Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Jarbidge Crossings

Note: This post includes a link to a video sharing site -- you may need to download the Adobe Flash player to view it. -- DR

If it is solitude, isolation, and landscapes of great beauty you seek, then the Jarbidge Wilderness is the place to go. Much of Nevada is in general sparsely populated and remote, but this area in the northeastern corner of the state is especially so. On the advice of the Forest Service office in Wells, we headed to the Slide Creek trailhead, 20 miles off a dirt road, and even the last of the paved road was a couple hours from any settlement. Our goal was another three day backpack trip to explore the wilderness.

Our first day was one of stream crossings. As with much of the places we have been so far this year in the West, the exceptional snows from the winter stayed late, but were melting fast and swelling the creeks. Most stream crossing have an array of rocks or logs that one can use to get across without taking off the boots. The use of hiking poles offsets the compromised balance from a carrying a full pack in these Twister-like situations. For larger streams, taking off the boots may be necessary but never welcome for a couple of reasons – the water can be icy, toe-numbing cold, and it takes a good 15 to 20 minutes to do the full boot removal, cross, dry feet, boots on sequence. In the past situations that required boot removal, we would cross in bare feet, feeling our way across slippery rocks. I can remember one particular hairy crossing with our friend Gwen in Convict Creek in the Sierra – besides being deep and swift, the crossing was particularly wide, and by the time we got to the other side we were in pain and near tears. We now carry a pair of “Aqua Socks” – beach sandals with a rubber sole and mesh material top. John and I have near the same foot size so we only carry one pair. I sewed a nylon bag for the shoes. Now one of us will cross first while tethered to a 50-foot cord. After crossing the socks go in the bag, tied to the cord, and thrown to the person on the other side.

The loop trip John scoped out followed Slide Creek – we dropped down in elevation for about 6 miles before hitting the East Fork of Jarbidge Creek. The plan was to cross and head up a canyon to Emerald Lake, but when we came to that crossing, we hesitated. We watched the creek for a while – it was flowing fast and was at least three feet deep. A loss of footing could send us bobbing like an apple at a Halloween party. Fortunately we had an alternate route, and we bypassed the crossing and continued up canyon. We encountered only one other significant stream crossing, across two spindly tree trunks tied together with appeared to be kite string which offered a challenge in poise and balance. See John cross a stream from this link.

The area is primarily volcanic rocks that form benches and hoodoos. The terrain is steep with prominent avalanche slide paths on the slopes. These are desert mountains, but in the creek bottoms it is lush, with plentiful wildflowers, cottonwoods, skunk cabbage, and grasses. The higher slopes are covered with sagebrush, but from a distance it is a continuous green that offsets the red of the rocks, occasionally punctuated by lingering snow drifts.

As we hiked the trail, we saw evidence of other hikers – an occasional candy wrapper, some flattened vegetation, boot prints in the mud. As we neared our final stream crossing before camp, gathered at the base of a tree was a crowd – 17 Boy Sprouts and three of their leaders. They were as surprised to see us as we were to see them. They hailed from Twin Falls, Idaho and ranged in age from 12 to 18 years old. Out for three days, they had one more night before heading home. One leader commented he was ready for a hamburger. We enjoyed chatting with them, but were relieved to hear they were hiking a few more miles before setting up camp – the feeling of solitude is a bit dampened by that many pubescent boys so close by.

The next day was one of great scenery but physical challenge. Already tired from the previous day, our loop took us another 1,600 feet up in elevation to a point where the trail was obscured by snow. An inconvenient place, since we had to cross over a ridge that was nearly vertical in places. We ended up going cross-country up to a saddle that looked like where the trail should terminate – with John’s superior navigation skills, it was the right place. The rest of the day was mostly uphill. When we finally came to a high point with a panoramic view of the valleys to the east, we made camp. I was beat – we set up the tent and washed up. I could not resist lying down on the lofted down bags, with the afternoon breeze wafting through the tent and, taking a nap – I felt like an angel bedded in a cloud. (The second picture is from this campsite -- if you look real close you can see me in the picture.)

