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Monday, July 29, 2013

Natural Born Thieves

Ground squirrel eyeballing his next victim, Glacier National Park

I came within two inches of running over a squirrel with my bicycle this morning.

It ran across the trail and, just as I was about to pass it, reversed direction and darted in front of me again. Everything would have been fine but it suddenly became indecisive (in that typical squirrel way) and did a little 'oh...this way, no...that way' dance in front of my tire before heading off the trail. If I hadn't braked hard I would have run it over. Why do they do that?

The main goal of every living thing is to eat and avoid being eaten; in other words, to continue to be a living thing. Maybe reversing directions quickly is a squirrel's way of avoiding a predator, but that strategy sure doesn't work too well when it comes to bikes and cars. You can't swing a dead squirrel in my neighborhood without hitting another one. The fatality rate seems to be made up for by sheer volume: there are legions of squirrels running around overhead feasting on the nuts that proliferate in our formerly-a-walnut-orchard neighborhood. The squirrels also inadvertently guarantee future crops by burying the walnuts in everyone's yard--there are little walnut trees popping up in our garden every year.

The Western Gray squirrels around our house are the urban cousins to the ground squirrels you come across in the mountains. Ironically, I think the "country bumpkin" squirrels possess more street smarts than the average city squirrel ever will.

On a camping trip at Lake Shasta when I was little, we came back from swimming one day and found our brand new loaf of bread had a perfect tunnel running all the way through it. Through the wrapper, down the middle and out the other end; if you looked at it from the side you'd never know it had been touched. Apparently they didn't like the crust (not unlike my little brother during that time period).

A trip to Zion National Park ended with a small hole nibbled into every plastic container we had left within reach, including the mustard and ketchup bottles. One of the most brazen bits of thievery happened along Hat Creek: we had just set up camp and were sitting down next to the water when we heard something in the camper. The door was propped open since it was pretty hot that day, and just as we got close a squirrel vaulted out right in front of us. It had climbed up the stairs into the camper, gotten up on the counter, chewed a hole in the net bag that holds our fruit and eaten about a quarter of an apple--all in the five minutes we had left it unattended. Little bastard.

Home invasion evidence.

Birds are another challenge. There are signs posted at the Mather campground at the Grand Canyon warning of the ravens that raid campsites. On our way out one morning we saw the aftermath of a raven party (a rave?); a roll of paper towels was completely unraveled and draped in the trees, bits of cardboard boxes were laying on the ground, and an entire roll of aluminum foil was pulled up over the table and chairs, looking like a shiny Escher staircase. Overturned cups and plates were scattered all over the place and, just to add insult to injury, the birds were standing on the camp stove admiring their handiwork. It was hilarious, but only because we weren't the ones that had to clean it up. 

Raven checking purchases, Village Store, Yosemite National Park

And then there are the marmots.

I've come to think of them as the grumpy old men of the high country. Countless times we have huffed and puffed our way to some windblown isolated mountain destination, finally reaching the top after hours of hiking in high altitude, just to be greeted by a fat marmot waiting for us to put our pack down so he (they're always a he, I just know it) can steal what little food we had left. It's such a lazy way to make a living, kind of like a thief hanging out in front of an ATM. They're no dummies; they seem to know you've used up all your energy to get there and will be an easy mark. At the top of Half Dome, Mark and I collapsed on a rock shelf, congratulating each other on making it up the cables, only to have our grapes stolen right out of our pack in the first two minutes. We saw one along a trail in Alaska, so brazen he didn't even move when we passed within two feet of him. He just stared at us with his beady eyes, probably tabulating how many granola bars he could steal using the slump of our shoulders and the dragging of our boots as a benchmark.

Marmots are just big enough that you probably wouldn't want to mess with them. They have sizable teeth for chewing on grasses, pine cones, and backpack webbing; some of them weigh in at ten pounds or more. In Yosemite, they tend to burrow under the granite slabs, popping out when you least expect them. They don't have that nervous squirrel behavior either; they're more sedate, giving you the impression they aren't paying any attention to you. They are not to be trusted.

