OUR BLOG

Photos from some of our hikes in 2017.  The Blog posts are just below the photos.

(Until July of 2016, if you clicked on the photos, they will take you to our trip photo logs on Picasa.  But then Google decided to make that impossible, even though they had provided us with both the website software and the compatible Picasa software so that we COULD do that.  Now the photos are on Google Photos, where we cannot make albums visible to the public.  We HATE Google photos.)


                                        
Cerro Torre, Patagonia                                                                           Buckeye Valley, Hoover Wilderness                                                   

                                        

Evelyn Lake, Mineral King, SEKI                                                            South Sister, Sisters Wilderness, Oregon

                    

Summit City Canyon, Mokelumne Wilderness                                      Echo Peaks, Yosemite


The Fires of Hell

posted Aug 14, 2018, 6:33 AM by Paul Wagner

It has been another disastrous fire season in the Sierra, and this one has hit close to home.  A few years ago the Rim Fire burned much of the area between our cabin near Twain Harte and Yosemite National Park.  This year the Donnell Fire has burned much of the forest between our cabin and Sonora Pass, including most of the Clark Fork area and a big section of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. 

How sad. 

Clark Fork was the destination of our first backpacking trip as an older couple, and it will always have a special place in our hearts.  It was wonderful and scenic, but also quite untrammeled and isolated.  While most people went to other, more glamorous parks, this little section off Highway 108 seemed like our private corner of the Sierra.  We've hiked the Boulder Lake Trail, the Disaster Creek Trail, the Arnot Creek Trail, and Clark Fork itself.  And now all of those are badly burned, along with the campgrounds, cabins, and resort at Dardanelles. 

With cooler weather and hard work by the firefighting crews, both the Ferguson and Donnell Fires seem to be slowing down.  But the damage from them will last for years.  

More Photos

posted Aug 13, 2018, 3:49 PM by Paul Wagner

Mark, the local Mokelumne Wilderness Volunteer who was on our trail crew last week has sent me a link with a lot more photos--including some of me!   Take a look if you are interested in seeing more of what we were doing on the trail.



Working on the Chain Gang...

posted Aug 12, 2018, 11:21 AM by Paul Wagner

Since M has been laid up with tendonitis in her foot, P decided to take advantage of a week-long volunteer trail crew opportunity in the Mokelumne Wilderness, once again with ranger Chip Morrill.  Here's the report on that week:

I got to the trailhead about 5 p.m., and met our packers, Randy and Al, there.  Once Randy and I discovered that we had both spent decades exploring the Sierra, loved fly-fishing, and liked to paint watercolors, this turned into a delightful three-hour conversation.  The rest of the group, seven hikers from the American Hiking Society, a local volunteer, and Chip, arrived later, and we all turned in quickly and caught some needed sleep.

The next day was a long hike into the campsite--somewhere between 7.5 and 9 miles, depending on which signs you believed.  But it was not without incident.  Carla, one of the AHS group, slipped on a steep gravelly slope and did some real damage to her ankle in the process.  She could not continue the hike.  Just as Chip suggested that the best solution would be for me to accompany Carla back to the trailhead and hike in a day later, we were relieved to see a 4x4 on a nearby road.  We flagged down the driver and imposed upon him to take Carla back to the trailhead, where she could rest, use Le Vin Blanc to get around, and figure out what she wanted to do for the rest of the week. 



And then we hiked on.  And on.  On the map, this didn't seem like a long trail. but between the long rests we took, the dry, hot air, and the smoky haze everywhere, it took its toll.  We met a pair of young men who had just hiked up the trail we were going to be working on.  They were tired, a bit bloody, and described  parts of it as a wall of impenetrable brush.  There was work to be done.  By the time we arrived in camp, almost 7 hours after we left the trailhead, we were tired and perhaps more importantly, dehydrated.  Randy and Al had left our food, kitchen, and trail tools for us, so we got to work setting up camp and getting water. 

And that was a bit of problem.  Because of the dry year, the creek at the foot of Munson Meadow was running very slowly, and not very clearly.  We gathered water in buckets and carried them back to camp, only to find that it quickly clogged the gravity filter.  I set to work boiling water on the camp stove. and spent most of the evening doing that.  Since it was the first night, I thought it made sense to get some of my co-op camp duties out of the way, so I also helped make dinner (hamburgers with all the fixings, if you can believe it!) and clean the dishes.  Early to bed, looking forward to a full day's work in the morning.

On day two most of us were up and about by six a.m., Sandy doing her yoga before that. Breakfast was on our own, but John, the AHS host for the hike, had provided an assortment of cereals, oatmeal, bagels, pop tarts and both fresh and dried fruit.  I have never backpacked with the assortment of fresh food that John had organized.  Chip laid out a work plan, and we all chose our options, grabbed the appropriate tools for the task, and headed down the trail into the canyon towards camp Irene.  It was hot, it was dusty, and the smoke was pretty thick at times.  But we worked hard, with no slackers in this group, and made some pretty good progress. 

We were joined later in the day by another ranger, Chris, who brought us news that Carla seemed to be working things out, although without a lot of mobility, back at the Silver Lake trailhead.  He threw his back into the work as well, and by the end of the day, we had worked our way half-way down through the nastiest part of the overgrown trail.  But this was the day we also learned one of the bittersweet lessons of working on this trail.  The more progress we made, the deeper into the canyon we went.  It was hotter down there, and the hike back to camp was even longer.  The section we were working on was 1500 feet below camp, and climbed all of that elevation in less than a mile and a half.  Once we got back to camp, we were fully done.   Dinner that night was a great fresh chicken pasta, and we ate late it was our last meal.  And we were in bed by 8:30--every single one of us. I discovered that the back-flush syringe for my Sawyer Squeeze would work on our gravity filter, and I also insisted that we pre-filter all the water through my bandana.  That gave us a system that seemed to work, slowly, for 4 liters at a time. 

This was the night that I discovered that my Neo-Air mattress has a serious leak.  Two hours after I climbed into the sack, I was on the hard, hard ground.  Not a great night. 

