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Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Art of Being a Backpacker

It is a rare and precious experience to feel the power of survival resting solely upon one's own back. While camping allows us to escape the noise and prolific social connections of the city, backpacking is the ultimate return to the most simple of things.

The design and weight of bare essential gear (stove, pots, food, clothing, water pump, canteen, sleeping pad/bag, etc.) determines the boundaries of physical distance. But intention and creativity also become the difference between a miserable and delicious trip. The simple comforts of good food, two cups of tea a day, a little chocolate and whiskey, are not to be underestimated. Sure there's the convenient freeze-dried chili dinners from REI but I wound't recommend sleeping in a tent for several days afterwards! Gourmet meals ARE possible in the backcountry with a little planning.

When my boyfriend Marcus told me that he had 6 days off over the Labour Day holiday weekend and wanted to go backpacking in the Marble Mountain Wilderness, we immediately set up the dehydrator. Trays and trays of eggplant, summer squash, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and pineapple slowly "cooked" for 2 days, ultimately filling 3 small plastic sandwich bags that weighed under 2 lbs. When combined with ramen noodles, cayenne pepper & garlic salt, dried seaweed, mushrooms, and mussels from the local asian market, these delicious soups became our staple dinner for several days. Just give all those dried fixings a good soaking for a couple hours and they plump right up! The veggies also made an incredible gruel when mixed with stovetop and parmesian cheese! Dried squid, turkey & pork jerky, salame, and Ok Mak crackers made a perfectly light lunch to be supplemented with our homemade trail mix of almonds, pecans, walnuts, m&ms, dried cranberries, dried wasabi peas, crystalized ginger, and the dehydrated pineapple. Simple oatmeal and 10 grain cereal breakfasts stick to the ribs for a good day of hiking. Knowing that we were going to be camping near alpine lakes, Marcus also brought his fishing pole and a couple packs of instant garlic and herb mashed potatoes for fresh trout on the trail. But I'm getting ahead of myself....

We left at 5am to drive the 7 hours it takes from Sacramento to the Klamath National Forest so we could hit the trail by noon. We immediately knew the trip was blessed when we stopped in the small town of Orleans to get a topographical map of the area and ran into Ranger Bob at the station. Having charted the trails himself, Bob gave us a perfect route through several lakes and passes, with an alternate loop home so we could see fresh country everyday.

Our hike in was ethereal. Smoke from the wildfires burning hundreds of miles to the east had blown into the mountains, soaking the canopy, and throwing golden shafts of light onto drifts of pine duff on the forest floor.  Blackened trunks (from last year's fire in the area) created a veritable graveyard of skeletons. Land scorched thus by fire often feels desolate and devoid of life. But in this forest life was renewed.  Bulbs of white fungus appeared first amidst the ash and soot blackened earth. As we hiked further, brilliant collections of lush green ferns became the perfect notation of watersheds down the mountain. Gaining in elevation, alpine meadows soon presented new ecosystems of flowers and tundra. We were shocked by the proliferation of wildflowers this late in the season. Deep blue violets of trumpeted Turtleheads, snowflake clusterings of white, gold and red Buckwheat, spiked cadmiums of Indian Paintbrush, cheerful yellow Calendulas, and icy purple long petaled Fleabanes created a rich diversity of color all the more brilliant in contrast to the ravaged landscape.

Hip high, delicate profusions of pink fireweed blanketed the trail.

The silence of the forest was palpable. Only the chirping and stirring of chipmunks or the occasional screech of a jay marked the aural passing of time.  Our reverie was officially broken by our first encounter with other people. We heard them before we saw them. That is... we heard the tinkling of their goats' bells. The herd and 3 hikers were preceded by 3 protective (but friendly) dogs with saddlebags. We spoke briefly with them of our plans and they bestowed upon us a quart of fresh goats' milk.  Immediately we dubbed them to be woodland fairies sent to cure me of the inevitable nausea I would experience after climbing "Fat Man's Misery."

Finally we broke out of the forest into spectacular views of the Marble Mountain Wilderness.

Below us, to the east, was our first destination: Monument Lake.  

This intimate lake was nestled within a granite bowl and fed by a natural spring.  Wetland brought an entirely new collection of large leafed plants to our attention. In particular, the Marsh Gentian. At sunset it closed into a tight swirl, pursing its lips til the ground was covered in deep cobalt cones. But this little flower blatantly welcomed the sun with an unfolding of petals, as though disrobing. Mimicking nature's immodesty, we plunged into the cold water, washing away the dust of the trail and allowing the icy freshness to soothe our aching muscles. 

Our first morning in the wilderness Marcus arose with the sun to go fishing. I joined him a couple hours later, presenting 2 cups of hot spiced Chai tea (with the goat's milk!!!) to match his trout. After breakfast on the beach we both played with some watercolors. I'm still very much in the experimental stage of this medium as I've focused most of my painting energy in oils. Interestingly enough, this first painting was the only painting of some quality I made the entire trip. 

Our next destination was a collection of 3 shallow lakes called Cuddihy. Upon discovery of the perfect campsite at the first lake, with nails in the trees for a proper pot-hanging kitchen, we decided to stay for a few nights and explore the surrounding area. The silty shores were crawling with the most adorable, curious red bellied newts! I imagined them daring each other as they swam through the loop of tubing that fell into the shallows as I purified our drinking water. 

