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SIERRA CROSSING (8 Part Series)

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SIERRA CROSSING (8 Part Series)

Postby ERIC » Mon Aug 20, 2007 3:30 pm

SIERRA CROSSING
First in an eight-part series by Tom Stienstra

Tom Stienstra
SFGate.com
Sunday, August 5, 2007


(08-05) 04:00 PDT Siberian Ridge, Sequoia National Park -- From a granite crag at 11,320 feet, you can see how the Sierra Crest crowns the eastern horizon, spiked for miles by peaks that poke holes into a cobalt blue sky.

You can then turn to the west and take in the distant rim of the Great Western Divide, 25 miles away. It rises 12,000 feet in a series of slanted granite walls.

Between these two massive mountain ridges, the Sierra Crest near Mount Whitney to the east above Lone Pine, and the Great Western Divide to the west above the San Joaquin Valley, you can scan across a wilderness paradise that spans more than 1,000 square miles. I call this the "Cradle of the Sierra" because it is nestled between the two crests. Reaching the heart of it requires a long trek, 30 miles from a trailhead.

The most remote river canyon in the Lower 48, the headwaters of the Kern runs through this mountain cradle. A trek here can reveal the towering canyon rims, ancient virgin forests, pristine lakes and creeks, waterfalls and hot springs, and wildlife for which each visitor is a curiosity, not a threat. The trout fishing in the remote Kern can be the best of any in the American wilderness. The streams are the purest in California. People are scarce and litter nonexistent.

But to get here, you have to earn it.

We proposed an expedition into the heart of this landscape: a 70-mile crossing of the Sierra Nevada from east to west, as the first pioneers and trailblazers would have seen it. We would start at the flank of Mount Whitney in the eastern Sierra, hike up the Sierra Crest and down canyons to the Kern River, and then trek up and over the Great Western Divide and down to Mineral King at the foot of the western Sierra.

Michael Furniss, a Forest Service hydrologist and time-tested fellow adventurer, would be our science adviser and photographer. Brother Bob "Rambob" Stienstra, who's saved my bacon on more than one outing, was in charge of food and cookware.

We were aware that we would be walking in the footsteps of trailblazers, pioneers, and explorers. Imagine coming from the East across the Great Basin in the 1850s, approaching the southern Sierra Nevada at 14,497-foot Mount Whitney, and then saying, "Now what do we do?"

In 1834, legendary trailblazer Joe Walker, who is buried in Martinez overlooking Carquinez Strait, is believed to be the first American explorer to lead a group along the Kern River. On that trip, Walker established a route over the southern Sierra, Walker Pass, which later became a major route for pioneers to enter the San Joaquin Valley. In 1845 Walker returned with topographer Edward Kern, who explored the river for a month, the adventure that led to the river being named after him.

You also feel the ghost of John Muir, who climbed most of the surrounding peaks, including Whitney, 14,027-foot Mount Langley and the 14,015-foot peak on the shoulder of Whitney known as Mount Muir. As we approached the trip, Muir's words echoed in our thoughts:

"Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energies, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."

For years, Furniss, Rambob and I have been intoxicated by the vision of this Sierra crossing, east to west, searching for the routes of the trailblazers, and hiking, camping, and fishing in the heart of the Sierra Cradle and the Kern River.

To make it work, we parked my rig at trail's end at Mineral King in Sequoia National Park. Paul Bischoff of Sequoia Sightseeing Tours shuttled us over to Lone Pine at the foot of the Eastern Sierra. This is an eight-hour drive on a route that loops around the southern Sierra. When we drove through California City, a desert town on Highway 14 north of Mojave, it was 113 degrees. Whitney seemed like it was on a different planet.

On a trip like this, you look for indicators that might foretell the adventure. As we started the drive, a flight of dove rose right in front of us. As we left Mineral King, a black bear ran alongside for 40 feet, and then hopped into the forest. At the trailhead, two ground squirrels played tag, then stopped to see if we were watching them, like a welcoming committee.

Heading to wilderness

At the Horseshoe Meadow Trailhead, 9,960 feet, set on the south flank of Whitney, Furniss looked up at the crest.

"How bad you say that climb is out of the Kern Canyon?" he asked. Of course, he already knew: From the base of the Kern Canyon to a notch in the Great Western Divide, you climb 5,130 feet over 12 miles.

Furniss said he felt a mixture of exhilaration and trepidation - exhilaration at taking on a trek with world-class beauty, but trepidation at facing the altitude, climbs and daily physical challenges.

"Getting into the Kern Canyon won't be any Sunday picnic either," answered Rambob. "It's 32 miles in three days with three passes and a then head-long dive down Wallace Creek to the Kern." This descent would start at a 10,964-foot ridge and then drop 2,900 feet in five miles to Junction Meadow in the Kern Canyon. With a cragged rock surface, this was a potential toe-jammer and knee-twister.

There were other concerns. What about the snakes in notorious Rattlesnake Canyon? In a drought year in the high country, could drinking water sources at creeks be dried up? How would our bodies react to the continuous aerobic hiking at high altitude? If we don't catch fish, would we have enough food? And on every trip, there's an X-factor, an unanticipatable crisis, where you must react to save the trip.

With packs hoisted and strapped on, we connected outreached fists.

"No falls," ordered Furniss.

"Stay safe," echoed Rambob.

In our first steps, Furniss turned and said, "For all we know, it could be hundreds of years ago. The country out here is that primitive. This is the Wild West. You're on your own. There are no back-up systems to save you if you screw up."

And we were off.

The trail started off nearly flat, and I quickly felt the old beat and cadence, stroking my size 13s up toward Cottonwood Pass and the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. About 20 minutes in, the trail started to rise, the start of a 1,000-foot climb, as easy as it gets for the high country, and I fell into a familiar aerobic rhythm. With the smell of pine duff in the air, it felt like I was home.

Here in July, spring was still arriving. Whorled penstemon, the wildflower with tiny blooms like little blue bells, along with yellow mules ear, the coarse red bloom of Indian paintbrush and lush green corn lilies sparked color along the trail. A sparse ancient forest of white bark pine provided filtered shade, and at times, ghostly shadows flickered on the trail ahead. At tree line, I heard the mating call of a blue grouse, the classic "Woomph, woomph, woomph." Another good sign: Medicine Men call blue grouse the Sacred Spiral to the great outdoors.

After an easy start for about two miles, the trail climbs 900 feet in 1.5 miles, and you pop out on top at the pass and the PCT junction at 11,160 feet.

World-class trail

Just before hitting the summit, we turned and looked behind us, and scanned across the Horseshoe Meadow Complex at the trailhead and beyond to the Owens Valley more than 7,000 feet below. It was a last look back. We turned up the trail, hiked 50 yards and popped over the top of the ridge. All at once, looking west, the rim of the Kern Canyon and far beyond, the Great Western Divide, came into distant view.

The sky was so rich a blue and the air so clear that it seemed as if you could reach out and touch the Great Divide. Yet at the same time, it seemed impossibly far to walk.

Furniss, who lives on the coast, is often slow to get acclimated to high altitudes, and already his face looked blanched.

"Bonus," Rambob shouted, and to our collective shock, he pulled two large Snickers out of his pack and passed them out. Our tradition of "bonus" started 20 years ago, the first time we hiked the John Muir Trail, where you try to surprise your mates. Well, it worked, and put Furniss back on his feet with color in his face.

