The Trinity Alps Wilderness is an undervisited place tucked away in the mountains of Northwestern California. It is a gem of a place, far enough away from major metropolitan areas that one is more likely to encounter the everything-organic, laid back, Birkenstock-wearing, harmonic-convergence oriented backpackers from Mendocino, Eureka or Redding than the Jeep Cherokee-driving, everything Gore-Tex-wearing, I've-got-all-the-toys-so-I'm-prepared-for-everything city types (like me?). It's several hours' drive from Sacramento, Portland, or San Francisco. The place is designated a "Wilderness," so don't expect manicured campgrounds or find the Curry Concession Company's general store in here. The US Congress defines a "Wilderness" as Federal land "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain..." 'Nuff said.
Sick of sitting on the couch watching the Atlanta Olympics, I loaded the Civic one summer morning and headed north on the I-5 to check out the peaks that had looked so inviting as viewed from the Shasta slopes. I stopped in Redding to pick up food and water, and got to the Stuart Fork trailhead at 5PM. My trip would be along what was supposedly one of the busier parts of Trinity, but perhaps owing to my late start, most of the dayhikers are on their way back as I hit the trail. My destination for the night is Morris Meadow, almost 9 miles from the trailhead. The first 2 miles or so were quite boring, winding through a dense but nondescript forest of Douglas fir. The trail follows the eastern bank of the rushing Stuart Fork, whose sound got more and more mellifluous as the day wore on and the landscape opened up. Every now and then I saw wide gravel bars where backpackers are setting up their tents getting ready for the evening's approach.
(Right): With the last traces of daylight steadily receding, I finally emerged into a wide-open area about a mile long and 200 meters wide. And there, grazing about the waist-high grass, were about a dozen deers all staring at me as if I were an uninvited guest who dropped in at dinner time. In fading light I knew that a flash would be necessary to capture the scene, but I resisted the temptation to disrupt them even more than I already had. I put down my backpack, sat down and took in the scenery: there was I, on a warm summer evening, surrounded by sawtooth ridges towering 2,000 feet above the meadow, backlit by the setting sun, wildlife around me, and not another human soul in sight...
I suddenly realized I have 15 minutes or so to find a spot to spend the night. But darkness overtook me before I can find a place suitable for bearproofing my food. I found a small clearing at the edge of the meadow and, without a place to put my food out of bears' reach, decided to take my chances. I knew the weather would be warm enough--I wanted to sleep out under the stars, and so didn't bring my tent. A nightmare! No, I wasn't attacked by anything, but I kept getting awakened by rustling leaves and grass, and by the crackling sound of breaking twigs and branches. It was so dark I couldn't see a thing--I had visions of hungry, big, black bears greedily devouring my poppyseed bagels and candy bars and getting mauled in the process. With trembling hands, I groped for my mini-Maglite, twisted it on, and ever so slowly turned over to where the sounds were coming from. Aaaaaahhhhh! Three pairs of devilish, red, glowing eyes were staring at me--but they're deers'. I wasn't sure, but I think they were after the dried-up, salty sweat crystals on my body. I breathed a HUUUGE sigh of relief. Daylight couldn't come soon enough...(In retrospect, the dangers were probably more imagined than real, but nonetheless...)
(Below): Sawtooth Ridge, as seen from the trails above Morris Meadow. Not visible are the 90 or so steep switchbacks on the Caribou Trail leading to the south face of this ridge, my destination tomorrow.
I set off early the next morning. I have 6 more miles of mostly uphill trails before I reach Sapphire Lake, where I intend to spend the night. The terrain became progressively more rugged, the higher up I got. The wettish sections are covered with lush ferns, and a few streams carelessly spill their water across sections of the trail. The slopes turn brushy.
I met a group of about a dozen
8-to-10 year old boys and girls and their adult guide halfway up.
They'd spent last night up at Sapphire Lake and are now hiking
out. The group was very animated. They excitedly pointed out a
rattlesnake that's retreated into the brush. The troop leader
borrowed my walking stick and poked at the snake the better to
show the poor, terrified rattler to his excited city kids.
(Left): Sapphire Lake is the second in a series of three glacial lakes reached following the trail along Stuart Fork (Emerald and Mirror are the other two). It is quite a sight to behold the steady march of sunrise as it starts from the peaks and hikes steadily down the slopes and touches the still water of the lake and on down the valley.
After a couple of hours of steep hiking, I heard the sound of water falling from the outlet stream at the south end of Emerald Lake, a beautiful bowl made of solid granite. A couple of people were sunbathing, sprawled on the granite slabs by the lake. As inviting as the water looked, I went on as Sapphire Lake is just above Emerald Lake...(continued next page)
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