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Mike Sweeney
06/26/2014 1:47 PM

Writing about the Pacific Crest Trail last week finally inspired me to get off the couch and on the trail. Backpacking Man insisted that we not do anything rash, so I simply headed up to Ebbetts Pass, on Highway 4, in Calaveras County, with a vague idea to head north on the PCT and then hitchhike back to the car when I got to Blue Lakes. This plan would at least prevent the dreaded out-and-back hike, where you cover the same ground on your return trip that you covered on your way in. It would also force me to depend on the kindness of strangers, which is something we should all do once in awhile.

I headed into the volcanic landscape north of Ebbetts just after noon last Saturday. Highway 4 was buzzing with outdoor recreation seekers, but, as always, walk a half-mile on any Sierra trail and you leave most of the people behind. The terrain surrounding this part of the PCT is downright surreal, with red granite monoliths staring down at you that were carved out of volcanic flow thousands of years ago. The trail takes you past Sherrold Lake and

Lower and Upper Kinney Lakes until you finally enter the Mokelumne Wilderness Area and leave the last of the day-hikers behind. The towering cathedral-like peaks above make you feel small, as their red glow intensifies in the warm rays of late afternoon. It’s hard to believe you are just a few miles off Highway 4, as you savor this High Sierra panorama.

It was nice to see the creeks flowing and the wildflowers blooming, in spite of the drought. There was even a little bit of snow in places, but it all had the look and feel of late August and not late June. We can only hope next year’s winter rejuvenates the High Country once again. Several PCT through-hikers passed me as I hiked. They had names like “Fence” and “Acorn” and were really focused on getting to Lake Tahoe for their resupply. I told a couple of them that I had hiked the whole trail over 20 years, and while they listened politely, I’m not sure they believed my story, especially when I told them my trail name was “Mike.”

After 11 miles of up and down, I came to the creek that flows out of Raymond Lake at the base of foreboding, 10,000-foot Raymond Peak. Thankfully, there was a reasonably flat place to camp 50 yards upslope from the trail, and with fresh water, the sounds of a flowing stream, and spectacular 360-degree Sierra views, I was pretty much set for the evening. It was the longest day of the year, and I was blessed with the opportunity to watch the light on the crimson peaks turn golden in the sunset.

However, in the back of my mind I knew I had one more challenging chore to do before I went to bed. I did not bring the heavy, three-pound bear canister, so needed to hang my food in a tree with “bear bags.” There is an elaborate protocol for doing this correctly (at least 12 feet high; at least 10 feet away from tree trunk etc.), and I was a bit out of practice. Here’s how it went. First, I tied a rock to a lightweight rope. I threw rock and rope over a branch of a fir tree. Whoops — the rope came undone from the rock. I tried again, but the rock caught in a branch. Apparently, it wasn’t heavy enough. When I pulled hard, the rock whizzed by my head (probably heavy enough to cause a concussion). I tried again with a heavier rock. The rock again came untied, bounced off a branch and missed my head by about a foot. Finally, on the fourth try, the rock and rope made it over and down to the ground. I now had both ends of the rope necessary for bear-bag-hanging success. You always wonder if you will ever get the bags down in the morning, but you always do. (The advent of hiking poles has made this step a little easier.)

The stars at night in the High Country are simply amazing. You feel as if you can reach out and touch them. Next morning, I was refreshed and ready for the eight-mile hike out to Blue Lakes Road. This four-hour trek brought plenty of wildflowers, one deer, several Clark’s Nutcrackers with their distinctive “kraa-kraa” call, and lots of chipmunks. But, mosquitoes were fierce as I dropped down to lower elevations and I was ready to give hitchhiking a try when I reached the road. There was a fair amount of traffic going into the Blue Lakes on a summer weekend, so I was optimistic as I stick my thumb out. Truck pulling a trailer. Nope. Family in a Subaru. Nope. Bunch of guys drinking beer in a pickup stop to say they don’t have any room, and I thank them anyway and silently thank God they don’t have room.

After 45 minutes of wondering if this was a good idea, a nice family in a pickup from Volcano stopped and said they were heading home and could take me as far as Highway 88. They didn’t have room in the cab, so I hopped in the back with their backpacks and gear and away we went. I discovered that it is exhilarating to ride in the back of a pickup surrounded by Sierra peaks. Dad was driving and he was probably only going fifty, but it felt like a hundred miles per hour. It was pure fun. They dropped me on 88 and my next ride took me into Markleeville and all the way to the turnoff to Monitor Pass. My benefactor was going backpacking in the Mammoth Lakes area. We shared backpacking stories, and it made for a pleasant, 30-minute ride. He dropped me at the intersection of Highways 89 and 4, and within 15 minutes I was picked up by a delightful couple in their eighties. They have lived in Angels Camp most of their lives and had just come over the mountain for a Sunday drive and lunch in Markleeville. He had stories of logging and deer hunting all through this part of the world, and he checked with her periodically to make sure he had his facts straight. He knew the name of every lake, stream and peak along the PCT, and when I said he’s got a great memory, he said, “Really? She doesn’t think so.”

Too soon, we arrived at Ebbetts Pass. I thanked them for the lift and they continued their Sunday drive home.

This section of the PCT is covered in the Northern California guidebook published by Wilderness Press. A good map of the area is the Mokelumne Wilderness map published by the US Forest Service. Happy Trails.

Copyright © 2014 Amador Ledger Dispatch
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