By Deek Speredelozzi • Photos by Deek Speredelozzi and Ian Stout
DAY 1: JUDGE DAVIS TRAILHEAD TO WILSON VALLEY
The dogs had been raring to go ever since we’d left San Francisco early that afternoon. You should have seen them, the entire ride up through Napa Valley with their silly heads hanging out the windows—sniffing furiously at the flowers and vineyards with a manufactured urgency that only hounds can muster. Though it was only the end of April, the valley was already in the waning days of its spring bloom, thanks to last winter’s dearth of precipitation. Most of that day had been mired in thick grey clouds; but the sky had affected a late afternoon rally, sweeping all of the clouds away to distant quarters just in the nick of time. I took this as a good omen. I first felt the sun on my back while I was busily getting my pack together, my gear strewn all across the parking lot of the Judge Davis Trailhead.
Cache Creek Ridge
We hit the trail at a quarter to five, leaving cars, roads, and civilization behind for a few days in the wilderness. Maggie carried the dog food supply in her pack, while Peanut went unburdened. Though the sun was shining brightly now, it was late enough in the day that there wasn’t any bitter heat to contend with, which was nice. This place can really swelter, even in early spring. The Judge Davis Trail wound westward through the edge of the forest alongside Highway 16 for about a third of a mile, before turning away southward into a quiet, narrow, green valley. Contouring gently along the east side of a ridge, the trail led us pleasantly uphill at an easy pitch; and before we’d been walking for 30 minutes, we reached a saddle of the ridge. The remainder of today’s walk would find us gazing west into the rugged Cache Creek Wilderness, though I was clearly the only member of my team who was of a mind to heed the splendid vistas.
From the saddle, the trail traced a route along the crest of a rolling ridgeline, keeping always to the highest terrain in its path. Less than a half mile away to my left (east), the crest of Cache Creek Ridge loomed, rising as it receded southward, topping out at maybe a hundred feet higher than the spot from which we surveyed it. A dirt road wound down from the main ridgeline, meeting our trail at the junction where we stood; and below this junction the dirt road continued on as our trail. The trail was now easily wide enough for me and both dogs to walk abreast; though they rarely kept to my side, both seeming to prefer the myriad flowers, bushes, and other fragrant goodies all about.
To the west lay a labyrinth of deep valleys, distant ridges, and the meandering canyon of Cache Creek, threading its way through the valley floor and keeping, as rivers always do, to the path of least resistance. Save for one isolated spot in the distance, where the river, bending wide around an oxbow, caught a glint of the falling sun, the creek was concealed behind layers of green and grey ridges, their fingers stretching out this way and that, in a gloriously random configuration.
Looking out over my route, I could see that the trail up ahead dropped by a couple hundred feet to meet the top of a tributary finger of the main ridge, and then curved to the west to follow its crest for a stretch. This seemed like an appropriate spot to take a brief rest and water the hounds. They didn’t necessarily seem all that thirsty, probably due to the strong wind that had picked up suddenly, blowing up out of Wilson Valley, the far end of which could just be seen over the lower ridge line that we were about to drop down onto the back of; but they accepted my offering of water just the same. Despite the aggressive wind gusts, it was still quite warm out. I was only moved to put on my windbreaker after sitting still in the middle of the trail for a few minutes, and with the extra layer on, I was actually a little too warm; but that was better than being even slightly chilly, which I was without the windbreaker. I ripped into a Snickers Bar, and was surprised to see how melted it was, given that it had spent the day in an ice-filled cooler, and that we had only been walking for 45 minutes, tops. After smearing the better part of my gooey snack across my lips, I grew tired of fighting the wrapper to give up the chocolate; but I couldn’t give it to the dogs (since chocolate is poisonous to their kind), so I choked down the rest of it, against my preference, so as not to be stuck with a pocket full of liquid chocolate with which I would have to contend later.
Into Wilson Valley
We dropped down onto the lower ridgeline, which turned out to be, pleasantly enough, covered in thick stands of lush green tall grass. The dirt trail followed the rolling crest of this ridge, connecting the tops of one low rise after another, on down the slowly descending ridgeline.
The sun now hung just above the horizon, and its light, diffused, prism-style, through the blades of grass waving in the early evening breeze, exploded in twinkling gold flecks before my eyes. It was a perfectly enjoyable stretch of terrain to be traversing at this hour—just me and my two furry friends, neither of whom ever voices a complaint of any kind, so long as there is wilderness under paw.
Soon the dirt track curved southward off of the tributary ridge and dropped steeply down to the left, onto another, still-lower, ridge—this one running parallel to the main Cache Creek Ridge—which now sat further off to my left, and higher above, on account of our steady descending, on a roughly southwestward course. This new ridge contoured visibly downwards towards Wilson Valley, of which more could now be seen, though the river, laying hard by the foot of the ridge on which we were hiking, was still entirely out of sight.
After we had gained the second lower ridge, we came upon an unmarked junction, from which the two routes both seemed equally likely to lead me where I wished to go. My map did not show any trail junction in this area, so I wasn’t sure what to make of this at first; but I decided fairly quickly that I had little to lose by rolling the dice and just picking a route. After all, there was nobody here to fuss about it if my choice proved incorrect; and I was feeling energized. It was getting late though. I gazed across Wilson Valley to the ridge on its far western side and saw that the sun’s disc was now partially obscured behind the ridge. I halted respectfully for a moment, like a soldier saluting a ranking officer, to watch it take its final curtain call. Less than a minute later, the sun was gone, sunken behind the mountains in the distance.
