Thursday, August 25, 2005

HENRY COE STATE PARK: Takin' it to the Edge of the Orestimba Wilderness

I was eager as hell to ride out the rollicking Kaiser-Aetna Road, starting from the bottommost and least visited entrance to Henry Coe State Park. Ever since the Spring of 1996 (already!), when Mary and I had an opportunity to drive (yes, drive) to the Orestimba Corral, through this great green expanse of rugged hills, I have had a hankering to return. That year, we were taking part in the park's annual "Backcountry Weekend," a ludicrous affair of 300 lottery-chosen vehicles sweepin' up a ton of dust on the graded road 13 miles in, over 500 people as eager as ourselves to get a chance to visit the remote wilderness area, all trying to disperse over 20,000 acres in a couple of days; but it was a regular ol' back country jamboree, as most people opted to set up tents and camp in the corral or right in the camper shells of their big vanity trucks. Not exactly to our liking, so we were content to idyll away the day along the creek and in gullies, but now I regret not having had mountain bikes! It's the only real way to escape the crowds, explore places it'd otherwise take you days to get to and back. We did hike far and long enough to get a taste of the Orestimba—one of a handful of California State Park wilderness designations— it's a pretty special place and I knew, someday, I'd get back there.

This little-used access point, known as Bell Station, (once a restaurant and hotel) is an undeveloped area off Highway 152, now "on the table" as a possible site for a huge hydro-construction project—a reservoir to "improve water quality" for Santa Clara and Silicon Valley. Should the plot go forward, it would flood hundreds of acres of pristine wilderness habitat (as well as a pristine refuge for city-weary humans); if allowed to proceed, this special area would be rendered inaccessible. Even barring this catastrophic development, State Park officials have Coe/Bell Station slated for future development to increase usage of this unknown, under-appreciated "staging area". . .so, enjoy it while it lasts!

You have to recognize the massive volcanic plug to the south, upthrust millions of years ago from the seabed, called Lover's Leap, in order to know just when to cut left into the parking lot; it's an easy-to-miss pullout with a very tough left-turn across vicious traffic screaming down from the Pacheco Pass into Hollister and Gilroy. Luckily, it was 7 a.m. and SuperBowl Sunday, so I had the entire place to myself, all day long. Not a soul (except many animal souls whose paths crossed with mine!). Yet someone else was out there, evidenced by a parked vehicle, no doubt a biker with probably twenty or thirty minutes on me tops. I never did catch up. Didn't matter, didn't want to catch up. Today was going to be a rare day of soul-searching solitude, serene contemplation of the miraculous commonplace all around me of which I am an intimate part. Alone and away from the madding crowd where I can observe the wonders as they occur around me. Had we gotten to Bell Station at the same time, or met on the trail a ways up, heaven forbid, we might have ended up having to ride together, and that, unthinkably, might have led to some new friendship or jubilant temporary camaraderie. But no, the most I saw of the phantom biker was fresh tracks, one set only, then mine. I kept thinking I was going to catch his ass, but I never did. I did, however, frequently hallucinate voices the entire time! Even saw a shadowy sylvan sprite or two out of the corner of a numb THC-drooping eye (it was cold!). And I was deep in, twenty miles back—what if my chain broke or it was my ankle? But, whoa, let's not get ahead of ourselves here, besides none of that happened (but the thought nags you, haunts you, especially when you're alone, twenty miles in, and no help in sight for possibly days).
The fog-shrouded morning was cold, nearly dripping with mist; a mile in my feet were wet. I suited up, ran in place for a few seconds, blew on my hands, God I love this stuff! I jogged over to read the signs about the geology, history and ecology of the area, then set my cyclocomputer and hoisted my bike over the barricade/fence, and set off on the first six miles or so of the road that would take me by surprise so early in the morning—a torturous elevation gain in the first two miles of 900 feet, I'm guessing, through private ranch lands—an agreement with the park and the owner to allow respectful passage through to the park proper.

