Friday, July 22, 2016

A Challenging Anticlimax: From Franklin Lake to Mineral King

Date: August 22, 2015
Place: Mineral King, Sequoia National Park, Three Rivers, California.
Coordinates: 36.422040, -118.562655
Length: 5 miles
Level: Strenuous

We woke up at the crack of dawn. I was in not hurry to leave the sack but my chika was up and ready to get out. She wanted to go back to the lake.
It was our third day backpacking in the Mineral King area. It took us 2 days to backpack up a strenuous 5 miles trail to Franklin Lake and this was the morning of what would be our final day of this trip.
The crack of dawn
The sun rays were slowly sliding down the western slopes. To the northwest I could see the dense smoke filling the valley we hiked up from, a reminder of the Rough Fire raging at Kings Canyon National Park, only 30 miles away. Where we were, at least, the air was clear enough to breath without choking.

We started with going to the creek to wash up. The weather wasn't nearly as cold as was forecast. The creek water, was very chilly, however. And very refreshing too. As we cleansed ourselves and filled our bottles the sunlight was coming down to meet us.

Franklin Creek
There were little alpine wildflowers between the rocks and the shrubs. I saw them the evening before, but now I had the time and lighting to take some photos.
Little Elephant Head (Pedicularis attollens)
There were quite a few flowers there that I saw for the first time up there, near Franklin Creek, at 11,000 feet. It was easy to forget the goals of the day and just enjoy the High Sierra beauty that surrounded us.
Bog Laurel (Kalmia polifolia)
Some were of familiar genera I knew from the lower elevations. It was splendid to see their alpine relatives up in the High Sierra.
Alpine Shootingstar (Primula tetrandra)

My chika, however, was goal-driven. So after a quick oatmeal and tea breakfast she grabbed her fishing rod and we went up to the lake. I had improvised a sinker from an old, rusty nail I found at the campsite and it worked just fine. My chika was successful this time too, and within seconds she caught herself a breakfast amendment in the shape of an orange-bellied trout. This time she had no qualms about killing and consuming it. (I had to make true of my promise and fix it for her. I made a promise to myself that before next time I'm make sure she knows how to do it all by herself). The bright side of this experience was that she was thoroughly satisfied with that one fish and didn't wish to get any more.
Now that my chika was satisfied, all she wanted was to go back home and tell her older sister who stayed behind that she had caught a fish. There was no talking her into staying another night at this place, let alone continue on further. Since I also promised her in the beginning that we would go back whenever she wanted, I resigned into breaking our little camp and repacking everything.
Our way down from Franklin Lake to Mineral King as captured by my GPS
I looked with longing at Tulare Peak. It didn't look all that high above where we were. This trip, however, it would remain unattainable. I finished packing, spot-checked our vacated campsite, and then we hoisted our backpacks.
So Close: Tulare Peak
It was about 11:00 am when were all ready to go. A few steps down the trail we stopped short: a small squirrel was running around, gathering dry vegetation. Was it squirrel nesting season?

After taking the time to admire the squirrel properly we were on our way in earnest.

We started off with a good pace, and quickly descended to the small meadow vale where we had stopped for lunch on the day before. The valley below was filled with smoke, and we were heading down that way.

Our trail down was the same one we came up.
I have taken the opportunity of this third day blog post to add some flowers that didn't make the cut for the previous posts. Their photos were better on the way back :-)
Lupine (Lupinus sp.)
We hiked down without stopping almost the entire distance we hiked up on the second day. And it was easier to breath with each step despite our descent into the smoke.
We were also coming back into the woods.

Before long we were at the intersection of trails again, looking down on the hill behind which we had camped on the first night. It was there we took our first break.

From the trail intersection down to the meadow of our first night camp it is a narrow, slippery path. On the hike up I had to hold my chika's hand there. This time she went down on her own, albeit very carefully. This time I took more notice of the geology wherever it was free of the vegetation cover.

