Friday, April 30, 2021

2020 Emigrant Escape Day 2: From Lower Relief Meadow to Deer Lake

Long Lake  
Date: August 4, 2020
Place: Emigrant Wilderness
Coordinates: 38.241695, -119.762826
Length: 10.5 miles
Level: strenuous 

I didn't sleep well that night. It's not unusual - I usually don't sleep all that great on the first night of a backpacking trip. That night however, I was also concerned about our water situation. We had come to our campsite last night with only little water left and the creek I relied upon was dry. I had no way to know when we would encounter water next. I knew where There were creeks and ponds marked on the map, but now I worried that they might be dry. So at the break of dawn I got up, took the filter and all of our empty containers and started back the trail we had come upon, intending to fill up on the last point we had seen a flowing creek, about a mile away.
Sunrise at the Lower Relief Meadow

About less than half a mile however, I thought I heard the familiar sound of flowing water. It came from all the way across the meadow.Immediately I made my way there and to my great relief I found that the creek was still flowing there. It was a meager trickle, but fresh water nonetheless. I rinsed my face with the fresh, cool water, then I sat down to fill up and filter.

The peak above our campsite at Lower Relief Meadow

By the time I finished filling up all our containers (I was glad I remembered to bring a bag to carry them all) The sun was up all the way and I could see well the area we had spend the night at. I was very much surprised to see cattle - a single cow and her almost grown calf. I had no idea there was cattle grazing in that area of the wilderness! Most of the cow droppings I saw seemed old and there were only those two cows around. When they saw me coming they darted off and hid in the willows. I wondered if the mother cow hid away with her baby while the rest of the herd was gathered and moved away. I also wondered whether they could survive the winter up in the mountains. I was also grateful that our little tent wasn't trampled by cattle during the night ...

Cows at the Lower Relief Meadow

I returned to the campsite and found my friend was already out and about and had all of the tent's content already packed and ready to go. We had breakfast and finished breaking camp, and `in a short time we were ready to get on our way. 

Our destination for the day was Deer Lake. the map showed a number of other lakes and little ponds on the way there and I had hoped to stop at at least one of them on the way. 

Our hike from Lower Relief Meadow to Long Lake, as Captured by my GPS

The first part of our walk was uphill. From a rock ledge that the trail led us to we could gaze down to a deep valley east of us. We couldn't see much though because the morning sun glared into our eyes.  

We knew there would be more people on this trail. Covid-19 had left very few option for safe recreation and backpackers who would otherwise go to places like Yosemite or Kings Canyon were funneled, just as we were, to less restrictive wilderness areas. 

It wasn't long before we encountered the first hiker of that day. It was the last day of his trip, he told us. He had spent the night at the Upper Relief meadow and was now on his way down and out. I asked him about water and he told us to expect a small creek soon, and some really muddy ponds later, and that's about it, until the lakes we were headed too. We thanked the fellow backpacker and continued up the trail. 

The creek was exactly where we were told it would be. We followed the fellow's advice and sat down to fill up all of our containers, whch didn't take long, since we were still at the beginning of our day. 

i was also thrilled to see the first creek side  wildflower of the day - the very pretty Lewis' monkeyflower.

Lewis' Monkeyflower, Erythranthe lewisii

Continuing uphill, we climbed a trail segment with stairs, having to avoid piles of horse droppings every now and then. The rocks flanking the stairway were prettily decorated with low groundsel shrubs in bloom.
Stairway to Heaven

I took it slow going up the stairs, enjoying the view and the nice bright morning colors. 
Fremont's Groundsel, Senecio fremontii

As the trail leveled we heard the thumping of hooves behind us. Before long a convoy of horse riders was passing us, leaving behind a cloud of dust and a couple of freshly deposited mounds. 

As the day warmed up the insects started filling the air. Colorful butterflies were checking out the summer blossoms. Still cool enough, the butterflies paused for long enough breaks, giving me a chance to take photos. 

We begun descending again toward where the Upper Relief Meadow was marked on the map. It was a mild slope, and we took it slowly, chatting and enjoying each step. 

The final access to Upper Relief Meadow was actually on a bit of an incline. I came up forest and as I stepped out of the woods I stood still and gasped: the entire meadow was aflame with bloom!
Into Upper Relief Meadow

We took our time entering this marvelous meadow. I waited for my friend to catch up with me, then we sat down on a log near the trail to rest and snack a bit. As my friend continued sharing her thoughts about her life I inspected the nearby flowers while listening to her. 
Fleabane, Erigeron sp. 

