Saturday, July 16, 2016

Aiming Higher: Up to Franklin Lake

Date: August 21, 2015
Place: Mineral King, Sequoia National Park, Three Rivers, California
Coordinates (of where we started that day): 36.419122, -118.578816
Length: 2.5 miles
Elevation gain: 1300 feet
ֿLevel: Very Strenuous

I woke up with a start. My eyes were itchy, my throat sore, and my nostrils filled with the dense smell of smoke. I panicked. With racing heart I pulled the tent fly open and stuck my head out, expecting to see the flames charging uphill. It was pitch black outside, however. Not even a glow on the northern horizon where the Rough Fire raged. But the smoke was very real, and soon I started coughing. There was very little I could do about it, though. I closed the tent again, checked that my chika was breathing ok, and tried to go back to sleep.
It was our first night alone in the wilderness, just me and my chika. My original plan was to spend that night at Franklin Lake but a late start and a gross overestimation of my chika's abilities left us camping about half way to the lake, near the intersection of the Farwell Gap and the Franklin Lakes trails.
It was all for the best. We had a quiet night and my chika was well rested and ready to go on up the mountain. Also, the smoke has subsided and the air was much clearer.
The Crack of Dawn
First, however, we had to get water. This time my chika came with me down the treacherous slope to the trickle of water at the creek bottom. This time I also took my camera along, and there was plenty to photograph. 
Heart Willowweed (Epilobium obcordatum) 
We washed and filled our bottles. Wild water in California, as clean as it may seem, needs to be treated for parasites - giardia, mainly.
A glance to the north showed the valley filled with smoke. I wondered what would I do if the fire did progress south towards where we were. I was running all kinds of survival scenarios in my head. Thankfully, none had to be implemented.
Franklin Creek
I assume that in rainier years the water springs higher up the creek. We were fortunate enough that there was a trickle close enough to where we stayed the night. And where there's water - there's life. The creek bed was green with annuals and many of them were blooming. Small, little flowers. Very pretty. But I didn't want to linger too long: we had to get going.
Yellow Monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus)
We climbed back up from the creek to the campsite, had breakfast and packed to go. One last look at our vacated camp area, and we were on the trail again, heading up the mountain side.  
Sierra meadow
We had only 2.5 miles to go that day, but it was all going uphill while carrying heavy packs, and at high elevation, to add. We were beginning at 9900 ft and planning to go above 11000. 
Our hike to Franklin Lake as captured by my GPS
We begun uphill with cheerful optimism, and the only thing that slowed us down at first were the pretty wildflowers that had grabbed my attention.
Lewis' Flax (Linum lewisii)
I was expecting any moment to see the trail intersection leading south to the Farewell Gap or east to Franklin Lake, where we were headed, but we kept walking and no intersection in sight.
Leptosiphon sp. 
The trail narrowed. We were walking on a sandy slop with brittle, gravely cover that was sometimes treacherous to step on. Down below it was a deep drop to the creek. My young chika got nervous and slowed down. The trail was too narrow for me to walk by her side but I held her hand and encouraged her to progress slowly, in small steps.
Yellow-staining Collomia (Colombia tinctoria) 
The slope we were walking on appeared to have recently experienced a landslide. There were no trees growing there. Most of the plants I saw there were tiny annuals. There were a few shrubs, small and fast growing. Nearly all were in full bloom.
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja sp.) 
My chika started asking for a break. I promised her one when we got to the intersection. Once we cleared the treacherous slope she took to striding fast, anticipating the promised break. Still, that intersection proved farther than it appeared on the map. When we finally arrived there I was glad thad we didn't push to get there the day before - there was no water available there, and no obvious site for camping.
There were lots of pretty flowers, though.
Bigelow's Sneezeweed (Helenium bigelovii)

While we sat and rested I looked south to the Farewell Gap. There was the option of going there, but according to my map there wasn't much beyond other than this one lake, and at that time I was still hoping to get a bit further into the wilderness.
Farewell Gap
So we stuck to the original plan, and when we were done resting we took the trail to Franklin Lake.
On the way to Franklin Lake
For a while we were walking north again, in the direction of the Franklin Creek cascades. The trail leveled considerably, but we were still gaining altitude with every step.
Capitate Sandwort (Eremogone congesta) 
This high the trees were few and far between. But wherever they were, they were majestic.

And some of the herbaceous wildflowers were the strangest I've seen.
Grayswamp Whiteheads (Sphenosciadium capitellatum)
And then, others were quite familiar. At least on the genus level.
Lupine (Lupinus sp.)
Higher in altitude there is less vegetation, and the bare rocks show their twisted nature. 

As we kept moving north we caught sight of the Franklin Creek cascades. Just glimpses at first, but then as we curved around the mountain's contours, we saw the whole thing. 

