Saturday, January 24, 2015

Into the Wild with My Child: Backpacking in the Caribou Wilderness

Date: August 4-7
Place: Caribou Wilderness, Lassen National Forest, Chester, California
Coordinates (of Cone Lake Trailhead): 40.551161, -121.204472
Length: From the trailhead to Triangle Lake: 2 miles.
Around Triangle Lake: about 2 miles.
Difficulty: easy

After enrolling my elder chika to the annual summer 4H camp last spring I turned to console my younger one, who was too young to go to that camp. I promised her a special camping trip, just her and me, during that week. Shortly after that I received an invitation from good friends to join them in a backpacking trip to Caribou Wilderness in August, at the same time exactly as the 4H camp. Our friends, a family of 5 with twins a year older than my little chika, love going on long wilderness backpacking trips and have ample experience doing so with their children. It was with them that I took my elder chika on her first backpacking trip to Point Reyes; they were the perfect companions for my little chika's first backpacking trip. All of a sudden, my young chika got very excited about going backpacking :-)

Our friends had planned to be at Caribou Wilderness for 10 days, and we were to join them for two nights. I got my chika a new backpack that she took on 'practice hikes' throughout the house. We made a list of items to take, replaced 80% of them, packed and repacked and weighed the pack again and again.
August arrived. We packed everything for the final time, said goodbye to Papa Quail, dropped the elder chika at her camp's meeting place and hit the road. Just little chika and me.

Our friends were already 4 days in the wilderness when we arrived at the place. They were waiting for us at the north shore of Triangle Lake, at the north part of the Wilderness area. We started out at the Caribou Lake trailhead, about 4.5 miles from there, hoping to have a nice day's hike before joining our friends.
Caribou Lake
The trail goes up and around the north shore of Caribou Lake. We went down to the lake shore, close to the water.
Vivid evidence of the state-wide drought there too.
The dry edge of Caribou Lake
Little tree frog had a long way to hop from the woods to the water. My chika spotted it and pointed it out to me.
Tree Frog (Sierran or Pacific)
Caribou Wilderness is a good place to initiate children into backpacking. It is a mostly flat area, strewn with little lakes and ponds, the larger ones offer good swimming, and pretty woods rich with interesting wildlife, that also provide privacy from other backpackers or day hikers that may be in the area. It is also fairly close to main roads from three directions, which allows for a relatively quick departure if needed. The trails are well marked and easy to navigate.
Douglas' Spiraea (Spiraea douglasii), near Caribou Lake
That said, we spend a good two hours trying to find the main trail because I made the mistake of trying to short-cut through the woods. That is a bad idea at any time, let alone in a new place and in the company of a child.
We saw some lovely ponds and beautiful flowers during that walk but eventually had to go back to the trailhead. At that point it would have been too late to get to Triangle Lake along the originally planned path. I was ready to go and check into a local hotel and try again tomorrow but the chika insisted on meeting our friends that evening, as I promised her. As tired as she was already, she wasn't ready to quit. So we got in the car and drove north to the Cone Lake trailhead and with renewed energies we set out on the 2-miles hike to the meeting point at Triangle Lake.
The north shore of Triangle Lake

The forecast predicted on and off rain throughout the time period we planned to be there. On a whim I bought an extra tarp in Chester. Added weight, yes, but it proved very useful at the campsite.
The clouds were already gathering as we walked to Triangle Lake. My chika was getting really tired; she has been walking with a heavy pack nearly all day now. When we met our friends at the trail's intersection she was too exhausted to celebrate. They quickly relieved her from the pack and we made the final yards together to the campsite, where we had a nice dinner together and I pitched my tent next to theirs.
Our campsite by Triangle Lake
The rain started that night in the form of a light drizzle. I was glad I got the tarp because I soon found out that my 2-person tent wasn't water-tight. Still, it didn't stop us from having a good night sleep. In the morning

The drizzle continued on and off throughout the next day. The morning started with a lot of kids play, and me going on a solo hike around Triangle Lake. Later that afternoon we took a hike into Lassen Volcanic National Park. Despite the rain (the weather wasn't really cold), we had a very good time. My chika was in an excellent mood: she loved playing with her friends and enjoyed to the fullest that for once, she did not have to compete on her with her sister for her friends' attention. (They did compete for hers, but I left that issue to their parents to deal with ... ).