We made it to our first night's campsite and sat down for another break. My chika wanted to have soup for lunch but I didn't want to waste time and energy climbing down to get water from the trickle of the Franklin Creek tributary so I offered her a snack and promised her soup at the first creek crossing. She was fine with that.
Long-lived Hawk's Beard (Crepis acuminate)
Munching away, she pointed at the slope above. I saw what she was pointing at and raised my camera. The deer was far, but wary. After only a couple of clicks she hopped away and disappeared from our sight.

Perhaps I should have taken the time to fetch the water and cook soup. After the first break there were more breaks to follow, and they became frequent. It seems that after the first big effort to get down from the lake my chika had hit her energy ceiling. All of a sudden her backpack needed frequent adjusting, her pants needed to be pulled up, the straps needed to be tightened or released with every step, and then, of course, little stones crept into her shoes.

Our original plan had another day for the trip and I offered my chika to finish the hike and remain for the night where we had camped on our first night, but she declined my offer. She wanted to go all the way down today. Moreover, she wanted to make it all the way home that night.
I sighed. Getting down to Mineral King was one thing, but getting all the way home meant hours of driving for me. I was not sure I could do it. I certainly didn't want it. I agreed that we hike down to Mineral King, but informed my chika that we will stay the night there and drive home on the morrow.
Giant Blazingstar (Mentzelia gracilenta)
We continued down at a much slower pace. My chika was leading, leaning heavily on her hiking poles, and I followed her, trying not to get to close or appear pushy in any way. I took the chance to take better shots of wildflowers that came out too blurry when we were hiking up two days before.
It was Saturday, and a good day to begin a backpacking trip. On our way down we crossed paths with many backpackers that were heading up to the Farewell Gap or Franklin Lakes. Some asked me how it was up there. Many raised their eyebrows at my chika. One approached us and congratulated my child, calling her 'Tough Cookie". My chika was too tired to react much but she understood that it was a compliment. On the way down, however, she kept asking what 'tough cookie' meant and why was it considered a compliment. She wondered how come going up a mountain was considered an achievement. I tried to explain but it really isn't a concept easy to put in words. It has to be felt through to the core.

Once again we were on the switchnbacking part of the trail, this time going down the serpentine. Although we didn't stop this time at every turn, we did go very slow.
Horsemint Giant Hyssop (Agastache urticifolia)
As we descended into the valley the air became murkier with smoke. It clouded all of my wide shots. My flower close-ups, however, remained clear.
Naked Buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum)
We kept moving, slowly approaching the creek crossing. We could hear the cascading water and even catch glimpses of it with every turn. Soon, also, the switchbacks ended and we walked a straight stretch of trail that took us to the water.
Perennial Grass (Stipa sp.)
We stopped by the water and dropped our packs to the ground. My chika went to play by the creek and I pulled out the little stove and started boiling water.

The surrounding rocks didn't look like granite to me. They had an almost marble quality to them, but I'm not sure what they were. They were very colorful, though.

And these rocks were endowed with mountain California fuchsia that had bunches of bright, happy red flowers.
Mountain California Fuchsia (Epilobium canum ssp. latifolium)
I took the time while the water heated up to admire the scenery and the other flowers I saw there. When the water finally boiled I mixed in the instant miso soup powder and we both sat for humble lunch. We had plenty of food left in my backpack - a combination of having planned for an extra day and overestimating our appetite. I was eager to transfer some of that weight from my back to our stomachs. My chika, however, didn't have much of an appetite. She ate the soup and snacked a bit on some other stuff but all in all didn't eat much. She wanted to move on.
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja affinis)
And so we did. We crossed the creek and continued down to the smoky valley.

