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Sequoia NP/Source of Kern River
Excerpts from a journal entry
Source of the Kern horsepack and backpack trip
August 14 to 24, 1997
Lights in the valley below were yet shining in the pre-dawn as I awoke the others in camp. We were due at the stables soon and we had our overnight gear to pack. Crawling out of a sleeping bag at cold, high-altitude temperatures is made easier by knowing that the day will be an adventure. Our backpacks were stuffed with straps clasped and drawn tight in no time. We threw the gear into the back of the truck and headed up the dirt road to the stables. Wranglers Shannon and Bob were the archetypal cowboys - lanky, weathered, unhurried. After brief greetings they efficiently set about the routines of adjusting saddles, battening down gear and giving brief instructions on riding horseback.
Diversity marked our group of five as we started up the trail on that early Friday morning. David [--], a Ph.D. candidate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and I had met while he was a chemist at my employer. Gloria [--] is a physician [--]. Dave and Gloria, in their early thirties, have been rather constant companions in the past year, sharing rock climbing and other interests. The youngest, but tallest, of our group was 14-year-old Jonathan [--], known to me through Boy Scouts. My son, John III, and he were barely acquainted but shared a common age and uncommon intellects. I was the most excited for I knew what beauty would unfold in the trail ahead, and that it would be fabulous. Waiting for us, too, were physical, mental and emotional challenges.
Our plan was to jump start our 75-mile journey by riding horseback the first day. This would give us another day to adjust to high altitude and spare us ten miles of toting the initial, heavy loads. Riding stock is also an adventure in itself, sitting high above the trail and entrusting the animal - horse or mule - to negotiate the rocky trail. The rider gets to look about and there was plenty to see as the trail rose out of Onion Valley toward 12,000-foot Kearsarge Pass. These high mountains, naked of trees, invite scrutiny. They are sharp-edged, intricate, stark. The eye cannot measure them against standards like road widths, cars, trees or people. They seem impervious but they yield to persistence. We were soon deep among them, civilization out of sight and just a thin ribbon of trail and our provisions to connect us.
The trip¹s planning went back five years when I described my ³Source of the Kern² journey of 1974 to John III. We had been on our first father-son trek (to us, anything over 50 miles) in the neighborhood that culminated in an ascent of Mt. Whitney. From that highest of peaks, I pointed out the headwaters of the Kern and its course of some sixty miles. He resolved that someday we should repeat the journey and we set out in June last year. Snow-choked passes caused us to modify our course as my first purpose in backpacking is pleasure, not achievement. This year we chose August and were better positioned to succeed.
We gladly dismounted from the horses at Vidette Meadow in the early afternoon, setting up camp near a bear box provided by Kings Canyon National Park. John was anxious to fish upstream where last year, amidst patches of snow, he had explored with his fly rod. He took off with Dave and Gloria. Jonathan and I followed later and after crossing Bubbs Creek, discovered a beautifully-preserved, but tiny, log cabin. Around 100 years ago, a dwarfish hermit, Shorty Lovelace, built a series of summer abodes in this area. They are entirely of local materials with floor dimensions of five feet by eight feet or so, but with an interior height under five feet. John and I had visited others, including one on Sugarloaf Creek which recently, by misunderstanding, had been torn down by zealous volunteers intent of returning the land to its natural state. I had known one such cabin was in this area but despite passing through here a dozen times before, it remained undiscovered. I was wishing John could have had the joy of this discovery himself and was anxious to find him and tell him about it. Jonathan and I fished upstream with success and found the others of our party. John was exploding with enthusiasm, having also spotted the Lovelace cabin already and pulling rainbows and browns with regularity from the frigid creek waters.
That evening we attempted to fish downstream. Initial results were promising, but the mosquitoes intolerable. As darkness fell and we finished our dinner of carne asada and baked potatoes (way overdone), John spotted a bear not 20 feet from our camp. Dave spotted one coming toward us from the other direction; both were easily shooed away. Thus began our transition from urban dwellers to participants in the wild.
John and I slept under the stars so that I could more easily defend our camp if the bears should return. At 11:00 p.m. or so I heard a rustling in our gear. I stirred awake, put on my glasses and flipped the flashlight on. Normally when one does this, the flashlight is rotated in lighthouse beacon fashion to seek out any intruder. As large as they are, with their black fur, bears blend easily with the nighttime forest. This time, one object filled the circumference of my focused beam: a full-sized black bear three yards away. I vocalized a couple of expletives and then shouted at him. He backed off. The encounter had startled me, especially in my sleepiness, and John was unnerved by seeing me frightened for what he said was the first time ever. We moved our tarp further from the gear, and slept soundly through the rest of the night.
