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TR: Hooper Diversion Loop, July 17-20, 2015

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TR: Hooper Diversion Loop, July 17-20, 2015

Postby windknot » Fri Jul 31, 2015 2:04 pm

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Picture a small, scenic basin nestled high between a pair of imposing 12,000-foot peaks. Imagine the lakes teeming with colorful golden trout, ranging in size from as big as your hand to as big as your arm. Envision sparkling granite cliffs and crystal-clear, emerald blue water. Scramble to a 7.5 minute topo to trace the route of an old, unmaintained horse packer trail winding its way up 2,500 feet from an obscure and little-used trailhead. Think to yourself that it's difficult but doable. Ignore the distant memory of laboring up those same steep slopes years ago and focus on the fact that you survived, not on how much it hurt going up.

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Now fiddle with the dials until your range of view is larger. More blue dots appear on the map. Those little lines between the blue dots aren't too numerous, right? Plot out a route connecting the dots until they lead you, breadcrumb-like, back to the gingerbread house (er, I mean, to the car). Route locked in, take a step back and evaluate your itinerary. 20+ miles. Easy. All but the first four and last two are completely offtrail, and those six trail miles gain and drop a combined 4,200 feet of elevation. Hmm, not quite so easy any more. The eyes can travel distances effortlessly that the feet and legs must pay for with each trudging step. The mind rationalizes most everything. But the mind is also what inspires us to step outside our front door in the first place.

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There's no trail. This is good. This means there won't be many of those pesky bipedal creatures roaming around who fancy themselves to be the apex predators of the landscape. They're on the whole gentle and harmless and some are even kinda cute, but most tend to talk too much and think too little. While a bear canister only costs you a few extra ounces, it's impossible to find a person-proof container at any weight. Heading cross-country in the Sierra Nevada is one of the only ways I know how to avoid this particular kind of lovable nuisance.

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Day 1 - Friday, July 17
4.5 miles, 2,700 feet of elevation gain, 0 feet of elevation loss

On Friday morning we started off. My father, in the tragicomic manner of aging athletes and most men past a certain age, is 26 years old in his mind but no longer has a body that will recover as effortlessly as it did thirty years ago, so we had planned accordingly. All of our shared gear went into my cavernous old Arc'teryx Bora 90 -- bear canister packed full of food, tent, rope, filter, stove, fuel canisters, cookware, and digital paraphernalia (in the modern age of technology, this backpacker is just now starting to use topographic maps preloaded onto his smartphone). We both carried our own sleeping bags, pads, fishing gear, water, and clothing. My out-the-door packweight was 47 pounds; my dad's was less than half that. Manageable.

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The long and winding single-lane Kaiser Pass Road famously tightens the sphincter and clenches the jaw. I had brought a thermos of coffee with me, but I had no need of caffeine-enhanced alertness by the time I jumped out of the car three white-knuckling hours later.

Parking further up the road from the signed Hooper trailhead in order to save about a hundred feet of elevation gain (oh yes, we're clever), we shouldered our packs and whacked through a few bushes in order to re-find the trail. Once on it, we began climbing. And climbing. And climbing. The trail is actually well graded considering the topography of the ridge we were ascending -- it ascends 1,600 feet in exactly one mile as the crow flies, and the switchbacked use trail covers at least twice and possibly even three times that distance -- but it is just relentless in its assault on the mountain. Several times I marveled at the recollection of my younger brothers who gamely kept up as my father and I dragged them up this same mountain 7 years ago. They weren't terribly thrilled about backpacking before that trip, and they aren't terribly thrilled about backpacking now (most likely because of it). They certainly didn't know what was coming to them when they agreed to go. But still they went, and still we had conquered the mountain, and this despite losing the unmaintained but still very legible trail, which forced us to bushwhack a good portion of the way.

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This time though, we kept to the trail. At around two hours in, after much huffing and puffing, we reached the plateau at the top of the first hill. We rejoiced, crossing a small stream and beginning a traverse across another ridge along a much gentler incline. Halfway! I'm the kind of person who likes to encourage my hiking party's spirits by pointing out nearby landmarks and milestones. Just over that next ridge is the place where we turn! Right around this nose is where we level off and stop climbing! My dad probably hates this. But he's a good sport and at any rate, he was breathing too heavily to argue much.

