At Last! The Trail!

August 6th: 4 miles from Agnew Meadows Trailhead on PCT north of Devil’s Postpile Junction to River Trail past Olaine Lake

Billy Ray here! At last we get to the trail head in Agnew Meadows!

After camping off of the Lake Tahoe Rim Trail at Big Meadow, we drove down to start the JMT from Mammoth Lakes. There we parked the van and learned at the ranger station that the dry climate had led to a burn ban in many parts of the wildernesses where we would be, eliminating our ability to rely on our wood burning “Bush Buddy” stove to cook our food. We would have to pick up a pressurized gas stove and fuel canisters. This didn’t come as a surprise. On our way in we saw thick haze from a forest fire in Plumas National Forest, a fire that had been dubbed the “Chips Fire” and would continue to burn for weeks and swallow over 100 square miles. The ranger said at Mammoth Lakes, somewhat ominously, “We are just waiting to burn up!”

After some logistics, a shopping trip to mountain gear shop and a fresh veggie meal at a local cafe, we took the shuttle up to Agnew Meadows with our gear, leaving the good old Marzo van behind to fend for itself against foraging bears, whose season was drastically altered by the lack of snow last winter. We saw signs up in the hotel parking lots about bears breaking into cars. All the dumpsters in Mammoth Lakes are bear proof. We were a bit nervous, because part of our plan included resupplying out of our car, but we were told that the parking lot at the shuttle area was out of “the danger zone” so we crossed our fingers, covered the food in sleeping bags and hoped the tinted windows and blanket piles over the food boxes would outsmart the bears senses. I have to admit I was sweating this decision.

Agnew Meadows was the first stop on the shuttle, which was good because we were getting a late start because of all the extra logistics: it was already four or five in the afternoon. So we would just hike in far enough to camp for the night. Our plan was to head north on the River Trail, along the San Joaquin River, up to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which then joins the John Muir Trail (JMT)  all the way to Yosemite National Park and then back down the JMT to Devil’s Postpile, resupplying in the car on the way down. As we hiked up through the forested valley’s edge along the River Trail surrounded by majestic gnarled western juniper, the sun came otherworldly through an eerie red haze from wildfire smoke. It was strangely beautiful and became fierier as the sun set further. Manzanita spread around us, seeming to grow out of the rocks. We could hear the San Joaquin below us, and even glimpsed a roaring waterfall tumbling down the other side of the valley in the far distance, which is where we would take the JMT back down. For now we would take the PCT up north where it would eventually join the JMT. We were already encountering a lot of horse and mule trains. We stopped at the swampy Olaine Lake as the sun set to filter water and have a little dinner. We walked in only four miles before choosing a flat spot to sleep for the night. It was so pleasant out that we just laid out under bright Milky Way and slept under the waning moon. We heard some snuffling in the night but were undisturbed along with our bear vaults stashed several yards away downwind.

We woke up to the bright sun and Shadow Creek Falls roaring far below us in the valley. The San Joaquin poured over the dark, angular cleaves of rocks as we climbed higher toward Island Pass. The wildflowers came up in shoots of color straight out of the rocks and soon soft grasses and meandering streams opened up the views to the peaks beyond Thousand Island Lake. We had lunch around the lake and watched the horses and hikers wander around its edges, taking in the edges of a land that usually lay buried under snow. My mind was still buzzing with speed and city thoughts: measurements, catchy tunes, numbers and such. Today we would climb up 3,000 feet and over twelve miles past streams, wildflowers, lakes, fields of rocks and two mountain passes to the highest altitude of 11,056 feet at Donahue Pass.

spence here! After camping at big meadows, near the junction of the lake tahoe rim trail, we took our sweet time driving down to mammoth lakes. That town was “happenin’”, as my dad would say. An “adventure town” full of gondola rides, epic downhill mountain bike rides, climbing walls, lake recreation, etc., mammoth lakes has it all, as well as a “night life”!  however, we were in a different mood, a quiet-seeking mood, and we were a little stunned (although my sporty bro-ed out self was a little excited). Perhaps another time…

