By Deek Speredelozzi • Photos by Ian Stout •
Thursday, May 31, 2012
I arrived at Sequoia National Park at a quarter past midnight on Thursday night—okay, Friday morning, if you’re gonna be that way about it. The last hour fifteen was a slow go: up a winding, mostly unpaved 25 mile mountain track leading up a long, steep, curving ridge and then down into the quiet valley of Mineral King, a hidden kingdom of waterfalls, high peaks, raging torrents and rock crevices that might be more believable between the covers of a Tolkien epic than before one’s very eyes. Mineral King is a very remote and largely overlooked trailhead community deep in the High Sierra, yet perhaps more enticing to some for just those reasons. Lots of tight twists and turns, ruts and ravines, and steep drop-offs into awful abysses. Despite these challenges, however, I at last made it to the end of the road, from whence only trails can bear one further into the vast Sequoia/Kings Canyon, and Golden Trout Wildernesses that surround this area.
Captivated by the nearby roar of a confluence of glacial creeks—the only sound to be heard throughout the entire valley, save for the last crackles of a few fading campfires nearby, I stood pondering my options. I thought about hitting the sack and getting up early for a morning hike; but as I stood outside my car on the empty road, looking up at the towering peaks above, shiny grey in the light of the nearly-full waning moon, I felt compelled to hit the trail forthwith.
After stashing all my food and other odorous sundries in the trailhead bear box, I set off towards Sawtooth Pass and the Monarch Lakes, some five trail miles and a few thousand vertical feet above, somewhere in the dark granite wilderness looming overhead and a bit to the northeast. The cool, dark, night air facilitated my efforts to hike steadily upward at a brisk clip, hoping as I was to enjoy the moon’s light as long as possible before the wake-up call of daybreak flooded the land. I gained elevation quickly; and at intervals I would find myself standing at overlooks where the trail switched back on itself. Standing at one such precipice, I gazed down at the phosphorescent cascade of Lower Monarch Falls, infused with moonlight as if lit from behind by a soft, yet bright lamp. Feeling now that I had packed headlamps for no good purpose, I made my way up trail, forded the creek at a wide spot just above the falls, and ascended up and into a forest of lodgepole and whitebark pine, bathed in enchanted moonlight.
I kept quiet, not wanting to disturb the procession of High Elves that I expected to show themselves at any moment, marching solemnly to the undying lands across the sea, at long last too weary from the troubles and wars of earthly life to remain any longer. They must have taken a different trail that night, though; because all I saw was a family of large elk, regarding me suspiciously and with bewilderment as I paced past their den just below the trail.
After a time, the trail emerged from the forest and began to head into a region of steep granite drop-offs—angled far too much towards the vertical for a proper forest to grow, though a few insane trees did cling to its flanks. I made it as far as a series of exceedingly steep snowfields just below Monarch Lakes, and turned around there, not willing to risk an injury in the middle of the night, deep in a wilderness where no living soul even knew me to be. As I started back down the trail at 3:15 AM, the setting moon, yellowing steadily as it sunk, hung like a broken egg yolk just above the southwestern peaks. I reached my car at 4:30, drove at once to a nearby campground, and set up my tent. As I crawled in, I looked up one last time to notice that the deep violet night sky had lightened considerably, flirting now with turquoises that I knew would soon become impossible to ignore. Crawling into my bag, I covered my eyes with a t-shirt and settled down to sleep.
Friday, June 1, 2012
I woke around 8:30 AM to a roasting tent, its air thick with the moisture of four hours of my slumbering exhalations, heated to a perfect swelter by the direct sun that had recently found my tent wall. I had gone to bed thinking that I had positioned the tent for maximum morning shade; but clearly I had misjudged where the sun would first appear. Just as well—I had plenty to do today; plus, the air outside the tent was still nice and cool with the high-altitude breezes of morning. This afternoon I would be meeting up with 20 or 30 friends on the north side of the park, at a group campground that I had reserved for the weekend; and I hoped to get in a few short hikes before heading that way. A peach yogurt, a banana, two maple brown sugar pop-tarts, and a bottle full of warm, watered-down lemonade, called itself my breakfast; and I didn’t contest the assertion. I sat on the picnic table chomping on a pop-tart, surveying the surrounding ridges for the first time in the light of day. White snowfields, green mosses and trees, silver ridgelines, and deep blue waters exploded from every vantage point; and it was good.