As expected, there were many insects about as well, most of them busy pollinating the multitude of flowers. 
Grayswamp Whiteheads, Angelica capitellata

It was then that I noticed that there were no mosquitos whatsoever in that meadow. A great improvement over our trip to Yosemite on the previous summer, where we were eaten alive during the entire trip without letup except when inside the tent. 
Little Elephantshead, Pedicularis attolens ssp. attolens  

The backpacker that we met earlier that morning who claimed to have stayed the night at the Upper Relief Meadow, had told us that there was no water there. I was therefore surprised to see at the far end of the meadow the sheen of lake water. I wondered how that fellow had missed it. Perhaps he arrived at dusk and didn't see that lake? 
Upper Relief Meadow

There was plenty of water in the little lake of Upper Relief Meadow. It pooled to the north where the narrow band of blue water disappeared between the rocky banks of the Relief Creek. 
Relief Creek

The broad view photos don't show it well but the meadow wildflowers were at peak bloom. The richness of shapes, colors and hues, was mind-blowing.  I was exhilarated. 
Dwarf Larkspur, Delphinium depauperatum 

We got up to continue our hike. I find that I'm slow to start walking after a break, so when I hike by myself I take much fewer breaks. 
My friend didn't mind the slow pace, and I took my time getting a closer view of the wildflowers. 
Cinquefoil, Potentilla sp.

We had plenty of water still so we didn't cross the meadow to the lake but continued on the trail. We trekked along the narrow, level path at an easy pace. 
Great Red Paintbrush, Castilleja miniata

It was getting warmer and brighter. It wasn't quite mid day yet, a bit too early for lunch. I wanted to get to one of the lakes marked on the maps a little off our path to Deer Lake, and I started dripping my thoughts to my friend little by little, trying to sway her mind to the idea of adding a small side trip to our walk today. 

The trail skirted the meadow for some distance, then took a turn southeast cutting through the vegetation. All the way across we walked through a blue sea of lupines. 

Although the lupines dominated the wildflowers scene, many other floral colors added to the natural quilt of bloom. 
Lemmon's Paintbrush, Castilleja lemmonii  
Cushions of paintbrush dotted the blue sea of lupine in a vibrant contrast. 
Great Red Paintbrush, Castilleja miniata (in red), and Lupine, Lupinus (in blue) 
Like a flowers fairy I glided along the trail, oblivious to the weight of the backpack, my spirit expanding to fill the meadow all around.

As the day grow warmer, more butterflies swirled in the air, making touch and go visits to the flowers. Every now and then one of them would pause long enough for me to snap a quick photo. 

We reached the end of the meadow. Not quite inside the woods yet, different flowers now decorated the drier earth away from the creek. 
Pussypaws, Calyptridium sp.

Not just flowers bloomed there. Here and there we saw mushrooms, blooming in clumps in between the green vegetation. I didn't recognize any of the mushrooms. 

We left the Upper Relief Meadow behind us and entered the woods. It wasn't a thick forest though. The trees, pines mostly, were small, stunted-looking, and there was plenty of space between them. Certainly enough space to let plenty of sunshine through, supporting a nice forest undergrowth.

Along this trail we encountered some of the muddy ponds that the backpacker we saw in the morning had told us about. He had said that he wouldn't have used that water unless in dire need. I was glad that we didn't need to use that water either. It looked very scuzzy.
Forest pond

The plants growing by the ponds didn't mind the dirt at all. Nice heather and meadowsweet bushes were blooming in soft pink circles near the receding water edge.
Rose Meadowsweet, Spiraea splensens 

When we reached the creek however, it was bone dry. What might had been a wet crossing earlier in the season or in a wetter year had only raised dust as we crossed it.

We were slowly rising again, gaining some altitude at a mild, almost unnoticeable slope. The higher we got, the drier it got. There were fewer wildflowers and no more ponds. It got hotter too, and even the butterflies seemed more tired now. We stopped more frequently to drink.

I perked up again when I saw my first mariposa lily of the day. I'm always excited to see those!
Leichtsinns Mariposa Lily, Calochortus leichtlinii 

For a good long hour we seemed to be walking through the same scenery - that of the dispersed, stunted forest. At one point we had passed the divide but slope remained so mild that I barely noticed that we were now descending again.

The next creek we had to cross had some water holes. What amazed me was the little trout fish in those water holes. How do they survive there throughout the dry season? The creek itself wasn't flowing. Not above ground anyway. It was a completely dry section we crossed at. 

After crossing that creek we were ascending once again, still at a very mild slope. 