The next morning, we were late to start, intending to make this an ³adjustment day.² As we were about to hit the trail, what I suspect was the larger bear of the previous night returned for a photo session, circling our camp and wading in Bubbs Creek, but keeping a polite distance.
The trail ascended modestly up Bubbs Creek, and we hiked at a gentle pace, stopping twice to fish. Feeling the altitude, we encamped at the edge of the tree line at 11,200 feet. This was a well developed, terraced camp with a hand-built rock cache into which we dropped our food bags. Dave then placed two very heavy flat rock covers on top. This was Gloria¹s first backpack trip, an engulfing introduction to sleeping on the ground and the absence of so many daily amenities. On this first hiking day, she had taken to it immediately, letting the wonder of the surroundings outweigh the challenges and inherent discomforts.
Departing early on Sunday, Forrester Pass proved to be the biggest challenge of our trip. Jonathan suffered the fatigue and headache of altitude sickness, along with a slightly sprained finger from a slip on the snow, but persevered to the top. At 13,200 feet in elevation, Forrester Pass is the highest pass along the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail and the 211-mile John Muir Trail. Thin air and fatigue from the ascent dimmed our perceptions. The silent images faded in and out of our minds - sporadic, colorless, ethereal.
Looking southward we could see the Kern Canyon, the next week¹s journey. One of our group asked how we would get down from the pass, an apt question as you look down a sheer wall of 1,000 feet, but this engineering marvel has been carved with dynamite to create a comfortably descending trail to the tableland below. Once on the tableland, the trail was a direct, deceptively downhill route. The views of treeless rock peaks were breathtaking.
Either the cutoff trail to Lake South America has disappeared or we missed it altogether for we had almost descended to Tyndall Creek when I called a halt and yet energetic John III explored cross country to find the trail heading west. Jonathan was recovering from the effects of altitude and like all of us, was dismayed at more uphill trudging. For some three and one-half miles, we worked our way west past meadow-bordered lakes toward the lakes on the Kern at 10,700 feet, resolving to stay there two nights to recover from our arduous day.
The layover day afforded John III and me a chance to seek the source of the Kern, Lake South America at 12,000 feet. Dave, Gloria and Jonathan stayed in camp to relax.
John III has a remarkable sense of the outdoors, seeing what I have never observed, a way of integrating all of this sense and intensity into the nature immediately about him. This power was in full form as we roamed upstream from our camp. John spotted tadpoles, frogs, snakes, odd flowers and, as the trail we attempted to follow eventually died out, we both shared in the wonder of wilderness untrammeled even by human feet, perhaps for years. We were absorbed in nature that day, not even tied to civilization by trail or backpack. This was the wildest of places. We yet sought our objective of reaching Lake South America but there was magic in every moment along the way. We crossed a final ridge on our climb and I declared us to have arrived at the source of the Kern. We fished it, pulling out nearly sixty small rainbow-golden hybrids in an hour or so of plying its waters. We started downstream with our mighty Kern a trickle, clear, young. As the land unfolded before us, I revisited the map and, too late to remedy my error, elicited that we had gone to the lake just below Lake South America, missing our goal by just a few hundred yards. It was a more a joke to us than a disappointment, for we were not here for any records. It provided an excuse to return again someday. On the way ³home,² we discovered a peregrine falcon, dead within the last two days. The cause of the death was not apparent, but what a magnificent creature.
Once reunited with the group, we fished together on the river between the lakes. Gloria and Jonathan began to acquire the sense of fly fishing, each pulling out more than a dozen rainbows on small dry flies.
Our layover day had not been planned so we had a few miles to make up to keep to our plan. Thus, we set our sights on Kern Hot Spring some fourteen miles distant. The initial part was very steep, exacerbating a sore knee that Gloria had started to develop on the long descents two days ago. She was able to continue with extra effort and periodic stops to allow it a rest. As we neared Junction Meadow, the intercourse of several trails and creeks, the gash in the topography known locally as the ³trench² opened before us. This is the Sierra Nevada at its greatest. The Kern levels off in a paradise of ferns, tall trees and waterfalls. On either side, the canyon walls rise almost vertically for 2,000 feet or more. The canyon bottom is but a half-mile wide with streams cascading down on both sides. At Kern Hot Spring, tired and dusty hikers soak in a large cement bathtub and the bravest then plunge into the icy Kern. The attraction of the hot spring meant twenty neighboring campers, a dramatic change from the occasional hiker we had met in recent days. As late arrivals, we were still able to find a good campsite and bathe in the therapeutic hot water. It was to be a stark contrast to the next three days when we saw only a couple of people at a ranger station during thirty miles on the trail.
In this valley paradise the next day, we fished and swam along the way. With patience, large trout could be spotted in deep, still pools. John descended a loose cliff to a major hole and tried a garish orange and white salmon fly I had purchased in Montana last year. To his astonishment and delight, success came in the form of a heavy ³trophy² rainbow which rose to the surface. This was to be eclipsed by a 15² beauty at our camp that night below Lower Funston Meadow.