We turned right on the PCT and climbed past Chicken Spring Lake, a pretty little jewel in a rock basin, and trekked upward to a ridge that acts as the border for the Golden Trout Wilderness and Sequoia National Park.

As we gained the rise, the stunning Siberian Outpost appeared below. It's called the Siberian Outpost not only for the bleak landscape forms, but also for its remoteness. To the south, there's a craggy, cliff-like outcrop, its rim lined by firs. Adjoining the Outpost is a vast, barren half-meadow/half desert that's covered by snow and ice eight months of the year.

I launched ahead of the others to claim a prize campsite. After crossing Rock Creek, I took an unsigned cut-off that leads to a lake set below a granite monolith called the Major General.

A spur trail was routed out past a meadow, around a hill to small, beautiful Soldier Lake, and to a campsite set on a peninsula at lakeside. The lake is shallow on one end and then feeds into a deep bowl, circled by high granite, spires towering over the basin.

"Right here, right now, I feel like this could be 200 years ago," Rambob said.

Furniss agreed. "It probably looked like this 5,000 years ago," he added.

"A trip like this starts with humility," Furniss said. "Look at these mountains and see how old everything is, how big it is. We're just coming through to get a taste of the beauty. Let that be our model for what we do with our lives, in the next week and beyond."

It was a good first day, and a light, early evening breeze kept the mosquitoes to zero.

"Where to next?" Furniss asked.

Crabtree Meadow at the foot of Mount Whitney, came the answer, and then down Wallace Creek to the headwaters of the Kern River, at the bottom of the most remote canyon in America.

The next week portends the physical hardships of a Sierra crossing, but with it the chance to explore a land with stunning beauty, wild trout, wildlife, waterfalls and hot springs, high ridges and deep canyons, and along the way, to sense the ghosts of explorers past.

-- A photo gallery from this Sierra adventure can be found at sfgate.com/sports/outdoors.
Day 1

Horseshoe Meadow to Soldier Lake, 11.1 miles

Horseshoe Meadow Trailhead (9,960 feet) to Cottonwood Pass (11,160 feet, 1,200-foot climb, 3.4 miles) and Pacific Crest Trail. Turn right on PCT and climb to border of Golden Trout Wilderness and Sequoia National Park (11,320 feet), past Siberian Outpost to Soldier Lakes Junction (7.0). Turn right to Soldier Lake (0.7). Camp at lake below the Major General Monolith.

Outfitting the trip

Group gear: Stove, fuel, wind screen, lighter, pot, pan, pot grabber, scrubber, bear-proof food canisters, collapsible water jug, water purification system, comprehensive first-aid kit, heavy-duty plastic garbage bags, rope, spade, maps, permit, candle, sun block, whistle, duct tape.

Personal gear: Backpack, Nalgene bottle or canteen, pack poncho, bivy or tent, Therm-a-Rest pad, sleeping bag, air pillow, boots with innersoles, cup, fork, knife, fishing gear, toilet paper, toothbrush and toothpaste, towelettes, lip balm, mosquito repellent, flashlight, camera, notebook and pen, watch with compass/altimeter, secure car key.

Clothes: For hiking - lightweight convertible hiking pants (zipper to make shorts), lightweight breathable shirt, socks, bandana, wide-brim hat, sunglasses. Note: Do not wear cotton-made shirts or pants when hiking on expeditions. For camp - Polypropylene underwear, comfortable overshirt, fleece vest, lightweight Gore-Tex jacket. Bonus - lightweight rubber/plastic camp sandals.

Food (per person, per day): Breakfast - one instant soup, two instant oatmeals; lunch (eaten all day long) - meat stick, turkey jerky, dried fruit, trail mix, Luna bar; dinner - two instant soups, 2/3 freeze-dried dinner, trout (fried in tube butter or barbecued on coals with Lawry's seasoned salt); bonus - hot cider, Tang, hot chocolate, Starburst, cigar.
Logistics

Trailhead hiker quota information: http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo . Click on Passes and Permits, then on Wilderness and Wilderness Permits and Information. This site lists trailhead availability for summer dates for Inyo National Forest and the Whitney Zone, and provides the printable form for reservation requests.

Wilderness trailhead reservation: From Web site listed above, print out form, complete, and submit with check or credit card number, $5 per hiker ($15 if entering Whitney Zone), to Wilderness Reservation Office, 351 Pacu Lane, Suite 200, Bishop, CA 93514, or fax to (760) 873-2484.

Wilderness permit: Pick up in person at Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center on U.S. 395 just south of Lone Pine. Confirm route, group leader, hikers in party, bear-proof food canisters, campfire restrictions. Group leader in wilderness must carry permit.

Shuttle ride: Sequoia Sightseeing Tours, Paul and Becky Bischoff, Three Rivers, CA, (559) 561-4189 or sequoiatours.com.

Phone contacts: Inyo Wilderness Permit Reservation Line, (760) 873-2483; Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center, (760) 876-6200; Inyo National Forest Headquarters, Bishop, (760) 873-2400; Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, (559) 565-3341 or nps.gov/seki.

E-mail Tom Stienstra at tstienstra@sfchronicle.com.
Last edited by ERIC on Mon Aug 20, 2007 3:33 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Part 2

Postby ERIC » Mon Aug 20, 2007 3:33 pm

Sierra Crossing
Second in an eight-part series by Tom Stienstra

Tom Stienstra, Chronicle Outdoors Writer
SFGate.com
Monday, August 6, 2007


(08-06) 04:00 PDT Crabtree Meadow, Mount Whitney Wilderness -- - Rising trout swirled on the surface of a small, pristine lake. The morning was so quiet that you could hear the fish as they nabbed hatching insects. It sounded like little popguns going off, one after another.

Just beyond the lake, a 25-acre wetland and meadow extended to a sloping ridge peppered with white fir. Beyond to the western horizon, the Major General, an imposing granite monolith, topped the Sierra Crest with a series of spiked pinnacles. It looked like a poster, yet the lake was not even named.

"The whole reason to be out here in the wilderness is to find surprise places like this," said my brother, Bob. "There's nobody else here except the deer, birds and the fish."

This was Day 2 of a 70-mile crossing of the Sierra, east to west, seeing the land as the first pioneers would have seen it. We started the trek at the flank of Mount Whitney in the eastern Sierra and hiked up the Sierra Crest and ventured north about 11 miles to Soldier Lake. We plan to head down canyons to the Kern River, and then complete trek by climbing up and over the Great Western Divide, and to Mineral King at the foot of the western Sierra.

This route would take us through "Cradle of the Sierra," the paradise that is set between the Sierra Crest to the east and the Great Western Divide to the west.

An ill wind

The scene at Rock Creek Meadow was a tranquil contrast to the night we had just endured. I slept about five hours, but it came in about 20 installments. My partners, scientist Michael Furniss and Bob, also reported grim attempts at sleep.

Around midnight, the wind rose up out of the east, 20 mph with gusts to 35, and then plundered down the canyon and through our campsite at Soldier Lake. It carried off anything that wasn't tied down, rattled everything that was, and overhead, whistled off the 12,000-foot mountain rims.

Shortly after dawn, we surrendered. We emerged from our bivys and tents, boiled water for instant soup and oatmeal, treated a few small blisters with Moleskin, packed up and headed out.

