Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Real Adventure: Backpacking for Six Days in the Sierras

The girls and I did a six day backpack in the Sierras and, for a combination of reasons, it was one of the hardest things I've done. And I've done a lot of hard things! This was the longest trip we've done together by about four days, which was significant. We were over 10,000' for a big part of it, which affected our physical performance. The weather did not cooperate at all at the beginning of the trip, which created challenges, quite scary for a while.

Beyond the physical, our relationship was different in these situations. Normally, I can fix problems, find solutions, help... but on many of these days, I was at my absolute physical limit with no ability to help carry weight or shorten our route. We became more of a team, with me changing "you can do it" to "we can do it." That carried implications I am just beginning to process.

As an experienced backpacker, I got lazy when I shouldn't have.  With kids depending on me, I really should have planned better! I carried too much of some things, too little of others, and didn't check to see what was working and what was not. Being in a remote part of the mountains without a stove was one result; a definite challenge with nothing much but dehydrated food with us. But we made it....

I was also reminded - something I forget every time - that backpacking is painful. All the time. From the moment that weight hits your shoulders in the morning through the long nights on a narrow (or no) sleeping pad. Kids don't let you forget that, either!  They are used to having parents alleviate pain, not say, "yep, I hurt too." Lots of life analogies to reflect upon, but their relevance to a six and nine year old may or may not resonate. I am still considering that.

All that said, it was a magnificent trip! To see such deeply beautiful sights, close and far, to be where virtually no one goes, to experience sunrises and sunsets reflecting against incredible granite features, to share my passion for the backpacking experience with two lovely daughters whom I so adore and wonderful family friends, whom we all appreciate and love; all of these made the experience wonderful, unforgettable....

I have so much to say about the experience and yet am still relatively wordless, still processing the experience.   I had spiritual insights. And thoughts about the value of the experience educationally. And so many thoughts about those with whom I shared trips in the past - Mom, Jill, Brian, Darryl, Beth, Lynn, Tracey, Vivian, and more. More to come on all of these various layers of meaning.

But now the photos: Such beauty, hard to capture when being there in person is so much more vivid, but still stunning.

DAY ONE: Twin Pines Lake to Barney Lake in the Hoover Wilderness - a half day once we took care of vehicle logistics, got our permits, and made a quick stop to buy rain ponchos.  As usual, I threw that pack on and thought, "how the heck am I going to do this?"  But I've had enough experience to know that somehow I keep trudging on, though in retrospect that experience worked against me and I should have given more thought to the food, which I had a bit too much of.  But I didn't know whether the girls would be more or less hungry after backpacking all day and so erred on the side of making sure they had enough.  A reasonable mom-mistake, I suppose.  We camped on the west side of the lake, a tiny spot nestled amongst granite boulders.  The first of six nights, we didn't have enough space in the bear canister for all of the assorted smelly stuff (sunscreen, etc.) and hung the rest from an excellent (if I do say so myself) bag balanced in a tree.  Since the tree was on a slope, it was virtually inaccessible.  Our route was beautiful... hot, but then we got a mild afternoon thundershower, perfect for cooling us off.

DAY TWO: Barney Lake to just over Mule Pass.  The hardest day: mostly all uphill, plus we had horrific weather.  We started the long uphill trudge diligently and welcomed the rain initially as it cooled us off.  But soon we heard thunder and had to take shelter away from our packs in a hail storm because the lightening was so close.  That was scary and uncomfortable (I brought no waterproof clothes, one of several revelations that I had packed for two, not three).  Still, the longer trudge uphill after the thundershowers themselves abated was worse, for it continued to storm on us and we were wet, tired, and uncomfortable.  I did find a very cool arrowhead, leading us to reflect, about our route, "more artifacts than people!"  (Not quite, but....)  We made less progress than expected and the final pass seemed to be endlessly always higher.  Finally we made it over Mule pass, which is the Yosemite border, and camped in a gorgeous spot by a small stream, just about at tree level.  I was very glad to stop that day, very grateful that the rain had stopped, and very amazed to see two "exhausted" girls scamper off playing as I set up camp.  Few pictures, unfortunately, the storm just didn't inspire me to try with the camera; this one is first thing in the morning, headed into the mountains just behind K.

