Friday, November 17, 2017

Hiking the John Muir Trail - An Adventure of Unimaginable Proportions Part 1

It feels good to finally get settled out here in Colorado, starting a new chapter and chasing some dreams I've wanted to chase for a long time. Sharing more of the summer's adventures has been long overdue, and so why not jump in head first now with 240-ish miles of Backpacking and Tenkara along the John Muir Trail? This one is going to take a few posts, so here goes...

This part of the summer's adventures began in Yosemite - an iconic, over-crowded wonder of nature that draws tons of people who may or may not be able to comprehend or take advantage of what they are experiencing while there. Rob and I arrived during a massive wildfire that had, just 2 days before, coated the entire valley in smoke and created a heck of a lot of confusion about how we were going to begin our hike as planned. This ended up being helpful in the end, as we were able to do some things we may not have been able to do otherwise.

You see, the John Muir Trail requires permits, since it is just about the most scenic through-hike in the USA - depending on who you ask. We had not secured JMT permits, but we had secured PCT 500 mile permits for the Pacific Crest Trail, and we planned to hike the overlapping sections of PCT and JMT, and possibly beyond, if our schedule allowed. Given that this raging fire nearby had scared the majority of tourists away, we waltzed right in, and scored one of the most in-demand permits in the park, to hike the northbound JMT between Tuolomne Meadows and Happy Isles; which would take 3 days - before starting our PCT 500 southbound back at Tuolomne meadows, and going straight on to the Southern High Sierra from there.

We spent a night in a car-camping site, and then set off the next day from Tuolomne Meadows, heading northbound on the JMT... which was, confusingly, actually taking us due South. Go figure. It was a monumentally exciting moment for me. I somehow felt that almost everything in my life had been leading up to this very moment... and all along while making these plans, I had presumed we wouldn't be able to get these permits, that the snow and melt out would keep us out, that a fire would get in our way... yet here we were!

Almost immediately we were hiking through easily-recognizable features that were decidedly "Yosemite" in appearance. It was hard to believe that the moment had arrived. I felt overwhelmed... excited that things had gone as planned, excited about what lay ahead... but also apprehensive. I wondered to myself, would I be able to complete the trail? Do I have what it takes? Does a lifetime of backpacking short trips add up to the skill required to pull this off? Did I train hard enough and prepare well enough to finish the John Muir Trail and more?

Soon those thoughts faded though, and I was focused on the scenery, my breathing, the mosquitos, and wondering where we would get a chance to catch our first trout on the trail.

Did I mention it was hot? California is HOT. They always say "oh, its just dry heat, its not even that hot." THAT IS A LIE. Speaking of which, I cannot tell you how many things I heard about California that ended up being lies. Let's start with the "golden hills" thing... what... you mean the burned and dead brown hills? Sure. Don't get me wrong, I love California. But I think everyone has sold California as a bit of a lie to everyone else, just to get them to go there. No different today really, is it? California would benefit from just a little less heat, of that I am sure.

Which brings me to the next important joyful moment for me... A huge shadow had been cast over this hike for me by the knowledge that we were embarking on the JMT during the snowiest hiking year on record. 2 weeks before we began our trip, two women had died in water crossings. Others had died before that. One guy fell of Mt Whitney. It was kind of overwhelming. I didn't share any of this with my mother... 

It was shaping up to be a deadly and challenging year along the PCT and JMT - reports of crazy-high water levels that made water crossings dangerous, icy/slippery snow-fields for miles on and below all of the major passes; and that wasn't counting the fires, which could still become a problem at any time. The joyful moment came when I realized that we were not surrounded by feet of snow, and that we might just end up pulling this thing off...

As we hiked towards our first pass, Cathedral Pass, we hit some pretty serious mosquitos and got our first taste of what was to come. Luckily I had worn my bug-stopper hoody and treated the rest of my clothes with Permethrin. This, along with a bug head-net essentially gave me full-body armor and I was not having a bad time with bugs whatsoever. Score!

As we hiked, the views just got better and better. I took too many photos, but it was also always good to have an excuse to stop and take a deep breath.

We soon discovered that the meadows held the worst mosquitos, and the whole area had just melted out... meaning they were hatching in full force. We encountered a group of college-age girls who were running at top speed; jumping, hollering, hooting and making a racket, they raced past us screaming about mosquitos and slapping their exposed skin repeatedly. Rob and I laughed, picking up the pace and hoping we wouldn't be hit as hard. 

Taking a cue from the girls, and a tip from another hiker, we made plans to camp up higher near the pass itself, hopefully giving us some shelter from the swarms of hungry mosquitos. This tactic ended up working mostly as intended, and we set up camp without nearly as many bugs around as we had hiked through down below.

Another astonishing thing for me was the variety and overall quantity of beautiful flowers in every shape, size and color. The melting snow had created a booming year for all sources of life, but especially for the flowers.

