Friday, August 31, 2018

Exploring the Land of Lakes

Date: July 31, 2018
Place: Dinkey Lakes Wilderness, Prather, California
Coordinates: 37.142310, -119.044124
Length: about 4 miles
Level: Strenuous

Cliff Lake is one of the many alpine lakes that dot the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness area, and one of the prettier ones. Nestled against a sheer granite cliff and surrounded by a conifer forest, it is the perfect place for a wilderness campout. Had I headed out on my trip earlier the day before that would have been the place to have spend the night at. As it was, I arrived at Cliff Lake in mid-morning, and by the time I was ready to go on it was still before noon. Rock Lake - the first lake over the Dogtooth Pass and where I had planned to spend the next night, was only a short distance away so I decided to have a little side hike to see the nearby Bullfrog Lake.
My hike from Cliff Lake to Bullfrog Lake and to Rock Lake as captured by my GPS
First I had to find the main trail which I had left to go down to Cliff Lake. I walked uphill until I met what looks like an official trail which lead uphill in the right direction. I followed it and it did connect me to the trail coming up from Nelson Creek. Now I was walking in a thin conifer forest comprised mainly of lodgepole pines with very little undergrowth and many bits of granite strewn around. The clouds too started gathering again, and I listened warily to distant sounds of thunder.
Dogtooth Peak
After a short ascend I found the trail fork leading to Bullfrog Lake. A few steps down that trail the view opened up and I could see the double summits of Dogtooth Peak. The northwestern spire did look like a canine tooth.
Dogtooth Peak
The trail to Bullfrog Lake took me downhill. At the end of the trail was a small pond size lake that has already receded enough so access to the water was only through a wide mud belt.
I did access the water - I collected a bucketful to wash a few garments, and I hanged them on my backpack to dry. All that time I thought I was alone by that lake, but as I finished washing and got all my things together again I noticed a man walking slowly on the opposite shore. I didn't think much of it, but by the time I was ready to go back up the man approached me and we had a little chat. He told me he was going to go around the slope I came down from and explore a lake that was marked on the map but had no trail leading to it. I was content with going straight uphill and over the pass to Rock Lake.
Bullfrog Lake
Unlike oak trees, pine trees of most species are very similar to one another. Most pines in the forest I was walking through were lodgepole pines and looked like clones (to me, at least). But every now and then I saw an individual pine that stood out in appearance. Like this twisted one in the photo below. I wonder what kind of saplinghood it had that had rendered it this way.
Like little gold coins - drying out jewelweed plants totted the forest floor. Undergrowth shrubs and herbs in that area were few and far between, and most of them were done blooming.

I reconnected with the main trail leading up to the Dogtooth Pass. The trail became considerably steeper and I huffed and puffed my way slowly uphill. Dogtooth Peak is the highest point in the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness, with a summit 10302' high. On another time I might have gone up there but on this trip I was going strait over the pass, which was about 9900' high. I had a good reason to hurry - heavy clouds were amassing on the southeast and the sound of thunder was closer than ever and boomed as frequently as one every 30 seconds. I sure didn't want to be caught at the highest point in the area during a lightning storm.
Another group of hikers came down the pass trail. They were in a hurry too, hoping not to get caught in what looked like an inevitable thunderstorm.
This storms, I already knew, can be a very local thing. The clouds could stay to the southeast and miss me altogether. In fact, over cliff Lake which was now way below me to the southwest, there was hardly a cloud.
Cliff Lake
I came over the pass and as soon as I started descending down the other side I could hear them: loud calls of people having lots of fun. Soon I could see them too - young people splashing in the lake.
I came down to the southern shore of Rock Lake. There, at the most perfect place for camping was a big yellow sign nailed to a tree saying, "No Camping Here".  I sighed and went all the way down to the shore where I sat to rest and to filter some water.
Rock Lake was very much like Cliff Lake, except smaller and rounder. to the west there was a large granite rock that seemed to slide into the lake. I assume that rock is what gave the lake its name. The east and north shores had a lovely belt of flat, forested ground, perfect for camping. Two large groups of youth already occupied the eastern and northern shores.
Rock Lake
I had planned to camp by Rock Lake that night but the place was too clouded to my taste. One of the reasons I chose to backpack at the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness was to avoid being in complete solitude for days as happened to me last year at the Golden Trout Wilderness trip. That said, I wasn't at all thrilled by camping too close to large groups of noisy campers. So after filling up on water I listed my backpack once more and went on northward, passing the tents on the eastern shore and skipping across the little creek where overflow water from Rock Lake would go. I forgot to turn on my GPS then so I don't have an illustration of my walk from Rock Lake to the Second Dinkey Lake.

