Monday, August 16, 2010

The San Juaquin River

I think I walked around 20 miles today. I started the day a little worried that my progress the last two days had seemed so slow. I was determined to make my official itinerary goal of Muir Trail Ranch and hopefully beyond.

My camp on Bear Ridge had been sort of cold. I headed down the trail to a sunny set of switchbacks headed toward Bear Creek. When I got down there, I enjoyed a pleasant, gentle walk up the creek. I passed numerous campsites with people in them. The trail was really crowded everywhere I went. It wasn't like during the thru-hiker season. It seems like during thru-hiker season there are fewer hikers than now in mid-August.

I made a wet crossing of Bear Creek and met two men on the other side. One gave me his card so I could read his trip report. I gave him one of my Ultralight Backpacking cards because it included a link to my hiking web site where I would probably have a trip report. The men informed the crossing I just made was the big one on Bear Creek. It certainly didn't look like how I imagined. Where were the rapids and falls I had read about? It was only knee deep and the water had been refreshing. So tame.

The trail was becoming steeper but it was still nice and cool in the morning. I passed two women laboring under huge packs. One woman appeared to really struggle with the weight. She walked extremely slowly, carefully placing each trekking pole with each step. The trail was not that steep yet.

At a small summit at an outflow of Marie Lake, I stopped to get some water and sit for a minute to eat a snack. The faster of the two women caught up and we talked a little. They were hiking the whole JMT and had been out for 12 days so far. I tried to think back to how many days I had taken to complete the same distance, but couldn't remember. I didn't think it was 12. It would turn out that "taking it slow" was the way that most JMT hikers tried to do it. This was so different from the PCT where we always raced against time to get to Canada and raced against hunger to get to the next resupply.

I continued on and skirted the shore of large Marie Lake. Selden Pass was going to be above it. A few wildflower-dotted dusty switchbacks and I reached Selden Pass. There were meadows and lakes beckoning on the other side and trees at the top.

I began the descent through a flowery meadow and reached heart-shaped Heart Lake. I stopped to try and take a picture of a big trout swimming near the shore. The water looked inviting. Two hippie guys were having lunch on the shore. They didn't seem friendly like PCT hikers so I continued on without conversation.

Below Heart Lake were the Sally Keyes Lakes. I walked by the first one and the trail went between the two along the shore of the second one. I stopped by a nice rock to have lunch and swim. I got all the way into the water but did not swim. It was cold and I chickened out. There were numerous brightly-colored trout lolling by the shore.

Two JMT hikers stopped by to chat. They were very nice. They were a young couple. They had a thru-hiker air about them. I bet the will do it one day. We talked for a long time. They were doing 12 mile days and felt pressured by them and wished they could slow down a bit. They could not imagine the 30 mile days I did hiking the PCT last year.

After my respite at Salley Keyes Lake, I steeled myself for another bone-crunching descent to the San Juaquin River. It was a long, hot dry descent in the full heat-of-day sun. The views were amazing. I met my goal of the trail junction to Muir Trail Ranch by 3:30. It was a hot and dusty spot with no water nearby. I continued on.

Eventually I noticed small human footprints in the dust. Somebody was hiking barefoot. Soon I saw a huge pack with two legs beneath it. I decided to catch up and take a picture of such a big pack. The pack was an old external frame pack with huge rolls and bags and even a separate day pack attached and fully loaded. Then I noticed the owner of the pack was wearing flip-flops.

I stopped to talk to the woman under the pack. Her name was Little Foot. She hikes barefoot or in flip-flops. She said she could never find shoes to fit her feet so she gave up on shoes a long long time ago. She spends three months a year backpacking in the Sierra and living in her car. She can walk over everything in bare feet, but nowadays she wears flip-flops over the rougher stuff. She said she felt more steady in her bare feet, more grounded and the only time she ever sprained an ankle was wearing boots.

I walked slowly so we could talk more. She was an interesting woman. She had been married once but her husband didn't want her out backpacking alone and he wouldn't come with her. He accused her of picking up men on the trail. He was very jealous and that was the beginning of the end of their marriage. She waited all the years for her children to grow up so she could return to her life's passion. She had begun backpacking in her teens. I wondered what she did the other 9 months of the year but did not ask. She said she lived in San Juan Capistrano. I assumed maybe she was a teacher or perhaps it was all made up.

I reached a big bridge at a tributary of the San Juaquin. I could see the river at last. I walked alone up the river hoping to hike until 6 or 6:30. The river water looked very inviting and the sun was hot. I began to change my mind about what time to stop. Now what I wanted was a campsite with enough warm sun left in the day to at least soak my feet and dry my sweaty back.

I turned down several nice campsites, walked through a shady gorge thinking I had blown my only chance at a good creekside camp, and they I saw some men camped on the other side of the river. I wondered how they got there and just then I saw a bridge. I crossed it and hoped I could find a site of my own without so much testosterone nearby. I found a site right below the bridge. There was just enough sun left to soak my feet as I ate dinner.

I set up my tarp over my mosquito tent for privacy and hoped it wouldn't be too cold at night. As I soaked my feet, I saw Little Foot cross the bridge and continue on past my camp. I was kind of hoping she'd share my campsite with me.

I played my Strumstick by the water. With such noisy water I played it loudly. I really enjoyed having my Strumstick. I tried to play my pennywhistle but at altitude, I just don't have much breath control. The Strumstick is much bigger than a whistle, but it wasn't too terribly hard to carry. It's similar to a dulcimer and the fingering isn't too far off from a fiddle, so I was having fun playing Old-time tunes.

It had been a long day and I wondered if I was missing something by not taking 12 days to do my trip. The thing is, I enjoyed covering a lot of ground. I saw a lot. I wasn't looking down as I hiked. I took a lot of pictures. I paused a lot to let the views soak in. I swam in lakes (well, almost), enjoyed the river. I didn't think I was missing anything.

I went back to my campsite and got ready for my nightly ritual of rubbing my sore feet. I wore Chaco sandals on this trip, something I had tried on the last PCT section a couple weeks ago and thought worked well. I started rubbing my feet but they did not hurt. What a miracle!

I laid out in the waning light and thought about things. My bear can had too much food. I was hiking faster than my itinerary and would finish a day early. I was sad I was eating up the miles too quickly. One thing I loved about the PCT was how I could greedily eat up as many miles as possible every day. I could find out what was around every corner, as many corners as there were and never run out of them. I was running out of corners quickly on this trip. I was sad I only had one more night left.

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