I arrived at the campground around 4 PM, after doing a few short hikes, and creeping through the long traffic procession that attended a road construction project down by Three Rivers, at the southern end of the park. I was the first to arrive; but I wasn’t there long before familiar faces started rolling up. One friend after another pulled into the campground; and by 7 PM it was a party.
Grills sizzled with meat, kids ran around, marveling at the largest pine cones they’d ever seen, camping newbies struggled with cryptic tent-poles, and I simply made the rounds, frosty beer in hand, greeting people and catching up with friends. By 8 PM, the fire ring was glowing orange; and it stayed that way until I walked away from it, sometime around 2:30 or 3 AM.
Crystal Cave and Moro Rock
Saturday, June 2, 2012
Saturday had been predicted as a probable rainy day; so Ian, Shane, and I had made a plan to spend part of our day “indoors”, in a sense—in a cave, to be more precise. Crystal Cave, one of nearly 250 known caves in Sequoia National Park, is a 2.5 mile long labyrinth of eroded karst marble, chiseled out of the deep, dark underbelly of an otherwise unremarkable mountain by millions of years of subterranean water-flow; and guided tours are given daily throughout the summer season.
Now, while I typically find guided tours of anything to be excruciatingly tedious, taking a guided tour is the only way to see this particular cave; so I had decided—just this once—to suck it up and buy tickets for the three of us. Nevertheless, I fully expected to find the tour’s pace unbearably slow—a lowest-common-denominator of sorts-type deal, wherein the group is compelled to shuffle along from passageway to passageway at a pace that even an old, infirm, or excessively pokey individual would not find objectionably brisk. Furthermore, I also fully expected to be, during the tour, continuously drawn towards enticing-looking side passageways—outside the scope of the tour—into which I would be actively prevented from venturing, by the lurking hench-tour guides whose job it is to ensure that folks don’t get lost or stranded in the deep secret recesses of this pitch-black dungeon. Fair enough—I get it. I can see plainly enough why such measures need to be taken in order for a tourist cave to run smoothly—I’m just saying that this is probably the #1 reason why touristy caves are inherently less exciting for me than, say, an unexplored, enter-at-your-own-peril type of cave.
But enough of my bah-humbug curmudgeonry. I’d been avoiding visiting this cave for the past 15 years; and now here I was in Sequoia Park on a day when rain was predicted, looking for something to do. There was nothing for it—it was time to go spelunking, goddammit.
Fearing us oversleeping and waking up too late to make the cave tour—or get our money back for the tickets—I had booked us on the 1:30 PM tour. This would give us ample time to roll out of bed whenever we would, shuffle about camp for a little while, rustle up a little breakfast, and still hit the road in time to make our scheduled cave tour, a 45-minute or so drive from our camp. The rest of our group is heading to Hume Lake, a lovely mountain lake nestled in the woods between Sequoia and Kings Canyon.
We hit the road at 11:15, and made good time along the General’s Highway (aka CA Hwy 198), the park’s only through-road. Now, I’ll tell you something: I don’t love this road. For all the primo terrain it serves, the vast majority of its mileage consists of long stretches of one-lane-in-each-direction, twisty-turny road, heavily-forested, lacking in passing zones, and devoid of any scenery that can’t be seen elsewhere on California’s countless forest highways, and with far less traffic to contend with.
Give me the Tioga Road, through Yosemite’s high country, or the Valley Loop Road in Yosemite Valley, or Going-To-The-Sun Highway, in Montana’s Glacier National Park. These are roads where, more often than not, being stuck in heavy traffic provides visitors with the perfect opportunity to enjoy the staggering views that are all around—views that would be difficult to appreciate safely while moving at 40 mph.
Arriving in the general vicinity of Crystal Cave quite a bit ahead of schedule, we had an hour and a half or so to kill before the tour would begin; and since so far the day’s weather had been pretty decent; we decided to make a stop at Moro Rock, the premiere automobile-accessible long-range viewpoint at Sequoia National Park. And by “automobile-accessible”, I merely mean that you can drive up to the base of it, as opposed to having to hike miles and miles just to get to it, as is the case with arguably all of the park’s other viewpoints.