Day Three:  More of the same, but Chris was headed back out today, and did some nice trail work on the way out.  Chip suggested that some people could work on defining the trail more successfully up on the ridge nearer camp.   Lots of the group agreed to do that.  Only Sandy, Nancy, and I agreed that we would go back down into the canyon to tackle that massive wall of brush down below.  And we did.  I have to tell you that Sandy and Nancy were tough cookies, and by the end of that day. we had made it through the thicket of manzanita, huckleberry oak, and white thorn bushes in the sun-baked lower slopes of the trail, and into the more shaded and forested section below.  Whew!  It was damn hard work, and Chip sweated alongside us--even volunteering to hike down another half-mile to a spring to bring us all fresh water bottles half-way through the afternoon.   That made a huge difference as we climbed back up the canyon later in the afternoon.  By the time we returned, the rest of the group had started dinner (Tofu, red beans and rice!) and our smaller crew were able to take the evening off from most of the camp duties, although Sandy still helped cook, and I still boiled some water. 

But I also actually found and fixed the leak in my mattress!  What a relief.  And it worked perfectly for the rest of the trip.

Day Four was a rest day for all of us except Chip, who was going to work on a spur trail along the canyon rim; and Mark, the local volunteer who has leaving us today.  We all agreed to hike about two miles over to Long Lake, where we could bathe, wash clothes, and take life easy.  It was a sweet day, and we all took advantage of the water.  It was still somewhat smoky from the nearby Donnell Fire, but the morning was a bit better and we loved just resting, sitting in the sun or shade, and rinsing off three days worth of real grime.  Naps were the order of the day, and then lunch, and then a slow, hike back the two miles up to camp.  Dinner was tacos--and that led to a wonderful discussion with Paul, our Chinese volunteer, about the relationship between tortillas, tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, burritos, quesadillas, etc.  By the end of the evening we were all in great spirits. 

Day Five:  This was the grand finale.  We all hiked down about 500 feet below the rim of the canyon to tackle a huge log that had blocked the trail.  As Chip readied the bucksaw for use; Rich, John, and Chinese Paul and I trimmed branches and prepared the work area.  But by the time Chip had the saw ready, Rich had a plan to use one of the severed branches to lever the whole log out of the way.  And his plan worked like a charm, with all five of us pushing, shoving, and grunting. 

With the log out of the way, Rich, John and Chinese Paul headed back up to the top of the canyon to work on an exposed section of very faint trail above, and Chip and I tromped off down into the canyon again to join Sandy and Nancy and tackle the rest of the brush down below.  Man, it was hot.  We worked very hard, and at one point Chip and Sandy hiked down with about eight liters of water bottles to bring them back up to Nancy and me for the hike back out. 

Meanwhile, Nancy and I kept lopping away on the nasty white thorn that had shredded hikers legs for too long.  Finally, we called it day and slowly but surely dragged ourselves back up the tail to the rim of the canyon, where we found the rest of the group absolutely exhausted and covered with dust.  We looked good!   Chip shared some of the fresh water with them, while Sandy, Nancy and I slowly walked back to camp.  Dinner was stew with lots of chopped veggies and canned beef, and Sandy and I found ourselves chopping carrots and potatoes as if they were manzanita bushes.  The water filter crapped out completely at this point, and so we also boiled pot after pot of water for cooking, dishes, and human consumption. 

Day Six: Extraction day, as they say on "Naked and Afraid."  We cleaned up camp, got everything ready for the Randy to pack out on his mules, and hit the trail.  I led the way so that we could keep a nice steady pace, with short rests and plenty of water.  And it worked.  We had an early lunch at Horse Thief Spring, and were at the trailhead in about 4.5 hours--a big difference from the hike in.  Even better, the smoke had cleared for most of this day, and the AHS group from around the world finally got to see the Sierra sky that we know and love so well. 

The American Hiking Society organizes these trips all over the place, and I would encourage you to check them out.  John, our trail host, had extensive experience leading boy scout hikes, and did his very best to keep us all fully fed (I had a fresh orange for lunch on the hike out!) somewhat amused (with lots of games and conversational gambits) and even a bit organized (morning circle exercises for the whole group) even though we were an unruly herd of feral cats.  While not everything he tried worked out the way he expected, we certainly all gave him the benefit of the doubt, and the organization of food was amazing.  Highly recommended.

Rich, the local contact for AHS, owns a citrus grove near Sacramento, and brought a wealth of information and technical expertise to everything we did.  If ever something did not work, Rich was the man to figure out why.  Chinese Paul, who leads hiking trips for kids in China and specializes in outdoor education, was great fun.  He worked on his English every day, tackled everything he was asked to do, and spent one memorable evening trying to explain China to us, from the influence of Confucius and Buddha to the Cultural Revolution and his work in changing the educational system there.  Howard was a psychologist specializing in traumatized infants under three, and despite being 76 years old, carried his full share of the workload.  His discussion one night of autism was really interesting, and his sense of humor was a delight.  Sandy had lived in China, Japan, and the Philippines.  She was always first to volunteer to help do what needed, and the experiences she shared from around the world were fascinating.  A real team player.  And Nancy, a young computer engineer from LA, was the best possible companion--hard working, always smiling, and lots of fun. When she sat down to play a new board game that John had introduced to the group, the rest of us all knew we were out of our depth.

Of course, the man behind it all was Chip Morrill.  He was the perfect leader for a volunteer work force.  He always did way more than his share, both on the work crews and around camp.  He hiked ahead to meet the packers at our campsite and make sure it was ready to go, and he stayed later to meet with them again on the way out.  His cheerful attitude, his willingness to offer a wide range of options for our workers every day, and his obvious gratitude for everything we did made the whole trip worthwhile.  I'd do another one of these with him in a heartbeat.

Finally, the smoke that we saw every day was a constant reminder of why it is so important to protect these forests.  Each day the plume from the Donnell Fire was bigger, and slowly drifted our way.  Since I know that area so well (we've hiked there so many times) it was like losing an old friend.  A very sad sub-plot to our week of hard work.   

The rest of my photos from the trip are here:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/G2MRZLJg6umqt6gV6



Mandatory Evacuation of Yosemite Valley

posted Aug 3, 2018, 11:36 AM by Paul Wagner

This from a post on Yosemite News and Discussion group by someone who is very familiar with the park and its staff:

"Convoys are meeting at El Cap Meadow at 1100am and 1200pm for Wawona exit. May also exit via Crane Flat to Tioga Pass only (this route is dependent on fire behavior and could close at any moment). Must leave the valley by 1200pm today."

