July 20, 2017
Yosemite Backpacker’s Camp to Misc. Campsite along tributary of Yosemite Creek
Elevation Gain/Loss: +529'/-861'
The adults wake early. Fueled by coffee, we attempt to sort through the group food so we don't have to carry all of it. BCM gave us food for 7 people, already reduced from the standard 10x, but we only have 5 humans on our expedition and two of us are gluten free, myself included. I've packed all my own meals, attempting to adhere to my anti-inflammatory diet as best I can in the wilderness. Not only am I not going to help eat any group food, I’m bringing along additional food. This spells trouble.
In Yosemite, we're required to fit all food and "smellables" (anything that may smell like food to a bear, from toothpaste to face wipes) in a bear canister. Bear canisters are hard plastic drums that seal with a special lid only humans can open. The idea is even if a bear can smell your food, they won't be able to get at it and eat it for a "calorie reward". Calorie rewards are what train bears to see humans as food sources and to start pestering hiker campsites. Each person gets a bear can. You must carry this bulky plastic drum with you everywhere you go.
As it is, there's no way we'll be able to fit food for 7 people in only 5 bear cans, hence the early morning sorting party. We throw un-needed food into bags and bins we'll leave in the permanent bear boxes at the trailhead later. Once we have a "keep" pile that looks reasonable, we start setting up breakfast. We don't do a test run with the bear cans, but it looks fine, right?
We establish what will become our morning routine: Wake early, boil water, sip coffee as the day warms and the sun rises above the trees, take a few minutes for ourselves, then wake the girls and let them build experimental breakfasts using the oatmeal and toppings we’ve laid out.
After breakfast, BadAss gives lessons on how to pack a backpack with a bear can. Heads up: They're a pain in the ass.
Here's how it goes: Clothes or sleeping bag stuffed at the bottom of your pack, protected in a waterproof sack (aka trash bag pack-liner), ready to cushion the bear can. Bear can slides in upright if you have a small 55L pack like mine, or sideways if you have a larger 70L pack like the rest of the group. Your tent is not packed in its manufacturer-issue sack, like my type-A personality prefers, but is hand-stuffed around the bear can, filling the loose space around the outer edges in the torso of your pack. Sleeping pad, if it’s a foam pad, is rolled and strapped to the outside of your pack, cushioning the tent poles that are wrapped up inside it. Or, an inflatable pad like mine is flattened, all the air squished out of it, then curled around the bear can, filling any remaining space along the outer edges that the tent didn’t take up. On top, easily accessible for lunch and setting up camp, is your food sack, your stove, a raincoat if necessary, and misc. smellables that need to be set aside with the food when we get to camp. Emergency and must-not-lose-this items go into the brain.
Such is life in bear country.
I also pick up a handy acronym, the ABCs of Backpacking:
A - Accessibility Is what you need easy to get to in your pack?
B - Balance Is your pack balanced, left-to-right, and with the heaviest items close to your spine/center of gravity?
C - Compression Are things exploding/falling off your pack, do items shift around as you move?
Laughs and MJ are such fast learners. We will only have to show them how to set up/take down a tent and pack a backpack once. They won't ask more than one or two questions about it the rest of the trip. This morning, on the first try, their packs look awesome. Naturals!
After a soon-to-become-routine camp sweep, we Sherpa our gear back to the car, load up, and are on the road. On the road again! I drive again, sticking to my responsible-adult comfort zone.
The day had dawned clear, a welcome relief from the smoke of last night. We could finally see the granite walls we'd camped beneath! A ranger told us the smoke seems to blow in during mid-afternoon, then settle in the valleys and low spots as the day ends, and we will find this to be true. Taking advantage of the good air, we stop to look at El Capitan and Yosemite Falls.
Shockingly, this is my first good look at El Cap. I've been to the Valley before, once, on a rushed how-did-we-manage-that day trip, and somehow never really looked at this massive giant rising from the earth. It shoots up up up. We hurt our necks looking at it. I get nauseous, thinking of Alex Honnold climbing this impossible skyscraper of granite with no ropes, no life-support.
