DAY 5. MOSTLY DEAD

Spending the afternoon at Hemlock crossing allowed me to go back to this one waterfall I saw on the first day on Dike Creek. Dike was one of the creeks flowing much better than expected. I could not cross it without getting wet feet. Why was Bench so lame and Dike so nice? I did not get a good shot of this falls on the first day; standing in the middle of the creek, my tripod was not functioning properly and I could not focus because it was dark already. So now I had one more chance at it. This time I could get focus and get some shots from the middle of the creek. It is only about 20 feet high but it is kind of cool looking and reminded me of North Fork Goddard Creek Falls last year backpacking, particularly the need to wade up the creek to get to the Falls. It was a little bit fun.

Now about camping at Hemlock Crossing, I was very annoyed about one thing: Namely, I found horse crap in the middle of the campsite. Not only this campsite but also the one I stayed at on the first night. I had to use some sticks to flick it off into the bushes so I would not have to step in it. What the heck? If you are a horse owner why can’t you clean up your horses’ poop? This ticks me off to no end. Do you know what leave no trace means? The last thing a backpacker wants is to find a bunch of horse crap in the middle of his campsite when he arrives. So annoying! By the way I saw a lot of horse crap in the middle of the trail as well. Pet peeve number two. There was also garbage I had to pickup that people left behind (some of it intentionally left, some not). Come on people, get with it. This is supposed to be pristine wilderness.

Well anyway, I got up very early on the last day, as I wanted to get back home as soon as humanly possible. I still had a 1400 foot ascent ahead of me. I could tell the weather was changing. There was something different about the clouds that morning. An early winter storm was on the way. I hoped I could beat it back to my vehicle, but I had a very long walk ahead of me, and darn that slow climb out of the canyon. And don’t forget, there would be no water source for the next 10 miles. I drank as much from the river as I could pound into me before starting. As soon as I hit the first hill I knew I was in trouble. My legs were incredibly sore. I didn’t think I would make it up the Mountain. I thought I should just go back and stay forever at some place along the North Fork San Joaquin. It was certainly beautiful enough. I could fish, and eat berries just like the bears do. I could even hunt bear. Perhaps my family would come visit me sometime. Then they would want to stay forever, because they wouldn’t want to hike back up the hill either. Well, no can-do. I carried on. At least my backpack was lighter now with less food in it. Halfway up the mountain I collapsed, dying of thirst. My water bottle was empty. I was ready to give up. I lay there for the rest of the day. The snow pelted down on me. I was mostly dead. I’m just kidding, I did not collapse. Nor did I run out of water. Actually, I felt a lot better after I got warmed up, and made it up the mountain without too much trouble. 1400 feet in 3 miles. The rest is all downhill from here. It was a long downhill however, but I kept plugging away and eventually made it back to the car. That is when I collapsed, now really mostly dead. I recovered enough to make the long drive to Oakhurst and of course stopped at Pizza Factory to re-energize myself. I always have to stop for pizza after a big hike like this. It is the miracle pill. When I got home, I weighed myself: I gained 2 pounds. What? Even after pizza I thought I would be much down in weight, not up. You got to be kidding me. All that energy expended in five days of hiking, and I gain weight? Well, it is back to the gym for me I guess.

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DAY 4. ANYBODY WANT A PEANUT?

It was much colder up at the lakes overnight. I’m not sure if it got down to freezing but it was pretty darn close. I was not cold in my sleeping bag, but in the morning my tent was all wet (on the outside). I had to pack it all up in the dark and get going. There were a couple more Falls I had to hit up on the way down to Hemlock Crossing, 2300 ft. in elevation below me.

This was one of them. It is a magnificent 80 ft drop in a narrow slot. I did not go straight down to the waterfall from the lakes. I wondered if that would be faster, it almost seemed possible, but I’m sure I would have been caught on a cliff with no way down. Not a good thing. I went the regular and long way down to the bottom. When I arrived, I found no view of the waterfall. Which meant: you guessed it, I had to cross the river at the base of the Falls. It was a bit easier crossing here (then where I crossed the previous day). However, I somehow damaged my camera remote in the process. Ugh. This makes it much harder to take photos. There is always at least one casualty on a big backpacking trip. And this was it. Crackers. From here on out, I had to take all my photos manually. But it is an incredibly gorgeous waterfall, and I spent quite a bit of time here on the wrong side of the river. I have never seen photos of this waterfall before, and I suspect 99 percent of the people who come by here have no clue of its existence. If only they would subscribe to my website, then they would know about such hidden gems as these (hint hint).

