Wednesday, May 28, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 28 — Lake Marjorie to Woods Creek

The cold was biting when I crawled from the tent just after dawn, but the sky was cloudless and I felt a surge of thankfulness as I looked up to see flawless blue stretching from peak to peak.  Our campsite was shrouded by the mountain’s long shadow, but I knew that eventually the sun would climb above the ridgeline and we could dry our gear and get warm.

I fetched our bear canisters then filtered water, my fingers stiff and clumsy with cold, my breath rising in front of me like puffs of smoke.  When sunlight finally hit our camp I boiled water then woke the others for breakfast.  It wasn’t much, just a couple oatmeal packets each, and after they’d finished the boys begged for more.

“Can I eat one more now and then have only one tomorrow?” Noah asked.  He wasn’t the kind of eater that usually begged for oatmeal, and you could see in his eyes how hungry he was.

“I’m sorry, buddy, but you’d be even more miserable tomorrow.”  My stomach felt hollow too, but the storms had delayed us and we had to ration the little food we had left.  I felt like such a loser of a dad for not having anything else to give him.  His body was about as lean and sinewy as a willow branch, and he needed calories.  “You want some water?”

He scowled but took the water and gulped it.

We laid all our wet gear in the sun, and by late morning everything was dry and we were warm and ready to hike again.  It was only a mile or so to the summit of Pinchot Pass, but the trail was steep and our stomachs were too empty.  It was a tough mile.

We stopped at the summit and sat guzzling water.  Several  gray-crowned rosy-finches flittered around the rocks chirping, and a fat marmot poked his head up a few feet from where we sat.  We hiked another mile or so before stopping again for a meager lunch.  Pam and I just ate a couple handfuls of nuts each, saving the bars and jerky for the boys.  For a while we talked about all the hamburgers, enchiladas, pizzas, donuts and chocolate malts we planned to eat once we reached Lone Pine, but after a while it was just depressing to think about all the good food we didn’t have, so we passed the water bottle without saying much.

At least the sky was still blue.  The sun was warm.

That afternoon we descended across rocky hillsides and through mountain meadows, passing Mount Cedric Wright and the headwater lakes of Woods Creek.  We followed the growing stream as it rushed down a long straight canyon, charging through narrow granite chutes in most places.  The valley walls were rocky and dry with scattered pines and clustered shrubs.  Pam collected gooseberries in a cup as we hiked and shared them with the kids in an attempt to take the edge off their hunger.

We met a solo hiker named Bill in the early afternoon, a man about my age heading the same direction as us, and he couldn’t stop smiling at the kids.  “You guys really came all the way from Yosemite Valley?  When I was your age I was eating Ding Dongs and watching cartoons all summer!”  His excitement was contagious and the kids grinned back at him.

He and I stood talking for a while, and at one point he asked me how we managed food for all of us on such a long stretch between Muir Trail Ranch and Whitney Portal.  “Actually, not very well.”  I looked down at my boots a little embarrassed.  “We’ve been really rationing and the kids are constantly hungry.  We have enough to get through, but I should have brought more.”  I smiled.  “I think the kids are probably jealous of your Ding Dongs and cartoons.”

We talked a while longer and then he continued down the trail while we sat for a short water break, but about a mile down the trail we met him again.  He’d stopped in a nearby meadow, and as we approached he walked towards us carrying a bag.  “I can get by with a little less food, and I’d like to give this to you guys.”

I could have hugged him, but I was embarrassed too.  “Oh thank you so much, but I didn’t mean to make you feel like you had to give us food.  The topic just came up and I—”

“I know you were just talking.  Don’t worry, I sorted through all my food, and I really do have enough.  I want you to have it.”  He held the bag out towards me, and I saw that it was a huge portion of freeze-dried pasta with meatballs, way more than we usually allowed ourselves for a single dinner—and I’d never seen any food that made me happier or more thankful.  He also gave the kids a couple extra hot chocolate packets each.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this,” I said, reaching out to accept the food.  “I’ve actually been really stressed seeing these guys so hungry, and this will make a huge difference.”  I shook his hand and felt like I should do something for him in exchange, but I couldn’t think of anything.  “Thank you so much.”

“My pleasure.  I’m so happy to see you guys out here doing this as a family.  It’s great.”

My legs felt a little stronger as we hiked that afternoon, and I smiled just knowing that once we reached camp we could stuff ourselves.

Just before evening we found a campsite beside a striking series of cascades and pools, the water running down smooth granite chutes and gathering in rock basins like some fantastic waterslide dropping into the canyon.  Before doing anything else I made the boys each a cup of hot chocolate, and they sat on their sleeping pads and savored it.  I then cooked the pasta, and we sat overlooking the water and ate and ate and ate.

