Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Backcountry Trip 2013

Last summer, my sister and I went on a horseback riding camping trip to the Sequoia National Forest with our aunt and uncle and their friends Jack and Monica, who happen to be modern-day mule packers. We had so much fun that we decided to go again this year, only intensify the experience by packing in for a whole week. 

In the southern Sierra Nevada region, there is a packing station known as Balch Park. Our friend Jack has been helping to pack mules for over 20 years, and he graciously took us on the most magnificent guided tour of the wild backcountry. 

Mule packing was how early California was explored, settled, and eventually turned into recreational parks, such as Yosemite and Kings Canyon. It was and still is (besides hiking on foot) the only method of transportation that can take someone and all their gear into the grandest hidden treasures high up in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which is around 400 miles long.

Packing mules is an art form. All the mules are tied together in a string, and each is supposed to carry only 150 pounds. The weight has to be evenly distributed on each side or else wrecks of all sorts will happen.  To spend a week in the backcountry takes months of planning to carefully edit down to the bare essentials of food and camping equipment.

Above is a picture of Balch Park owner, Tim Shew, packing one of our mules. The wrangler (who happened to be his daughter) rode in and dropped off all our stuff at Hidden Camp (loved this camp - it literally is hidden and has no visible trail leading to it!) She took the short steep dusty trail (about 4 hours), but we rode up the mountain on a longer,  more scenic trail (about 6 hours). Mules travel an average of 3 miles an hour.

I had the great privilege of riding my friend Jack's pushbutton, muley-mouthed (aka difficult to steer), absolutely amazing mule named Marci, who has been packing into the Sierras for the past 30 years. She was so awesome! Mules are preferred over horses at times to get the job done because they can fully see their back feet and tail, so they are very sure footed.  Here are a few quotes about mules from the book Mule Men:

"There are good mules and bad mules, but no dumb mules."

"It is true that mules are often slow, ornery, mean, lazy, dirty, noisy, bothersome, peripatetic, and stubborn, and yet they are comical, friendly, dependable, smart, uncomplaining, hard working, sure footed, easy keeping and long lived. In short, mules possess all the traits necessary for pack train travel in the mountains." 

Following a pack train up a mountain trail can be a very dusty experience, which is a great excuse to wear a bandana and look like a bandit! I love this kind of dress-up playing, such as wearing jeans and boots and being all dusty and smelling like horses. I call it the bucolic frolic! Weird thing is, I also enjoyed New York City. But if I had a choice between the two, I'd pick mules and meadows over Manhattan.

Once we reached our campsite, we unpacked and went trail riding each day to different points of interest, such as the Hockett Meadow Ranger Station. Above is the crew, from L to R: my sister on Patti, me on Marci, Jack on Baby and Monica on Tucker. Besides the two rangers, we the only people out there. 

Mules are trained to follow a lead mare and so it was easy to play follow the leader.

Every trail at different elevations had different terrain. There were a lot of downed trees from the winter snow, and so often we would have to cross country and do a little trail blazing. A common sight was scratch marks on trees from bears sharpening their claws. Some were really fresh meaning a bear could be nearby, but I never saw one...

In fact, the wildlife was pretty quiet. There were lots of songbirds, but not many deer, and no bunnies. I did however spot a few marmots on the rocks, which are pretty much oversized squirrels. 

We rode well above the tree line and caught some breathtaking views. It was here that I learned the word sierra means saw-toothed. A fitting name when considering all the ridges and valleys.

One of the most beautiful places we visited was Lake Evelyn. This lake is mostly granite, so the water is really clear since there isn't any sediment. 

Notice how the mountains seem to disappear behind the lake with nothing but blue sky behind the trees. It's because it sits at the top edge of the mountain ridge!

My sister and I hiked around the entire lake in an hour, which required some major bush whacking and boulder hopping to complete the loop.

During our exploration, we happened upon the most stunning and epic view of the entire trip!

The view down the back side of Lake Evelyn.

After all that hiking at 8700 ft, we were exhausted and went for a swim. I will never forget the feeling of having a pristine lake all to ourselves! It was definitely one of the highlights. 

The heroes of the whole adventure were the stock. As I noted earlier, mules are trained to follow a lead mare. Baby is trained to walk in hobbles, where her front legs are chained together in shackles (sounds cruel but it's not). This way they could graze freely and eat as much grass as they wanted without running away and leaving us stranded in the woods.

This is Baby. She is soooo pretty and has lots of attitude (typical mare!) When I was a little girl, I remember teaching myself how to draw horse heads from a book. When I saw Baby I thought, "she looks like a Breyer horse with perfect proportions!"

Mules will forevermore hold a special place in my heart! I learned I could trust them on rugged rocky trails, like the one called Dead Man's Curve covered in loose sharp granite rocks. My mule Marci would slow down, lower her head to the ground and actually calculate her steps. It was so cool.

Tucker was the young teenager of the group, but he was still a good mule! 

Overall, I learned a lot on this camping trip. Practical things such as:
1. Things aren't as scary as we often imagine (nighttime in the woods).
2. A wet bandana works as a dust filter
3. Little pine cones are useful for scrubbing dirty dishes.
4. How to break branches into firewood.
5. I can go for a week without electricity, coffee, music and my computer.

On another level, I also learned that camping reinforces life skills such as:
1. Stewardship. You have to plan and strategize how many supplies can be used per day.
2. Acceptance and Adaptation. Sleeping bag is tight and mosquitoes are everywhere - deal with it.
3. Initiative. A camp runs smoothly if everyone sees a need and fills it.
4. Respect for Beauty. The camping adage is "pack it in, pack it out". I didn't see a single piece of trash anywhere in the backcountry. It was only when I came down the mountain at the lower campgrounds that I found trash and even a giant sequoia with tagging on it. Made me furious!
5. Mental Toughness. You can't act prissy or complain about dirt under your fingernails.
6. Physical Toughness. The wilderness pushes you out of your physical comfort zone and you learn you can do more than you think.
7. Humility. When I was hiking Lake Evelyn, I was walking on and brushing up against all kinds of rough sharp things and it didn't phase me. Afterwords when I changed into my swimsuit, I stepped on the forest floor with my bare foot and winced at the pain of a little pine needle. I leaned up against a tree to remove it and scraped my arm on the tree bark! It got me to thinking how vulnerable humans are. This is the great sense of sublimity that elicits reverence and awe in me!

To end, I'd like to share a few quotes that I wrote in my sketchbook before the trip. Now that it's over, I find these very true (did not write down the author, sorry)

Nature gets into our souls and opens doors to hidden parts of ourselves.

Outdoors is where the great mystery lies, so going into nature should be a searching and humbling experience, like going to church.

Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience. Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence. 

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