John caught three trophy trout in all that day (including his largest ever), and Dave caught his first trophy on a small Elk Hair Caddis #12. The area around our camp was ideal for casting with the river meandering through a rock and sand flood plain. No trees or bushes constrained the casts.
My father had passed along to me his appreciation of fishing to which I had added the aspiration of becoming a fly fisherman. John has taken fly fishing to its artistic form. I watched with pride as John¹s body and rod synchronized in smooth, poetic motion to deliver perfect casts time after time. He demonstrates consistency, power, grace. What a pleasure to see him mature in this finest of outdoor sports and to have him feel the results in the bend of a rod drawn down by a heavy rainbow.
Thursday morning found Gloria¹s knee reluctant to hike. We determined to go an easy four miles before noon. At the southern border of Sequoia National Park, we stopped to watch a maintenance crew split shakes to refurbish a cabin roof and then re-took the trail toward Kern Lake. Despite its claim to the river¹s name, Kern Lake is shallow and unpretentious. A steep ridge separates it from Little Kern Lake, a green gem whose only replenishing water comes from a trickle of creek on its west side and seepage from the river on its east side.
For lunch we stopped where, some thirty years ago, my father and I had camped on a small peninsula that juts out onto Little Kern Lake. [--] In the afternoon, we moved on. We had hoped to follow the river but the flood of 1966 had apparently wiped out the trail and maps have not been revised by the U. S. Geological Survey since 1956. The trail toward Willow Camp climbed away from the river, and having no viable alternative, we sighed and started up it. In just a short distance, we found a relocated but unmaintained trial that led us, sometimes through overlapping brush to Hole-in-the-Ground, a spot on the Kern I had never visited. Dave and John had gone ahead and John discovered the fresh tracks of a mother bear and cub. I saw the real thing and was so enraptured that it did not occur to me to take a photo even though they were both twenty feet from me at one point. Upon seeing me, the old cinnamon sow turned to lope away while her little, jet-black cub, bounded to and fro across her path. Jonathan and Gloria soon caught up with me and we trudged on to a rustic old deer camp resplendent with a Jerry-rigged table, hitching posts and cement and rock cooking stove.
We planned to go cross-country for two miles the next day over a route unfamiliar to me but that looked feasible on the map. That evening, Dave explored downstream while John again met success with his salmon fly by camp.
Dave and I arose at daybreak, donned swim trunks and sweaters, and set out to find a land or water route from Hole-in-the-Ground to Hell¹s Hole. From its source at Lake South America to the Forks of the Kern at the 4,000 foot elevation, I had explored all but this short segment of the Kern¹s shores. The mysteries of this stretch labeled with such ominous sounding names began to unfold. The canyon walls are near-vertical on each side and the river sometimes extends from wall to wall. At this annual low point for the river level, we thought it would be passable by wading and crossing from side to side. If correct, we would shave ten nearly-waterless miles off of our trip. Dave and I explored the shores, finding game trails and possible remnants of trails built by man. Disconnected again from the trail, I was euphoric. The physical demands of our week on the trail had reattuned my mind with my physical body and I could feel it performing as we clambered about. Being with muscular, lithe Dave gave me a feeling of mature youth, beyond John and Jonathan, but without that cautionary doubt of ability that comes with greater age. Even when Dave plunges ahead, he has a way of never making you feel left behind. He could have conquered anything the terrain presented.
At times we would move along comfortably, but we finally determined that we needed to go up along the ridge. This proved fruitless as we climbed as much as 1,000 feet in elevation, Still we could not escape the landscape of cliffs, thick brush, brutal terrain. We could, however, see that passage along the river would be very difficult, if not impossible for our group with equipment, and reluctantly admitted defeat. We returned to the river below where I was partly rejuvenated by one of my plunges into its icy waters and lied out on a log in the sun to relieve my disappointment. We returned to our camp, I being nearly exhausted, with the news that we were to take to the trail for a hot and dusty trek.
The ascent from Hole-in-the-Ground was brutally steep and hot in the noonday sun. Lunch at Willow Camp was a quiet affair as we were all tired and all knew our destination was miles off. Trout Meadows and Doe Meadow eventually passed beneath our feet and the Kern eventually came back into sight, now deep in the canyon below. It was John¹s fifteenth birthday and his goal was to reach his favorite spot in the world, Painter¹s Cabin. This would tally fourteen miles for the day. I could not commit the group to the challenge and, given the morning jaunt, had to be pragmatic about my own endurance. So, John was given such provisions as he might need for the night and sent off on his own. I had camped there alone at his age and I had confidence in his judgment and abilities to fend for himself as he charged off ahead.