Very sad news.

Smoke gets in your eyes...

posted Aug 3, 2018, 7:58 AM by Paul Wagner

Someone recently asked for help in planning a backpacking trip to Yosemite next week...and that's a problem.  Here is what we answered:

You are not going to find any guaranteed smoke free hiking anywhere near Yosemite for the next few days or maybe even weeks. They just announced that they have closed ALL roads into Yosemite from the West, so if you are flying into Sacto, you'll need to drive over to Reno and then South to even enter the park via Tioga Pass on the East side. Sorry that I can't give you better news. Things may improve in the next few days, but these fires are enormous and not going anywhere soon. The smoke does seem slightly less ubiquitous as you head North...

Alternatives? Since you are flying into Sacto, I would suggest looking at Desolation Wilderness to the West of Lake Tahoe. Beautiful area, lots of granite, lots of lakes, and far enough North that you might not have as much smoke (unless you get it from the Carr Fire up in Redding.) Between Yosemite and Tahoe, the Emigrant, Carson-Iceberg, and Mokelumne Wildernesses all offer some good hiking, Emigrant is closest to Yosemite, both in character and in location--and consequently in potentially smoke skies. Carson-Iceberg and Mokelumne are further North, and while they can offer some wonderful views, do not have the same geology---more volcanic, less granite, than Yosemite.

Last minute permits are probably easiest for Highway 108, which runs between Emigrant and Carson-Iceberg. And if you take 108 over Sonora Pass, you also have access to the Hoover Wilderness which also has great hiking. You can check out all of these destinations on our website, obviously

You might find that the smoke is less on the East side...drive up 108 and watch the smoke. Stop in at the Summit Ranger Station near Pinecrest Lake and ask for advice, suggestions. If they tell you that all of their trails are still smoky, head up over the pass and check out Leavitt Meadows. Self-register permits at the trailhead for trips up the Walker River towards Tower Peak and Dorothy Lake---great area to explore. And if it is still smoky there, head north on 395 until the smoke stops, then turn West and see what you can find....

The other option is to go up Highway 80 or 50 towards Tahoe directly from the airport. Stop in at the USFS office in Nevada City (80) or Placerville (50) and ask for current permit and smoke conditions. If the news is bad, go past Tahoe and head South...and follow the same directions as above. There is USFS office in Bridgeport (East of 395 and South of 108) that can give you a good idea of what things are like on the East side.

All of these offices have phones, and will answer them---and answer you questions about current conditions.

One other option, depending on where the smoke from the Carr Fire is blowing. Head North on 1-5 and the East to Lassen Volcanic National Park. Not great backpacking there (and the smoke from Carr may be ugly) but East of there you have the Caribou Wilderness...some nice hikes in that area. No permits required, but make sure you have maps. Lower elevations, and possibly higher temperatures. There's a USFS office in Chester, I think, that can give you more up to date current conditions...right now the smoke there looks pretty bad.


Time to push the reset button

posted Jul 31, 2018, 5:37 PM by Paul Wagner

We've been delighted to host our younger daughter this week, as she is traveling between NYC and Peru.  Great to catch up with all that is going on in her life and just enjoy her company. 

But we had a pretty serious backpacking trip planned for this week, starting at Onion Valley Trailhead and exploring Dusy, 60 Lakes, and Gardiner Basins.  That's long been on our list, and this summer was the summer to make it happen.  We had reservations at the campground for the night before, and a permit reservation for the hike itself.  The food was all organized, and we had a new tent ready to go. We were set!

And then our daughter called, and we realized we would rather spend some time with her.  We can always hike that hike another day.  Besides, she wanted to do some backpacking as well, and while we couldn't quite fit in a long trip like Onion Valley, we had lots of options around Yosemite and Emigrant Wilderness to explore. She's a great hiker.

And then it turned out that she wasn't feeling well.  We went up to our cabin and had a few quiet days there, but she wasn't feeling well enough to hike.  So we did a little work on the cabin, lolled around in the heat and smoke, and generally took life easy.   She slept a lot, drank tea, and generally recuperated from a really hectic schedule. 

Now we're back in Napa, with the best laid plans of mice and men certainly gone awry.  Oh well.  We'll drop her off at the airport in a couple of days...and then push the reset button on hikes for this summer. 

We did cancel both reservations, because we knew we wouldn't need them, and we didn't want someone else to go without a campsite or a permit just because we couldn't be bothered to let the USFS know that we weren't going to use it.  

Hopefully, someone had a great time this weekend up there.   

A nice story about Yosemite and its immigrant history

posted Jul 22, 2018, 11:45 AM by Paul Wagner

From PRI:

No one really hears about Yosemite National Park's immigrant history.

Or at least Yenyen Chan hadn't. A park ranger at the famed national park, she grew up in Los Angeles with her Chinese parents. When she landed the job at Yosemite, she realized how little she knew about the park's immigrant past.

So she dug in and stories spilled out about the critical role Chinese workers played in shaping Yosemite during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

"Some of the hardest work that had to be accomplished was getting roads up these high, steep mountains, then blasting through rocks. Back then [they were] using hand tools and shovels and picks, and not the modern equipment that we have today," Chan said.

Many of the immigrant workers were road builders and lodge workers, who took on these jobs so they could send money back to their families in China.

But during Chan's research, one character in particular stood out. In historic black-and-white photos, he's a sturdy man with a tuft of black hair, wearing a white apron. His name is Tie Sing. He's believed to be Chinese, though no one knows exactly where he was born.

"He was the head cook for the US Geological Survey," Chan explained. This was a key job at the time, considering that the USGS cartographers were mapping out the park and campaigning with people like John Muir and the first directors of the National Parks Service to preserve Yosemite.


TieSing_1

The US Geological Survey's famous backcountry cook, Tie Sing.

Tie Sing would hike into the woods with these pioneers and cook up a storm. Robert Sterling Yard, a journalist on one of those historic treks, wrote this about him: "To me, Tie Sing has assumed apocryphal proportions. Extraordinary recitals of his astonishing culinary exploits have been more than I can quite believe. But I believe them all now, and more. I shall not forget that dinner: Soup, trout, chops, fried potatoes, string beans, hot apple pie, cheese and coffee."

