Duck Pass to Florence Lake
Lake Mary to Lake Florence via the John Muir Trail
Day 0: Santa Cruz to Oakland to Mammoth Lakes, CA
Last time my parents came up for a visit they got lost and Emily and I had to go out and find them. Given the long time we would be spending in the car today I was glad when they arrived on time. After stuffing my gear in the car and a quick bathroom break we were on the way…
The plan was simple and well thought out; my parents would drive from their home in the Santa Cruz Mountains to my abode in Oakland and then we would all drive to Mammoth Lakes via Tioga Pass. My mom had reserved a cabin near the trailhead where I would start my hike the next morning. Then after 5 days and 120 miles I would come out of the Sierras at Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park at the same time as one of my co-workers (who would represent my ride home). It seemed like the best way to experience the best of the John Muir Trail in a truncated fashion, which was fine with me since I had day hiked Mt. Whitney in October of 1999 and had been to Yosemite on numerous occasions.
Heading east through the farm lands and tract homes of the Central Valley we made good time. I drove while my mom rode in the passenger seat and my dad entertained Scoobie in the backseat. In no time we were in the park and taking a lunch break near Olmsted Point on Tioga Pass. Back on the road we headed down towards Mono Lake and the Ranger Station where I picked up my wilderness permit that I had reserved about 3 weeks earlier. Back into the car, this time heading south on 395 we zoomed before turning west to the cabin at the “Crystal Crag” resort on Lake Mary. After unpacking my mom and I went for a short hike starting at the trailhead I would begin at the following day. We brought Scoobie and let him roam off of his leash. The weather was overcast and towards the end of the hike the mosquitoes began to attack; however, it was a successful outing and beneficial in terms of accelerating acclimatization.
Scoobie, Casey and Mom (front to back) enjoy lunch near Olmsted Point on Tioga Pass.
Day 1: Coldwater Campground Trailhead to Mono Creek Trail, 23.1 miles
A bit past 7 AM we all piled in the car and drove 5 minutes to the trailhead. It is funny how one may choose to walk for over 100 miles for fun yet not a step further. Shouldering my pack I quickly realized that something was horribly wrong, the female portion of my waist strap was nowhere to be found! A frantic search of the car turned up nothing so in poor spirits we drove the 5 minutes back to the cabin to search. As before, nothing was found and my mind quickly turned from search to salvage mode. The missing piece of plastic fit on 1-1/2” wide webbing. Scoobie had a harness with a similar mechanism but it was only about ¾” wide. I was about to cut it up and rig something when I remembered that my belt was actually a lashing strap! Although it to was only about ¾” wide it was a much better salvage choice. Five minutes later I had a new hip latching mechanism, rigged with 1-1/2” wide webbing passing through ¾” hardware and a leather belt courtesy of my dad. Safety pins also had to be used but I didn’t care; it worked and a crisis was averted. We climbed back into the car and were soon on the trail.
Maybe it was because I had already done some backpacking that year (Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne over the 4th of July weekend) or perhaps it was the excitement of it all, but within minutes of starting the hike, a steady climb up to Duck Pass, I was in a groove. My pack felt comfortable, my breathing was easy, and my pace was steady. I took up off the hill with my parents following and Scoobie in between. And then, while waiting for my parents I had my second calamity; my hat was missing.
Because of the overcast weather I had stuffed my hat into my belt loop and it had fallen out at some point. Shit, Shit Shit! Nothing to do but go back and find it. It would be insanity to hike in the Sierras in August without a hat. I dropped my pack and started jogging back down the trail and after about 3 minutes found it and power walked back up, wondering what would go wrong next.
Soon the trail leveled off and we came to Lake Barney, where we took a 5-minute break and my father took the first of many pictures, most of Scoobie. Back on the trail we headed above the tree line into broken granite and the switchbacks leading to Duck Pass. At the top we took another short break and then headed along the edge of Duck Lake, where the trail started down switchbacks, to join the John Muir Trail. After heading down the switchbacks for about 15 minutes I stopped to wait for my parents at a spring. When they caught up they were not excited about going much farther. I couldn’t blame them; it wasn’t exactly a stunning portion of trail and for every step they went down they had to go up again. I assured them that the junction was not far. They agreed to continue.
Ma, Pa and Scoob at Lake Barney. When I was little we had a St. Bernard named Barney whose head was as big as Scoobie's.