Less than half a mile down to the northwest I came upon the Second Dinkey Lake.  It looked like a smaller version of Rock Lake. I gazed around: no tents.
Second Dinkey Lake
I came down the path and circumvented the lake. No one was camping there. I walked all the way to the northwestern shore, found a wonderful spot and claimed it for the night.
My campsite at the Second Dinkey Lake before pitching the tent
Meanwhile the clouds that amassed were blowing in my direction. I pitched my tent quickly and arranged my little campsite as best as I could. Then I sat to cook dinner, hoping to get it over with before the breaking of the storm and then ride it inside the tent.
Brewing storm

Nature, however, had other plans for me. The storm fell upon me in the middle of my cooking. Suddenly I felt hailstones coming down. I pulled my hat over my head but almost immediately the hail turned to rain. I run to hide my camera inside the tent, and as I walked back to my stove the rain ceased. Wind and thunder continued intensely for a few more minutes, but no more rain or hail came down. By the time I was done eating the storm was over and the clouds thinned and dispelled.
It was late afternoon and I was fed, my campsite all ready for the night, and I had an hour or so still of daylight. The sun was shining brightly again, as if no storm ever blew by just moments ago.
I decided I had enough time to check out another lake that was close by. I took only a bottle of water and my camera and found the trailhead leading to Island Lake.
My hike from the Second Dinkey Lake to Island Lake and back as captured by my GPS
A sign by the trailhead claimed that this trail wasn't suitable for stock. I could see why - the first part of the trail was a steep climb on a very crumbly rocky path. I was glad for not carrying a heavy backpack on that one.
The trail to Island Lake
Although light, I was already pretty tired so I walked slowly and stopped frequently to look around and to appreciate some wildflowers that I saw blooming by the trail.
Sierra Penstemon, Penstemon heterodoxus 
Island Lake was not in my hike plan for this trip but I'm glad to have hiked there - of all the lakes I've seen on my trip this was the prettiest one. Also the highest one. There might be e connection there :-) It was the only lake on that trip that reminded me of the paradise of Spring Lake from my Mineral King backpacking trip.
Island Lake
For a split second a thought crossed my mind to move my camp up there. It was already getting late, however, and the thought of packing everything again and hauling it uphill and setting up my camp from the start was too daunting. Besides, there were already people camping by Island Lake. Not many, and they were quiet, but still.
Island Lake 
I walked around a bit, exploring a little.  I liked the field of the bur reed in the eastern cove of the lake.

It was the same kind I saw at Cliff Lake, but a large patch of it.
Narrow-leaved Bur Reed, Sparganium angustifolium 
 The sun was going down fast. Up by Island Lake it was sunny still but below it was already getting dark. I started on my way down, but got sidetracked a little - off the trail was a large, mild slope of smooth granite. I left the trail and walked across that granite slope to a fantastic vista point.
Sierra Nevada - view northeast at the Mono Divide from near Island Lake. 
The shadows came over me. I hurried back to the trail and down to my campsite where, after getting ready for the night all I had to do was to sit by the lake and admire the calm reflection and the beautiful sunset.
Reflection. Second Dinkey Lake.
It's this twilight time between finishing the day's work and sleep time that I feel most lonely. With no friend to share this beautiful time with, all I can do is hearing my own thoughts rumbling inside my mind and swat as many mosquitoes as I can.
Meanwhile as the daylight was fading, the groups over at Rock Lake were just starting their evening: a guitar came out (who would carry a guitar on a backpacking trip on top of everything else they need to carry???) and they all started singing. Nice songs, but loud. Rock Lake is over a small ridge and I guess the acoustics of the basin made it so the singing sounded very close to me, although they were about half a mile away.
I had mixed feelings. I liked the singing, but it didn't seem to fit the wilderness settings that called for quiet, and I preferred to hear the nature sounds. Moreover, the sounds of merrymaking intensified my own sensation of loneliness.
Sunset at the Second Dinkey Lake
I waited for the sun to disappear below the treetops, then crawled inside my tent. The Rock Lake group kept on singing for quite some time. I don't know for how long because soon I drifted into sleep.