Sing also had to be creative. 

"He had to figure out a way to keep meat fresh out in the backcountry. Apparently, he wrapped it in wet newspapers and put it in a place where the breeze would keep it cool," Chan said. 

Sing even prepared fresh sourdough bread. "He would keep some sourdough starter and, in the mornings, he would knead the sourdough and then keep it next to the mule’s body so that it would rise during the day until they got to the next camp," Chan said.

Sing died in 1918, from a cooking or other backcountry accident. It’s not exactly clear. In fact, it’s hard to find out more about Sing or other Chinese workers in Yosemite.

"It seems like a lot of these Chinese who came, a lot of them left their families behind. So I don’t know that many who ended up having kids, or grandkids, although I’m sure some of them did," Chan said. But Sing does have a legacy here at Yosemite National Park — a 10,552-foot peak, bound in granite and dotted with alpine trees, named after him.

"It's in a beautiful spot," said Chan, who has, literally, helped clear the path to the top of Sing Peak. And that effort has also sparked a new tradition: Chan now leads pilgrimages to the peak, organized by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. It honors this slice of Yosemite’s past and workers like Tie Sing, who once labored where Chan now lives.

"He was somewhere really close by, and definitely traveled the trails," she said.


you can listen to the full story here:  https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-10-16/backcountry-cook-youve-never-heard-legend-yosemite-national-park

And NBC just did a story here: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america


Day Hiking in Georgia

posted Jul 21, 2018, 6:20 PM by Paul Wagner

Our friend and fan Walter sent us this report of a trip he and his wife took to Georgia to hike in the Caucasus Mountains.  Since P has visited Georgia for his work in wine, we were really interested in this one!  It's long--but Walter writes really well, and it's worth the read!

Dear M&P

My wife and I booked a trip to the Republic of Georgia with a company that promised day hikes in the Caucasus Mountains. We are both avid hikers and sometime backpackers as well as experienced world travelers, so this seemed like a good idea at the time. Four of the five full-day hikes were to take place in Tusheti National Park, which is in a remote region in the northeast part of the country bordering Chechnia to the north and Dagestan to the east (both part of the Russian Federation). The fifth day of hiking was to take place near Kazbegi, which is north of the capital city of Tbilisi near the Russian border, and under the shadow of 16,000 foot Mt. Kazbek.

GETTING THERE IS HALF THE FUN. The first thing you have to do is find a way to fly to the main city of Tbilisi. Nearly all flights from Western Europe arrive in the middle of the night for some odd reason. Ours got in from Munich at three a.m. So there’s that. Also the time difference from California is eleven hours. Not fun. After a few days of jet-lagged sightseeing in Tbilisi we were driven about three hours eastward through a pleasant countryside and over a low range of mountains to reach the wine-growing region of Kakheti. After lunch we turned onto the road that goes to the Tusheti region. That’s when the pavement ended, and the terror began. The road is about 50 miles long and climbs over 9500 foot Albano Pass. This should have taken about four hours if all had gone well, which it did not.

The topography in this part of the world is vertical — I can’t emphasize that enough — and the local geology is slate and shale, so it’s not very stable, and at the very least it makes for a bumpy road. There is also a lot of water tumbling down, which does not help matters and which makes for a lot of very tall, thin waterfalls and a lot of water crossings. For most of its length the road is simply a narrow ribbon carved out of the side of the mountain slopes. There are too many hairpin turns to count, and the drop-offs are thousands of feet. We have traveled on frightening roads in a number of places around the world, so we are not newcomers to this sort of thing; but we’ve never traveled on anything so consistently terrifying as the Tusheti road. I closed my eyes at times because it seemed like a reasonable alternative to ruining a good pair of pants. If you doubt this, check out the BBC video on YouTube entitled The World’s Most Dangerous Roads or any one of a dozen other videos about the road to Tusheti.

The highlight of our drive was a rockslide that occurred at one of the highest points of the road. It had been raining, and we actually saw the slide occurring as we approached. It completely covered about fifty feet of roadway in three or four feet of shale and mud. Various plans were considered, including just turning back to Kakheti, but in the end our drivers and some other drivers who were similarly trapped decided to see what they could do with shovels. It was impossible to clear the slide, but in about 90 minutes the guys had leveled out the slide somewhat and fashioned steep “ramps” at both ends. After one false start (you don’t want to know), all three of our group’s vehicles — without passengers — lurched and tottered over the slide area. The drop-off was at least 2000 feet at that point. When the vehicles were safely on the other side, the passengers scrambled over the slide on foot and remounted. There were other highlights on this road, including a sort of car wash where the road went under a small waterfall and another point where the road passed between eight-foot banks of snow on either side with a raging little stream flowing under those snowbanks and across the road. Hard to believe, but that’s what it did.

The moral of this story is that you need a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to Tusheti as there is no other way to get there other than by horse or on foot. And you had better hire a professional driver because this is a seriously dangerous road. I’ve discovered on line that such drivers are available for a reasonable price.

WHAT TUSHETI LOOKS LIKE. I would say that Tusheti looks like the Alps, but I’ve never been to the Alps. It looks like picture postcards of the Alps. There are towering, rocky, snow-capped peaks all around, I think around 12,000 to 14,000 feet. If you get high enough you can see 360 degrees of snow-capped peaks. In the near distance there are lower mountains covered mostly with pine and deciduous trees, often in alternating strips, and above the tree line it is green. Everything is very steep. Few people live in Tusheti any more. There are about 50 tiny villages, which usually consist of a handful of slate houses. Many look abandoned, but it’s hard to tell. In any event, the population is low in the summer and very low in the winter, which is long and harsh. Many of the inhabitants are shepherds who move their sheep or cows down to Kakheti for the winter. There are a lot of sheep, and the cows look just like the cows in postcards of Switzerland. There are also a lot of horses and hardly any fences. There are also few tourists because (a) it’s Georgia and (b) this place is seriously hard to get to. The Tushetians are working on tourism, however, and one village, called Omalo, aka Upper Omalo, is working particularly hard. They are building some new guest houses, albeit small and in the traditional style, and repurposing some older buildings as cafes or shops. It looked a bit trashy or at least chaotic to me. More ramshackle than quaint. I could see it someday becoming a destination for young Lonely Planet backpacker types. But 99% of Tusheti is pristine. In four days of hiking we saw only one person on the trail who was not part of our little group.