Leaving Ma and Pa and heading towards Purple Lake. My parents were real troopers coming this far out with me.
As it turns out, the junction was only 20 feet away, and, after hugs and photos, I set off on my own. This was to be a first in several ways: my first long distance hike, my first solo hike, my first attempt at stealth camping, and my first high daily mileage hike. The solo part, in conjunction with stealth camping, worried me the most. Stealth camping is a philosophy almost as much as a technique by which a backpacker cooks his evening meal and then hikes several miles or hours beyond the smells of dinner and sets up camp at an out of the way location that has not been used before. Preferably it is not visible from the trail also not near a water source such as a lake or river. You then sleep with your food in your tent and let the bears bother the people who cooked and camped next to the lake at the spot which has clearly been used hundreds of times.
The technique is tried and true, having been used successfully by those adventurous souls who manage to walk from Mexico to Canada via the Pacific Crest Trail. I didn’t doubt that it would work for me as well, but I felt a bit selfish for trying it. After all, I had been married for less than a year, had a very light pack, and was in superior shape. Bringing a bear canister and the extra 2.7 pounds would have bothered me mentally more than physically. However, here I was, without a bear canister or even parachute chord to bear bag.
As I expected, the trail was far from solitary and I met someone within 15 minutes of setting out on my own. He was heading north and after a few minutes of pleasantries we set out in opposite directions. Within another 15 minutes I came across two women from San Diego hiking in the same direction as me. They had started in Yosemite Valley and planned to hike the whole JMT. I was shocked when they told me that the weather had been overcast all day with rain and hail for the past two weeks. If there is one thing that you can count on, it is fine, sunny summer days in the Sierra’s with occasionally short-lived afternoon thunderstorms. This was something that I looked forward to; overcast skies were not part of the bargain. The girls caught up and passed me while I was huddled in my raingear eating a hasty lunch. During the climb out of Purple Lake I passed them and never saw them again, but thought about them often, mainly about how they were cheated by poor weather on their trip thus far.
Lake Virginia in the drizzle.
Descending the pass after lunch I came to Lake Virginia, and it was truly stunning, even on a shitty day like today. It was a lake set in a rolling green meadow, both of which seemed to go on forever. However, given the weather and the fact that I was hiking alone I didn’t stop. In fact, the next time I stopped for a period greater than a few minutes for dinner was after coming over Silver Pass at around 6 PM. I cooked, ate, cleaned and was on the trail again by 7 PM. Having studied the map during dinner I saw that I had a long downhill, perfect for an after dinner stroll.
Taking a break and enjoying the weather. Ha! My spirits were drooping like my hat.
However, as it became darker I began to second-guess myself. I was on a trail but thought that maybe I had missed a junction. To make matters worse, I was on a switchback section so the compass was of little use. I pressed on and finally located myself, about 2 miles north of where I thought I was. Lesson learned; from that point on I started my stopwatch at all trail junctions so I could use the ~ 2 or 3 miles per hour estimate for locating myself.
While there was still light I began my search for a stealth camp in earnest and quickly found a great spot on a ledge overlooking the canyon and trail. As an added benefit, at least in theory, it was on a slight slope, allowing me to sleep with my feet above my heart and thus draining the blood from my swollen feet. Within a few minutes the tarp-tent was set up and I was making notes about the events of the day.
Day 2: Mono Creek Trail to South of Sallie Keyes Lakes, 21.7 miles
Sleep eluded me that night; I felt like a selfish jerk for not bringing a bear canister. After all, I was stealth camping alone - who would find me if something went wrong? Additionally, I kept sliding around the tarp-tent. The floor was made of 1.1 ounce per square yard nylon coated with silicone and was very slippery despite the moderate slope. Indeed, if I had not painted a traction grid prior to the trip (per the manufactures recommendation and instructions) I would have been unable to stay in the shelter at all. Maybe I could have slept with only one of those problems, but taken together it was a restless night and I was up and walking as soon as light allowed.
