Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Thoughts on Southern California Hiking

My planned 3 week odyssey along the PCT in southern California came to a premature end due to a severe shin splint that still has me hobbling about a week and a half later.  But I wanted to give some final thoughts on hiking this section of the trail.  It was really quite a different experience than I had anticipated.

While I sometime hike with a companion, most commonly I hike alone, and enjoy the solitude of the experience.  While I will visit briefly with anyone I meet on the trail, I have never before developed any kind of relationship with someone I met out on the trail.  That changed in the past month.  While I knew that it was likely that I would repeatedly encounter some of the same folks over the course of the hike, I never dreamed that it would be more than a casual howdy here and there.

Throughout the 2 weeks I hiked, I almost always hiked alone.  But after the first few days I found myself a part of an informal group of folks that were covering the same amount of ground each day and frequently camping together.  We were all long distance runners and could easily cover 20 miles a day right out of the gate.  And that was the only real commonality that we shared.  But we did enjoy each others company in the last few hours of each day, and I looked forward to meeting them on the trail at odd times during the day.

I had never before seriously considered doing a single year thru of the PCT, but I began to see the appeal to it when there is an encouraging support network that moves up the trail with you.  Having my wife meet me occasionally to resupply and reconnect is the most important factor for me in having a good hike.  But the gang I traveled with; Martin, Early Bird, Squirrel, Hog and Patrick; definitely made the journey easier this year.  And I am hopefully that I will be able to briefly reconnect with at least some of them when I spend time in the northern Sierra's this summer.

I live in western Washington, and enjoy the climate here.  For me, a comfortably warm day is up into the 70's; and the upper 80's and beyond is too hot.  Last summer the heat in northern California just about did me in, forcing me to travel slower and break much more often.  So I was very apprehensive about the 'desert' travel in southern California, even in April.  And after flying into Las Vegas and driving across the desert to Campo, all of those apprehensions were only reinforced; I was going to die on this stretch.

Amazingly enough that did not happen.  Yes it was hot a good share of the time.  And yes, it was pretty dry most of the time.  But I was able to carry enough water, and the heat seemed not to impact me nearly as much as last year.  In fact, I wa able to continue walking when others around me were crawling under any available shade to await a cooler time of day to hike.  My biggest problem with the heat was at night because of a much too warm sleeping bag.

Needless to say, because of the climate, the variety of plants and animals in these desert regions is quite different than the areas I usually travel.  I never did walk through an area that was really barren, although much of it does initially appear that way to someone from my neck of the woods.  There really was quite a variety of plants, although most of them seemed thorny.  There were lots of flowers, although many of them were very small.  And I actually saw more animals than I generally do in the lush rain forests of home, although most of them seemed to be lizards of one type or another.  While I am not ready to move to the desert, I did develop a real appreciation for its beauty, and enjoyed the opportunity to experience it.  I still have quite a bit of it to go, but am now looking forward to spending more time out there.

For me, the worst part of the backpacking experience has been sleeping.  For years I dreaded nightfall, and yearned for daybreak.  The ground was so hard, and as I aged, it seemed to get nothing but harder.  Then I discovered hammocks, and the sleeping experience was transformed.  For the past 4 years I had gently swung in the trees at night.  And while it still did not compare to a real bed, it was a massive upgrade from sleeping on the ground.  And so it was with real apprehension that I prepared for hiking the desert.  While some areas have tree's, there were long stretches with nothing taller than me.  For this to work I was going to have to be able to get a good night's sleep on the ground.  

So I started by trying out a Neoair; no good.  Next up was a Big Anges Quad Core.  I bought the full length version, and found its 3.5 inches to be satisfactory, especially when coupled with a 3/4 length Thermarest z-lite pad.  I would be able to do this.  Next up I bought a Big Agnes bag with a sleeve in the bottom to hold the Quad Core.  The bag has no insulation on the bottom, using the pad insulation instead.  But the pad stays under the bag all night, which is a big plus for active sleepers like myself.  I sleep pretty cold, so bought a 0 degree bag, which ended up being overkill, but did work.

After spending most of the past 3 weeks on the ground, it is safe to say I am very happy with my ground based sleeping arrangements.  It is heavy, heavier even than my hammock arrangement, but for me it is well worth it.  I got a good nights sleep almost every night, and that is well worth the couple extra pounds I carried compared to those I was with.