California was deep in drought when we were there, but water was still seeping from the ground in many places. The soil was releasing its water holds. We crossed several muddy patches and little brooks on our way.

The gentian, which I saw for the first time just the day before, prefers these wet areas.
Rainier Pleated Gentian (Gentiana calycosa) 
And so does the cinquefoil. I knew its relatives from other places I hiked, but this was my first time seeing this species. I couldn't give too much attention to the flowers on that trail segment because at that time I already had to encourage my chika to keep going.
Slender Cinquefoil (Potentilla gracilis)
The altitude and the heavy packs were weighing down on us and my chika began to ask more frequently for breaks, so we stopped more often.

One big problem with frequent stops (besides the time lost) is having to hoist the heavy packs all over again when it is time to move again. Eventually I stopped taking my pack off and simply rested against a rock or a tree while the  chika sat down and doodled with a stick in the dirt. My hopes of a steadier pace and a longer hike for today were fading fast as it became apparent to me that my chika was getting close to her limits. Still, just getting as high as she did was quite an achievement. I promised her a long break when we arrived at the creek
Marsh Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris), between lupine leaves. 
It was lunch time when we finally reached the Franklin Creek, above the cascades. We took off our packs and sat down to eat and refill our bottles. I made true my promise for a long break and we stayed there for a good long hour. A good enough time to rest and explore the vicinity.
Pacific Mountain Onion (Allium validum)
Across the creek was a flat little valley cradled between the granite peaks. Some trees dotted the higher slopes but the valley itself grew only small bushes and herbs. In close proximity was a cluster of California corn lily, a plant I usually get to see in its leafy stage, when it looks like an overgrown lettuce. When in full bloom, these plants can tower to a man's height and their large, white inflorescence are magnificent indeed.

Naturally I went over to check them out. Here's a close-up:
California Corn Lily (Veratrum californicum var. californicum)
Time wasn't standing still and we needed to get going. My chika wanted to get to the lake early enough so she could go fishing. I repacked everything and we started up the trail once more. 
Now the trail followed the creek a bit more closely.
Despite the long break, little chika was walking even slower now. The pack bothered her and we had to stop every few steps so I could adjust it for her one way or another. Soon she also heeded nature's call and I took the chance to explore the little wildflowers that dotted the valley floor.
Sierra Beardtongue (Penstemon heterodoxies)
During all this time a number of people were going up or down the trail. I observed them silently. Nearly all of them were adults that looked in their early twenties or thirties. A few looked more mature. Mostly men, a few women. None of them were alone, and none of them looked under 15. Most chatted among themselves, but some did glance at us, raising their eyebrows and saluting with a small gesture of the hand or the head. I returned a smile but felt a bit awkward, wondering again if I was crazy for taking my young child on such a challenging trail. 
Woolly Groundsel(Packera cana)
In a moment of weakness I asked my chika if she'd rather turn back, almost hoping that she would. She refused, however. She was set on getting to the lake and camp there. "But tomorrow we'll go back," she added. 
So we kept on going, slowly gaining altitude, taking frequent breaks, appreciating the beauty of the scenery and the little wildflowers between the rocks. 
Western Mountain Aster (Symphyotrichum spathulatum) ?
It helped that I could see the end of the ascent. Towering over us was a huge granite wall behind which was Franklin Lake. I pointed the wall to my chika, but she was already too tired to be excited.

Once again we were going up on a switchbacks segment of the trail. My chika was heaving hard and even I was feeling the thin air. I begun to worry about altitude sickness and wondered how come we were feeling it here whereas only a month before, atop Lassen Peak, we had barely felt it.
the answer may have been a composite one: when we went up Lassen Peak it was already after spending several days between 6000 to 8000 feet, and we were carrying only light day packs.
Also, where we were now, almost level with Franklin Lake, was already higher than Lassen Peak.
We sat down again.
Pygmy Fleabane (Erigeron pygmaesus)

I looked down at the valley we had just left. The sunlight, which was bright whilst we were down there was aimed by smoke that rose from the valley below. Little by little, we had already gained much altitude. We were almost at the lake.

I pointed at the next curve of the trail and told my chika I was going there and asked her to wait for me, promising not to leave her sight. I left my backpack at the trail curve, came back and took my chika's backpack, telling her to come along. We walked past my backpack and on to the following trail cut where I left my chika with her pack and went back to retrieve mine. We kept going like that until we found ourselves over the last curve and near a campsite that was marked on the map to be just north of the lake. And it was not occupied by anyone.
The lake was nowhere to be seen. I figured that the water was a bit further south, maybe a couple of hundred yards ahead.
Common Yarrow (Achilea millefolium)

My chika was disappointed. She had expected the campsite to be right by the water, as it had been on our previous backpacking trip to Caribou Wilderness. On the map there were two other campsites marked further south along the eastern shore of the lake. My chika hoisted her backpack and with renewed energy and resolve started up the trail again, determined to get to one of the other campsites.

