Wednesday, January 15, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 14 — Purple Lake to Chief Lake

We lingered at camp until late morning, letting the boys play along Purple Creek near the lake’s outlet.  Our campsite was shaded by pines, only mottled bits of sunlight piercing through, and Pam and I moved lazily like cats to stay in their warmth as we drank coffee.

After breaking camp we climbed gently southeast until stopping for lunch beside Virginia Lake.  The calm water matched the bluebird sky, and magpies and nutcrackers flew between the scattered trees.  Except for the singing of birds, the world was silent, the sun soaking into our tired muscles as we sat back against rocks and ate a skimpy lunch of nuts and dried fruit.  As always, we stopped long before we were full, and I kicked myself for not packing more food.

Throughout the afternoon the boys pretended to be part of a cowboy posse as they hiked.  They named themselves Angus Cedar and Jim McThompson and talked in accents as they searched the countryside for a band of escaped outlaws they intended to bring to justice.  This was actually a fantasy they’d started nearly a year earlier during a camping trip in the Laguna Mountains near our home in San Diego, and they’d revisited it often, delving deeper into their characters and the stories behind them.  Throughout our time on the John Muir Trail they would slip into this gritty adventure in their minds, sometimes switching to become two of the outlaws, Samuel McCain and Farley McDowell.

It had become clear to me over the past couple weeks that Noah and Kai spent a lot more time using their imaginations out in the wilderness than they did at home, delving deeper into characters and storylines, sticking with each imaginary game for longer periods of time.  Most days they would pick something, usually cowboys or buttcrack monsters, and they would stick with it for hours as they walked.  They got along better in the wilderness too.  At home, while it was always clear they loved each other, they often bickered and argued to the point where Pam and I wanted to pull our hair out.  But on the trail, they’d somehow reached a partnership, not so worried about vying for control, using their imaginations cooperatively to lift their spirits, turning the drudgery of endless hiking into a game.  Don’t get me wrong, there were still some arguments, but their relationship was smoother on the trail.

Shortly after lunch we dropped more than a thousand feet, switchbacking down a steep slope into Tulley Hole, where Fish Creek spilled out of the high mountains to meander gently across a picturesque pocket of alpine meadow.  Rugged peaks ringed the world around us, like some insurmountable fortress flanked with granite and scraps of ice.

We skirted the meadow and followed Fish Creek for a while as it ran into a lush canyon, turning lively and playful as it ran across sheets of granite, tumbled through rapids and spilled over falls.  A rainbow of wildflowers carpeted the valley floor—scarlet monkeyflower, bluebells, yellow buttercups—and the air smelled fresh and alive.

Eventually we crossed the stream and climbed steeply towards Silver Pass.  Near timberline we reached Squaw Lake, where we sat for a short time on sheets of smooth granite, the rock polished long ago by glaciers so large they were difficult for me to imagine.  The lake sat peacefully in a glacial cirque, rimmed by white granite peaks.  It was as picturesque a place as you could imagine, and I was tempted to make camp for the night, but I knew we needed to push on at least a little if we had any hope of making it to Lake Edison and Vermillion Valley Resort the next day.  Salty bags of chips and cold bottles of beer waited there for us…

We climbed about a mile further and camped on a rugged patch of alpine tundra, just shy of Silver Pass.  We cooked and ate beside a small pond as the sun set, mountain peaks in all directions coming to life with the sun’s last bits of pink and orange.  Afterwards, the boys and I walked a short distance to Chief Lake and stood quietly on the shore watching fish come to the surface and cast ripples across the reflected mountains.  Then we strolled to the lake’s outlet and hopped from rock to rock down the spritely creek, squatting here and there to watch fish in the still pools until it grew too dark to see much.  Then we turned on our headlamps and walked slowly back to camp as the first stars emerged.

“This is cool being up here above the trees at night,” Kai said.  “Way up in these mountains.”

I nodded and took a good look around.  “It sure is.”

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.