Yosemite Series: Day Two

Day 2: Entering Wilderness (AFTER Seeing A Bear!)

I wake up early, mainly because I am cold. I didn’t think to bring my beanie or gloves (because July!), but I am wishing for them in the morning. I pull on some wool socks and slip on my Chacos instead of putting bare feet into flip flops. As I am tooling around camp, I notice a round, peach-colored glow from behind the trees. It is the moon set. And it is full. Could it be that we accidentally scheduled our backpacking trip for North Dome on the night of the Full Moon?

Yes. Yes we did.

I quickly sketch something that allows me to remember all those pastel hues behind the thickness of the trees.

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The sky is still grayish-blue as the sun has not yet peeked over the mountaintops around us. Not many campers are awake yet, as it is before six o’clock. I also jot down a visual note about the green regrowth now visible as a carpet beneath the charred black sticks of the burned areas. It’s been three years now since the big fire that stretched for miles before the entrance of the Park, and miles afterward along Highway 120 inside the Park. The bright green blanket created a contrast between the chalky remnants of trees and a forest of the future.

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Given such an early rise, we manage to cook and eat breakfast, do dishes, sort and pack all of our food and essentials for our backpacking trip, and get out of the campsite by nine o’clock. As we turn onto Tioga Road, a pickup truck is stopped ahead of us, with its hazard lights on, having made no attempt to pull off the road. Ahead of it is another vehicle, with people standing between the edge of the road and the outstretched wilderness beyond and below.

“Come on, let’s see what they’re looking at!”, urges my partner Randy as he climbs out with his camera. Being the driver, I am most concerned about finding a place to actually park my car, since I’m not as brazen as the people in the truck in front of us. “It’s a BEAR!” he says, motioning to me that I should get out of the car and come look.

I have to cross the double yellow lines to pull around the truck, which is still stopped in the middle of the one-lane road, and find an area to park in an official turnout just ahead. Then I see it. About a hundred feet from the edge of the road is a small bear, foraging along a fallen tree, pulling off the bark and gnawing at what appear to be bugs (carpenter ants, probably). He looks up and makes eye contact at us (the German-speaking family of four in the vehicle ahead of us, Randy and me, and the couple inside the pickup truck), but does not change his pace or direction. I notice that he is small, but he is not accompanied by a larger bear. In other words, his mother is nowhere to be found.

We watch him for several minutes, and there are no other cars that pass until a large YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System) bus pulls up. By this time the bear is downhill from the road and less visible, but the bus stops, creeps along, and we see heads pressed against the windows attempting to see what we are seeing. But the bear cub is already on his way to the next snacking station.

When I see how he must forage and work for such small bits of food, I am suddenly not surprised that so many bears have adapted to raiding campgrounds for sloppy food storage techniques. I mean, wouldn’t an entire cooler full of eggs, lunch meat, cheese, bread, butter, and a few sausages be worth the risk, compared to a few carpenter ants hiding under the bark of a dead tree?

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When we arrive at Porcupine Creek trailhead, twenty miles or so down Tioga Road, there is one parking space left. We find an empty bear locker for our cooler and miscellaneous scented items (tortilla chips, bug spray, deodorant, bread). Our backpacks are dauntingly heavy, and at the last minute I opt not to carry two full reservoirs of water, instead carrying the empty containers with a vague plan to fill them “later”.

It is a downhill hike to our first campsite on top of North Dome. The elevation at Porcupine Creek is just over 8,000 feet. At North Dome we will be at around 7,500.

We arrive before midday and find the campsite that we coveted five years ago, when we first backpacked this route, is available. Nestled under a group of trees and surrounded by dead wood, it’s a camper’s luxury condominium, with five-star views of Cloud’s Rest and Half Dome.

View from our campsite on North Dome - early afternoon
View from our campsite on North Dome – early afternoon

I sketch, take a nap, walk to the end of North Dome, sketch some more, then another nap.

Tent campsite on North Dome
Tent campsite on North Dome

As the sun falls lower in the sky, I begin to look at our water supply and to question my decision not to take more than the three liters in my CamelBak, and the two one-liter bottles in my pack. Even though I am not exerting myself, sitting outside all day at altitude is taking its toll on my hydration status. I feel slightly groggy. The next morning, we have big plans to make it all the way over to Yosemite Creek, with plenty of water available along the way. But we still have the night and morning to get through.

All at once, just before sunset, I get the impulse that we must go get water. I don’t know exactly which creek is nearest and flowing, or how far it will be. I just know we have to go before dark. We grab our summit packs, the reservoirs and filter, and head out of camp. As we reach the first group of trees at the neck of North Dome and the mosquitoes begin swarming, I realize we haven’t brought bug spray or mosquito coils. I don’t care; with the light fading, I just keep heading toward the water.

I guess I must be going fast, as I tend to do when my mind becomes singularly focused on an objective while I am walking. Part of the way up the narrow path that begins the steep climb up to Indian Ridge from North Dome, Randy slips and nearly falls on the crumbly scree. His breathing is labored, further reinforcing (in my mind) the need to get water as soon as possible.

“We don’t have to RUN up these hills, you know,” he says.