I chose to follow the more westerly of my two route options, as the other appeared to curve down and away from Wilson Valley, towards the very steep and narrow Judge Davis Canyon, which had worked its way in between my current ridge line and Cache Creek Ridge, off to the east. My chosen trail traced its way up over the top of a bald rise in the ridge, but soon petered out on the far side of the rise. Oh well. Whatever. I spotted a beat-up, seemingly little used game trail, cutting a direct line back down to the other trail, which curved around the bald as it dropped, and took it. A moment later I was back on the correct trail, which now curved east, towards Judge Davis Canyon.
At the top of Judge Davis Canyon, the trail again bent back in a direction that comforted my navigational sensibilities, seeming to curve around the last intervening landmass between us and Wilson Valley; and soon the valley was again back in our sights, and now not very far below us at all. The trail passed through a few parched groves of dead, but still standing, oak trees, descending in earnest now towards the valley floor. In the rapidly thinning daylight, I began to think about establishing camp on the near side of Cache Creek, in order to avoid the possibility of myself or one of the hounds getting wet in a crossing, with darkness nearly upon us.
Reaching the River
Soon the trail dumped us out into an expansive and overgrown meadow, and then promptly fanned out in multiple directions, none of which appeared any more trail-like than any of the others. However, I could now hear the rippling of Cache Creek for the first time today; so I knew we were essentially home for the night. Again, I chose a route at random; and a minute later we were standing on a sandstone bluff, looking down at Cache Creek, no more than ten feet below us. The creek at this spot was not quite twenty feet wide; though I could see that a hundred yards or so upstream, to my right, it widened considerably, there running through such shallows as to allow even boot-sized rocks to be only partly submerged, though the river was framed by insurmountable bluffs on both sides at that point. Beyond the shallows, the river curved away to the right, passing out of sight behind the bluff lining the nearer bank.
At my feet lay the sad remains of a wimpy little quasi-campsite. Its chintzy-ass rock fire ring was littered with gunshot shells, broken glass, and very tall grass, which was undoubtedly rich with ticks. A sign reading “Cleetus and Earl were here” would not have been out of place at this spot.
There was a dearth of level ground in the immediate vicinity, save for where the ground lay at least a yard deep in dry grass. This was no place to be building a campfire; and building a campfire was something that I was most definitely planning to do as soon as possible. Somebody must have been pretty desperate to camp here, I think to myself, zoning out again briefly on the aforementioned redneck-looking campsite. But I also recognized that whoever had camped here had most likely had the choice to do so more or less forced upon them by unexpectedly high water in the river, which often renders it not crossable in the spring. At this time of year, Cache Creek is always subject to sudden and drastic changes in water level, due to the frequent fluctuations in the cubic footage of water being released from the Cache Creek Dam, the river’s source, several miles upstream from the wilderness, at Clear Lake.
Before leaving San Francisco this morning, I had checked the Yolo County Flood Control website for the next few days’ projected water releases; though this feature of the website is provided merely as a courtesy to wilderness users and downstream ranchers, and offers no guarantee that last-minute changes in water-usage needs won’t result in a sudden opening of the dam’s gates, resulting in a massive swelling of the river. At any rate, there had been no imminently scheduled water releases as of this morning; and this past winter had been such a disappointment, in terms of much needed precipitation, that I figured the authorities would probably be trying to hold as much water as possible behind the dam for as long as possible, until the serious swelter of summer would eventually require its release.
The current level of the river appeared, in the dim light of dusk, to present no serious obstacle whatsoever to an easy crossing—even with a backpack and two dogs, one of which is kind of a wuss when it comes to water. At any rate, I decided to ford the creek now, after all, as the rock bar on the opposite side looked like it might make a swell place to make camp for the night; and anyway, the crossing looked sufficiently unintimidating.
Into the Mild
As usual, Maggie bounded through the creek as if it wasn’t even there; and Peanut wimped his way reluctantly up and down the riverbank, as if I would turn back and abort the crossing if he whined enough.
He was surprisingly troubled by the prospect of having to ford this stream, considering that the water was scarcely deep enough to require him to swim it. I thought of Chris McCandless, anti-hero of Jon Krakauer’s gripping “Into the Wild,” standing at the edge of Alaska’s Sushana River at a spot where the “trail”—really more of a fading road than a trail, per se—was overrun by the river’s swollen spring waters, which seemed to offer no opportunity for a safe crossing. Of course, McCandless, had he been more like Peanut, and chosen to move up and down the riverbank scouting for options, would have had to go no more than a half a mile downstream to find a cable-stayed pull-cart that would have effortlessly borne him safely across the Sushana’s raging torrent and back to the civilization-side of the river, thus almost certainly sparing him from the excruciating and heartbreakingly lonely death, by rogue-berry, that he suffered some weeks later, alone in the wilderness.