We describe to the girls how we’ll hike all the way to the top of El Cap and cross over the falls after following Yosemite Creek for a few days. Understandably, the girls are a bit confused how we’ll get on top of a 3,000-foot vertical wall and cross a thundering waterfall, all with full packs, without killing ourselves. It is hard for me to comprehend, too.
As we drive out of the valley and follow Tioga Road, I realize this will be my first experience of the “true” Yosemite. My first glimpse of anything outside the crowd-choked valley. The first real chunk of time I’ll spend in the park.
Before leaving the backpacker’s camp this morning, we met Ketchum/Catch Em, a PCT hiker. Amazingly, his real name is also his trail name. A wonderful play on words. He'd hitch hiked down into the valley from Tuolumne Meadows, spent the night after being unable to hitch back, and was half-heartedly packing his stuff up to try and hitch back again. He stopped every few minutes to come talk to us.
This time of year, for the past few years, I get hiker fever. I obsessively dive into PCT hiker blogs and Instagrams, living vicariously as they walk the blistering Los Angeles Aqueduct, reach Kennedy Meadows, summit Forester Pass. I nod along as they struggle through a historic high-snow year in the Sierras, in awe of those who persevered through the entire range with ice axe and crampons. It was awesome to meet a real live PCT hiker, and the beginning of many PCT mentions this trip. By the end of the week, the PCT desire I've flirted with ever since reading Wild in 2013 will be burning strong.
We descend on Crane Flat gas station for our last gasp of real bathrooms, real coffee, “real” everything, for the next week. Random snacks here, going into/coming out of the backcountry, will be the only money I spend all week. Less than $10 total. A welcome escape from the consumerist cycles of capitalism I find myself trapped within in San Francisco.
We were supposed to drive to and camp at Yosemite Creek Campground last night, but since it's still closed, we're forced to start our trek at the Yosemite Creek trailhead along Tioga Road. This adds about 1.5 miles to our hike. Not usually a big deal, but a definite hurdle when helping two 13-year-old girls do their first-ever day of backpacking.
I never knew bears would attack cars with food in them. Most parks even encourage you to leave food in hard-sided vehicles. In Sequoia & King's Canyon, parks just south of Yosemite, they only caution not to leave food in plain sight. Are Yosemite bears extra humanized? Or are humans extra dumb here? The thought of coming back to a car shattered and flattened by a hungry bear is terrifying.
We scour the car like mad people, looking for any food, wrappers, trash, or smellables we're leaving behind, then dump them all in plastic storage bins we're leaving in the bear boxes at the trailhead. Thankfully, people seem to be their best selves in national parks. Is this because national parks only attract a certain type of people? Or because we transform as soon as we cross over the park boundary? Whatever the reason, no one steals. No one will take the items we leave unattended for a week.
Not 15 minutes into our hike, we come to a creek crossing. Not just any creek crossing. A waist-deep crossing through frigid snow melt. We're in one of my favorite childhood books, We're Going on a Bear Hunt.
"We can't go under it, we can't go over it, we can't go around it, gotta go through it!"
We have no choice, we gotta go through it. BadAss tells a gnarly story from a past life about slipping and slicing a 4-inch deep gash in the soft part of her hamstring while using a downed log to cross a gully. This confirms: we need to suck it up and cross the creek. No log-balancing shortcuts.
BadAss is the only one of us hiking in pants. She strips down to her skivvies, not wanting the cold or the chafe that comes with hiking in wet pants. A few days from now, we will discuss a documentary in which silly skiers play a real-life video game called Gnar and try to collect "gnar points". The girls will retroactively give her "total gnar points" for doing this creek crossing in her undies.
MJ, Laughs, and I change into water shoes, while BadAss and Cherub keep their boots on to cross. I am so squeamish about wet feet/shoes. You'd think years of cross country and running in soggy, muddy fields would have cured me of this, but it only deepened my hatred of wet squishy feet. I despise the oozing of unseen liquid around my toes, the way it soaks my socks, gets stuck in my waterproof boots, refuses to drain, and creates a puddle-y water (foot)bed.
