Today is a well-deserved lazy day – no need to break camp, nowhere to go, just take it all in. I’m up at dawn, exploring the rocks of the nearby canyon and watching a Hammond’s flycatcher hawk insects. A nap follows a leisurely breakfast, and after being refreshed I spend a hour enjoying the spectacular alpine flowers of our camp – flame red paintbrush, orange and yellow columbine, white daisies and baby’s breathe, the aptly named baby blue eyes, the yellow buttercups, the delicate pink wood rose, and the most spectacular Sierra wildflower of all, the shooting star, its deep purple petals the flames to the rocket-like yellow and black stamen.
Another swim in the creek is followed by the exhilarating feeling of drying privately on the slick rocks under the bright sun, completely naked. Later I sit silently for two hours on a rock in the forest, listening to myself breathe, to the forest breathe, to the pulse of the universe. The silence is unbelievably calming, and I have a faint hint of what the Silent Folks are after.
After dinner it is contemplative time. I’ve finally stopped moving long enough to listen to the rhythms of life, and I long for my family. I really miss my little guys and my wife; I think about them constantly. I really hope we are all doing this together someday when the boys are older. I hope they remember my instructions to think about me under the starry sky, as I am doing now…
Again I’m up early the next day, birding and exploring around base camp before breakfast and a brief nap. Tom and I then decide to day hike and explore off-trail up to Evelyn Lake. We meander slowly around the northeast facing nose, enjoying the firs and the views, the everpresent cloudless sky, and the boulder-hopping. We gain almost 1,000 feet of elevation, but it’s easy without our heavy packs – base-camping has many joys!
We reach our destination in the early afternoon, and what a destination it is! Evelyn Lake sits at 8,720 feet in a north-facing granite amphitheater, partially forested on its western and north flanks. And it is spectacular! The glassy water is deep blue, reflecting the azure sky. It’s surrounded by boulders and wildflowers, filled with rainbow trout that leap out of the water
in search of flying insects.
“Among the many unlooked-for treasures that are bound up and hidden away in the depths of Sierra solitudes, none more surely charm and surprise all kinds of travelers than the glacial lakes.” – John Muir
Evelyn Lake is idyllic, picture postcard, exactly what we thought a high country Sierra lake would be like. The pull of the water is irresistible, and we’re soon skinny-dipping in the icy water. It takes some getting used to, but the air is warm, probably upper 70s, and the sun feels warm even in the cold water. The silence and stillness, the scenery and sky, the icy water and warm sun; it’s all absolutely perfect, totally therapeutic. We linger for a few hours, drying in the warm sun, totally relaxed. It’s decided without any discussion that we have to move camp up here as soon as possible.
On the way back to our current camp, however, drunk with picture-perfect ecstasy, we get a little sloppy navigating off-trail and end up taking almost as much time getting down as we did getting up. That pretty much rules out a quick camp move to Evelyn Lake tonight. We’ll do it first thing in the morning, though
Maybe it’s a little of the disappointment of not being at Evelyn Lake tonight (despite our already fantastic site, so perfect just the night before!), perhaps it’s a bit of homesickness, or maybe just the mid-trip blues, but there is a bit of melancholy in camp tonight. Dinner is good, the stars are awesome as usual, but we are both terribly missing our families and loved ones. I totally appreciate sharing this experience with Tom, but I really want to be able to share it with my wife. Tom is thinking the same thing about Jenny. As Muir so correctly noted, this place has to be experienced, and my words and pictures will never by able to convey this place to anyone who hasn’t experienced it firsthand. I wish some of these memories could be tucked into the family album instead of my solo book.
But as always, Sierra magic happens when you least expect it. Getting up for a midnight bathroom break, the cold, still, starry-night silence is broken by a series of deep, low, three-note hoots. Could it possibly be…a great grey owl??? These boreal, circumpolar owls breed sparingly in the Cascades and northern Rockies, as well as the central Sierras. A small population of maybe 50 owls inhabits the Yosemite area. I didn’t see or hear the owls, despite a concerted effort, while visiting Yosemite in 1997, but is it possible that the Great Grey Ghost maneuvered south to coincide with our trip? It is not out of the realm of possibility – the Hockett meadow and the other smaller meadows in the area would be perfect habitat for North
America’s largest nocturnal avian predator. Pure Sierra magic…
Of course we are up early, again another cloudless, perfect morning. We’re packed and heading up the mountainside by 9 a.m., the excitement palpable. Even the big heavy packs feel light, knowing our destination. We reach Evelyn Lake in a little over an hour and a half, and cautiously pick our way over the boulders, much harder with heavy packs than it was yesterday. We practically run to reach our truly perfect, secluded wooded campsite on the western edge of the lake.