We completed our loop the next day, going mostly horizontal on a very infrequently traveled stretch. The trail was almost indiscernible in places, overgrown with brush and with many trees blown down across the trail. Funding for maintenance activities in these remote areas have not been available for decades, and probably won’t be in the future, so our laying of treads helped keep them from disappearing in some small way.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Peaks and Old Pines

Note: My apologies for the relative dryness of this post – I have been occupied with reading the “Da Vinci Code” obsessively – Mom, Dad, and John each read it with equally reclusive behavior, and I was the next in line. Enjoy the photos! --DR

We spent three days in Great Basin National Park challenging our uphill muscles. We started with an overnight backpack trip to Baker Lake (top photo). We reached the lake by noon, and after a quick lunch we climbed cross-country to Baker Peak. From this peak we could look across a very large cirque to Wheeler Peak. With binoculars we could see other hikers at the summit, and even make out that one of them wore a red parka. The air was clear, and we could make out the snow-covered peaks of the Wasatch Mountains outside of Salt Lake City.

This was a loop trip – one of our unwritten rules is never to retrace your route if possible. We continued the next morning by Johnson Lake, where the remnants of a tungsten mining operation (circa 1913), including aerial cables and miners cabins (second photo) occupied the lake basin.

Day 3 was a hike to the top of Wheeler Peak, the second-highest peak in Nevada at 13,063’ (third photo). We started early, and despite the howling wind on the ridge approaching the peak, we reached the summit in good time. We watched with binoculars as two other couples meandered across the same ridge, only to turn back. We had the summit to ourselves. We had an unobscured view in all directions, allowing us to see the faint outline of the Ruby Mountains to the north (our next destination).

The Park also has three groves of Bristlecone Pines, some of the oldest living organisms on earth. We took the side trip on our descent to one of these groves, feeling insignificantly young next to some of these trees (fourth photo) that are almost 5,000 years old.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


Note – We summited Arc Dome on June 11, 2006 -- DR

The title is from a bumper sticker seen in Carson City. Those travelers who judge the State by what they see in Las Vegas might be justified. But we are here in the center of the Basin and Range, and it is glorious. Our goal was to climb Arc Dome in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, a peak with an elevation of 11,773 feet. Because of its remoteness, this area gets very few visitors. We camped at one of the trailheads accessing the wilderness area surrounding the peak in a Forest Service campground with only five sites, nestled in the quaking aspen trees next to a rushing stream of icy snowmelt. We were the only ones camped there for the three days we stayed.

There is actually a hiking route called the Toiyabe Crest Trail that follows the Toiyabe Mountains ridge for approximately 50 miles and then circles around Arc Dome. We took the route, however, that went directly to the peak. These are desert mountains, so once we left the aspen-lined stream channel, the vegetation was sparse – sagebrush at the lower elevations and mountain mahogany and limber pine higher up with an alpine ground cover of tiny wildflowers above all else. Trees were sparse, and near the ridges they were permanently bent over from the prevailing west winds. Some snow was still around in scattered patches.

The hike was about 15 miles round trip, on a trail in good condition but uncompromisingly steep. The zephyr winds picked up in the afternoon, but otherwise we had clear and spectacular weather. We could see at least a hundred miles in all directions from the peak – off to the west the snow-capped outline of the Sierra Nevada could be discerned. A nice stone wall on the peak protected us long enough to eat lunch and peruse the register. Previous summiteers wrote about hordes of persistent and voracious flies, which seemed to be present later in the season, and fortunately we did not experience.

This area sees very few visitors – there were only two entries in the register so far this year. We did talk to one person at the trailhead – his license plate was “ARCDOME” – who said people think Nevada is just a dry desert, while making the motion of a raised forefinger to his lips, like this is our little secret. Well, we know otherwise, and now you do, too.

