For the last few months, I have been able to distract the girls from their backpacking mission with sporty exploits: we mountain biked at near suicidal speeds (ok, and sometimes at a snail-like crawl), risked life and limb climbing dauting rock formations, and cruised around crystal blue water on stand-up paddle boards. All these distractions meant our camping didn’t have to take on a rustic, pack-it-all-in flavor just yet. But my time had run out… this journey would entail strapping on a (shudder) backpack, hiking into the wild, and pitching a tent. Shit.
That’s right, I was worried and I’ll tell you why; I’m an over-packer. I like having all the things all the time. I like food, and back-up items, and back-up items for those back-ups. What if it’s cold? What if it’s hot? What if it rains? I don’t give a damn what that smug weatherman says, he’s just some guy reading off a prompter! D: Her purse, her car, her house…over-packing could also be defined as hoarding.
It helped that our destination conjured up images of a JR Tolkien novel. We were heading to the Marble Mountains. The name alone invokes images of castle-like spires and cute little hobbit holes, but the description really brought the Lord of the Rings imagery to life: multiple lakes, sheer granite faces, and a woodsy hike in. And all this only a short drive north of our home base.
We departed in the early morning and made our way into rural Northern California. Farmland soon gave way to forest as we wound our way further and further away from civilization. We arrived at the parking lot and started to gear up, right about the same time thirty or so firefighters were unloading. It’s summer, so obviously California is burning somewhere. Luckily, no fires here, just some clean-up. Phew! We shouldered our packs, and almost on cue, dark clouds rolled in and rain started to pelt us from above. It has been in the high 90s or just over 100 all month and the weather report had guaranteed more of the same. See, the weatherman is not to be trusted. We had packed for a summer excursion and left the rain gear behind. But it’s us, so of course, rain. Once we were completely drenched, it let up and blue and white took back over the sky.
As we hiked, the forest thickened and grew taller around us. And the Tolkien-esque name didn’t disappoint. Huge, moss covered trees framed our path, and long tangled vines crept their way along it. Everything felt massive, old, and foreign. Immense granite boulders jutted out from the landscape. A dwarf would have felt right at home.
I had tried my best to pare my gear down to the absolute essentials. However, I maybe…possibly…ok probably, should have kept cutting. My poor 60 liter pack was stuffed to near bursting and the seams strained to hold it all in. I really wasn’t sure what ‘extras’ I could have lost, but the 50 pounds seemed to be pressing down directly on my will to live with each step, and it was a constant reminder that I should try much, much harder next time.
For the first few miles we came across small streams and felled trees, but the trek was fairly flat, and pretty easy going. Then at some point the trail started to morph from a woodsy meandering path to a staircase of marble. Before I knew it the soft dirt trail was completely gone and we were walking on steps…cold, hard, rock steps. And here I thought the 50 pounds was unpleasant on the flats. We hiked until our backs were screaming in pain, and then stopped for “lunch”, aka we found a flat spot where we could half-faint without falling down the steps.
If you go, wait for the waterfall before you break down and stop, we were so close! And for the love of god, if you like beer, stash a couple upstream a bit. This was the coldest water we encountered and it would have been wonderful to sip something cold and bubbly during the descent. Seriously though…DO THIS!
It wasn’t long before we made it to the fork in the trail and dropped into Sky High Valley. The lakes were at the far end, so we walked through meadows and groves of trees until we got to the rock wall on the other side.
We were barely walking, eyeing the different camp spots on the lake when inexplicably, I fell down. My foot just kinda slid into a hole on its own, and I dropped. The first thing out of Brad’s mouth was ‘Did you just fall on the flattest ground we have seen this entire time?’ Yes Brad, new camping companion, I did! Who invited you anyways? Oh…right. Me. Dammit. Luckily, years of destroying my ankles in organized sports has left my joints pretty pliable, sort of like if Gumby twisted his ankle. So while I would now have an annoying twinge with each step, it wasn’t bad thanks to my Gumby super stretch.
Emily and Denita found us the PERFECT camp spot on the Lower Sky High Lake: a beautiful stand of giant trees, a nice little fire pit, flat tent spots, and gorgeous views in all directions. After the steps, and the soul crushing weight of my backpack, I didn’t think that our final destination could be worth the hassle. I was totally wrong. This place is perfect; exactly what I had envisioned when we started this forced march. We all happily threw our packs down and jumped into the lake.
We left the boys to their fly fishing (the only reason they will join us) and made our way up the valley to a huge rock in the middle of a meadow. It was the perfect spot to take in the abundant beauty and act out our own nature themed music videos. Yes, we are aware that we have a problem.
Our rumbling stomachs finally pulled us away from our most likely award winning dance choreography, and we headed back to camp, started a fire and watched the sun paint splashes of orange light along the rock formations. Darkness fell, we are our Good To-Go food packets, and settled down for the night. I was doing an ok job at getting some sleep when…
E: There was certainly enough bear scat on the trail to warrant a certain degree of alarm, but with our group of 5, and the amount of noise we were making, I wasn’t really worried about a surprise encounter. Of course, Nature took note of my calm attitude and decided to shake things up a bit. At about 2am, my dog starts going nuts in the tent. She’s restless, won’t stay still, and making low woofing sounds…being persistently obnoxious. I crawl out of the tent with her, thinking she needs to pee. Nope, just more weird dog behavior. Scanning the pitch-black night with my headlamp, I catch the reflection of eyes in the bushes just behind our tent. Shit. I don’t want to wake everyone up and alarm them, but there’s definitely something rustling around those bushes, which are uncomfortably close to our camp. I start stomping the ground a bit and telling that bear to GTFO, and of course, wake everyone up. I can hear the girls in our tent whispering “Did she just say BEAR?!” Dan and his dog Bruno crawl out of their tent. Bruno is probably large enough to scare off a bear, but he would have to care that it was there first. By that time, whatever was in the bushes had moseyed off. Needless to say, I was quite a bit more on edge during our pre-dawn hike out.