Gloria¹s knee was stiff when we finally made it back to the Kern at Kern Flat, so she and Dave decided to stay there for the night. Jonathan shrugged his shoulders with that ³why not² attitude when I asked if he wanted to move on to Painter¹s Cabin. John¹s enthusiastic descriptions of the place were outweighing any fatigue Jonathan might have felt from the last eleven miles. I warned him that some of the trip would be in the dark. Jonathan and I had dinner with Dave and Gloria and then continued on. This is an area infrequently visited by man and our trail chatter startled a bear foraging along the river below the trail. He caught sight of us and ran at full abandon for the hillside, galloping past us as fast as a horse can travel, to reach the protective cover of the hillside brush. Jonathan and I were in awe.
Dusk gave way to twilight and eventually to nightfall. There was no moon and while the darkness of the mountains is not ³total,² it envelops you completely. Hiking becomes a new challenge, even with a flashlight. This trail was hard to pick out for it did not contrast with the invisible surrounding terrain. We constantly scanned for the trail and then took care that we did not stumble over rocks and sticks as a consequence of reduced depth perception. Stimuli are limited to a few noises and spotty visual images. I knew the trail adequately and specifically that we had to find a faint fisherman¹s trail to our left to get to Painter¹s Cabin. As we plunged through the black, Jonathan could sense my anxiety at possibly missing our turnoff and having to ³dry² camp by the trail if we should lose our bearings. This represented inconvenience rather than danger, but the spur was found without incident. I predicted we would next hear Ninemile Creek and Jonathan sighed with relief as we did. Ten minutes later we were passing through a break in the rock wall toward a fading campfire in John¹s Shangri-La. John was asleep but awoke ecstatic that we would share this spot with him that night. Thus closed our second 14-mile hiking day.
I arose early on Saturday morning while the boys slept on thick foam pads left at the cabin by a group that annually comes to maintain the site. Once the boys were up, we set up a hot water shower, fished upstream, swam by a water slide, and then hiked the four miles uphill to Jordan Hot Springs. Gloria and Dave had arrived several hours earlier and looked refreshed. I was yet tired from the arduous day before, and a long soak in the hot pool restored me mentally if not physically. Our provisions had become rather Spartan and so I bummed some food - Fig Newtons, salami, Cream of Wheat - from the local weekend campers nearby. As the five of us slept beneath the stars on our final night, I reflected on how easily we had coalesced into a group. We had been virtually devoid of anger and disputes. The physical, emotional and mental challenges were those presented by the mountains and our own bodies, not each other. As a tribe, we were a great success.
On Sunday morning we arose early, if reluctantly. The fresh air made our minds as clear as the vivid sky and we charged up the trail with much more conviction than we had known climbing out of Vidette Meadow a long time ago. It was again a steep climb, fitting that we should climb with effort to enter the wilderness and climb yet again to leave. Eventually parked cars came into view at the Blackrock trailhead and, all too soon, we were swerving to and fro down the mountainside covering as much distance in two hours as we had in nine days.
Aug-97 (Campsite) Elevation Milepost Daily Miles
Thurs 14 Travel to trailhead
Fri 15 Enter Onion Valley 9,100 0.0 0.0
Kearsarge Pass 11,823 5.5 3.5
Kearsarge Lakes 11,400 6.5 4.5
Sat 16 Vidette Meadow 9,600 10.0 8.0 0.0
Sun 17 Upper East Fork Bubbs Creek 11,000 14.5 0.0 4.5
Forrester Pass 13,180 17.5 3.0
Lake South America cutoff 11,600 21.0 6.5
Mo 18/Tu 19 Milestone Creek at Kern River 10,700 24.5 10.0 0.0
Junction Meadow 8,036 31.0 6.5
Weds 20 Kern Hot Spring 6,923 38.5 0.0 14.0
Rattlesnake Creek at Kern River 6,585 42.5 4.0
Funston Meadow 6,475 45.0 6.5 0.0
Kern Canyon Ranger Station 6,456 48.0 3.0
Thurs 21 Little Kern Lake 6,160 50.5 5.5
Little Kern Lake Pass 6,640 51.5 6.5
Grasshopper Flat - south end 5,787 53.5 8.5
Fri 22 Hole-in-the-Ground 5,680 55.5 0.0 10.5
Willow Meadows 6,400 58.5 3.0
Kern Flat 5,040 66.5 11.0
Sat 23 Painter's Cabin/Ninemile Creek 5,200 69.5 14.0 0.0
Sun 24 Jordan Hot Springs 6,480 73.0 0.0 3.5
Casa Vieja Meadows 8,500 77.0 4.0
Exit Blackrock Trailhead 8,800 78.5 5.5
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