Moro Rock is peculiar formation: a gigantic fin of granite protruding up and out from the Giant Forest, and hanging over that deep chasm which carries the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River down from the towering heights from which it arises, a few miles to the east. Most visitors gain Moro Rock’s million-dollar view by ascending the monolith from its north side, via a rock-hewn stairway that is a true marvel of engineering, as well as a profound aesthetic achievement. The 800-foot long stairway is cut from the granite with such care and respect for the rock’s intricacies that it could almost be said to look naturally occurring, as it winds its way up and around the only side of the promontory not to drop off precipitously into a yawning abyss. The stairway rises some 300 feet over a distance of less than a half a mile, depositing its sweaty, winded climbers right at the 6,725-foot summit, from which one can enjoy a 270-degree view of glacial sierra high-country—a view unrivalled in the entire range, for its ease of accessibility.
The hiker who reaches the top of the stairs and steps out onto the summit viewing area of Moro Rock is at once presented with an overwhelming vista. To his right—the west—he sees, beyond the sheer drop-off no more than 20 feet away from where he stands, the lower section of the Middle Fork Kaweah River, winding its way down through the green hills which taper off into foothills just a short distance westward, passing through the small village of Three Rivers, CA, and eventually out into the vast flatness of the San Joaquin Valley.
Straight ahead—southwards—the gawker beholds Paradise Ridge, a row of serrated granite teeth jutting up into the sky on the far side of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah. Topping out at 9,200-ft Paradise Peak, the ridge separates the Middle Fork and the East Fork canyons of the Kaweah river. The East Fork Kaweah drains down out of Farewell Canyon and Mineral King to merge with the Middle Fork at Three Rivers.
Looking to his left-east, the hiker gets the best of his three views here from the apex of Moro Rock. Immediately before him, the rock curves away downward and is lost to view less than 15 feet from where he stands. The foreground of his field of vision is simply a vast expanse of open air, where even far below and out of sight, hidden from him by the curving rock on which he stands, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and great grey owls soar.
In the middle-ground far below, the hiker sees the upper part of the Lower Middle Fork Kaweah cutting through the canyon, having just crashed its way down out of the glaciers melting far up in the Kaweah Gap, a realm of high, crystalline lakes (Upper and Lower Precipice Lakes, Upper and Lower Hamilton Lakes) which form the headwaters of this mighty stream. Up and over the Kaweah Gap leads the High Sierra Trail, a 72 mile sierra dream-route for backpackers—starting near here, in Crescent Meadow, and traversing the entirety of Sequoia National Park, ending atop Mt. Whitney, the aforementioned highest peak in the lower 48 states. Between Crescent Meadow and Mt. Whitney, one must descend and climb through many immense basins of remote rivers and rugged wilds: first the Kaweah Canyons, then up and over the Kaweah Gap and down into the Big Arroyo Valley, up again onto the vast, forested Chagoopa Plateau, then steeply down into the canyon of the Kern River, along this long half-pipe of a canyon for 10 miles, then up alongside the racing waterfalls of Wallace Creek and onto the Bighorn Plateau, over to Crabtree Meadow at the base of Mt. Whitney, and at last up to trail crest and the summit of Whitney. And then of course the backpacker must endure the almost 7,000-ft descent to Whitney Portal, the eastern access point to the Whitney area.
After spending some time gazing out from Moro Rock at the Great Western Divide, far Kaweah Peaks, and countless other distant ridges and ranges, we head back down the trail to the car. Time to get ourselves to this cave tour.
From the Crystal Cave parking area, one must walk a hot, steep trail steeply downwards into the narrow canyon cut by Cascade Creek, arriving eventually at the entrance to Crystal Cave proper: a large hole in the side of the mountain, disappearing into darkness after just a few feet. The crowd assembles slowly as groups of cave-goers make their way down the trail in the 90+ degree heat. At last it is time to start the tour; and after a few minutes of introductory speech, general facts about the cave, and finally a primer course on basic cave-touring etiquette, our guide, Miles, leads our group of 50 or more people away into the darkness.