Finally, at Dowdy Ranch, around mile 7.3, no doubty about it, I was on the veritable fringes of the fabled Orestimba Wilderness! (Who gets excited about the Orestimba Wilderness? The Ecoscenti? Now, tell me, who do YOU know who's ever been to the Orestimba Wilderness, or even knows of it?) The ranch was nothing but a couple of ramshackle structures overlooking a long, blue view of valleys, ridges and forest expanding 180 degrees before me in undulating magnificence. Construction was going on--so it's for real, they are developing south Coe Park entrance for the multitudes. Well, I just wanted to cruise on past Burra Burra and Walsh Peaks, Tie-Down and Rooster Comb, mythic sort of nameplaces to me for some reason, probably for all the eye-squinting lucubration poring over the new Coe map recently. (Rooster Comb loop is the longest through hike in the Bay Area at over 70 miles! I've yet to do it! There is so, so much at Coe!)

The whole route was scenic with wondrously painted, whimsical, down-to-earth, beautiful geological formations! So unheralded, this landscape! which is totally fine by me; those are the best places! Off I went screaming down a deadly two mile, 20 percent grade to Pacheco Creek crossing, at mile 9.1—a perfect place to drop the bike, throw off helmet and gloves, take a break, find a perch near burbling water, eat a sandwich, sit in meditative reverie and marvel at this pretty little stretch of crick that'd do Thoreau proud. . .there, I bent over to pet the greenest moss you ever did see; there, I held in my hand delicate tangerine colored bay leaves and let them flutter to a gently swirling pool; there, I heard sweet melodies of a myriad birds serenading me and coaxing out of my very being the best feelings of joy, peace, contentment that lie within; there, I marveled at sycamore roots twisted and gnarled into cyclopean benches; there, green mirthful hillsides infused me with a sense of infinite possibility and truth, don't ask me why!; there, a densely forested hill with dimensions of a steep-angled pyramid about 200 feet high!; there, in the company of oak bay madrone and yes pretty p'oak, I hugged and kissed and spoke to my tree friends; there, in little old Pacheco Creek, I deeply appreciated a miraculous flow of water coursing merrily over blue-green andesite rocks (so typical of Ohlone Country); there, I waved at the deer that just leapt gracefully up the slope; there, I wished a newt inching purposefully across a mudbank safekeeping for a good journey to wherever; there, a chorus of funky frogs evoked sad childhood memories of shooting little dime-sized suckers into the sand by the dozens with my BB gun; there, my rhythmic breathing became attuned to the organic pulsings of energy—life!—all around me! And knowing I'm alone, a vulnerable part of the animistic flow, makes the experience primal, archetypal, regressive to a life/reality we have lost, no longer know, no longer get to experience.

The Orestimba Corral was still about four miles down—make that UP!—the road. I didn't want to leave the creek, and wasn't ready for the tough four miles it turned out to be! It's like ascending to another realm, climbing out of the creek valley to the Orestimba. You really have to work and really have to wanna experience the Orestimba, to subject yourself to these rigors; for the miles at Henry Coe, I repeat, do not come easy. At the crest, it's a blast zooming down past wildflower-strewn crags (never too early for blossoms at Henry Coe!), and then stopping for a full fifteen minutes in lush expansive forests to listen to a symphony of birdsong, then climbing up and up, another 1000 feet of elevation gain, to ascend to the higher plateau comprising the Orestimba Wilderness proper, about 20,000 acres worth of truly resplendent, untrammeled lands, draining the vast watershed of Robinson Peak. a part of Coe I have not been and don't anticipate exploring until/unless I hook up the panniers and ride out with camping gear for four days; even then, you have to ditch the bikes and set off on foot. So, you see, you really gotta wanna make this happen to get out to where I was, 13.1 miles from the car, with wet feet from a dozen stream crossings; no, the miles at Henry Coe do not come easy, but they're the prettiest around! ("Hills of deception" and "Devil's Hills" are web nicknames for this place!) Let me repeat that one more time: the miles at Henry Coe do not come easy (but they sure are pretty!).