Which is the first clue at all I get that I might be running. It doesn’t feel like running to me. It feels like purposeful strides toward a defined destination, without hesitation or pause. No dilly-dallying.

I slow my pace a bit (at least I think I do) going up the rest of the ascent to the flat area of Indian Ridge just above North Dome. There we spot a sweet campsite where there are three or four tents set up, encircling a tree-covered area enclosed by some low madrone bushes. “THAT is where I want to camp on our last night,” I think to myself, and probably say out loud too.

Just on the other side of the campsite is a series of switchbacks heading down into a forested area. Somewhere ahead there is a creek. There are three, actually, and depending on which one is flowing at this point in the season, we will reach our water source before or after dark. I keep moving quickly. My legs feel strong, or at least normal to me. After reaching the bottom of the switchbacks and traversing what looks like a dry creek bed, we start heading slightly downhill again. There is short grass and plenty of trees, and I am confident a creek is nearby. We pass a family coming slowly uphill. The father’s face is covered in a mosquito net which is attached to his hat. His two children are in their late teens, a girl and a boy. They are fresh-faced as their father asks wearily, “You coming from North Dome?”

We nod. “Is there still room at the inn?” he asks.

“Oh yes, plenty of room.”

“Good.”

“Is there a creek down there?” we ask.

He answers quickly, between slightly labored breaths, “Yep, just down there, at the bottom of this trail.”

“Have a great time!” we say, each of us wanting to get on our way before the light fades, now that we’ve gotten our reassurances. It’s the etiquette of the trail to share information that can only be gained from having been on the trail, that day. And of course, no information replaces personal experience, but the insights of fellow backpackers are traded freely and generously in the backcountry. It’s a code I have appreciated and honored, and it’s one of the things that makes the wilderness a sacred place for humans. We are all vulnerable here, and while we strive and prepare for self-reliance, we each know we could become dependent on the kindness of a stranger in a heartbeat.

The light is low but not gone when we reach the creek. There is still a small trickle of flow, so it qualifies as more than a puddle. We work quickly, as the mosquitoes discover us almost the instant we squat down on the rocks and begin pumping with our Katadyn water filter. We fill a 96-ounce Nalgene Cantene, a two-liter Platypus foldable bottle, and our one-liter Nalgene bottles before being overcome by mosquitoes and hightailing out of there.

Now for the walk back up and out of the creek bed to the top of Indian Ridge. I am feeling strong. Randy is ahead of me on the switchbacks. I am approaching a turn to the right. The trail is mostly hard-packed dirt and granite stones with some scree. I remember thinking to myself, “We are so blessed that this creek is still running.” At that very moment, my foot slips out from under me and the left side of my left leg, and then my left hand and the center of my chest, land on a piece of granite. I am fine, but stunned. I hop up, brush myself off, and keep going. As we crest Indian Ridge, we see the family of three that we passed earlier, setting up camp on the flat open space along the ridge.

The boy is running around taking pictures of the pink glow of Half Dome after sunset. “These views are so amazing!” he says.

The father is on his cell phone, having what seems to be a check-in conversation with a family member at home.

“Did you find your water?” the daughter asks.

“Yep! And lots of mosquitoes!” I reply.

“Mosquitoes…have absolutely. No. Purpose. Whatsoever. That’s my opinion.” she says in her millennial offer of solidarity.

I smile and we keep moving on. There is still hope of getting some pink pictures of Half Dome tonight.

The rest of the hike is downhill, so my mind relaxes a bit as we pass the rusted metal trail sign that says “North Dome 0.5”. On a flat area of scree just after the sign, I lose my footing again. My left leg and this time, the inside of my right knee scrape against the loose gravel and granite as I land.

“What’s going on?” Randy asks.

I have no answer, but I hop up and continue back to camp.

The pattern of scratches on my left outer thigh, outer calf, and right inner knee look like a fine-toothed comb has been dipped in maroon ink and run across my skin in a grid pattern. They are just minor skin wounds, but they sting. I debate whether I should treat them with anything in my first aid kit, but I defer, looking forward to soaking them in the rushing waters of Yosemite Creek the next day.

As night falls, we build a fire and the one other backpacking group on North Dome sets up their chairs a few hundred feet away, claiming front row seats to the Full Moon rising behind Half Dome. I am liberal now with my hydration, having plenty of water for breakfast and our six-mile hike in the morning.

I enjoy the sliver of light that peeks out from behind the left edge of Half Dome and then becomes a full white orb against the ink black night sky. It is silent in the valley. The sounds of hooting owls reverberating against the walls of the valley, and the tiny white dots against the face of Half Dome that we figured out were climbers, are just distant memories from our last trip here, five years earlier. This time, we will make new ones.

Study of the markings on Half Dome face
Study of the markings on Half Dome face

P.S. As a “thank you” bonus for reading this far, here are two photos of the bear:

Photo credit: Randy Bales
Photo credit: Randy Bales
Photo credit: Randy Bales
Photo credit: Randy Bales

All text and images (except where otherwise indicated) by Lisa Chu.

See the entire illustrated 12-part Yosemite Series here.

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