“I’m actually full!” Noah said with a smile, a little red sauce smudged on his cheek, and I looked up at the darkening sky and said a silent thank you to Bill.

Later we walked down to sit beside the falls and watch the water.  The sky and granite turned soft-hued as dusk deepened.  The last bits of pink sunlight glowed on the high peaks, and everything except the water seemed to stand still.  As I watched the creek I found myself thinking of the fact that it would always be running—even when I was back in San Diego sitting in my cubicle at work, doing dishes and paying taxes—there would be this endless cascade of singing water falling from this mountaintop.  It was a nice thought.  I reached out and wrapped my arms around Noah and Kai.  “This will always be here for you guys.  Anytime in your lives when you need to get away, remember that all of this will be here for you.”

As the sky finally darkened a bat came out, swooping above the pools and fluttering up the canyon.

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.

Friday, May 23, 2014

In Defense of Boredom

I know that when I was a kid a little boredom now and then was good for me.  It got me outside looking for things to do.  It got the cogs of creativity churning in my head.  And when you put those two things together you can create entire worlds and find fun things that never even existed!  In the words of Mark Twain, “You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”  An occasional dose of boredom and a nudge out the door from my mom helped me focus my imagination, and oh the adventures I had!

Richard Louv recently wrote an article entitle In Defence of Boredom, which provides some good pointers for parents who want to help their children turn boredom into a playground for creativity and nature discovery.  Read the article HERE.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 27 — Upper Basin to Lake Marjorie

The storm system stuck around all day, cloudbursts rolling over us in waves.  We hoped to hike about ten miles and make it beyond Pinchot Pass, so we put on our rain gear and walked several miles along relatively sheltered tributaries to the South Fork of the Kings River.  Throughout the morning the terrain stayed fairly easy.  We spotted a doe with a young fawn, and the damp air felt refreshing and smelled good.  However, as we reached treeline in the afternoon, the temperature dropped dramatically and an aggressive burst of hail and lightning hit.  For a while we took shelter in one of the last clusters of gnarled pines, waiting to see if the storm would pass, but the sky just grew darker and we decided it was too sketchy to climb any higher.

We made a quick camp in the low meadow of a glacial cirque, but just as I unpacked the tent and started connecting poles a downpour hit, rain falling in icy sheets.  We tried to hurry but our fingers were stiff and clumsy with cold.  It was like trying to set up the tent with chopsticks, and by the time we got the rainfly on the inside was completely soaked.    Pam crawled in and used our dirty shirts to dry it the best she could, and then I quickly carried our bed pads and sleeping bags to her.  Somehow the bedding and most of our clothes managed to stay relatively dry, and Pam and the kids were able to get in the tent and warm themselves while I covered all our gear and secured it against the storm.

Afterwards I went to stand for a few minutes beside the small pond near our tent.  Wind blew little whitecaps across its surface, and they slapped against rocks at the water’s edge.  I turned my face up into the rain and let it pelt my cheeks.  The stone flanks of Mount Pinchot, Mount Wynne and Crater Mountain loomed around us like citadel walls, leaden clouds cloaking their peaks, veils of heavy mist hanging down into the valleys.

Inside the tent, we hung our wet clothes from bits of nylon cord and cozied into our sleeping bags.  Noah and Pam read while Kai drew pictures and I looked over our trail maps.  It rained steadily for hours, but in the early evening a break came and I got out of the tent to cook dinner.  We’d barely finished eating when another wave of heavy rain rolled into the valley, and we hurried to wash dishes, brush our teeth and secure camp before crawling back into the tent.

After reading and talking some more we turned off our headlamps to sleep.  “I loved this day,” Kai said, “just hanging out in the tent and relaxing.”

I felt antsy, but I figured it had been good to rest a little.  Our bodies needed it…  Unfortunately they also needed food, and the more the weather delayed us the hungrier we’d get.

We were quiet for a while, listening to the rain in the darkness.  Then Kai spoke loudly.  “Turn the light on!”

“What is it?”  I fumbled for my headlamp, and when I turned it on Kai was holding another bloody little tooth out for me to see.

“My third one on the trail.”  He grinned toothlessly at me, looking as proud as if he’d just wrestled a bear.

“I bet nobody else has ever buried three of their teeth along the John Muir Trail.”  I grinned back at him then turned my light off.  “Sleep tight Jack-o-lantern.”

Pam and I woke sometime in the middle of the night, both of us chilled.  “You think the boys are warm enough?” she asked.

We touched their foreheads and reached into their sleeping bags, and they were putting off heat like little ovens.  “Why do they have better sleeping bags than we do?”

“I think they just have better bodies than we do,” I answered.

Pam and I nestled against them and tried to suck some of their heat, and eventually we fell back to sleep.