Everyone else just seemed to slip blissfully back to sleep, but my stupid body seemed fine with the paltry amount of sleep I’d given it. I sat there listening as rocks cascaded down the bank for what seemed like hours. I could just imagine Em’s bear lazily knocking rocks down at us out of sheer boredom. I guess that furry bastard couldn’t sleep either, but at least he kept himself occupied with activities that didn’t involve ripping us to shreds. Then, around 4:30am, Emily and Denita got up for a ridiculously early and utterly insane death march out.
D: You may ask, “Why? WHY 4:30am?? What would two grown women need to do that require them to hike out of the woods so early? Obviously, ballet class. So Emily (the ballerina) and I (her buddy system) cut our trip just a touch short, by hiking six miles in the F#@$ing dark to get back to Redding in time for class. Most would say that’s way too early for anything (Jessica), but I’m a glass half full kinda girl. The way I see it, I haven’t really GONE to sleep yet, so not getting up super early, I’m just staying up a little later.
One thing you should know about Em, she doesn’t mess around when it comes to ballet. I knew she was going to be in gear and focused on getting out quick-style (which I usually prefer) so we packed quick and hit the trail with a vengeance. Dan was kind enough to escort us through the open space/ heavily grassy areas for protection, which was nice, but of course, made me all the more worried when he left. Dan don’t leave us! Dan left us. The trail became more wooded and the valley started to close in behind us. We were on our own just as the pre-dawn light hit the peaks. Super gorgeous YET super-duper eerie!!
Emily and I made a point to talk loudly and often back and forth while I held a death grip on the bear spray, hoping and praying I wouldn’t have to use it!!!! In my head for the majority…ok the WHOLE HIKE, these were the thoughts running through my head: Where would the bear come from? How big would it be? Would the spray really work? Would we die? Who would find us? My head was a swirling jumble of gory images of potential death and dismemberment as we casually discussed skin-care, our favorite TV shows, and any other mundane topic we thought might scare (or bore) a bear away.
My feet were in piss poor condition after the hike in. With every step I could feel the blisters multiplying in size. 14 in total!! The packs were light but the pace was quick. With each turn around a bend I thought, ok the parking lot has got to be approaching……………..ok parking lot…………OK PARKING LOT!!!!!! Finally! We had made it, NOT ONE BEAR, and we had time to spare. Another one in the books, please excuse me while I go milk my foot blisters.
Denita and Emily are the task masters, the responsible individuals that make sure we get places on time and don’t wander too far off track. While the girls were likely loading up the car and driving back down the mountain, we slept. Glorious sleep that was only interrupted by the mid-morning sun heating up our tents. We slowly roused ourselves, and slowly is pretty much the perfect word to explain the rest of our day. Our main goal was to meander around the valley and explore the other lakes. There was quite a bit of rock hopping and peaceful ‘sits’. It was a beautiful day of nothing. Somewhere around 2pm we decided to wander our way back to camp. And this is what happens when you leave the lollygaggers to their own devices.
As we wear paused yet again taking it all in at Upper Sky High Lake, we heard the same cascade of rocks we had heard the night before and looked across the lake to find a bear! My very first sighting! And what a perfect way to meet one. He was wandering along the rocks and through the bushes (Lost style) on the other side of a decent sized lake. He sized us up, and without further ado, kept to his course. We were stoked!
After he had lumbered out of sight, we completed the wander back, packed up, and left our valley. Since we felt so bad for the girls and their early departure, we had told them to leave ‘a lot’ of their stuff. This meant that the food weight we had lost was now replaced with more gear. At least we were headed down! Dan and I fashioned walking sticks from our kindling pile and these babies were a godsend heading back down the marble stairs with our newly added weight.
We hiked out at a leisurely pace, and stopped at a few spots to float leaves and look at bugs. We got back to the car right around dusk and cracked open a few cold beers we had waiting for us. The drive out was gorgeous and surreal. I was in a weird state of excited relaxation. High on life, but peacefully so. We stopped for burgers and milkshakes and when we tried to verbalize our odd state of Zen like serenity, we realized we were all three on the same page, but we all lacked the right words to describe how fucking cool it felt. I was bummed the girls were missing this, but I’m pretty sure either one of them would have murdered us if they would have had to watch this unfold. D: Wander the valley? Float leaves? Watch bugs? Then dinner? You didn’t get home until midnight! We almost called search and rescue! 4:30am doesn’t sound as bad anymore you lollygagging weirdos.
In all, the trip was amazing. It was exhausting, but my body hurt in that way that was more enjoyable than irritating. We had seen a bear, he didn’t maul us. I twisted my ankle, turns out I have Gumby super powers. I had to do my business outside, didn’t pee on myself. We ate dehydrated food, it wasn’t horrible. All wins in their own special way. I was going home tired but happy. I’d go again in a heartbeat, which is good because our next trip is coming up fast. And do I really need to work on my over-packing problems if we are bringing pack goats?
Photos by the amazing Dan Rhodes
Tags: backpacking bear death march girls gone into the wild hiking marble mountains