While it would have been nice to drop a few pounds from my 15 pound base weight, I found that I frequently carried more weight in water than equipment.  And it would be hard, at least for me, to get much lighter and still be able to enjoy the trip.  The one thing I will forever change concerns shoes.  I wore an old worn out pair of running shoes on the trip.  While I do not know that they were the cause of the shin splint that ended my trip, they were at least a highly likely contributing factor.  The brand of shoes were OK, and I will continue to run in them.  But they will get thrown away now when they hit 500 miles rather than convert them to hiking shoes.

Final Thoughts
Apart from the shin splint, and bruised hips from the pack, it is hard to find a negative about this trip.  I was pleasantly surprised at the sense of community that I was able to participate in.  The trail passed through some hot and dry stretches, sometimes very windy, but throughout it had a beauty that I enjoyed.  I was happy with my own conditioning, being able to keep up with a generally much younger crowd without over-reaching.  And throughout the trip, I marveled at the handiwork of the Creator.  The wide variety in His creation, the awe it inspires, and the time alone with Him were the icing on the cake.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Idyllwild to Big Bear City

Day 9 - Zero Day

There is a section of the trail between the Paradise Valley Cafe and Idyllwild that is closed because of a fire last year.  So I decided to skip the trail between the Cafe and I-10 and do it another year.  Since I am a multi-year thru hiker (MYTH) that seemed like the easiest arrangement.  So after a night in Idyllwild, we moved to Beaumont and spent a second night before hitting the trail first thing in the morning.

Day 10 - I-10 to Mission Creek - 22 Miles

The trail passes under I-10 and heads toward the San Bernardino Mountains, a mile or two distant.  Along the way, across the plain, I passed a series of little signs that advertised the sections first trail angels, Ziggy and the Bear.  And shortly after passing them, Apple Butter, a 19 year old hiker, caught up with me, slowed, and spent the next hour or so walking with me and talking about pot usage and other drugs on the trail.  He seemed to be accepting of pot while at the same time being less in favor of using caffeine or ibuprofen: interesting conversation.

Eventually the trail climbed up and over a ridge, dropping down the other side, then wound around for several miles before finally dropping down into the Whitewater River.  The trail then heads up the flood plain of the river a couple of miles before finally crossing the two small braids of the Whitewater, and climbing up to the end of a small side canyon.

While walking along the Whitewater, a small snake crossed the trail ahead of me, circled around and then headed back at me before disappearing into a hole.  Don't know what kind of snake it was, but I did notice its tail quivering at one point, although heard nothing.  So maybe a rattler, and maybe not.  Then, heading up the side canyon, I saw a red 3 foot long snake racing away from me faster than I would have though a snake could possible move; a red racer maybe?

Once to the top of this canyon the trail descends a bit into the next canyon, winds around some and then begins the ascent over into the Mission Creek drainage.  By this time I was somewhat zoned out and not paying as much attention to my surroundings as I probably should have been.  I had often wondered last year, while hiking in rattlesnake territory, if I would be able to easily distinguish between a cricket and a rattlesnake.  And I am now happy to report that their sound is quite distinct.  In fact, there seems to be something built-in to my system that not only recognizes the rattle for what it is, but also bypasses my normal decision making process and instead initiates an immediate emergency response.  By the time I had consciously recognized that there was a 3 1/2 foot rattlesnake coiled up in the trail in front of me, I had likely set an Olympic record in the backwards backpack scramble.

Surprisingly enough I remained calm, although with slightly elevated pulse for a while.  And the big question now was, how does one get around a rattlesnake that is occupying the trail, when the trail is traversing around a steep slope.  Especially when the snake shows no inclination to yield the right of way.  I have encountered many bears on the trail, and they have without exception abandoned the trail to me.  The lone cougar I have seen did not contest the trail.  Deer, goats, squirrels and chipmunks; they all without exception fled from my presence.  But not this snake.  He seemed not too impressed with my size, or intelligence.  All of my state of the art equipment did not impress him.  He had laid claim to that spot, and had no intention of giving it up to me.  If fact, he seemed to be challenging me to "come and take it".