Finally I was at the Corral. Not much had changed, except this time I was alone. It was eerie with gray skies slung low, muted colors of a dull wintry day. I needed something fun and cheery to do, so I rode the singletrack Orestimba Creek Trail for about two miles up and over the hill and back down to the winding creek. It was a rollicking good time, over too soon, so I decided to continue on to Paradise Flat and Paradise Lake, only another five miles or so away, previously just spots on a map I yearned to explore.

Turns out the first half was a tough challenging technical course as the trail became one with the creek bed. Chunky, clunky and bumpy, you had to bear down and stay your course. Sister Cat would have hated it. But I tore that shit up. It was super-fun, on that beautiful stretch of the northeasterly (!) flowing Orestimba, stopping every so often to simply gaze in the gentle zen pools formed in its sinuous course through this vast, beautiful, green wilderness before eventually flowing out onto the flatlands near I-5 below Modesto, where, sadly, it becomes a heavily contaminated trickle.

Even though the day was still gloomy and I was cold, wet and getting lonely (not really!), I was really enjoying the adventures and challenges of the day. Soon, hard trail picked up and before long the land had leveled out in all directions—Paradise Flat! The lake was off a spur trail, steeply downward, so I ditched my bike and walked there for a picnic. It was—I hate this usage!—FLAT OUT GORGEOUS! Another world unto its own: no, it ain't North Fork country, or the Siskiyous, nor is it the John Muir, but it is central Californian Diablo range wild lands, stretching as far northward as Lake County, perhaps, and in the immediate Bay Area, Mt. Diablo is its central crowning gem, and farther down into the Ohlone-Sunol Regional Wilderness, Joseph D. Grant County Park, Henry Coe in south Santa Clara County; hell, probably Pinnacles National Monument and portions of inner Los Padres National Forest are extensions of the Diablo Range. In short, it's a wonderful, unpeopled place! And this time of year, when the water's flowing and the hillsides are green and wildflower-strewn, there ain't no place purtier in the entire world!

The Orestimba epitomizes this rugged, recondite world, where in the autumn of 1869, a hunter watched Bigfoot swinging lighted sticks from his fire, and a year later, in September, 1870, Orias Timbers reports two hunters saw "gorillas". (An ingenious and somewhat purposefully obfuscating anagram of Orestimba!)

The sense of utter remoteness from all things urban and civilized still exists today. Ol' Sasq' is no doubt stompin' around out there somewhere this very second. (Wait! What was that? Could it be? Probably just a mountain lion.)

Back to Paradise Lake, though; that place blew my mind—a supremely isolated body of placid, darkened water backed on all sides by gigantic green mounds of earth. If only old Sol were shining down to reveal this magical place in its full sun-soaked glory! And warm my bones up a bit too! At one point, as the clouds brightened perceptibly for a few minutes, I yelled out, Let there be light! But it never broke through. By now I was pretty cold and couldn't afford to sit around lounging and enjoying it all in my usual stupefied state of laid-back unhurried awe. I quickly ate a sandwich and Cliff Bar, then walked around and explored for a while before deciding it was time to start heading back. It was getting later in the day and, more to the point, I had twenty tough miles still to traverse to return to the warmth and safety of the car. Suddenly, it seemed like a big deal.

Leaving the vast flatlands of Paradise, surrounded on all sides by the gentler of Coe hills I know, hills rolling and covered with a green and healthy forest cover, was tough; I couldn't tear myself away. I stood and gazed, yearning to remain, yearning for a sunny day so I could rip off my clothes, frolic about, submerge in a pool, never leave this beautiful place. I'd turn to ride off and then stop after another minute and remain for ten more, just staring into the green, fog-shrouded void. Eventually, tired and shivering, and gratefully relieved, I made it back to the car.

April 10, 2005

Fifteen months later I returned, banging out a solo mountain bike expedition deep into the Orestimba Wilderness—20,000 acres of pristine habitat contained within the 90,000 acre Henry Coe State Park system, and rarely visited by humans despite its proximity to Silicon Valley! (Why? Too dang rugged and remote for most to pack in one day!)