The second half of the day's hike went uneventfully as we eased our way up more inclines, rolled along flat little meadow valleys, and pushed our weary legs up yet more slopes. 1,100 feet of elevation gain in 2.5 miles is nothing to laugh about, but they say that it's all relative and relative to the first 2 miles gaining 1,600 feet, this now felt much easier. Eventually we crested a low rise and arrived at Gordon Lake. Small fish were rising here, but there were still (quarter)miles to go before we slept, so after pausing for a quick break we shouldered our packs for one more short grunt up the hill to Harvey.

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We made camp on a small rise above Harvey Lake, sheltered by pines and far enough away from the outlet that the mosquitoes dropped from intolerable to simply annoying. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening fishing around the lake, and even catching a few, before returning to camp and cooking a dinner of instant rice and a foil packet of pre-cooked ground beef. (This odd little ingredient was made by the same popular company that manufactures cans of refried beans; another of my dad's enigmatic dollar store finds that somehow always manage to find their way into our backpacking meals.) The sun stays up late this time of year, but we didn't. Thoroughly wiped out from the first day's grunt up the hill, we both hit the sack before the day's last light disappeared over the horizon.

Day 2 - Saturday, July 18
6.5 miles, 2,000 feet of elevation gain, 1,550 feet of elevation loss

The morning of our second day dawned crisp and cold. My dad woke up and zipped straight down to the lake to fish. Meanwhile, bundled up in all of the clothing I had brought, I instead tottered out to our kitchen and boiled water, making coffee and burning my one ration of Cup Noodles on the first morning. Different people have different priorities. I gulped down the hot liquid MSG. Ahh, that hit the spot. More alert now but still feeling chilly, I did some pushups (why should my legs get all the workout?) and started packing up camp. By the time the cold had mostly departed, the mosquitoes had mostly arrived. I'd have preferred to keep my jacket on because it kept the warm air in, not because it kept the bloodthirsty little suckers out.

After finishing the process of stuffing everything back into our packs, we continued up the basin, climbing along steadily sloping ramps to Hooper Lake about 400 feet above us. The nice thing about small basins is that the next lake is never too far away, and so cross-country travel is easy and straightforward. This pretty little lake was teeming with fish, so we dropped our packs on a grassy knoll overlooking the outlet and shot, er, I mean, fished for feisty goldens.

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I find that when I'm in the pre-trip planning stage, my target fishery or fisheries are what matter most: bigger trout, lower fish density, higher top-end size, marginal spawning. Why fish for little dinks when you can fish for substantially larger trout? However, once I'm actually standing at the side of an alpine lake, it's not the fishing so much as the just being there that feels most important. And with golden trout, size really doesn't matter. In fact, it's the smaller fish that are the most colorful, and their hues get more muted as they mature.

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After checking out Neil and having no luck, we struck out north across the subdued granite landscape and then veered east, angling toward Foolish Lake on the other side of the basin. This slab walking was easy, and would prove to be the calm before the storm to follow. A quick survey here and we clambered up even higher toward Crazy Lake. We felt on top of the world, and wished there were fish to share our lofty perch with us.

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Now came the tricky part. Crazy Pass which lay ahead bore promises of very steep walls and cliffs on our side, with no sure path to reach the top and a long way to fall if one were to lose their footing. Most cross-country passes I've encountered in the High Sierra have been somewhere between a mix of Class 1-2 or a solid Class 2 on the Yosemite Decimal System with different stretches of the ascent/descent receiving different ratings based on the route taken. Some stretches of some passes could be considered Class 3, but I guess it all depends on how much value you place on the "danger" aspect of the YDS ratings. Did I have to use my hands the entire way? No. Was there enough exposure that a fall could be fatal? Yes. Then what class is this pass?