After this, it is all downhill to Hemlock Crossing, and thus pretty easy, so I initially had high hopes of hiking all the way home on this day. However, I still felt tired. Plus it took much longer to get to Hemlock Crossing than I thought it would. By the time I got there (noon), I knew there was no way in kablookies that I could make that 1400 ft climb out of the canyon. One more night of camping was needed, and so I found a spot by the Hemlock Crossing waterfall.

I spent the afternoon relaxing in the sun and even took a very quick dip in the cold river at the waterfall. This was the sunniest day of the trip. Every other day was mostly cloudy (but not any rain). I tried to eat a bit more to gain my strength for the next day. I struggle to eat on backpacking trips. I am expending so much energy, but I don’t feel like eating very much. Freeze dried food is not particularly very tasty, but that is the best thing to bring on these kind of trips. I heard about this certain mixture, which is basically a peanut butter and jam goop, combined with regular trail mix. It is a bit on the heavy side, but it is quite good, so I brought some of it along with me this time. A quick energy mix. It tasted good now, I mean it. Anybody want a peanut?

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DAY 3. INCONCEIVABLE!

I felt much better in the morning. Maybe I can hike up to the lakes after all, I thought. It’s only a 1400 ft. climb from here. It was a tough climb for sure but I felt good overall. It is not easy getting to Twin Island Lakes. The only reason I wanted to was because of the outlet waterfall. However, I had serious doubts I could see it anyway. In fact, this was the one waterfall I thought for sure I’d strike out on. Looking at the terrain on Google Earth, it was inconceivable how I could get down to see it. It seemed far too steep and cliffy. There is no possible way to do it.

It was a lot of effort getting up there, for possibly no reward. Perhaps I should just go somewhere else. I thought about that for awhile, but in the end I went up to the lakes. After climbing 1400 ft. to the top of the ridge (9800 ft. elevation – my high point on the trip), you then need to descend down a 200 ft. talus slide to get to the lake. Careful careful. Crazy crazy. It is actually quite an adventure getting there.

It was very windy down at the lakes. I started to setup my tent and it almost blew away off the cliff. Inconceivable! I dragged my tent over to a less windy location to try again. It was not that much less windy; I got it set up successfully, but it was still flapping all over the place. I made sure it was as secure as could possibly be. Hopefully, I would not get blown away in the night, like Dorothy in Wizard of Oz.

After a rest I decided to make the big try in the afternoon down to the falls. There is no possible way I can climb down the cliff to the bottom of the falls. Wait, there is an opening here. I might actually be able to do this. Inconceivable! You keep using that word, Madman. I do not think it means what you think it means. There was one and only one tough spot to get by, where I had to winch my way around a big rock with a dropoff down into the waterfall below. Other than that, the rest was easy. Well, not easy. The rocks were very loose and crumbly but overall it was pretty tame and I got right to the bottom of the 120 ft. high waterfall, where I found a grand view of the entire thing. Awesome stuff! (and inconceivable!).

P.S. Do you like my Princess Bride references? There are two more days of it to come!

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DAY 2. THE PICS OF DESPAIR

It was not 32 degrees the first night. According to every forecast I read, every night was supposed to be that cold. I was prepared for the worst. I brought extra clothes for sleeping. I even went out and bought a new $80 merino wool shirt from REI the day before I left because I was freaked out that it was going to be so darn cold on this trip, even more than my June trip when I had to put on all the clothes I had brought with me just to keep from freezing to death at night. This trip was supposed to be even colder. I did not even need the darn new shirt! I was quite cozy in my sleeping bag all night long. I did not need or wear all the clothes that I had brought with me. It was certainly cold, but certainly not anywhere near 32 degrees.

I got up early in the dark and packed up. I needed to get to four more waterfalls in the morning before the sun got to them. After these four waterfalls, I had a 2300 ft. climb up to Twin Island Lakes. As you recall, my planning was meticulous for this trip, and I had a schedule to keep. An important schedule that nothing could break. Except, that is, for the rebelling of my body.

It was quite apparent right away that I would not make it to my planned destination. I was totally bagged from the day before. There was no way in any part of my imagination that I could climb 2300 ft. up to the lakes. I am in good shape. The best shape I’ve been in since I got married 18 years ago. I did not over plan this trip. I should be able to make these hikes, but I struggled more than I thought I should. Perhaps it was the high elevation? Or perhaps it was the extra pack weight? Or perhaps a combination?