The most outstanding feature of Tusheti, at least in June, is the wildflowers. I have never in all my travels seen wildflowers in such profusion and such variety. They are simply everywhere. There are entire hillsides covered with white rhododendrons. There are lush green fields covered with buttercups. There are wildflowers of every imaginable kind and color. Put that together with the snow-capped peaks, the rushing streams, and the deep canyons — it must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. Way beyond my expectations and well worth the trouble of getting there.

Hiking trails and roads range from about 5000 feet in elevation to something over 9000 feet. River deep, mountain high.

HIKING IN TUSHETI. We did four day-hikes in Tusheti. The first took us from our guesthouse to the nearby “information-center” and then down about 1500 feet to a river. The information center is a beautiful wood and stone structure but with no electricity, no water, and no employees save for one old man. Half of the display cases are empty, and it’s a bit dark inside. Welcome to Georgia. Donated money is not always well spent. Worthy projects sometimes go unfinished. Our vehicles picked us up at a bridge on the river and took us up a steep set of switchbacks to our guide’s native village of Shenako, where we had lunch at her mother’s house. After lunch we made a circuit of a small mountain on an absolutely terrible up-and-down trail, ending up at the tiny village of Diklo, where, incredibly, there was a shop that sold beer. On that hike we got a good view of the snowy ridge that forms the border between Georgia and Russia, and as we descended into Diklo we came upon an idyllic scene of small cows grazing in fields of buttercups. On this hike we also saw a few Dagestani houses down below that were said to be in no-man’s-land, technically within Georgia’s borders but said to be controlled by Russia. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would care, it’s so rugged and remote, but you could have said that about South Ossetia as well, and the Russians took that by force in 2008. The hike was about nine miles in total, which doesn’t sound like much, but there is no such thing as flat in Tusheti. The trail was very sketchy, and I would surely have lost it several times if not for our guide. It was hard enough that my wife decided that this trip was going to be more than she could comfortably handle, even though we would only be carrying day packs. At the end of the day we were mercifully driven back to the guesthouse in Shenako where we had eaten lunch, and we spent the night there.

On the second day we set out on what was billed as the most challenging hike. We drove a short distance from Shenako toward Diklo to an unmarked trailhead and then set off up the side of a mountain. It was 1400 feet steeply up to the ridge line and then 2400 feet steeply down to a river. It was relentlessly steep both ways, but at least it was under cover. There was a rough bridge across the river, and then we went straight up again what must have been another 1500 feet to the village of Chigho, where we had lunch. In the afternoon we walked another five miles along a dirt road to the village of Dartlo, arriving just before a thunderstorm broke. It was twelve miles in total, and it seemed to me that the descent was harder than the uphills, although some in our little group had serious trouble with the second climb. My wife wisely passed on the morning hike and got a ride to Chigho, where she joined us for lunch and then walked the rest of the way to Dartlo. Half of the folks who did the morning hike decided they’d had enough and were driven to Dartlo.

On day three we drove to a trailhead above the tree line, and we hiked up from there. Up and up. This is where we saw whole hillsides blanketed in white rhododendrons, an unbelievable sight. After about three hours of exposed hiking we stopped at the top of a long ridge from which there was a panoramic view of rocky, snow-capped peaks in all directions. We could also see three different valleys far below — a bird’s eye view of Tusheti. I think we were somewhere over 9000 feet. After a leisurely picnic lunch we spent a couple of hours wending our way down the other end of the ridge to a dirt road near the village of Dochu where our vehicles were waiting. On our drive back to our guesthouse we stopped at a village called Bochorna that is said to be the highest continuously occupied village in Europe. There is a USAID sign that says so, but if you google this you will find that a village in Svaneti, Georgia, makes the same claim, but is Georgia part of Europe anyway? Who do you believe? This day’s hike was about nine miles. The weather was cool, which was fortunate.

On day four we were warned that there would be an extremely steep stretch, and that turned out to be true. We started out on from our guesthouse and descended several switchbacks on the dirt road leading down to the river. We then crossed the bridge and headed upriver on a branch of the same road. After three or four miles of these preliminaries we started up the side of the canyon. There was a trail, more or less, but there were no switchbacks. It just went straight up. My wife rode a kindly old horse all the way up this rugged stretch. She loved it, and the horse seemed to enjoy it as well. We had two other horses, and two of the other women in the group eventually mounted up, too. With several stops for the slower hikers and the plodding horses, it took us about two hours to get to the top, where there was a vast green meadow full of wildflowers and another spectacular view. We enjoyed another leisurely picnic lunch there before descending by a different route to the village of Khiso (I think). The villages tend to look alike. The way up was at least under cover. The way down was steep, exposed, rocky, and treacherous, but we all stayed on our feet, and somehow there was beer in the village. This was another nine or ten mile day.

ACCOMMODATIONS. Tusheti is primitive. There are no hotels, only small guest houses, and those are few and far between except in Omalo, which appears to have several. Omalo also has a pathetic souvenir shop and a pathetic cafe. I don’t recommend staying there, but there aren’t many choices, and a visit to the fortress towers on the hill just above is mandatory. Some brave soul tried to build a hotel near Omalo, but it has remained unfinished for years. It looks like barracks. Part of the problem is money, and part of the problem is finding staff. Most Tushetians have better things to do, and most non-Tushetians simply don’t want to be there because . . . primitive. This and the difficulty of access could put a serious damper on tourism or at least on high end tourism, which is the kind a country like Georgia needs. Outside of Omalo I’m not sure if there’s anything else that could really be called a shop or cafe, although you might be able to buy beer and snacks if you know who to ask.