We quickly set up camp with the anticipation and excitement of moving into a dream home. I also take the opportunity to wash my dirty clothes and myself, sponging off with biodegradable soap for the first time in days. God it feels good to be clean! A well-deserved nap is in order after completing all the chores.
“Two rows of the plushy branches overlapping along the middle, and a crescent of smaller plumes mixed with ferns and flowers for a pillow, form the very best bed imaginable.” – John Muir
So Muir wrote of the red fir. I settle for a layer of fir needles under my sleeping pad. Sleep comes easy and when I awake in my tent I’m completely refreshed. On one side of my tent I have a view of a perfect high country lake, on the other a magnificent red fir forest, out the top of my tent, a view straight up the impressive 150-foot pines and a cloudless blue sky. Wow!
Four gigantic red firs stand watch over our camp, with us nestled on their soft needles. The Four Horsemen, sentinels of our campsite, perfect specimens all, impressive and commanding of our respect; silent permission is granted by the matriarch to camp here. With permission, we are granted a degree of protection, and a glimpse of the forest’s magic and unique gifts. The fir forest we are camped in is truly impressive, even by Sierra standards. The sunlight softly filters through the branches, illuminating the green moss on the trunk’s north side, which contrasts with the dark purplish furrowed bark. The slight breeze sings softly, accented occasionally by the high-pitched whistles of the yellow-rumped warblers that are hawking insects from the branches and lakeside.
Gazing upwards at the magical trees, I have an overwhelming desire to see the tops of the trees. Muir would have climbed the trees, getting to know them intimately. I don’t have that kind of skill, or courage, so I climb the rocky slopes surrounding our forested alpine bowl. The top of the bowl, 150 feet above camp, provides a bird’s eye view of the area, and it is stunning. The tops of the red fir forest provide an explanation for Muir’s name for the trees, the magnificent silver fir; they look like a green paint brush frosted with silver paint.
Many of the tops have been snapped by either lightning or wind, but the mighty fir, as if in defiance of these elements, sends up two or more shoots to replace the damaged one. Rare from this vantage point is a mature fir with its original crown intact, but the few that are unscathed exhibit a beautiful symmetry that adds to its nobility.
A Douglas squirrel gracefully acrobats through the upper branches, deftly cutting fir cones which drop to the ground with a thump. When enough are cut, he races down the trunk to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
“Go where you will throughout the noble woods of the Sierra Nevada, among the giant pines and spruces of the lower zones, up through the towering Silver Firs to the storm-bent thickets of the summit peaks, you everywhere find this little squirrel the master-existence. Though only a few inches long, so intense is his fiery vigor and restlessness, he stirs every grove with wild life, and makes himself more important than even the huge bears that shuffle through the tangled underbrush beneath him. Every wind is fretted by his voice, almost every bole and branch feels the sting of his sharp feet. How much growth of the trees is stimulated by this means it is not easy to learn, but his action in manipulating their seeds is more appreciable. Nature has made him master forester and committed most of her coniferous crops to his paws. Probably over fifty percent of all the cones ripened on the Sierra are cut off and handled by the Douglas alone, and those of the Big Trees perhaps ninety percent pass through his hands: the greater portion is of course stored away for food to last during the winter and spring, but some of them are tucked separately into loosely covered holes, where some of the seeds germinate and become trees.” – John Muir
The warm sun prompts me to remove my shirt, and I sit on a large boulder atop the mountain bowl. It feels so good. I take it all in with each breath, the rejuvenation, the healing, the commune with the natural world, totally relaxing and peaceful. In a rare moment of true clarity, the whole universe, of which I am only a tiny part, makes sense. It’s only natural to remove the rest of my clothes, the only obstacle to my oneness with nature, and sit on the rock in the warm sun – just breathe, breathe, breathe. It doesn’t get any better than this…
After my report, Tom can’t resist the temptation and heads up to the rocks himself while I lounge around camp. This really is a magical place, and being naked in the wilderness is a true luxury. Indeed, it was one of Mark Twain’s favorite indulgences. Sitting around the campfire at night, naked to the outdoors, was for Twain, “the very summit and culmination of earthly luxury.”