I told the first people that I met of my trials that night and after some discussion it was decided that I ought to detour to Lake Edison and take the water ferry across it to the Vermillion Resort where I could buy a bear canister. The detour added 1.4 miles each way, plus the time to take the ferry. It was still early when I reached the spot where the ferry would come so I had a choice. I could wait about 2 hours and catch the 9:45 AM ferry across the lake and buy the canister and then wait until about 4 PM to catch the return ferry or instead hike about 5 miles along the lake immediately after getting the canister. Neither option seemed appealing so I instead decided to abandon my pack and jog 5 miles along the lake, buy the canister, and catch the morning ferry back to my pack. I approached some men who had taken the ferry over and set up a base camp for fishing and asked if I could leave my pack with them while I ran over to the resort.
Well, they thought that was a silly idea, why didn’t I just call the resort and have them bring a bear canister over to me, they bring beer, food, and other things over on the ferry all the time. The younger of the two then proceeded to pull out a cell phone, dial the number and hand the phone to me. Within a few minutes it was all taken care of and I had the next 2 hours available to air out my tent, eat breakfast, and take a swim. The sun had come out for the first time since the trip began and I took advantage of the situation to jump in the lake.
Ferry on Lake Edison to Vermillion Valley Resort.
The ferry came, many people got off, more got on, I got my canister, and once again set off with high spirits despite the once again overcast skies. After walking 1.4 miles I rejoined the JMT and began a long series of switchbacks through very uninspiring terrain. It was wooded and reminded me very much of the dreaded White Wolf hill Emily and I climbed upon leaving the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne earlier that year. To make matters worse, the overcast skies where turning darker and indeed, within seconds after cleaning up after another short lunch the clouds let loose. Big, heavy drops fell from the sky and to make matters still worse, I was descending in the same uninspiring terrain that I had just climbed. Then I had to use the bathroom, number 2 in the rain, another first for me! But I kept going, and although the skies never cleared the rain stopped and the terrain changed. Soon I found myself climbing up Selden Pass in the clouds.
Looking north, just before reaching Selden Pass, heading south. Although you can't tell from this picture, I just walked for an hour through hail.
This was truly inspiring terrain, despite the gray skies. Lakes, meadows, and granite over 10,000 feet in elevation are something special and this was no exception. It was late in the day and I had been walking for a long time, however the beauty was not lost upon me. Then it started to hail. It came down for at least ½ hour, the size of peas and quite stinging. My hands became numb but I couldn’t stop, the pass was near. A group of boy scouts came from the opposite direction, a sorry bunch wearing shorts and garbage bags meant only to ride out short thunderstorms. A few minutes before the pass the hail stopped. It was now all down hill to wherever I planned on stopping for the night. I was glad to have the bear canister since I was sure it would start raining again once I started dinner. With the canister I could cook and sleep in the same place.
Self portrait on Seldon Pass. Despite the hail I stayed nice and dry in my amazingly breathable raingear. Can't say the same for the kids I passed before the summit wearing trashbags.
Heading down from the pass the terrain was the most beautiful I had seen with lush meadows, meandering streams, and shear outcroppings. Due to the rain, the trail had turned into a small creek. However, my shoes were already soaked so I didn’t really care. What happened next I cannot explain; perhaps it was my high expectations, the long and high mileage days, the restless night, the disappointing weather, the solitary walking, or any other of many reasons... but I cried. Sobbed really, like you do when a grandparent or family dog dies. I thought mainly of Emily and wondered why I had to run off and ride bicycles from Oregon to Virginia or try to hike 120 miles in 5 days. If successful on this adventure would I try to go from Mexico to Canada the next year? I thought about what it meant to be happy and what made me happy. Again I thought of Emily. It was all so clear. I found clarity by walking 40 plus miles in 2 days through miserable conditions. I was not a great solo hiker. Physically I could walk all day but mentally I could not endure the solitary days and nights. I would continue to backpack, but not without my dearest wife. The trip was over.
However I was still above 10,000 feet with uncertain weather. Down and down I went and kept going until 8:30 PM where I set up my tarp-tent adjacent to the trail in a well-used campsite and cooked my dinner while lying in my shelter. Then I stuffed my food in the bear canister and took it about 50 feet away from the tarp-tent and closed my eyes. Once again sleep eluded me, this time due to extreme cold.