But alas, there was no pull cart here to bear Peanut across Cache Creek; but then his obstacle was no hundred-foot-wide spillway of violently churning, icy, glacial meltwater, its banks lined with mercilessly hungry grizzly bears—his obstacle was nothing more than a narrow, shallow creek, across which he had just watched his best friend, and his Dad, both stroll, with absolutely no hardship. The worst I had to show for the crossing was a small bit of wetness along the bottom of my shorts, just above the knees. The Pean was just gonna have to man-up on this one; and I told him as much, as I dropped my pack in the rocks on the far side of the crossing to sit and wait for him to get on with it. I could have easily re-crossed the river to help him along; but, as I said, this was a chicken-shit crossing; and I felt that he needed to summon the necessary chutzpah and just do it- that is, if he expected me to be willing to be seen hiking with him in the future.
I felt a little guilty about baiting him, by opening up a king-size Slim Jim, tearing off a hunk for myself, and offering half of what remained to Maggie; but the ruse worked like a charm. Before you could say “Help! I’m drowning!” the Peanut had bounded through the water, and was now seated at my feet in his go-to “See? I’m a good boy” pose, his tail still dangling in the river, unheeded, and requesting his half of the “Jim.” Good boy, Pean. Now let’s go set up camp while there’s still a tiny bit of light left to see by.
Wilson Valley Camp
We followed the rocky bar upstream along the western edge of the creek for about 75 yards, and soon were standing on a narrow beach, immediately opposite that shitty campsite from which we had first viewed the river, ten minutes earlier. This would be our home for the night.
It would take a little work to convert this spot into a usable campsite; but it wasn’t exactly as if I’d never done this before. The rock-cover on the bar was entirely pervasive; and there was nowhere to put a tent, or even sit in comfort, for all the rocks lying about.
I dropped my pack, strapped a headlamp on my head, and attached the two spare headlamps to the dogs’ collars—though I waited to turn them on—and immediately headed off on a wood-gathering mission. The beasts followed along, snuffling at the reeds and grasses lining the riverbank. I gathered as much dry wood as I could find, and began hauling it back to what would soon be a campsite.
The day’s last natural light dissolved into total darkness over the course of my twenty-minute wood-gathering exercise; and when I had finally finished moving the night’s fuel supply to within ten feet of my backpack, I turned on my headlamp, re-attached the legs of my convertible hiking shorts/pants, and went to fish the dog food out of Maggie’s pack. It was about 8:45 P.M. and the hounds were more than ready to eat, as was I.
Maggie & Peanut
Although Maggie carries the doggie backpack most of the time, it’s actually Peanut’s pack; but at 39 pounds, and with his diminutive frame, he’s a little too small to bear it comfortably, even after my repeated attempts to artificially-tighten the straps. Whenever the Pean wears the pack, it tends to list to one side, greatly complicating his ability to maneuver deftly. Maggie either loves wearing the pack or, at worst, doesn’t mind it at all. She’s got a good 20 or 25 pounds on Peanut; so it’s a no-brainer to have her carry it when backpacking with the two of them, as I have done more times than I can count.
Maggie is essentially my “other” dog, belonging to my best pal and next-door-neighbor Robin. I was happy to take Maggie along on our adventure. The two beasts get along like twin siblings. And anyway, Peanut’s a better dog when he’s traveling with Maggie—less anxious, less barky—and generally less inclined to treat every single person or creature that he meets in the wilderness as a threat to his posse.
As soon as the telltale sound of a shaking Tupperware container full of kibble hit the airwaves, the asses of both dogs were instantly planted on the ground at my feet. They shuffled about in their seats a bit, for lack of comfortable chairs. But, neither one of them was going anywhere, not with me threatening to administer dinner at any moment. I filled two bowls with kibble, and placed one before each hungry dog.
As the beasts voraciously devoured their dinners, I reached around and switched on both of their lights, and then set to clearing some rocks away to make a suitable tent flat in the soft, warm sand just beneath the shallow layer of rocks covering the bar.
After making quick work of their dinners, both beasts lay quietly watching me from their respective positions, curled-up on the pair of temporary makeshift beds that I had created for them from my backpack, pillow, and extra clothing. I sat in the sand digging vigorously for about twenty minutes, casting aside all rocks in my path, until at last I had cleared a sandy flat large enough for my tent, a few blankets, and a cooking area.
Next up was getting the fire going. I dug a pit out of the rocks just beyond the perimeter of my nice little flat; and threw in a crumpled up copy of last week’s SF Bay Guardian, covering it with some of the smaller sticks in my freshly acquired arsenal of wood. Within two minutes, a cheerful little campfire, it’s dancing fingers of flickering yellow flame licking the air all about, illuminated the nearby bluffs. With the fire up and running, I could now focus on other tasks; and presently I had the tent out of its bag, poles flying this way and that in the flickering fire-light as I snapped them into their proper positions. Five minutes later, my bed was made, my air mattress inflated, and my abode complete. Now for my dinner.
One thing about backpacking alone that I never seem to remember until I’m living it is the added work involved. While you’re off taking care of some camp-related task, such as wood gathering, there’s nobody back at camp chipping away at any of the other items on your to-do list. You return to camp with an armload of good firewood, only to find that your tent still hasn’t been set up, the dogs are still hungry, and there is no water heating up over the non-existent fire. The job of building, supplying, and maintaining a campsite is a good deal more work for one solitary individual than it seems like it should be—especially when you are, as I am, accustomed to backpacking with one or more of your fellows. Human fellows, I mean. Dogs are useless in this regard.