After setting up camp, it was time to go enjoy the views. Behind the ridge we were camped on was one of the most epic sunset views I had ever encountered, so we soaked in the experience as thoroughly as possible.

As I looked out into the mountains, I felt conflicting feelings of calm and chaos... on one side, there was the excitement of the adventure at hand. On the other, there was the gravity of the task at hand. I decided not to worry on this trip, and take it as it came... which was not an attitude that had really worked for me back in city life. That ended up being a good thing.

The light in these mountains is almost beyond words, and certainly beyond my amateur abilities as a hobby photographer with a less-than stellar camera to capture perfectly. I began to understand why Ansel Adams had chosen this mountain range as the subject of much of his life's work. It truly was magnificent.

I slept reasonably well on that first night, and woke up to a beautiful morning, albeit full of mosquitos and a totally botched breakfast. But I soon recovered from the mediocre beginning of my day, and the surroundings re-set my mood in no time at all.

Again on day 2, I spent way too much time taking photos of flowers and other beautiful things I never wanted to forget.

Some of the most unique and picturesque terrain was probably the burn areas left over from the infamous "Rim Fire" from just a few years back. A decent amount of the park burned, leaving fields of tall, blackened trees, which in turn created a severe lack of shade in the hot summer sun.

I reminded myself again that the hot summer sun was going to melt the snow, and therefore I should try not to be too mad at the heat. I also knew that this was a notoriously hot section of trail... and just the fact that we weren't hiking through clouds of smoke from the nearby forest fire kept me from being too bothered by anything negative at all.

I found it difficult to photograph the flowers and the burned trees... which was disappointing because it made for some beautiful scenery. The scale of the trees being so large, while the flowers were so small definitely didn't make it easy.

Somehow though, this burned section was immediately one of my favorite sections of the hike so far. It just left me with a kind of feeling that is hard to describe - one that had a long-lasting and memorable impact.

After descending a few more miles, we arrived at the Merced River and the backpacker's campsite. We set up camp and I went fishing, where I met a group of people, a couple of whom had just bought some cheap "tenkara rods" online. I spent some time teaching them how to use the rods, and we all caught some fish. While I was off fishing, Rob watched a rattle snake try to get into my tent, and he scared it off by tossing pebbles at it. The Japanese couple camped near us were rather intrigued by this apparently, and I wish that I had been there to see it all go down. 

The next morning I said goodbye to my new friends, hoping that we'd meet up again along the trail when Rob and I looped back around to start hiking again from Tuolomne Meadows, heading Southbound. We set off towards Happy Isles, knowing we needed to arrive well before the only shuttle bus that could take us back to the car at the trailhead.

We hiked across and along Nevada falls, looking back at views of Half Dome and other features I don't know the names of. The waterfall was absolutely raging and the sound carried for miles. I'll never forget this view looking back at the falls from farther down the trail. 

Another mile or so down the trail we hit the crowds, which felt strange after being on the trail for a few days. Hundreds of tourists were marching along paved "paths" towards the base of Nevada Falls... but most of them would never make it. I reflected on the complainers and whiners, the people in flip-flops or jeans toting over-stuffed purses and clutching cameras in the mid-day sun. I quickened my pace, slamming my hiking poles on the concrete to make noise and hoping that people would move out of the way for the hikers who were actually in good enough shape to cover more than a quarter of a mile before giving up.

Soon we arrived at the Happy Isles Bridge, knowing we had completed the first section of our through hike. We ate too much food in Yosemite Valley, and then made the shuttle with time to spare. There were also no problems with grabbing our food and other stuff that we had left in the bear-boxes near the car, so we drove off to find a campsite for the night. Luck was on our side for now, and we ended up finding one of the most picturesque car-camping sites of the trip - which, coincidentally, had just opened for the season that very morning. 

I slept really well that night, feeling accomplished and excited about what was to come in the following weeks on the trail... more on that soon!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Enjoying Fall Colors Back in the Adirondacks

After having been back in society for a couple of weeks, I already felt the need to get out to the mountains for some forest bathing and general relaxation for the holiday weekend. The fall colors were in full swing, and I had been disappointed in cutting my time short in the Adirondacks earlier in the season... so naturally I packed up some gear and hit the road, heading for the ADK High Peaks.

When I arrived in the area the weather was beautiful. I grabbed a campsite at Wilmington Notch, and hit the West Branch of the Ausable for a few hours. It was mostly not the best fishing for the fall that afternoon, but I managed to bring a few small browns to hand picking pockets as I usually do there. The water was low and not that cold. And it had just been a full moon. 

The next morning it felt really good to wake up in my tent... but unfortunately the rain was back. How ironic. I checked the weather and noticed it had turned for the worse. The plans for backpacking the high peaks and getting up to any Summits was no longer viable... what a surprise... so I shifted gears and grabbed my day pack, heading for a small stream that I have barely had a chance to fish in the past.