Anyway, I got to the first four waterfalls as planned. I then continued up the trail to my next camping spot, which was just a meager 900 ft. elevation gain from the previous day. This was supposed to be my camping spot for Day 3, not Day 2. There are a number of waterfalls in this vicinity including a couple surprises. Once again, I found a superb camping area next to a majestic 50 ft. high waterfall on the North Fork San Joaquin River (pictured here). It was a surprise to me how incredible this particular waterfall was. I had actually thought the falls above this one would be the bigger and more spectacular one.

The trail from Hemlock Crossing up to Twin Island Lakes is what you might call seldom used. I do not think this river sees much human action, even in the summer. It is no wonder I saw no other person for four days. The trail is much overgrown, it is very difficult to follow, and in some places completely gone. It gets worse and worse the further you go. There are rock cairns in the rocky granite areas, and I was concentrating like mad to follow the trail. Where is the next cairn? I see nothing! Nothing I tell you! I was going slow, and got off trail more than once. At one such place, I got off the trail and ended up in a brushy section. This cannot possibly be correct, I thought. At this point, I heard a big animal in the bushes up ahead. There is only one animal that could make that much noise: A bear. Sure enough, it was a big brown bear. He took a good look at me. Then he continued up the hill through the brush. (Making much more noise). Awesome possum. If I had not gotten off trail, I would not have seen him at all. When I came back to the spot I had gotten off trail, it seemed so obvious which way the trail went. How could I have possibly missed this turn in the trail? I think perhaps God made me miss it so I could see the bear. Well, that is what I think anyway. However, the bear was pretty darn close to my intended camping area. That is probably not a good thing, actually.

I setup camp, had lunch, then took a much needed nap. I still wanted to do another evening hike again. To do this one, I would have to cross the North Fork San Joaquin River. I made the crossing at my campsite fairly easily. I had been quite concerned I would not be able to make the crossing, even this late in the season. I did not bring my proper water shoes. I already had too much pack weight, so I had to cross in my no traction water socks. Well, it was not too hard. I climbed up into Bench Canyon to where I would find a 400 foot high waterfall. Unfortunately, Bench Canyon was the one creek that had much less water flowing than I had hoped. This particular falls would be spectacular when flowing strong, but now it was just a bit disappointing. The falls of despair. Still though, it is 400 ft. high and quite an amazing area. It was a difficult 900 ft. climb up to the falls. I suppose I should not have done that considering how tired I was. But it is a 400 ft. high waterfall! I had to do it. I came back down to the river at a different crossing point. Umm, this crossing looks much harder than the one at the campsite. The water is quite a bit more deep and swift here. All I have are these stupid water socks. But I had to cross back to the other side! It would have been too hard to go back up to where I had crossed initially. I had to do it here and now. No choice. So I very carefully made the crossing, making sure each step was firmly planted. I made it across without any trouble.

I had another scare as well on my way back down from Bench Canyon. This one was worse than anything else. I thought I lost all my photos! They were not displaying on my camera. It showed zero photos on my memory card. What a disaster this is! Did my camera corrupt my memory card somehow? Oh man, I was in utter distress, the pit of despair. All those places I had just been to in the last two days, and now I have nothing to show for them?!? I did not know what to do about any of this. I wailed loudly. If anyone was in the canyon at all, they would have heard me. But we know there was no one around anywhere. I am sure the bear heard me though, and was probably scared for his life, and ran far away from my camping area (that’s a good thing). What will bring me out of the pit of despair? True love. Of the waterfalls. Actually, after fiddling with my camera settings, the picture display came back to life. Whew. I am still not totally comfortable with this Sony camera. I am just so grateful I still had my photos.

I was quite relieved. And I was quite tired. Thankfully, I could sleep in the next day. My schedule actually allowed it.

 

 

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DAY 1. PLANS OF UNUSUAL SIZE

I had this trip in my mind for 3 months. I planned it out meticulously. The detail was calculated down to an hourly minutiae. I spent many hours working out this plan. I had 19 or 20 waterfalls to see in four days, and I needed to see them all in good light. Plans always go awry at some point.

The first (and not last) kink was the weather. All of a sudden a day before my trip, the forecast started to show extreme cold and even snow. I had prayed for no rain, I had prayed for no fires, but I did not pray for no freezing cold temperatures. Doh. God is just fooling with me now.