We spent three nights at a guesthouse a few miles from Omalo and about a mile from the information center. It bills itself as the Hotel Tusheti and is swank by Tushetian standards but is still pretty basic. It has maybe a dozen rooms. Some rooms have en suite facilities and others do not. It was a bit full when we were there, and some guests slept on the floor in the hall. No one seemed to mind. Sometimes we had running water and sometimes we didn’t, and sometimes the water was hot. Decor is ethnic and odd, and there are numerous animal pelts on the walls — bears, deer, badgers (?). (Our guide told us that if you want to capture a bear you should sneak up from behind and grab both of it ears. This renders the bear helpless. She was serious. I started to say “but how do you . . .” but thought it best just to drop the subject.). There was no heat, so we had to layer up one night. Other nights were warmer. Food was good and plentiful, especially if you like cold eggplant, but breakfast didn’t start until 8:30, so if you woke up at six, as we usually did, you had a long wait for your morning Nescafé. This was the case everywhere we traveled. Georgians are not early risers. We spent one night at a much smaller and more basic guesthouse in Shenako. It was more like a home stay. Small rooms, shared facilities, no usable showers, although some lucky members of our group got to use the shower in a neighbor’s house. Uncle Somebody. Everyone is related in Tusheti. We also spent another night at a small guesthouse in Dartlo. Our room was basically a closet with two single beds, a chair, and no room for anything else. It was “rustic.” There was at least a real shower and a real toilet, although we shared it with three other couples. The food, was pretty good, as it was everywhere we went, but the dining area was open to the elements, so we were chilly at dinner. The setting was spectacular.

We really didn’t know what to expect but were not surprised by the spartan accommodations. The Four Seasons does not have a hotel in Tusheti, and that’s a good thing. We are accustomed to backpacking in wilderness areas, so we were quite happy with real beds, such as they were, a roof, which came in handy during the thunderstorm, and a toilet nearby. All of the guest houses had electricity some of the time thanks to solar panels and batteries. Showers, where available, were a nice bonus. We slept well and had no complaints.

TRANSITION. We managed to make our way back over Albano Pass on the world’s scariest road without incident and were back in the wine region of Kakheti by early afternoon. The slide had been cleared. We had lunch al fresco at a private home. The food was good, but the setting was a bit humble. The privy was even humbler, but let’s not talk about that. My wife took one look and sneaked around the back. (Much of Georgia, even in the more populated regions and even in the backstreets of Tbilisi, seems like the third world. The Soviet system was not kind to Georgia nor was the bleak period that followed independence. They are doing better now.). That night we stayed at a weird winery/hotel In Kakheti called Chateau Mere. Imagine a fake castle with pornographic photos in all the rooms and beds that featured a kind of seesaw effect. You don’t find hotels like that every day. We did no hiking on that day, and the less said about the hotel the better.

The next day we drove back to Tbilisi briefly and then headed due north on the main highway to Russia, known as the Military Highway. It’s another narrow road over a mountain pass, but it’s two lanes all the way and paved and open all winter thanks to snow tunnels. It does a lot of twisting and turning, but it’s heavily traveled, particularly by commercial trucks going to and from Russia. There is a big ski area on the way up to the pass, but there’s not much going on there in June. Unfortunately, our beautiful Mercedes Benz minibus called it quits before we reached the summit, and we had to wait a few hours in the Georgian equivalent of a gas station minimart. Very educational. Dunkin Donuts of all things.

KAZBEGI. Help arrived, and we finally crossed the pass and made it to the tourist town of Kazbegi in the early evening. It’s quite the opposite of Tusheti. It’s bustling, chaotic, and well developed. The place we stayed was also nothing like a Tushetian guesthouse. It was a 160-room luxury hotel, and it was filled to capacity. When we got to our room, we suddenly understood Kazbegi’s raison d’etre: Our room had a full-on view of Mount Kazbek, a 16,000 foot behemoth. It was like having a hotel room with a picture window at the foot of Mount Shasta. There was a full moon that night, and we left the drapes open. Every time we woke up, there it was, looming awesomely in the moonlight. The hotel was nice enough if you like big, busy hotels; but it was really all about the mountain. Kazbek is not the tallest mountain in Georgia, but that seemed irrelevant.

We had only one day of hiking in this area. In the morning we set out from the hotel, walked down through the town, and began ascending toward the mountain; but we would only be climbing the nearest hill to visit an ancient monastery at the top. It’s quite a hill — plenty big and steep — and it was nice to have a guide because there were a lot of alternate trails to choose from. It was probably four or five miles to the monastery, and it was hot, and when we got there we found out that there was a road and that dozens of vehicles had beaten us up the hill. We toured the small church and wandered around the walled grounds, rubbing shoulders with a few hundred of our new best friends. We were not impressed with the monastery — not all old things are interesting — and we’d already toured several Georgian churches. There is a sameness to them. The crush of overweight tourists taking selfies did not brighten our day. We were eventually were driven back to our hotel.

In the afternoon my wife decided that she’d had enough hiking. Some others in our group did as well. That was a shame because the afternoon hike was very pleasant. We were driven up to the village of Juta on a bad dirt road (but they’re working on it). That part took 45 minutes and was not pleasant. Then we set off up a very steep and rocky path. After half a mile the trail turned into a gentle climb up a wide green valley toward a jagged group of mountains that looked like a picture postcard of Patagonia. It was heavenly. It was also a popular place, unlike Tusheti. In the lower part of the valley there were a couple of tiny hostel-type lodges where you could either stay in the lodge or pitch a tent outside. It looked like a good deal. We simply hiked up the valley for a couple of miles, sat and relaxed for a while, and returned the way we had come. The next day we headed back to Tbilisi for a final day and then home. We had to leave our hotel at three a.m. to catch our five a.m. flight.