An additional wrinkle to the rating system is that the ratings from fellow backpackers and climbers can vary widely based on an individual's subjective experience, so it's hard to get a really good feel for the objective difficulty of an offtrail pass before you head over it yourself. A Class 3 pass for one person is barely a Class 2 pass for another, and when there's only a difference of two numbers with no decimals (ironic, isn't it?) between taking a stroll in the local park and scrambling up the side of a mountain using your hands to keep yourself from plummeting a thousand feet to the rocks below, the difference between numbers is both huge and insignificant. This pass, however, was described to me by Wandering Daisy as "steep and stair-step ledgey." She continued, "You zig-zag down and depending on how much you scout ahead, you can avoid most small cliffs. Considering the actual moves you may need to make you could call it class 3 rock scrambling."

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Properly prepared (or at least, as prepared as is reasonably possible to be), we began ascending the ridge from the outlet at the northwest end of Crazy Lake. The first half of the 600-foot climb was obvious where we should go: friction walk up along a diagonal crack in a giant granite slab above the lake. It was steep but comfortable. Once at the top of the big rock though, we paused to powwow about our next course of action. Directly above us boulders the size of semi trucks were wedged into the steep slope. I trusted that they wouldn't shift and crash down onto us, but I didn't trust that we'd find a way to wriggle through them. If we continued ascending diagonally upward through smaller talus, it looked like there were two possible paths offering passage up and through the truck-boulders. One was choked with scrub brush, and both were steep. We decided to head this way, and if the first route didn't provide enough ledges to hop up, we'd take the other one and use the sturdy scrub branches as hand holds to hoist ourselves up.

Unlike many of my best-laid plans, this one actually worked out pretty well. There was a lot of exposure on part of the climb up, but all of the larger talus was stable and we never had to inch back down to try a different route. Approximately 50 minutes after leaving the lake, I hoisted myself up and through the last little notch to arrive at the wide, flat lip of Crazy Pass.

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The east side of the pass was a gentle expanse of sand angling slightly down until it dropped down to Rose Lake below. Though steep, this was a walk in the park compared with what we had just come up on the other side. We gratefully loped down the slope, the sand cushioning our heavy steps, and then when the terrain began to ease up we found a use trail winding its way down between ledges.

With about 300 feet remaining between us and Rose, we traversed to the north until we rounded the corner and came out upon a meadow filled with small tarns. The largest of these ponds, Rosebud Lake, was dotted all over with rises from small fish, and we spent a few hours here fishing as we washed and dried a few pairs of socks.

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After the clothes finished drying in the afternoon sun, we strolled down the hill to Rose Lake. An expansive shoreline greeted us, along with welcoming hordes of mosquitoes. We deeted up and then fished along the western shore, following a well-trodden use trail east toward the outlet and exploring the water as we went. Surprisingly few fish appeared and eventually we dropped our packs at the outlet of the lake and filtered some more water before preparing for the last off-trail traverse to Orchid.

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This hiking was straightforward but a bit tricky due to the dense forest around us. Head's up orienteering proved useful, as staying lower down along the traverse kept us from getting mired in the small cliffs we found above us as we passed beneath toward the end of the ridge. From there, we angled down into a wooded valley which eventually opened up to reveal a tiny meadow, then walked up the other side keeping to the right side of the creek. Climbing up a last short ridge, we arrived at a lush meadow with a deep stream meandering through the grass.

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A short walk upstream brought us to strikingly pretty Orchid Lake at the head of the basin. To the west, it was framed by steep ridges on three sides. Looking back toward the east, the setting sun illuminated the range of mountains beyond the canyon. In front of us, vigorous rises dimpled the surface of the water as hungry trout fed on the evening's hatch. All around was an alpine paradise.

We set up camp near the lake and then proceeded to fish. Goldens rose freely, but as with most high lakes golden trout, were not as easily fooled by our imitation flies and lures. Still, perseverance paid off and we each brought several of these hard-fighting, exquisitely marked fish to hand. Soon the sun disappeared beyond the ridge above the western end of the lake, and we returned to camp to cook another hot meal of rice and ground beef before retiring to bed.

