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.
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.
It’s been a long winter and a long, lingering, lovely late spring. Here in Pollock Pines the last of the dogwood blossoms are finally giving up the ghost for more summery attire. I’ve never seen them hang on this late- the past few years they have been over and done with well before the end of April. The Western Azaleas down in the canyon are officially overdue; they always bloom by June 5th and this year they haven’t even shown so much as a bud.
I’m not complaining, mind you. It’s a very nice change of pace, and I pray it’s not just a fluke. It’s good to see everything green and growing. I even got inspired to have a big garden and rejuvenated some of my old flower beds around the house. This is the California I fell in love with 30 years ago when I decided to migrate here from the land of snow and taxes (ie- New York!)
Driving up the highway on my way home from work I can see that the Sierras are still impressively covered with snow. The sight of the Crystal Range still draped in white always gives me a bit of a thrill. Down here in the foothills the grass is turning brown and everyone is getting out the shorts and sandals. But in the high peaks there are places that are still buried under deep snow pack.
In the news we are hearing warnings about how dangerous the rivers are right now because of the continuing runoff from the snowmelt. Currents are cold and swift, and the incautious pay for their poor judgement with their lives. So I was surprised when a friend forwarded me a report from a hiker who had just been up Red Lake Peak in Carson Pass and said that the path to the summit was fairly dry and walkable with only a few snowy patches! Evidently it was the kick in the butt I had been waiting for.
The garden is planted, the yard is weeded, and the firewood is stacked. Lyssa has a brand new pack and I have a brand new camera! What am I waiting for? So for the first time since last August we headed east up highway 50, up the hill to the high country. The dogs could hardly contain themselves! I reckon their sharp ears had been hearing the call of the mountains a lot earlier than mine did. Silly humans.
Near Echo summit I noticed that there was still a lot of snow in the forested areas, especially on the north facing slopes. I hadn’t brought snow-shoes, just the trail running shoes I have learned to love in recent years. This might be a short hike, I thought, but at the very least I’d find someplace to take some photos and give the dogs a run.
The visitors center at Carson Pass still looked pretty snowed in and there was only one other car in the parking lot on the west side of the highway. But the route up the east ridge of Red Lake Peak looked dry and clear as far as I could see. I grabbed the packs and camera and up we went. Other than a few small patches of snow the ridge was indeed passable for most of the way up to the shoulder. I picked my was carefully up the few snow fields but the dogs made a party of it. Dogs love snow. They roll and frolic and dig and toss it in the air. Tina does somersaults and throws herself on her back and toboggans head-first down the slopes. They have plenty of opportunities to indulge themselves on the way up the mountain. It’s delightful having such joyful companions.
I take my time climbing, stopping frequently to take photos. I have a lot to learn about my new camera. It’s a challenge trying to capture the stunning landscapes and then suddenly switch to focusing on fast moving dogs romping and playing. It’s almost impossible to catch both the beauty and delight of the dogs and the stunning beauty of the landscape in single images, with everything in focus and properly lit, but I keep trying. It’s a challenge sure to keep me busy for years! Here are a few humble submissions from today- I hope you enjoy them, and more to come!
I confess I don’t get along with snow as well as I used to. It was always a somewhat iffy relationship from the get-go, but now I have to be honest- the romance is gone. Oh, it’s still fine to look at- through the window while I’m cozied up on the sofa near the wood stove- fine feathery crystalline flakes drifting down amongst boughs of cedar- but I don’t feel the need to get out and romp around in it like I used to. While there are undeniably many wonderful things about snow, it has two qualities about it that I just can’t get past- 1) cold, and 2) wet.
When I was a kid we thought there was nothing better than playing out in the snow as much as we could. We’d slide down it on red plastic sliders, dug tunnels, built forts and snow people and snow sculptures, fling it at each other and anyone passing by, and generally wallowed in it until our toes and fingers and hands and feet were numb, and still we didn’t want to go inside. Later we learned to ski, and we always eagerly awaited the opening day at the resort. We started with lace-up boots, wooden skis and cable bindings, and a family pass for the whole season that only cost a few hundred dollars. My parents knew it was a bargain- skiing kept us active, healthy, and most importantly- out of trouble. We skied a lot.
Now I live in Northern California, where the most important thing about snow is that it is our water source for almost everything we do. Last winter we had all of about two snow storms, and the winter before that wasn’t much better. But it looks like this year maybe things are changing- we’ve already had a couple of really good wet weather systems break through that persistent high pressure ridge and deliver some big loads of H20 on us. Yep, free water, from the sky. Hooray, drought’s over! Maybe.
Just in case this too turns out to be a false alarm, a little teaser from Mother Nature, I decided to go up and do some celebratory romping while the romping was good- and there was nearly 2 feet of fresh powder blanketing the high country. Hope Valley. Where the West Fork of the Carson River meanders through an alpine meadow as lovely as its name, ringed with 360 degrees of majestic, forbidding, craggy summits. Breathtakingly beautiful, yes. Windswept, yes. Cold, yes. And snowy. I brought all of the necessary gear to stay warm and comfortable, the good snowshoes, camera of course, and all 5 dogs who insisted on coming along: “whither thou goest…”
18 inches of freshly fallen powder does not support any weight. A butterfly would sink in it. Snowshoes sink in it. So do long-legged dogs and the short-legged dogs following in the tracks of the long-legged dogs. I schlepped along laboriously and they leaped and bounded along like furry snow porpoises.
We romped and schlepped over to the river, investigated a number of interesting smells along the banks, took a lot of pictures, sat on a rock and ate a peanut butter sandwich, and pretty much wore ourselves out in about two hours.
So we schlepped, romped and porpoised back to the car, spent about 20 minutes removing snow dingleberries clinging to the feathers of my feathery little ones, and then gratefully returned to lower, warmer, greener elevations.
I like snow. I like it up in the mountains and I like it outside my window when I have the day off and the woodstove fired up. But my romping days aren’t what they used to be; or perhaps it has just been so durn long that I’m out of practice! Maybe tomorrow we’ll give it another go- after all, if we’re lucky it might be a long winter and I’ll still need to stay out of trouble!