It’s the middle of January already, but you wouldn’t know it out here on the Left Coast.
While the entire eastern half of the country has been stuck in the polar vortex, we’ve been having positively balmy weather, occasionally interrupted by some warm showers. There’s little that can be done to help our eastern friends who are bundling up in every stitch of warm clothing they can find as they huddle beside sputtering radiators. (I get chilly just hearing about it.) So I decided to go for a walk on the north side of the American River, where the south facing canyon walls get full-on exposure to plentiful, lovely, warm sunshine. It’s free Vitamin D and a tonic for the soul.
This year my home escaped wildfires, hurricanes, and drought. I have 7 wonderful, happy, healthy dogs and a spouse who at 80 years of age is still in full possession of his faculties. I have friends willing to put up with an abundance of dog hair in addition to my personal peculiarities. I could go on. Yesterday I was also blessed with a day off and perfect weather for a hike in the Sierras. Oh, I also have a terrific camera and I’m starting to get the hang of using it!
Years ago in a moment of unusual insight and overwhelming gratitude I asked my parents whether I had been born lucky or somehow had done something to deserve it. They both replied at the same time- one said “you were born lucky,” and the other said “you deserve it.” So there you have it. Maybe neither, maybe both, but lucky nevertheless. The truth is out there, maybe!
So yesterday my buddy Nina had a feeling that Wrights Lake road might still be open even though its the middle of December when everything should be pretty well snowed in, and so we decided to take a chance and check it out. Lucky again.
There was a little snow and ice on the road, but we made it without chains and without sliding off into a ditch! We headed for the open granite where the sun had melted most of the snow, and it was easy walking. When wandering off trail on the fringe of Desolation Wilderness sometimes the best course is simply to follow the dogs. Following Lyssa is a particularly good choice, and so we did.
Lyssa took us up the easy way to the top of Wright’s Rock, otherwise known as The Black Cliff. In warmer weather it’s a favorite place for rock-climbers. If you go far enough you can scramble down the northeast side to the Enchanted Pools.
That was the only place where the snow was deep enough to get in our boots, but then we had a nice stroll down the creek, admiring all of the ice and granite sculptures along the way.
On Tuesday the girls and I went for a long walk on a high ridge. (“Better than a long walk off a short pier,” says the voice of Dad in my head.)
For the entire day I thought no particularly profound thoughts and beheld
no flashes of deep insight, just walked with my dogs, enjoying the wind and the wildflowers, and the solitude.
I would also have enjoyed the view, but the winds were gusting up from the southwest, bringing some cooler temperatures but also a thick pall of smoke from the Detwiler fire near Mariposa, which was tracking at 45,000+ acres burned as of this writing. A small monster, growing rapidly.
With the mountain vistas shrouded in smoke I had to focus on the “local view,” as they say in the Real Estate business, which was rocky ridges, dogs, flowers, snow fields and some lovely, hardy enclaves of whitebark pine standing watch at strategic outposts along the high altitude ridges. I knew the views were there because I had seen them last week. I knew what I was missing, but that was okay because I had chosen a different goal for this Tuesday’s hike.
I was aiming to do a grand loop tour of the Steven’s Peak Ridge system from Big Meadow Trailhead. Here’s a map of the area.
Steven’s Peak is a familiar sight to anyone who travels around the South Lake Tahoe basin, even though I suspect many people might not be able to identify it by name. I hiked around the area for years before I could reliably pick it out from the small crowd of peaks in that area, and it’s only very recently that I figured out the ridge system associated with the peak, which is actually kind of embarrassing since there’s really only 3 main ridges. I think. The problem is this: depending on where you are when you look up at one of them from any given vantage point it’s hard to know where the others are in relation to the one in front of you, not to mention the changes in appearance that come with the changes in season or changes in weather.
Yesterday, for example, we could have been on Mars for lack of being able to see familiar landmarks.
The route was as follows: start at the Big Meadow Trailhead on Highway 89, heading south. At the top of the first big incline but before you hit the meadow veer left on the Scott’s Lake trail. Meander up the little valley along the base of the Waterhouse peaks, crossing numerous little creeklets, admiring the Mule Ears, paintbrush, larkspurs and scarlet penstemon, and swatting the mosquitoes. At the top of the valley cross a fenceline and then drop down to Scott’s Lake. Enjoy the beautiful lake and admire the view of Hawkins Peak to the East while the dogs refresh themselves in the lake.