At the end of the trip, in our last half mile of trail, there will be another creek crossing. I’ll do it in my boots and immediately regret it. Writing this, days after the fact, I still won't be sure if my boots have dried. I'll also realize I've left them on my porch to dry for days on end. Whoops.
Crossing this first creek feels shockingly good. Like a giant ice bath. Brought to you by: Nature, in partnership with La Niña. I didn’t realize how hot it was or how warm I’d already gotten.
For the rest of the trip, I will pine for the feeling of this creek crossing. The sharp sting as the water touches the sensitive skin on my stomach, the soothing coolness on my leg and hip sore from driving, the delicious numbness that sets in on my toes and feet. I will daydream I can cross this creek over and over, plunging in whenever I’m hot and sweaty and tired from the trail. We will see dozens of creeks, and even dunk ourselves in icy granite pools near one epic campsite, but something about this creek crossing is unique. We don't have a choice whether or not to cross it. We have to ford it if we want to continue on the trail. We also want to stay semi-dry this time, which means our upper bodies are toasty in the afternoon sun and warm air while our lower halves are wading through the crisp water.
A metaphor for life, really: You don’t have a choice about which obstacles you encounter, but face them and you may find surprising joy in the overcoming.
Up until this creek crossing, we leapfrog a young girl and her grandfather on the trail. About 7, she is literally bursting with energy, hopping and skipping down the trail, running ahead then circling back, bubbling over with questions.
Who are you guys?
Who is the woman at the front leading you?
My grandmother got mad and didn't come on this hike. I picked this flower for her!
Where are you going?
Is your group only girls?
You look very fashionable, I like your outfit.
Seeing ourselves through her eyes, my heart overflows. A literal swelling of pride and happiness throughout my body. We are living breathing examples, walking down the path right in front over her, of “Women Power”, of striking out and doing something people tell you isn’t possible or a good idea, of being strong and forming a community together. Talking to this young girl helps me realize that despite our small group, our mere presence has an impact. Our positive impact isn’t limited to the 5 people of our group. We can positively impact the lives of every path we cross.
As we're drying ourselves off and shoveling snacks, safe on the opposite side of the creek, a group approaches from farther down the trail. Two women and a guy, all curious about the creek crossing. We tell them the water was a bit past our waists, and BadAss warns them against crossing on downed logs, lest they slip and fall. The women take our advice and begin to scout a crossing route, but the guy insists, in typical guy fashion (sorry bro bros!), on walking across the logs. A few minutes later, his friends call out: “We found a crossing point!" He responds with a sassy, frustrated “I’m crossing it!”, with a high-pitched emphasis on the “it”, sending us all into unstoppable peals of laughter. The backpacking giggles have begun.
While gasping for breath between laughs, I'm reminded this is the biggest group I've ever backpacked with, and nothing like the brutality I endured with strangers for snow camping.
I usually adventure solo, purely due to impatience. I hate waiting for people to get their lives together and align plans. To me, it represents too many years of wasted time, missed opportunities. Most people I know who express a desire to go on a backpacking/camping trip never actually go. Years ago, after a few months of living in NY, I realized I was sitting around in a cramped, dingy, pseudo-dorm room, waiting for others to be available and do things with me, while the entire city twisted into the night outside my window. I started doing things solo. The first time eating at a restaurant alone was scary, no doubt, but aloneness is a muscle you exercise and strengthen. There are too many adventures I want to have in this life. I can't sit around and wait for people!
Solo trips are tranquil and soul-searching and healing, but usually don’t involve too many side-splitting peals of laughter. It’s damn rare for you or someone you encounter briefly on the trail to make you laugh hard, plain and simple. This euphoric joy is a new, unexpected element of backpacking.
The rest of the afternoon proceeds slowly, with MJ and Laughs understandably adjusting to hiking and new boots and carrying heavy packs for the first time. Every ten minutes, we stop, adjust packs, shift weight, do our best. At one point, BadAss looks them in the eye and says gently, "It's going to be uncomfortable." I'm finally forced to accept that I can't take away their discomfort. We’ve taken as much weight from the girls as possible, not wanting to damage still-growing bodies, but I realize I can't shoulder their aches and pains for them. I'm staring my desire to heal and protect in the face, reckoning with it. No matter what, today is going to be slightly uncomfortable as we all adjust to the trail. I can't soothe it all away. Another apt metaphor for life.