What to do?  I tried tossing little stones at it, but I am a bad shot and could seldom hit the target, and even when I did he seemed indifferent to them.  For what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only 5 minutes, I tossed pebbles and sticks, and he laid there coiled and taunting me.  Finally I starting scouting a path around him and had just picked out a route several feet below my adversary when he decided that he had proven his point, he was tougher than me, and started to move off the path, directly across the route I had chosen, almost as if to send one final message to me: "You'll go when I want you to go!"

Well you can be sure that after that I paid better attention to my surroundings as the trail continued up, over and down into Mission Creek.  And when I got there I found that I was likely not the only person to have recently had a snake encounter.  Someone had taken the time to spell 'snake' with sticks in the trail and a couple of arrows to where they had likely last seen the beast.  I very carefully moved past the spot, but the demon was likely hiding somewhere nearby and laughing at the silly humans tiptoeing past the spot of last encounter.

I made it up the creek a few miles before stopping on a flat spot overlooking the creek.  My right shin had started hurting a bit but not too seriously, at least not yet.  Set up camp, filtered water, ate dinner and relaxed for a bit before turning in and being lulled to sleep by the sound of running water, frogs croaking and crickets chirping.

The trail is very well marked for the most part.  While there are a variety of signs and markers that are used, this is easily the most obvious and visible.  This large sign is most commonly found at road crossings, while smaller signs, posts and flags are used at other places along the trail.  I do find a few places though were the trail is confusing where it would be nice to have just a little more guidance.  That happened to me several times in this section.

There are quite a number of wind farms along the San Gorgonio Pass where the PCT intersects I-10.  This one is the Mesa wind farm and the trail winds up the hillside beside it.  I know some hikers are bothered by the wind farms, but I think they are kind of cool, and much better than coal plants. 

Little miniature barrel cactus.  These things must really taste good to need so much protection.  It's hard to imagine anything being able to penetrate that set of thorns without being able to use some kind of tool.

The first day is spent in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, before entering into the San Bernardino Forest for the rest of the trip.

In the midst of the dry countryside, it is always amazing to me to run across something that is green and at least somewhat lush looking.  This tree (or shrub) is more commonly found in the seasonal stream beds in the area, but this one somehow managed to survive perched high above any water source.

A look down into the Whitewater drainage.  Notice the greener vegetation down in the valley, indicating at least a seasonal stream.

While there is not much vegetation in the area, I love the ruggedness of the terrain. 

The trail was broad and flat as it followed the Whitewater River up its drainage.

I find the variety of cactus to be fascinating.  So foreign to me, yet in so many shapes and forms.  And this one has an orangey yellow blossom. 

The Whitewater River, at least where I crossed it, has two braids, and this is the first one.  Not much more than a step across in April.  Apparently it is much larger earlier in the year.

I just love the variety of plants in the area.  This is a form of yucca that continues to grow taller and taller.
One of the few yellow blossoms I saw on a cactus.

Looking back down from the head wall of the side canyon across the Whitewater, with the San Jacinto's in the distance.

Most wild flowers have a pretty small blossom.  This one is a rare exception.  These white blossoms can exceed 6 inches across.

You - shall not - pass!

A cactus bouquet

Even the fruit here has thorns.

Someone's warning about a snake up ahead.

This pretty orange flower was pretty common in the area/.

Another common wildflower in the Mission Creek area.  Sometimes it turned whole hillsides blue; see below.

Note the blue tint to the hillside, caused by the blue wildflowers in the picture above.

It is kinda cool to see the path outlined in rocks sometimes.

Don't know what kind of plant this is, but it sure adds a splash of color to an otherwise drab spot of ground.

The thorns on the baby leaves are thick and soft.  They don't stay that way for long.

This was a common plant as well, but seemed to have no leaves, although it did have tiny buds that may have become leaves.

Cairns are commonly used to mark the trail, although they are not official trail markings and can be deceiving.  This one marked a hop across the creek, as well as the nights lodging.

My tent setup on Mission Creek for the night.  

Day 11 - Mission Creek to the Coon Creek Cabin - 15 Miles

Yesterday’s sore right shin was a harbinger of things to come.  It was still sore as I got up to leave and would steadily get worse during the course of the day.  I had hoped to make it to Arrastra Camp, about 25 miles distant, but a combination of the long climb all day, possibly the altitude, and mostly what turned into a shin splint conspired to keep me far away from that goal.

