Wednesday, April 30, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 24 — Wanda Lake to Big Pete Meadow

The cold wind blew through the night and lashed us as we emerged from the tent in the morning.  We shivered while we ate breakfast and struggled to keep our belongings from blowing away as we shoved everything into our backpacks.  I got an early morning workout by sprinting after my cleanest pair of underpants as they cartwheeled across the rocky ground.  Above us clouds raced across the sky east to west, gathering and swirling around the peaks, quickly closing on the remaining swathes of blue sky.

“We might actually get a storm today,” I said.  The weather had treated us exceptionally kindly so far, no rain for over three weeks, every day warm and sunny.  But in all honesty, I’d been hoping for a storm.  I wanted Noah and Kai to experience a real lightning storm in the mountains, to feel the power of it, let the thunder rattle their bones… but I wanted to make it over Muir Pass and drop to a safer elevation first.  “We better hurry.”

We spotted a few marmots and a pika as we climbed, and we reached the pass while a few pockets of blue sky still remained.  We stood for a while, turning in circles to take in the panorama of gnarled granite and cerulean lakes.  “Welcome to the top of the world, boys.”  I put my arms around Noah and Kai and pressed them against my belly.

The wind tore across the top of the pass, and we took shelter to eat an early lunch on the leeward side of Muir Hut, a hermitic stone structure built in honor of John Muir by the Sierra Club in 1930. We bundled into our fleece as we ate, and clouds continued to gather and darken above us, swirling like a riotous sea.

We’d made it about a quarter mile down the east side of the pass when the first clap of thunder echoed against the mountainsides.  We dug out our rain jackets and pack covers, yanking them on as the clouds unloaded a shower of rain, and we continued winding downwards, the pattering of raindrops like tiny drumbeats against our nylon hoods.  Every few minutes lightning tore across the frenzied sky and thunder slammed against the glacier-carved cliffs.

We walked beside a headwaters stream of the Kings River, its water lunging over great precipices and falling in sheets only to crash against rocks and fall again.  Above us, the jagged peaks of Mount Powell, Mount Solomons, the Black Giant and others jutted up and tangled with the roiling storm clouds.  Everything—the air, the rock, the water—felt charged, alive somehow, and you could see it in the kids’ faces.

“This is awesome,” Kai said.  “Let’s be hobbits, Noah.”

“Okay.”  And they ran side-by-side through the rain.

Eventually we dropped below treeline, entering a sparse forest of lodgepole pine and aspen with lush shrubs and wildflowers growing beside the water.  We paused beside blueberry and gooseberry bushes, snacking on the sweet fruits, the rain easing to a light drizzle and the thunder rolling away to the west.

Noah looked up at me.  “Dad, don’t you love the smell of rain?”

I smiled at him.  “This is one of my favorite things, hiking in the mountains in the rain.”

“I like the smell of rain on plants,” Kai added.

We dropped more than two thousand feet before reaching Big Pete Meadow and finding a beautiful campsite at the foot of Langille Peak.  The Middle Fork of the Kings River meandered nearby, and as we set up the tent we spotted a doe and two fawns browsing on the wet grasses and shrubs.

The boys picked a cupful of blueberries, gooseberries and currents to make a fruit salad that we enjoyed with dinner.  As we finished eating, another rain storm rolled into the valley, and Pam and the boys got into the tent while I put on rain gear and washed dishes and secured camp.  Once everything was set, I walked into the middle of the meadow and watched the rain fall lightly all around me, the creek swollen with runoff, bits of low cloud drifting slowly up the valley like spirits.  The world was perfectly still.  Quiet.  I took a deep breath and turned my face into the drizzle, the small drops cool against my cheeks.

Eventually I joined the others inside the tent, where we wrote in our journals, read and played checkers.  “This is cozy,” Noah said.  “I love this.”

“What were your favorite parts of the day?” I asked.

Kai answered without a moment’s hesitation.  “The lightning and the rain.”

Noah nodded.  “I really liked hiking in the rain too.  And it was fun picking berries and seeing another pika.”  He turned to Pam.  “What about you, Mom?”

“Seeing the stormy sky as we hiked down into that gorge.  If felt so wild.  And I liked watching you guys pretend to be hobbit characters.”

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.