Despite the long break we had our pace was very slow. My chika walked in short, almost hesitant steps. She also kept complaining that her pack was too heavy. While it wasn't any heavier than when we began, it didn't get any lighter as mine had, because I was the one carrying all the food to begin with. I, too, felt weighed down by my pack but I did stop and took some of my girl's backpack contents and transferred them to mine.
Common Phacelia (Phacelia distans)
After a long hour we came upon the last creek crossing and sat down again. My chika was worn out and asked if we could stay where we were for the night. But that was the no camping zone and I thought  she could pull through the last mile and a bit that we had to go (downhill) to Mineral King. To encourage her I said that if we'd made it down by 5 pm I would drive us down to Three Rivers and take her to the restaurant where we dined on the evening of our arrival and she could have their chocolate cake again.

My chika accepted the deal. I helped her hoist her backpack and we continued on.
Redding Buckwheat (Eriogonum spergulinum var. reddingianum)
We didn't get very far when I noticed that my chika was zigzagging, almost stumbling. I realized with a start that she really didn't eat much since breakfast. She didn't have the appetite and I don't normally push food on my daughters but this time I had her sit and consume a pack of dried fruit snack. And that sugar boost was exactly what she needed. After we were back on our feet she continued walking without other problems, even if slow.
Tough Cookie
We were back down in the valley, the Mineral King area. The air didn't seem all that smoky but the odor was still there.
Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)
Now, on the final stretch of the hike, I took the time and we walked down to the water and rested for a few minutes. It was clear that we won't make it back by 5, but we wouldn't be too late and I meant to drive down to Three Rivers anyway. My little girl had earned her chocolate cake.

We made it back to the car and my chika slammed on the hood. I helped her remove her backpack, take off her shoes and had her sit inside while I got our stuff arranged in the trunk, changed to sandals (whoa, what a relief!) and had a short, cheerful chat with a park ranger who happened by. She also updated me that the Rough Fire was still going on. Not only it was not yet out, but it was nowhere near getting under control.

And then we drove away. I was sure my chika will crash into sleep but she remained awake, watching the giant sequoia appear and disappear and the road winding endlessly downward to the Central Valley. We stopped only once - for a big tarantula that was crossing the road.
Black Tarantula

We made it in time to that restaurant in Three Rivers and my chika got the chocolate cake she desired. I, on the other hand, didn't have much of an appetite. I called Papa Quail and updated him of our earlier than planned departure from the wilderness. I wasn't all that thrilled about driving all the way back home that night and Papa Quail agreed that we should check into a hotel for the night. But then I started driving, my chika fell asleep almost immediately, and I was gliding smoothly on Hwy 99 due north, and couldn't bring myself to stop. After spending time in the wilderness, even if only three days, it didn't feel right to check into a hotel. Yes, we needed a shower, but I preferred the one at my home. Despite the long day we've had, I was now wide awake. It was only when I approached the Bay Area, about 5 hours later that I begun to feel sleepy, and then, of course it was pointless to stop, so we made it all the way back home that night, much to Papa Quail's surprise.

Afterthought 1. On hindsight it was an unsuitable trail for my 8yo child. It had cost us the fourth planned day of the trip. She was pushed to her limit and a bit beyond it. On the other hand, she rose to the challenge and more, and her memories of this trip are happy ones. She does want to go back there again, 'when I'm older,' that's how she put it. Most importantly, this trip had put her ahead of her older sister in several ways. It was a big thing for her, because most of the time she feels overshadowed by her sister. It was a big boost to her confidence.

Afterthought 2. Last summer it seemed that everywhere we went, a large wildfire was developing nearby. This was the third time it happened: the Rough Fire that broke near Kings Canyon National Park blew out of control and raged for over three months, burning over 150000 acres and forcing the park's closure. A few months later I visited the area with a friend and we hiked to the edge of the fire, observing the sad remains.

Afterthought 3. This trip was a milestone for me too. It was the first time I went out to the wilderness being the only adult there, bearing the full responsibility. Having gone through that, planning and carrying out the next backpacking trip for my entire family was a nearly smooth ride.

The mountains still beckon me. It won't be long now.

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants!


  1. That was a very challenging hike.
    Your chicka is indeed a tough coockie and so are you :-)