A leisurely dinner follows the transcendence on the rocks. After clean up, the sky begins its nightly kaleidoscope of color. We race to the lip of the bowl to take it in. We’ve had a beautiful sunset every night, but tonight there are streaks of
clouds far off to the northwest, and the display of color is absolutely the best I’ve ever seen! Through silhouetted pines and
against the massive rock formation of Homer’s Nose the next ridge over, we ohhh and ahhh at the colors like we’re watching a
fireworks display. Blues fade to pinks, to oranges, to reds, to purples. Wow! We watch in awe for over an hour, until the
darkness starts to take over and we have to use our headlamps to pick our way carefully down the steep slope back to camp.
A perfect day like this deserves commemoration, and once our small fire is going we raise our whiskey in toast to it. Maybe we’re too relaxed – the whiskey is really going down smooth, the conversation is flowing freely. A skit involving a chocolate pudding coated finger and toilet paper fills our mountain cirque with belly laughs, continuing through the “crater on Uranus” conversation. That leads to drinking songs and a roaring fire and “fireworks”, sure to keep all but the crankiest bears and lions away. A truly memorably day and night, but holy cow, we finish all the whiskey, probably the only thing that forces us to finally retire!
Ouch, a slight hangover the next morning, not smart! Luckily I’ve saved a Crystal Light Iced Tea packet for just such occasion, and a few aspirin and a liter of iced tea later my headache has subsided.
Another ouch, this one more serious. I notice a smoldering hole in the peat about a foot from our fire ring, and it’s getting bigger. I run down to the lake and fill the 5-gallon shower bag, race back and put out the fire. Damn, we dumped water on the fire last night, but obviously not enough. Obviously our judgment wasn’t so sound last night, either, not smart at all. I shudder when I think about what could have happened.
Tom is sleeping in very late, probably nursing the same swollen head, so I have the mountain camp to myself as the sun rises in another cloudless sky. I try to take it all in.
“In the morning everything is joyous and bright, the delicious purple of the dawn changes softly to daffodil yellow and white; while sunbeams pouring through the passes between the peaks give a margin of gold to each of them. Then the spires of the firs in the hollows of the middle region catch the glow, and your camp grove is filled with light. The birds begin to stir, seeking sunny branches on the edge of the meadow for sun-baths after the cold night, and looking for their breakfasts, every one of them as fresh as a lily and charmingly arrayed. Innumerable insects begin to dance, the deer withdraw from the open glades and ridge-tops to their leafy hiding-places in the chaparral, the flowers open and straighten their petals as the dew vanishes, every pulse beats high, every life-cell rejoices, the very rocks seem to tingle with life, and God is felt brooding over everything great and small.” – John Muir
Tom eventually rouses, looking like hell and feeling the same; we eat breakfast and I’m rarin’ to go, since the morning is late now. Tom wants to nap, so we agree we’ll meet up later at Homer’s Nose. It’s maybe 3 miles to Homer’s Nose as the crow flies, but probably double that given the route we’ll have to traverse to get there. The contour lines are close together, we know it will be steep, but we don’t know if it will be open forest or what other obstacles will lie in our way; it’s another off-trail trek.
I take off early while Tom retires back to his tent. I’m a little nervous about going into the real wilderness solo, but the apprehensiveness forces an awareness of your surroundings that’s too often missed while on the safety of a trail. The terrain is rough, too, as we traverse parallel to a south facing ridge along a steep grade. There are numerous detours for unscaleable
rock gardens and impenetrable thorny tangles. But after a couple of miles I reach the rocky rim of the ledge we will follow to Homer’s Nose.
Even without the tangles, the terrain is rough and progress slow, and as always with mountain travel, that short distance on the map entails many unexpected hardships. I come to a prominent rock jutting sharply into the cloudless Sierra sky and decide to scale it. It takes me ten minutes to figure a route up, having to use two handholds and with some decent exposure,
but it is worth it when I get to the top.
The view of the Mineral King area is spectacular. Homer’s Nose is about a mile away due west, but the valley in front is phenomenal. I am looking down on the great Sierra forest, and can make out through my binos the spectacular Homer’s Nose redwood grove almost 2,000 feet below me.
