Rob hails from the from the Top of California near the cool, cool coast. Probably the coolest part of California right now. When we get into these heat waves (even Lake Tahoe is in the 90’s) I always go to the North Coast (if not physically, mentally). I told Rob I was in need of one of his fabulous blog posts just to take our minds off of the heat and true to form Rob nailed it, again.
Yep, I can admit it. I was starting to fall victim to a serious case of the funk-rut late last week, and very nearly got into a mode of paralysis and sinking really deep in my own morass. Thankfully, I managed to just throw my pack together and into my car and to just start driving, just go. My much-needed but back-loaded distance-hike and vacation are less than 25 days away and I suddenly found myself very much limping to the finish-line.
In some ways, it didn’t matter at all where I ended up, it took all the courage and determination I had just to go at all, so even getting myself there was a victory. I wanted to pack from somewhere easy-to-access and familiar, but also to see something new while also avoiding the mid-summer weekend crowds. I decided to drive over to Junction City and up to Canyon Creek, but instead of packing to the Canyon Creek Lakes with hundreds of the other total strangers that would be there, I decided to strike out on the Bear Creek Trail, with my eyes on possibly getting up to Alpine Lake.
My mid-Friday-afternoon departure from the coast made it all too easy to stop off and camp at the Ripstien Campground on Canyon Creek, just a mile below what I already knew would be a jam-packed trailhead parking lot. Ripstein was surprisingly quiet and empty upon my arrival, so I quickly chose a site, and headed down to the creek for a late swim. At the campground, I was approached by a man claiming he was having a “chess tournament,” and invited me to join; I soon learned that there was no tournament, no other actual humans either, just a lonely retired Long Island-native that had migrated to LA and had escaped for a while. We shared great conversation, a fire and a beer before I retired for the evening.
As dawn broke, I was up tearing down and aiming for the trailhead. The parking lot was overflowing with cars parked a quarter-mile down the road. At this point, I was really glad I was taking a different trail. I was on the trail by 7 a.m., and immediately found myself hiking through a mixed-conifer forest where the trail was a steeple-chase obstacle-course of down trees and snags.
The trailhead is situated at around 3,000′ elevation, and I found myself climbing through forested-switchbacks and crossing small Bear Creek feeder-tributaries in the side and headwalls of the Bear Creek canyon, making my way up to the hydrologic divide between the Canyon Creek Basin and Stuart Fork. The forested sections were thick with clouds of hungry mosquitoes, and some of the feeder-creek crossings were severely overgrown with thickets of brush and briers.
Before long, the thick forest began to give way to the granite and shrubs of the sub-alpine, offering picturesque vistas of the Trinity Peaks standing watch on the hydrologic divide across the canyon to the west. The climbing was steady and constant, and soon, the mild switchbacks gave way to steep extended sharp-angle inclines. It was in these moments that I really began to have to earn the solitude I sought so desperately, as the sorry condition of my condition, combined with the dramatic elevation gain and at-times sketchy trail conditions all had me feeling fatigue, and seriously sucking wind.
Morning gave way to afternoon as I continued to climb, and I found myself having to force every step, and stop frequently for shade and pack-off breathers of longer and longer duration. As the clock came near 1 p.m., I’d been on-trail for nearly five hours, with only about five-and-a-half miles of distance covered to show for it. The sun was getting near zenith point and the high-heat of mid-day was fast approaching. From looking at my maps, it seemed I still had several miles to cover, seemingly all climbing, to get to the divide or to the Alpine Lake scramble. I could also see that water would be difficult to come by if I kept climbing. As I stopped to do a situation check, I found myself perched at 6,100′ elevation.
Given the uncertainties of what might be ahead if I kept climbing, contrasted with the knowledge that doubling back down would likely afford a nice place to camp, and more importantly, ample possibilities for water, I decided to make my descent. About a mile-and-a-half of downhill hiking didn’t relieve my sense of utter exhaustion, and even the simple act of hiking sans pack about a half-mile down switchbacks to fill my two two-liter water bottles and ascending again took every once of energy and will I could muster. At the last, I returned to where I had stashed my pack to claim a camping spot, but only after having to stop every few feet to suck wind on the ascent.
Tent up, pad expanded, pillow too, and my sore, winded body prone, I felt as though my chest had been pried open with a crow-bar. My breathing was big and deep and full, and a power-nap soon commenced. As the afternoon gave way to early evening, the fading sun began to play spectacular light-games with the trees, the rocks, and the granite monoliths of the High Trinities. It was then that the calm really set in, a peace that no words can aptly relay. The spectacular light show, and the amazing quiet enveloped and coddled me, as if reward for the hard work and climbing of my day.
The waxing moon was visible in this late-day sky, glittering upon the aspiring glaciers and remaining small snow-patches that clung stubbornly to the nooks between the giant granite peaks. I was fed, and in bed before full dark, resting peacefully on this south-facing mountain knob. Morning broke early, and as is my wont on get-away-days, I was up and moving, and found myself packed up and on-trail in seeming record-time. Very little water, and no breakfast, but plenty of enthusiasm for what was to be about four miles of mostly downhill hiking. I stopped to camel-up at a Bear Creek feeder tributary, but otherwise resolved to move, and move quickly; in part consequence of the thick hoards of mosquitoes, in part with my eye on town and some kind of warm breakfast.
What had taken nearly five hours to ascend, I descended in less than two hours. As I reemerged at the parking lot, I was astounded to still find it overflowing, having not seen a single soul since my departure.
This short excursion was very valuable to me in a number of ways. First, I had actually gone at all, which by my estimation was a success in itself; more importantly though, I experienced navigating on an overgrown trail, dealt with thick clouds of mosquitoes, had to plan and be resourceful about my water, got sweaty, sore, bruised, reached my first real elevation this year, and even had to perform quick first-aid on a contusion with open punctures I incurred from rocks I was sitting on sliding and crunching my Achilies, found out that my charging brick is a fail with my new phone, and also was able to recon and scope out my BFT section-hike exit-point.
Most importantly of all, I remembered how much I love being in the mountains, and how much peace and solitude I find. Every once of sweat, energy, strain and effort pails in comparison to the peace, the quiet, the sullen solitude that I find; more profound than human words can express. This trip also served as an appropriate reflection of how I’ve been feeling in my mundane existence; sore, tired, and really sucking wind, trying my best to limp my way to my vacation and the finish line.