On the morrow, it was clear that we would stay for a third night. My chika wouldn't hear about going back a second earlier than necessary. It was also clear that I needed to get to my car and get more supplies for that extra time. I thought at first to leave the chika with our friends and make the supplies run quickly by myself but they all wanted to join me; it was a trail they hadn't hiked yet.
The hike from Cone Lake trailhead to the Campsite at Triangle Lake as captured by my GPS unit.
The day started with a perfect weather. It was sunny and warm and everyone was cheerful. We hiked north, the children coming up with word games and riddles, and playfully knocking off the droplets that were still hanging from the trees along the trail.
A once lake on its way to become a meadow
We passed a couple of ponds along the way. These ponds are prevalent in that area. Before long we felt their effect on us in the form of mosquito clouds. If there's one thing you don't want to be cheep about when going to that area it is an effective mosquito repellant.
And there were lovely flowers along the way as well. I often stopped to appreciate them, than had to run to catch up with the others.
Scarlet Gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata)
Funny thing about the trailhead where I parked at was, I didn't remember seeing any lake there. Cone, or otherwise. At the time I parked there I was too concerned about getting on time to Triangle Lake so I didn't dwell on that question.
When we arrived there on our supplies run, however, I looked around for Cone Lake, and again, saw no lake. Then it occurred to me: it was that sunken meadow near the parking lot. That was Cone Lake. A while ago, when it had water.
Cone 'Lake'
It is a natural progression of things: mountain creeks become clogged with rocks, fallen logs, beaver dams and flood-carried debris. It becomes a lake. In flat woodlands, the ponds are formed by snow that melted and the water didn't drain anywhere. Either way, once a lake is there, silt and debris continue to sediment at the bottom, and the lake becomes shallower and shallower, until plants overgrow it and it is transformed into a meadow.
And prolonged drought can surely hasten things in that direction. That nice meadow that used to be Cone Lake turned out to be a very nice lunch picnic place and then a children's playground. While the young ones were reenacting Jedi fights with sticks I was looking for flowers. And I did find a few tiny flowers. So tiny they proved a real challenge to photograph.
Buttercup (Ranunculus sp. )
We spent a long hour at Cone Lake meadow. Then we deposited our trash in my car and I restocked my backpack with supplies for one more day, and we headed back to our campsite.
Saplings sprout from the root crown of a fallen pine tree
We arrived at the campsite in the nick of time: the sun had once again disappeared behind clouds. Soon it begun to drizzle. Our friends went into their tent to play cards and invited us to join them. My chika vanished inside their tent and I got busy preparing my tent for the incoming rain.
The rain intensified. I could hear thunder in the distance. Eventually gave up on being the brave wilderness person whom nothing bothers and I joined everyone inside my friends' tent.
It was my first time in their tent and I was astounded. It is a four-person tent, too low for anyone to stand upright (except for their 4 yo toddler). Not only did our friends slept regularly five persons in that tent (okay, three of them children), but here we were, seven people sitting relatively comfortably amidst all the sleeping gear, with room in the middle for the card game! That tent must have been made in Gallifrey, otherwise I cannot explain how it was bigger on the inside. It was blue, too.

The thunder grew closer and closer and the children got very excited, on the verge of panic.
The rain became a downpour. Five minutes into the storm little stones were knocking everywhere: it was hailing too. Thunder boomed very close and each time my chika squeezed against me, as if I could have done anything should the lightning have struck us. I hugged her and kept reassuring her that lightnings like water and tall trees and would not go for the tent, but my heart was racing too.
Little rivulets began flowing about the tent and one of our friend braved the storm and went outside to dig moats around the tent to divert the flood. When he entered the tent again he was soaked and shivering, but the tent itself remained dry.

It didn't last very long. After less than an hour the storm subsided and the sky cleared. We got out and I went to check my tent. The sun came out, and that was very lucky because I could drag our sleeping bags and mattresses out of the pool inside my tent and spread them on the rocks to dry out.