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Day 3 - Sunday, July 19
4.5 miles, 500 feet of elevation gain, 1,300 feet of elevation loss

We awoke Sunday to a cool, clear morning. More rises greeted us, and in keeping with our trend, my dad fished the shoreline near our campsite while I boiled water for my morning coffee. The realization that we hadn't packed quite enough food for all of our meals spurred us to decide to have a more protein-rich breakfast this morning, so after gulping down my Starbucks Via I soon joined in. The lake's resident goldens were still wary, but after about an hour of fishing we'd landed enough pan-sized trout for a hearty meal of poached fish seasoned with some chili powder from the dehydrated refried beans that I'd brought.

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If yesterday was our "hard cross-country pass" day, then today was to be our "easy offtrail routefinding" day. Low mileage, not a lot of elevation gain, and with the main challenge involving not brute force needed to heave ourselves over a high pass, but instead precision in route selection to minimize unnecessary crawling through brush or scrambling around boulders. Our first move was a short but tricky traverse over to Apollo Lake in the next drainage over to the north. I'd been warned of many small cliffs and large granite walls (are these the same thing?) between the two lakes, and so this would require not only careful reading of contour lines on the topo but also shrewd line-of-sight routefinding in order to avoid the impassably steep sections.

We stayed low from Orchid and found a grassy ramp which allowed us to bypass some annoying-looking boulders on both sides. After we'd trotted through the slot, an array of options lay before us so I took another look at my map. Seemingly counterintuitively, we walked up a small granite knob to our left instead of continuing down the gentle slope to our right, and what we saw once we reached the top validated our choice. The first gentle slope would have spit us out beneath an imposing cliff face, making access up to the next lake more difficult. Meanwhile, a path of ramps threaded its way down the spine of the ridge before us, connecting so conveniently that they almost appeared to be designed by a trail crew. Here we caught our first glimpse of the large, deep blue lake below framed by rugged granite cliffs on nearly all sides.

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From here we simply had a steep but straightforward descent down to Apollo. As we dropped, we saw the potential folly in another seemingly appealing "trap route": beelining straight down to the lake from the low point along the ridge appeared at first to be the easiest way down, but it in fact would get you quickly stuck in more slabby cliffs. Pretty tricky. Upon arriving at the lake shore, I fished for a while and didn't manage to dredge up any goldens from the lake's deep holes even though I did some pretty dedicated scrambling to reach one choice casting spot. Across the lake we heard the first and last people we'd see on our four-day loop, backpackers hanging out near their camp. However, we didn't cross paths with them as we walked around to the outlet and then dropped down to a small meadow below dotted with lakelets. Gray clouds began to move in as we caught a few small goldens from one of the tarns below Apollo.

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The next lake on our day's agenda was in fact only a half a mile due west of us, but because that as-the-crow-flies path would have taken us 800 feet straight up a formidable mountain and then 1,000 feet straight down the other side, we would have needed to be, well, crows, to get there that way. So instead we began a longer traverse to the end of the ridge, around the corner where it flattened out, and then back along the other side to reach Cirque Lake.

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Again our hike necessitated careful choosing of routes with an eye constantly glued to the topo map in order to avoid getting cliffed out along the way. Picking our way along a rocky slope, we made it to the end of the ridge without having to do any hand-and-feet scrambling and then doubled back along the other side. After a small wooded hump to navigate over, we broke free of the forest and found ourselves with a clear line of sight toward our destination.

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Finally, some easy cross-country hiking. Or at least, straightforward cross-country hiking. Now the difficulty lay only in not rolling an ankle hopping across talus instead of not having the faintest idea of which direction to go. The talus seemed to be interminable, and then when we received a brief respite from the harsh Sierra granite we had to fight our way through the brushy strip running through the center of the talus slope. But soon we reached the verdant meadow along Cirque Lake's outlet stream, and I surged ahead to check out the lake.