I decided to leave a day earlier than planned and return a day earlier. This would avoid the snow storm, but not the cold. Well, I knew I could handle the cold. In June, it was down to freezing at Cherry Creek Canyon. I survived. I just needed to bring more clothes. Leaving a day earlier would mean I would have to start my hike later in the morning and minus one waterfall.

I had brand new hiking boots that I had not yet worn on any hike. You know what they say: it is extremely foolish to go on a big hike with boots not yet worn in. I tried to soften them up at home as best as I could without going on any actual hike. As soon as I started the hike, I knew I would be fine. They felt comfortable and great. I love my REI Merrell boots. They are always so comfortable. I got no blisters on the hike. With my old (falling apart) boots, I would have gotten blisters for sure.

I was upset my pack weight was 37 pounds. That is two more pounds than my self imposed weight limit. Oh well, you say, what is the big whoop! It is only two pounds! Two pounds is a huge difference in backpacking, especially when you will be climbing over 6500 feet in elevation. Yet I had no choice. I had to take extra food for four nights and extra clothes for the cold. I could not figure out anything more that I could cut on the weight. I will just have to suck it up. Them two extra pounds are going to kill me, I thought.

About two miles in I met some backpackers camping on the side of the trail (nowhere in particular). They said they had to make an emergency stop the prior night, and would have to hike back down. Why? Also, they said they had been intending to go up for opening day? Huh? Opening day for what? For start of Fall Color? No. I guess they meant hunting? Are you even allowed to hunt in the Wilderness? I guess they are allowed, but in that case, I’m sure glad they did not make it. The last thing I would want to listen to in my wilderness experience is the sound of gun shots all day long. How awful would that be? And what are they going to do with anything they kill? Carry the big thing 15 miles back to their vehicle? Not with the weight they were already carrying. In fact, I found out the cause of their emergency stop: One of them was carrying 100 pounds of gear up the trail! Wow! 100 pounds! He was a big strong guy but 100 pounds? I think not. I had about 45 pounds last year, and that was far too much weight. Maybe 37 pounds is not so bad, after all.

These guys had not yet even crossed into the wilderness boundary. I mention this because after passing them and crossing into the wilderness, I saw zero humans for the rest of my trip. Four days. No humans except me, myself, and I. I literally had the entire North Fork San Joaquin Canyon all to myself. Nothing but me and the birds, lizards, and the squirrels. I do not count birds, squirrels, and lizards as wildlife encounters. Unless however if it is an unusual bird (such as a raptor – which I have seen of course but not on this trip), or an unusual squirrel (such as ROUS – Rodents of Unusual Size – which I have not seen), or an unusual lizard (such as a Tyrannosaurus Rex – which I have not seen). I did see a baby garter snake, so I guess that barely qualifies as a wildlife encounter. Oh yeah, and there was that one other creature I saw (you will have to wait for Day 2 for that).

Two of the three creeks I crossed on the way to the river were dry. This was a bad sign. In this very wet year, I would have expected all these creeks to have water. One of them looked like it had been completely dry for a month or more. I was counting on these creeks for drinking water. On the return trip I would have a tough uphill climb, and I would need that water. What was I going to do? Just die of thirst in the middle of the trail? How lovely would that be? I can think of better ways to go out than that. This could be a bad sign for the waterfalls up ahead as well.

Well, despite the extra weight, I felt good on the hike. However, I started feeling tired just before I got to camp. It was a very long 10 miles. The first seven were uphill, the last 3 were downhill, and a very steep downhill. As I said, that was something I was not looking forward to when I had to climb out of the canyon later. When I got down to the NF San Joaquin River at Hemlock Crossing, I found plenty of water. The side creeks dropping into the river were also flowing very well, no worries about waterfalls; most of the creeks had more water flowing than I expected, but there were a couple creeks that I was a bit disappointed in. I was later getting to camp than I wanted to. According to my meticulous plan, I had one hour to setup camp, eat my dinner, then I had another hike to do to see some evening waterfalls. The evening hike really did me in. I was so tired. (actually, it probably did me in for the rest of the trip and I had to cut out a couple falls from my great plan of unusual size – but more on that later). Essentially, I had been hiking for 7 straight hours with few rests along the way. Nonetheless, I saw four Falls in the evening, and all were beautiful. This one here was one of my favorites on the entire trip. It is an incredibly gorgeous waterfall on the river, about 50 ft. high. It is one of 12 significant waterfalls on this river, and perhaps the best. This is where I camped the first night, and listened to the sound of the roaring water as I drifted off to my much needed sleep. Sweet perfection.

 

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