When evening came my chika started falling into a bad mood. She knew we wouldn't be able to extend our stay any longer than the morrow.
As clouds started gathering again, I spent the rest of the evening digging moats around my own tent, preparing for the night's showers. I, too, didn't want to leave.
The rain, however, didn't return. It was still dark when I woke up. I got out of the tent and into the chill of the pre-dawn morning. Everything was quiet, without even a bird call. Sheets of mist floated over the lake and the water was so tranquil there weren't even ripples on the surface. I went back to the tent to fetch my camera.
Triangle Lake at pre-dawn
In a sense, that was a mistake. I could have enjoyed the quiet sunrise all by myself; it has been so long since I've seen the sunrise like that and I sorely missed the spiritual awakening it used to stir in me. But while I was getting my camera the little chika woke up, so I invited her to come with me and witness the sunrise. I wanted to share that precious time with her.
Rock reflection, Triangle Lake at pre-dawn. 
My chika could've chosen to stay in the sack but she did get out of the tent, and she was in a very dark mood. Sadly, the scenery's beauty and tranquility didn't get to her at all.
Dawn Breaking at Triangle Lake
Soon she became too loud so I had to pull her away further away from the tents so she won't wake our friends.  At that point she started complaining that she was cold, so I went back to the tent, pulled her sleeping bag out and wrapped her with it.
First ray of sun peeping through the trees
The sunrise was a perfect one. The early rays were moving through the trees, playing in the shifting mist, and giving the overall appearance of the new day's ignition. Like tree-top fire, only quiet, smokeless, and benign.
Dawn Fairies Dancing
At that point I was beginning to lose my patience with my chika. I wanted too enjoy my sunrise and her constant whine was getting on my nerves. I tried filming this majestic sunrise, but the audio of that clip makes it unsuitable to post here.
And then, unhindered by us, petty little humans, the sun showed up.
Good Morning Starshine!  
Our friends woke up and the chika's mood improved on the spot. The morning was sunny and beautiful. For the first time since we came there, the weather was warm enough to get in the water, and after breakfast the children took full advantage of that and went playing in the lake.
I spread my gear over the rocks once more to get the last of the moisture out before packing everything. Our friends were breaking camp too - they wanted to move on to a different lake that day.
Triangle Lake
When the children were done with the water they turned their imagination onto other things. I am amazed at where their minds take them when no electronics are available. Out in Nature, combined rocks and sticks and unlimited imagination and a Space City comes to life with space crafts, aliens and of course, Jedi warriors.
Space City
Eventually is was time to leave. We had a nice late lunch together, then everyone hoisted their backpacks. We said our goodbyes and were on our way: our friends to the next lake where they would spend three more days of wilderness immersion, an my chika and me back to Cone Lake trailhead. Despite the lighter packs it was much harder going back. My chika wasn't motivated to hike any more. She kept complaining she was tired and insisted on frequent rest stop.
One last look at that weird looking tree along the way, one last shake of droplets from a hanging branch. Last farewell to the meadow and we were off on our long way home.

I learned a few valuable lessons on this trip, the most important of which was that a successful trip depends, us much as on good, weather-suitable equipment, also very much on the happiness of the participating children. Having their friends along is the best way to keep a child happy/ Also it is very important to involve children in the planning of the trip, particularly in planning the menu. And relaxing the normally tight sweets policy can go along way when you're out in the wilderness with a child.

And another take-home message from that trip was that three days is simply not enough. It is barely enough


  1. Amazing backpacking trip Mamma bonding with nature, Sunrise, sunset, so nice.. your pictures from that morning are inspiring, and you can mix nature sounds into the videos

    1. Thank you! I still need to learn how to edit video clips. In any case, I want to keep the original audio of my sunrise clip. It is a memoir not only of the sunrise but also of my child's experience :-)

  2. seems as a very interesting experience, even though not all positive...

    The mist and sunrise pictures are beautiful!

    1. Thank you! It is a very beautiful place. Most visitors to the area go to Lassen Volcanic NP (with good reasons, too) and leave the wilderness wild, as it should be.

  3. you are amazing. going backpacking like this... spending the rain in the tent, and then having to dry all your staff?! I admire you for your coolness and bravery.
    the sunrise pictures are wonderful!
    and as for the clip - in the WIN8 movie maker, you can add the clip you took, remove its sound, and add another one, maybe Cat Stevens' Morning has Broken?

    1. Thank you, my friend! Trust me, I didn't feel brave at the time or at any other time during that trip. It wasn't really a problem, just a bit of discomfort. The entire experience was great, I wouldn't have changed anything. Not even the soundtrack of my sunrise clip :-)