DAY THREE: Just over Mule Pass to the Matterhorn Canyon.
Up with the sun and watching a quail and her chicks scamper on the granite above us.  We began with a steep downhill through perfect alpine meadows, trickling streams and tons of gorgeous wildflowers.  We descended into a forest, walking along a river, also gorgeous.  I was intrigued by a view of a similar canyon filled with rockfall and with no trails, but we stuck to our trail as it ascended toward Burro Pass.  The ascent mimicked our earlier descent as the forest faded and we rose above tree level, but this time we were shadowed by the dramatic Sawtooth Ridge, which had seemed so far away when we got our permits but which now towered just above us.  G staged a sit-in this day, refusing to move.  My mothering skills plunged to a new low when she left her backpack on the trail behind her and after a lot of bad behavior from both of us, I ended up just hugging her until she decided to keep going.  This was the day my physical limitations were revealed fully, for I did try to carry her pack for her, but just couldn't manage it.   The final ascent was particularly steep and hard, but we were rewarded with dramatic views in both directions of the Sawtooth Ridge and the Matterhorn Canyon.  Our descent was pretty all the way and we camped in a lovely wooded site near the river.

DAY FOUR:  Matterhorn Canyon into the Virginia Canyon.  Up early to see two large bucks carefully stepping around camp, then a large rabbit staring at us.  Have I seen rabbits high in the Sierras before?  I don't think so... at lunch we saw frogs, equally unusual (or did I notice less before kids?)  We began with a nice walk, slightly downhill, through the rest of the Matterhorn Canyon, which was through the forest and just delightful.  Unfortunately, our route then called for a massive ascent to Miller Lake.   As soon as we started up, both girls slowed with excuses.  I wasn't looking forward to it either, so the challenge of keeping them moving was truly difficult.  I had been bribing with hard candy for the first three and half days, but this ascent took more and I ended up with a super-power solution in the form of my rosary, which resulted in a surprisingly spiritual experience as G prayed out loud for the majority of the ascent, creating a contemplative mantra that truly helped us to complete the long trudge up the hill.  I was so grateful!  Miller Lake was our first real lunch break of the trip, a stunningly beautiful lake that should have had a more romantic name; it reminded me of a gorgeous lake I encountered on a trek through Switzerland once, though that one was surrounded by picnicking day hikers and here we had just the frogs and a mule team leader who came over to tell us how impressed he was with the kids.  (Hey, what about me?  :-)  Actually, this stretch of trail was part of the Pacific Crest Trail and so we met a fair number of through-hikers, which is an inspiring experience... people doing 3,000 miles on foot!

From Miller Lake we headed on down (and some more ups) into the Virginia Canyon, past stunning cascades at one point.  We met our one and only ranger on the trip, who startled me by catching up and merely saying "hello!"  She was enthusiastic and friendly, offering the kids stickers, to which they replied, "but that will add to our pack weight."  Spoken like true backpackers.  Our trail took longer than expected, but we camped where our ranger had recommended, near the next trail head.  It was a spectacular site near a creek crossing and near two other backpackers who took photos of us crossing the creek.  Paparazzi!  It was at dinner this night that my stove unexpectedly stopped working.  Sigh!  I must have been too tired for photos, as I seem to just have this one of Miller Lake and another of the three of us by the gorgeous cascades.  Incidentally, all of the water we are now passing is part of the Hetchy Hetchy watershed, making our CA history studies perhaps more detailed in our experience of this system than anyone else concerned about a fourth grade curriculum in the state of California.  :-)

DAY FIVE:  Virginia Canyon to East Lake
Woke up after the second night of having given up my sleeping pad to K.  We only brought one, intended for me, but when she asked, I felt like she'd earned it given her general lack of complaining, especially after the first couple of days (when I heard, "I despise and loathe you" at least ten times.  An hour.)  It wasn't the most comfortable sleep, but I could do it, which means in the future I may forgo the weight.  I dreamed that I was flying above all of my current concerns as they flowed like a river beneath me, which is probably the best gift of backpacking.