Then traverse along the west shore of the lake until you come to the inlet stream for the lake, which is a very cheerful little cataract tumbling down through the red fir forest. Wander up through the forest, using the the brook for a rough guide for orientation. Eventually the grade begins to level out and there is an open wet meadow full of corn lilies and mosquitoes. Stay to the left side of the creek and start thinking about heading up that hill to your left. If you are lucky and keep wandering along still within earshot of the creek you will find a decent route up the slope, conveniently marked by a series of rock cairns. I have to stop here and tell you about Cairns.
Being a dog person I can’t help thinking about Cairn Terriers whenever I see a cairn. I have this fantasy that cairns are built by Cairn Terriers. In my fantasy every spring little packs of Cairn Terriers trek out into the wilderness to rebuild all of the cairn towers that have been knocked over by the winter’s snowstorms. Troops of terriers get out early in the season to beat all of the early hikers and make sure no one gets lost…picture these hard-working dedicated little pups with their snowshoes and little terrier snow suits… I mean, who doesn’t love Cairn Terriers- the original faithful Toto dog. So next time you are following a trail of cairns across some remote landscape, not getting lost, think about those fearless little dogs out there collecting all the rocks and stacking them up, balancing them on top of each other just so….and be grateful.
My dogs have never been very interested in trail maintenance, but then again, they are not Cairn Terriers. They are dedicated companions nevertheless, and I am very grateful for that. They are joyful, enthusiastic hikers, and will follow me anywhere. By following I mean that they will generally be out in front leading the way in the direction they think I will go. They know all about following ridges and going up mountains, and they always seem to know which direction to go back to the car. Even Tina with her grade VI mitral valve dysplasia would never miss a hike. I know high altitudes are not really good for her heart, but I also know she’d be broken-hearted for sure if I left her at home. She knows the difference between when we are going for a hike versus going for an ordinary errand!
Back to the trail. Follow the cairns or just keep climbing up through the forest until you come to open ridge climbing steeply to the right. At present it is sprinkled with colorful wildflowers and patches of snow.
Climb up towards the knobby volcanic cobblestone towers. In a short time you’ll be able to see the ridges spreading out ahead and to the left all the way to Steven’s Peak summit. Keep climbing, following the ridgeline along up towards the summit. With every step the view gets better and better, at least on un-smokey days, so stop often to look around.
The girls and I tromped along steadily up the big ascent to the spot marked 9,462′. Last week we made it to this spot for lunch. The air was clear that day, and I had spent most of the morning playing with my camera. On that day I had sat studying the ridge ahead while sharing lunch with the furballs.
It was hard to tell from afar how difficult it would be to climb up the last bit of the Scott’s Lake branch of ridgeline to the main Steven’s Peak summit ridge. Previously I had climbed up and down that ridge from the opposite side, from Meiss Meadows and from Red Lake Peak. It looked like it would be possible to pick a way up there between the whitebarks and rocks, over the snowfield. I wasn’t sure about the climb up the snowfield however- it looked like it might be steep. So I decided to return the following week and find out. So here I was again, about to find out.
As I continued on past peak 9462′, when to my surprise 2 spindly figures materialized out of the smoke, like aliens in a B-grade sci-fi movie. Or angels emerging from some other dimension. Or alien angels. In retrospect I think it more likely that they were angels, because the timing of their appearance and the story they told me was right out of an X-Files screenplay. They couldn’t have been friendlier folks- just as surprised to see me and the girls as I was to see them. The wind gusted at nearly gale-force velocity, whistling in our ears and sending smokey wraiths swirling around us as they told me the following story:
It seems I was only a few yards from a very special place in the history of the mountains- the Kenny Miller memorial. In June 1992 a twelve year old autistic boy was out hiking in Meiss Meadows with his parents, when he unexpectedly disappeared. His parents called and called for him, but Kenny didn’t answer. He was gone. They searched everywhere, and eventually the search developed into the largest search and rescue operation ever seen. In the end little Kenny’s body was found high on the ridge near Steven’s Peak. How he came to wander up 2000′ from the meadow to that rocky ridge know one knows. Perhaps he loved the magic of the ridgetop the way I do- it’s the only way to walk through the sky without your feet leaving the ground.