Hiking in I was surprised at the lack of moisture other than the fresh rain on the surfaces surrounding me. It was very dry... barely any fall mushrooms to be found and low water levels everywhere. Not typical here, yet unfortunately the reality of the last couple seasons at this time of the year. But the leaves... well they were simply on fire. 

I really like this particular trail and section of the high peaks... its an area I didn't explore much as a kid. However, I have spent a fair amount of time here in the last few seasons. I was especially looking forward to checking out a section of stream that I have hiked by many times without having had a chance to fish it before.

The short hike didn't disappoint, and I was lucky in the sense that the rain had temporarily stopped just as I had arrived at the trailhead. Fall is my favorite season of the year, and it can be truly unmatched up in this part of the Northeast.

Other than the lack of mushrooms, though, it seemed that the forest was weathering this recent dry spell quite well. I took some photos of the mosses and lichens, which are always fascinating to me. It seemed like a great year for lichen.. tons of it all around, blooming... if that's what you call it.

I soon found the spot I had wanted to fish, and walked off the trail and through the forest for a few minutes to find the stream on the other side of some thick pine trees. The pool I had walked up on almost immediately was clearly "the one" that I was looking for.

I spent a few moments just listening to the sounds around me, simultaneously resting the water in case I had spooked anything while walking up from below. My Nissin Royal Stage was ready to go and I was careful to present the first cast without letting any line touch the water... it was low and I knew the fish would be spooky. I cast a few times below the rock, to no avail. Taking a few careful steps and staying low, I presented a fine cast to the spot behind/above the large rock, and watched as a nice brookie slowly meandered up from the depths behind my fly.

I love that moment when time seems to slow to a crawl... you see the colors... the shape... your heart races a bit... the mouth of the fish opens... the fly disappears... SET! The fish is hooked. I landed this brookie in my net and took a quick photo before releasing it back into the wild. A beautiful wild trout indeed.

Deciding that it made sense to beat the incoming thunderstorms home instead of tempt fate for more fish, I called it a day after this first catch. It just felt right to end there, even though I had not spent much time fishing. So I did just that.

The walk out was even more beautiful, and it seemed the leaves were changing right in front of my eyes - a bit more color with each step - as if to tease me as I retreated from the stormy ADK weather for the second time this year.

Taking in one last view of the stream, I collected my thoughts and continued back to the parking lot. It was bittersweet, knowing I had gotten that one perfect wild troutI had been wanting all year up here... but also not knowing when the next time I'd be able to return would be. Colorado is going to be an adventure, but the Adirondacks will always feel like my mountain home.

As the sun sets on my Adventures this season, I have a lot of writing to look forward to... bringing others along as I re-hash the events of the summer here in posts to come.... stay tuned.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Fishing Loch Vale & Icy Brook, Rocky Mountain National Park

It may be somewhat comical now, that my first update in so long involves fireworks from July 4th... But that's what happens when you are enjoying life and living in the wilderness! Its hard to get service to upload photos, and beyond that, who cares about the internet when you've got the outdoors to enjoy? I sure don't.

Back in July, before hiking the John Muir Trail, Rob and I decided to fish Loch Vale and Icy Brook. Loch Vale appears to be one of the most popular and well known lakes to fish in Rocky Mountain National Park. Walk into any fly shop in the Front Range, and they'll send you here if you're looking for C&R cutthroat fishing without a ridiculously long hike. 

That being said, the hike is beautiful, as is all the water encountered on this trek.

Entering from Glacier Basin, one hikes up a popular trail along waterfalls and cliff-sides, with many scenic outlooks along the way.

About half way up you can see the mountains that form the cirque above.

There was still plenty of snow, and the rivers were mostly blown out - but that's why we were focusing on the lakes instead.

As soon as we arrived at The Loch I knew it would be an incredible day.

There were fish stacked up along the logs, fish trolling the shore, and fish rising out in the center as well.

I took the opportunity to observe some fish for a while below me - it appeared that the spawn was mostly over, but some fish were still in spawn-mode, so I avoided those as best I could.

Making my way around the lake, I fished with a few different techniques, enticing just a few fish to my fly.

But as the afternoon waned, it eventually hit that magical point where the fish just turned on.

I caught countless beautiful and aggressive cutthroats just manipulating Kebari near the shore, and it was glorious.

Icy Brook ended up being a bust for the day as the cutties were spawning there. So I focused entirely on the lake.

The surroundings weren't too shabby...

the fish weren't the only interesting part of the day to be sure... there were flowers, lichens, and views everywhere.

Some of the fish were of decent size, and the catch and release policy was surely to thank for that.

The colors on these fish were just spectacular!

The later it got, the better the fishing was as well.

And with fish like this, how can you leave?

But we all know that they say all good things must come to an end...

With a big smile we all hiked down to the trailhead, recounting the forever-imprinted memories of this successful day...

... re-visiting the views from the morning, bathed in newly revealing evening light.

I like thinking about how many other people have shared these same moments, fished from these same places, looked upon these same impressive rock formations... we all came here and found this beauty and these fish waiting for us.