HIKING THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL: DAYS 19-20
August 7, 2017 - 18:44 admin
August 4, 2017
One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. (Robert Macfarlane)
This is a continuing series about a mother-and-daughter thru-hike on the John Muir Trail (north to south) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains from July 19 to August 13, 2015.
Previous installments and more photos are online here.
Day 19: Thursday, August 6
Lake Marjorie to Woods Creek Junction
Another chilly, early morning wake-up call. Bypassed the stove, so no hot beverage, just energy bars as we walked.
Before 7 a.m. we were on the trail to assault 12,050-foot Pinchot Pass. From Lake Marjorie, it would be a straightforward ascent: two miles, 2,000 feet.
The trail skirts the eastern shore of Lake Marjorie. Then it’s a climb through a series of tiny meadows and streamlets on the north side of the pass.
We had Pinchot Pass all to ourselves, a contrast from the Mather Pass experience the previous morning. Looking south in our direction of travel, we were looking down upon the next exquisite alpine basin that we would be trekking through.
We took the obligatory photos, took one look back at Mather Pass about 10 miles in the distance, and began a descent of 3,500 feet. We were heading to the Woods Creek drainage, a major tributary of the South Fork of the Kings River.
While Mather Pass is named after Stephen Mather, first director of the National Park Service, the next pass for southbound JMT hikers is Pinchot Pass, named in honor of Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), first chief of the Division of Forestry, the predecessor of the U.S. Forest Service. He was also twice elected governor (1922 and 1930) of Pennsylvania.
For now, the Woods Creek canyon was an abyss in the distance as we headed toward yet another plateau. The trail below the pass heads down on steep switchbacks cut into the headwall.
We leveled out in an exposed hanging valley dotted with tarns, meadows, and streams. Then we entered the timber zone for the first time in a couple days and continued descending, steeply at times, under the cover of lodgepole pines.
At just under 11,000 feet, the trail passes a small, tranquil lake with some nice campsites on the hillside to the east, sheltered by trees and overlooking the glassy water. We couldn’t pass by this beautiful spot without pausing, so we decided it was lunchtime.
Back on the trail, we passed an obscure junction, noticeable only because of the cairn, that leads off the JMT to Twin Lakes. We continued past another junction, the Sawmill Pass Trail, which is an access/exit point from the Independence area on the east side.
Now dropping below 10,000 feet, the trail meets the north side of Woods Creek and stays within sight, or at least earshot, until reaching the crossing. The creek is racing us downhill as it cascades over granite sheets then pauses in pools of water-sculpted rock bowls.
We resisted the temptation to stop and swim, deciding instead to continue toward our day’s destination. We crossed several small tributaries and entered into the conifer and manzanita zone.
It was early afternoon when we reached the JMT junction with the Woods Creek Trail, which passes through Paradise Valley on its way to Cedar Grove (13.7 miles; a descent of 3,500 feet).
Woods Creek surprise
We crossed the narrow, bouncy suspension bridge and grabbed the first campsite on the right.
We arrived at Woods Creek (elevation 8,510 feet) a day earlier than planned. We stopped here specifically to retrieve a resupply of food that was due the next day, delivered by Cedar Grove Pack Station.
We selected our campsite due to its location along the creek near the stock crossing. That way we would know the minute our shipment arrived.
It was still early in the day so there weren’t any other hikers here yet. We set up camp then headed to the creek for a swim.
Once we had the trail dust off, we retreated into the tent to change into our evening wear. We had some time before we began our dinner chores.
We had the flaps to our tent open and were reclined on our sleeping bags. We were talking and laughing, relieved to be on time for our final resupply of the trip and, overall, it was looking as though we would successfully complete the trail in the next week or so.
Backpackers were starting to arrive now, the squeak of the massive suspension bridge announcing each arrival. From the tent, I watched a man with a red backpack walk past the outskirts of our camp. I casually mentioned to Jennie, “That looks like Jeff,” referring to a close friend.
I talked myself out of that notion, saying, “Jeff wouldn’t be wearing a backpack, he’d be running.” This friend had completed many ultra-endurance runs, including some trans-Sierra feats.