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED? Tusheti is a magical sort of place, but getting there is an adventure in itself, also potentially magical if you like to be scared, and the accommodations are basic, not magical, and require some patience. As noted, except for the lateness of coffee and breakfast we had no significant complaints (but that was a big one). But what would be the best way to see Tusheti? Even if all you want to do is day hikes, I think you are going to need a guide. There are topo maps with all the trails marked, but what trails are worth your trouble, how do you find the trailhead, how will you get there, and how do you find your way? There are a few road signs in both Roman letters and Georgian letters (absolute gibberish) pointing the way to villages, but in four days of hiking we didn’t see a single sign for a trailhead or trail junction. You just have to know where you are going. In some places the trails are sketchy and/or present a number of confusing alternatives. You may come to a village, but is there a place to stay, to eat, to buy beer and snacks? You don’t know, and for the most part the locals don’t speak English. They are friendly, generous, and hospitable, but there may be a failure to communicate. (On the other hand, Georgian shepherd dogs are large and downright hostile in the wrong circumstances. They are guard dogs. This can be a serious problem if you don’t know what to do, and therein lies another story.) This is not to say that a guide is an absolute necessity. There are good topo maps. You also can learn a lot from the internet, and maybe a GPS unit would be useful. Tushetians, if you can find one, would probably be happy to help you out if you could make yourself understood. Otherwise you would just have to surrender yourself to the fates, use your best judgment, and hope for the best. For some people that’s the ideal way to travel. We’re not quite that brave in a foreign country where we don’t speak the language.

We went with an outfit called Wilderness Travel, which is based in Berkeley and offers numerous trips with a wide range of difficulties. Our group consisted of four couples ranging in age from 60 to 70 (we’re both 70) and a single woman who was maybe 45. The trip was rated a “four” in difficulty on a scale of one to seven. Unfortunately, it was a bit too difficult for a few of our group, reasonably fit though they were; but there were ways of getting around that, namely riding one of the horses for a while or cutting the day short. Personally, although I didn’t care much for the steepest downhills, I had no trouble keeping the pace. Overall I enjoyed each of the hikes and loved the countryside. We found that all of the other folks on the trip had traveled many times with Wilderness Travel and had done day hikes all over the world — the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Dolomites, Patagonia, and so forth. That was just their thing. We, on the other hand, are Sierra backpackers. We’ve also done lots of day hikes on our own in places around the US and Canada but hardly any guided ones. At the same time, we’ve done a lot of international travel, but by and large they’ve been nature trips, “fur and feathers” in places like Borneo and Botswana. So, surprisingly, we had a clash of cultures on this trip. The other folks, with one exception, had absolutely no interest in backpacking or in wildlife. As one guy said to me, “If I can’t have a beer, a hot shower, and a warm bed at the end of the day, I’m not interested.” When I explained the kind of backpacking we do, one woman, aghast, asked “but what if something happens to you?” So we tended to keep our mouths shut about backpacking and nature trips. Instead, we listened to a lot of stories about day hikes, and that was interesting enough. In any event, we saw no wild animals at all and very few birds. We did see several golden eagles.

Another thing we discovered is that we don’t really like hiking in groups. We didn’t think that would be an issue, but we found that we like to be alone, and we like to set our own pace and do as we please. Our group was nice enough, but I often thought what a wonderful time we could be having by ourselves, only we really couldn’t because we would have needed a guide. I’m quite capable of losing the trail in the Sierras, where I feel at home. I would certainly have lost my way in Tusheti, which is not the best way to achieve solitude. So, different strokes for different folks. I asked our guide about backpacking in Tusheti, knowing that she has led many such trips in recent years. She said that she takes clients on a seven-day point to point trip through the wilderness, but it is “supported,” meaning that there is a whole entourage of porters, cooks, pack horses, and wranglers. This has no appeal for us at, but that’s just personal preference. There’s nothing objectively better or worse about that kind of trekking, though some may think so. I asked our guide about just heading up the trail alone with a pack, and she said “Oh, God, why would anyone want to do that?” So that was a short conversation. Still, I believe there are a few in Tusheti who do just that, and I understand that if can get yourself to Omalo by yourself there may be folks who will guide you on short trips; but I really can’t speak to that. There are Georgian companies like Georgian Highlands that run a variety of extended trips to Tusheti. I really can’t speak to that either. Their website is not the most informative I’ve seen.

Our guide was a woman named Eka Tchvritidze, an interesting character to say the least. She and her husband own a small winery in Kakheti that they call Danieli. In the US their wines are marketed by Blue Danube. There was a lot of wine drinking on this trip and some wine tasting as well, which was all good, but there isn’t much I can say about it. I don’t dislike wine, but I have no palate. It all just tastes like wine to me, so there isn’t much point in my drinking the good stuff. At home I stick with beer.

Walter J

The rest of the photos

posted Jul 19, 2018, 8:55 AM by Paul Wagner

For those of you who requested a link to the rest of the photos of our trip to Yosemite, they are here:


And here is the photo of M and the back end of the bear: 




A quick trip to Yosemite

posted Jul 16, 2018, 12:17 PM by Paul Wagner

This past weekend our schedule opened up, and we were able to get up to Yosemite for a few days.  It was a shorter than usual trip, for a couple of reasons, but we still got a chance to get out and see this amazing park again.  Before we started, we knew that M is still nursing some tendonitis in her foot---so that meant a relatively low stress kind of visit.  We picked out a few day-hikes (including a couple that were just wandering around a nice area) and thought that we would play it by ear for the rest of the trip. 

We arrived on Friday morning with the hopes of snagging a campsite somewhere in the park.  Happily, we got one at Porcupine Flat, the first place we really looked.  Later that day, when we drove past the Tuolumne Meadows campground about 10:45, there were still sites available there in the middle of July!  Once settled into our campsite, we drove on up to Tuolumne Meadows and decided that we would take our chances on getting a next day Wilderness permit to go backpacking. 

We knew we couldn't tackle much in the way of uphill hiking, so we really only had one option:  Lyell Canyon.  If there were permits available for that very popular trailhead, great.  If not, we would stay in the campground do our day-hikes instead.  When we arrived at the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Office at 11 a.m. on the dot for our "next day first come first served permits," there were about 25 people in front of us in line--all getting a very efficient and thorough backpacking briefing from a ranger.  We joined the group, and when the presentation was over, the ranger came down the line and asked about destinations.  When we told her about Lyell Canyon, she checked her chart--and checked us in!   A few minutes later we had our permit.  Amazing.  The only downside was that the weather called for 50% chance of thunderstorms.  Not ideal.  But we had until tomorrow to make a final decision on the hike.

That afternoon we stopped at Pothole Dome and took the use trail over to the river to see the Cascades. This is a nearly dead-flat hike with a nice pay-off at the end, and the whole thing can't be three miles round trip.  A perfect way to see if we could tackle anything more ambitious tomorrow.  Besides, the weather today was supposed to be even worse than tomorrow, so it would give us an idea of what to expect.

