Thursday, November 9, 2017

One on One with the Mighty Kern

Date: August 2, 2017
Place: Golden Trout Wilderness, Lone Pine, California
Coordinates (of the Natural Bridge): 36.359243, -118.374827
Length: about 7.5 miles
Level: very strenuous

This morning too I was out of the tent with the hint of first light after having tossed and turned for the most of that night. The third morning of my backpacking trip at the Golden Trout Wilderness I was at the Natural Bridge over the Malpais Creek, about 2+ miles over the Kern Canyon. Going there on the day before I had a little crisis that left me drained but now I felt considerably better and was all ready to fulfill a long time wish - to see the Kern Canyon.

More aware now of my physiological needs I prepared breakfast that included some more calories than the single packet of proteins shake I've called 'breakfast' until then. Then I removed from my backpack everything that I wouldn't need for a day hike and tucked everything I wouldn't need till night inside my tent, which I left standing. I then hoisted my pack, which was now considerably lighter, and headed for the Natural Bridge and across the Malpais Creek.
My hike from the Natural Bridge ti the Kern and back up as captured by me GPS
The sun wasn't up yet when I set out. The trail took me into a thin, gloomy forest. I walked quickly, hoping to make it all the way down as soon as possible so to have more time to spend as the canyon bottom. Doing this as a day hike without my camping gear meant that I would have to get up and out on the very same day. It would have been senseless to carry everything down and then back up again.

Learning from yesterday's crisis I resolved to stop for a snack every hour and I had packed almost only he sweet stuff, although it meant rearranging the daily food packs I had prepared so carefully before going on the trip.
The mountain peaks and the tree tops around me came in the sunlight one after another, but the trail where I was walking was still under the pale dawn light. But the forest was getting constantly brighter.
Small tributaries crossed my path. Nothing I needed to change shoes for to cross, but nice strips of greenery rooted with wildflowers to break the forest monotony.

Right away I detected familiar footprints on the trail - the footprints of the backpacker I had come across yesterday. I never saw her going back up on that trail and I couldn't tell from the fpptprints if she did. I kept noting them for some time, then put it out of my mind.
Somewhat further down, near one of the little green forest clearings I walked by I caught a quick movement at the corner of my eye, and I turned just in time to glimpse a buck trotting away. I post this terrible photo of that buck's blurry behind because that was the only deer I've seen that entire trip (but I have seen plenty of deer tracks).
Oh, deer
I was going downhill, there was no mistake there, but the slope was very mild still, and the scenery wasn't much different than the forest I walked through to get from Little Whitney Meadow to the Natural Bridge. One difference I did notice was that there were much fewer wildflowers along the trail going down to the Kern. So when I did see one, I got quite excited about it, even if it was just a thistle.
Arizona Thistle, Cirsium arizonicum
As I got closer to the lip of the canyon I got more view of the other side. My eyes constantly trained on that prominent peak that towered directly to the west of the Golden Trout Creek. I was only beginning to grasp the magnitude of the Kern Canyon, and at that stage I couldn't yet see the bottom.

And then the trail dropped. The level only changed a little but all of a sudden it was all switchbacks, zigzagging down on the canyon wall.

The National Forest volunteers I had met the day before had told mer that there is a point on the trail where I could see Volcano Falls if I look back. so I kept looking back in every switchback until I saw it. It was far and the lighting was not favorable (early morning, west-facing feature). I took a short break to look at it and to snack a little.

My fascination with the Kern Canyon begun years ago at the moment I spread out my (then) newly purchased topo map of Sequoia National Park and beheld the thick line darkened by tightly close altitude contours that seemed to cut the Sierra Nevada range from the north side of Kings Canyon National Park all the way south through Sequoia NP. My imagination soared over the canyon and I yearned to go and see it in person ever since.

At that point in my life the idea of backpacking that area was an amorphic fantasy. Once I did come across that canyon way south of the park as me and my family were crossing the Sierra Nevada via the old Sherman Pass, but that too was before I even thought of going there on foot.
Last year I had a brief thought of getting there from Mineral King and I even voiced that idea when my friend and I were getting the standard talk from the park ranger before setting out to the Sawtooth Pass. It was, however, just a wishful thinking at the time. We were nowhere near even seeing the Kern, let alone reaching it.
And now ... now the Kern Canyon was below me and I was heading down to the river that had curved it.
Kern Canyon, middle fork.
A little further down and I could see the canyon's bottom. And to was wide, and green with trees and meadows. The river itself was mostly hidden and only sparkled here and there from between the trees.