Mining for Clams

Note – we visited the places described in this entry on June 9 and 10. -- DR

What could be more of a thrill for a couple of geologists but to find a place that has both mines and fossils? Located in the Shoshone Mountains south of Highway 50 (“The Loneliest Road in America”) is the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park. In this remote area are the remnants of the turn-of-the-century (20th Century, that is) mining town of Berlin. Gold and silver were mined here, from an underground operation that had 12 levels. Located in close proximity is a “fossil house”, a shelter protecting the excavated remains of the Ichthyosaur, which also happens to be the Nevada State Fossil.

We arrived just in time to tour the Diana Mine, a tunnel that was mined separately but concurrently with the Berlin Mine and connects eventually with the fourth level. Armed with hard hats and lamps, we ventured in. The tunnel follows a quartz vein which was the source of the ore. The tour was a good show – there were examples of mining equipment and a good explanation of mining techniques of the time. Despite the warnings from our ranger guide, we missed seeing the bats that inhabit the tunnel or the rattlesnakes he said always block the tunnel entrance.

The town itself has some buildings in remarkably good shape. Apparently there were people living there even after the end of the peak mining activities in 1911, and prevented removal of wood from the buildings and thus preventing their collapse. The most impressive was the stamp mill, a large barn-like structure with a dozen of the original 30 stamps still in place. A former resident of the town who grew up there during its heyday wrote a history of his life and the place. Placards with excerpts from this history were erected about the old town site, in front of both existing buildings and former locations of notable sites (like the saloon and the prostitute’s house).

Excavations of the Ichthyosaur began in 1956 and continued into the 1960’s. This creature was a marine reptile with a head like a crocodile and the body of a whale, and could reach up to 50 feet in length. Fossils of this Jurassic creature can be found throughout the world, but the ones found here were significant for their size – they used to claim they were the largest ever found, until recently when even bigger ones were found in Canada. A nice enclosed structure protects the excavation site, where assemblages of the bones of seven individuals were uncovered but left in place.

Apparently there is a book called “Gem Trails of Nevada”, and in there is a description of a fossil collecting site just 0.1 miles outside of the State Park boundary. Here ammonites and clams could be found. A truck with three guys in it stopped by with this book in hand while we were viewing the big bones, asking the ranger for clarification on the location of the site. We perked up, and the ranger offered to show us the spot after the tour. It was a short walk, and he puttered ahead in his motorbike. John and I spent the next hour or so in the stooped position looking for something resembling aquatic animals. We found a few keepers – no ammonites, but some really nice clams.

Sparks Junk

Note -- Once again the intersection of us and an Internet connection are few and far between – this entry took place on June 5, 2006 -- DR

Like knees and backs, some things just give out from overuse. We open and close our tailgate a dozen times a day to access all the gear stuffed in the back. The latch on the tailgate was opened one too many times, and it broke, leaving us with a tailgate that could only be opened with a screwdriver and wrench. A bit inconvenient, so we needed to find a replacement part. The parts store in Truckee did not have one, and there were no car dealerships in town. The clerk at the parts store suggested the Pull-a-Part junkyard in Reno. We decided to stop by on our way east from Truckee.

I asked Dad if he wanted to come along – maybe he wanted some new suspenders. He used to have a pair of suspenders that had a pattern like a tape measure, complete with the inch marks, appropriate for a craftsman like him. He wore them so much they stretched out. He kept the hardware, and replaced the suspender material with some seat belt webbing. I thought he might want to look for another color to supplement his wardrobe, but he was happy with the ones he had to buckle up his pants.