Marmot acting casual, Exit Glacier Trail, Kenai Fjords National Park
One thing I've always liked about camping and hiking is that there is (generally) still respect for other's property. I wouldn't dream of leaving my stove and dining room chairs out in the front yard while I go off for the day, but we routinely do that at our campsites. Granted, the stove and camp chairs aren't quite as valuable, but an impressive show of civility all the same. I think it's funny that in all the years we've done this, the most damage or stolen property we've had has been perpetrated by the furry "locals."

So watch out the next time you're out in nature. Disney was completely off track when he depicted the woodland creatures as being helpful and kind. They're crafty and underhanded, disguising their thieving ways with soft fur and big brown eyes. And take my advice: when you reach the top of the mountain, don't take your eyes off that backpack.

A coyote gets his man. Bodie State Park, CA

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Yosemite Hike 2013: Waterwheel Falls

Clearly, I don't walk the talk.

This year I did not follow my very own training schedule before our trip to Yosemite. I even committed the worst offense of feet everywhere: I didn't break in my brand new boots before leaving. Thankfully though, they were a perfect fit and I didn't have any problems with them--not even one blister in the 16/17.4/ 20 miles we hiked (the exact miles are unclear, but I'll explain that later). My trouble was getting my feet to move.

I could go on about the various reasons I didn't do any training, but they're really just excuses. The true reason boils down to laziness and inertia, and boy did I pay.

Pitiful Yosemite Falls this year.
It's been such a dry year (it rained in California all the way up until December, when the great spigot in the sky decided to shut off and stay off); there was very little water in the falls. The snow had all but melted and Yosemite Falls was a trickle, barely visible at times. The one bonus was the river was about 10 degrees warmer, which made swimming much more enjoyable, albeit a bit more shallow. It also seemed to be affecting tourism; there were actually vacancies at most of the lodges and cabins in the valley. That never happens in the summertime in my experience.

The valley this year, hot and dry (as viewed from
Glacier Point); note the absence of snow on the higher peaks.

Mark gave me a book about the history of Yosemite after our first trip there together, and he's been regretting it ever since. It's packed with pictures from the old days in the park and also lists its unusual features; it's where I first saw a picture of Waterwheel Falls. I pointed it out to him and said "I want to go see that!" He said it was too far, it would have to be a backpacking trip. I wasn't convinced. So when he asked me back in May what the big hike was going to be this year I said Waterwheel. I researched it and my hiking book said it was 16 miles round trip and only 400 feet elevation gain/loss. We had done 14 miles last year, all uphill with a gain of 3000 feet, so how hard could it be? Indeed.

Tuolumne Meadow, 7:00am
So on the appointed morning, we got up at 5:30am and drove out of the valley and up Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows, the jumping off point for the hike. It was at least 20 degrees cooler up there--Tuolumne Meadows is at 8000 feet, 4000 feet above the valley. We parked the truck and started down the trail around 7:00am. The first thing we saw was a metal sign: Waterwheel Falls 8.7 miles. What??? The guide book lied.

Upper meadow on the Tuolumne River

The trail starts out fairly flat, going across the open meadow then up a short rise to meet the Tuolumne River. We followed the river for five miles in cool, beautiful morning light, all by ourselves save for a few backpackers that were packing out that morning. We crossed a footbridge at the top of Tuolumne Falls and made our way downhill to a viewpoint.

Tuolumne Falls

From there we made our way to Glen Aulin, a backcountry "camp" with tent cabins for the lucky few who score reservations there. Win a spot in one of these and you have the luxury to saunter the trail slowly and have a bed and meals waiting for you when you get there. We ate our granola bars with grubby hands and looked longingly at the "campers" who were no doubt eating pancakes and sipping coffee out of clean mugs.

The trail, ever so subtly taking us downhill into the canyon.

California Falls
The trail splits off from there; Waterwheel Falls is about 3 miles downstream from the fork. We followed the river down the gorge, passing California Falls and LeConte Falls on our way. We saw only four other people during this part of the hike; all backpackers on their way through. Mark kept asking me if I remembered what the falls looked like--there weren't any signs on the trail so you have to know what you're looking for. I assured him I did, I'd been looking at the picture so often it was burned into my brain. Just when we thought we might have passed it, there it was.

