Wednesday, December 11, 2013

John Muir Trail: Day 9 — Donahue Pass to Island Pass

It was a day of foolishness.  We’d packed most of our belongings, and Pam and I sat enjoying a final cup of coffee, soaking in the view of Mount Lyell and trying to ready ourselves for the slog over Donahue, when Kai yelled.  “I lost my camera.”  His eyes swelled with tears.

We’d given the boys each a camera the night before our trip, and you’ve never seen a kid so proud to own something as Kai was to have his very own camera.  He’d carried it every day, taking pictures of all the little things that perked his interest.  He spent hours talking about it.  “Can you believe my camera takes videos too?  Can you believe I can take color pictures and black and white pictures?  Look at this frog picture.  Isn’t this the coolest camera ever?”

Pam and I swallowed the last of our coffee and went to crouch with him beside his pack.  We dug through everything, but he was right.  There was no camera.

“I bet you set it down where we took our last rest break yesterday,” I said.  He looked so crushed.  “I’ll go back and look for it.”

I wanted to find the camera for him.   He’d loved it and I wanted him to have it for the rest of our journey.  But I felt impatient too.  We’d stopped a few miles short of our goal the afternoon before, and we’d already had a leisurely morning.  Now, we had to get over the pass and put miles behind us if we wanted to reach our next resupply before running out of food.  “You guys start hiking.  I’ll catch up.”

I took off all in a rush, without pausing to grab water or food, without stopping to assess whether or not Pam had enough water in her pack to last her and the boys, without reflecting on the fact that all I’d had to drink since waking up was coffee.


I jogged a couple miles back down the trail to the place we’d taken our last water break the day before, my eyes darting along the trail edges the whole way.  But when I reached that spot there was no camera to be seen.

“Darn.”  For some reason I’d been so sure it would be there.  I stood for a minute wondering what to do.  Then I shook my head and jogged further down the trail.  The camera had to be where we’d eaten lunch.  I wanted Kai to have it.

But when I got to our lunch spot it wasn’t there either.  The morning had grown hot.  I’d dropped almost a thousand feet in elevation already, and I was starting to feel thirsty.  I stood in the shade for a minute and swallowed my own spit to wet my throat.  Then I jogged further down the trail.  Kai’s camera had to be somewhere down there.  I ran all the way back to the campsite we’d used two nights earlier, but there was no camera.  I looked everywhere.

It was hot.  I looked back the way I’d come, the dusty switchbacks of Donahue Pass laughing at me in the late morning sun.  I was sweaty and thirsty, and I had to climb several miles and at least a thousand feet just to get back to my pack and the water bottles I’d left in it.

“Sorry, Kai,” I muttered.  Then I started jogging again, this time up… and up… and up.

I kept my eyes darting side to side along the trail, but there was no sign of the camera.  It was gone.

By the time I reached my pack my throat was so dry I could hardly swallow.  I flopped down and yanked out a water bottle and chugged.  I dug out a Clif Bar and scarfed it.  Then I heaved my pack onto my shoulders and set out to catch Pam and the boys.  I’d taken so much longer than I’d planned to, and I hoped they’d been able to make it several miles.

My body felt exhausted and the weight of my pack was awful, but somehow I found the energy to hustle up the switchbacks towards the summit of Donahue Pass.  It was a beautiful hike actually, all above treeline, ridges and peaks towering beside me like a giant saw blade, patches of ice and snow clinging to the northern slopes.  I passed several small, emerald-colored ponds tucked into glacial cirques.  Marmots poked out of the rocks and watched me pass.

After cresting the pass and starting down the eastern slope, I stopped at a trickling creek to filter water and drink.  Before lugging my pack back onto my shoulders I peed, and it came out a brilliant red color in the sunlight. 

“Come on,” I muttered.  I stood there feeling rubbery in my knees.  I was bleeding somewhere inside.  It looked like quite a bit.  But what did that mean?


I made myself chug another full bottle of water and refilled it before setting off again.

I found Pam and the boys a short distance downhill, the boys stripped down and playing in a small stream.  I was happy to see them.  I really was, but I looked at Pam and said, “Why didn’t you guys go further?”  It was just that we were falling so far behind schedule.  It was midafternoon and we still had to make it several miles.  We would run out of food if we kept dilly-dallying every day.

“We ran out of water.  You have the filter and all the lunch food in your pack.”  She met my eyes with a don’t-mess-with-me stare.

I grabbed her empty containers and started filtering water.  “Man, I…  I just wish you would have kept going.  I would have caught up to you with water and food.”  I said it as if I had it all under control.  As if I’d had a plan.  As if dehydration was some silly myth and I hadn’t just peed a scarlet stream of blood.

Pam grabbed one of the water bottles I’d filled, picked up her pack and took off.  I stood there quietly for a moment then filled the rest of the empty water bottles before telling the boys to put on their boots and shoving a snack bar at them.  “Drink as much of this as you can too,” I said, handing them a water bottle.  “Then let’s try to catch Mom.”  I felt bad.  She’d actually made a smart decision.  She’d kept the boys happy all afternoon.

But we didn’t catch Pam for almost three miles.  We made our way across a high meadow that seemed to come right out of Tolkien’s imagination—an expanse of knolls and stunted trees, pocked everywhere by tiny ponds and sprightly streams.  And beyond that, in every direction, peaks and ridges jutted into the sky like a thousand mythical fortresses, flanked by ice and granite.

We finally caught her late in the afternoon, at a stream crossing about a mile shy of Island Pass.  I took off my pack and gave her a hug, which she didn’t really reciprocate.  “I’m sorry I snapped at you,” I offered.  “You didn’t do anything.  You were being smart.  I was just stressed about falling behind and running out of food.  But I shouldn’t have said anything.  I should have given you the water filter before running off this morning.”

She nodded and hugged me back a little.


We shared some water and a small snack before pushing on little further and camping beside a small pond atop Island Pass.  It was a striking spot with rugged views of Mount Davis and its snowfields.  As the sun set, Pam and I hurried to make camp and cook dinner.  Noah read quietly on a rock above the pond, and Kai immediately took off his boots and waded into the mud to find frogs.

As Pam unloaded her pack she caught my eye.  Then she held up a small black case and smiled a little.  It was Kai’s camera.  Somehow it had ended up in the bottom of her pack.  We chuckled, and I shook my head.  “You’re a pain in the ass.”

“You too,” she said.

We ate dinner together in the gathering dusk then brushed our teeth, secured the bear canisters and got ready for bed.  It was dark by then, and I grabbed my headlamp and walked off a ways.  I shined my light down as I peed, and my legs turned rubbery again.  It was red.  I was still peeing blood.

“Come on,” I muttered again.  Before getting in the tent I drank another liter of water.

Read the full series by clicking on the links below:
Day 1 – Day2 – Day 3 – Day 4 – Day 5 – Day 6 – Day 7 – Day 8 – Day 9 – Day 10 – Day 11 – Day 12 – Day 13 – Day 14 – Day 15 – Day 16 – Day 17 – Day 18 – Day 19 – Day 20 – Day 21 – Day 22 – Day 23 – Day 24 – Day 25 – Day 26 – Day 27 – Day 28 – Day 29 – Day 30 – Day 31 – Day 32 – Day 33 – Day 34
  
J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.