Tuesday, May 11, 2021

2020 Emigrant Escape, Day 3: From Deer Lake to Emigrant Lake


Date: August 5, 2020
Place: Emigrant Wilderness, California
Coordinates: 38.164985, -119.768073
Length: 8 miles
Level: strenuous  

 On the morning of our third day of our Emigrant Wilderness backpacking trip we woke up near Deer Lake, a place we didn't get a chance to explore because we had arrived there just before sunset. I was the first to get out of the tent and not wanting to wake my friend up too soon I went down to the lake to watch the sunrise.  
Deer Lake, view east

I perched myself on the same rock I sat upon while watching yesterday's sunset and I looked at the light of day slowly advancing toward me, painting the lake with color and revealing the beautiful reflection on the calm surface.
The edge of Deer Lake, view west

When I looked up slope and saw that my friend had emerged from the tent I came off the rock and walked back, taking notice of the blossoms near the lake shore.
Lupine, Lupinus sp.

My friend was feeling much better in the morning and we both ate a hearty breakfast. By the time we finished I was bitten by a mosquito, the first I had felt on the trip. Not desiring to be eaten by any more, we quickly packed everything and were ready to go in no time. By then the other campers on the lake shore were also up and active. We passed a number of tents on our way eastward along the lake.
Deer Lake

Although I plan the backpacking trips before embarking on them, I often keep my plans somewhat loose and I change them according to the conditions and our stamina. Going into Emigrant Wilderness I planned to hike only the big Emigrant loop, but already on the first day I had a feeling that that would be over too quickly for us. By the evening of the second day I knew I wanted to extend length of the trip and go over the Big Sam mountain to Kennedy Lake, and when my friend had expressed her fatigue and lack of appetite I thought she might be feeling altitude sickness. I felt frustrated but had resigned to the thought of sticking with the original plan and keeping our trip shorter and off the higher altitude area. As we had agreed the night before, our plan for today was to take it easy. Our destination wasthe eastern side of Emigrant Lake, only eight miles distant, with only one major ascend along the way.
Our hike from Deer Lake to Emigrant Lake as captured by my GPS

Starting east at a good pace, we soon left Deer Lake behind. After a mild ascend through a thin forest and large granite slabs I looked back and saw the lake we had spent so little waking time by, glistening blue, nestled in its low rocky basin. One last glance, and we moved on. 

Starting with good energy, we were walking and a nice, brisk pace. The morning cool wore off and the day started warming up as we made our way between the trees and through small, moist meadows. 

In the low areas the forest undergrowth was greener and more vibrant, and sported many more wildflowers. This of course, slowed me down. Some plants needed a good sniff two, not merely visual appreciation. Nothing beats the refreshing smell of coyote mint in the mountains. 
Pale Mountain Monardella, Monardella odoratissima ssp. pallida

Little aster stars dotted the pale granite with brilliant purple and yellow. The off-white buckwheat was barely visible to me on the rocks background. I assume the insect pollinators do better than me in detecting their floral attractions. 

As we walked through the narrow pass I looked wistfully at the granite dome to the north. Almost unawares I started voicing my thoughts out, trying to come up with plans and conditionals that would enable us to take the longer route after all, the one that goes by Kennedy Lake. 

I don't know if my friend had heard me. She was some distance ahead of me, maintaining a fast pace. Soon we were over the pass and heading down to Buck Lake, the next lake over, where we had planned to take our first rest break. 

We went down quickly, pausing briefly to look at a lizard that posed on a rock by the trail, completely unfazed by our presence there. 

Buck Lake is located nearly in the middle between Deer Lake and Emigrant Lake, and about one third of our planned distance for the day. It was a bit off our path, the trail leading down to it branching off toward another area of Emigrant Wilderness. Since we wanted to take our break at a pretty place and wanted to refill all our water bottles before heading up the big ridge on the way to Emigrant Lake, we decided to take that short detour and go down to the lake.  
Buck Lake

My friend and I were in agreement that Buck Lake was prettier than Deer Lake. We found a nice place to sit and had a snack. We also took the time to look around a bit, something we didn't do at Deer Lake. 