Waterwheel Falls gets it's name from the unusual granite formation it flows over. It's a granite dome, scrubbed smooth by glaciation. Somewhere along the way big pits have formed and as the water flows down the dome it hits the bowl-like holes and spits up into the air. If the water is high and fast enough, it actually circles back on itself forming a "waterwheel".

Waterwheel Falls

Rooster Tail where a waterwheel would be in a wet year.
Since it was a low water year, it was more of a "rooster tail" but it was pretty cool all the same. We crawled out as close as we felt was safe and took some pictures and a little movie (to prove we actually made it).

At that point it was 11:30 and it was pretty hot sitting on the open granite in the sun. We decided to find a shady spot to sit by the river and maybe soak our feet while we had some lunch. That was when I realized just how far downhill we had gone.

The 400 foot elevation loss the book noted was just to Glen Aulin (and it wasn't just one little slope--we gained and lost 400 feet several times over in that stretch). The last 3 miles to the falls was all downhill. I prefer not to go uphill in the second half of a long hike, I'd rather get it over with in the cooler morning when I actually have energy. We had left our GPS trail unit in the truck thinking we wouldn't need it so I've no idea how far down we had descended, but it was too much. Way too much.

We climbed back up the side of Waterwheel and LeConte, finding a nice place to sit and eat our beef jerky/apple/power bar lunch. It was beautiful. So beautiful it would have been nice to just lay back and take a nap. Unfortunately, it was past noon and we still had at least 7 more miles to make it back to the truck, then an hour and a half drive to get back to our campsite in the valley.

Our lunchtime view: LeConte Falls

Up, and a little down, then up, a few hundred feet of flat, then up some more. It got to the point where I could only look at my boot tops and concentrate on moving one, then the other. Why didn't I train? How could I have been so stupid? We stopped and had another apple at the top of Tuolumne Falls. I understand why people swim at the top of waterfalls in Yosemite. The pool of water is so tempting when you're exhausted and your sweat has solidified into dirty salt crystals on your arms legs and face.

This guy was mocking us, I have no doubt. I could hear the tiny sounds
of laughter at our expense as we (slowly) passed him on the trail.

After that snack we were in a little better shape. I wouldn't exactly call it a second wind, but we made pretty good time back to the truck, especially when it came into view across the meadow. I can really sympathize with the pack horses that clod up the trails then break into a sprint when they spot the barn.

The first thing we did when we reached the truck was open up the camper and grab the first cold drinks we could find, gulping them down. Nothing tastes better than cold lemonade after drinking lukewarm plastic water for 9 hours. Thankfully the traffic was light on Tioga Road and we made it back to camp by 5:30pm, just in time to jump in the river and wash the grime off before dinner.

A lucky shot--just happened to be sitting in front of this flower
holding the camera when this guy showed up.

I think hikes are a little like childbirth; after the pain fades you start thinking "hey, I'd like to do that again." That's what I'm thinking now, maybe in a high water year. But I'm also thinking I will not ignore the training part this time. Especially since I looked up this hike on the website when we got back home and they have the trail length listed at 20 miles.

I'll see your 20 and raise you two blisters...

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Strange in a Stranger Land: UFOs and Aliens

I was playing the Google Doodle in honor of the 66th anniversary of Roswell's alleged UFO crash (in case you missed it click here) and got to thinking of all the weird places we've traveled over the years.

We've been through Roswell NM, and it seems to me the city got pretty lucky back in 1947; they couldn't have asked for a better marketing tool to draw tourists. Parts of southern New Mexico are pretty, mostly in a stark/flat/desert kind of way, and there's Carlsbad Caverns (which is very cool) but for the most part, there's only dry, dusty scrub as far as the eye can see. There's a military institute in Roswell, and of course they have the Walker Air Force base, but the main attraction these days seems to be UFO-themed museums, t-shirt and gift shops. The local KFC has an alien to greet you at the door, and even the street lamps are adorned with alien eyes. It's funny and actually pretty cool. But I must admit I'm not a believer in the whole visitors-from-another-universe sort of thing.

Roswell lamp post
Take me to your chicken: the Colonel has a bouncer in Roswell
Roswell converted it's theater to a museum.
One of the many gift shops in Roswell.