And everything went fine.  No injuries, no real pain, and I caught a few trout in the river, spotted lots of deer on the far side, and took a few photos of one of my favorite views of Tuolumne Meadows.  A good day.  That night we chatted for quite a while with our campground host Doug--who loves backpacking and sharing stories about it--and headed to bed for an early night.  What a nice day. 

The next morning we were up early, and by about eight o'clock we had stored all of our food in the bear boxes at the Wilderness Office, then parked le Vin Blanc at the trailhead parking a bit further along the road.  The weather was warm and humid, but the skies were clear, and we had hopes of a nice day--especially since the day before had only offered some overcast and very light sprinkles.  For the rest of the morning, we slowly and majestically worked out way up Lyell Canyon, taking it easy, not hurrying, and trying to baby M's sore foot. 

And we were successful.  We crossed Ireland Creek, ate lunch down by the river, and thought over our options.  I hoped to cross the river and set up camp on the far side, where there would be fewer people.  But M didn't like the idea of a waist high crossing in that cold river.  So we explored a bit further down the trail, and up the hill, and finally found a nice spot to camp.  It was nap time.  We set up our tent, stored our gear, and took a quick look at the darkening skies.  Hmmmm.

No sooner had we climbed into the tent than it began to sprinkle.  We weren't worried, as we've been in many showers in the past, and enjoyed a delightful rest while the forest got refreshed. 

But not today.  Soon thunder was cracking around us on all side.  Big, loud thunder.  And cloudbursts of rain pummeled the tent.  Hmmm.  50% turned out to be 100%--and these were serious storms.  Cold wind hammered the tent, the rain pounded down, and there were times when less than a full second elapsed between the flash of lightning and the explosion of thunder.  We were in the middle of it! 

And that's when we noticed that my old tent that had served us pretty darn well in the past (including rain in Cloud Canyon in Kings Canyon) was no longer up to the task.  It was leaking.  And this was not the kind of rain for a tent that was leaking.  We bundled up inside (M wearing her rain gear) and waited out the worst of the storm.  By 3:00 the rain was now just a steady rainfall, and the thunder and lightning seemed to be moving away. That was good.  But there were more dark clouds on the horizon, and we agreed that we would wait another fifteen minutes before making the decision to bail.  Then we waited another fifteen minutes.  They we agreed that we would decide by 4 p.m. 

At 4:15 things were not a lot better.  The rain was lighter, but didn't look like it was going to end in the near future.  And we knew that if he hiked out, we could easily make it by dark.  Our only real concern was M's foot.  As long as her foot held out, we would be fine, and sleeping warm and dry.  If not....well, we weren't sure.  No camping was allowed within four miles of the trailhead, which left us few alternatives. 

Like any good husband, I left the decision to her.  And at 4:10 she decided.  "Let's get out of here."  About five minutes later we were on the trail, hiking through a light rain.

And of course, as we hiked, the weather improved.  The trail was muddy and puddled, and every branch and bush loosed a cascade of water if we touched it.  But it was also beautiful and fresh smelling, and step by step we slowly hiked back to the trailhead. 

By the time we had gone a couple of miles, we were feeling a bit more optimistic.  M's foot was holding up fine, and the sprinkles we saw were a far cry from the darker clouds and downpours further up the canyon---where we could still hear occasional claps of thunder, and see the dark clouds.  We were also meeting lots of hikers who had started out much later in the day...and they all asked us about the weather up the canyon. 

Sunlight began to work its way through the clouds, and the views were spectacular.  In fact, as we hiked through the late afternoon, we found ourselves re-thinking our usual daily schedule when backpacking.  Instead of hiking in the morning and early afternoon, and taking the late afternoon and evening off, maybe we should do more hiking later in the day.  It was stunning.

And there were lots of animals out and about.  We saw more marmots than we've ever seen in our lives, including lots of families with little ones.  And a host of smaller rodents as well, from squirrels to pikas to ground squirrels.  They were all out for dinner.  Closer to Tuolumne Meadows we also saw a lovely buck with a full set of antlers.  And by the time we got to the trailhead, we added a black bear to the wildlife sighting list.  Pretty darn cool. 

But it was about two miles from the trailhead where M's slow pace began to takes its toll, and those last two miles were hard.  We slowed down, we snacked and drank plenty of water, and finally, about 7:45, we walked across the last bridge, dodged the bear, and climbed into our van.  For a day that was supposed to be a gentle re-introduction to life on the trail, we'd somehow managed to hike about twelve miles with full packs. 

That was not the plan. 

And now we had to find a place to sleep in Yosemite at 8:30 p.m. on a Saturday night in the middle of July.  We were not optimistic when we hit the road.   Looking to the West, we saw a towering cloud of smoke and knew that a big fire was burning over there....sigh.   And then as we pulled into the entrance to Porcupine Flat, we found that the "Campground Full" sign was still not displayed!  We saw a campsite, and took it immediately.  Then P drove to chat with Doug about what might be available.  It turned out that there was exactly one campsite free.  We took it.  Unbelievable luck!  We cooked our dinner, ate it, and fell into bed.  Given our concerns, it had been quite a day.

The next day dawned clear and sunny, and we drove through the park and enjoyed the views. We drove to our cabin, passing a bald eagle nesting on top of a telephone pole near Moccasin, and added that to the wildlife list for this trip. 

In retrospect, we had done a couple of really silly things on this trip.  Because we didn't really expect to get exactly the permit we needed, we weren't really expecting to do much backpacking. After all, with M's sore foot, what were the chances?  So we hadn't really checked out our gear, or made sure that we were ready for the weather.  And normally, with a forecast of 50% thunderstorms, we would have waited a day and left the crazy weather to people who wanted it more.  But since we already had the permit, we figured we'd just play it by ear and see how it went.

And that's how it went.  Ah well.  We've already put in an order for a newer and certainly waterproof tent, even while we've dried the old one out and started to try and fix it.  And the good news is that in the days that followed, M's foot seems to be OK after all that work.  And P's sore knee seems like a distant memory.

There are still a lot of days left in the summer...and we plan on taking advantage of them!
  

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