We take a long break for lunch, another thing I'm not used to. On solo trips, my Type A / slightly masochistic personality lends to pushing myself until I’m absolutely starved. I scarf snacks from my hip belt instead of taking off my pack, instead of realizing how sweaty my back is, instead of letting my muscles feel their tiredness. All that jazz.
Around 5pm, we make it to a deserted car camping area. Ah ha. This is where we’d planned to sleep last night, before we realized it was closed. We do what will become rhythm on the trail: we walk. Obstacle in your way? Walk. Tired? Walk. Hungry? Eat, then walk some more. Out here, on our own power with no support but each other, there is no way out of a situation other than to walk.
Meandering down an asphalt road, I finally understand the hatred all thru-hikers have for road walks. After a soft, cushy trail, road walking is b-o-r-i-n-g and it HURTS! Feet under heavy packs do not like pavement.
We pass eerily empty camping spots, picnic tables upturned against long-melted winter snow; a few blowdowns here and there, but no obvious damage. Have all the other humans been abducted by space monsters? Why oh why is this campground closed? Are we the last survivors on earth, running from the cannibalistic marauders in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?
A half-mile or so of road walking and we're back on the cushy trail. Praise! Oh glorious trail! Is it normal to love a trail this much so quickly? I see a lizard and stop to point it out to the girls, our first wildlife of the trip. This earns us "real talk" from BadAss, who is understandably worried about us making it to our campsite 4 miles away before dark. We’re moving at a snail’s pace, stopping every few minutes for water or snacks or self-induced distractions like lizards. I’ve completely lost track of what time it is, just as I did yesterday and will do for the whole trip. It will get dark in a few hours and we’ve got miles to go before we sleep.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep
The tone BadAss uses lights a fire under all of us, and for the next hour or so we hustle down the trail, trying to A) escape the mosquitos that attack us anytime we stop and B) figure out where the hell we’ll camp tonight. We’re moving fast, comparatively, but we definitely won’t make it to our goal 4x miles away. Even if we did, there probably wouldn’t be space for us at this late hour.
Up, across, and over a big granite mound, the first climbing we’ve done all trip. Gaining elevation earns us our first real views on the trail, and the hazy smoke-air is a beautiful orange that filters the light of the lowering sun and makes us look all alone at the edge of the world. I snap pictures and long for a real camera, then do a 180 in my mind and doubt if I’m even good enough to take real pictures, smart enough to master a real camera, creative enough to make pictures that are actually good, not just pretty compared to the yuppie lattes and basic flower bouquets on Instagram.
The trail meanders and skitters along the granite slabs, and I get my first real taste of trail-finding in a land of granite. When all the world is covered in rock, do you know where the trail is?
Before we've even finished huffing and puffing over the top, we’re going down down down. Suddenly we're in a land of lush ferns. It smell of sage or wild mint, a delightfully refreshing scent compared to the smoke we’d grown accustomed to inhaling all day. BadAss goes ahead to scout the trail. We can hear a burbling creek - a sure sign of a good camping spot.
A young boy about the same age as MJ and Laughs has just crossed the creek with his family and they're still hanging out on the opposite bank. He scampers back across and tries to point out a complicated route to use if we don’t want to get wet. After Brandon’s horror story, we’re all perfectly fine to cross without balancing on any logs, thank you. By this time, the second or third creek crossing of the day, the girls are old pros and cross in their boots, but my boots happen to also be my camp shoes. I don’t want to tramp around camp in sodden boots so I jump from rock to rock, playing leap frog.
This creek will merge into Yosemite Creek in a mile or so, flow down down the drainage to meet with all its other tributary friends, then team up into the cheering, roaring, 2,425 foot Yosemite Falls we'll cross in a day or two.
