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  • Brian Johnson

Kings Canyon National Park: Hiking the Rae Lakes Loop - Part 2

July 28

Today was picnic day. We slept in a little and lingered over breakfast and hot coffee, then spent some time cleaning up camp, putting food in bear canisters, and zipping up tents in case a stray afternoon shower came through. After packing up day packs with lunch, rain jackets, water, a flask, and the acey deucey board, we set off. Our goal was to hike around the lake and after a little climb up the mountainside on the other side to settle in for an afternoon of relaxation.

On the other side of the lake we picked up the Sixty Lakes  trail and followed it as it switchbacked up the mountain. I had originally suggested that we follow the trail toward Sixty Lakes Basin, but after looking more closely at the map recanted. What I had thought was a through trail was an “up and over” trail, involving a fairly large climb. When we got to the the trail junction Kim surprised me by saying we should go on up the Sixty Lakes Trail. I had resolved not to do anything too strenuous that day because I wanted to save myself for the climb ahead the next day, or so I told myself. But I grudgingly went along for a while as we climbed, until we came to a flat rock ledge with a view and I suggested, rather forcefully, that we stop for lunch. A long lunch. Kim didn’t put up any fuss, and Ben was happy to just chill for a while.

We spent most of the afternoon on our perch overlooking the lake, surely one of the all time scenic lunch spots. Upper and Middle Rae lakes were laid out before us, with soaring mountains all around. After lunch we read the books we had brought, lounged around, and continued our acey deucey tournament, with the same result as before, a 3-way tie. Eventually we roused ourselves and headed back to camp, well content with the day.

Though the scenery was awe inspiring, the Rae Lakes area was not my favorite place. There were simply too many people. The Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail run together for a few miles through the area, bringing a fair amount of traffic from through hikers in addition to the folks who come specifically for the views. There must have been two dozen people camped around the lake while we were there, which cuts down on the feeling of solitude a little. But I’d go back again some time, to have lunch.

The mood in camp was a bit subdued that evening. Partly it was because the Rae Lake  layover was a highlight of the trip, and now it was almost over, and partly because we might have been a little uneasy about what was to come. The remaining two days of our trip promised to be epic, with a climb of 1500 feet and descent of 7000 feet, all over the course of about 20 miles, so there was a sense of mentally gearing ourselves up for it. After watching the sun go down and the stars come out we turned in. I slept cowboy again that night and watched the full moon rise before falling asleep.

Continued below...

July 29

Is it irrational to be afraid of a few squiggly lines on a map? Not if you know what they mean. For days I had looked at the scrunched up lines, seeing that they represented a big climb over a short distance up to Glen Pass, at high altitude and with a 40 pound pack. At least the pack had been getting lighter, with all the food and tasty adult beverages we had been consuming. But the steepness of the climb, and the altitude especially, concerned me, with a climb of 1500 feet in maybe a mile. It had been over 20 years since I had been up to 12,000 feet and I wasn’t sure how I would do, and Ben seemed to be feeling some effects of the altitude even while still in camp.

It was so cold that we had a hard time getting out of our warm sleeping bags and it was 8:45 before we hiked off. After skirting the west bank of Upper Rae Lake the trail climbed a little, soon reaching a ledge above the lake, a good place for a picture before the climb began to get serious. It seemed like we climbed for a long time as the vegetation became sparser and sparser, until we finally entered a zone where no living thing could be found, and rock, ice, and sky were all that existed. By this time my lungs and legs were aching, and Ben was beginning to show real distress, reporting that his joints were really hurting. Finally we came into a big bowl of rocks, surrounded by soaring granite, whose most distinguishing feature was the small group of young ladies, twenty-somethings, standing in its center chatting away. As I approached them I eyed an apparent path out behind them, and asked hopefully if we were almost to the pass. Well.

They laughed. I don’t mean they gave a barely suppressed chuckle which they hid behind a politely raised hand, or a girlish giggle, or even a sarcastic sneer. I mean, they laughed. Out loud and openly, like I was the funniest old codger they’d met in many a day. “No”, two of them chimed in vaguely European accented English, not quite in unison, but like an echo, and pointed up a long slide of small rocks, stretching steeply up into the sky. “About halfway.” I think I reacted gracefully and with dignity, which is to say I put on my best poker face. I turned to Kim, who had come up behind me, and from the sparkle in his eye thought I caught the faint suggestion of mountain nymph. To my way of thinking, more like a coven of mountain witches.