I entered at Bell Station again off Hwy. 152, rode up the seven grueling fire road miles to Dowdy Ranch, where they’re still developing facilities (uh-oh!), then down two very wicked miles of 20% grade on a gravelly gnarly road to the charming Pacheco Creek canyon, and finally to proceed another three miles of hard uphill pulling to the Orestimba Corral.

At this point, you’re about 11.2 miles in. Maybe a bit more. But it feels like you’re the only person on earth. (Plenty of other kinds of fleshy and planty life though!) Life is good. You’re full of energy, pumped with adrenaline, can’t even stop but to take a few pictures. You can always eat later. The Gary Fisher is a faithful steed. So why the heck not, head up the singletrack Orestimba Creek Trail, which is so little used that most of its 3.2 miles up and over a huge hump to get back down to the creek is through barely tramped down tall grass, opening up to earth only for a moment or two.

Once you’re back down, the south fork of Orestimba Creek begins to pick up through rolling oak-studded grasslands carpeted with a profusion of wildflowers in what is probably the best wildflower season in decades. It becomes an absolutely charming and very remote feeling place. You wonder, what is there to get excited about over this ditch? Some ditch. The creek expands, winds, collects in crystal aqua blue pools at the base of lichen-crusted rocks, then shoots through a channel in sing-song motion. Birds are serenading at every turn. Some even chaparoned. The sun is pounding, but it’s such a perfect temperature, you don’t even realize how debilitating it is and will be in a few hours when you’ve got to haul your sorry, tired, sunstroked ass back the 20 miles you came in on so gleefully. Such a different experience from last time!

But for now, you’re just soaking, naked as the jaybird screeching in the tree above, in one of those exotic pools, the day is pure green and blue, dragonflies are abuzz, glittering like small airborne gemstones, a turtle plops into the creek, a hawk swoops down, and no day could be prettier or more tranquil, no place more beautiful. And you’re the only person on earth.

Beyond the lovely creek bed, at mile 18 you come to a juncture taking you to Paradise Flat--a humongus meadow stretching out infinitely in all directions. Just a stunning sight, with big ridges dominating all views. Then it’s on to Paradise Lake, where you feel like you’re farther in than if you were at the John Muir. Seriously. It’s almost scary, a bit unnerving, because at this point, you’ve worked your ass off, you’ve come 8 tough, tough miles from the Orestimba Corral, in your tevas, fording the creek over a dozen times, sometimes storming across on the bike, but mostly getting off and carrying it across deeper pools. The trail is the creek bed; the creek bed is the trail. You look down and see a long trail of deer prints, alternating with mountain lion prints. You get a bit spooked. You go on.

At this point, you’re worn out, you haven’t eaten all that much, and, of course, you’re underhydrated. What an idiot, you’re thinking. You’ve forgotten your sunblock, didn’t bring your water filter, have no first aid kit, nothing to keep you warm. You’re not 27 anymore, ferchrissakes, not even 39–you’re four months shy of the big Five-O! Anything could happen.

But, today you’re lucky–nothing really happens except paranoia in your mind, a minor panic attack, nothing that an icy dip in the lake can’t cure. So you sigh deeply, check out the position of the sun, guess it’s about 3:30, you’re thoroughly amazed that you’ve spent so much time in the back country already, and how quickly it passes, so suck it up, bud, and get back in the saddle for the 20 mile haul back. You can do it! And you did!

Saturday, August 20, 2005

NORTH FORK AMERICAN RIVER: 100 Hours of Solitude in the Pristine Wilderness @ Big Granite Creek

The upper reaches of the North Fork American River on the western slopes of the central Sierra Nevada is a magical and nearly inaccessible place to get to. It makes for one tough backpacking hike. If you don’t have the cojones to deal with it, be content then to experience this wild and scenic river farther downstream where easier access allows you to kayak, gorge scramble, hike and swim with everyone else.