By the time I had all the wood gathered, the tent flat dug out, the beasts fed, the fire going, and the tent set up, I barely had the energy to cook myself dinner. As a way of stalling for a few minutes, I sat back in my folding camp-chair and lit a cigarette, hoping that either Maggie or Peanut would take some initiative and get a pot of water going on the camp-stove; though it was immediately clear that I would not prevail in this standoff. Okay, fine. Restlessly stubbing out the butt of my cigarette and casting it into the glowing coals of the fire, I lit up the stove and waited for Mac and Cheese to happen.
Of course, fifteen minutes later, both dogs were all “Can I help you with anything?” sitting close at hand as I sat, hunched defensively over my meal, my face buried in a bowl of cheesy, milky goodness, and a spoon shoveling the shell macaroni, which at the moment felt like a gourmet meal, down my hungry gullet. Sorry, fools. You already ate.
By the time I was finished eating, I had barely even left any cheesy residue in the bowl for the two of them to fight over; but they both certainly gave it their best efforts, warring snouts probing every last surface of the bowl, until at last it looked like it was fresh out of the dishwasher. Nevertheless, as soon as they abandoned it, I took the bowl down to the creek, which was no more than five feet from my raging campfire, and gave it a proper cleaning. Then I settled in for some quiet reflection by the fireside, alone in the woods with my two closest furry friends.
Tails by the Campfire
I brewed up some hot chocolate, more as a way to justify my effort in having carried it out here than to satisfy any actual craving, but whatever my motivation in making it, the hot chocolate proved a delicious comfort in the end. Remember this the next time you declare it effort-prohibitive to heat up some water by the campfire, I tell myself. But I won’t remember.
I pack the rest of the odorous items: food, toothpaste, drink mix, cocoa mix, fruit, candy bars, etc., into the bear canister, lock it up, and place it in a little pit I’ve dug about 30 feet away from the tent, bound on all sides by rocks. On the off chance that a bear does wander into our camp, I don’t want him swatting all of my food into the river as he attempts to open the bear can. I’ve had to chase a banister full of food down a river once before—it’s a real pain in the ass; and that’s if it happens while you’re aware of it. To wake up and find your food container gone, after who knows how many hours, would certainly mean a retreat back to the trailhead, and without breakfast.
11:45 P.M. It was time to call it a night at last. I had one last cigarette, roasted one last bowl, and crawled into my tent. As I slid into my sleeping bag, the dogs found places around me to settle in for the night. The evening air had grown considerably darker in the last little while. The moon set just as I closed my eyes.
The Cache Creek Wilderness
The Cache Creek Wilderness, located 80 miles due north of downtown San Francisco, occupies the easternmost section of Lake County, just east of the town of Clearlake, and the large body of water that is its namesake. The wilderness area, a subdivision of the much larger Cache Creek Natural Area, consists of 27,245 acres of rugged, dry, undeveloped mountains, wide meadows, steep canyons, and twisting waterways, primarily centered around Cache Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River which flows through the middle of the wilderness, and is responsible for much of its topography. The Cache Creek Wilderness ranges in elevation from approximately 600 feet, at the spot where the creek passes out of the wilderness boundary, to just under 3,200 feet, at Brushy Sky High Peak.
The Cache Creek Wilderness is home to many species of wildlife, including mountain lions, black bears, tule elk, black-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and quails, as well a number of other, less notable species. The area’s vegetation consists of a number of dry grasses and shrubs, such as deer grass, scrub oak, and Manzanita, and a variety of trees, including live oak, mahogany, and gray pine, among others. The wilderness also houses a handful of archaeological sites, including the remains of an 11,000-year-old Patwin village.
The Cache Creek Wilderness became a designated wilderness area in 2006, as part of the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act, which added several new wilderness areas to the remote forests of northwestern California, and expanded several others.
Unlike the vast majority of California’s nearly 150 wilderness areas, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, or the U.S. Department of Fish and Game do not manage the Cache Creek Wilderness. The area is part of the domain of the Ukiah Division of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), whose stated mission is to “sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations”. Typically, California’s BLM lands are less developed, less maintained, and generally less accessible than those administered by the other three agencies named above; and, depending on one’s point of view, this can make these areas either more or less appealing: more appealing to those who like their wilderness areas less-used, and more rugged; and less appealing to those who would prefer to recreate in areas with more regular and comprehensive trail maintenance, more pervasive and accurate trail signage, and better facilities, such as restrooms and visitor’s centers.
To those who can do without the vague creature comforts common to other wilderness areas (those administered with a more hands-on management style than most of the state’s BLM lands), and who don’t mind taking a bit more personal responsibility for their well-being while in the backcountry, the Cache Creek Wilderness offers vast opportunities for solitude, quiet, and an intimate communion with nature, far from the rest of humanity.
