Wednesday, April 23, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 23 — Colby Meadow to Wanda Lake

This morning as I cooked breakfast, the boys used the field guide to identify mountain gooseberries and wax currents, and they picked several of each for us to enjoy with our oatmeal.  The tiny red fruits added a freshness to the monotony of oats, and I wished we’d started eating them weeks earlier.

We spent the day hiking towards the headwaters of Evolution Creek, eventually leaving timberline and climbing into a high, rocky landscape scattered with lakes—Evolution Lake, Sapphire Lake and several clear, nameless ponds.  We pitched our tent on a bare, windswept knoll above Wanda Lake, the world around us ringed with knife-edged ridges and scabrous peaks—Mount Huxley, Mount Warlow, The Hermit and Mount Solomons—a wonderland of white granite monoliths and crystal water.

While hiking I’d spotted a few pikas, the first I’d seen on our trip, and Noah was disappointed that they’d scattered before he had a chance to see them.  So while Pam and I set up camp, he put on his glasses, climbed to a scree slope above us and sat patiently for almost an hour.  When he finally walked back into camp he wore a wide smile on his face.

“I saw two of them.  They’re so cool.”  He told us all about them, how cute they were, how they’d looked right at him, how it was hard to believe such a tiny little animal could live all the way on top of these mountains through the harshness of winter.  “And I really liked just sitting there watching them.  It would be neat to be someone who studies animals like that, like a biologist.”

“You’d be good at it.”  I was proud of him for having enough patience and curiosity to sit still and observe for such a long time, and his excitement was contagious.

That afternoon I explored the lake edge with Kai for a while as he carried out his ritual of catching frogs and spotting fish.  At one point I dove in the icy water, my breath catching in my chest, and I swam quickly back to shore and warmed myself in the sun.

As evening approached, heavy storm clouds gathered in the east.  The sky stayed clear above our camp, but the air turned chilly, colder than we’d experienced at any point on our trip, and I was thankful that I’d found Kai’s jacket.

We ate dinner as the sun set, watching the stony peaks soften to pink and lavender.  Despite the cold we stayed outside until the sky darkened, a million stars scattered above us, the moon hanging like a guardian over Muir Pass.

Finally we crawled into the tent and read about Bilbo Baggins.  He’d reached the Lonely Mountain and the dragon Smaug.  When I’d finished a chapter the kids begged me to keep reading, but I was struggling to keep my eyes open.  We snuggled together, huddled into our sleeping bags, wearing stocking hats against the cold.

Sometime in the night wind kicked up.  It blew through the mountains like a thousand dragons, rattling our tent and pulling a portion of our rainfly loose.  I crawled out into the cold night, secured all the tent stakes and tightened the cords that connected to them, my fingers stiff and uncooperative.  Then I stood and stared at the night, the moon bright enough to give shape to mountains and reflect off the lake’s surface, so many stars you could lose yourself in them.  I shivered.

The icy wind whipped the skin of my face, and I smiled.  This was why I’d come.  This was like those magical moments of my childhood, the mountains all wild and rugged and so much larger than me.  I felt small and ephemeral and alive… and I loved it.

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.