Day 3: South of Sallie Keyes Lakes to Muir Trail Ranch to Florence Lake, 9.1 miles
Water had condensed and frozen on my bear canister during the night. This made me feel a bit better about feeling cold during the night although it did little to ease the discomfort associated with putting on my wet shoes and socks. Indeed, it was with great sadness that I removed my warm and dry sleep socks and put on my limp, wet, and cold day socks sporting a fresh hole in the toe. I started down the switchbacks leading to the Muir Trail Ranch without my knee braces, as I could not locate them. Specifically for this trip I had bought them and found them quite supportive during extended sections of downhill trail, but now they were gone, probably on a rock near the Lake Edison ferry.
Down and down I went until I reached the junction. At this point I could continue on the JMT into Kings Canyon or cut down to the Muir Trail Ranch. From the ranch I could rejoin the JMT or walk about 5 miles west to Lake Florence and another ferry. I chose the latter.
Backpackers are not really welcome at the Muir Trail Ranch.
People pay about $700 a week to stay at the ranch so backpackers are tolerated but not welcome. You can ship food to yourself and pick it up at the ranch for a hefty fee and buy some DEET at the store but otherwise you are not welcome. They slowly warmed to me after I mentioned that I might like to take my wife to the ranch. When I reached the ranch it was sunny and beautiful, as it usually is in the Sierra’s in August. However, they told of another storm sitting off San Diego and the poor weather of the last 2 weeks might continue. If my mind was not made up by then it was now. I was going out at Lake Florence.
But before leaving the area I ought to enjoy the natural hot springs - after all, I was no longer on a schedule. Leaving my pack on the shore of river I stepped in to the fast moving water wearing my shoes, underwear, shirt, hat and trekking poles. A few minutes later I was back where I started, less one pole. How it happened I couldn’t say; suffice it to say that the water was running very fast and I had entered the river at a very poor location. Moving downstream 20 feet would have made all of the difference, but this is a mistake you make when traveling alone. It must have been very comical watching the screwball in the river, barely able to stand against the current while watching one of his poles float down the river.
After that little fiasco I headed for Lake Florence with haste. It was still sunny and the trail was beautiful albeit slightly hard to follow since many branches seem to have been established. About the time that I figured I was due to arrive at the lake I came across a family of 4 walking in the opposite direction. A good sign until the dad asked me how much further until the ferry. I noted that we were in a canyon and the trail went in a west-east direction and I was headed west. He mumbled something about having a compass buried in his pack and asked to see mine while his early teenage kids whined. He verified the direction that is 90 degrees counter clockwise of north and we all set off together. At the junction it was easy to see how they missed the turnoff, the sign was just a piece of paper only visible from my direction. Indeed, that very day a new sign was put up.
Using my backpack as a tripod, I take photo of myself walking from the Muir Trail Ranch to Lake Florence.
While walking out I asked about my chances of getting to Fresno once off of the ferry, for I had no idea what kind of facilities existed on the other side of Lake Florence. I was taken aback to hear that there was only a parking lot and 3 hour drive in between. They were kind enough to offer me a ride but only the following day as they were camping nearby and just on a day hike.
Upon reaching the lake I located the two-way radio/phone as described to me by someone at the Muir Trail Ranch. The ferry operates every 2 hours but the size of the boat they bring depends on the number of passengers. Following the detailed instructions I called over and told them that 5 of us plus one dog wanted a ride on the 2 PM ferry. The dad had to remind me that I couldn’t communicate simultaneously with the women on the other end. Despite this, I couldn’t help saying “yes” and “uh-huh” while the women gave additional instructions.
Two-way radio phone at Lake Florence to call the ferry.
From the phone booth we followed the yellow brick road (bricks painted yellow spaced every 50 feet) to get to the designated ferry spot. Once again I went in the water, dried out my tent, had some food, and tried to get a ride into Fresno. By nature I am a quiet person so this is not a task I particularly enjoy. However, I know that it is good for me to get out of my comfort zone every once in a while. Indeed, I felt the same way when visiting New York City while still in college. Then, on my last day during the winter visit, I asked people if I could borrow their ice skates and eventually someone let me go around the pond, despite having never skated on ice before.
Dirty shoes obstruct a spectacular day at Florence Lake.
Most people had room, if not for their huge packs which took up the room normally to be occupied by a backseat passenger. On maybe the 5th attempt I got lucky. Richard was a massive man, at least 6’-6” tall with two dogs and big truck. I later found that he was a chiropractor from San Clemente and quite the active fellow, partaking in triathlons during the summer, mountain rescues in the winter, with lots of backpacking and climbing trips in between. We chatted for the 3-hour trip into Fresno and upon arriving in the smog ridden and muggy central coast city I filled up his gas tank while he got directions to the greyhound station. Within 15 minutes of being dropped off I had a ticket and was on the 5:45 PM bus to Oakland where Emily picked me up around 9:00 PM.