The water wasn't easily accessible near where we sat so I went down the trail a little to look for a convenient place to fill our bottles. On the way I saw this weird looking growth on a pine tree trunk. I called my friend over to appreciate the sight. We both recognized it as a 'hamsa', the middle-eastern open hand symbol of blessing and fortune. American friends of mine who had seen this photo later, thought it looked more like a giant's foot. 

We weren't tired at all but we had plenty of time so we stayed for a good hour at Buck Lake, before starting back up to our due east trail. 
Wandering Fleabane, Erigeron gracialis 

The trail led us through a beautiful, flat valley, carved by the Buck Meadow Creek. It was getting pretty hot and we walked slowly, chatting and enjoying the view.
Buck Meadow Creek

Closer to the creek in the wetter patches of vegetation I found once more the beautiful gentian flowers, like white stars in a tiny green pasture.
Alpine Gentian, Gentiana newberryi

Round Granite domes surrounded Buck Creek Meadow and the narrow path we were walking on seemed to lead us directly to the east end of that meadow, blocked by those stone walls. I knew there was a pass there to go across and I kept looking for it as we got nearer. 

This meadow wasn't as rich with wildflowers as the Upper Relief Meadow we had walked through yesterday, but still had some very nice color patches. A number of lupine species contributed the blues. 
Shaggy Lupine, Lupinus covillei

The yellow color was well represented by the cinquefoil, usually a wetter area plant but it seemed to be thriving even on the drier areas of the meadow. 

Some of the colors were contributed by the butterflies which were plentiful, and very very active. 

Closer to the east side of the meadow we reached the creek again. We needed to cross it to continue on the other side where the pass was. The creek was running low but there was enough water still to support a small population of trout fish. 
Buck Meadow Creek

These trout seemed to be much happier than those we had seen in the water holes of the nearly dried up creek we had crossed the day before. Here at least, they had running water. 

Right where we needed to cross the water the creek had widened. The water looked very inviting and for a moment I thought about taking a dip. We didn't though. Earlier in the season we would have had to wade in the water but the creek level was low enough for us to hop across. 
Buck Meadow Creek

The ascend to the pass was right after crossing the creek so we decided to take a sack break before going up. While we were munching and resting a fellow accompanied by a dog came down the trail, moving quickly in big strides. As he came nearer I saw that he was a National Forest ranger. He stopped near us and pulled his bandana over his mouth and nose. Doing the same I got up and approached him. He asked if we had a permit but didn't request to see it, satisfied with my affirmative answer. I had a few questions about the terrain ahead of us, especially about a possible shortcut that would connect the High Emigrant Lake with Kennedy Lake - a short cut that was critical to s making a final decision about extending our route. He told us of an old mule trail there that was no longer maintained and therefore, no longer marked on the map. As it turned out I did have that trail marked in my navigator app ad I was glad to hear from the ranger that it was indeed a possible route to hike. 
We thanked the ranger and he moved on. We too got our packs hoisted and started uphill toward the pass. 

The way up didn't seem as ominous as it looked on the top map. I was goad to be under the trees while going uphill, because it was already very hot. The sunny patches however, did show some more wildflowers to look at and reasons to pause for a breather. 

Going up to the pass was the only major ascent we had planned for the day, and we took it easy, switch-backing slowly along a well maintained trail. Following our progress on my navigator I noticed that my GPS located us on a different path than the one marked on the map. It was going in the same general direction so I wasn't worried - trails can get redirected during maintenance. 
Even so it was a relief to see the GPS line and the map finally merged near the top. 

At the top of the pass we stopped to drink and look around. There were only a few trees and the trail was exposed. The view of the nearest mountain peaks shimmered in the heat haze. There were a few wildflowers blooming in the small patches of soil that filled the spaces between large slabs of granite. I sat down to rest on a fallen log but quickly relocated myself when we realized that we were sitting on pine resin. My friend lowered her backpack to the ground, leaned on it, and drifted off to a short nap, leaving me alone with my thoughts for some time. 
Nude Buckwheat, Eriogonum nudum 

Ten minutes lated my friend woke up and we resumed our hike, descending now through a series if tiny green(ish) meadows and short segments of rocky ledges and steps. Upon seeing a dried up pile of horse dung I realized that we had not seen any horse or mule group that day yet, and I really hoped that we won't.  

