Across the Sierra, Pt. 2: Middle Fork Kings River

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RobinB
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Across the Sierra, Pt. 2: Middle Fork Kings River

Post by RobinB » March 28th, 2018, 2:57 pm

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Opening picture: Descending to Davis Lake, at the northern tip of Kings Canyon National Park

This is the second of three or four entries about Krista and my circuitous ramble up the Sierra this past summer, from Kearsarge to Piute Pass. The first is here. I’ll post links to the rest as they get posted.

As before, you can read much more expansive daily entries at my blog, here. (Though as before, I don’t exactly recommend it.)

September 2, 2017
Split Mountain Moraine to LeConte Canyon
PCT816-827 + Off Trail from Split Mountain Moraine


Our plateau freezes overnight, and we wake to a thin white frost covering everything: the tent, rocks, grass, and the clothes we left out to dry overnight. But as soon as the sun hits us, it all melts—or evaporates, as it doesn’t seem to leave any wet behind—and we have the most beautiful morning, eating oatmeal and watching the light creep up the South Fork Kings River.

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The climb up Mather Pass’s improbable switchbacks goes improbably well. We each put on our "climbing albums," but we’re going so fast that we’re done before they’s over.

From the top, the South Fork Kings stretches from the small shallow lakes that dot the open Upper Basin into its rushing, steep, closed canyon. On the other side, the Palisade Lakes stretch out of view, down to Le Conte Canyon.

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The walk down to the lakes is longer than I remembered, and hotter. There are also a few bits trail that are still covered with steep, slick snow, where we kick in watery steps.

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But it’s so sunny and beautiful that it’s hard to feel anything but content. Dozens of waterfalls tumble from the Palisade Peaks above, where snow and bright white granite are almost indistinguishable. Every stream is lined with blooming heather, and everywhere there are streaks of green, stretching from high ridges to the river valley bottom. We stop again and again, taking pictures.

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There’s this little hidden spot at the foot of lower Palisade Lake, a few hundred feet off trail, nestled between a six- or seven-foot ledge and a waterfall—the first fall as Lower Palisade Lake becomes Palisade Creek. From the trail, you’d never know it existed. And from the spot, you’d never know there was a trail so close by.

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We stayed there last time, after I almost literally tripped over it looking for a somewhat secluded space to setup. And we’re stopped there now, lounging long enough for lunch and a swim, and for miles of memories.

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The water was low last time, but it’s flooding now, and the little pools are full of foot-long trout, darting back and forth. It’s cold—there’s melting ice just up the way—but the afternoon’s grown hot, and we both dunk, at least for a second, emerging with high pitched yelps that sound a lot like marmots.

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We eat in a small piece of shade—the only in sight—staring at the small bare patch where we put our tent last time. Krista smiles, and looks at me crookedly. “I’m so glad we started doing this.” My eyes sting in this way they always do when I’m about to get teary. “I’m so glad we do this together.” A long pause to chew. “Hey,” she smiles wider. “Is the chocolate in your trail mix melted?” It is, but it doesn’t matter, and we each take messy handfuls.

Our little piece of shade, it transpires, was an oasis in a baking desert. The afternoon’s become deliriously hot, and I’m covered in sweat by the time we finish the few hundred-foot climb back to the trail.

Then The Gold Staircase. We’re going the right direction—that is: down—but it’s still almost too hot to handle. And the sun feels bizarrely intense. And we seem to be descending into a solid, swirling pool of mosquitoes. And… is it too soon to mention the heat again?

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We have a procedure for times like this: we put on headphones, suspend all normal niceties, and just go until we’re out of it. Krista looks at me, puts on some Eurodance, and begins nearly running down the trail. It’s such a joy to watch that, trailing increasingly far behind, I barely notice the glowing red sunburn growing on the top of my head, where less experienced men put hair.

We make it down eventually, both out of water and in desperate need of a break. But the bugs are so bad that our first order is, well: we set up an impromptu shower, like those misting stations at outdoor concerts, but spraying DEET instead, and both run through, with a delight and abandon that’d make the kids at Coachella jealous. That taken care of, we bushwhack down to the creek, and take turns drinking liters of water straight from the filter.

After a while, I start to feel like a human again. Krista seems to be feeling better too. She’s laughing. “Dude,” she vaguely gestures at my head. “You look like a tomato.” I know instantly that she’s right. “I hate tomatoes.”

The afternoon shifts smoothly to evening, as the day’s harsh light softens on the canyon’s steep white walls. We’re moving fast now—in the shade, in the easing heat. Krista’s still on the Eurodance, Kylie Minogue now. One could almost tell just by her dance moves. I catch up to her, briefly, and ask if she wants a break. “Can’t stop now. I love this song.”