The young ladies soon set off, while we lingered and rested for a bit more. We watched them hike up the mountain with a certain effortless ease, the kind that comes from not just youthful fitness, but from a long familiarity with high mountains. After a few minutes we set off after them, with Kim taking the lead, as he seemed less effected by the altitude than Ben or I, and is always a strong climber. He claimed it was due to his “thick blood”, and training in the heat and hills of Alabama. From here on, the climb met, then exceeded, my worst fears.

Slow and easy. Breathe. One, two, three, four, breathe. Nice and easy. Why do my legs hurt so much? Breathe. One, two, three, four. Can’t breathe. Legs hurt. Everything hurts. Pain. Think of something. Anything. Think of nothing. Why is the pack so heavy today? One, two, three, four, breathe. Rocks are sliding under my feet. Slipped. Steady. Feet hurt, can’t breathe. One, two, three, four. Legs so heavy. Can’t move. Everything hurts. One, two, three, four. Think of something. Anything. Why was there a stupid fire at Yosemite?  I could have been climbing Half Dome today. Think of something else. Lungs hurt. Breathe. One, two, three, four. Oh, God, let it be over! When will it end? Breathe, breathe, one foot in front of the other. How can it still be so far away? Oh damn. One, two, three, four. Breathe.

A couple of hundred yards from the top I turned to check on Ben, and saw that he was suffering worse than I was. Normally, as in 95% of the time, if Ben is behind me it’s to keep me from falling, or lagging too far behind, or simply out of deference, but now he was genuinely struggling. His joints and muscles hurt and his chest was heavy. We rested a bit, then gutted out the last little stretch. When we got to the top we were greeted by views of mountains stretching to the horizon on one side of the pass, and a series of rock lakes stair stepped down the mountains on the other. The Coven of Mountain Witches were there, chatting amiably with a ranger ( the Lone Ranger?), whether out on patrol or for pleasure I never knew.

The Coven soon hiked off down the other side, and we thought we had seen the last of them, but in fact we hopscotched them a couple of times as each group took breaks. We lunched and tanked up on water and let Ben recover. I was starting to really worry by this time. Altitudes sickness, dehydration, heat stroke, each and all were possibilities, but after a bit he seemed recovered enough to go on, so we stepped off down the other side of the pass, 17 miles and 7000 feet of descent away from the car.

Now, every hiker has his own strengths and weaknesses, different terrains he will do better on than others, different ways he deals with elevation changes and so on. Me, I struggle a little on climbs, and do pretty well on fairly level trails. But where I really excel is on the downhill. I mean, like a boulder on ice. Maybe it’s because I’m such a fan of gravity. So when we set off down the other side I set, if not a blistering pace, at least a steady and relentless pace, quickly dropping a couple of thousand feet in a couple of miles. We passed the Coven of Mountain Witches near a trail junction, seemingly for the last time, as they were exploring the area at leisure and the day was getting late.

We stopped at Vedette Meadows for a short break before continuing on to our destination of Junction Meadow, two and a half miles down the trail. Ben was really suffering by this time though, so after some discussion, we decided to call it a day. It was a lovely setting, with camp in a grove of large trees next to a large green meadow, with mountain peaks all around, so it wasn’t a hard decision. We had been debating whether to hike 8 1/2 miles tomorrow and then get an early start Tuesday morning and hike the last 4 1/2 miles out, or going on to Junction Meadow today and hiking 10 1/2 miles all the way out tomorrow, staying at a campground close to trails end. This seemed to decide things in favor of option one.  Except, it didn’t.

After setting up camp I hiked down the trail a ways to a point just before it dropped down into a valley. A smokey haze had settled in, which we later learned was from the Ferguson fire near Yosemite, come all this way to taunt us one last time. The haze crept on up the valley, eventually reaching the meadow we were camped by.

We tanked Ben up on water, rested him, and fed him some ramen noodles, the backpackers miracle cure for what ails you. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve made camp, feeling wiped out, and the only thing I could get down was ramen noodles. Whatever the reason, he began to feel better. Miraculously so. My worries relieved, we prepared to enjoy dinner and a cocktail.

“You know it’s only because they took long breaks”, Kim said. “What?” I replied, confused. “Those girls, the only reason we ever caught them was because they took long breaks.” I didn’t bother to reply. Sometimes life is about what you choose to believe.