I was actually surprised when we made it down to the west end of Emigrant Lake and the time was only 2:00 pm. Emigrant Lake is only 2 miles long and my friend stuck to her guns about not going any further than are planned camping area there. I was bummed by the thought of arriving there too early but I didn't wish to argue. We found a nice rock to sit on near the lake shore and I pulled out the stove to cook us some warm lunch. 
Emigrant Lake, west end

As our soup was cooking my friend suddenly tapped my arm and pointed to the little channel of water separating us from the main lake body. A snake, she said. It took me a few moments to see it -an aquatic garter snake swimming gracefully along the channel's banks.I snapped a few shots, then kept on gazing, mesmerized, until the snake vanished into the bank's vegetation.
Aquatic Garter Snake

I like seeing snakes in nature. Most of them are docile creatures, and all of them are graceful being, even the venomous ones. It saddens me that they get so much bad PR. My friend, like most human beings I guess, doesn't like snakes. She prefer seeing butterflies.

While we sipped on our soup my friend also spotted a damselfly, which was much closer to us than the snake, and easier to observe.

We had a very long break at he west end if Emigrant Lake. I think my friend wouldn't have minded to remain there for the night even, but I got antsy again and eventually we packed up and were on our way to the east end of the lake. 
Emigrant Lake, View east

The two-mile trail segment along the north shore of Emigrant Lake proved to be the most beautiful part of this day's hike. Just the explosion of wildflowers alone was enough to spin my head.
Larkspur, Delphinium sp.

Cushion upon cushion of buckwheat shrubs draped on the rocks and boulders, brushing against our legs as we progressed along the narrow trail.

There wasn't any flat areas between the granite slope to our north and the lake shore to the south, below. the trail kept going up and down, snaking between talus boulders and around rocky protrusions that could not be negotiated with without bouldering expertise, which we didn't have.
Hoary Aster, Dieteria canescens var. canescens

My idea of slowing down our pace to not arrive at our planned camping area too late was working great - every step I saw something else to appreciate. Wildflowers, views of the lake, lizards, butterflies ...  It was hot, but I didn't mind the heat at all. I really enjoyed the walk along Emigrant Lake. 
Rose Meadowsweet, Spiraea splensens 

The water level in our drinking bottles was getting low. I wasn't worried though. Although we had no easy access to the lake from the trail, we weren't far from the east end where I knew we would have access. 
Lewis' Monkeyflower, Erythranthe lewisii

Although many of the wildflowers along the trail I have seen already earlier that day or on the previous day, some were a first sighting for this trip. 
Small-leaf Creambush, Holodiscus disicolor var. microphyllus 

I also saw for the first time this trip flowers that I associate with much higher altitudes. I didn't think we were that high. Apparently for some wildflowers we were high enough. Either way, I was pleased. 
Green-leaved Raillardella, Raillardella scaposa 

At parts, the trail got so narrow that I was really happy to have not been passed by any mule pack. I really don't know where we could have squeezed ourselves to to let the huge pack animals pass by. 

Little monkeyflowers decorated gravelly areas between the large rocks. These little beauties dominate disturbed areas that experienced landslides and/or vegetation removal. Here it was just really exposed hard gravel ground that didn't seem too hospitable to other plants. 

A quick movement at the corner of my eye - I turned my head and saw a cute little chipmunk watching us incredulously atop a small rock. It stayed there bravely as we passed it, darting to take cover only after I took some photos. 
Alpine Chipmunk

We paused for yet another hydration break, then posed for one another for photos with the lake in the background. It was a perfect spot for a sales pitch for backpacking at the Emigrant Wilderness. 

My friend said she was beginning to feel tired. I was already resigned to stopping for an early camp at the east end of the lake but her fatigue alarmed me. This wasn't a strenuous day, not by a long shot, and I wondered again if that might be the altitude getting to her. We didn't chat much after that, but pressed on. I could see that she was ready to lay down her pack for the night. 
Brewer's Fleabane, Erigeron breweri

The slow pace did allow me to check out all the lovely flowers, including first sighted on this trip species. 
Rock Lettuce, Dudleya cymosa 

The shadows were getting longer. Considering our slow progress, it was a good idea to stop soon, though I still believed we could have used on some more. I looked up the slope to our eft and saw the trees towering over me, wedged with their roots in an around the granite cracks. A small seedling sprouting in a tiny crack in a large rock will grow big enough to split that rock. Trees weather the mountain rocks and hold the soil. An eternal process that I'm but a fleeting witness to. 