The angelic aliens disappeared down the ridge and I found the memorial- a pile of stones with an inscribed granite slab and assorted scattered toys. I sat down next to it and promptly burst into tears. (Not coincidentally, I was wearing my Dad’s old favorite rugby shirt for protection against the chilly winds gusting over the ridge. It was my favorite shirt too and it always made me feel like he was close by. It wasn’t the type of shirt that I would normally have grabbed for a dayhike, but for some reason this morning it had felt good to wear it. It felt like Dad wanted to come along for the adventure, I guess.) It had been 25 years since Kenny had died on this ridge but the sense of loss and grief hit me as sharp and fresh as if it had happened yesterday. I knew what it was like to loose a loved one. My children are all 4-footed and furry, but I love them with all my heart. Tina jumped in my lap and pressed herself close. I breathed in her warm earthy furry odor and let it diffuse right through me, chasing away the sorrow. I hugged her tight. “Our little angel, heaven bound,” was the inscription on the slab. It was perfect. Little Kenny was truly heaven bound when he climbed up that ridge because Steven’s Peak ridge was close to heaven, I thought. At least it was lot closer to heaven than any place down there in the valley. It was a stairway to heaven, Jacob’s Ladder, climbing up to the sky. I’ve always loved ridges and now I have a reason to love them even more. Kenny Miller found the doorway to heaven when he climbed up that ridge. My Dad found the doorway too, but it was in the hospital. He would have much preferred being in the mountains though, looking at the rocks and thinking about the geological history they told. And he would have been deeply touched by Kenny’s story.
Eventually we left Kenny Miller’s memorial and continued on to the next ridge. The little bit of climbing up to the junction was ridiculously easy- only a little snow field to cross and nothing steep or cliffy. From the junction it wasn’t far to the final heap of talus marking the summit. The slabs are like a jumbled pile of dinner plates- flat and tippy and hollow sounding.
At the summit we settled in to enjoy the view and check out the summit register.
I found my entry from last year, with my friend Patty and the same crew of pooches. I wonder if they remembered that day. We had hiked in from the other direction, across the ridge from Red Lake Peak. That had been another beautiful memorable day.
From Steven’s Peak we wandered all the way down the west arm of the ridge which overlooks the Round Lake Valley. We descended knoll after rocky knoll, peering over the edge whenever we could and taking photos. The air was still smokey most of the way. At the final knoll we descended into the forest and followed the GPS to intersect with the Tahoe Rim Trail. Then a mile or so down to Big Meadow and we had completed the grand loop tour of Steven’s Peak via Kenny Miller’s stairway to heaven.
Wishing you happy trails and lots of great ridges. (If you feel inclined to go up and say hi to Kenny take him a present- he likes Tonka Toys and dinosours….) – Shirley & Co.
The woods are reviving. Life is returning to the parched life forms in the forest behind my house. Mosses and lichens, which until a few weeks ago were dry dusty crispy brown papery flakes, are swelling up- turning plump and green, coming to life. They’ve had a transfusion- some fluid therapy. In California we have learned not to take water for granted, and to appreciate it for what it is- a gift from the sky. Water is the true treasure of California, more valuable than that golden yellow stuff they dig out of the ground.
Every morning I escort the dogs outside for their early morning dog business- stretching, sniffing, leg-lifting etc. Today I noticed the barely perceptible sound of dripping and gurgling. The skies have been clear for about a week, but I can hear water moving: melt-water is running off the roofs and dripping from the trees because this is the first night that the temperature has stayed above freezing- not much above freezing, but enough to turn frozen crystals of ice and snow into flowing liquid. Water dripping and dribbling down the gutters and down through the branches to soak into the soil, which is full of organic potential. You can smell it- a raw, fragrant, earthy perfume. Not quite the same stuff that Lucy was wearing behind her ears the other day, but close. Organic. Alive.