John and I found the place – located actually in Sparks, just east of Reno. We got there in the morning, just as the sun was starting to heat things up. Just like any great amusement park, we had to pay $2 just to get in, and we got our hand stamped in case we wanted to leave and come back. With tool bag in hand, we wandered to the small truck section. Up and down the aisles we went, looking for a Toyota of any vintage. Lots of Fords, Chevys, and other trucks gutted and stripped. The make and year of the vehicle was marked on the fender, or we would not have recognized what was left. We only found one 1994 Toyota, and the tailgate latch was already nabbed. Come to think of it, that is why we got a Toyota -- they don’t die easily.

Junkyards can be weird places – a couple of guys paid their admission fee to walk around and break windshields. Some vehicles look like they just gave out, while others were damaged from obviously serious collisions. As we headed out the gate I could hear the sounds of the local classic rock station playing Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper”.

We called a couple of other junkyards, and found one that sold new replacements of our part – apparently it’s a common failure. We are once again opening and closing our tailgate with ease.

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Rim Shot

It is possible to hike the perimeter of Lake Tahoe. The Tahoe Rim Trail circles for 165 miles along the ridgelines and peaks surrounding this very blue body of water, sometimes dropping to lake level. We rooted down in the Martis Creek Campground southeast of Truckee for a few days. The campground is conveniently located next to the airport -- convenient if you are flying, but a bit loud at peak times of the day, although pleasantly nestled among the trees with a view of a reservoir and the wetlands maintained for the wildlife. Since we had the luxury of not setting up and taking down our tent each day, it left us with time to do some hiking along this circumnavigating trail.

Imagine the Rim Trail as a circle around the lake which intersects various roads and highways radiating out from the lakeshore. These intersections divide the trail into named segments. Well-marked trailheads exist at these intersections, with nice signs containing detailed maps of the terrain accessed from the entry point. Much of the trail is maintained by groups that have adopted segments, and some groups provide nice printed materials at the trailhead of their segment.

One hike started from Brockway Summit off of Highway 267. We headed on the segment heading north, hoping to reach a high point named Mount Baldy. As we gained elevation, the snow patches leftover from a record winter snowfall became more continuous, eventually obscuring the trail and slowing our progress. It became obvious that we would not make it to Mount Baldy. John was ahead of me, and from a rise he called down that we would be able to eat lunch in the gazebo. Gazebo? I hustled to catch up, and sure enough on the peak up the ridge we saw a structure that had the silhouette of a garden canopy.

As we got closer, we saw it was a lookout tower, once used for sighting fires. At one time these towers were manned 24 hours a day with rangers scouting for signs of smoke or flames, this method is being replaced by surveillance by aircraft which can cover a larger area with fewer personnel. These lookout towers have become historical structures, and because they are located in places that offer sweeping panoramic views, they are great places to visit.

The Martis Peak Lookout was restored in recent years, with new windows and wood interior and exterior. Inside was a card table and chair, and we settled in for a comfortable picnic with a view. The restoration team drew profiles of the horizon and marked the names and elevations of the distant peaks on the paneling above the windows, along with other landscape features such as ski areas and reservoirs. Also marked were the azimuth directions, so if you were a good hiker and had a compass (one of the 10 Essentials), you could pinpoint the features precisely. From this vantage point, we could see as far north as Mt. Lassen and all of Lake Tahoe.

The high point of our day, both figuratively and literally.

Friday, June 2, 2006

Crossing Bridges

We are now a party of four. We have reunited with my parents outside of Marysville at the home of a longtime family friend. Gathered were about 40 friends and family of our hosts, Bob and Darlene. I have not seen some for probably 40 years, and among the other guests were friends who said things like “The last time I saw you, you were this tall!”, while stretching their hand out about 3 feet above the ground. The attendees stayed in motor homes and tents parked on the perfect green lawn that stretched like an apron from the barn-style house among the oak trees. There was a potluck at every lunch and dinner, spontaneous conversations, and lawn games to keep us occupied throughout the days. And to top off this food fest, we also had time to visit with my cousin in Yuba City with a bar-b-que at their home.