The day started out continuing along the Mission Creek, crossing it 25 times between yesterday and today.  During the early part of the day the grade was gentle and the view from the bottom of the canyon was interesting.  But by the end the climb had become less gentle and somewhat rough.

During the middle of the morning I encountered the promised Poodle Dog Brush (PDB), something I had never seen before, but easily recognized.  There was quite a bit of it along the trail, but so long as one is careful it is pretty easy to avoid.  About halfway through the section with PDB, I stopped for my second breakfast and a French couple I had met the night before passed by.  I asked if they knew what PDB looked; and no, they did not.  But when I pointed it out to them, they were sure that they hadn't touched any, although I’m not sure that was likely since you did have to make some effort to avoid it.

Shortly after that the trail crossed a wash, and I blindly followed the footprints up the wash, even passing a couple of cairns.  But eventually I noticed a lot of the footprints were going the other way and I grew uneasy with this course.  So out comes the phone and the HalfMile app, and low and behold, it showed the closest trail access to be a quarter mile back the way I had come.  So back I went for a while and then struck out up the bank and cross country for a bit until I reconnected with the trail.  

An hour later I came across a stream flowing, promised by the water report to be the last good water for quite a while.  By this time I had given up making it to my desired location for the night, and loaded up in anticipation of a dry camp.  And then up and up I went.

The top of this section is a series of 4 high points between about 8500 and 8800 foot tall, with about 5-600 foot dips between each.  I managed to make it over two of the peaks and down into the middle valley and stopped for my second lunch of the day; time to decide what I was going to do to get this section finished up.  My right shin was hurting pretty badly and I was beginning to doubt my ability to finish the next day as originally planned.  Especially since I was also worn out and 10 miles short of where I wanted to be.

It appeared the only sure camp site anywhere close was just up the trail at Coon Creek Camp, listed as a group camp.  So I opted to call it a night there and then go on tomorrow, knowing there were a number of access points where I could call for a pickup if necessary.

Coon Creek Camp consisted of an outhouse, 3 old cabins with no camping allowed inside them, several picnic tables and a fire pit.  And no real campsites.  But after scouting around a while I found a nice place, set up, and then went back to a table to cleanup and eat dinner.  A couple of dirt bikes and a 4x4 pickup rumbled through and back out during the evening, and a group of 4 thru hikers eventually wandered in and decided that so long as they did not put up their tents that they weren't really camping and so could sleep in the cabins.  

Went to bed at dusk and slept like a baby, so long as I was careful with my leg.

The trail through the upper Mission Creek valley, before the trail leaves the creek behind.

This Yucca has almost a feathery flower stock.  The trail goes to the right of the hill in the center of the picture and then begins to seriously climb.  Poodle Dog Brush, see below, also starts shortly after that climb.

The notorious Poodle Dog Brush.  Quite a bit of it in the upper Mission Creek area, but it is easily avoidable if you know what you are trying to avoid.

Easily the most common form of wildlife so far has been lizards.  And there are at least three common varieties.  But seldom do they stand still long enough to get a picture.

Looking back down the Mission Creek drainage.

The Coon Creek Group Camp cabins.  The biggest is in the center with a smaller one peaking out from the left and another smaller one hidden behind the big one.  

Day 12 - Coon Creek Cabin to Big Bear City - 20 Miles

I had thought to sleep in this morning, but was wide awake by 5, so up shortly after and on the trail by 6.  There was no sign of the rest of the gang camped there when I left, but I spent the rest of the day expecting them to come screaming past me as I hobbled down the trail.  But I never did see them again.  They were either really late sleepers, or traveled fairly slowly.

The morning started off well enough.  My leg was still pretty sore, but I had much more energy than last night and quickly hit the top of the third climb, and since I had skipped the San Jacinto section, my highest point so far.  And actually this was the highest I have ever hiked, at 8840 feet, according to my trusty altimeter.  

From there it was down 600 foot, up another 500 foot to the top of Onyx Peak, and then down, down, down for the next 15 miles to highway 18 and Big Bear City.  I discovered that so long as the trail was smooth and not too steep that I could make something that approximated normal speed, although it was still painful.  And especially after I had stopped awhile; getting warmed back up was pretty challenging.