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Six miles later, we’re at the canyon bottom, where Palisade Creek and the Middle Fork Kings meet. We find a small spot tucked between the trail and river, just big enough for our tent, but with an enormous fire ring.

We scramble down to the water to wash off the day’s heat, then climb into our warm clothes and sit around the empty fire ring, making dinner. There’s a bunch of dry stacked wood, and the idea seems to occur to us both at the same time. “Do you want…” we start shyly. “Do you want to maybe have a fire?”

As a rule, neither of us like campfires out here. But the wood is already gathered, and the pit is already built, and… well, it just sounds so damn pleasant. So I go about the dinner stuff while Krista starts a fire.

Here’s the thing about Krista and fire: she’s magnificent at it. Like: one moment there’s a timid little flame, kept alive by a scrap of paper; the next, there’s a towering bon fire big enough, she’s reminded me more than once, to burn a husband’s body. (“I mean, just theoretically!”)

We eat as the colossal flames burn to embers, then sit out as the embers fade and the stars start to shine. It’s nearly midnight by the time I scramble back down to the creek to fetch some water to drown what’s left. Krista’s in the tent, snoring. The water boils and turns to steam as it hits the hot rocks, then bubbles softly as it floods the ring.

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September 3, 2017
LeConte Canyon to Starr Camp
PCT827-835


There’s a deer in camp this morning, a small thing with legs thinner than twigs, still slightly speckled white. Last year’s yearling. There’s a mother nearby, but not too close. Krista wanders over as I’m cooking breakfast, and we watch it together. It picks its way carefully through fallen trees and tangled branches, almost but never quite stumbling.

I wonder about its winters up here, where it will go. I guess they migrate, some just a few miles, some a hundred. I watch it walk carefully through the shrubs, and imagine it running—running down to follow the warmth for winter, or back up here in the summer heat—those legs growing thicker, those spots disappearing.

It’s an easy day today, however many miles we want to walk up the Canyon. We leave camp in the late morning, walk down to the confluence, then amble up to Grouse Meadow, which is flooded now, full of the water that’s rushing down the valley walls. And there are deer here too, tiptoeing gingerly around the water’s edge.

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The trail then turns due north, and we follow it as the trees get shorter, and stark white peaks grow in their place. The river’s rushing ruler straight—a series of falls, then a shoot so smooth that the water looks like glass.

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There must have been avalanches here since the last time we came. Little Pete Meadow’s full of broken trees. The ones that still stand are bent at right angles halfway up. And I wonder again about the deer. Were they here? Did they hear it thunder down the canyon? What do they see when we’re all gone?

I remember in grade school, we saw a deer out the classroom window. I guess it lived in the woods behind the school, and had come up through the playground on accident, or for food. We all just watched it, silently. It seemed awkward and out of place, but somehow also stately. My teacher—a wonderful woman who couldn’t have been much older than I am now—let us all just stare out the window for a while before interrupting the silence with a story. “You know,” she started in a whisper. “He might not look like much here, but…” she put her hands on her temples in a cartoon imitation of the deer’s tiny antlers, or of a crown. “He’s a king out there.” More silence. “We should greet him as an honored guest.” We did.

I still remember the way his muscles moved as he galloped away in the early spring light.

It rains on and off as we climb higher. We stop at Big Pete Meadow, precisely where we stayed last year. I like this thing we’re doing, visiting old memories. The camp’s a lot different now than it was when we were here last. The tent platform’s destroyed, full of toppled trees. But I sort of like it better this way. And the river’s several feet higher, full of fish.

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The rain comes in fits and starts as we follow the river up into the granite cathedrals below Langille Peak, big warm drops fall on the broad white steps that the trail takes between glacial rises. There’s thunder in the distance, but still just in the distance, and we take our time.

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Well, the thunder doesn’t stay in the distance for long. A mass of dark grey clouds comes down from the Black Divide and absolutely envelopes us. It turns from rain to hail, and the lightning’s so close that there’s not even time to start counting before it booms.

We hide in a thin stand of trees as the worst of it passes. But we don’t know if it’s settling in for good or what, so we continue on, up to Starr Camp, just a little further up the way.

The camp is a beautifully sheltered set of clearings at the edge of a blooming meadow, crisscrossed by streams of all widths, from torrents to trickles. We set up the tent fast and throw all our stuff inside. And as soon as we do, the storm stops.

Krista decides to take a nap, but I’m feeling restless. So I wade across the river, and find a hidden lake. I knew it was here—it’s on the map—but it’s well hidden from the trail. We walked right by it last time without seeing.

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I stand on the other shore for a long time, still enough that the world comes back out: marmots in the grass below; pikas chirping in the talus fields above; and deer, deer everywhere, drinking rain water off the leaves. Royalty from another world.