At that point it seemed like we were going by Emigrant Lake forever. My navigator showed that we were coming up on the east end soon and I started looking around for possible campsites.
Fireweed, Chamerion angustifolium

AI spotted a few flat areas off the trail where it was clear that people have camped before. The access to the lake wasn't very convenient though, and we continued further looking for a better site.

The trail descended mildly, and for the first time since we left the west end we were once again at lake level. We walked past few suitable campsites which were all already occupied.
Sierra Beardstongue, Penstemon heterodoxus

Stepping out of the woods the east end of Emigrant Lake came into view. The lake wasn't full to the brim and there was some distance between the trail and the waterline. That area was and alpine wetland full of summer wildflowers. So beautiful!

Promptly we found a good site. It was a large, flat clearing with a stone fire ring and a few strategically located granite rocks that looked good for sitting on. Without any further thought we dropped our packs down and pitched the tent. As I circled around I found some piles of equine dung and it occurred to me that this was a campsite used by equestrian groups ... I didn't see any sign excluding pedestrian backpackers and we did stay put, but I did worry that a horse pack might arrive at some point and request that we'd relocate. To my relief that worry of mine never came real.
Little Elephantshead, Pedicularis attolens ssp. attolens  

My friend said she wasn't hungry and wanted to go into the tent right away and I was appalled - it was only 5:00 pm. I told her that she needed to eat dinner before going to sleep, and I made her promise that she'd stay outside the tend while I went to the lake fetch water.

It was challenging to get to the water - not because the terrain was any difficult, it was flat and easy all right. But there were wildflowers everywhere, a thick mat of lupines, paintbrushes, elephantheads, and many more. It was nearly impossible to cross that field without trampling the delicate vegetation.
Lemmon's Paintbrush, Castilleja lemmonii

I looked around a bit and found a thin trail made by other campers and went down that one to the water. Three ravens that explored the waterline flew away screaming as I approached. When I looked in the water where the ravens had been I saw the reason - a few bits of pasta were submerged where apparently some other backpacker had washed their cookware. Washing dishes isn't supposed to be done at the water, but at the campsite, with water brought in. People seeking the easy way to do things often mess it up for others and harm the already fragile wilderness.

I found an upstream location that looked clean and filled our water bottles. My friend was waiting for me by the tend near a nice pile of twigs she had collected for the wood stove. After dinner she voiced again her desire to go to sleep but I persuaded her to go to the lake with me, since she hasn't seen it yet. She agreed to wait and watch the sunset with me.

After strolling some by the lake shore, chatting and joking around, my friend pointed out some colorful rocks on the other side of the lake and asked that I photograph them. She was right, they were very pretty. The color klines also show how high the water level can be at Emigrant Lake.

The air temperature dropped as soon as the sun went down. My friend stayed with me until the sun disappeared behind the slope line and then she walked back to the tent.
Sunset at Emigrant Lake

I couldn't go back just yet. Shivering slightly in the unexpected chill I watched the light fading and the shapes of the trees on the mountain reminded me of my first backpacking trip to Mineral King in August of 2015 when I sat with my young chika and we imagined creature shapes in the tree silhouettes.

My camera is sensitive enough to take photos at low light> lingering longer in the wildflowers field I enjoyed the delicate bloom that the High Sierra displays during its short summer.
Tidy Lupine, Lupinus lepidus

In a very short time the light was too low even for my sensitive camera. I did photograph a lot but most of the photos I took at that time didn't come out well. It wasn't just the low light by now, it was also my shivering. It was getting cold.
Scarlet Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja miniata

I hanged on near the lake until the last sun-illuminated patch disappeared from the tip of the granite dome to the northeast. Then I resigned to go back to the campsite.

My friend was already asleep when I entered the tent. I laid on my back, staring at the roof of the tent and listening to the birds calls from outside until they too, died down into the silence of the night.