As we chatted and munched, and gray evening fell, Ben’s robust spirits returned, and he and Kim began to hatch a plan. We would just suck it up and hike all the way out to the car tomorrow. Being the voice of reason, I objected. It was a 4500 foot drop I pointed out, almost like hiking down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and we all remembered how much that hurt. But it was over the course of 13 miles, not 8, they said. So it’s like hiking to the bottom of the Grand and then hiking another 5 miles, I responded. They pointed out there would be hot showers near the campground. If we could still manage to walk there, I replied, unconvinced. Then they reminded me that the little store near the campground had cold beer, obviously saving their best point for last. I began to see the strength of their argument.

While I sat and mulled the next day’s possibilities, I heard the sound of youthful voices and soft laughter from up the trail. We were camped a couple of hundred feet from the trail, with an open view up toward it, so I watched and waited to see what would materialize. As they passed by our camp they gave a casual wave and, laughing and chattering, without a care in the world and bound for who knows where, the Coven of Mountain Witches danced down the trail and into the gentle mountain summer evening. I watched the gray smoke haze evening turn to night as I contemplated the magic and mystery of the mountains.

Continued below...

July 30: The Last Day

I stalled for long as I could. I wasn’t looking forward to the 13 mile hike down to the car, or the 4500 foot descent, so I had a second pack of instant coffee and stalled. Kim and Ben were pushing me toward it, though, and by 9 a.m. I had delayed as long as I could so we broke camp and set off. We made the first two and a half miles to Junction Meadow in just over an hour, dropping a thousand feet in elevation along the way. Shortly after the meadow we came to a lovely waterfall, with a way to get out on the edge and look down. I wanted to play some more, but Ben and Kim pushed on, dragging me after them.

Throughout the day we passed from high mountain meadow down through rocky canyon and increasing heavy forest, passing by waterfalls and under high peaks. Basically all the zones we had passed though on the way up, over the course of several days, we descended through in one day. Being a boulder, I pushed the pace throughout the afternoon until, just before 4 p.m., we approached trail’s end. A couple of hundred yards away I encountered my last deer, standing on the trail watching me, as if waiting to say goodbye.

I find something perversely satisfying in a loop hike. The whole objective is simply to return to the spot you began from, but in a weird way it gives the feeling of having accomplished something, like you’ve come full circle, so to speak. One of many ways backpacking is a metaphor for life.

After reaching the car we headed for the Cedar Grove lodge/camp area for our hot showers and cold beer. As we headed into the camp store a big sign informed us of a water shortage and park wide water rationing, meaning the showers were closed. And I was so wiped out from the hike that the beer gave me no joy, although the cold soda was ecstasy. So we headed out of the park in search of a motel and showers, but not before stopping to make the short hike to the General Grant Sequoia. With a trunk 40 feet around it was an awesome spectacle, and a good way to end our time in beautiful Kings Canyon National Park.

On these little trips of ours I have often in the past managed to kick things up a little, by adding a little extra spice, an adventure “bonus”, if you will. Something to make you really feel like you’ve been on an adventure. It’s never planned or intentional in any way, but just a knack, or luck; it’s what I do. A couple of years ago I got the car stuck in the snow in Yosemite. Before that I got us lost in the desert in Arizona. I’ve developed full blown flu symptoms at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and brought the wrong fuel canisters for our stove at Big Sur. On and on. Going back 25 years I lost our tent poles going up the Tetons. Like I said, just a knack. I thought that maybe on this trip the fact that we had to change our original plans due to a fire was sufficient to appease the gods, and Kim would get off a bit lightly, but the Fickle Finger of Fate, and all that.

After we passed out the park entrance I gave Kim some very bad advice on which road to take, and we soon found ourselves on a twisting, winding, narrow, two lane mountain road with hairpin turns and blind corners. Kim punished me by acting like the SUV was his motorcycle and seeing how many times he could squeal the tires on the hairpin turns. I unpacked my best poker face, which luckily was still handy from when I met the Coven, and strapped it on. It was over an hour later when we reached the safety of flat land. I had developed an eye twitch but otherwise my poker face was in place. We ended up driving all the way to Fresno for a cheap motel and showers, finally checking in just after 9 p.m., making for a very long day. The bright side was that we had an easy drive to Oakland the next day, where we checked into our hotel and then took the BART into San Francisco for happy hour and dinner in the Mission District, where Ben added another first in his young life: he picked up the check.

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