Awed and dumbfounded, I lifted my own pack and followed her. This time she didn't falter but went all the way up without stopping, until we cleared the ridge and the trees and the view opened up.
And there was Franklin Lake (the first of the two). Blue and beautiful, and far, far below us, with no obvious trail leading down to the water.
Franklin Lake
I was deflated. My chika was near tears. According to the map we had at least half a mile to get to the other campsites, and there was no way to tell if there was any access to the water from there. We sat down and I consoled my girl, and thanking her for pulling us uphill so we could have this magnificent view of the lake.
Tough Cookie

I also motioned at all the pretty flowers that were blooming in rock crevices, that I wouldn't have been able to see if not for her.
Mountain Monardella (Monardella odoratissima) 
Then I convinced my chika to go back down and camp at the campsite below. I promised her that after we pitched our tent we'll simply follow the creek up to the lake.

And that was the highest point we got to that trip. At that point we turned around and went back down to the vacant campsite we had passed just a little earlier. The two loud 'thuds' of heavy backpacks hitting the ground echoed from the surrounding granite walls.

There was a large, flat area of fine gravel, a small cement platform with an iron bear box and a stone circle with the remains of an outlaw campfire (it is forbidden to have campfires there), and all within a short distance from the creek.
Tulare County Buckwheat (Eriogonum polypodum)
My chika was happy again. She knew we wouldn't be hiking any more that day. I quickly pitched our tent and placed all our food in the bear box. Then I took back and looked around. Standing on top of a rock I could see the dam that held the lake behind it.
The shadows were getting long. I beckoned my chika and she grabbed her fishing rod and followed me up the creek.

We reached the lake and I took in the beauty and evening stillness. and peace.
My chika fixed her rod and cast it.
Both my girls had wanted to go fishing for a long while and I kept evading them because I really don't like this activity. Certainly not when done as a 'sport'. Eventually I found the solution: I'd have them 'earn' their rods doing backpacking. Then they'll play casting and sit there forever waiting for the fish until they got bored and drop the whole idea.
My chika's fishing debut was supposed to be a month before, on the trip that was aborted because of our car accident. Since then she had tried her luck a few times in a couple of local East Bay lake but luckily (for the fish), it was just as I expected: she would sit with the line in the water until she got bored, which wasn't even long enough for me to finish reading a page in the book I brought along.
This time, however, was different. The high Sierra fish must have been very hungry, because within seconds of her first casting she snugged one. Her first. She was very excited but very remorseful and wanted to release the fish back to the water. I hadn't expected it and with no experience, had no idea what to do next. I did my best to release it quickly, but the poor fish was already too hurt and died in the water anyway. My chika cried and I was upset. I wanted to wrap it all up and go back to the campsite, but to my surprise, my chika begged to try again. I argued against it, but eventually succumbed and agreed on one condition - that if she catches another fish she would eat it. I could not see the point of  the 'catch and release' thing. In my view it is unnecessary torment, hardly a 'sport'.
Franklin Lake
On her next casting my chika snagged a rock so hard that we had to cut the line. Only then we discovered that we had forgotten the hook sinkers in the car back at Mineral King ... Once more I was ready to call it quits but my chika was so disappointed that I decided to improvise and tied a little stone as a sinker. But the makeshift sinker kept falling off the line and eventually I had a put an end to the whole affair. I wanted to return to the campsite with  enough daylight left to cook dinner. I promised my chika to try again tomorrow morning. This time she didn't argue. It was already a very long and demanding day and she was just about done.
We ate our dinner in silence, then sat down and watched the sunset. The cloud of smoke had risen high and the setting sun appeared like a large orange disc hanging lower the ridge. We could look directly at it - the smoke was so thick.
Trees on the ridgeline got darker, loosing their tree identities and assuming nightly shapes that evoked my chika's imagination. We sat there, naming the shapes and weaving stories until they too faded into the darkness of the night.
Crimson Sun
No one else joined to share our campsite, Once again we were alone in the quiet of the wilderness. That night we both slept like logs.


  1. That was a very challenging hike. I admire both you and the chicka for making it.
    I can unersand you about the fisihing...

    1. Yes, I'm not surprised. I wasn't sure I'd include this bit here, but then it did happen ... It is a combination of me not being clear about where I stand on the issue, not being clear on how to present it and hoping that the experience would prove to be not to her liking. I'm not sure how it will go next time (or when will be the next time).