Oh Please, Don’t let These Shakes go on
The dogs woke me up around 6 A.M. You can’t afford to even shift your sleeping position after 5 A.M. in the presence of these hounds. The bastards only sleep with one eye closed as it is; and after a certain hour of the morning, the slightest sign of life from their master, even if it’s merely a shift in sleeping position, gets the tails wagging and the collars jingling something fierce. Not to mention those alarmingly loud morning shakes that they do. And no dog I’ve ever known executes this ritual with as much unnecessary racket as Maggie. The sound of her shaking the sleep from her fur in the morning could rouse a man from a coma. I have nearly had myself a coronary on numerous occasions, from the earth-shattering sound of Maggie doing her morning shakes, which erupt out of nowhere like an elementary school fire drill, extracting me forcibly from even the deepest slumber.
I rolled over, unzipped the tent door, and let the beasts go have their way with the wilderness, while I tried to grab another hour or more of shut-eye, if I might. Normally I would be somewhat disinclined to just open the tent door and let the dogs run loose, completely unmonitored like that; but what shenanigans were they gonna get into out here? There was nobody else around that they might bother. We had the whole valley to ourselves, as far as I could tell—and there were no roads or other serious perils to worry about for miles in any direction. No, this morning would be a freebie for the dogs—and they seemed to recognize it as such—zealously bounding away and out of sight as soon as the tent door was cast aside for them. I returned to my dreams for a while longer.
DAY 2: WILSON VALLEY TO BATON FLAT
The sun had me up for good, more or less, by 7:45. It was just too damn hot in my tent to remain in my sleeping bag any longer. I crawled out into the blinding glare of morning to find Peanut curled up like a brown, furry doughnut on the sand, in the shade of my tent. Maggie was nowhere to be seen at first; but I knew how to fix that. I walked over to retrieve the bear canister from its little depression in the sand, and started fishing out the morning’s goodies. As expected, it only took a couple seconds of kibble shaking before Maggie emerged from her own shady nest in the tall reeds behind the tent.
The dogs ate like hungry dogs should: with demonstrable relish. But it was largely an act, I say. Both of them will eat a lot more, and a lot more quickly, when the other dog,or any other dog, for that matter, is around. Wouldn’t want to let another dog eat any food that you could be eating, right? Survival of the fittest: Darwinism in action. All of the dogs I’ve ever known have had the same favorite food: any other dog’s food. The grass is always greener. So on these trips, I invariably end up just feeding the hounds each other’s food, since it’s gonna end that way anyway. No matter though, now they’d both been nourished, and could get on with their days, which meant so could I.
My breakfast consisted of two frosted strawberry Pop Tarts and a banana. And a fresh batch of warm lemonade. I had carried enough water with me yesterday that I had not yet had to filter any more from the creek, though I would need to re-up before we hit the trail today. Even with the dogs being able to drink from the creek, we would be walking several hot, exposed, waterless miles today, some of it uphill; and it was very unlikely that we would be finding any running water once we left the floor of Wilson Valley. I had to make sure the fools and I would all have plenty to drink.
I slung the water bag through the cool water of Cache Creek, and hung the bag on a branch, attached to a gnarled tree lying in the river, which was caught hopelessly on the roots protruding out from the face of the bluff on the far side of the water. The water bag would be safe here while I went scouting for the trail.
I had lost the proper trail last night amid the flurry of use-trails radiating out across the meadow nearby. It was unclear which of them had been the actual trail; but at the time I couldn’t have been bothered with that, all I was interested in was finding a suitable spot to camp. Now, however, I needed to resolve this information shortfall before heading out beneath my backpack.
Wilson Valley covers a large area. It’s a little under two miles long, and almost a mile wide. That might not sound like all that large of an area to you; but when you’re talking about a couple square miles of sharp, dry grasses; uncountable little game trails going off in every conceivable direction; and all of it through-cut with a meandering river framed for much of its length with high, brittle bluffs, the area can be a chore to explore comprehensively.
We had come into the valley on the Judge Davis Trail; but our route out of here would be the Redbud Trail. Only thing was, I wasn’t entirely sure that these two trails actually met here at Wilson Valley. I knew they both led into Wilson Valley, from opposite sides; so it seemed likely that they would meet at some vaguely central point; but for all I knew, the two trails both ended at opposite ends of the valley, more than a mile apart. They still don’t make what I would call a quality map of this area, as it has only been a designated wilderness for a little over five years; and this is why I did not have the answers to these route questions. But one way or the other, I would need to find the Redbud Trail before I could set out.
My first hunch told me that the trail would be found somewhere atop the bluffs behind my tent; so I set out in that direction to find it. Retracing my steps to the spot where I had crossed the creek last night, I hoped to find the trail right there, simply crossing the water and leading up from the river and onto the bluffs at their lower end; but there was no sign of the trail at the crossing. Hmmm. Well then the trail must be on the other side of the creek. I crossed the creek to investigate. The dogs followed along, naturally. Even Peanut had mastered his pathetic fear of the creek, leaping across it now as if I had forgotten all about last night’s pathetic show of melodrama. In truth, though, it was more likely that he had forgotten.
We beat our way across a wide meadow of tall grass, a suspiciously light and hard-to-follow path cutting through and leading north the only current contender for the Judge Davis/Redbud Trail. As we made our way across the meadow, cicadas uncountable screamed like locusts sizzling in a cast iron skillet.