In an hour, the wind had blown itself out and the air was perfectly still as we traversed Rock Creek Meadows.

Over the course of four miles, we sailed down toward a crossing of Rock Creek at the bottom of a canyon. Easy downhill glides are called strokers, where walking seems as simple as reaching out your boots and letting gravity take them to earth.

We passed a series of gorgeous meadows interwoven with young stands of lodgepole pine. At the stream, we stopped to restock water, and felt a surprise presence.

Wilderness Ranger Alison Steiner, who works for Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks, had suddenly appeared. Steiner checked our Wilderness Permit and matched it with the trip itinerary we'd filed.

"I don't have to give many tickets," she said. "For most people, its a matter of education. More than anything, that's what we do, education about the wilderness." One of the exceptions, she said, are campers who build new fire rings, which scar rocks and create fire danger.

Steiner is studying toward a Ph.D. in environmental history at UC Davis, and is working her way through college as a ranger. In the past six years, she's hiked roughly 5,000 miles out here.

Furniss, who was surveying the health of high-country range on our trip, noted a lack of vegetation outside of riparian watersheds.

"There's less grass in July this year than there was in October last year," Steiner said, describing a drought in the high country that is measured by soil moisture, not lake levels.

Up, up and away

As we departed, heading north on the Pacific Crest Trail, Steiner warned: "The trail out of Rock Creek is the steepest in the park."

"It can't be that bad," I said to Furniss. After all, Guyot Pass, at an estimated 10,900 feet, isn't even noted on many topo maps.

Wrong: This turned out to be more like a pioneer route rather than a trail. It climbs 1,350 feet in about three miles, yet isn't graded through a series of dry, hot sections.

To the left is Mount Guyot at 12,300 feet, its sparse slopes towering overhead, and it takes hours to get past it.

"This should be renamed the Death Trail," Furniss said.

Rambob was also relieved to make it to the pass at the ridge.

"As bad as that was, there is a sense of accomplishment, when you look back and see Rock Creek way back there down the canyon," he said, then took a long tug on his canteen.

Late in the day, nearly 6 p.m., we popped over another rise and the trail became a cragged cutout amid a massive slide of sharp-edged boulders. We rounded a bend, and suddenly, with one forward step, the backside of 14,497-foot Mount Whitney and the jagged Sierra Crest emerged into view.

This is a spectacular view of Whitney and its sheer, steep and bare east side. Whitney's Wolf Teeth, the jagged, diamond-like spires on its ridge, soar skyward on the Whitney rim. Beautiful.

By 7 p.m., we were boiling water for a camp dinner at Crabtree Meadow, getting ready to bed down for the night. A buck with huge antlers, like something from the Hartford commercial, emerged across the meadow at dusk.

"I think its pretty likely John Muir camped here," I said. There were nods all around.

Tomorrow: Day 3, the plunge west into the headwaters of the spectacular Kern Canyon.

To see a photo gallery and to read the first installment of this series, go to sfgate.com/sports/outdoors.
Day 2

Soldier Lake to Crabtree Meadow, 11.6 miles.

Return 0.7 to Pacific Crest Trail. Turn right and hike along Rock Creek (3.5), climb Guyot Pass (estimated 10,900) and traverse through Guyot Flat, below 12,300-foot Mount Guyot, and continue to Crabtree Meadow (7.4) for camp at Whitney Creek.

Trip total: 22.8 miles

E-mail Tom Stienstra at tstienstra@sfchronicle.com.
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Part 3

Postby ERIC » Mon Aug 20, 2007 3:35 pm

SIERRA CROSSING
Third of an eight-part series by Tom Stienstra

Tom Stienstra
SFGate.com
Tuesday, August 7, 2007


(08-07) 04:00 PDT Junction Meadow, Kern River Canyon -- It was a crisp 38 degrees at dawn. I filled my water bottle at Whitney Creek, and then heard a buzz. I turned to my left and looked up, and a hummingbird was eyeing me from three feet. It hovered, facing me, as if asking, "What are you doing way out here?"

The answer is that we planned to break off the John Muir Trail today and head down into the Kern Canyon, perhaps the most remote river canyon in the Lower 48.

My partners, Forest Service scientist Michael Furniss and brother Rambob, had heard the stories about the Kern: Trout that shout, "Catch me!" Bucks with huge antlers. Marmots as tame as guinea pigs. Virgin forests. Surprise waterfalls, hot springs and water as pure as any on earth. And in the lower stretches, maybe some rattlesnakes.

The upper Kern Canyon is a 20-mile gorge in the heart of the "Cradle of the Sierra, as I call it, set between the Sierra Crest to the east and the Great Western Divide to the west. It is the crown jewel amid our 70-mile east-to-west crossing of the Sierra.

To reach it we'd have to climb to a 10,964-foot ridge out of Crabtree Meadow at the foot of Mount Whitney, then plummet 2,900 feet in five miles to the Kern River.

At sunrise, we broke camp at Crabtree Meadow and headed north on the John Muir Trail. At Whitney Creek, the PCT and JMT join as one route for 175 miles to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite.

The morning started with a 600-foot climb through a sparse forest of white pine. Halfway up this mountain slope, we ran into a group of six women with one stout fellow. They were from England and Scotland, part of a training expedition with the Royal Army Medical Brigade, led by Col. Les Webb.

"We've been on the trail four days, coming in from Onion Valley (out of Independence)," Lynne Eshelby of Scotland said. "We're climbing Mount Whitney tomorrow."

The group was ecstatic, except for one thin woman, her face pale. "I've had a few dizzy spells, likely from the altitude," she said. She took a long drink of water, and then the group trekked on, hiking in the one-after-another chain that Europeans are known for. Days later, it turned out to be a meeting we'd never forget.

"When you see people on the trail, you're in the very same boat they're in," Furniss said. "You're carrying a heavy pack for long miles, at high elevations, relying on yourself, even in a group. So there's an instant camaraderie."

Furniss and I delayed a bit to treat and re-cover a few blisters on our heels. Moleskin, promoted as a second skin, wasn't sticking as advertised, so the blisters had been exposed to more abrasion. I tried a third sock to minimize the friction.

We re-booted, and by mid-morning, topped the ridge saddle above Wallace Creek. The rim of the Kern Canyon and beyond to the Great Western Divide emerged to our left. It was another stunning poster view.

To the west, you could see across to 12,789-foot Kern Point and how the canyon wall plunged some 5,000 feet to the river and valley floor. To the east, 13,990-foot Mount Barnard topped a rim of peaks on the Sierra Crest.

That view jump-started our ambition to make the descent. We stroked downhill in extended switchbacks, quickly dropping 650 feet to Wallace Creek. This is a pretty stream, and in some years on the JMT, I've had to wade to get across it. But in a drought year, we could hop across on boulders. From here we broke off the JMT, turned left and ventured down along Wallace Creek into the Kern Canyon.

The rush of the stream alongside was more of a whoosh than a gurgle, and the mating call of a Clark's nutcracker added the melody. Then the arrival of a male western tanager, its red head and bright yellow breast sharp against gray rocks, further lightened our steps.

From here, it's a 3.4-mile romp to Junction Meadow at the bottom of the Kern Canyon. The trail is cut into rock and boulder fields with small forests groves every quarter mile or so. We hiked around one point and it seemed like we were on the edge of the world.