Highway 375 aka the Extraterrestrial Highway

If you're ever traveling through Nevada on the Extraterrestrial Highway (375)--it runs across Nevada roughly from southern Utah to Tonopah--you have to stop at the Little A-Le-Inn in Rachel. It's not a big town (I don't think it's even big enough to call a town, collection of mobile homes and shacks might sum it up better) but you'll know you're there when you spot the flying saucer dangling from the tow truck on the side of the road. Even better, after you take a couple pictures of that, go inside the bar/restaurant and have the most expensive crappy meal you'll ever enjoy.

How you know you've arrived at the Little A-Le-Inn Motel and Bar.
The place is filled with alien and UFO knick knacks--Rachel is located right on the edge of the infamous Area 51--and I dare you to leave the place without a souvenir. The back wall of the bar is completely covered with memorabilia and alien themed bumper stickers with a mix of political stickers for color. There is actually an "inn" here too; it's a collection of mobile homes that rent out by the half. That's right, you have the chance to share a mobile home with a complete stranger in the middle of the Nevada desert.

We just stopped in for lunch though and had a great time talking with the bartender, watching the locals come and go. We were allowed to sit in the "bar area" (as opposed to the "restaurant area" that was on the other side of the red line painted on the floor) since we were over 21. We ordered burgers and cokes and were promptly given a hard time for our choice of beverage (what? No beer?). For the two hours we were there, a deeply inebriated man at the end of the bar swayed on his barstool clutching one of those Big Gulp travel mugs. Every so often the bartender would discreetly pull it out of his grip and refill it with what looked like rum and coke. We stayed as long as we could, laying odds on when he would tumble off his stool, but he never did. Perhaps the work of an alien force field...

Bellying up to the bar: The Little A-Le-Inn

We've seen a few strange things camping in the desert. Once over the Anza Borrego horizon we saw lights that seemed too bright and steady to be a plane, seeming to travel too quickly and abruptly reverse directions to be human driven. There are a lot of military bases out there, so it was most likely one of theirs. Perhaps they're not required to have the regular red blinking lights that the commercial airplanes have. Or who knows, maybe we were seeing experimental drones--this was in the early 2000s after all.

Alien eggs? A wash near Seventeen Palms, Anza Borrego.

Oh, we learned something all right.

We've also met the most interesting characters out in the desert. The caretaker and lone resident of Ballarat outside of Death Valley comes to mind. If he didn't have alien blood in him, he was perhaps probed too deeply at some point; he told us some stories that might have made sense if we had polished off a couple bottles of tequila before talking to him. Maybe.

Charles Manson's truck. Really. (Ballarat, California)

It seems the conspiracies and visions of little green men always seem to originate somewhere in the desert. I think it's the sun; I don't think the human brain is meant to withstand years of the sun's rays boring in, slowly coddling it until the parts that sort out reason and sanity are irretrievably short circuited. But hey, maybe I've got it all wrong. Maybe there are aliens out there, whirring around in futuristic spacecraft. If so they're pretty wily: they're clever enough to only show themselves to the people you're least likely to believe.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Dry Heat: Death Valley Camping

With all the talk about the record breaking heat this week on the west coast, I thought it might be appropriate to write something about Death Valley National Park.

Death Valley, where it's possible to see the earth naked.

Mark and I made our first trip there in 1992, when it was still a National Monument (Mark had been there once when he was a kid but all he remembered about it was the pool at the resort.) At the time we were working for an environmental lab and I talked with a lot of geologists in the course of the workday; most of them couldn't be more enthusiastic about the place and swore we would love it once we got there. So we planned the trip for early April, when the weather was supposed to be just on the cusp of warm-but-not-hot and off we went.

We had no idea how popular Death Valley was. We waltzed in with no reservations, expecting we could just pick out a campsite and stay for the week. Spring and Fall are the most popular times to visit, and the weeks surrounding Easter are some of the most crowded. We showed up in our Ford F150 with it's camper shell on the back (this was before our current rig) and were greeted by the now familiar "Campground Full" sign. Augh! The ranger pointed across the street to what looked like a gravel parking lot and told us we were welcome to stay in overflow tonight and check back in the morning for openings.