We stopped in at the ranger station first to solidify our trip plans. I was a bit nervous for several reasons… I had had too much coffee, there was talk of a few wildfires already north of the area and we had a somewhat bunk pct thru-hike permit for back country camping. We had acquired said permit months ago when our plan was to start in Oregon and hike south all the way to mt. whitney, thus continuously hiking south on the pct over 500 miles, (the only real requirement of getting such a permit). The pct association issues the special permits to allow a thru-hiker to by-pass the permitting offices and hoopla of camper quotas per night for each ranger district, national forest, national park, etc.  it really would be a logistical nightmare to try to plan where one would be if one were hiking through 500 miles of districts and parks, so it’s a great idea. However, since we encountered snow in Oregon, fires around lake tahoe and in general heat and drought in California, we actually weren’t hiking continuously 500 miles. We skipped around, (although if you read almost any thru-hiker journal for any long-distance trail you will discover it is fairly difficult to not “skip around” due to snow, storms, fire, trail closures, etc.) Plus, our new plan was to hike north from mammoth lakes to Tuolumne meadows in Yosemite so we wouldn’t miss some of the best trail in north America–our permit was for southbound only.  Our permit was also for the pct only, which meant that any deviation, (for example taking the river trail instead of the pct, which ran parallel), would also be “illegal” according to the permit we carried. My rationale for not getting all the permits we were “supposed to” for each district is that we had already paid for the permit and had already been accounted for.  We were in the areas of the parks of which the dates said we would be on our permit. We also would be heading south in a week towards mt. whitney. Mostly, I didn’t exactly know where we’d be camping and I just didn’t want a hassle—I wanted freedom to roam and camp at will! Not to be subjected to quotas! Free-ranger! Mountain man! Wild and untamed! Don’t tell me where I can and can’t go! What rules?  I’m like Christopher mccandless in “into the wild”! All that said, if I was to do it over again, I would just get the “legal” permits, as I worried about it unnecessarily for most of the leg of this trip! I don’t even like to take pennies out of the penny jars for fear of stealing.  I also really appreciate and agree with the reasoning behind permitting and quotas. We are visitors to the wild now.  Many other species have smaller and smaller wild lands to call home and more and more people want to adventure to those places (oddly enough before they are “gone”).  Permitting and restricting access keeps these places “wild”, or as wild as they can be with planes flying overhead.  I’d even go so far as to say that we shouldn’t be allowed to go to some places. We don’t need to conquer everything. I struggle with it like I struggle with zoos—when does the value of access and education to protect cross the line to interference, infiltration and ultimate species-behavior influencing or alteration?

Another permit, which is sadly rarely enforced/checked is the California burn permit. It is an additional permit we were required to have throughout all back country areas of California.  The permit was ridiculously easy to obtain and basically stated that we read and agreed to the rules and regulations of specific burning (campfires or pressurized gas backpacking stoves) in specific areas. The ranger who issued the permit told me when I asked that we couldn’t use the bushbuddy wood stove because there was a fire ban currently in effect in most parks and almost all the areas we were going to be hiking. Even with a “spark arrest” pan and screen he didn’t approve, but also admitted that the regulations team couldn’t agree on if the portable wood stove was considered a stove or a campfire. We probably could have gotten away with using the stove, but again, I would have felt too guilty.  Besides, most of the places we camped were extremely dry and I don’t know how comfortable I would have been using the wood stove with forest fires a-blazin’ nearby already! I was surprised at the lackadaisical nature of the ranger and the permit process, however. With such a risk, you would think they would care more about that permit and education than the back country hiking and camping permit.  I actually wish I would have had to show them my stove, etc. I would have felt better about this so-called “required permit” that no ranger ever asked to see on the trail.

Anyway, after settling the ethical permit debate, stove debate, parking debate and finding the shuttle, we really had nothing standing in our way of starting the trail.  So we began. It was time to test my recovering knee, my long-winded talk of doing a large-scale hike, my gear and myself. I took in all the sounds, sights, smells and fears I experienced. Realizing that just being inside a building is comfort, once I am outside those structures, I feel elated, scared, curious, worried and aware. The fear and worry part wears off fairly quickly, although I am always more vigilant in bear country. the rest is a relief.  I thought it a perfect start to sleep out our first night—without tent or tarp—looking at the stars and hoping for the best.

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