I love moss. It’s like green velvet. Its delicate feathery fronds weave thick soft verdant blankets in 100 rich shades of green. I remember in biology classes learning about the life cycles of moss, lichen, algae, fungus and the strange creatures known as slime molds which were neither plant nor animal, but belonged to a kingdom of life all their own. Plain old everyday moss has a life cycle as fantastic as any fantasy science fiction alien you can imagine!
But they are nothing compared to the mysterious slime molds, and wondrous hybrid lichens which incorporate both fungus and algae. Although they seem like aliens to us, they are not. They are more Earthen than us hominids, arrogant, near-sighted mega-faunal creatures that we are!
All this summer I have walked arid pathways, thinking that land and forest seemed sterile and devoid of life, everything baked into ash and dust. Life beaten into oblivion had only retreated into microscopic spores, thick walled capsules and seeds, dormant, holed up, waiting for however long it took for ocean currents to shift, and rivers of air to fill and flow through the atmosphere, and the circulatory system of our planet to return. But now Life is finding the way. It’s rising from the dust and ash. Don’t wait until Easter to celebrate the victory of Life over Death- it’s going on all around us right now; go take a walk, see for yourself!
There is a place in Pollock Pines occupied, visited, and otherwise
shared by all manner of species of fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, bugs,
mammals and um, oh yes people too. All kinds of people- fishermen, hikers,
bikers, runners, campers, horseback riders, boaters, kayakers, naturalists,
photographers, and many more that have never heard of Pollock Pines or
Jenkinson Lake but depend on its waters for their every day lives or
livelihoods. Not all that long ago there was no Jenkinson Lake. In 1952,
the year that Queen Elizabeth became Queen and Dwight Eisenhower became
President, Sly’s Park was still a meadow. Well, not just a meadow, but a
ranch, sawmill, and stopping place for cattlemen, explorers and settlers.
Shortly before that it was a gathering place for the Maidu and Miwok to hunt
and collect acorns for grinding. These days we visit Jenkinson Lake, the
centerpiece of Sly Park Recreation Area, to enjoy the water, the wildlife
and the woods. But under the lovely sparkling surface, beautifully
reflecting the surrounding hills, forest and sky, lies history!
My own history with Sly Park spans 15 years, which seems a long time to me.
I remember my first hike here, the first time I made it all the way around
the lake, the year when the water level was so high it seemed like the dams
might overflow, the time I saw the bald eagles and actually got close enough
to take a photograph, the time a sudden squall dropped 3 inches of snow on
me before I made it back to the car, the time I found the dog, the time I
saw the bobcat, times when Camp Creek waterfall was barely a trickle and
times when it was a raging flood, times when we could paddle kayaks all the way up
to Park Creek bridge and times when you could walk across the narrows on dry
land and bypass the whole east end of the lake. Yesterday I will remember
as the day we found the bricks, and realized that there was a lot more to
Sly Park Lake than met the eye. Or the lens of the camera.
I should have suspected something because of the mist. Sly Park Lake is a
prodigious generator of mists which rise fast and furiously from the waters’
surface, especially from the little cove tucked in down along the south shore. I
used to believe that it was due to physics- something explained by warm
waters evaporating into the chilly air lurking on the shady north-facing
slopes of the south shore. But these are mystical mists, and both physicists
and mystics agree that there are many invisible layers of matter and energy
in this world and in this universe. Because the last several winters have
been so dry and the lake levels are relatively low, some of those layers are
resurfacing. Yesterday we found bricks. Colorful old bricks forged locally
from native soil and clay, imprinted with letters and names that are clues
from the past. Bricks with stories baked into them, for whoever has the
ears to hear them.
Jenkinson Lake was born in 1954, the product of 2 main creeks, 3 dams and a
half mile of underground tunnel contributing the diverted waters of a third
creek. The lake’s serene vista, which now seems to fit so naturally into
the landscape, belies the power of the geological and cultural forces that
evolved and conspired to create it. Whether you walk, run, pedal, float, or
ride horseback, whether you’re after fish, photos, relaxation or rare
plants, when you visit Sly Park Lake you are part of history, adding another
layer to the story, another link in the continuum, another footprint in the