The lush campground at Furnace Creek (well, compared to Sunset anyway)

The "campground" across the street was euphemistically named Sunset: I'm not sure if it's namesake was the large numbers of retirees present that were enjoying their sunset years, or the fact that when the sun sets, it's rays blast directly across the valley and roast the campground. It was a huge graded gravel parking lot with one set of pit toilets in the middle, the open space set up to accommodate those big RVs the size of city buses. I think the toilets were just decoration; some of the RV monster-mobiles looked like they came equipped with their own waste treatment plants.

We tried to make the best of it and unloaded our chairs, made a table out of our cooler and crammed ourselves into the sliver of shade made by the side of the truck. While April is still considered cool in Death Valley, cool is a relative term. We had just left a cold, rainy spring day that morning, so suddenly finding ourselves sitting in a blinding white/gray parking lot in 90 degree weather was a bit of a shock. Dazed, we watched as the RVs lumbered in, leveled themselves with fancy hydraulic systems, cranked out their living room-sized pop outs, and fired up their generators, presumably to run their air conditioners, microwaves and satellite TV systems. Amazingly, we never saw anyone emerge from some of them. They were self-contained micro-environments that ran on huge tanks of diesel. We wondered why they bothered to move them at all, but I guess they liked to change the view outside their bay windows once in a while.

We made some sandwiches (because we just couldn't face lighting the stove) and sat studying the map of the park, plotting the next day.

Death Valley is a huge park and the attractions are spaced out along the length of it. We had purposely chosen to stay in the Furnace Creek area because it's centrally located; it would reduce the amount of drive time to get to either end of the park. Furnace Creek Resort has cabins and a motel along with a couple of restaurants and a general store so it's convenient in that way as well. It's easy to find when you go--look for the only green spot for 100 miles. Death Valley actually has a lot of water, you just have to know where to look; there's an underground aquifer and several springs around the base of the mountains. The resort has taken advantage of this and maintains a golf course and date palm orchard. I don't play golf and I know environmentally it doesn't make sense to pour water out onto one of the driest places on earth, but there's something soothing about looking out over an expanse of green grass after spending the day squinting through the heat waves in the valley.

Date palms and 18 holes, Furnace Creek Resort

First thing in the morning, we packed up and drove across the street to see if we could get a spot with a little shade. Luckily for us a perfect spot opened up. The rangers reserve the sites in the trees for tent campers for the shade and shelter from the wind. We were lucky enough to score a site with a tree, which had a resident roadrunner family living in it. The ranger grilled us a bit before assigning us the site. They are very protective of the wildlife there; it's tough enough making a living in that environment and human harassment would be the last thing the poor creatures need.

Roadrunner being coy. We found it hard to photograph them as they never stand still
and now have greater sympathy for Wile E. Coyote.

We pulled in and set up camp. We had the tent with us, but considering the location and the amount of wind we had the night before, we decided to sleep in the back of the truck for the night and see how it went (Because of the huge fluctuations in temperature in the valley and surrounding mountains, wind is an ever present possibility. In the afternoons in the spring, the wind kicks up to gale force quickly and carries dust and debris along for the ride.) It only took a few minutes before our neighbors started wandering over and introducing themselves.

Wendell (and his wife, who in a weeks' time we never saw) were from Washington state and drove an impressive fifth-wheel trailer back and forth to Mexico every year. The bachelor Berkeley was a retired college professor in a rickety old camper on the back of a small Toyota truck, also from Washington. They had both been camping there for a few days and had forged an Ernie and Bert type relationship, bickering with each other as they sat in their lawn chairs drinking beer. When they saw us pull in they walked over and sat down at our picnic table, telling us about the roadrunner and asking about our "rig".

Little did we know that these guys would be permanently attached to our table for the rest of the week. As far as we could tell, they never left the campground. We'd go off for the day exploring and when we returned, there they were asking about our day. It was like having two ugly housewives, but without the advantage of dinner waiting for us on the table. It would have been irritating but they were entertaining and informative; they had both been to Death Valley many times and had a lot of information about the area. It was our first lesson in campground hierarchy--the young and inexperienced can pick up a lot of helpful information from the old campground guard.