The Great Western Divide, now directly across the canyon, towered overhead, with a glacier field set below a row of peaks. To our right, you could see up into the Kern River headwaters. Dozens of waterfalls, surging and foaming, poured like fountains in the gorge, a series of freefalls, stair-steps and cascades. To our left, you could then scan across the heart of the Kern Canyon, with a sea of conifers nestled on the valley floor along the river. This is the heart of the Sierra Cradle.

In early evening, we arrived at Junction Meadow along the Kern River. For this trip, the Kern was the Promised Land.

It had taken three days and 32 miles to reach it. We planned to spend the next three days hiking along the Kern, exploring, fishing, searching for wildlife, hot springs and watching out for rattlesnakes.

To get a sample, at a pool fed by a small riffle below our campsite, I made 10 casts with my fishing rod, had seven trout, and kept one for dinner.

"This really is paradise," Furniss said at the campfire that night. "And we just got here."

Tomorrow: Day 4, river walk and fishing the Kern.
Day 3

Crabtree to Junction meadows, 9.2 miles.

From Crabtree Meadow, hike north on John Muir Trail to Wallace Creek (4.4 miles). Turn left and hike to High Sierra Trail (3.4). Turn left on High Sierra Trail to Junction Meadow (1.3) on Kern River.
No easy way

There's no easy way into the Kern Canyon. No matter where you start from, it's a long, multi-day trek to reach Junction Meadow at the headwaters of the Kern.

From the eastern Sierra, the best trailhead is at Horseshoe Meadow on the flank of Mount Whitney. Its a 32-mile trip on the route via Wallace Creek to Junction Meadow. From the same trailhead, hiking instead through the Golden Trout Wilderness, its 21.5 miles to the entrance to Kern Canyon and 39.4 miles to Junction Meadow.

From the western Sierra from the Crescent Meadow Trailhead in Sequoia National Park, it is 35.3 miles on the High Sierra Trail to the river and 44.6 miles to Junction Meadow.

From the western Sierra from Mineral King, it is 20 miles over Franklin Pass to the river and 31.9 miles to Junction Meadow.

From the southern Sierra at the Forks of the Kern Trailhead in Sequoia National Forest, it is 24.9 miles to the Kern Ranger Station at the mouth of the canyon and 42.8 miles to Junction Meadow.

All of these routes require long climbs, and, for most, steep descents. And, of course, after you have arrived, you also have to make the trek back out.
Don't drink the (untreated) water

Invisible dangers can lurk in the crystal-clear waters of Sierra streams.

Giardia, cryptosporidium and other microbes can cause digestive disorders with severe diarrhea and abdominal cramps, according to hikers who have been victimized by drinking untreated water.

For our trip, we used two systems to purify drinking water.

Michael Furniss and I used ultra-violet light treatment. The battery-operated unit looks like a light probe. When you activate the probe and insert it in a water bottle, a blue UV light destroys viruses, bacteria and protozoa in about 90 seconds. It weighs less than half the weight of filters and is easier to use.

My brother carried a filtration system. With this style system, you pump water through a filter, which screens out the microbes. You must use care to prescreen water (or pump from a pot) so the filter does not clog with debris.

For dinner, we boil water to kill Giardia before using the water in freeze-dried dinners, instant soups and drinks.

Giardia is transferred from affected individuals into watersheds through human waste. When it rains, the organism can be washed from the waste and into the river. That is how the cycle continues.

To break the cycle, rangers enforce a law that mandates no waste be buried closer than 100 yards of natural waters and at least 8 inches deep. This law has greatly minimized the spread of Giardia. Wilderness rangers in the Kern drainage say the presence of Giardia is far less here than any wilderness in the Sierra.

E-mail Tom Stienstra at tstienstra@sfchronicle.com.
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Part 4

Postby ERIC » Mon Aug 20, 2007 3:37 pm

Sierra Crossing
Fourth of eight-part series by Tom Stienstra

Tom Stienstra
SFGate.com
Wednesday, August 8, 2007


(08-08) 04:00 PDT Jeffrey Grove, Kern Canyon -- From our perch on a boulder above the river, you could see three dark silhouettes in the pool below.

"They can't be fish," said my brother, Rambob, "because they're too big."

The morning light poured down over the Great Western Divide and to the floor of the Kern Canyon. On the forest floor, filtered sunbeams bored through the gnarled limbs of ancient Jeffrey pines. In the Kern River's gin-clear flows, bubbles sparkled at the head of the pool, where a small riffle fed into a deep hole.

Rambob flicked out a cast, let his lure settle on the bottom, and then with a twitch, raised the lure so the current caught it and carried it downstream. The lure fluttered a bit as it drifted. Instantly, one of those dark silhouettes shifted over a few feet, still pointed upstream, and then rocketed forward in a flash-point strike.

"Got him," my brother shouted. The fish darted across the pool, then turned and bolted downstream for the whitewater. Rambob kept just the right amount of pressure on, and was able to land the fish in the shallows amid several small boulders. It was a wild native rainbow trout, 14 inches long, one of the biggest wild trout Rambob has caught in a lifetime of trekking the high Sierra.

This was our introduction. The headwaters of the Kern River, set in the heart of the Cradle of the Sierra, likely provides the best fishing of any wilderness trout stream in America.

You pay a price to get here. This spot is about 35 miles from the nearest trailhead. This is midway on our east-to-west, 70-mile crossing of the Sierra Nevada. In 1834, trailblazer Joe Walker was the first American explorer to find the Kern River. Walker returned in 1845 with a topographer, Edward Kern, who then explored upriver.

After three days and 32 miles, Rambob, Michael Furniss and I had made it to the bottom of the Kern Canyon. We camped near Junction Meadow along the river, amid the most superlative grove of old-growth Jeffrey pines we'd ever seen. We arrived the previous evening thrashed, but awoke regenerated, with the rush of the river providing sweet background music.

Blisters, scarcely an issue in the past 25,000 miles of hiking, were becoming a concern. Both Furniss and I had developed half-dollar sized holes in the back of our heels, and attempts to protect the blisters from further abrasion had failed. So we agreed to confine our trek on Day 4 to six miles, find a great camp and then explore, fish, photograph and detail flora and fauna.

The trail was a dream, soft dirt that flowed downhill along the river, with a series of small creek crossings. It was routed through small meadows, into forest, and at times, through lush grottoes of bracken ferns.

We made an early camp. As we were rigging our fishing rods, a big buck sauntered past in the background, oblivious to us. As we explored the river, the scene was nearly as crazy. We'd cast out, get a strike, miss the set, and then within seconds, get another strike.

"In my first 10 casts, I had too many hits to keep track of," Rambob said. I had four strikes on my first cast. While some of the fish were 6 to 8 inches, standard for the Sierra, there were 10- to 14-inchers in every pool, and you could see the ghostly shadows of 18-inchers.

We kept only a few fish for dinner, including two that were way too big for the frying pan. Eventually, I selected a few overhead perches from boulders, and, wearing polarized sunglasses, spent more time watching the trout. The fish would often position themselves at the foot of pools and the outside edges of tail outs, pointed upstream, and then move from side to side a few feet when food came drifting by.

That night, as we munched on our fish at camp dinner, a feast compared to the standard freeze-dried rice or noodle glop, we agreed: The upper Kern River is the crown jewel of America's rivers and streams.

"This is an untouched paradise," Rambob said, "I feel like it could be 1845 when Ed Kern first came here."