A ritual was soon forged. I meditatively pumping the 6 quarts we would need for the day and Marcus casting his hooked minnow to the fish begging to become a meal. 

The next day we grabbed a small day pack and explored up to the middle lake. Crossing over a muddy spillway we spotted two large fish stranded in a pond. Marking the spot in our memory, we moved on with the goal to spear them for dinner on our way back. The middle lake was much deeper and cooler than the previous.  Its small inlets were covered in lily pads and pale blooming yellow flowers. A jutting granite peninsula provided the perfect perch and jumping rock for our midday lunch and swim. As we sat looking out over the still, clear waters suddenly the fish began to fly! Lazily swimming in the shallows mere feet from us, a flick of the tail and a wiggle of the body later and they're 6 inches out of the water, hunting the flying insects white hot in the sunlight! This went on for hours with ripples from their efforts traveling from every shoreline and crisscrossing in the center...

Eventually we made it to the 3rd of the Cuddihys, a much purer alpine lake than the other two. From the northeastern corner we looked down into a huge, gasping ravine where the peaks in the distance took on the hue of a foggy Payne's grey. After another brisk swim to a granite island we decided to head back to collect our trapped fish. But by the time we got there they were both belly up, very much dead, in the stagnant water. Saddened by our inability to seize the opportunity when it first presented itself we wandered back to camp to get the fishing pole. After several moments of lamenting the loss of the fish I quickly decided it was probably for the best that we didn't eat them. A blessing in disguise? They must have been feeding on nasty things in that water and therefore would have tasted similarly if we'd had indeed caught them. Or at least that's the power of positive thinking. In the end, we still had fresh trout that night thanks to Eagle Scout Cortez. 

With two days of our trip remaining we packed up at dawn and headed to Pleasant Lake. The beaten path lead straight back the way we came down, an exhausting uphill grade that backtracked for miles. So instead, we decided to go cross country by bush-wacking up the southeastern mountain ridge. Traversing the ankle deep shale, charred logs, and brush was hair raising at times, a shot of tickling adrenaline most others. I put my mountaineering course to good use that morning by keeping my walking stick in the hand facing the downhill slope! 

Pleasant Lake was more than true to its name and once again we had this side of paradise entirely to ourselves. 

The beaches were covered in a tracks where dozens of Elk and Bear had danced. Leaping myself, I almost stepped on a 1.5 foot long brown snake sunbathing in the eroded grasses near the shore! Felled logs half submerged in the shallows provided a clean sitting place for a lunch of salame, crackers & cheese. The ever present newts feasted on our crumbs, boldly coming to the surface to nibble at Marcus's fingers as he washed the pork grease from the knife.

After a refreshing midday nap we explored the eastern tip of the lake that overlooked a vast valley with a clear view of the iconic Marble Mountain peaks. This side of the lake was graced with a healing wind that rode over the ridge, across the cool water, and embraced our bodies in thanksgiving. We found a relatively flat granite ledge to sit on so I could paint and Marcus croon with his guitar. As Pleasant lake breathed into us we inhabited the energy of the wind through yoga, stretching and testing our balance against its force. Exploring back to our campsite from our valley view we stumbled upon a beautiful rock formation made entirely of white quarts crystals! After seeing the same spotted granite for days, the angular sparkle of this vein dazzled us into a collecting stupor.

As the sun set, the birds began to call to eachother from across the lake. The obvious conversation between these much ignored creatures made us question our human fallacies. Because WE don't understand the language doesn't mean there isn't an intelligent communication happening all around us, all the time. By nightfall we had a feast of fresh fish and the bulk of our whiskey left. Being our last real night in the wilderness we gorged ourselves on the extra food and drink we had saved and listened to the crickets create a dubstep rhythm with their song.

Our hike out of this incredible wilderness was a luscious wonderland of fern and bubbling brooks. Stopping at every clear pool for Marcus to bathe his face in the fresh water, we took our time to luxuriate in the magical beauty of the creeks.

Wild Thimbleberries grew alongside the waterways.

These sweet and tangy, seedy little red gems glistened amidst their wide maple leaved bodies and offered a fun hunting game as we walked the 6 miles to our final junction. When we reached our final camping site we could hear the elk bugling across the meadows. Marcus built a small fire as I organized rocks in the fire pit to engineer an oven to scoop coals into for our final meal in the backcountry. 

The drive home was a surreal and, at times, exasperating experience.  After 6 days without seeing another human, being thrown onto a road full of construction and idiotic drivers (CAPTAIN OBLIVIOUS!) was quite a challenge. But the drive out was truly beautiful as it wound through deep canyons to follow the emerald pools and white water rapids of the river. Native American lands and small towns marked the call to tourists with their Bigfoot museums and shops that could only be rivaled in character by the dilapidated divebars. Every highway turnout became one last opportunity for a wild swim before our return to Sacramento. 

It is the return to an urban culture, mostly, that disorients. Business, social events, LIFE, have continued in your absence. It's the pace of things, the complexity of everyday encounters, the proliferation of activity and noise that creates a shock to the system. Not that I would give up any of this incredibly rich and diverse existence I have living in Midtown Sacramento. It's just that I'm already aching for my next adventure in the wilderness and the return to the most simple of things.