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.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Monday Meditation

“Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.”
–  Tom Robbins

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 26 — Deer Meadow to Upper Basin

As soon as we left camp the trail climbed steeply, switchbacking up a rugged slope beside Palisade Creek, and we knew it was just the beginning.  We had more than 3,000 feet to climb before cresting Mather Pass at 12,100 feet above sea level.

Now and then the trail crossed seeps where water trickled from beneath rocks to form lush bands of willows and mountain wildflowers.  In places the trail captured the water and we found ourselves hiking up tiny streams for dozens of yards, shrubs growing up and around us to form a lush corridor.

“It’s like we’re explorers,” said Noah.

“Good idea!”  Kai lit up.  “Let’s be explorers!”

“We could be searching for lost temples in the mountains.  Like they have in the Andes and stuff.”  And they were off, climbing side by side through a passageway of sinewy willows.

As we ascended, the trail turned dusty and the mountainside became rock-bound and dry.  The large trees of the valley gave way to scatterings of twisted and stunted pines, scree spilling down in rocky slopes beneath precipitous cliff faces.

We stopped for lunch beside the creek, just short of Palisade Lakes, and we soaked in the sun as we ate.  The sky above us was peaceful and blue, just a few wispy clouds.  However, when we reached the lakes and caught our first glimpses of Mather Pass a short time later, we found darkening storm clouds spilling over the jagged ridgeline.  That southern stretch of sky had been hidden from us all morning by the steep walls beside Palisade Creek, but all the sudden we understood that we only had a short window of time to get over Mather Pass.  In fact, we’d be hard pressed to make it before lightning hit.

“Should we just stay here?” Pam asked, looking a little nervous.

It was probably the smartest thing to do, but the previous days of rain had already set us back, and we were so low on food.  I shook my head.  “We’ll make it.  We need to keep moving or we’ll run out of food.”

The area around Palisade Lakes was gorgeous, all jagged cliffs and slate-blue water, but we hustled past it, watching the storm clouds spill over the mountains and swirl in the southeast.  Above the lake we climbed into a landscape devoid of trees, just broad slopes of grey talus and cliffs leading up to the darkening sky.  We put on our rain gear and hurried up the switchbacks, but lightning tore across the ridgeline and thunder split the sky when we were still nearly a mile shy of Mather Pass.

I stopped and looked back at Pam.  “We’ve got to hunker down somewhere.”

“Well I wish we would have done it way back when I said it.”  She looked a mile or more behind us to Palisade lakes.  “Back where there was actually some shelter!”

She had a point.  We now stood high on a bare mountainside, nothing but jagged rock all around us.  The lightning was already close, the storm moving our way.  We took off our packs and scurried across the talus looking for an overhanging rock to shelter us.  Rain started falling hard—large, cold drops pelting against our faces and raincoats.

“Over here.”  I spotted a cluster of large granite boulders that had fallen into a low area and leaned together to form a small cave-like shelter, and I waved everyone towards it.  It smelled a little of rodents, and I kicked bits of dry marmot poop away as we pushed our way in.  The shelter was just large enough to fit the four of us if we pressed close together, so the boys sat on our laps, and we watched through the opening as the sky turned wild—lightning flashing in all directions, thunder echoing off the rocks, rain turning to hail and battering the granite world around us.

The sky seethed for almost an hour without letting up, and the cold air cut through our wet clothes and into our bones.  We shivered.  At one point I scurried through the storm back to our packs and pulled out our fleece jackets, hats and gloves.  We bundled into them, and it helped some, but our bodies were so chilled that we continued to shiver.

When a break in the storm finally came, it didn’t look like it would last.  The lightning had moved northwest of us, the rain diminished to drizzle, but more dark clouds were piling in from the south.  “We should make a dash to get over the pass before those hit us,” I suggested, and a few minutes later we’d strapped our packs on and started hurrying up the switchbacks towards the narrow ridge.

It was almost a mile of steep switchbacks to the crest, and I was proud of how quickly the boys pushed themselves.  Still, just before we reached the top, rain started falling hard again and we heard thunder rumble from behind a nearby peak.  Pam had stopped to put on another layer of warm clothes, and I looked back to see her hurrying up the switchbacks, almost a quarter mile behind us.  “You alright, Pam?” I yelled back to her.  She waved and kept trudging.

Gusts of wind whipped rain against the boys and me as we topped the pass.  Kai looked back at me, his face soaked, a giant smile showing his missing front teeth.  “This is awesome, Dad.”

And it was.  I was standing with my young sons on top of a knife-edged ridge, a sea of craggy peaks in every direction, the sky rampant and boundless.  Our world was giant, wild, out of control—and we were so puny there on top of it all, like the smallest kind of ants that could be squished or swept away, and I shouted at the wonderful absurdity of life.  The boys smiled and shouted too, and for a moment we all stood there, our faces turned towards the reckless sky, shouting.