Many thanks to members of the Eastern Sierra & Scenic Hwy 395 group for their help in identifying vista point landmarks.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Up to the Land of Lakes

Cliff Lake, view northwest

Date: July 31, 2018
Place: Dinkey Lakes Wilderness, Prather, California
Coordinates: 37.136156, -119.017065
Length: 1.5 miles
Level: strenuous

When I was convinced that the night was over I crawled out of my tent. The air was cool and damp and fairly dark still, but I've had enough of sleepless tossing and as tired as I was, I was ready to get going.
It was the morning of my second day at the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness. I was on my own, having had a very late start the day before and having to camp for the night in the middle of nowhere.
Ot was a very beautiful middle of nowhere. As daylight grew brighter I slowed down my packing and took the time to appreciate my environment.
That I was camping close to a gorgeous field of wildflowers I already noticed last night. Now, however, I had the chance to inspect them more closely.
Orchids and associates. 
I recognized the pretty elephantshead which I have seen on other trips to the Sierra Nevada. With its pale and delicate bloom this plant blended well in the moist, gray-green meadow background.
Little Elephantshead, Pedicularis attollens ssp. attolens
But the plant that dominated the wildflower scene there, the species I first met yesterday, was the Ladies' Tresses orchid - the Spiranthes porrifolia. There were s many of these little, candle-like orchids sticking out of the grass that a it was impossible to come near for a good closeup without stepping on them. I remained in the back and used my zoom instead.
Ladies Tresses, Spiranthes porrifolia
By the time I finished packing my stuff the mosquitos were all over me. I hoisted my backpack, took a last glance at the pond I slept next to, and started back to the Nelson Creek Trail.
Hidden Lake
One of my take-home lessons from my last year's trip to the Golden Trout Wilderness was that I need to eat right in order to not get sick. Still, I could not bring myself to cook breakfast and I didn't want to sit and eat at the mosquitos-ridden Orchid Meadow, as pretty as it was. Cliff Lake didn't seem too far away on the map and I made up my mind to have a proper meal when I get there.
My Hike from Orchid Meadow to Cliff Lakes captured by my GPS
The day started gray and overcast. The sun had already risen, but illumination was very low still. The brightest spot in the area was a field of white inflorescences of hemlock or parsnip.

By the time I reconnected with the Nelson Creek Trail the clouds had dispelled and the sun broke out. I felt tired and dizzy so I stopped for a break. A packet of vitamin C (that had lots of fructose) and lots of water help a lot, and too I was up on my feet again, and moving steadily uphill.
Nelson Creek Trail
The slope continued as I left it the evening before - clear and steady uphill, but not very steep. A glimpse of color caught my eye - a bright orange quill feather. I recognized the owner right away - a northern flicker, which is common in these areas.
Northeren Flicker's feather
There were also some wildflowers along the path, although not as dense or as unique as I've seen near Hidden Lake.
Pearly Everlasting, Anaphalis margaritacea
Colorful pussypaws matted the forest floor, a welcomed sight in an otherwise mostly bare ground.
One seeded Pussypaws, Calyptridium monospermum (the leaves belong to lupine)
And then I caught a quick movement and turned in time to see a woodpecker land on a nearby tree. I photographed her just in time before she moved completely behind the tree trunk.
Black-backed Woodpecker, female
The trail neared Nelson Creek again and I heard loud barking from the creekside. There I noticed a tent and a young couple that I remembered seeing at the Prather rangers office the day before. They must have embarked on their trip before me, or otherwise passed me while I went on my Hidden Lake excursion. Either way, they too didn't make it to cliff Lake last night and had camped by the creek. The woman waved me while the man tried to hush the dog.
I moved on but stopped soon thereafter to take a photo of the lovely creekside vegetation.
Nelson Creek
After that encounter the trail became considerably steeper. I also got much hungrier but I didn't want to stop there. I wanted to get to the lake where I could get water and cook I chugged along.

The clouds returned too, and the forest became dark once again. Not many wildflowers there, only a pussypaws here and there, or dried up jewelweed. But color can come also from non-biological sources, like a granite rock with a nice pattern of oxidized metal compounds.

A group of people came down the trail. they were backpackers who spent the night at Cliff Lake and were heading out now. They assured me that the lake was very close now, and that it was really beautiful and worth the sweat. Not that I was any close to disparity but I appreciated the reassurance and my spirit was lifted by their smiles and happy chat. I also was high enough now to see the view over the treetops, and it was magnificent.