"You can see how nature has changed the river in a few places, with boulder gardens all over the place," Furniss said. "This is where rapid snowmelt and large floods delivered huge amounts of boulder debris. Over the eons, it has kept the river pretty fresh."

I tossed a small log on the fire and the scientist continued:

"Spin the clock back 11,000 years or so, and there'd been a mile high of ice in here as the glaciers came through."

I laughed at the thought.

"Yet in the San Joaquin Valley right this moment, the Kern River is one of the most manipulated, engineered, diverted and polluted rivers in America," I countered. "But up here, at the same moment, it could be the most untouched and pristine river in California."

"They'll never get this one," Furniss said, poking the fire with a stick.

Tomorrow: Day 5, walking the base of the Kern Canyon, hot springs and crossing the river.

See photos, a map and previous installments of this series at sfgate.com/sports/outdoors.
Day 4

Kern Canyon: Junction Meadow to Kern Camp, 6 miles

Fishing the Kern, river walk through old-growth forest, walking through the "Cradle of the Sierra."

Trip total:

38 miles
Hook it, cook it

The only thing better than catching trout in wilderness is eating them.

Here are a few tricks that can make both tasks easy and rewarding:

Fishing gear: Use a high-quality multi-piece pack rod, micro spinning reel, and fresh 4-pound test line. My favorite inexpensive pack rod is a Daiwa 61/2-foot, six-piece rod that can be used as a spinning rod or for fly-fishing.

Lures/flies: For lures, use a one-sixteenth ounce Panther Martin spinner (black body with yellow spots, gold blade), small Kastmaster (gold or blue/silver), Roostertail (yellow) and assortment of small flies: Prince nymph, copper John, Royal Coachman, caddis. Set up with a small corky to use as a bobber, or small split shot for casting weight.

Technique: Always approach a fishing spot so you are undetected. Determine where the fish are holding, and present your lure or fly as if no line is attached. Hike and cover several miles of water and cast just a few times at each spot.

Fish cleaning/disposal: When you clean your fish, throw the entrails into the campfire and burn them. If you are in an area where no campfires are permitted, treat the entrails as garbage. Do not bury them. Do not throw them in lakes (nothing will eat them). In fast moving rivers, it can be acceptable to dispose of the entrails in the river, which will break down and add to the stream's aquatic food chain.

Cooking: There are two great ways to cook trout: frying and barbecuing. For frying, do not use titanium pans because they get too hot too quickly. Bring a small tube of butter and a zip-up plastic bag with Lawry's seasoned pepper. Butter and pepper really peps them up. For barbecuing, once a bed of coals is established in the fire pit, coat the exterior of the trout with Lawry's seasoned salt, and then place the trout right in the coals. Turn when ready, just as if using a grill.

Bonus: Even with the improvements in freeze-dried dinners, you are basically eating glop, a rice- or noodle-based composition with some seasoning. To take it the extra mile, buy freeze-dried paella and hydrate it by adding boiling water in the bag. At the same time, fry two trout in a pan. When both are done, fillet the trout meat into the pan, add more butter, and then pour in the paella and mix. Now this is living. And that's exactly how we celebrated our first night of fish in the Kern Canyon.

E-mail at tst ienstra@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page D - 7 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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Part 5

Postby ERIC » Mon Aug 20, 2007 3:38 pm

Sierra Crossing
Fifth of an eight-part series by Tom Stienstra

Tom Stienstra, Chronicle Outdoors Writer
SFGate.com
Thursday, August 9, 2007


(08-09) 04:00 PDT Aspen Camp, Kern Canyon -- - As morning broke, I stuck my head out of my "bivy" and had the surreal vision that I was camped at the base of Yosemite Valley in the early 1800s.

On each side of the valley floor, canyon walls extended skyward for 3,000 feet. Directly above, a canopy of giant aspen circled our camp. On one side of camp, a virgin meadow glowed neon green. On the other, the river flowed pure and clear, and when you closed your eyes, you could hear the ripples of water flowing over rock. The songbird calls were so sweet that it sounded like a dawn bird symphony.

As far as we knew, there were no other people in the canyon for 10 miles.

"This camp feels like Yosemite 200 years ago," said Michael Furniss, the expedition scientist.

"You feel that, too?" I asked. For a moment, I couldn't believe my old friend was going through the same sensation, but then my brother Rambob interjected from across camp: "Yeah, I feel it, too. This is like we're in the first pictures from Yosemite Valley."

The Kern River Canyon is set deep in the interior of the Sierra Nevada wilderness, between the Sierra crest to the east and the Great Western Divide to the west. That is why I call it the Cradle of the Sierra.

To get here, we've hiked about 40 miles from the flank of Mount Whitney in an expedition to cross the Sierra Nevada from east to west. The worst was still ahead, a climb of 5,130 feet over 12 miles up Rattlesnake Canyon, from the base of Kern Canyon over a notch in the Great Western Divide. In addition, a blister on my left heel now resembled a bloody crater the size of a half dollar. All attempts to protect it had failed and it felt like it was being set on fire with a blowtorch.

But at Aspen Camp along the Kern River, none of that mattered.

"We really are at peace in this wilderness," Rambob said. "It's really in its primeval state."

We planned a light day, hiking three miles, along with an equal amount of exploring, and broke camp at mid-morning with little ambition except to find the Kern hot spring and Chagoopa Falls.

The hot spring was an easy find. Our topo map showed that it was located on the far side of the river and we anticipated a wet crossing. Instead, the hot spring was right alongside the trail near the Kern River. A short wood fence shields it.

Just above the site, steaming mineral water boiled up out of the ground. It fed into a small diversion pipe, which in turn, poured into a small concrete tub. A plug at the outlet allowed the tub to fill. A makeshift square, aluminum bucket was alongside to dip into the river to cool off the hot tub water. Clearly this concrete basin is a leftover from before the 1964 Wilderness Act, which would prohibit its construction nowadays.

Furniss was first in. "Whoa," he said, "this is hot, I mean hot." We estimated the water at 105 degrees.

"In a snow storm, this would be the ultimate outdoor experience," he said. "Imagine it really cold here, snowing heavy and you're sitting here in clean hot water burbling up from inside the mountain. That would be ecstatic."

Hot springs are treasures in the high country. Most lakes run about 60 degrees, rivers about 50, and jumping in is an arctic shock.

After the hot spring experience, the biggest problem is getting back into your clothes, grubby from trail dust and sweat. Then, further intruding into your serene state, hoisting up a 50-pound backpack.

"Man, it was relaxing in there, but now my pack feels like it weighs 500 pounds," Rambob said.

In a half mile, we arrived at a bridged crossing of the Kern River - no wading required - and stopped to watch the water flow past, and marveled at its clarity, deep pools and riffles.

Just ahead, Chagoopa Falls cascaded down a rock gorge. The creek plunges about 2,000 feet in less then a mile to the bottom of the Kern Canyon. In the process, there are a series of short freefalls, chutes and cascades. While it doesn't rival anything in Yosemite Valley, the silver-flecked tassels brought the canyon wall to life, and did add a Yosemite-like feel.

The trail rose up above the valley floor and then cut a lateral across a massive field of boulders from an ancient rockslide. It then dropped back down to forest, almost like a pathway in a regional park, flat and easy.

We set up camp at another perfect site, on a 10-foot bluff overlooking the Kern River, sheltered by aspens and a mixed conifer forest.