Once you’re down in the canyon, at floor elevations of 3000 to 4000 feet, you’ll be lucky to see anybody — mostly day hikers high above on the trail, adventuresome fishermen, or the occasion large group of young Christian warriors — so don’t plan on getting injured. On this backpacking trip we did not see a single other two-legged critter during four+ days at one of my favorite wilderness settings anywhere on earth.

Despite being very close to Interstate 80 as the crow flies — no more than three or four miles — you feel much more remote. (I know of a guy from Alaska who every summer makes a two-week pilgrimage to specifically take on the joys and rigorous challenges of North Fork canyon country.) The canyon, hidden from view as you’re zooming up I-80 toward the High Sierra, is surprisingly deep and so rugged, with trail pitches leading down (and out) exceeding 35% for long stretches, that once you’re down in its peerless depths, you have left behind the world above and have entered a pristine and enchanting riparian canyon wonderland.

It may sound like I’m writing about the Grand Canyon, and I wouldn’t be far off — the North Fork has carved, with the help of glacial activity over thousands of years, one of the most spectacular canyons in North America, with heights and depths ranging from 2000 to 4500 feet! The free-flowing river, a ribbon of emerald green winding for 60 miles from its alpine watershed west of Lake Tahoe to the confluence at Auburn with the Middle Fork, hosts a myriad of hidden waterfalls and tributaries, most of them inaccessible due to impossibly rugged terrain. (Remember one of my recent narratives, in search of the 500 foot New York Canyon waterfall?)
In these upper stretches of the river canyon, there are only three or four ways down — each a brutal descent with anywhere from 1600 to 3000 feet of elevation loss, depending on where you’re able to park. We chose to enter via the “easiest” and closest (driving) route, Mumford Bar Trail off Foresthill Road. Turns out, it was terribly arduous and much longer than I recalled from three years ago. Nearly nine miles one way, the first stage comprises a grueling three and a half mile 2700 feet trudge down to the river over the course of dozens of switchbacks through a dense forest.

We were trashed by 7 pm when we hit bottom, so we spent the night right there. The mosquitoes were demonic little pests, but we made do with their swarming presence. Luckily, I had hauled in the old 7-pound tent, which, owing to no breeze and fire restrictions in effect, served us well during the mosquito onslaught of early evening and the next morning. (We are vehemently anti-DEET! I have not used insecticide spray in over 30 years of hiking, camping and backcountry wilderness exploration. The thought of allowing this poisonous substance to seep through our pores is more abhorrent than getting bitten. Yes, we survived, proving that, whatever they tell you, DEET-related insecticides are not a necessary component of the wilderness experience. Besides, from what I hear, they don’t even keep mosquitoes entirely at bay.)

The next morning we arose bright and early and took in a swim and breakfast at a lovely pool (riverside is a great place to escape the little buggers), then hauled butt to Big Granite Creek — about a five mile trek on the American River Trail through gorgeous forests of giant Sugar and Ponderosa pines and Kellogg’s Black Oak. We passed several old cabins and mining sites as well which merited brief exploration. (The history of this area is replete with mining, miners, and 49-ers.)

Carrying a ludicrous load of seventy pounds on my back (don’t ask!), this distance seemed like ten miles and eternity! The trail, no doubt “easy” for a day hiker, winds up and down, gaining and losing hundreds feet more of elevation. By the time we got to Big Granite Creek — HALLELUJA! — I collapsed at the camp site and didn’t move for hours. (Point of fact for backpackers: no matter which way you come in, your calves, ankles, thighs, and feet will be sore for a day or two.)

We set up camp at the confluence of the creek and the North Fork. What a lovely, secluded place, amid tall stands of pines and groves of oak trees. Willows, alders, and a big leaf maple or two lined the river banks, while wild grape, wild blackberry and other rambling brambles created a rich understory of vegetation.