The first thing you notice when you walk into Crystal Cave is the cool air. The atmosphere inside the cave remains at a constant 48 degrees Fahrenheit, day-night, and year round; so the reprieve from the sweltering air outside is felt immediately. As we proceed from one room to the next, artificial lights go on and off, so that we’re not all just stumbling in the pitch black nothingness. As expected, another hench-tour-guide brings up the rear, ensuring that nobody gets left behind by the group, either deliberately or otherwise.
The cave comes complete with all the fixins: actively running through-creeks which emerge from improbable wall-cracks, rush out into the open to show themselves for a few moments before plunging over waterfalls into dark crevices, disappearing again into the unknowable depths that lurk far beneath the mountain. More nooks and crannies than a Thomas’ English muffin, and more than enough stalactites and stalagmites to satisfy even the most zealous of 7th-grade geology teachers. The rooms of the cave are pretty awesome to behold.
Miles the tour-guide is kind of one of those let’s build-a-human-pyramid type of tour-guides (the kind I like the least): making everything into a game, and more or less trying to incite the crowd to more blatant enthusiasm than they seem inclined towards displaying. But he does seem to have the kids engaged; so I ignore his quirks and just concentrate on inspecting the geological features all around me.
After about 45 minutes, the tour is over and we are back out in the blistering heat of the day. We hike back up to the car and head off to the rest of our day.
The Watchtower and Pear Lake
Sunday, June 3, 2012
After another night of late-night shenanigans around the campfire, we are up by late morning on Sunday, eager to make this our long-hiking day of the weekend. Despite the plethora of scenic and recreational options all around, everybody in the group decides to spend their day at Hume Lake, like yesterday; but Ian, Shane, and myself feel driven to pursue some more epic scenery. We head off to the Wolverton Trailhead, at the edge of the Giant Forest of Sequoias, arriving just before 1 PM.
The plan is to hike up to The Watchtower: another massive granite promontory—this one standing tall as a shoulder of rock overhanging the valley of Tokopah Creek, a stream which drains a wide basin of glacial runoff, plunging over a series of dramatic waterfalls as it gathers its waters to itself. Tokopah Creek runs down out of the high Tablelands and Silliman Crest regions of the park, joins forces with Horse Creek to become the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River, and then flows down through Lodgepole Village, under the General’s Highway, and then plummets over a series of rugged, hidden cascades through a wild, trail-less section of mountain forest to its confluence with the Middle Fork, near the Potwisha Campground, at the southern end of the park.
We left at 1 PM for what was originally meant to be only an 8 mile round trip. Because I knew we could easily hike eight miles in the next 7 or so hours, I ignored my long-standing rule to always bring a head lamp on a day hike, opting instead to keep my pack light: just a bottle of lemonade, an orange, some trail mix, and a Milky Way. We’d heard from a ranger that several hikers in the past few days had encountered a territorial mother bear with two cubs in the very area into which we were headed; and there had been at least two reports of the bear actually charging hikers; though so far the bear’s charges had all been bluffs. Nevertheless, prudence demanded that we be on the watch for these temperamental, and potentially threatening, denizens of the wilderness.
The trail winds pleasantly through a pine forest for its first few miles, ascending gently above and beside the gurgling waters of Wolverton Creek. The creek, though close by the trail, is rarely seen, due to the thick green mosses and lush shrubbery that line its shores and, catching the occasional beam of sunlight penetrating the forest canopy above, launch an explosion of radiant greens in all directions. I pause here and there to capture some of these vivid color-scapes with my camera. The day is hot, and the trail steadily uphill; but the trees provide just enough shade to keep me from sweating profusely, though my growing thirst is becoming hard to ignore. Selecting self-discipline—or unnecessary torture—I refuse to slake my thirst until I reach some sort of “appropriate” resting spot, whatever that means.
After a couple of miles, Wolverton Creek swings to the left and crosses the trail. I stagger up to the crossing and, half-delirious with thirst, fumble with the twist-off cap of my water bottle, unable to get it open. Apparently I underestimated my own strength the last time I closed it. Using my shirt to pat-dry my sweat-soaked hands, I brace the stubborn bottle against my midriff and give it another firm twist. This time the cap yields; and a moment later my water bottle is ass-in-the-air, as I pour cold lemonade down my parched gullet. I wipe my face, satisfied, and burp loudly.