We continued on, passing through thinly forested areas and small, green meadows. Here and there we came upon a little forest pond. Some of these ponds were really pretty, with rock arrangements similar to those seen in Japanese gardens. The water was so calm and the reflection was perfect. 

A small movement in the trees caught my eye. My camera isn't well suited to photograph birds from a distance but I did get a clear enough photo for Pappa Quail to identify it for me later. 
Williamson's Sapsucker, female

We crossed another creek, and this one was actually flowing. A little. We filled our bottles.  Again, I was amazed by the fish surviving on such a weak flow. I was also surprised and relieved by the absence of mosquitoes.  

The meadow that creek was meandering through was moist enough to support a nice population of wildflowers. The most dominant feature there however, was this low red rock dome. We took turns standing and posing on top of the dome, taking a good 360 degrees view all around the meadow. 

When we were done getting all excited about the rock dome I turned my attention to the meadow wildflowers, and there were plenty of them. 
Little Elephantshead, Pedicularis attolens ssp. attolens

Many of them I'd already seen the day before or earlier that day, but some I've seen for the first time on this trip. 
Sierra Tiger Lily, Lilium parvum 

I've already been enough times in the Hight Sierra Nevada at summer to be familiar with the flora and I know what to expect. Familiarity does no reduce any of my excitement though. I felt like spinning around with my arms raised, like Julie Andrews at The Sound of Music. 
Sierra Beardstongue, Penstemon heterodoxus 

I didn't break into a dance, however, just moved along the path across that pretty meadow.

Past midday, we were eager to get more miles down and quickened our pace. I nearly missed the gentians that were blooming at ground level, between the blades of grass. Sometimes it's good to look down where the feet go. 
Alpine Gentian, Gentiana newberryi

Once again in the forest we kept a good pace until we reached the trail leading to Long Lake, one of the lakes I thought of stopping at. It was nearly a mile to get down there and my friend wasn't thrilled about adding to the day's planned distance. It was still pretty early though and I really desired a nice swim so I applied some gentle mental pressure ... 
And down we went to Long Lake. 

When Long Lake came into view I seriously considered staying there for the night. It was so beautiful! We found a nice sitting place. I stripped and went into the lake for a well desired wash and my friend collected some water in our (un)folded bucket to wash some clothes. We cooked a late lunch and mainly rested. 
Long Lake

Then I got restless and started walking around, taking photos  one of which heads this post). In the lake I noticed some bur reed blooming. I recognized it from my solo backpacking trip to Dinky Lakes a couple of years ago. 
Narrow-leaved Bur Reed, Sparganium angustifolium

There were a few busy birds by the lake, all juncos. They are very common but quite difficult to photograph due to their hyperactive nature. I captured one just as it finished its bath.  
Gray-headed Dark-eyed Junco

Although we contemplated staying for the night near Long Lake, we eventually decided to stick with our original plan and go to deer lake. It was only 4 miles away and mostly downhill. 

Our hike from Long Lake to Deer Lake as captured by my GPS

Getting back to a good walking pace is harder after a long, relaxing break. At first we needed to go uphill, back from Long Lake to the main trail we diverted from. After turning south again the walk became easier. We were now going downhill. 

Other than birds and butterflies there were also plenty of little squirrels and chipmunks busy about the forest. I captured one on our way down to Deer Lake. 
Alpine Chipmunk

The trail descended at a much steeper slope than we had walked on the entire day. Looking back on that hike it seemed a lot longer than it actually was, perhaps because we were heading to the place where we expected to camp at night. I paid less attention to the scenery and more to encouraging my friend who was getting tired. It was nice to go by a few forest ponds along the way. 

The reflections were particularly pretty in the afternoon light. 

Near Deer Lake my friend was struggling to keep up. She was at the end of her energies. I encouraged her to keep going, that we were very close now.

Daylight was fading quickly. When we got to deer Lake we found that the best campsites were already taken and we didn't have too much time to look around more and be picky. I found a flat area above the lake and pitched our tent there. To get up there (and down) was a bit tricky but under the circumstances this was good enough. 
Mushroom near Deer Lake

My friend was very tired and wanted to go to sleep right away. I convinced her to eat dinner before getting into the tent. Being worried that she might be showing symptoms of altitude sickness I started thinking aloud about possible alternatives for the rest of our trip. Eventually we came to an agreement that tomorrow we'll have an easier day, going only to Emigrant Lake and taking the time to relax and adjust to the altitude.
Deer Lake

After my friend had gone to sleep I washed our dishes and went down to the lake to filter some water for the morrow. The other people that camped by the lake shore fell silent and soon it was only me, sitting on a rock near the water, welcoming the night in.