This area is certainly a sacred and beautiful stretch of the river, always worth the effort and pain of getting here. Big Granite Creek tumbles in from the high country at our camp site, spilling through smooth-cut rock channels into big granite bowls of bracingly cold water. Upstream, Snow Mountain’s massive contours form the northern border, with its western most spur ridges extending right to Big Granite Creek. The south side of the river is all high peaks and divides — New York Canyon, Sailor Canyon, Wildcat Canyon, Wabena Canyon and Royal Gorge, all holding immense secrets, thundering waterfalls, petroglyph mysteries, and geological conundrums. An area I call Red Gorge is especially luscious — stained by red iron oxide drippings and red-orange lichen encrusting the walls, it appears like an anomalous geological formation, nothing like it elsewhere on the river. This year the industrious Christian warriors had dammed it up (bored?) — at first, I felt like tearing the low rock structure down, but it turned out that the back up of water in the gorge created lovely pools. Red Gorge is a unique spot on the North Fork. Its 100 foot high wall on the south and lesser northern rim wall create a 200 yard long, 30 feet wide channel of barely moving sometimes turquoise sometimes emerald green water, whose clarity is unmatched: shimmering stones line the shallow river bed like a treasure chest of gems overflowing, in places pooling to swimmable depths. Big green-blue dragonflies (darners) flit about in virtuoso aerial antics, patrolling the canyon in constant predator mode. These “primitive” creatures are endlessly fascinating. I even saved one from drowning by rescuing the poor critter from the surface before a trout could gobble it up. Waterlogged and slightly wing-damaged, the dragonfly stayed by my side for several minutes drying out before taking off in an attempt to fly away, but could not remain airborne and fluttered helplessly back to the water. Again, I jumped in to save it. Why am I doing this? What difference could it possibly make? (Well, I have been known to save tiny ants and spiders, too, from perilous conditions.) Finally completely dried out this time, the dragonfly made another attempt to fly away and this time managed to stay aloft, soaring up to perch high on the canyon wall. That was the last I saw of it.

What does one do out there? Naked as savages, sitting around, relaxing, soaking in cool pools, exploring, eating, drinking, communing with nature, reading Ed Abbey and John Muir passages aloud to Mary, that’s what. Admiring the vastness of the country, the blueness of the big sky, the purity of the river. Minutes turned into hours, hours into languorous stretches of timelessness. One Hundred Hours of Solitude.

One by one the animals came to say hello. Hummingbird visited briefly one day, and then Kingfisher showed up, actually perching momentarily on a craggy dead branch right above my head. Later on, I watched her dive-bomb for fish in the calm flat waters of Red Gorge — quite a rare showing. Two baby rattlesnakes made an appearance, shying away from me to their rocky dens. The yellow-legged frogs were jumping and the trout were looking up curiously at us from clear deep channels. Although we never saw any large mammals, this is home to bears, mountain lions, bobcats, and deer; if you’re lucky, you might also see owls, falcons, eagles, red-tailed hawks, goshawks and ospreys, all of which I’ve seen on past occasions but not this time.

One day, lounging in the gorge, a small irony presented itself. There I was sprawled out on a rock, arms and legs splayed wide. I could see the cross above me jutting into the sky. Scraped and cut from a recent bushwhack (read on!), I also had “stigmata” marks from gardening wounds in the middle of both palms and both wrists! Like I said, just a small irony, and no crucifying comparisons intended.

Another morning, Mary and I were lounging about in the red gorge when, suddenly, out of nowhere, without warning or noise, a bizarre mechanized flying contraption appeared, swooping out of the cleft of Big Granite Creek canyon, dipping quite low overhead, then disappearing just as suddenly out of view and earshot. It was like, five seconds there and then gone, almost an apparition.

The thing sounded like a twin-engine prop type airplane, but looked like nothing I’ve ever seen — something retro on the one hand, as though from another era, and on the other, rather futuristic-looking. How can I describe it? It looked like a kite construction, like it was made of balsa wood or something light, wood-like, and it was red. It must have had great controlling power the way it deftly maneuvered in the tight air space. It looked like some kind of home-made aero-plane thing, V-shaped, stealth-shaped, but primitive in appearance somehow. I didn’t even see propellers. It never returned, as though it came from another dimension and returned to it. What on earth did Mary and I see in the skies above the North Fork coming out of Big Granite Creek canyon?