We left the Eden-like setting of our hosts on the Tuesday following Memorial Day to avoid traffic. Our pace is now a bit more relaxed – in the morning there is time to take a walk, cook some oatmeal for breakfast, pack our gear, and hit the road about 9 am. Distance traveled is generally not more than 60 miles a day, with frequent stops at fruit stands and sites of historical interest.

On this, our first day of travel together, we stopped at the Bridgeport Covered Bridge, located on Highway 20 and crossing the South Yuba River. It is claimed to be the longest covered bridge in the country – well, make that the longest single-span wooden truss covered bridge. Built in 1862 and restored in 1971, it is a solid 229 feet long from portal to portal. The North Blenheim Bridge in New York is second at 228, although the if you measure the clear span between bridge abutments is 210 feet for the New York bridge compared to 208 for the Bridgeport Bridge. I guess it depends on how you measure it. One of only nine covered bridges in California, it is constructed from Douglas Fir milled from the nearby forests.

Quoting from the information pamphlet posted at the bridge, the answer to the question “Why was the bridge built here, in the middle of nowhere?” is as follows:

“The Bridgeport covered bridge was part of the fourteen-mile long Virginia Turnpike. The turnpike was part of the Hennes Pass Route, a freight wagon road between Marysville and Virginia City, Nevada, during the Comstock silver rush. Tolls were charged for passage on the roads and bridges along the route.

Turnpike companies were authorized by the state in 1853 to build and maintain roads and bridges as business ventures. When the Central Pacific portion of the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, it led to the eventual demise of turnpike roads in the Sierra. The Virginia Turnpike route was long used for driving livestock to and from higher and lower elevations, and as a route to the northern mining towns, such as North San Juan.”

The only traffic it allows now is people walking across, and vehicles now cross the river a quarter mile upstream across a modern concrete bridge. Not nearly as romantic or picturesque.

Nude Beach

Note: Due to spotty Internet access, this entry describes events on or around May 25, 2006 -- DR

I can recollect visiting the California coastline between Los Angeles and San Francisco only in short segments, and not as a continuous experience. Our plans were to meet my parents at a family friend’s homestead outside Marysville in Central California, and we had a few days to get there. We decided to take Highway 1 as far as we could before we needed to turn inland.

From the point where we first reached the ocean in Santa Monica to just north of Ventura, the traffic was congested at the typical LA gotta-get-there fast pace. It eased up northward, and we enjoyed the afternoon sun reflecting off the ocean as we cruised along. We thought we might camp at one of the State parks along the way, and pulled into Gaviota State Park for a look. There were available campsites, but the wind was howling at tree-bending speeds. There was a sign at the entrance station stating that there were no refunds due to wind, so we had the suspicion that it would not ease up. We continued on, hoping for something further north.

Vandenberg Air Force Base occupies much of the area north of Lompoc with no camping opportunities, and the sun was beginning to set. Maybe around Santa Maria…we pushed on. The road to Point Sal State Beach was closed, and the only campground in Santa Maria was a private RV park next to the off-ramp for $28 a night and we would be sandwiched between trailers with minimal privacy. Motel 6 offered a few more amenities for just a few more dollars, so at this late hour we opted for what was apparently our only option, and we were a bit disappointed that we had to start this second leg of our trip not in our tent, but in the generic room of a motel!

The next day we continued on, the wind still howling, but with clear skies the entire way. John at one point excitedly pointed out the window proclaiming “Look, otters!” We pulled off at the next available vista point, which was Piedras Beach. Well, it wasn’t otters, but much larger elephant seals, basking in the sun and molting their winter fur. There they were, plump in random rows, motionless except for an occasional flipper flicking sand on their back. A couple of large males with their prominent proboscis were sparring. There was a walkway constructed for up-close viewing, so the vantage was as good as anything seen on public television. Our timing was good, for spring is when they come ashore to rear their young and renew their fur. Encountering the seals was certainly a discovery for us, and the highlight of our coastal diversion.

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