Around the campfire that night, we talked about the flora and fauna on the route. We focused on rattlesnakes and the high odds of seeing them nearby.

"There's a reason it's called Rattlesnake Canyon," Furniss said, "and we all know what it is."

At the same time, we agreed that we've never had such a succession of stellar camps, not even on the John Muir Trail, or far beyond, in Canada or Alaska. We had yet to see a single scrap of a litter or even a nail in a tree, and all the fire pits in the canyon were also clean.

"These camps have been used by people who have all paid a price to get in here and have a lot of respect for wilderness," Furniss said. "You can tell that everywhere you go. You get the same kind of grandeur as Yosemite, but everything is pristine."

That night, looking up from my "bivy," an opening in the tree canopy circled a sky full of stars. Every half hour or so, you'd look up at it and it would be a different show. I tried to stay awake until I saw a shooting star, and finally, a red fireball arced across the sky

As I surrendered to sleep, I remembered something Furniss had said early in the trip.

"There are all sorts of place you can only see by backpacking and they can be among the beautiful places in the world."

This is one of those places.

Tomorrow: Day 6, Rattlesnake encounters, coping with bears and getting set for a 5,000-foot climb.

More Outdoors

Go to sfgate.com/sports/outdoors for photos, a map and previous installments of Sierra Crossing.

Windsurfing nationals taking place off Crissy Field. B1

Day 5
Kern Canyon: Kern Camp to Aspen Camp, 3.4 miles, plus 3 miles exploring

Walking the base of the Kern Canyon, hot spring visit, crossing the Kern River.

Trip total: 44.4 miles

E-mail Tom Stienstra at tstienstra@sfchroncle.com.

This article appeared on page D - 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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Part 6

Postby ERIC » Mon Aug 20, 2007 3:40 pm

Sierra Crossing
Sixth of an eight-part series by Tom Stienstra

Tom Stienstra
SFGate.com
Friday, August 10, 2007


(08-10) 04:00 PDT Rattlesnake Canyon, Sequoia National Park -- The rattle sounded like shaking maracas.

But this was not a percussionist. This was a rattlesnake, about 4 feet long, coiled and poised on the side of the trail. Luckily, this one was making plenty of noise and could be avoided.

"The ones you worry about are the quiet ones," said Michael Furniss, expedition scientist. "That's when you hear nothing." Then you step on them and get nailed in the calf.

The specter of rattlesnakes at the Lower Kern and in adjoining Rattlesnake Canyon had foreshadowed us all week. Now we were here and so were the rattlesnakes.

Deer, marmots and songbirds were also abundant in this Garden of Eden, the Kern River Canyon. Each morning, a bird symphony awakened us at dawn with the sweet calls of chickadees that carried a melody across Funston Meadow. The flow of the Kern River provided the background rhythms.

This is the heart of the Sierra Cradle, the crown jewel of our 70-mile crossing of the Sierra, east to west, from the flank of Mount Whitney to Sequoia National Park.

After topping a 10,964-foot-high ridge out of Crabtree Meadow at the foot of Mount Whitney, we'd plummeted into the Kern Canyon, bottoming out at a campsite at 6,580 feet. It was an idyllic flat amid aspens and mixed old-growth conifers, set on a 10-foot-high bluff overlooking the Kern River. We called it Regeneration Camp, where we tried to collect our strength for the pending climb up Rattlesnake Canyon and over the Great Western Divide: 12 miles of up with a gain of 5,130 feet.

But first we had to traverse Rattlesnake country near the confluence of Rattlesnake Creek and the Kern River.

My brother Rambob confronted one on the side of the trail. The snake was coiled, rattling and ready to pounce. I spotted two. One was resting in the shade of a Volkswagen-size boulder at a crossing of Big Arroyo Creek. Another smaller one was in the shade of a boulder on the left side of the trail. It never made a noise. As I approached, it skidded off to the left and disappeared into a rubble field.

With Rattlesnake Point looming overhead, we ran into two backpackers coming from the other direction. We'd seen so few people since departing the John Muir Trail on the Sierra crest three days before, that this alone warranted a stop and check-in. But from the look in their eyes, they appeared as if they had been jabbed with a cattle prod.

"We saw a big rattlesnake, like 5 feet long," said Ryan Kurtz. Ryan and his dad, Mike, of Reno, were on a wilderness loop trek out of Sequoia National Park.

"I was walking in front, and all of a sudden, I look down and see it" on the side of the trail, Ryan said. "It started slithering. I freaked out a little bit, and then it got behind me. ... My dad shouted, 'Back away!' We poked him with a long stick and he went across the trail into some big rocks. He kept rattling and started hissing."

At that point, Mike Kurtz said that he and his son were then able to grab their hearts, re-insert them in their chests and continue down the trail. Then when a lizard darted in front of them, he said they almost levitated.

Shortly thereafter, we ran into Wilderness Ranger Alison Steiner, whom we'd first met some 30 miles earlier when we crossed Rock Creek on the Pacific Crest Trail.

"I always see one or two rattlesnakes between the Kern and Rattlesnake Canyon," she said. "It's something you keep a lookout for." She added that she has made that trip countless times in the past five years on her wilderness patrol route without a showdown encounter.

Instead, she described a far more significant danger: mountain sickness. Steiner explained how the lack of oxygen at high elevations could cause pulmonary edema for those not acclimated to the thin air and stress of continuous aerobic climbs. On Day 3 of our trek, near Crabtree Meadow, I remembered how we had crossed paths with a group of six women and one fellow who were in a training expedition with the Royal Army Medical Brigade from England and Scotland. One woman, a bit on the thin side, her face washed out, had complained of several dizzy spells.

It turned out that at 11,480-foot Guitar Lake, the staging area to climb to the top of 14,497-foot Mount Whitney from the west side, the woman was evacuated by helicopter in an emergency rescue, Steiner said.

"She had a rapid heartbeat that wouldn't slow down," Steiner said, "so we brought in a helicopter and got her out of there. When people out there say anything about chest pain, we don't wait around. We bring in the helicopter."

The best way to deal with mountain sickness is to get the victim to lower elevations immediately. To prevent the calamity, Steiner advised getting in the best shape possible before a trip, and then starting your hike and climbs slowly. That allows your heart and lungs to adapt to the thinner atmosphere and pump oxygen into your blood stream.

The rattlesnakes scare nearly everyone who see them, but it's the mountain that waits for you to make a mistake that can be the real danger.

That night, as darkness took over camp, I scanned up Rattlesnake Canyon toward the Great Western Divide. The pale granite wall towering overhead faded to black.

It was roughly 20 miles over the Divide and to my truck waiting for us at the end of the trail at Mineral King in Sequoia National Park. That felt so far off, so separate from the Kern Canyon, that it might as well have been on the moon.

Tomorrow: Day 7, Climbing up Rattlesnake Canyon.

View a photo gallery and map at sfgate.com/sports/outdoors.
Day 6
Kern Canyon: Aspen Camp to Regeneration Camp, 3 miles

Kern River to mouth of Rattlesnake Canyon and trail to Great Western Divide. Trip: 49.9 miles

E-mail Tom Stienstra at tstienstra@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page D - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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Part 7

Postby ERIC » Mon Aug 20, 2007 3:41 pm

Sierra Crossing
Seventh of an eight-part series by Tom Stienstra

Tom Stienstra
SFGate.com
Saturday, August 11, 2007


(08-11) 04:00 PDT Forester Lake, Sequoia National Park --

We stood at the foot of Rattlesnake Canyon and gazed up toward the Great Western Divide and the climb that faced us: 12 miles of up with a gain of 5,130 feet.