There is no shade from the sun, and I’m hot from the long walk. With no one around, it seems perfectly normal to strip down to
nothing and enjoy the view au natural. I agree with Twain’s assessment.
An hour later I see Tom bounding along the ridge and dress. When he gets to the rock I guide him up and we both enjoy the view. And as an added bonus, we have cell-phone reception from the rock! Normally I wince at cell phones in the wilderness, because that’s what I’ m trying to escape. But we are both terribly longing for the comfort of our loved ones, and Tom has a good conversation with Jenny while I get to talk with Deb and the kids. God I miss them, and wish they were here, but it’s comforting to know everyone is okay; I haven’t talked to them since we got down from Whitney seven days ago. Of course, we can’t resist a call to Mark-ass, too! I think we catch him in the middle of a sales call, but that’s okay, he should be here with us, dammit!
It’s decided that Homer’s Nose is not worth the energy, especially with a hefty trek back to camp already in front of us. This rock will do, and since it’s unnamed on the map, we dub it Homer’s Booger and leave a white quartz rock at the highest point. Jake and T would be proud!
The trek back is long and hard, as expected, complete with lots of cuts from the jaggers and scrapes and bruises from some tricky bouldering, but it is truly fun. I feel like a kid again, exploring and wandering. It is good to see camp again, but I’m not feeling well at all by the time we get back. A quick swim doesn’t help, so I take an Advil and Imodium and retire to my tent for a nap. Luckily
I feel better when I wake.
The camp chores are complicated by my water filter crapping out (after nine years!); it takes over an hour to pump all the water we need. But we enjoy a big meal, getting rid of as much food as possible. I admit I’m getting sick of the dehydrated fare, and Tom agrees. I can’t wait for a pizza! I realize my cravings are a sign I’m ready to head back to civilization after my longest stint yet in the wilderness. We reflect contentedly on the trip around our small, quiet campfire.
A bear is rattling around above us on the ridge, appropriately in my opinion. This is his domain, and I’m thankful to the bears and the trees and the lakes and the mountains for sharing their paradise with us. We have a big hike in front of us tomorrow, though, and I’m exhausted from today’s activities, so we retire early…
We’re both up early today. We eat and pack up camp quickly, bid a fond farewell to our perfect camp, to the Four Horsemen, the lake, and then we are gone, on the trail by 8:30. Of course it’s another sunny cloudless Sierra morning, and after struggling up a 200 foot steep incline out of the Evelyn Lake bowl, we crest the lip. That’s the hardest part of the trek today – well, that, and the additional 14.5 miles that are still ahead of us! True, it’s all downhill until the last mile and a half, but the packs are fully loaded, although thankfully they are about 20 pounds lighter without all the whiskey and food that we walked in with a week ago.
It’s nice being on trail, too, after all of our off-trail wanderings of the past few days. We come across the first people we’ve seen since the ranger on day two, a group of young men and women camped at Horse Camp creek, out for 3 days. We highly recommend a trip to Evelyn Lake.
Once we hit the Atwell-Hockett trail, the downhill really begins, and we really make time. It’s very dusty, though, and we look like Pig-pen from Peanuts, with a cloud of dust around our feet. But the thick dust has some benefits – it leaves perfect tracks. Around 7,000 feet we find perfect bear tracks in the dust, and about 500 feet lower, perfect mountain lion tracks. The lion tracks follow the same direction we are heading for miles, and we get good pictures of them. They also lead to the remains of a careless Stellar’s Jay and black squirrel, the lions breakfast, and a little further down the path, lion scat. I’m surprised the lion travels on the trail, until I remember how difficult our off-trail travel was yesterday.
Nearing the end of our descent we re-enter the East Fork sequoia grove. It’s a great place to stop and have lunch and take the packs off. I wish we could have camped under the Big Trees, they are truly magical. I am thankful for the efforts of people like John Muir, who had the foresight to protect these one of a kind forests from the destruction that befell the grove
at Atwell Mill. We are able to enjoy this grove because of them and their tireless work, but now I know firsthand what inspires these folks to fight so hard.
200 feet below us lies a recently felled giant sequoia. A few days earlier, while at our mountain stream home, we heard a thunderous crash from this valley. Could it have been this tree? We saunter down to investigate.