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The aptly-named Cirque was set against an impressive backdrop, a full cirque rising up on three sides. The sky was quickly starting to darken, so we ate a few snacks as we rushed to rig up our rods again and get a few casts before the rain arrived. This was the first lake with rainbows that we'd encountered on the trip, and I had heard rumors that they grew quite large. However, in about an hour and a half of fishing with both lures and flies, we only caught a handful of rainbows up to 12". Respectable, but not big enough to qualify as backcountry lunkers. The far side of the lake nestled beneath the towering walls of the cirque seemed deep and inviting -- surely some big trout lurked there. But by now the first few fat raindrops were beginning to fall, and so reluctantly I stopped fishing and donned my rain gear.

My map showed a use trail leading from the outlet of Cirque down to the meadow below, then along that drainage to Marcella a few miles to the north where we planned to make camp. We couldn't pick up the trail though, so we simply followed the outlet creek down to the meadow and walked briskly along the creek as it rained lightly around us. Eventually the trail did appear, though only shortly before the lake did as well, and we hopped on it and continued down to the shallow, grassy Marcella. We discovered a horse packer campsite complete with steel grill and firepit, so we got to work setting up the tent and then rigging up another tarp for cover so we could sit beneath it and wait out the rain. After a few hours the rain stopped, and we did what we do best: went fishing.

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Marcella harbored brookies of the numerous and small and opportunistic sort, and though usually overabundant brookies are my least favorite type of alpine lake fishing, the lack of both fast action and large fish earlier up until this point in the trip resulted in a markedly different set of fishing expectations now. After working hard for each golden and rainbow thus far, catching a fish on every cast was fun. I didn't see anything larger than 10", but there was no shortage of 7" brookies willing to gobble my 1.5"-long hopper. We even found that the lake had a healthy population of small, wild rainbows as well, fish which must have entered the lake from the inlet creek above, and from that evening's fishing sample (n=50), there appeared to be about five brookies for every one rainbow.

Back at camp, we grilled up a few of the brookies along with one of the 12" rainbows which my dad had brought down from the lake earlier in the day. The smoky flavor of the trout was a welcome supplement to our dinner of rice, especially because we had forgotten to bring salt or any other kind of seasoning, and we slept soundly that night, warmed by the hot fish and the milder night temperatures at this slightly lower elevation lake.

Day 4 - Monday, July 20
6 miles, 800 feet of elevation gain, 3,100 feet of elevation loss

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In a trip filled with interesting offtrail hiking, today's route was what I was most looking forward to. After breaking camp, we headed west from the outlet and began climbing up a densely wooded hill until we popped out on the side of a ridge. Navigating by landmark was out of the question due to the forest around us, so we relied predominantly on reading the topo and occasionally cheating with the GPS on my phone to ensure we were headed in the right direction. Though only about two-thirds of a mile long, this ridge traverse turned out to be the most challenging stretch of offtrail hiking of the entire trip due to the terrain. Steep wooded slope turned into wet mosquito-infested meadow, which turned into large, unwieldy boulders, which turned into thick, dense brush. For as proud as I was of our earlier success in efficient routefinding, I now cursed as we slowly fought our way across and up the ridge.

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Finally we reached the end of the traverse, cresting another ridge extending out to the north which afforded us expansive views both to the north and west. We paused for a quick snack break and then continued on. From here the terrain became much more forgiving as we sidehilled easily south along a less densely forested slope which then turned into a flat, open walk. Further south, the dry hilltop sloped gently down into a meadow, and then presently we arrived at gorgeous little Lake 10360+ (draining to Bear Creek).

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This lake was beautiful, but it was also heartbreakingly shallow. The number of bugs skittering across the surface as well as drowned mayflies along the shoreline hinted that it was fishless, but we broke out our rods and circled the perimeter of the lake just to be sure. Not a rise, follow, or cruiser was to be seen. The lake was just far enough away from other fish-bearing lakes that unofficial stocking seemed unlikely, though a few fire rings proved that it did receive some visitation. The amount of deer spotted in the area suggested that this was a favorite basecamp for hunters come September. Fishermen would probably come up empty-handed though, as any fish that did happen to make it here likely wouldn't survive the winter. So after filtering water and eating some more trail mix, we continued on with the second stage of our offtrail journey.