"My body just said to me, 'You must be kidding,' " said the expedition scientist and photographer, Michael Furniss.

We awoke at dawn deep in the Kern Canyon, hoping to break camp early and start the climb while the air was still cool. The chickadees were up before us, and at first light, they whistled their sweet calls across Funston Meadow. We packed our gear, boiled water for instant oatmeal and soups, coated our blisters with Moleskin and medical tape, and in a half hour, headed for the trail junction.

"It's impossible to get lost," said brother Rambob. "As long as you are going up, you're going the right way."

Knowing this climb was ahead had foreshadowed much of the trip. It is one of the longest sustained climbs in the Sierra, similar in scope to other butt-kickers we have faced, including Shepherd Pass, Taboose Pass and Muir Pass.

"Somehow we survived Taboose a couple years ago," Furniss said with a half smile, "so I guess we should make it."

To get here, we hiked 50 miles, well into our route to cross the Sierra from east to west. We started at Mount Whitney, and then climbed up to the Sierra crest and down the other side into the Cradle of the Sierra, the Kern Canyon. We dropped into the headwaters at Junction Meadow and then cruised on downstream near the canyon entrance, where Rattlesnake Creek feeds the Kern from a side canyon. That side canyon provided the route up to a notch in the Great Western Divide at 11,710-foot Franklin Pass.

Our final camp in the Kern Canyon was set at an elevation of 6,580 feet, where the air felt thick and humid compared with the 10,000-foot-and-up cooler climate on the flank of Whitney. This was one of the prettiest camps we've ever had, set on a forested bluff overlooking the Kern River, with a fishing hole within casting range of my tent site.

"It's really tough to leave," Furniss said.

"Especially a spot like this," Rambob said. "John Muir would have been at peace here."

"Maybe he was," I answered.

And we were off.

The trail started climbing as soon as Vibrams hit rock. Within 100 yards of the day's start, we were in aerobic rhythm. The trail routed us along Rattlesnake Creek, a gorgeous stream that surges over boulders and into pools, and then rises up through a half mile of switchbacks. At one point, the three of us were on different legs of the switchbacks. We were only separated by about 50 yards vertically, because the slope was so steep, yet the trail distance between the three of us was nearly a quarter of a mile.

In the first 1.8 miles, the trail climbed 1,500 feet. Rattlesnake Point, an 8,500-foot crag, towered over us to our right. With so many rattlesnakes sighted the previous day, we were on alert, but so far, none had crossed our paths. Maybe they were still in their sleeping bags.

Near the top of the first set of switchbacks, I stopped and turned to take in the view.

It was a bittersweet moment to see such beauty and know we were leaving it. You could see the walls of the Kern Canyon rising up at each side and out to the entrance of the canyon 6 miles to the south. At the canyon floor, the Kern River cut a curving path past sand beaches, Funston Meadow and forests of aspen, cedar and pine.

This canyon is not only the most remote wilderness canyon in the Lower 48, but it is the most beautiful place with virtually no people I've ever seen in 25,000 trail miles. The Cradle of the Sierra, set between the Sierra Crest to the east and Great Western Divide to the west, is the perfect name for the Kern Canyon.

It was difficult to turn away from this, point uphill and get back into rhythm. Yet within a half mile, we discovered another surprise paradise. After hiking through a rocky, largely barren landscape that was peppered with manzanita and chaparral, we crossed through a series of surprise meadows.

One meadow in particular was so rich and lush that the wild grass glowed neon green, and the surrounding forest, a mix of old-growth white pine and cedar, made the setting look like a painting.

Then, not far beyond, the trail cut back over to Rattlesnake Creek, where we found an easy spur trail down to water's edge. We scrambled down and filled our water bottles. We literally soaked in the river with long, quenching drinks, and then we gazed at the surroundings and soaked them in as well.

The stream emerged from forest, and then rushed through a short riffle and into a pool. Below the pool, the river poured 30 feet in a series of cascades. The water was clear and pure, bubbling white in the cascades, and tasted as sweet as any water on earth.

"You think, 'We're leaving the Kern, so all the good stuff is behind us,' and then you find a canyon like this, with the meadows, the stream and the views," Furniss said. "This is an amazing canyon, totally unexpected."

I tried to hold these images in my mind for the rest of the day as the hike turned into a slow uphill march. Hour after hour, we kept on. Eventually the climb became more gradual, popping in and out of forests as we neared 10,000 feet.

It was after 7 p.m. when we finally reached a spur turnoff for Forester Lake. From here, it was nearly another mile to the lake, set at 10,354 feet, requiring us to continue the sustained climb.

We were exhausted, yet when Forester Lake suddenly emerged into view, it looked like a fantasy. The day was almost over, near dusk, and a glassy azure surface was speckled like raindrops from rising golden trout. Forest edged the far shoreline of the lake. The evening sky was streaked with clouds from sub-tropical flow, a rare mix of alto cirrus, streaked mare's tails, spotted cumulus and a few distant lenticular.

Like the meadow we'd crossed earlier in the day, it looked like something crafted by Rembrandt. "What this is," said Rambob, "is perfection."

That night, as we watched a sky full of stars emerge and the full realization of where we were took hold: We were camped high in the Great Western Divide, the last wall between the Sierra and the San Joaquin foothills to the west.

Tomorrow: Day 8, up and over Franklin Pass to trail's end.

Go to sfgate.com/sports/outdoors to read previous installments of this series. There's also a photo gallery and map.
Day 7
Rattlesnake Canyon to Great Western Divide

From Kern Canyon floor, head up Rattlesnake Creek Trail (elevation 6,580) and climb out 3,660 feet to junction with Forester Lake spur (10,240, 7.3 miles). Turn right on spur to Forester Lake (0.9) and camp.

Trip total: 58.5 miles

E-mail Tom Stienstra at tstienstra@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page D - 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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Part 8

Postby ERIC » Mon Aug 20, 2007 3:43 pm

Sierra Crossing
Last of an eight-part series by Tom Stienstra

Tom Stienstra
SFGate.com
Sunday, August 12, 2007


(08-12) 04:00 PDT Mineral King, Sequoia National Park -- - From a notch in the rim of the Great Western Divide, you can scan east to the horizon and take in distant 14,497-foot Mount Whitney and the contiguous rows of mountain peaks on the distant Sierra Crest.

"You look way out there at Whitney and it's hard to believe that's where we started just a week ago," said Michael Furniss, expedition scientist.

We then turned to the west. From the tips of our boots, the slopes of the western Sierra fell thousands of feet directly below us to Farewell Canyon and beyond to the foothills of the San Joaquin Valley.

This was the final day in our 70-mile Sierra crossing. We'd started the trip the previous Saturday on the flank of Whitney. Between the Sierra Crest to the east and the Great Western Divide to the west, we'd explored the Cradle of the Sierra and the Kern Canyon.

Because it is shielded on each side by high mountain walls, the Kern is the most remote wilderness canyon in the Lower 48. The upper Kern River is the pumping heart of this canyon and provides the lifeblood for the best wilderness trout fishing in California, hot springs, ancient forests and wildlife that is curious rather than wary.