The treetops themselves were a sight worth seeing.
Silver Fir, Abies magnifica
The trail leveled and soon I reached the trail fork leading to Cliff Lake. I juvenile robin greeted me with a bold gaze as I quickened my pace towards the lake. It let me approach quite close before fleeing into the bushes.
American Robin, juvenile
The lake was to my right but the trail kept leading my north. I saw little makeshift trails leaving the main one and dropping down to the lakeshore. Seeing that the main trail was beginning to go uphill again I left it and went down one of the side trails too.
There by the lake shore I saw many a campsite, some abandoned and some that were occupied still. I stole around the hammocks and tents that were splayed along the southeastern shore and found a private cove with a nice sandy beach all to myself. There I dropped my backpack and pulled out the bear canister and my stove. It was the best breakfast ever :-)
Cliff Lake, view northeast
After filling my stomach I got up and looked around. There were wildflowers along the shore and they looked familiar to me - they were gentian flowers like those I saw on my backpacking trip to Mineral King two years before. Beautiful little plants that made me very, very happy.
Alpine Gentian, Gentiana newberryi
There were plants growing inside the water too. Rushes, mainly but also a strange-looking plant with long eaves that were floating on the water surface. I remembered these leaves too from Spring Lake where I stayed with my friend on our Mineral King trip.

I managed to approach the floating-leaves plants. They had ball-shaped inflorescences and fruit that looked very pretty. Later I was able to identify the genus but the species ID I got with the help of members of the California Native Plants Society.
Narrow-leaved Bur Reed, Sparganium angustifolium
There were other wildflowers there too - many mimulus flowers and pale purple asters, but the species that stood out most in its brilliant colors was the owl's clover, a relative of the Indian paintbrush.
Lemmon's Paintbrush, Castilleja lemmonii
After a good long break I was ready to go on. It was not even noon yet and I had no intentions to stay at Cliff Lake for the rest of that day, beautiful and inviting as it was. I wanted to get to the Dinkey Lakes area by the evening.
There was a mountain pass to go past but the distance and elevation weren't that much and I thought of checking out a small lake I saw on the map nearby - the Bullfrog Lake, before going down to Rock Lake where I had planned to spend my second night.
The exploration of Bullfrog Lake and my hike over the pass and down to the Dinkey Lakes area I will write about in the next post.

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

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Alone in the Wilderness Once More: From Courtright Reservoir to Orchid Meadow

Western Ladies'  Tresses, Spiranthes porrifolia

Date: July 30, 2018
Place: Dinkey Lakes Wilderness
Coordinates: 37.106157, -118.987088
Length: about 3 miles
Level: moderate

That time of year when I get to go an a backpacking trip was approaching fast and I had no destination set yet. As the date approached fires were ignited almost everywhere that I had in mind to go to. Eventually I settled on Dinkey Lakes Wilderness - a relatively small wilderness area northwest of Kings Canyon National Park. Last year on my solo trip to the Golden Trout Wilderness I had realized that being alone on such a trip isn't my cup of tea and I was happy to have a good friend fly over from Boston to join me on this trek.
Fate, however, had it different and on the day we were supposed to leave for the trip my friend was called urgently back home. Once again I was going on my own.
It was already 3 in the afternoon when I arrived at the Sierra National Forest rangers office in Prather. There I found out that all permits for the Willow Meadow trailhead, the main trailhead leading to the Dinkey Lakes loop, were already booked for the day. I thought I'd get a permit for the morrow but when the ranger on duty learned that I was planning to include a hike to the Courtright Reservoir in my trip he suggested I'd get a permit for the Cliff Lake trailhead and execute my plan the other way around - starting at the Courtright Reservoir. It was a good suggestion. I pulled the permit and headed up to the mountains.
From Prather to the trailhead is about 1.5 hours drive, and it was well after 5 pm when I finally hit the trail.
My hike on July 30 as captured by my GPS
I started hiking in the woods. The forest was of mainly conifers and stayed so throughout my entire trip. i didn't feel the elevation much, perhaps because of the time I had spent in Lassen Volcanic National Park the week before.
By Cliff Creek Trailhead
I was hoping t see wildflowers along the trail and soon I started seeing them. Not in large patches or carpets, but dotting the undergrowth with nice, bright colors.
Sierra Fleabane, Erigeron algidus 
The trail started sloping down and soon I was walking on a steep grade downhill. By the end of the trip I would have completely forgotten that part. At the time, though, I was trying to cover as much distance as I could in the short day time left and I welcome the fast descent.
Great Red Paintbrush, Castilleja mimiata 
At the bottom of the big drop I walked through a small area of riparian wetland (that is, mud) covered in wetland vegetation. It was all very pretty but I had to pause from appreciating it in order to lather myself with mosquito repellent.
Gray swamp Whiteheads, Sphenosciadium capitellatum 
Two boardwalks crossed the wetland are. The white, cloud-like flowers by the trail side are small inflorescences of  the Apiaceae family of a species I was unable to identify. Their beauty came mostly in high numbers, creating pretty carpets.