I sit out until the sky starts to change. Another storm’s going across the valley. The rain lines turn purple in the setting sun.

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September 4, 2017
Starr Camp to Davis Lakes
PCT835-841 + Off Trail to the Davis Lakes


On the trail early today. There’s still a solid mass of clouds to the southwest, flowing steadily over the Black Divide. We hurry out and up, hoping to beat the storm over Muir Pass. Almost immediately, there’s a family of deer, up drinking dew off the morning leaves. And marmots, whistling into the rising air.

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The trail’s easy, switchbacking up through the last woods we’ll see for a couple days, then meandering along a small stream—the uppermost headwaters of the Middle Fork Kings—over increasingly large bits of grey and white granite talus.

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We stop briefly at “False Helen Lake” (we once mistook it for the real thing) for Snickers, then continue up into the steep canyons that lead to Muir Pass. The storm’s gaining on us, and rain comes just as we hit the first snow. The trail traipses unsteadily between steep, crumbling peaks. The creek rushes under ice, and lightning flares in the distance behind us.

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There’s more and more snow, until the trail’s just an indent in a wall of white. We kick in steps in the steeper parts. And the rain’s driving now, on its way to hail.

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Krista stops, hand on her hip. “Well.” She smiles. She always smiles at times like this. “This is different.”

Real Helen Lake is enormous, like an inland sea ringed with white snow-sand beaches.

The lake’s named for John Muir’s youngest daughter. She was a sickly kid—growing up, she had tuberculosis so bad that they had to move her from coastal California to Arizona for the ostensibly healthy air—but she made it.

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She was obsessed with trains. When she was eleven, John granted the Santa Fe Railroad an essentially free right of way across the family’s property, so that they’d build a rail line that would go by Helen’s window. She memorized the timetables and the different trains that would pass. She sent away for books about the railroad, always requesting copies for “HL Muir,” worried that they wouldn’t send them to a girl.

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The further up we go, the more the storm gains. It’s one of those situations where you just have to put your head down and walk. So we do, and sooner than I’d expected, we’re standing on the top of the pass, inside the Muir Hut, huddled with a dozen strangers waiting out the storm.

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It’s funny to suddenly be so close to so many people, breathing foggy breath and stinking, piled on top of each other as the wind wails outside.

We don’t stay long—just enough for a quick snack—then we rush out, afraid that we’ll lose our nerve. When we crack the door open, the wind pushes it the rest of the way, and it slams against the outside wall. “We’ll, uh, just…” I look back in at the motley group, embarrassed. “We’ll just be going.” Then it takes me a solid two minutes to force the door closed.

The wind outside is still so strong that it almost knocks me off my feet. But the sky west, where we’re headed, is tinged with blue.

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Things improve as we walk down the rocky slope toward Wanda Lake, named for John Muir’s oldest daughter, Helen’s big sister. Unlike Helen, Wanda spent most of her life in coastal California—in college, then with her own family, living on the Muir property in Martinez. After Helen came down with TB, they didn’t see much of each other. But Wanda, Helen, and John did all go on a ramble up here together, the summer before Helen got sick.

Walking down through the easing wind, I think of them. And of hiking with my dad and brother.

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We leave the trail at the lake’s outlet, then cut southwest, up an easy talus slope toward what we’re calling “West Wanda Pass”—a low point in the ridge that separates the Evolution and Goddard drainages. There’s a path, but it’s braided and faded and we end up just making our own ways through the rocky jumble.

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At the pass, there’s a series of small tarns—icy clear pools, punctuated by tiny talus islands. We look down on Wanda Lake, but it looks different now, wilder. That now familiar feeling: as soon as the trail’s gone, so is all the civilization that comes with it, and it’s easy to imagine this as a primordial place, almost unseen but for a few people—Muir and his daughters. How miraculous it must have been to scramble up miles of unexceptional talus only to end here.

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Speaking of talus…

The way down to Davis Lake is rough. At first, it’s just a bit of route-finding, but as the slope gets steeper and the rocks bigger, things become less stable, and every step has to be taken tentatively, for fear that things might shift beneath.

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We make our ways down slowly, helping each other through the scary sections. A few times, rocks start to slide, and we both hold our breath.

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But we make it down all the same, and eat a late lunch on the side of the uppermost Davis Lake. Silt from the glacier above’s made the water a milky blueish green, and the wind—the remnants of the storm that’s still hammering on the other side of the divide—is causing waves, which break and crash into the rocky shore. Again, an ocean.

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We spend the afternoon in a disconsolate shuffle across the unstable talus along lower Davis Lake’s southern shore. I bonk. Krista bonks. We worry about finding a place to sleep in the rocky jumble, and finding our way out of here, and literally everything else a person can worry about.