"I'll be back," said brother Rambob. "Camping in the Kern Canyon was like camping in Yosemite Valley with no people. It felt like it could have been 200 years ago, and we were the first explorers to see it."

It was a windless, cool morning when we broke camp at pristine Forester Lake, set at 10,354 feet in the Great Western Divide, 3.5 miles from the rim and our route through 11,710-foot Franklin Pass. We sailed downhill for about a mile back to the main trail, turned right and started the final 1,500-foot climb over 2.6 miles to the notch in the Divide.

"It has felt like we've taken a few steps back in time," Furniss said.

It brought back visions of when trailblazer Joe Walker and topographer Ed Kern first saw the Kern Canyon. Walker crossed the lower Kern in 1843 in the process of establishing a southern east-to-west crossing for pioneers into California. He returned with Kern in 1845. They camped at the Forks of the Kern for a month, and Kern trekked upstream to explore the headwaters.

That history made our trip feel like more than a 70-mile expedition. Rather, it felt as if we were walking in the footsteps of legends and ghosts.

Within 20 minutes, we popped above a sparse forest and started an ascent through dozens of switchbacks. The route was carved into the slopes of a steep alpine mountain bowl enclosed by granite and sand. All was a muted gray except for occasional pockets of wildflowers. Marmots and lizards seemed to pop up everywhere in our path. In the long-distance scans of the canyon, no other hikers were visible, a scene that had become typical all week long.

I stopped for a moment to check my watch.

"You seeing what time it is?" Furniss asked, a look of disbelief on his face.

"No, just checking what day it is," I answered. "Just wanted to make sure it's Saturday, and that means we have to get to the truck."

He nodded with a grin. Then with a wave of an open palm, noted how the smooth canyon walls rose up to jagged rims.

"See that," he asked. "The canyon walls are so smooth that they almost look polished. That is where a glacier came through in the ice age 11,000 years ago and carved out this canyon. What is below us was a vertical mile of solid ice."

Furniss was animated now as he pointed again to the top of the canyon walls. "See way up there where the smooth walls give way to the craggy rim? That tells you where the top edge of glacier was."

Furniss has a way of making you feel as if you're living in a time machine. As we headed onward on the final 12 miles, the wisdom of the scientist provided the perspective that our Sierra crossing was timeless. It's an adventure that could have been relished 100 years ago, right now or 100 years into the future.

It was a slow grind up the east side of the Great Western Divide. At times, the trail turned to sand, a slog through mush. At others, the route was blasted into boulders like a granite staircase. As we gained over the 11,500-foot level in elevation, the tint of the sky deepened to cobalt blue, and as we gazed up at Franklin Pass, the stark alpine rim contrasted against the azure sky.

Then, with a final huff and a puff, we topped the rim. As so often happens in the high country, the view on the other side was unveiled all at once. To the west, a sub-canyon was framed by 11,654-foot Tulare Peak to the left and 12,043-foot Rainbow Mountain to the right. About 1,000 feet directly below were the Franklin Lakes. Beyond, the sub-canyon fed into the massive Farewell Canyon, nearly 4,000 feet down, which led into the San Joaquin Valley foothills.

This was the route out. Some 10 miles away, the foot of Farewell Canyon looked almost like a golf course, with vast meadows leading into a forest.

We turned to the east for one last look at the Kern Canyon and beyond to Whitney.

"Let's head for home."

The trek down was steep, hard and fast. A severe blister on my left heel had been rubbed open. Moleskin and medical tape failed to hold yet again, and the blister resembled a bloody crater the size of a silver dollar. It bled through the Moleskin and three pairs of socks. To stop the abrasion with every step, I ditched my boots and hijacked Furniss' rubber sandals that he'd brought for camp. To get down the Great Western Divide, I trekked in, yes, rubber sandals, while carrying my boots.

When we stopped for water, the talk turned to food, and the Mexican restaurant in Three Rivers, Serrano's, and fantasies of cold beer, a sampler array of appetizers, and the restaurant's specialty: sopas dripping with a tangy verde sauce and covered with cilantro.

We sailed down the canyon and passed through a series of lush riparian zones. Some were filled with corn lilies, others with rafts of wildflowers. Near the valley floor, we stopped at Franklin Creek for a water stop, tried to get into the moment and enjoy the series of waterfalls rushing down a gorge, a mix of chutes, ladders and freefalls, but quickly headed out.

In the last mile, we crossed through Aspen Flat and passed several day hikers coming the other direction.

"Where you coming from?" they'd ask.

"Started at the flank of Whitney." Some of them looked at us like we had antlers growing out of our heads. Others seemed thrilled beyond comprehension at the idea of a Sierra crossing.

We kept on, our pace slowing a bit, and then, on the other side of creek, the parking area suddenly appeared, and with it, my rig.

I felt this strange incongruity in the moment, with a sense of jubilation at reaching the end, and yet regret that we had left the Cradle of the Sierra, the Kern Canyon.

"The Kern Canyon is the most pristine canyon I've ever seen," I told my partners. "I'll be going back. I miss it already."

The "Me Toos" were unanimous.

As I unhitched my backpack and tossed it in the back of my truck, I suddenly felt the shadow of John Muir, and his words rang clear to me:

"The mountains are calling," he once said, "and I must go."

See photos, a map and previous installments of this series at sfgate.com/sports/outdoors.
Trip synopsis

A day-by-day look back at the 70-mile expedition across the Sierra. D14

E-mail Tom Stienstra at tstienstra@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page D - 9 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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Postby hikerduane » Mon Aug 20, 2007 6:51 pm

Thanks Eric, good read. Makes me drool over the wild country they went thru. Not to mention the fish.
Piece of cake.
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Postby rightstar76 » Mon Aug 20, 2007 8:07 pm

I know a lot of people liked Stienstra's article and believe me, I like his book on Northern California lodges, but I really didn't care much for his series. I found it to be too dramatic for my taste. Then again, he was writing for a general audience and he wanted to soup things up a bit.
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Postby ERIC » Mon Aug 20, 2007 8:35 pm

rightstar76 wrote:I know a lot of people liked Stienstra's article and believe me, I like his book on Northern California lodges, but I really didn't care much for his series. I found it to be too dramatic for my taste. Then again, he was writing for a general audience and he wanted to soup things up a bit.


So true. I too find many of the "trail journal" type articles you see in editorials to be a little over the top. Guess we're all just resigned to take them for what they're worth. Sort of like all news media, I suppose. :nod:

On a side note, to inform/remind everyone of my intentions:
I try to post a bit of everything I find on the Web, whether I agree with the content or not, because I realize there are many interests to serve on HST, and because I hope to do my best to maintain a diverse (non-vanilla) atmosphere. I also know there are some sharp people on HST who are more than capable of developing their own opinions, regardless of what I post. That's what makes this place fun for me. :thumbsup:
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Postby Cloudy » Tue Aug 21, 2007 7:25 am

Thanks for the articles. Yes, IMHO far too dramatic but still a good read. Having hiked in Kern Canyon three or four times, I found these comments rather humorous: "Cradle of the Sierra", "This is an untouched paradise", "This camp feels like Yosemite 200 years ago" . Lol, I wonder if we were in the same canyon. Kern Hot Spring is nice though and I don't believe he mentioned the berry patches which make for a treat in late summer.
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