Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Yosemite Psalm (Part II)

The Ground Rules
I never realized it until I came across the fact in researching this story, that we were among the first passengers on the shuttle bus that transported us to Tuolumne Meadows on the morning of Day 2. The free busses that carry visitors to and from various points in Yosemite Park were newly purchased just prior to the summer of 1981. However the government report that I read notes that those same vehicles are still running 23 years later, and now are in desperate need of replacement. But we caught them at the beginning of their life cycle, and I remember the ride, though long, as being a pleasant one. Loaded up with our backpacks and walking sticks, we arrived at the trailhead around noon.

When we arrived at Tuolemne Meadows, I remember feeling a rush of familiarity and warm memories of Michelle and my camping trip there two years earlier. At its high altitude (8,580 feet), even at mid-day, the breeze there was cool, as it whipped across the sunny meadow, dotted with bands of colorful wildflowers.

The first order of business was to check in with the Ranger at the Visitor’s Center. There we were given the ground rules of behavior and survival in the backcountry: avoid bears, of which we would see several, and he particularly stressed that you should never store food in your tent where a bear may be attracted to it. Yosemite has strict rules regarding food storage. Thousands of dollars in vehicle damage and hundreds of “human conflict” incidents occur every year due to people not following the rules and underestimating the intelligence of bears. They recognize the shape and purposes of ice chests, grocery bags, and other food-related supplies. Bears can clearly smell any food in a car, even when it's stored in the vehicle's trunk, and have damaged cars for things as little as a stick of gum or an empty soda can. You may be fined or your car impounded for leaving food in your car overnight.

Bears are smart and know what they’re looking for. So how do you avoid them? When near a trailhead or campground, there are strategically placed metal storage boxes that resemble mini-dumpsters that are available for you to use to store your food. However when you’re in the backcountry and not near an established campground you have to improvise. Enter good ‘ol resourceful Ron. He had devised an ingenious technique for safeguarding our grub.

We always kept the food in a single backpack so as to avoid the smell being transferred to the others. What Ron would do was suspend the pack from a limb of a tree, high enough that a bear couldn’t reach it from below and far enough below the limb that she couldn’t reach it from above. He used nylon fishing line so that the bear couldn’t grasp and pull it down with her paws. It worked like a charm, but Ron’s technique would not go without being battle-tested at least once.

Mid-way through our journey, or so they tell me, we all got a pretty good start in the middle of the night by the sound of a bear lowing in frustration from not being able to reach the food. I don’t know if she was going at it from the ground or in the trees, but the bear made enough racket to wake us up — that is, everyone but ‘ol sleep-thru-frikkin’-World-War-III, AJ. By the time Michelle had successfully shaken my brains loose trying to wake me up, the commotion was all but over. I have to say, I bearly recall a thing about it.

Must be something in the water
The other thing we were sternly warned about was the drinking water situation in the backcountry. California is prone to droughts, as you may know, but the period we went through during the late 70s–early 80s was a real beaut. The waterfalls for which Yosemite is famous were fairly underwhelming, with landmark Yosemite Falls merely a trickle compared to normal standards.

To make matters worse, it was August, a time in which the water flow is less anyway. The Park Ranger told us that we would have to boil all of our water used for drinking and cooking to avoid falling victim to Sierra Nevada’s Revenge, more popularly known as giardiasis , courtesy of a microorganism known as Giardia Lamblia .
The ranger said that runoff from naturally-occurring animal feces in the wild can cause the organism to be present in the water, and since the water is was low, concern for the higher probability of giardia concentration made this safeguard necessary. So that was certainly a bummer going in, but one that we could deal with. After all, there couldn’t be too many things worse than having to cope with gastrointestinal distress in the wilderness.

However the silver lining of that dark cloud, for me anyway, was that less water also meant fewer mosquitoes, to which I’m inordinately subject. I don’t know what it is about my blood, but those god-forsaken little vampires just go after it like nobody’s business. My wife and I can be in the same location at the same time, and if mosquitoes are present, on average I’ll come out with two or three bites to her one.

Armed with all the pertinent info, we then hit the trail and began our adventure in earnest. Destination for our first night: Cathedral Lakes.

Cathedral Lakes lie within the small Cathedral sub-range of mountains in Yosemite’s northeast quadrant. Directly adjacent to the group of two lakes is picturesque Cathedral Peak. Its sharply sweeping spires are appropriately named, because the surrounding countryside is awe-inspiring.

Given the length of the tram ride from the Valley to Tuolemne, our first day of hiking would be somewhat abbreviated. The journey from the trailhead to Cathedral is a good introduction to what lies ahead on the John Muir Trail. It’s not too strenuous (a steady, fairly even 1000-foot seven-mile climb), but by the time it’s over, you know you’ve been hiking.

We, or should I say Ron, had planned out our daily distance itinerary with the women in mind, not to mention the idea of “not pushing it” for the purpose of everyone’s overall enjoyment of the experience. Throughout the week, we averaged around five miles of hiking per day. As we climbed higher, that would become a much more important consideration.

We only got about three hours in on that first leg, pitching camp near the turnoff trail to Lower Cathedral Lake. The peaceful calm was mesmerizing. The whole week was like that, so I’m going to try to avoid overusing the concept, but it really was.

Again, Ron & Ellie, as the sun sets to the west of Tresidder Peak, at the end of a very busy Day 2.

Michelle and I were first up with the water-boiling detail, in which each night we switched off taking turns boiling everyone’s drinking water for the following day. By morning the water was frosty cool in our bottles and canteens, and nothing tastes better than cold mountain spring water when you’re hiking a hot, dusty trail with 75-90 pounds strapped to your back.

I’m sure we all slept like a rock that night, bears be damned.

Next: Sunrise at Sunset
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