We followed the canyon slowly up and out of the Virginia Canyon over Summit Pass.  Our terrain changed dramatically from high alpine to volcanic as we left Yosemite at the pass.  I did carry G's pack up that last ascent, which was hard, but the gorgeous views helped.  Summit Lake, where we had lunch, was also dramatic and gorgeous and we identified mountain lion prints and later scat near the lake.

The hike down was intensely different.  We passed lake after lake, often surrounded by red peaks covered with scree and punctuated with grassy meadows and creeks bordered by unfamiliar wildflowers, some that looked like yellow violets.  We camped at East Lake at a site overlooking the north side of the lake.   It was windy but gorgeous.

Looking back down the Virginia Canyon

G headed up (packless)

Not too tired for gymnastics competitions during lunch

DAY SIX:  East Lake to Green Creek
Up again at the crack of dawn, savoring this beauty.  The slope of the surrounding mountains came down to the lake almost symmetrically, framing a gorgeous volcanic red peak in the background.  We were the only people at the lake, which was large and gorgeous.  I sat over the lake and contemplated the trip, eager to be home and clean and yet already missing waking up to this.  Such a beautiful gift of morning.

G woke up to a bloody nose after arguing in her sleep all night, complaining that her sister wouldn't give her any water.  It was cold when I woke (zipper on my sleeping bag broke too) and got colder as the wind rose.  I climbed back into the tent with the two girls and made up "Mean 'Ole King" stories as my mom, uncle, and their dad did generations ago.  I am not a particularly good story teller and I am surprised that they like the stories, especially with all the really good literature we read.

Our final (half) day was an easy downhill that lasted too long as we anticipated seeing the car; it was made longer by a nasty fall that G made coming down and her terror when I made the mistake of cautioning her to be careful when stepping over rocks in case there were rattlesnakes.  Sigh!  And then we were done, dusty, thirsty, and tired, but proud, super proud, of these tough and delightful kids.

K at Ostrander Point on our drive home
I am still processing additional parenting, educational, practical, and spiritual reflections   .  I am so proud of these girls.  In my life, when I have met challenges, I have been able to say, "I did [fill in the blank with an adventure]; I can certainly do this.  Now they can too... and the memory of their strong legs on the trail above and ahead of me fills me with joy, knowing that I have been able to share this love of beauty and of adventure with them.

At one point, with all of the "I loathe you" threats, I wondered whether I was making a mistake, pushing too hard, making them hate what I most love.  But at the end of the day, I think I'd regret more having them grow up wondering why I kept something I love so much from them.  Already, a few weeks later, they are grinning with pride as they share their adventures.  My hope is that this fuels their confidence so that they fully realize that they can accomplish anything they desire, that they make life choices with no thought to limitations and especially not any driven by the expectations of others.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like an amazing trip! The Sierras is on my bucket list...just have to save up some time and money.

Unknown said...

Unbelievably moving! Thanks so much for sharing this incredible experience! Your superb storytelling made me feel as if I were there, alongside you lovely ladies, every step of the way ... the weight of the pack on my shoulders and the pain in my hips as I tried to sleep on the hard, cold ground. And then forgetting all the pain as I embraced the joy and beauty along with the smells of fresh air and pine trees, as sweet as root beer. Thanks, Therese! Love, Jill

Therese said...

Ah, Jill! I thought of you every day and practically heard your voice at each pass as various celebratory songs came into my head, inspired by our adventure experiences together. "Such a feeling's coming over me...!!" Thanks for your kind words!

Anonymous said...

Great scenery, great adventure, and hopefully something your girls will long to do over again with you many times in the future. Loved the "I loathe you"; ah the joys of homeschooling (-:
--Ruth Enero 12/6/2014