I was nearing the end of my descent when I heard a sound that froze the blood in my veins, just as it had evolved to do - the sound of a rattlesnake. It didn't take me long to locate the origin of that sound: on a rock right by the trail could the beautiful and deadly reptile, eyeing me warily and rattling its tail.
My heart skipped a bit. I was still beyond its striking reach but not by much, and I knew how fast these creatures can go so I gripped my poles tightly, ready to make use of them if needed, and not for body support. I had to plan my next move carefully because there was the steep mountain slope on one side of the trail and the snake on the other. Walking on the trail would have brought me well within the snake's striking reach.
I looked around to make sure there weren't any other snakes nearby. Then I raised my camera and snapped a few shots. Then I started bypassing the trail on the slope side, climbing the rocks and around the bushes that grew there, careful to keep the snake in sight at all times and ready to use my pole if needed.
Pacific Rattlesbake
The snake stayed put, moving only its rattle and its head, also keeping me in its sight at all times. I guess it too was scared ...
I passed safely, turned around for a goodbye shot and sighed deeply. I marked the place in my memory, taking a mental note to search for the snake on my way up, although I didn't really believe it would be there still.
I made it to the canyon's bottom in a perfect timing with the sun.
Sunrise at the bottom of Kern Canyon
I wanted to get to the river right away but the trail meandered for a good half a mile through a flat, gravel area covered with small manzanita and other shrubs. Eventually the trail curved right and plunged down to the river, and as the Kern came into my view I stood there and gasped, for the sight was above and beyond what I had expected.

In my backpack was a light towel that I brought along. Not for the possibility of a Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz invasion, but in the hope of washing in the river. The Kern, however, run high and fast. It was an impressive sight to see, no doubt. But there would be no dipping in the river.
And there would have been no crossing either, if not for the metal bridge that was hanging across the water. I walked on the bridge and stopped in the middle to breath deeply and to take photos, one of which is at the top of this post now.
On the other side was a welcome sign to the Sequoia National Park. Off to the south a smaller creek plunged happily into the Kern. This was the Coyote Creek. I got off the trail and followed the Coyote Creek a little until I found a small water hole where the water was deep enough but the current mild. There I undressed and entered the water.

Almost immediately I had to exit. The water was freezing cold! I rinsed myself with lightning speed and then escaped out to the sunshine that now illuminated the entire west river bank. I would have lingered there longer but for the ants that discovered me and had me dress up in a hurry and make a fast retreat.
I did take a moment to photograph another critter that came out to sunbathe near me:

Feeling refreshed and happy, it was now time to explore. I crossed the bridge again, returning to the Golden Trout Wilderness, found a trail leading northward and begun to walk on it.

I found a lovely spot to stop for a break.
There weren't many wildflowers down by the river but I did see some blooming lilies right by the water.
Kelley's Lily, Lilium kelleyanum 
I continued on northward. My map indicated a loop trail that leads back to the Golden Trout Creek Trail. I haven't seen such a trail on my way down but it was possible I had missed it.
Then I came upon a settlement. There were a few wood cabins and some other structures. It looked like some sort of camp. There was no one there and no sign posted. I walked through and continued north on the other side.
The trail veered off from the river and soon I found myself following a narrow path that was clearly unmaintained and probably haven't been used for a while. I continued following it for as long as I could tell where it was, but then the trail disappeared altogether under vegetation and I had to stop. At that point I was standing in a small grassy meadow crowned with pines and willows. The meadow edge was already drying up but the center was very wet and muddy. I possibly could have gone on but decided not to push it, so I turned around and backtracked along the path and the camp area. When I made it back to the main trail I had came don on I noticed a sign I had missed before. it said 'Private Property' on it. So whatever trail my map had marked was not for me to hike after all.

I stayed down by the Kern until noon, which was my personal deadline for starting my way up. I had no equipment to stay there for the night and I didn't know how long it would take me to get all the way up. In light of yesterday's health crisis I had planned to take it slow and easy.
Now that the sun was right over my head and the entire canyon was brightly illuminated I got the best shots of the valley. This is how the Kern Canyon looks, view south. Note the blue, almost cloud-free sky.
Kern Canyon, view south
Same time, from the same spot, here's the view of the Kern Canyon to the north. The clouds are there, and while they didn't appear threatening yet, they were gathering.

I walked between the manzanita bushes back to the base of the ascend. I turned to say goodby to the mighty Kern and started up the mountain.
Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja sp. 
I walked slowly, trying not to push myself to much. Being good about eating someting every hour or so, I actually felt much better than yesterday. Still, I took short breaks often.
Nearing the place where I had seen the rattlesnake on my way down I slowed and searched for it. I didn't really expect to see it again, but sure enough , there it was. As I was thinking to go again on the side of the mountain to bypass the snake it suddenly slid off into the rocks on the opposite side, not rattling even once for goodbye.
Bye bye!
I waited a few seconds, then walked past that spot on the trail and continued uphill.
The grade there is quite steep, and as slow as I walked I quickly gained altitude. And with the altitude - so did my view expanded.