Exploring the fresh fallen giant is another exercise that boggles the mind. The sheer size of the trunk, and the length, are in completely different proportions than a standing tree. It gives us a look into the upper branches, too. I’ve read about entirely new ecosystems discovered in the coast redwood canopies, I wonder if the same applies to these giants? It is neat seeing the unopened green cones of the crown; the ground under the standing trees is littered with the brown opened cones, and I’ve collected some for Jake and T (along with small unique rocks and feathers), but these are the only unopened cones I’ve seen. Hard to believe something so big starts so small.
“The fertile cones are bright grass-green, measuring about two inches in length by one and a half in thickness, and are made up of about forty firm rhomboidal scales densely packed, with from five to eight seeds at the base of each. A single cone, therefore, contains from two to three hundred seeds, which are about a fourth of an inch long by three sixteenths wide, including a thin, flat margin that makes them go glancing and wavering in their fall like a boy’s kite. The fruitfulness of Sequoia may be illustrated by two specimen branches one and a half and two inches in diameter on which I counted 480 cones. No other Sierra conifer produces nearly so many seeds. Millions are ripened annually by a single tree, and in a fruitful year the product of one of the northern groves would be enough to plant all the mountain-ranges of the world. Nature takes care, however, that not one seed in a million shall germinate at all, and of those that do perhaps not one in ten thousand is suffered to live through the many vicissitudes of storm, drought, fire, and snow-crushing that beset their youth.” – John Muir.
That life prospers on such a knife edge and against such overwhelming odds is amazing. That this knife-edge has afforded such diversity and beauty would not be believed if I wasn’t standing here taking it all in. That this whole symphony of life swirls together, intertwined in so many ways – from the lightning storms that bring fire and rain, to the creatures and plants that all perform their anointed duties flawlessly; from the individual snowflakes that over time form glaciers that move mountains, to the tiniest microscopic plants and animals that create nutrients – it is humbling, amazing, and no where more gloriously illustrated than the Sierra forest.
It’s also amazing to see up close the sheer volume of wood from the fallen sequoia. Luckily for the species, the wood is very brittle. As illustrated by this felled giant, it has a tendency to shatter when it hits the ground, which accounts for why so many of these giants were spared the woodsman’s ax. The wood has a distinct aroma to it, a more sweet smell than a lumber yard, and the inside
is bright orange. Supposedly these giants do not have an aging mechanism; it is only fire, or most likely, as illustrated by this tree, toppling, that kills the Big Tree.
“I never saw a Big Tree that had died a natural death; barring accidents they seem to be immortal, being exempt from all the diseases that afflict and kill other trees. Unless destroyed by man, they live on indefinitely until burned, smashed by lightning, or cast down by storms, or by the giving way of the ground on which they stand.” – John Muir
The ageless trees boggle the mind. Muir counted over 4,000 rings on a fallen sequoia, “which showed that this tree was in its prime, swaying in the Sierra winds, when Christ walked the earth. No other tree in the world, as far as I know, has looked
down on so many centuries as the Sequoia, or opens such impressive and suggestive views into history.”
We reluctantly leave the sequoia grove and for the last time shoulder the heavy packs. They feel like the full burden that they are now, and to make it worse I’m out of water. What a tease it is crossing the Kaweah River again, with it’s roaring spray and offer of refreshment! However, with the filter shot, I decide I can make it one more mile uphill to the trailhead rather than suffer the foul taste of iodine treatment.
To keep my mind off the thirst and the uphill trudge, I start looking for the ultimate souvenir for the boys, a perfect sugar pine cone. The sugar pine cone is the ultimate pine cone, and I know the boys would have a whole collection of them were they here.
“No one knows what nature can do in the way of pine burs until he has seen those of the Sugar Pine. They are commonly from fifteen to eighteen inches long, and three in diameter; green, shaded with dark purple on their sunward sides. They are ripe in September and October. Then the flat scales open and the seeds take wing, but their empty cones become still more beautiful and effective, for their diameter is nearly doubled by the spreading of the scales, and their color changes to a warm yellowish-brown; while they remain swinging on the tree all the following winter and summer, and continue effectively beautiful even on the ground many years after they fall.” – John Muir
I find the perfect cone and strap it to my pack. It seems a perfect souvenir for me, too.