A few hundred yards past the crossing, we arrive at a junction. From here one trail continues straight, climbing up towards Panther Gap and its eventual junction with the High Sierra Trail; and the other trail—our trail—switchbacks away sharply to the left, immediately re-crossing Wolverton Creek before winding its way up and out of sight, around the intervening mountain and on towards the Watchtower, which sits on the far side of the mountain. Contouring northeast ward around the flank of the mountain, the trail soon begins to hug an increasingly steep wooded area. After another junction—this one with a trail that bypasses the Watchtower to take a more direct route to the lakes beyond, albeit with more climbing, the Watchtower trail at last begins to break out of the forest and reveal the granite shapes that we have come for.
A half a mile later, I see that the trail switchbacks sharply to the right just ahead. A few more steps and I know why: so as to not pass over the lip of a 1,500-foot-deep abyss. We stop to investigate. A few feet from where we stand, the cliff drops off at a sheer-vertical 90 degrees; and across this gaping interval—probably between 50 and 75 yards wide, stands the Watchtower: an immense rock spire lurching upwards from the vertiginous depths below and rising to a sharp peak which is slightly higher than our current position, and situated immediately across from us. This monolith is connected on its southwest side (left, to us) to the mountain on which we stand, joining it at such an angle so us to describe a V-shaped canyon in between.
The apex of the Watchtower rises steeply up from the point where it meets the mountain; but it looks climbable from here. I shuffle nauseatingly close to the drop-off, brace myself haltingly, and peer over the edge and directly downwards at the spot, some 1,500 feet below, where the feet of the Watchtower rise from the rubble of shattered granite boulders at the mountain’s base, and reach skyward at a near-perfect vertical pitch. After a quick confirmatory glance, my nerve is bested by my vertigo; and I effect a hasty retreat back to safer ground. A handful of other hikers sit nearby, pausing to enjoy the view, or perhaps just rest their muscles before proceeding any further.
After collecting myself for a moment, I set off at once to get on top of the Watchtower. As I make my way gingerly around the rim of the abyss, I am forced to retreat and look for an alternate route more than once, after probing too dangerously close to the edge in my quest for the shortest feasible route to the apex of the rock. Once I finally back off from the cliff’s edge, the going is fairly straightforward; and soon I’m standing at last on the neck of the beast, across the gaping void from my companions. Working my way over to the edge again, I now find myself looking back across the yawning gap at the main mass of the mountain, where the other hikers are collected. I gasp with vertigo and apprehension as I spot Shane across the way, perched tentatively and cautiously on an implausibly tiny little shelf of rock, arms and feet braced against a possible fall; but for all that, his position seems no less perilous from my vantage point. Behind and above him, up on the firmer, wider ledge on which the trail switches back, stands Ian, camera glued to his head as he inspects the roaring cataracts of Tokopah Falls, visible to the east. After he notices me standing on the edge of my own certain death, he turns his camera towards me and fires off some shots. We will each admit later to having felt no small amount of unease watching the other two picking their way about the sheer ledges.
Before long, Shane and Ian make their way over to join me on the head of the Watchtower. We find a relatively safe spot on the west-facing side of the rock, and sit for a few minutes. We look upon Lodgepole Village, far below and slightly west, and pass around an orange. All feeling pretty good, and so far blown away by the level of high sierra scenery that we’ve reached after so short a walk, the decision to hike onwards, at least to the next lake, is unanimous; and so we rise, and go for one last look down into Tokopah Canyon before getting back on the trail.
From the easternmost-jutting pinnacle of the Watchtower, the Tablelands and Silliman Crest—headwaters of Tokopah Creek—are laid out before our eyes, to the east. To the north, the Silliman Crest is also visible, rising sharply to the towering peak of Mt. Silliman, which dominates the skyline in that direction. To the northwest can be seen, at a distance of six to eight miles, JO Pass, over which lays the Jennie Lakes Wilderness area, which separates Sequoia National Park from Kings Canyon National Park. Due west is the Tokopah Valley, where sits the Lodgepole Village, and through which flows the Marble Fork of the Kaweah. To the south, all is mountain and forest; but to the southeast, a faint track can be seen, clinging perilously to the granite wall and rising absurdly upward and out of sight before it at last rejoins the bypass route to the high lakes: Heather, Aster, Emerald, and finally, Pear Lake, tucked away up in a high basin on the northwest flank of Alta Peak, the 11,204-ft pig which divides the Marble Fork from the Middle Fork of the thundering Kaweah River. This faint track is our route upwards, and the lakes our next goal.
