Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Day 52 : The Gates of Paradise and Bear Creek Crossing

24 miles today
1771 miles to go

What a great sleep! It must have been the white noise of the creek churning and roiling with snow melt all night long. I woke up to silence and slowly my conscious mind begins hearing the water. I check my phone, four thirty eight. Really? Awesome! Time to get up. This is the longest daylight of the year. From now on the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting longer. I eat in the semi twilight of a beautiful summer day. The first summer day of the year, and it feels like it. Relatively warm, just my shirt and windbreaker and I am warm. No cold hands today! During breakfast I recalculate my food. I am sure I can make it to Mammoth Lakes without stopping at Muir Trail Ranch and digging through hiker boxes for additional food. That will save time, saving time means more miles. My goal today is the large campsite at the North Fork of Mono Creek, twenty four miles.

The trail is absolutely stunning this morning. Climbing from the river the trail leads to Selden Pass. The mountains around still have snow on them. The trees, the shrubs, the flowers all putting forth their best summer outfits. The scents of pine and fir mingle with the smell of the loamy soil. The sun is still on the other side of the mountain. Here all is cool and still. Not a breeze at all. The sound of the river below is fading away as I climb higher and higher. Ponderosa pine, foxtail pine, aspens all argue for space on this slope. There are springs and streams gurgling across the trail, some are using the trail. I climb into an open brushy area above the trees below and below the trees above. I'm not sure why this is here, but it is. I can look across the open area and see a deer nonchalantly feeding under the trees. The switchbacks head back and forth across the slope in this open area. I'm about to take a step when I stop and look closer at the trail. That is a bear print! It's really fresh, and it's on top of all the other prints. My heart starts beating faster than it already was from the climb. Brother Bear is somewhere out in front of me going the same direction. I keep climbing, if he stops I'll catch up to him. I'm looking but so far I don't see him. At every switchback I peer around the bushes to see, nope not there. I certainly don't want to surprise him. I look at the trail, there's his tracks. These long switchbacks cross all the way across the slope back and forth I'm climbing and so is Brother Bear. The valley far below with Muir Trail Ranch is still in the shadows, the slope opposite is bathed in early morning light. Brother Bear and I are climbing in the shade of the mountain. Just as I reach the trees at the top of the slope I see two tracks, a left rear foot and a right rear foot stepping deliberately off the trail into the brush. As if to say, “I know you've been following me, here's where I get off, see ya.” So I never did see Brother Bear but I'm sure he saw me. I think he enjoyed the company on his way home from a long night of foraging. Sleep well Brother Bear, I enjoyed our walk too. 

I have entered a cathedral. Silence reigns. The sun’s light glances through the trees and sparkles as if it were stained glass, only more real, more substantive. Long rows of columns reach heavenward. The grassy green carpet is adorned with wildflowers of all shapes and colors. The dew sparkling like diamonds on the petals. I walk softly, should I remove my shoes? This seems like a holy place. Above me somewhere is a lone choirmaster singing, “Praises be to God alone, he has done great things!” He flits from tree to tree. There is no other sound. I walk the path between the columns expecting at any minute to encounter someone. It's too beautiful, too special, too sublime. I see an angel before me, waving a flaming sword, guarding the gates of paradise. His hair and beard are of gold, his face, arms and legs of burnished copper, his tunic of royal blue… Oh, my bad, it's a Thru-hiker trying his hand at fly fishing waving his fishing rod while standing in the outlet stream of Sallie Keys Lakes. 

I don't know who Sallie Keys was but she must have been a real beauty if her lakes do her any justice. They are clear and sparkling. It's hard to take your eyes off of them, I keeping tripping on tree roots and rocks. The trees line the banks like silent sentinels, guarding the shores from any foul or unclean thing. Grassy lawn and wildflowers span the shoreline between the trees and the water. Trout create rings in the water as they break the surface. I wonder what a trout thinks about the world above the water. Probably nothing. Past the lakes the fun and games end and the real pass climbing begins. There’s snow on the trail. The route is obvious the trail is not, except where footprints in the snow are a guide. Up and up. Not as steep as Glen Pass, not as massive as Muir. A tight little crack separates the north from the south. As I fall through the crack to the north side. Snowfields, Marie Lake half covered in ice. This doesn't look like summer. I follow the footprints in the snow for a long time. Down and to the left, down some more, to the left some more. My feet are soaked, but it's warm out, cool feet actually feels good. Down past the lake. Down across the streams, there are many. Down in the streams that double as a trail. Down as the water leaves the trail and it is first muddy, then dry. An ominous thunder down below in the valley ahead. Bear Crossing can be hazardous when there is a lot of water. There is a lot of water. The trail continues down and I follow it. The thunder grows louder. It sounds like a roaring furnace. I can't really see the water or hear the hissing of it. Just a low rumbling thunder. Everything feels the water roaring down the valley. 

Thirty feet across or so, Two to three and a half feet deep. The water moves quickly it follows waves and folds. It sweeps under itself and explodes in white clouds and foam. They say that it's only knee deep a hundred and fifty yards downstream. I walk a hundred and fifty feet. This is probably what they meant. I start across. The water pushes against my legs. I turn to face upstream, leaning on my trekking poles to keep them anchored to the ground, otherwise they'd whip downstream and flail in the current uselessly. One step and a time, sideways. Don't cross one leg above or below the other. I don't know if that really matters, it's a rule I make up as I cross. Looking at the water rushing by is giving me vertigo, but I can't look anywhere else. The water is up to my thighs. It wants to push me down. I try to find solid footing for each step. The boulders are rounded and massive. Stepping on top of this one is a no go, the water would only sweep my foot away. I have to find crevices to wedge my feet. Long steps, scary steps. The water reaches where I'd hoped it would not reach. Suddenly things just got a whole lot colder. The water is pushing against my lower torso. My feet are getting numb. The water ahead looks deeper and appears to be moving even faster. I consider turning back and finding a different spot. This is not the time to dilly-dallying, I think. I take another step, find a solid crevice. Then another. The current lessens. Its shallower now. A couple more steps and I standing on the shore. Across!

Lunch is in the sun on the rocks. No shoes, no socks, no gaiters, pant legs unzipped and laying on the rocks. My frozen feet white and pink in the sun. I spread peanut butter on my tortilla and then drizzle my last honey packet over my artwork. Fold it over and eat. Ten more miles to go. No pass but a good climb over bear ridge. The rest of the afternoon is spent doing just that. I arrive at my goal later than I wanted to but I am here. Twenty four miles closer to a zero. It's a large camp, it could accommodate a whole slew of hikers. I am the only one camping here. It's a beautiful spot, hidden from the trail and close to the water. I am again sleeping next to raging snowmelt. The water’s soothing roar lulls me to sleep after a long and event filled day.

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