Soon I lost faith in this faded path through the meadow, and defected for another route, along the riverbed. After a few hundred yards, however, this route became cliffed out at the foot of the bluffs rising out of the riverbank. Returning to the meadow, I beat onwards a little further this time, and eventually reached a wild river crossing. The creek here was wide, but flowing vigorously over some rapids. I leaned into my walking stick and began to pick my way across. Maggie bounded across the river effortlessly; but Peanut, ever the tentative forger of rivers, had to make a big production of it, as always. I had to venture back out into the middle of the knee deep flow to coax him across; but he was clear of the river soon enough.
From the river, another little trail made its way up into a meadow; and we walked a short distance into this new meadow to scope it out further. I wasn’t entirely convinced that this was indeed our proper route; but the little trail did seem to continue through the meadow as far as I could see, which was several hundred yards or more. I decided that this would be our route, come what may. At any rate, even if it wasn’t the actual trail, it was likely to lead back to it at some point. We retreated across the creek and returned to camp.
Sleepytime (Slight Return)
My intent had been to break camp immediately upon our return, and get going forthwith; but a pleasant little breeze had picked up just before we got back from our reconnaissance mission; and as soon as I crawled into the tent to roll up my sleeping bag, I felt my eyes wanting to close; and with the tent’s door flap swinging wide open in the light morning breeze, its interior air was bearable. I wasn’t in any particular hurry, I decided; so I let my body lead, and fell back to sleep, with my feet hanging outside the tent in the morning sun. There was no protest from the dogs.
The sun woke me up again about an hour and a half later, just before 11 A.M. The breeze had stopped; and so I was sweltering all over again, this time beneath an even hotter, and more direct, sun than before. I walked down to the water’s edge- not twenty feet from my tent, peeled off all of my clothes, and flopped into the river, which here was just deep enough to allow full bodily submersion. The water was cold, but not too cold. In fact it was just right; so I made like Goldilocks, and stayed in it for a minute or two. Maggie waded in to join me in my dip, while Peanut lay on his blanket watching us.
Refreshed beyond measure, I proceeded to dismantle my little campsite, redistribute the rocks of my fire ring, and pack my pack. Then I went for another dip in the cool water of Cache Creek, this time with my clothes on. As I shouldered my backpack, I took one last look at the ghost of our little campsite. There was nothing visible to suggest that we’d ever even been here, except for the sandy clearing amidst the bed of rocks; but I wasn’t about to go hauling a ton of rocks back into place just to obscure a site that would surely be washed free and clear of any evidence of temporary habitation at the next opening of the Cache Creek Dam, which could very well be any day now.
Wilson Valley Thruway
We walked away from camp via the riverbed, opting to skip the wide, dry grassy meadow that we had explored earlier on the other side of the creek. The river route proved non-optimal, however, as I soon discovered, finding myself up to my knees in mud, with the dogs struggling laboriously as well; but we endured this for fifty or so yards and made it out the other side. We reached the spot where we had crossed the rapids earlier this morning, and prepared to cross again. With my heavy pack now on my shoulders, I nearly went down in the middle of the river, gear and all; but I just barely managed to save myself with some spastic, graceless stumbling, through which I somehow miraculously maintained my balance. The dogs made it across without great difficulty; and soon we were following the same faded trail that we had probed earlier this morning, up into the far meadow beyond the creek.
After a stretch of about three quarters of a mile, we came to a junction with a much better quality trail. This was clearly the Redbud Trail, our trail. But due to my having become somewhat turned around amid the relentless curving of the river and the meandering of the bluffs, I wasn’t entirely sure which way would lead us on to our day’s destination. Our destination was Baton Flat, four or five miles away on the Redbud Trail, where we would be meeting a large group of friends for three more nights of camping. I dropped my pack and headed left on the trail, which promptly contoured up a hill and barreled straight across a huge meadow exploding with purple and orange wildflowers at the tail end of their spring bloom. The trail seemed to head back towards where we had camped last night; and I was driven to continue more out of a compulsion to discover where the proper trail had in fact crossed the creek than out of any serious persuasion that today’s route lay in this direction. After the better part of a mile, though, I could see that the trail ahead dropped into another large meadow and then looped widely around its outer perimeter before curving back towards last night’s camp. Screw it, I decided. Let’s get to Baton Flat before the others all arrive. We turned tails and retreated back to my pack, which lay forlornly in the hot spring sun, far across two idyllic, flower-filled meadows.
Escape From Wilson Valley
Cache Creek curved away northward from our route as we continued along the Redbud Trail, now heading in the proper direction: northwest. We reached the crossing of Rocky Creek about half past noon. I could see that immediately on the other side of the creek the trail began to climb steeply up and out of Wilson Valley. Rocky Creek was nearly bone-dry; but there was just enough water flowing through for the dogs to slake their thirsts before beginning the climb to the top of the ridge. I sat on the edge of the river bluff and watched the two of them pound the creek like they were fixing to convert the thing into a dry wash. I took a swig of lemonade, the last I would allow myself before topping out at the unnamed ridge for which we were bound, 400 feet above Wilson Valley.
The climb wasn’t bad at all, really. The grade of the trail was fairly mellow, save for at one steep spot, which we chewed through in no time. Ten minutes after leaving the banks of Rocky Creek, we were standing at a precipice 200 feet above its twisting canyon, looking down into it. Continuing on upwards, we soon gained the unnamed ridgeline, which meant that we were ostensibly done with climbing for today. Not such a bad haul after all.