Beyond the Watchtower, the trail climbs steeply up at the edge of the slanted forest, striving to gain elevation before getting cliffed-out entirely; and it just barely achieves this. By the time the forest falls away and yields to the encroaching granite wall, the hiker is now looking down and back at the Watchtower, having traversed a good distance eastward, as well as upward. The next stretch of trail consists of a narrow terrace, dynamite-blasted from the granite wall, which winds its way around and still further up over and back into the upper reaches of Tokopah Canyon.
Along this stretch, a faulty step is ill-advised: the rock drops off precipitously above the jagged south wall of the canyon; and there is nothing to grab onto, should you find yourself tumbling down from here. Just you and the river, almost 2,000 feet below.
Eventually the trail curves back around the granite-walled south side of the canyon, and rejoins firmer ground near the Heather Lake junction. Here, the aforementioned alternate route to the lakes rejoins the main trail from the Watchtower. Heather Lake is a relatively unremarkable lake for the high sierra, but a treat to behold just the same. The trail skirts the lake’s north shore, stepping across the outlet stream and wrapping around the northeast side of the lake before climbing, via a handful of switchbacks, up and over a small rise, before again descending into the next basin, in which sit Aster and Emerald Lakes. As the trail contours gently down to the lakes, snowfields become more prominent than they’ve been thus far, though not problematic to cross. As I traipse across the icy snow, the frozen flakes penetrate my hiking shoe, cutting my feet and giving me my first chills of the day.
We pause briefly by the outlet of Emerald Lake, and decide that we’ve come too far to turn back at this point, being now less than a mile from Pear Lake, and the upper basin. It’s about 4 PM. I think about the head lamp that I could have easily carried; but decide that there’s nothing for it now but to trek onwards. There’s still a lot of light left in this day, I reason.
As the trail climbs up and out of the lakes basin, Aster Lake glistens in the westering sun, its wind-blown wave-crests twinkling like little prisms in the valley below. Now visible a few miles to the west is the Watchtower; and between here and there, Tokopah Creek can be see, now from behind its uppermost waterfall, as just a high-country glacial creek, meandering down its granite watershed and disappearing over the lip of the canyon rim and through the crashing cascades we just surveyed from the Watchtower. The trail then curves away southward and upwards; and Tokopah Canyon is at last lost to view.
A few minutes later, we stand on the shoreline of Pear Lake—so named, presumably, for its vaguely pear-like shape. Now, I’ve seen many memorable glacial lakes in the High Sierra; but this one is somehow exceptionally impressive—perhaps due to the relatively short hiking distance required to reach it. Usually you don’t see lakes like this one until you’ve lugged a heavy backpack many miles, and up several thousand vertical feet; but Pear Lake is only 1,800 feet or so higher than the Wolverton Trailhead; and the hike was only seven and a half miles.
From our initial lakeside vantage point, near where the outlet stream leaves the lake on its north side, we notice a peninsula jutting out from the lake’s northeastern shore, and make our way over to it. From here we are looking straight across the lake to its far southeastern and southwestern shores, out of which rise steep rocky cliffs rising to the upper flanks of Alta Peak, some 1,700 vertical feet above Pear Lake. At the foot of these cliffs can be seen white patches of frozen snow and ice: the remnants of melting glaciers. These glaciers look pretty small for early June in this region; but then this was not exactly a banner year for Sierra snowfall. The central Sierra had virtually no snow at all until January 16th; and though a lot of snow fell between then and the end of the winter, it wasn’t enough to meet the annual average. I think I read that the Sierra snowpack for this year ended up at around 40% of normal, which means that we can expect campfire bans early this summer, and over a wide-ranging area—and most likely a vigorous wildfire season in the late summer and early autumn.