I have very lightweight gear and it served me well during this trip, despite the bad conditions. The weight of my pack, without food or water, was less than 15 pounds although it should be noted that my tarp-tent was big enough for 2 as was my cooking pot. Indeed, after my hip strap fiasco at the start of the trip it is funny to note that I hardly ever used it; the pack just didn’t weigh enough to justify its use.
Rather than list my gear I direct the reader to the web site of a fellow backpacking civil engineer, Glen Van Peski [www.gvpgear.com]. He makes and sells the pack that I use and has a great backpacking website in general, including a gear list. Aspire to his list and total weight of less than 6 pounds! My pack was heavier since I used the “Cloudburst” model tarp-tent designed by Henry Shires and available online also [www.tarptent.com]. The design is great and the amount of space and bug protection for the weight is unmatched.
I also highly recommend the Rain Shield waterproof breathable shell jacket and pants. The stuff is amazing and inexpensive to boot. I wore the jacket almost all the time and pants at least half the time. It breathes much better than gore-tex, is not a coating that will rub off, is comfortable when worn directly against the skin, and weighs less than 10 ounces (jacket and pants)! Additionally, the trash compactor bag I used kept all of my gear dry, despite 2 days worth of rain. Just be sure not to put things between your pack and the bag. About a week after the trip I found my knee braces there; I didn’t lose them at Lake Edison after all. I’m pretty sure my trekking pole is not hidden in there though.
Also worth mentioning is my footgear. I have never worn hiking boots and hope I never have to. Instead I wore "trail running" shoes with cycling socks that stopped below my ankles. While on flat ground and uphill sections the shoes are very loose; I can pull my foot right out without using my hands. Long downhill sections force me to tighten up the laces to protect my toes from repeated contact with the front of the shoe. Despite getting a hole in one of the socks the first day I didn't get a single blister nor did I have to tape my feet in any way, despite walking much of the time with wet socks and shoes.
Regarding nourishment, I took a very scientific approach to fueling my body for this trip. First I determined that my caloric intake was to be about 5000 calories per day (based on height, body weight, pack weight, and miles walked) and then created a spreadsheet [Calorie Table]* to figure out how much food I needed to meet that goal. All of the information you need is on the packaging of the food. For instance, one serving of peanut butter is 2 tablespoons, weighs 30 grams and provides 190 calories. If I have two sandwiches I may want 2 servings of peanut butter so the totals will be 380 calories and 60 grams or 2.1 ounces. Likewise, 4 slices of bread for the sandwiches may be 32 grams and 100 calories per slice. Add 2 servings blackberry jam at 1 tablespoon and 20 grams and 50 calories per serving and I have a lunch totaling 232 grams or 8.2 ounces and packing 880 calories. Adding in powdered milk and granola for breakfast, semolina elbow pasta with olive oil and shredded asiago cheese for dinner and I had about 2500 calories.
Snacks made up the difference. I brought a whole slew of treats such as: roasted and salted mixed nuts, peanut M&M's, honey sesame sticks, Clif Bars, powdered chocolate Ovaltine, powdered Gatorade, corn chips, bite size pepperoni, and dried apricots. Each snack was stored in it's own bag but each day I would measure out the daily snacks in a single common bag for easy access during the day. To facilitate measuring my backpack kitchen includes a plastic tablespoon and a measuring cup.
With the exception of the pasta, I enjoyed all of the foods and would bring them all again. For some reason I was only able to eat about 2/3 of the pasta the first night and only 1/2 the second night. This perplexed me since I had made the meal at home to test it out and found it quite pleasant. Another surprise was with the snacks; in my two days on the trail I only ate 1 days worth of snacks, despite walking 45 miles and never suffering from hunger and fatigue. I can speculate that my body was still in an adjustment period, however their is no doubt that I burned far more calories than I consumed.
* It should be noted that, prior to the trip while standing over my back of food, I decided that the amount of powdered milk I was bringing was ridiculous so cut it back to 1 packet per day. This lowered my daily calories to 4677, which still turned out to be way more than I could eat.