I went on through the woods at a fast pace, stopping only briefly for quick snapshots of wildflowers.
Pretty Face, Triteleia ixiodes
The trees opened up at as I turned around the corner where Nelson Creek spills into the Courtright Reservoir. The reservoir was low and has been for some time, if to judge by the vegetation that grew in the exposed area. I took a few moments and stepped off the trail to look at the reservoir more closely. I munched on the apple I took with me - the last fresh fruit I'd have on the trip, and gazed at the calm water and the overcast sky. The exposed granite peaks were beautiful but gloomy. Suddenly I felt very lonely. I hoisted my backpack and moved on, putting that feeling away.
Courtright Reservoir
Soon i came upon Nelson Creek. There wasn't much water there, just a few water holes between the rocks, calm enough to show a nice reflection.
Nelson Creek
Across the creek the trail continued fairly level. I run into a group of day hikers that were returning from Cliff Lake. They nodded to me as the passed by, one by one. They were the last people I saw that day.
Bolete mushroom
I renewed my quick pace. The sky was already darkening. Not sunset quite yet, but the clouds were moving in. Not rain clouds, but enough to dim the light. Many of my photos from that time turned blurry, but some did come out nice.
Shootingstar, Primula sp. 
I followed the trail through forest and meadows. Every now and then I got close enough to the creek to see that it was dry. That worried me because I already knew that I won't make it all the way to Cliff Lake by nightfall and I was planning to camp by the creek. Now I had to rethink that plan, because I wanted access to water.

 I came upon another wet area. A smaller one, so no boardwalk this time, but signs were (deep, dried foot prints) that it was muddy not long ago. On the side of the trail grew a few bog-loving wildflowers and one of them caused my heart to skip a beat. There, near the trail, orchids were blooming, and they didn't look like the common bog orchids that I was used to seeing at mountain wetland areas. I dropped my backpack and knelt down. Illumination was bad but I took many photos and some turned out ok. That was an orchid species that I have never seen blooming before and I was very excited. 
Western Ladies'  Tresses, Spiranthes porrifolia

Then I noticed the sun on the horizon, peeking through the boughs. The sun was setting. Soon It will be dark. I quickened my pace.

All of a sudden the trail got steeper. My pace slowed down accordingly. I paused momentarily to look at a pretty mushroom and more importantly - to consult my map. Nelson Creek along which i was walking was nearly dry, and the few water holes I saw were small and murky. Up ahead, however, was a trail branching off to Helm's Meadow. According to the map there was a small lake near the trail, approximately 1/4 of a mile in. I decided to go there, hoping that the lake would not be dry.

I came upon the intersection and turned northeast. The trees were smaller and the ground was damp. Clouds of mosquitoes buzzed around me and despite the deet I had on I was being bit.

At least the wildflowers were a good distraction from the incessant buzzing.
Bigelow's Sneezeweed, Helenium bigelovii 
The sun was already below the horizon when I made it to the little lake. I was happy to see that it was still holding plenty of water. I was less happy to find out that it was surrounded by a wide belt of soft, deep mud.
This little lake has no name on the map
I found a place to pitch my tent where it would be least disruptive to the pretty vegetation that surrounded the lake. Then I walked around until I found a place with enough rocks that I could hop on to get to the water without sinking in the mud and I filled my containers.

I pitched my tent. Not feeling like cooking anything I ate a cold dinner, filtered the water I collected and took some more time to look around in the fading light. Now that I was all set for the night I finally noticed that the field between my tent and the belt of rashes that surrounded the lake was full of little, white wildflowers and that many of them were orchids - the same Spiranthes porrifolia that I had seen earlier near the trail. A whole field of them! Of course there was no more daylight good enough to photograph them. that would have to wait for the morrow. The meadow, like the lake had no name on the map. I named it for my self and for this post the Orchid Meadow.
There was enough light still to photograph the nice reflection in the lake.

The trees were completely dark. The clouds that covered the sky earlier were breaking up and the few that stuck around glowed in the last light of the day.

Everything around me darkened. I organized my stuff, brushed my teeth, and crawled inside my tent. I swatted the few mosquitoes that made it in with me, but couldn't do much about the hoards of the outside ones that continued to buzz around the tent all night long. Little frogs jumped on the rain fly, their little shadowy figures dark against the faint luminescence of the cloth. A few times I thought I heard a large animal making its way through the forest. I tossed and turned, sleepless throughout most of the night.