We lounge about lazily on our little peninsula point, surrounded on three sides by chilly glacial lake water. The sun, though hanging low in the sky at this point, is still afire; and we’re hot after a long uphill walk under cloudless spring skies; so before long we are peeling off our outer layers and plunging headlong into the cool green-blue water of Pear Lake. Glacier water is glacier water, though; and we so don’t linger long in the icy bath. As I sit on the rock, drying off, I zone out on the setting sun, reflected off the rippling surface waters of the lake. Gazing out towards the outlet of the lake, seen from here as a straight lip beyond which nothing can be seen of the canyon below, save for a few trees along the outlet creek, I feel the first chill of dusk, fast-approaching; and my mind turns once again to the head-lamp that I neglected to bring. This thought brings with it a mild apprehension about tarrying much longer by the placid waters; and I resolve to get moving, ahead of my companions, to get a jump on the dusk.
Meeting the Bear
A few minutes later, I am moving purposefully back down the trail—not rushing, per se, but no longer taking my time to look around any more than the scenery demands of me. I figure that if I take the shortcut, bypassing the Watchtower and thus saving almost a half a mile, I can probably make it back to the trailhead before needing artificial light.
I make good time, cruising down past Aster and Emerald Lakes, up and over the rise beyond, and down again to Heather Lake, where the Watchman Trail breaks away from the shorter route through the forest. This time I take the shortcut; and at once I am climbing steadily up a rise known as The Hump. The climb is over soon enough, though; and I find myself topping out on a rounded ridge, thickly forested. I know the Watchtower is now below me to the north; but there is no way to see it through the trees; and plus, there’s no time for detours; so I continue on my way downhill into the darkening forest below. There is nobody else around, as the day’s hikers have all long descended back to the trailhead and their campsites. The sun is now fully obscured behind the trees; and it will be below the horizon before much longer.
I think again about the mother bear with the two cubs; and wonder where they are. I decide that since I am traveling alone, this would be a perfect opportunity to see if, by making as little noise as possible, I might be able to catch a glimpse of a bear along the trail; though I am slightly apprehensive at the thought of encountering the territorial mother with her young, especially since I am traveling alone.
Plus, I know that Ian and Shane are planning to return via the same route by which we came this afternoon—via the Watchtower; so if I run into trouble up here, it’s up to me to preserve my good health—nobody’s gonna be coming along behind me. Suppressing the urge to sing out loud, as I typically do when hiking alone in the woods, I maneuver silently down the trail, the rhythm of my footsteps, and my breaths, providing the only sounds detectable by my ears.
A few minutes later, in the middle of my pleasant, mindless stroll through the forest twilight, I am shocked back to reality by the sight of a large bear, light brown in color, emerging from some shrubbery along the right side of the trail, no more than 20 yards ahead of me. Immediately he turns his head to look at me, with an air of near-indifference, as opposed to any kind of defensive or threatening posture. I freeze in place, making no sound. Silently, and without making any sudden movements, I carefully extract the camera from my pocket and point it at the bear, double-checking to make sure that the flash is off. Ain’t tryna freak out no bear with a bright camera-flash. I stare at the bear intently, and he gazes back, seemingly alert, but apparently not all that concerned about my presence. Nevertheless, I keep up my guard, not knowing for sure if I have happened upon the bear family of whom we’d heard. Though this bear is not alarmed to see me here, for all I know his mother is about to show herself from behind some obstruction or another; and I’m fairly certain that a territorial mother bear would find my position unacceptably close to her clan. I wait it out, taking a few shots of the bear as he loses interest in me, and begins to wander up the hill on the left side of the trail. Still no sign of any other bears—maybe this is just a lone bear, out on its own. He does seem a bit large to be traveling with his mother; but nevertheless I keep watchful, taking nothing for granted. Once the bear is a good 20 feet above the trail, I make my move—traveling quickly, but not running, along the trail, under the bear, and then further along the trail on the far side of his position. I snap a few more photos of his form, as he slowly meanders uphill and out of my field of view. At this point I am pretty sure that this is bear is unaccompanied; but just for good measure I hustle away down the trail until I feel I have cleared the area sufficiently.
Twenty minutes later, it is nearly too dark to see; and right on cue, I catch a glimpse of the lights of a vehicle through the trees, not more than 200 yards away. The trailhead! I walk out into the parking lot, now too dark for me to see. I click the button on Shane’s car keys; and at once the lights of his truck flash at the far end of the lot. I get in the truck, turn on some music, and settle in to wait for my companions to emerge from the wilderness. It was a good day out in the mountains.