There are a cluster of trail angel stations along the trail in the vicinity of Onyx Peak, one even had a couch to sit on and cookies to eat, and two of them had water and drinks.  I grabbed a Gatorade at one of them, and passed on the open packages of cookies; no telling how long they had been opened there and how many unwashed hands had mauled them.

The ascent after Arrastra Spring had a rare stretch of trail that had water flowing across the trail.  I passed by several seeps and trickles and a couple of streams that crossed the trail, and one that ran down the middle of a road the trail followed for a while.  While I had no need for water, it was still quite refreshing to see.

The other cool thing about this section was some of the trees.  I passed by several old cedars of some kind that had some real character.  And I found a pine alongside the trail that must have had a 6 foot diameter, easily the biggest tree I had seen down here.  But the prize was just a couple of miles from the highway, when something that looked straight out of Dr. Seuss appeared just off the trail.  After taking a couple of pictures of it, and a few more that I saw in the general area, I wondered if these might be the fabled Joshua Trees I had heard about.  And sure enough they were.  What a bizarre looking tree; although actually they are apparently a type of Yucca plant.

20 miles and 10 hours after the days start, I staggered off the trail at highway 18, loaded up into the car and headed to a hotel in Big Bear City for at least a couple of nights.  I knew there was no way I was getting back on the trail tomorrow, but was initially hopeful that a day of rest would do me some good.

Easter morning and the sun rising over what I think is Mt. Gorgonio.  This snow covered peak was frequently visible, whenever you had a clear view of the mountains to the south.

Since I skipped the San Jacinto section, this unnamed third peak in the series was my highest point on the trip.  And my highest point ever to carry a backpack.

While there are not a lot of trees across the trail, the upper Mission Creek area and the trail on into Big Bear did have an occasional tree that landed across the trail.  Sometimes we went over, and sometimes a trail was being walked into existence around them.

I got all excited for a bit, thinking I was going to run into some snow.  But it ended up just being a patch of white rocks.  It was pretty deceptive looking.

From Onyx Peak on, the trail ended up frequently following old logging roads.  Sometimes they were well marked, but other times you had to trust in the footprints to know you were still on the right path.  And after the footprints in the dry wash yesterday, I was a bit leery of following footprints.

At some point along the way I heard what sounded very much like a bear roaring.  It was a bit disconcerting; until I came upon a set of cages, two of which were occupied by hears.  Not sure why they were there, but there were numerous warnings around the cages concerning deadly force and trained attack dogs.

Another shot of Mt Gorgonio (I think).

The Poppa Smurf and Mt. Mamma cache on Onyx Peak. 

Looking ahead to a dried lake bed.

An old cedar tree with character.  I would love to have this old tree in my backyard.

Another cache on Onyx Peak.  The dumpster at left had water, soda's and cookies, plus a trash bag.

While it is a little hard to make out, there is water trickling down from the upper left and running across the trail.  One of the few places so far where there is water running across the trail.

This pine tree has a diameter of around 6 foot.  Biggest tree I remember seeing down here.

After spending 24 hours in a forest, suddenly the trail pops back into chaparral just a few miles from Big Bear.

Such a confusing sign.  Am I supposed to be stepping on the foliage?  Or just lupine?  Or what?

Such a bizarre looking bush/tree.  Had no clue what this was at first, but decided after seeing a few of them that it must be a Joshua Tree, a form of Yucca.

A view to the north from near Big Bear.  The trail turns to the west here and skips this section.

A big house near Big Bear with its own industrial sized wind turbine (to the right).  

Day 13 - End of the Trip

My right shin is swollen, red and warm to the touch; and very painful.  So we called my insurance company, who referred me on to Kaiser Permanente.  After an hour on the phone with them, I finally got entered into their system and got an appointment with a doctor, an hour and a half away.  So off to the big city we went, spent more time getting checked in, saw the doctor, had some blood work, saw the doctor again, had an ultrasound to check for clots.  Fortunately there were no clots, and the doctor did not believe there was any stress fracture, but only some muscle tears; only!

The only cure is rest, ice and ibuprofen.  Hiking would only cause additional damage.  And since I can barely walk now, the hike is over and we get to play tourist for the next week until we can get on a plane to take us home.  I have enjoyed the trail down here and found it not to be as difficult as I had feared.  Hopefully next year I will be able to pick up where I left off and finish up the desert.