Just past the creek, at the edge of a burn from a year or two past, there is a wide gravely campsite. Its open arms welcome us with at least a dozen tent spots. Ahhh. This is our home for the night. The first of many auspicious happenings for the Amazon Women of BCM during this trip. The first of many things that will work out just fine, and appear when we need them, and happen for a reason. The trail provides.
The boy and his family move on down the trail and we're left with the big spot to ourselves. We gather "wild" water for the first time, leading to the first of many wilderness lessons: how and where to fetch water, how to treat it, how not to end up with a gazillion tiny parasites in your gut.
Cherub and I are both gluten free. She mistakenly ate the group oats this morning, assuming they were GF. She crawls into our tent, gassy and disoriented. She won't reappear for the rest of the night.
One adult down, BadAss and I are left to talk about poop. Hooray! It's time for the "pooping in the woods" lesson! Helping MJ and Laughs get over their understandable hesitancy of pooping in the woods is our key to a happy and successful trip. We need to make this sound like a great idea. We emphasize how much we love pooping out here, how clean and pretty it is, how freeing it is, how great that squatting position is for you. We don’t need expensive Squatty Potties, we have trowels and the woods! If one of them chooses not to poop in the woods this week, their only options are some nasty shit: fecal impact, dehydration, malnutrition, laxatives, etcetera.
I learn a few things alongside the girls, like marking your cathole with an X of sticks after you’re all done, so no human comes along after you thinking, “this looks like a delightful poop spot,” digs and discovers a terrible surprise. Or the fact that hand sanitizer doesn’t remove fecal particles from our hands. Only water, soap, and scrubbing for 20+ seconds will do that. EW. I have been living a LIE.
After dinner, BadAss and I stand around staring at our food stores, spread out in the dirt of our backcountry kitchen. Between our GF snacks, my homemade meals, and our smaller-than-usual group, we packed in WAY too much food. In bear country. No bueno.
We cram as much into the bear cans as we can in the rapidly fading light, but all of our smellables are still out, as is my drybag full of snacks and lunches for the week. Bear hangs are illegal in the park, so we have two options: critter hangs (close to the tree trunk but off the ground, usually on a dead branch jutting out a foot from the tree) or leave it on the ground. We gamble with the bears and place our money on the critters. Vegas ain't got nothing on us.
Bear behavior varies by area, and I've heard the bear population here are hang-trained but skittish of people and not aggressive....i.e., they'll shimmy up a tree and get your food in no time but won't attack you or go after your tent for food. Besides, this wasn't grizzly country, these are just little black bears. What could go wrong?
I was prepared to sleep with my extra food as a pillow, but BadAss insists I can't. Seeing a wilderness expert visibly worried about leaving food out and hearing her say "This had never happened before!" has me more on edge than I usually am.
Normally, I'm at ease with bears and the wild things. I generally believe if you go into the woods with good intentions and a healthy respect for what could hurt or kill you, nature recognizes you're just visiting. Nature will take care of you. I feel that outside, things will be okay. I can't explain how or why I know this, other than that I just do. Living outside, we wrap ourselves in the big cozy blanket of the universe and surrender to it. The universe will do with us what it wants. Being outside reinforces this. If they wanted to, so many things could kill us humans out here, us ill-suited upright walkers. From the tiny parasites we can't even see, to the apex predators, to the dead trees waiting to fall...anything could snuff out our flame, and yet they don't. It's incredible.
Instead, I absorb some of BadAss's anxiety tonight. Before bed, we're both spooked by a few deer. We realize we're camped in a very "deer-y" spot. Nothing like going pee a few yards from the edge of camp and seeing multiple pairs of eyes glowing back at you, frozen in the darkness. They don't scare until we yell at them harshly.
Go on! Git! Be gone, deer!
I sleep fitfully, waking every few hours. Deer pace through our camp all night. Around dawn, I wake to the sound of tiny jaws crunching. Convinced it is a critter who's finally gotten into our food hangs, I burst out of the tent and stared intently at the tree across the way. Green food stuff sack still hanging? Check. Two grey bags of smellys still hanging? Check check. But those tiny jaws...? I look up. It's just a bird, breaking into a nut he's scavenged.