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The lake is split by a land bridge that, but for a two or three-foot channel for water to rush through, spans the entire thing. The southern shore that we’ve been following is getting increasingly steep and seems to cliff out a quarter mile down the way, so we decide to cross, and try our luck on the other side.

Almost precisely halfway across the bridge, the terrain mellows, and there’s a clearing big enough for a tent. There might not be another spot like this for a while, so we stop for the day, and setup.

I feel instantly better. The light’s starting to soften, and the rocks on the north side seem smaller and more stable than the ones we’ve been pushing through. There’s even something like a use trail visible a half mile down the way.

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We put up the tent, cook dinner, make some tea. It rains on and off, but always softly. There’s still a storm across the divide, but only small shards of clouds are making it over. They turn red as the sun sets. Then the stars, more lonesome than I’ve ever seen. We’re the only people in this basin, probably the only people for miles. The world stretches out, whispering its secrets. I think again of John Muir and his daughters, what they must have seen a century ago.
Last edited by RobinB on March 28th, 2018, 6:41 pm, edited 1 time in total.

olderthanIusedtobe
Posts: 476
Joined: January 2nd, 2014, 10:45 am

Re: Across the Sierra, Pt. 2: Middle Fork Kings River

Post by olderthanIusedtobe » March 28th, 2018, 3:45 pm

That's funny, I just posted in Part 1 asking about Part 2. I literally only needed to be patient for a few more minutes! Definitely worth the wait. Beautiful pictures and interesting story as usual. I enjoyed reading about John Muir and his daughters. And about you and your wife revisiting memories along the trail. Thanks for letting us share your journey with you.

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Bosterson
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Joined: May 18th, 2009, 3:17 pm
Location: Portland

Re: Across the Sierra, Pt. 2: Middle Fork Kings River

Post by Bosterson » March 28th, 2018, 8:55 pm

Ahh, King's Canyon. It really is the best.

Thanks for the history lesson about Muir's daughters, I didn't know those lakes were named for them. I remember Wanda Lake being unbelievably clear as you walk past it - you can see down to the bottom even 10 or 20 ft out. I encountered a guy around Muir Pass who was doing all of the side trips; I was envious. Having done the JMT, some day I will get back there so I can leave the trail behind - at the time, I just motored through.
RobinB wrote: Image
Good to see this guy is still going strong. It'll be six (6) years this September since I walked by that rock! :shock:
Will hike off trail for fun.

olderthanIusedtobe
Posts: 476
Joined: January 2nd, 2014, 10:45 am

Re: Across the Sierra, Pt. 2: Middle Fork Kings River

Post by olderthanIusedtobe » March 29th, 2018, 11:25 am

Just before the climb to Muir Pass begins is a highly recommended side trip to Dusy Basin. That's still on my short list for my favorite place in the Sierras. A series of high lakes tucked right up against the western edge of the Palisades.

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retired jerry
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Joined: May 28th, 2008, 10:03 pm

Re: Across the Sierra, Pt. 2: Middle Fork Kings River

Post by retired jerry » March 30th, 2018, 2:49 pm

I wish people would quit posting Sierras trip reports, it looks so amazing, some day I'm going to drive the couple days to get down there...

Thanks :)

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BurnsideBob
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Joined: May 6th, 2014, 3:15 pm
Location: Mount Angel, Oregon

Re: Across the Sierra, Pt. 2: Middle Fork Kings River

Post by BurnsideBob » March 31st, 2018, 6:52 am

Dear RobinB:

Thanks for posting your marvelous trip report. The contrast between your trip and the grey out my window is jarring.

What a grand adventure! If only it weren't so far.
I keep making protein shakes but they always turn out like margaritas.

Chazz
Posts: 280
Joined: May 26th, 2013, 12:53 pm

Re: Across the Sierra, Pt. 2: Middle Fork Kings River

Post by Chazz » April 2nd, 2018, 10:49 am

These trip reports kill me sometimes. I love reading them (especially the Sierra ones) but they seriously bum me out at times too. Like staring in the window of a breakfast restaurant watching people eat pancakes, when you've just started a low-carb diet.

Fabulous pictures and memories here....

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RobinB
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Joined: September 9th, 2013, 11:29 pm
Location: Portland, OR

Re: Across the Sierra, Pt. 2: Middle Fork Kings River

Post by RobinB » April 3rd, 2018, 8:04 pm

Hey, thanks - and, er, sorry - all!
Bosterson wrote:Having done the JMT, some day I will get back there so I can leave the trail behind - at the time, I just motored through.
I feel like you could do Roper's High Route pretty easily, though I'm sure there are further afield things worth seeing too...

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