When Pam reached us she smiled, and we all hustled down the steep eastern edge of Mather Pass, lightning ripping the sky, wind whipping rain against us.  We could see our breath, and my fingers ached a little with cold.  “I love this,” I said.  “I could do this forever.”

Pam looked back at me, her lips a little blue, her teeth chattering slightly.  “I could take a hot bath forever.”

I laughed and had to admit that a hot bath sounded pretty terrific too.  If only there was a bathhouse on top of that mountain—a bathhouse with huge picture windows, a bathhouse that served smothered enchiladas and draft beer…

We hiked a few more miles as the sky darkened and turned to night, the rain shifting to icy drizzle.  We finally pitched our tent on a patch of uneven ground in the lower reaches of Upper Basin, along a tiny tributary at the headwaters of the Kings River.  We ate a dinner of nuts, granola bars and jerky in the tent, and it never felt so good to be dry and hunker into a sleeping bag.

“You guys were awesome today,” I said, smiling at my family.

“That was neat being on top of that mountain,” Noah said.

Kai gave another one of his toothless grins.  “And being under that rock and watching lightning.”

We were all quiet for a moment, rain pattering against the tent’s rainfly, before Pam added, “And finally getting warm.”

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.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Monday Meditation

"Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?"
– Groucho Marx

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Happy Mother’s Day!

I was a lucky kid!  My mom took me outside.  All the time.  And I loved it.

Those carefree days outside gave me something intangible but terrifically important—something that has stayed with me forty years now and still gives me happiness and peace of mind.  My mom gave me the gift of connectedness.  She gave me a sense of place.  She helped make the entire world my home.  How can you ever thank someone enough for a gift like that?!

I guess we can pass it on.  Pay it forward.  Keep giving the kids in our lives the gifts of nature.

Here’s to all the moms that are doing exactly that!  You are heroes!  Thank you!  Happy Mothers’ Day!

Check out this article by Richard Louv about the role his mother played in helping him developing a life-changing connection to nature:  Heres’ to the Moms.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 25 — Big Pete Meadow to Deer Meadow

We walked into the meadow and ate breakfast in patches of sunlight, trying to shake off the morning chill.  Smudges of heavy cloud drifted across the blue sky, but the weather appeared to be clearing as the sun climbed.  On the far side of the creek we once again spotted the doe and her two fawns browsing on the rain-soaked clumps of grass, and we sat still and watched them.  Every now and then they would lift their heads to stare at us, but then they would go back to their browsing, picking their way slowly down the valley.

As we hiked the air grew hot and humid, but we walked steadily downhill all morning and our legs welcomed the valley’s gentle grade after the steepness of Muir Pass.  We stopped for lunch in Grouse Meadow beside a deep meander pool in the Kings River, dozens of small trout swimming lazily in the clear water.  Across the meadow Rambaud Peak, the Citadel and Wheel Mountain stretched towards the clouds, which were building again and darkening slowly.  Kai spotted a large skink sunning itself on a rock.

In the early afternoon we turned east and started climbing again beside Palisade Creek, thunder rumbling as the clouds darkened.  We’d hoped to hike into the high country and camp beside Palisade Lakes, but the storm clouds gathered quickly and hit with a vengeance by midafternoon, lightning cutting through the sky above the steep canyon walls, thunder splitting the air seconds later.  We hiked for about a mile in our rain gear then found a thick grove of trees and pitched our tent near Deer Meadow.

Once inside the tent, we hung our wet clothes from a cord and burrowed into our sleeping bags.  Pam and Kai snuggled together and made up scary stories while Noah read River of Doubt and I closed my eyes, listening to rain patter against the tent.

Just before sunset the rain eased to a drizzle.  I put my wet gear back on and crawled outside to cook dinner.  When it was ready the others joined me, and we ate huddled beneath a large pine, the air filled with the smells of wet earth, a swollen waterfall crashing down a nearby section of canyon wall.

Shortly after we finished eating, thunder returned and rain started spilling again.  Darkness came early with the heavy cloud cover, and I washed dishes and filtered water by headlamp in the downpour.

Once our camp was secured and we were all in the tent once more, our wet clothes hanging above us, I asked the kids what they enjoyed most about the day.

“I like being cozy in the tent,” Noah said, tucked into his bag with just his face peering out.

“Thunder and lightning,” Kai said.  “And seeing that skink.”

“I enjoyed walking and talking with Noah today,” Pam offered.  “And Kai told me some great stories in the tent.”

I liked being there with my family, deep in the mountains with a storm gathered around us, each of us snuggled in a dry sleeping bag, listening to raindrops on the tent fly and thunder rumbling through the canyon.  I felt connected—to the people I loved and to the world we shared.  I felt alive.

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.