Been Through the Wilderness on a Ridge With no Name
From the top of the unnamed ridge, Cache Creek was far out of sight, hidden behind the bulk of the hills into which the ridge-line dissolved, a little to the north of us. Off to the northwest, also out of sight, but less than a mile distant (by crow), was the confluence of Cache Creek with its North Fork, which flows down from the Indian Valley Reservoir, nine miles further to the northwest. We continued along the trail, which from here followed the unnamed ridge southwards for about a half a mile.
The ridge was pretty short on views, thanks to its relatively flat top, and also the high shrubbery lining our path on both sides; but soon the trail swung west and began to head more directly in the direction of Baton Flat.
It was damn hot up on that ridge; but near the top we were lucky enough to happen upon a piddling stream that, while insufficient to offer me any notable relief, offered the dogs another opportunity to drink the wilderness dry; and they took full advantage. And the more water the dogs could extract from the land, the more of my bottled stores could find its way into my own throat; so I was happy to stand around while they guzzled.
Immediately past the tiny little stream, the Redbud Trail began to descend in earnest towards Baton Flat, tracking over difficult terrain for a stretch, where the remnant rivulets from late-winter runoff had hardened into a gnarled trail surface of ankle-rolling hijinx, calling to mind the hardened, muddy, truck tire-tracks that you commonly see in the San Joaquin Valley, in the mid to late Springtime.
Rejoining the River
After an excessively steep descent over three quarters of a mile, the trail finally leveled off; and I assumed that Baton Flat would be right around the next bend. As it proved out, we still had another mile and a half to go; but the going was quite pleasant, over gently rolling trail through a thick forest of dried oaks and bushes, so I didn’t mind.
The trail soon rejoined the meandering course of Cache Creek, which entered in from the right side (north), a mile or so upstream from its confluence with the North Fork. Here the trail ended abruptly at the crumbling lip of a 20-foot sandstone bluff, with no visible continuation in sight. Backtracking by twenty or thirty yards, though, I found a detour trail cutting left, tracing along the top of the 20-foot bluff on the river’s south bank; and so we followed it. I noticed that the canyon of the creek was here much narrower than it had been in Wilson Valley- its opposing walls no more than 75 yards apart at this spot.
A Menacing Swarm
The sound of Cache Creek’s flowing water bounced off the walls of the canyon, playing tricks on my ears, its report seeming to come first from one direction and then another. This aural confusion was, for the most part, of little consequence, as I knew where the river actually was, regardless of where its sound seemed to emanate from at any given moment; but, rounding a bend where the trail dipped into a shallow hollow in the forest, I was suddenly very nearly ruined by this trick of the ears.
The dull roar of the river, partially blocked by the overhanging bluff, had grown somewhat remote in this hollow; but its sound had been here replaced by an altogether different, though similarly vague report: a deep buzzing or humming, which I at first dismissed as the sound of the river, filtered and dulled through the intervening brush.
As I proceeded along the trail, the low, persistent buzzing grew increasingly louder, though the creek had grown no closer. At first I made little of this; but then a bolt of mental clarity from out of nowhere suddenly revealed to me the true origin of the buzzing, to my immediate horror. I paused for a moment to second-guess myself, and quickly perceived that I was standing in the middle of a swarm of bees. Dark little blobs of winged, hairy nausea were suddenly darting all about my immediate periphery. From what I could tell in the split second that I spent standing there before snapping into action, the swarm was approximately 10 feet in diameter, and hanging high enough off of the ground that my head penetrated only the lowermost two or three feet of the whirling cloud of menace.
Of all the various threats to one’s well being that can be found in the wilderness, there is absolutely none that cuts to the core of my terror-receptors as quickly and completely as bees do. Even a single bee in my immediate vicinity will quickly give rise to a disproportionate level of panic; a cloud of hundreds or thousands of them is beyond what I can even imagine dealing with. But there I was—smack dab in the middle of just such a swarm—and with nowhere to escape to.
Thankfully, the part of me that knows better than to make a lot of noise or move too erratically in the presence of such an immediate apiarian threat managed to prevail itself upon my whirling mind; and so I somehow was able to resist the reflexive compulsion to freak out completely. But that didn’t mean I stuck around to wait for the attack to commence. At once, I grabbed Peanut’s collar, called firmly but not too loudly to Maggie, and set off at something just under a sprint- the fastest escape I felt I might be able to safely execute without bringing the swarm down upon me perforce.
