Wednesday, June 24, 2009

These Boots Are Meant for Trekking

Camille pulled her boots on over her heavy hiking socks, left the laces loose, stood and walked around the cabin. It had been a long time since she'd worn them. It had been a long time since she had been here in the cabin, she thought as she tripped through the front screen door and plopped onto one of the green canvass chairs sitting on the huge granite monolith that made up the front porch.

Fumbling around under the chair, she reached for her coffee while watching the swirling snowmelt rush down Lone Pine Creek across the road. Finding the cup, she raised it to her lips and sipped the now cooled caffeine and leaned back to view the pine and fir filled canyon.

Her feet were beginning to feel comfy inside the boots, “home sweet home,” she could hear them murmuring. She set the coffee cup back under her seat, pushed her heels to the back of her boot, and began lacing. She was only going to walk a mile up to the Mt. Whitney Store so she laced them loosely. She didn’t want to have any blisters when she got back.

June in the eastern Sierra Nevada of California was a busy time for local denizen. Squirrels and jays begged for handouts. Ravens introduced new chicks to their territory. Trout bustled in the rapids in Lone Pine Creek's deep holes. However, the black bears had not yet arrived, probably still in their winter hibernation deep in the canyon back country.


Unpredictably, the sunny skies of early morning could turn ragged and stormy by afternoon. Camille stuffed her light weight rain coat into the cords of her platypus (water bladder) and slipped it over her shoulder, tied a bandana around her neck, set her wide brimmed canvass hat on her head, wound the safety loop of her walking stick on her right wrist, firmly closed the cabin door, and walked down the stone steps to the sandy parking area in front of the cabin.

The boots felt good, supportive, and her knees felt strong. Now, if only her left hip would warm up. It would be a pleasant hike up to the canyon store for her second cup of coffee of the day and a ‘hi, how are you,’ with Doug and Erleen. She hadn't seen them since the previous September.

The last time she had been at the cabin was in midwinter. The road had been covered with two meters of snow; the store closed for the season. A gentle breeze blowing snow from the branches of the Jeffrey and Ponderosa pines along the road were her only hiking companions on that last trip. The squeak of her boots on the snow had been one of the few others sounds.

Today, it was the crunch on sandy granite soil that met her ears and the noise of campers talking with children, enjoying the sunshine of a late June morning in the eastern Sierra. High in the pines the Clarks Nutcrackers could be heard decimating the sweet new cones.

As she slowly negotiated the granite steps near one of the deep pools in Lone Pine Creek, she contemplated the morrow that would bring Rebecca to the mountain. Their first chore was always the same; lay out all the paraphernalia from their packs in an attempt to decide how best to lessen the load. She quietly contemplated; it had been so very long since she had stretched out her muscles with 40 pounds on her back and proved to herself that she really could make it to the top of a Sierra Pass.

Hopefully, in two days time there would be no Sierra afternoon rain storm, no lightning before they reached the pass and dropped down into the west side to the Kearsarge basin. There was no place to hide at the top, just granite boulders that offered no protection.

Of course, they might encounter bears who had awakened in the high country hungry,looking for a picnic. They were carrying the small black five-pound bear-proof plastic canisters (like miniature beer kegs) this time, but not all the food they needed for a ten day backpack would all fit inside. They would have to find some way to dissuade the keen noses of the bears from discovering their extra foodstuffs.

Resting on one of the many logs that spanned the stream after the massive winter snows, Camille watched brown trout jump out of a deep pool snatching low flying insects while she problem solved.

Maybe burying their extra food would help. They carried light weight extra ply thirty-gallon trash bags to cover their backpacks in a rain shower. Why not use them also to protect buried food supplies from insects? On a backpack everything does double duty. Good idea. I'll have to run it by Rebecca.

Using her trekking pole as a third leg, she danced across the log heading for the opposite shore and the Portal Store. Having negotiated the log without falling in was an accomplishment. Too many times, she had slipped, lost her balance and ended up sitting ingloriously in a pool of winter snow melt feeling very foolish and very wet. Not today!

Reaching the store, she clambered up the steep concrete walkway that seemed so out of place in the mountains and greeted a long time friend Erleen, who ran the store/café with her husband Doug.

'Coffee woman, I need a cup of coffee!'

Around midnight Marcy showed up in the little red Mazda like the one in the bear picture with the three bears sitting inside, the top having been ripped off. Each enjoying chocolate malt wrapped Powerbar. What a sense of humour these bears had.

Together in the dark, the two women scoured the car to make sure that any early spring rising bear didn’t smell his break fast in the midst of Rebecca's car. Amazing how a cup of coffee or a soda container could be smelled five miles away by the crittur with the long nose.

There was no rain expected until the next afternoon; they left the top down. Better to allow bears to investigate than to suffer the outrageous fortune of having the bear gain it’s own entry to a convertible. If there were nothing to eat, the bear would leave a few dirty paw marks and head off to more lucrative vehicles.

That next morning the two seasoned backpackers spread all their gear on the cabin floor. For ten days they would be dependent on each other and what they could carry. Any aide would come from fellow backpackers they encountered on the John Muir trail or on their own ingenuity and gear. What would they take and what would they leave behind?

'Rebecca, you can’t take the bird book and the flora finder. Decide on one or the other. You know all the bird songs anyhow. You don’t need that one!'

'Camille, I promised you we wouldn’t be bringing back any rocks this time. I’m gonna take both books. I haven’t found a female Sierra Thrush yet.'
Rebecca not only knew the birds of the Sierra Nevada, she knew their songs and could sing them into showing themselves.

The two women, both in their fifties, never hiked too far or too fast on any one day because they often stopped to check out the butterflies especially in spring. They always stopped to check out birdsong.

These two made quite a pair. They were only a year apart in age. Rebecca, the smaller of the two, was wiry and strong. At five foot five she carried about fifty pounds in her backpack, a third more than most men her size.

Camille, on the other hand, had strong legs and a strong back from having marched for years carrying the base drum in a woman’s drum and bugle corps. However, in the mountains she only carried forty pounds in the backpack. She hated the blisters that formed on her heels if she carried much more.

'Rebecca, the fry pan has to go'

'Not a chance. You know we'll catch brown and rainbow. You might even catch a couple.'

'Do you really think they will be biting this early in the year?

'You kiddin? Of course; they'll come out from under the winter ice ready to bite at anything.

Camille remembered. In the evenings of other treks, the trout jumped from the surface of still mountain lakes to swallow insects buzzing just above the water. The two backpackers watched the tranquil lakes peppered with the concentric rings of small splashes form trout risings just before Rebecca reeled in her fly fishing pole with dinner on the end of the line.

'Ok. Then, I ‘ll carry the flour, bread crumbs, and the oil.'

They carefully measured how much they would need for seven trout; the number they hoped to catch, as well as the tiny amount of olive oil that would grease the tiny Teflon/aluminium frying pan. They didn’t really need the oil, but the flavour it added was glorious.

The next day, they unloaded at the trailhead.

They would hike the steep pass trail and then cross two other mountain passes and myriad high lake spattered high country valleys on the west side of the Sierra divide back to the cabin at 8200 feet in the canyons of the eastern Sierra.

Waving goodbye. They lifted packs to their thighs and with one big heave to the left shoulder; they slide into the straps, and tightened their hip belts. Trout, trails, butterflies, and bear, here we come!