A racket of poultry warning calls erupted from the shrubs nearby and two large birds, sooty grouse, fluttered quickly away from me. The cock disappeared quickly behind some bushes further away but the hen flew up a pine tree. She kept calling her warning calls as she hopped from one branch to another, trying her best to stay hidden from my camera. I took many photos of that bird, and only one sort of worked.
I was fascinated with how similar her calls were to the warning calls of my own chicken when a hawk flies by.
Sooty Grouse hen
Nearing the end of the steep part of my ascend I made another discovery, and one that I really couldn't believe how I had missed on my way down. Ahead of me, at the corner of one of the switchbacks I saw a large columnars formation. This is a volcanic formation formed by slow cooling of basalt. Like the one that can be seen at the Devil's Postpile National Monument.
Volcanic columnars
Still pretty thin on wildlife relative to other places I hiked at, this trail was probably the best one for seeing them. Primarily in lizard form :-) And yes. I did stop for each lizard I've seen that day.

I also stopped again at the view point of the Volcano falls. This time I also did my best to capture a good image of it, which was pretty challenging still.
Volcano Falls
 The lighting was better now that the sun was high, but the Golden Trout Creek was still shaded . I did, however, manage to get a zoomed view of the bottom segment of the waterfall.
Bottom of Volcano Fall
On the west the clouds were gathering. The prominent mountain peak north of Coyote Creek was wearing a crown of clouds. Above me the sun was bright still, but the clouds were coming.

I went on. I finished the steep part of the ascend and the trail's slope became milder. I increased my gait. Once again I was walking in the nearly flowerless forest, but this time I noted the pretty fruit and seeds too.

Mountain Mahogany, Cercocarpus betuloides 
And if there weren't enough colorful wildflowers, the lizards did their best to compensate.

Around the curve I got a better view further north. There, towering over the canyon, was the still snow-capped what I believe to be Mount Kaweah.
One day I'll go there too.

A flower at last! Now that the sun was slowly disappearing behind clouds I was happy to see the bright red of the hummingbird trumpet.
Hummingbird Trumpet, Epilobium canum 
The Natural Bridge was close now, and I a debate with myself on whether I should stay there for another night or should I pack everything and go on until evening. I thought about this on and off all day long but the time of decision was near.
I could use the rest, I thought. I didn't want to push myself too much. Besides, the clouds were looking very serious now. There would be rain that night for sure.
The mountain west of the Kern
But it was still sunny on my side of the river, and it was still early in the afternoon, and I didn't feel tired yet. I stopped at the little tributary on the way to rest and to fill up on water. I figured I could go on at least until the Little Whitney Meadow. It wasn't too far away, and the gain of altitude was not much.

I arrived back at the Natural Bridge at 2pm, with plenty of daylight time ahead. I therefore collapsed my tent and packed everything. I also made guacamole for lunch but after two bites so nauseous that I discarded all the rest. And that was the last time I had guacamole for a long while.
At about 3pm I was all ready to go on. I replaced the battery in my GPS, hoisted my backpack, and started walking east. The clouds that were gathering on the west had crossed the Kern and were moving eastward with me.

A short distance into the trail the rain had begun. Soon I had to stop and get my raincoat and the backpack cover out. I also tucked the camera inside the backpack to protect it from the rain. I didn't care about taking anymore pictures that day. Besides, I had covered that trail segment yesterday.
By the time I made it to Little Whitney Meadow the rain had stopped. The pause in the rain was sufficient for me to find a suitable campsite (not very difficult - it was a place well used by other campers before), to set camp, and to cook dinner. The rain resumed as I sat down to eat and I finished my last spoonfuls of quinoa and miso soup under the cover of my raincoat. I quickly finished washing my dishes and tucking everything away and secure it all under covers. It wasn't dark yet when I crawled into my tent, but it wasn't a moment too soon because the rain got serious right about then.
My campsite at the Little Whitney Meadow
As I closed my eyes it struck me that I have not seen any other person that entire day. It had also occurred to me that that was the first time in my life that ha day had passed without me seeing any other human being. At all. And it felt strange.

A link to the next day's blog post


  1. Thank you for beautiful photos of trails and description. I am looking for Fly agaric mushrooms for photos. I tried some trail at Ft Rayes, Monterey and Santa Cruz. I cannot find any. Could you please advise me some trails where I can find Fly Agaric? I live near at East Bay area. Thank you

    1. Thank you Olga, I'm glad you enjoyed my blog. Fly agaric mushrooms are common in the redwood forests of Northern California. I've seen them on many trails along the coast, November-December. This is there season now. Try the redwoods in Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte Counties. There are many of them there.

  2. The canyon is very beatiful.
    The deer picture is great :-) very artistic
    The snke encounter is scary...
    Not seeing any person for a full day must feel strange.

    1. I am so happy I got to see the Kern! It really was a dream fulfilled. And the snake encounter was certainly a moment of excitement ...