When I looked outside again, this same man had returned and was now about 25 feet away and crouched down, staring straight into our tent. I was confused at first, but then I realized IT WAS JEFF!
Jennie and I each scrambled for a door, and just as we emerged from the tent, another familiar face peered over the top of the tent. JOHN! (My husband, Jennie’s dad.)
We were crying and hollering and laughing and hugging, all at the same time. It must have been quite the sight.
This was an incredible surprise reunion. Jennie and I couldn’t even wrap our minds around why, after so long, we were seeing people we knew and loved out on the trail.
Once we settled down and could carry on a conversation, we were informed that John cancelled the Cedar Grove Pack Station resupply. When planning this delivery a couple months in advance, our food was to accompany another party’s resupply, which made the price reasonable and affordable; about $100 to $150, depending on how many people were using the service. But unbeknownst to Jennie and me, the other party cancelled, which caused our resupply rate to skyrocket to $600.
That was too exorbitant and, realistically, a waste of a trip for the packers. So John decided he would hike the food out himself.
He had a list of a few traveling companions to call to find someone to accompany him. His first phone call was to Jeff, who lives in Lincoln, east of Sacramento, and he needed to look no further for a hiking partner.
John barely had the words out of his mouth and Jeff was in his car heading to Cedar Grove. John finished work in Three Rivers, drove through the night, and the pair met up at Road’s End on Wednesday morning where Highway 180 stops and the trails begin. John had acquired his backcountry permit in advance; Jeff had to obtain one that morning and only received it because someone cancelled right there on the spot, otherwise the trail quota was full.
John and Jeff had camped in Upper Paradise Valley, about 10 miles from Cedar Grove, the previous night. What was astounding was that without any communication whatsoever, we all arrived at our mutual destination within an hour of each other. Who needs cell phones when there’s mountain magic?
What a grand night we had. Jennie and I caught up on the news from home. We were treated to a variety of foods different than what we’d been eating for the past three weeks that were presented to us as gifts or that we just took without asking. And sat around the campfire (our first one of the trip). We stayed up till way past our bedtime, all the way till 9:30.
Jennie and I fell into our sleeping bags feeling very loved and very missed and very needed. This resupply effort was a beautiful gesture by our family member and a dear friend.
Day 20: Friday, August 7
Woods Creek Junction
We could have hiked today with John and Jeff. They would have accompanied us south on the JMT, following the popular Rae Lakes Loop to head back to Road’s End after Glen Pass via the Bubbs Creek Trail.
Although having company for a couple days was tempting, Jennie and I voted for a rest day, and the guys acquiesced. Instead, we washed clothes and repacked the recently received food.
Lots of foot traffic comes through this trail junction. It was busy all day. We met the Bench Lake wilderness ranger as he passed by.
Luxuries here include two bear-proof food-storage boxes, the first ones we had encountered on the trip, and a pit toilet.
We had several trail friends who were also taking a zero day at Woods Creek, some who received a resupply via mule train from Sequoia Kings Packers out of Onion Valley on the Sierra’s east side.
The packer provided some interesting news. There was a man who was, for unexplained reasons, harassing trail travelers in the Bullfrog Lake and Kearsarge Pass areas, another busy access/exit trail that intersects the JMT about eight miles south of our current location.
The packer reported this man had first come to his attention when a co-worker was leading a pack train past Bullfrog Lakes. The man was blocking the trail and wouldn’t move when asked, so the packer continued toward him with the stock, forcing the individual to move.
The man, who was described as mentally unstable, hit one of the mules as they passed by, spooking the team. The trail scuttle was also that this same man had threatened hikers, reportedly with a firearm, on Kearsarge Pass.
He was described as unkempt with shaggy hair and a beard, in pants and a shirt that didn’t appear to be hiking clothes, sandals or slippers as footwear, and carrying two plastic grocery bags of items, no backpack.
The next day, Jennie and I would be traveling in the direction of where this now-dubbed “Wild Hermit” was last seen. And it would also be some of the most beautiful landscape we had ever seen.
To be continued...