June 2014, Northern California
This trip was my first minimalist backpacking adventure since 2003 when I lived in a Hennessy Hammock for a couple of months on Maui. This time I got it almost right, minus a sleeping pad and a little more food. I borrowed a Camelback from my friend John. Then at 4:30 the morning before I left I discovered that the large water bladder wouldn't fit in it. So I used my small running Camelback, which holds about 16 oz of water, and I put John's pack on top of it. Worked great except for a bit of chafing at the shoulders.
Fully loaded with water, minimalist bivvy sack, lightweight sleeping bag, etc. (but not the stuffed bunny rabbit), my double pack system weighed an amazing 12 lbs, 12 ozs. I chose the 8.5 mile Stoney Ridge trail as my entry, partially because of the poetic description in the guidebook and partly because it has 4,000 ft of elevation gain, which is right up my alley. I hit the trail about 9:30 a.m. and started heading up through some big sugar pines at a decent trot. Using my friend's GPS watch, I checked my pace at one hour and was surprised to see I'd covered only 3 miles (only a 20 m/m). Soon the trail became too rocky to run. As the day progressed, I realized that running is like floating for a millisecond between each stride, becoming airborne. So the addition of even 10% of my body weight made it that much more difficult to achieve a true running stride, even on the downhills. However, it made for great training for my upcoming 50k in the mountains nearby.
After a couple of hours of climbing through increasingly stunning scenery, I topped out at Deer Creek pass, elevation 7,600 ft., and I looked down at my first alpine lake, Deer Lake (the first photo). I couldn't get over how the lake nestled in its own miniature valley, and I stood there for awhile talking to myself and the local chipmunk tribe.
This was the beginning of the "Four Lakes Loop" that I hiked next. The guidebook's description of the lakes goes like this, "The four lakes loop is one of those Alpine delights that almost seems unnatural it is so well arranged. If Disneyland designed a trial this would be it though maybe not so steep." Each lake was carved by glaciers around the flanks of Siligo Peak, and each one had its own special charm.
Diamond Lake was the most jaw-dropping of them all. At 2.5 acres, it had room for one little campsite, protected by a small wall of rocks.
Even though peak wildflower season isn't for another month, wildflowers were plentiful, living everywhere from the harshest crags to verdant meadows brimming with them. The corn flowers hadn't bloomed yet, but another flower left heady scents here and there in the meadows. I didn't know the names of most of them, and I was surprised at how large and muscular a couple of varieties were, standing up to four feet tall in the meadows. And even though California is having a record drought, water seemed to be abundant up here, flowing in little rivulets across the meadows and filling the lakes.
After 15.25 miles and about 6,000 ft. of elevation gain, I called it a day in the late afternoon, and I set up camp at the edge of this meadow. Willow Creek and Deer Creek converge here, and there are several trail junctions within a quarter mile of this shot. For this trip I used an Aqua Star UV filtration bottle, which worked great except that it's beginning to leak. After swirling some stream water in the bottle for 60 seconds, I always sighed with pleasure at the taste of cold, clean mountain water.
My orange bivvy sack shows where I spent a restless night wishing my hips were tougher or that I'd strapped a pad onto my pack. I kept thinking of the Japanese who sleep on skimpy bamboo mats on the floor, and I'd ask myself, "Self, am I that spoiled by soft beds?" The answer was yes. I stayed plenty warm in my Smartwool top & bottom, but it was probably in the upper 30s when I got up the next morning, and even my gloves, wool hat, and jacket didn't alleviate the chills.
Fortunately I wasted no time on breakfast and instead made my first batch of Cowboy Coffee. My muscles were sore from the previous day's hike, and I wanted the straight mojo, so I mixed probably over 1/2 cup of grounds into about 14 ounces of boiling water, using my little Jetboil stove for the first time (one of the greatest creations known to mankind). I was happy to see the grounds settle, just as advertised by cowboy coffee connoisseurs, and I slurped it down while gazing at the grey, granite peak at the head of the canyon. Then, frothing at the mouth and twitching, I hung my pack from a tree and bolted down the canyon at top speed, delighted at the light, free feeling of running pack-less. I crossed the two creeks numerous times and was surprised by how overgrown the trail was. I kept saying, "doesn't anybody use this trail?" I dropped down to 4,500 ft, looking for the junction for Stuart Forks, but then I realized I needed to start heading back since my food rations were running low. On the way back I saw a group of about 10 campers just waking up, huddled in their warm gear, probably wondering how I got there with no pack or even a shirt. I resisted the urge to squeeze in a quick out & back to Granite Lake, and instead I grabbed my pack and started hiking back up the Four Lakes Loop.
By the time I reached Summit Lake, it was high time for a cold, quick swim. Now that's the best way to break up a 26 mile day! At 14 acres, Summit Lake is the largest of the four lakes, and its emerald green serpentine water is simply gorgeous.
Returning the way I'd come, I was able to trot down the last 3-4 miles. When I reached the car I tore into my stash of roasted cashews like a bear in a beehive. I'd run & hiked 41 miles in two days, with somewhere around 12,000 ft. of elevation gain. THere are plenty of people around here who can do more than that in one day, but that was a lot for me. Gratitude was my easy and constant companion on the trail as I thought about how lucky I was to be able to get away to do this, how grateful I am for health and endurance, for the dozen stumbles and zero falls, and for no injuries worse than a mild heel blister. On the drive home, I saw Mt. Shasta turned pink with a sublime sunset, and I said, "I'll be back!"