees on this hike, and in the cool shadows of evening, we were wearing most of the clothes we brought. Across the lake, someone had a small campfire, and that added just a touch of quaintness to the scene.
The next morning it was darned cold--close to freezing. We slept in a bit, and didn't hit the trail until about 9 a.m. We continued on our route around Triangle Lake, noting again that from here trails lead into the seemingly remote Eastern parts of Lassen Volcanic National Park, and then headed south.
Turnaround Lake had only one campsite occupied, but it did have a lone wood duck patrolling the surface. And from there we passed Black Lake and the two Divide Lakes (North and South) on our way to Long Lake. All of this hiking was between 6750 and 7000 feet of elevation, and so we easily hiked the six miles in well less than three hours, even though we stopped for photos, a snack, etc. This is easy hiking!
Long Lake had quite a few good campsites, and they ranged from very developed sites to areas that were seemingly untouched, but still perfectly usable. We choose to stay in a developed site on the peninsula on the West shore of the lake.
Most of the campsites here are too close to the water to satisfy the regulations. You are supposed to be 100 feet from both trail and water, and most of these were quite close to the shore. But since we were late in the season, the water levels were much lower, and what would have been an illegal site in June was now well away from the water levels of September.
So we set up camp, ate lunch and then decided to do a quick day hike of the Posey Lake Loop.
This is a five-mile route through at least ten lakes, and it certainly didn't disappoint us. In a little over two hours we were back at our camp, and trying to remember the names of all the lakes we'd seen. There are no towering peaks, no deep gorges, in the Caribou Wilderness. No soaring waterfalls or roaring rivers--only lake after lovely lake, nestled into the embrace of forests of Lodgepole pines.
And lots of birds. We were charmed to see an osprey in the tree above our campsite at Long Lake, and later watched him soar over the lake looking for a fish restaurant.
We met a few small groups each day on the trail, but all of them seemed rather quite and reserved--unlike some of the "epic" hikers we sometimes meet in the Sierra. This place has a different, and very pleasant, vibe.
That evening we settled into our camp and put on all our clothes again. It was a bit breezy, and the clouds had changed from high cirro-stratus to puffier cumulus...some of which looked a little bit dark and threatening. By dusk they had all pretty much disappeared.
The next morning we forced ourselves to get started just a bit earlier, and despite the cold weather we were on the trail by 8:30. From Long Lake it was a quick six miles back to the car, passing the Divide Lakes again, as well as turn-offs to Emerald and Gem Lakes.
When we got back to Caribou Lake, we were struck by the fact that the ugliest lake we had seen in the whole area was the one whose name was on the Wilderness. Caribou is a reservoir that simply doesn't stand up to the comparisons of the other lakes we'd seen on the hike.
We were back at the car by 11, and into Chester in time for lunch.
Here's a link to the rest of the photos: https://goo.gl/photos/PX5SSGp4cNB2zyGYA
People often ask us how we decide to hike where we hike.
When we first got started, we simply chose a trailhead that led to a popular destination, and followed the trail to that goal. But over the years we've changed that a bit. We now worry less about a final destination, and more about areas to explore. And we worry less about staying on the trail, so that we can wander off into those areas that don't see so many people.
And we almost never stick 100% to our plan, because we know we're going to be curious about what is over that ridge, or beyond the lake.
So with all that in mind, we still have a long list of places we'd like to hike. There are quite a few dayhikes that are still on our list, waiting for an open day in our schedule when we're in that area of the mountains.
And we have a few short trips that we've been saving for a short weekend, or when we are joined by someone who doesn't want to tackle too ambitious a hike.
And then we have the medium-length trips, and the longer trips that we hope to get to some day. We took two of those this summer, one to Kings Canyon and one to Huckleberry Lake in the Emigrant Wilderness.
But while we were doing those hikes, we found ourselves noticing a trail here, a lake there, and a whole other section of the valley over there. Reasons to go back, or to add a new hike to the list.
Which is why even though we did seven trips this summer, our list keeps getting longer.
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