As I pulled away from the ground-zero of the swarm’s location, I accelerated my pace, hoping to heaven that the circling bastards had had their attention elsewhere, though I could not tell if the buzzing was subsiding, as the rustle of my footfalls on the leaves of the trail, coupled with the sound of my pack flopping up and down on my frame, and my heavily-labored panting, drowned out all other audio cues. I desperately cheered the dogs on to keep running alongside me, and did my best to keep up my pace; though my heavy pack was a considerable nuisance as I bolted along the trail, in what had by now erupted into an all-out sprint, or the closest thing to it that I could muster with forty pounds hanging off my back. I was able to mark the full extent of my adrenaline rush when, with my cumbersome backpack flopping back and forth from shoulder to shoulder and endeavoring to pull me over, I vaulted clear over a three foot high fallen tree in one single bound, like a track and field runner clearing the hurdles with practiced aplomb. The dogs, running alongside me, both vaulted the trunk effortlessly; and I could swear that our flight over that fallen tree occurred in slow motion, as all deeds of extreme physical prowess seem to do, in the moment, in direct proportion to the present level of urgency. I came down hard and heavy on my left foot, with the full weight of my pack bearing down upon my landing, and nearly crumpled beneath the extra weight, to which I was not accustomed when running at full speed. It’s a wonder that I didn’t roll my ankle on the uneven surface of the leaf-covered trail; but I guess my adrenaline was simply too deep into overdrive to allow this to happen. I kept on running, the dogs barely keeping up with my panicked flight.
After what felt like two minutes of sprinting, but was actually probably not more than forty-five seconds, my fatigue overtook me; and I stopped running, unable to maintain at that pace any longer. As I wound down to my previous walking speed, I prepared myself mentally for the cloud of bees to set itself upon me at any moment; but there was just no gas left in the tank, and so further hurried flight was not an option. Thankfully, though, it seemed that the swarm had not pursued me after all; for, once again, the sound of chirping birds, rustling leaves, and the echoing creek were all that I could hear. A profound sigh of immeasurable relief overtook me. I continued apace.
Five minutes later, I found myself coming into the familiar meadow on the southeastern side of Baton Flat, where I had camped several times before in recent years. I strolled through the meadow calmly, my panic trial now fully behind me; and soon we were stepping across the rocks of the wide shallow where the Redbud Trail crossed the stream of Cache Creek.
We were now upstream of the confluence with the North Fork; but you wouldn’t know it to look at the creek here, which appeared wider and more full of water than it had in Wilson Valley, downstream of the confluence. The North Fork is a pretty small stream, though; so it doesn’t add all that much to the river’s total output.
Here at the Baton Flat trail crossing, the Main Fork of Cache Creek was about as low as I’d ever seen it. I managed to cross without even getting my feet wet, recalling clearly how, at this same time last year, this same creek had been pushing through more than 300 times the cubic-footage of water that it was funneling today. At that time, the floodgates of Cache Creek Dam had recently been swung wide open; and the creek had been utterly uncrossable, its raging torrent sweeping trees and rocks alike along in its mighty current.
Another Day, Another Campsite
Once across the river, we found ourselves standing in the middle of a familiar clearing. This spot would house my crew and me for the weekend, as it had done in the past. There was nobody else around as of yet, though; in fact, we hadn’t seen a soul since leaving the Judge Davis Trailhead late yesterday afternoon. I dropped my pack on the ground, sat back against it, and lit myself a well-earned cigarette. I sat there in the serene stillness of the sunny wilderness afternoon, relaxing and watching the dogs as they frolicked in the shallows a few feet away. I noted the sharp contrast in my demeanor, as compared with ten minutes earlier, when I had been running for my very life, as it had seemed to me at the time.
When I finished my smoke, I opened up my backpack, pulled out my tent, and set it up beneath the shade of a towering oak, which overhung the clearing, providing significant shade. A large meadow sat just a few feet above the river flat on which I had set up camp. I took a short stroll up to the meadow, to see if I might espy any of my friends on the approach from the low pass on its far side; but so far Maggie, Peanut, and I were the only occupants of the Baton Flat Valley. Returning to my nascent campsite by the river, I sat back with my book to await the others. It was about 2:30 in the afternoon. I expected the first wave of arrivals to make its entrance at any moment.
Whiling away the time reading from a compendium of record reviews from the past 30 years, I soon started to drift off to sleep, my book falling to the ground at my side. But Peanut would not have me lying senseless on his watch; and he kept me half-anchored to the waking world by licking my face repeatedly. What did he want, anyway? I tried to shoo him away without seeming too rejecting of his generally welcome affections; and he took my cue, moseying off to go piss on a hundred and fifty nearby bushes.
As I lay there against my pack, it occurred to me that I wasn’t really even tired- I was just passing time. The truth was, I was restless. I had thoroughly enjoyed my quiet time with my two favorite dogs over the last 24 hours; but at this point I was more than ready for some human company. It would be nice to hear a voice other than my own. I rose to my feet and summoned the beasts for a stroll.
We made our way up to the low pass just beyond the meadow, which was only 120 feet above the valley of Baton Flat; and as soon as we crested, the sound of young voices could be heard coming up the trail from the back side of the pass. I knew those voices. The children rounded the bend first, followed closely by a team of my good friends. While Peanut barked his aggro-hellos, and Maggie wagged her baseball bat of a tail wildly at the sight of familiar faces, I greeted the first wave of new arrivals. Many more would trickle in over the course of the afternoon, this evening, and even a few stragglers tomorrow. It was only Friday afternoon; and we would be here until midday on Sunday, enjoying the sun, the peace, and the quiet of what seemed like our own private wilderness. With the help of good friends, good food, and a few of Cache Creek’s well-placed swimming holes, the three-day party in the wilderness would begin now.
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Water Crossings: 2
DEEK’S WORDS OF WISDOM
Best Season to visit: Spring (summer is too hot, autumn too dry, and winter too wet)