The morning of my 50th birthday — Saturday, August 20 — I set off early by myself to hike Big Granite Trail which comes down to the North Fork from the high country near I-80. My goal: get to the upper area above our camp site where I had been two years ago with friends who knew the trail well. We had espied lovely, tantalizing pools way below in the Big Granite Creek gorge that seemed inaccessible. My plan was to get to the stream / trail crossing and then just bushwhack down the gorge.

I was certain I could re-locate the obscure trail in the rugged terrain. Instead, I found myself climbing up and up over a massive dome feature — the terminus of Snow Mountain’s westernmost spur — at least 800 feet high and obstacle-laden with scree and boulders and prickly chaparral brush — very rough going! Of course, I was in shorts! I had been on a trail, but now it was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, I was at a precipice with about 100 more feet of sheer verticality to go. Where was that crazy trail? Did it snake around to the left, by Big Granite, or did it snake up and around to the east, through the gap between the dome and the massive spur ridge of Snow Mountain where the final stretch of Big Granite Trail takes you down to the ford at the North Fork? Should I turn around?

Certain to be rewarded with stunning views, I pushed upward to reach the top. Made it safely, yeah! The spectacular canyon country opened up, east and west. Looking straight down, I could see Big Granite Creek’s alluring depths and knew if I just could somehow scoot down there, I would hit the trail. So, I went down down down and . . .NO TRAIL! . . .until I was about 100 feet above Big Granite Creek, looking down into some lovely pools. I managed to make my way down, carefully, to the bedrock channel and stood in awe — I had entered some grand cathedral — surely not many if any had ever ventured to where I now stood!

And where I now stood was taking my breath away. I explored downstream a ways but was stopped dead in my tracks by sheer walls and pools, so I never managed to get to the lip of the big falls that spills through the narrow defile above the Big Granite Creek camp site. (Had my pack and camera, that’s why). I turned and went back the other way and explored more, but realized I could spend the entire day here. I was worried about poor Mary, left all alone back at the camp, and started to panic: what if I couldn’t get out of this gorge?

Well, I had to get back since I told her I’d be gone, oh, about an hour. What to do? Keep bushin’ upstream until I came to the crossing? I wasn’t sure how far that would be, or what insurmountable obstacles awaited. Big Granite Creek canyon continued to blow me away with its seeming inaccessibility. I knew that I had to scale back up the sheer walls somehow. At one point I was scrambling up and found myself clinging precarious to a vertical ledge sixty feet above the water. Still “certain” I’d stumble across the trail as I scrambled higher and higher, but never did find it! How can that be? (Turns out it was much higher up.) SO, I had no choice but to re-climb the 800 foot high dome again, through the same gnarly scree and manzanita — it just tore me up! — and returned back to camp the same way — all in under two hours! Mary barely missed me, enjoying a leisurely morning meditating, chanting, reading, relaxing in the early sunlight. After relating my adventure to her, I made straight for the cold water plunge.
Our return hike out the next day was sheer penance, for what past sins I cannot say, but it took everything out of us. I was of the notion that it would be twice as easy hiking out because of reduced weight. . .but still, with 50 pounds on my back and nine miles of slogging and having to re-gain all that steep elevation, well, it was a major killer.

We broke up the first five miles by swimming, eating, and relaxing. It took us five hours. Arriving at 6:15 pm at Mumford Bar Trail, we knew we didn’t have much time to get up and out of the canyon before darkness set in. Already tired as could be, we persevered through total switchback hell emerging from that canyon to the high ridge road.

We got caught in the dark the last hour — but finally, finally, made it to the car, a most welcome sight! We were limping, banged, bruised, scratched, nicked, sore, and utterly wiped out from exhaustion. All I could think of was the line from Robert Service: “What? — You’re tired and broken and beaten? Why, you’re rich! You’ve got the earth!”