The first full day there we made a run south to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. We parked there and walked out onto the salt pan, the sun bouncing off the bright white surface and sneaking in through the bottom gap in our sunglasses. It was uncomfortably warm and the morning was only in the 70s. I can't imagine what it's like in the summertime when the temps get up into the 120s; I think my shoes would have melted, followed by my eyeballs.

Mark on the salt pan
That side of the valley also features the Devil's Golf Course, a huge field of cracked salt pan that's been heaved up by the cycle of rain and heat. If you walk out onto it and listen closely you can hear the crackling as the salt dries and contracts. It's eerily beautiful the way the salt sparkles and makes patterns that run down the valley for miles.
Devil's Golf Course

Driving back toward our camp, Artist's Drive is a one way loop through an alluvial fan that spills out from the Black Mountains. Mineral deposits create colorful layers in the exposed rock and soil; it's a great place to take pictures in the afternoon when the light makes the colors really stand out.

Artist's Palette

It's a good thing we did the south end first on that trip; that afternoon clouds gathered over the mountains and unleashed enough rain to create a flash flood that wiped the road out between Furnace Creek and Badwater Basin. It rains an average of 2.36 inches in Death Valley annually and we were lucky enough to be there the day most of it came down. It was pretty dramatic though; we watched through our binoculars as the muddy rush of water came down out of the mountains, a scary sight made better knowing we were in a safe place.

Ubehebe Crater
Scotty's Castle
We explored the north end for the rest of the trip, visiting Ubehebe Crater, a gigantic hole created by a volcanic explosion. We also took a tour of Scotty's Castle, a villa built in the 1920's and used as a winter home by Albert Johnson and his wife, a wealthy couple who came west to the desert for health reasons. The park purchased the house after the Johnson's death and docents dressed in period costumes conduct tours for a small fee.

Spiral staircase, Scotty's Castle

We spent a morning walking around the Mesquite Flat Dunes, a huge expanse of sand piled up by the strong winds that run up and down the valley during the year. It pays to get up early in the morning for these; there are all kinds of nocturnal creatures that leave interesting tracks in the sand which get erased daily by the afternoon winds.

Mesquite Dunes

We stopped in and did a little boardwalk hike set up along Salt Creek, home to the Salt Creek Pupfish. Yes, there are fish in Death Valley, and boy are they randy in the springtime. They have to take advantage of the relatively high water levels when they can, and since it had just rained they were out in full force, the original speed daters. Salt Creek actually runs above ground all year, but it's length depends on the time of year and amount of rainfall. They are surprisingly pretty and we watched them jet around in the shallow water for a while, amazed by their very existence in such a dry place.

Salt Creek Pupfish, spooning

Another little walking tour goes through the Harmony Borax Works, just down the road from Furnace Creek Resort. There's a nice display explaining the way borax was collected and processed, with an old double wagon on display that used to be pulled by the "20-mule team."  If it hadn't been so wet, we would have liked to hike out to see the "haystacks,"  remnants of the borax mining days when laborers would scrap up the cottonball borate into piles for processing. A one way road nearby winds through Mustard Canyon, hills that look like piles of, well, dry mustard.

All the places we visited during this trip are accessible by car. There are several campgrounds in the park, including one at higher elevation, Wildrose, that is much cooler than the valley campgrounds below.

Into the great beyond: most of Death Valley's backcountry is only accessible by 4WD

Get yourself a high clearance vehicle though, preferably with four wheel drive, and hundreds of miles of back roads are opened up for you. There are four wheel drive accessible roads you can travel to reach dry camping spots in the park, and tons of old mining equipment scattered in the back country to explore as well.

Death Valley during a desert bloom.
This is about as good as it gets in the valley foliage-wise.
Although it's not as spectacular as some of the wetter desert parks like Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree, after particularly wet winters the valley blooms in a blanket of yellow flowers. Death Valley is an amazing place that really gets into your blood and if you're like me, once you visit you'll be compelled to go again and again. There's something about being able to see the earth in it's raw form; there's no foliage hiding the uplifting and erosion of the mountains. And the night sky is full of more stars than you'll be able to see almost anywhere else in California. Death Valley's closest large urban neighbor is Las Vegas, 120 miles and a couple sets of mountain ranges away.

OK, I'll admit, it can get hot sometimes.

But it's a dry heat...