While this first stage of the day's hike gained nearly 1,000 feet of elevation, the second stage would be practically level -- we simply needed to wrap around two more ridges in order to arrive at the Infant Buttes, then from there head straight back down to the car. This turned out to be easier said than done though, as several sections of the traverse proved to be too steep to sidehill comfortably. So instead we decided to continue straight ahead where possible and descend along the slope whenever we came to a place where we had to go up or drop down. It would give us a slightly longer traverse as we worked our way around the wider, lower base of the mountain in front of us, but with the benefit of less unnecessary elevation gain to re-lose later.

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At the end of the traverse, we found ourselves arriving at a small pass between two of the Infant Buttes. All that lay between us and my Subaru now was 2,500 feet of elevation to drop in a scant 1.5 miles. My toes barely had time to register what was coming before we began our descent. Thankfully, the first 800 feet was nearly all down a sandy slope of decomposed granite; just like coming down from the pass on Saturday, we were able to bound, heel first, and the sand absorbed most of the impact. Then as the gradient lessened, we passed through an alpine meadow until finally rejoining the steep use trail we had started up on three days prior.

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Although we came down the trail much more quickly than we had hiked up it, it didn't make this bone-jarring descent any more comfortable. The trail was rocky and hard, and the countless switchbacks which I had been so grateful for on the way up now just seemed like an intolerable nuisance. In short time though we made it back to the car, a couple of blisters heavier and a couple of pounds lighter, and none the worse for wear.

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A few backcountry fishing pictures: http://wanderswithtrout.wordpress.com/



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windknot
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Re: TR: Hooper Diversion Loop, July 17-20, 2015

Postby maverick » Fri Jul 31, 2015 3:10 pm

Hey Matt,

Wonderful TR, and gorgeous pictures, to a sub-lime part of the Sierra! Happy to read, that you, and your dad made Crazy Pass, and to all the other lakes on the eastern side as well. Fun trip. :)
HST= Wilderness Adventurer who knows no bounds, except for their own imagination.

Have a safer backcountry experience by using the HST ReConn Form 2.0, named after Larry Conn, a HST member: http://reconn.org
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Re: TR: Hooper Diversion Loop, July 17-20, 2015

Postby rams » Fri Jul 31, 2015 10:36 pm

"WOW" for that first picture. Nice.
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Re: TR: Hooper Diversion Loop, July 17-20, 2015

Postby TehipiteTom » Sat Aug 01, 2015 7:49 am

Great trip report, Matt! Love the photos...looks like I really need to get into that area.
They're on the whole gentle and harmless and some are even kinda cute, but most tend to talk too much and think too little.

You wouldn't be talking about any particular humans you might have met recently in the backcountry, would you? ;)
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Re: TR: Hooper Diversion Loop, July 17-20, 2015

Postby crazyexplorer » Sat Aug 01, 2015 8:15 pm

great pictures and report :) I drove down to the hooper diversion dam a few months ago, was wondering if you could park there and hike out. There were no signs just curious. I would love to do just part one of your trip :)
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Re: TR: Hooper Diversion Loop, July 17-20, 2015

Postby Timberline » Sat Aug 01, 2015 8:54 pm

Excellent story and pictures! Your narrative adds so much more to the photo views, I felt I was along with you on this one. Great fun, and Thanks!
Let 'er Buck! Back in Oregon again!
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Re: TR: Hooper Diversion Loop, July 17-20, 2015

Postby windknot » Sun Aug 02, 2015 8:44 am

Thanks, all!

Tom, of course not. Everyone I've met in the backcountry have been exceptional individuals, especially the ones I've met recently. :unibrow:
A few backcountry fishing pictures: http://wanderswithtrout.wordpress.com/
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Re: TR: Hooper Diversion Loop, July 17-20, 2015

Postby Fly Guy Dave » Sun Aug 02, 2015 10:09 am

An outstanding TR! Great narrative and photos. Welcome back to the Sierra. :D

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Some pics of native salmonids: http://flyguydave.wordpress.com/
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Re: TR: Hooper Diversion Loop, July 17-20, 2015

Postby Arun » Wed May 25, 2016 5:57 am

The first pic on your post would make a great calendar photo. Nice...
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