I Become a Better Citizen: Several Days in Yosemite’s Backcountry, Part II — A Shade Below Tree Line

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The second in Charles Hodgkins “I Become a Better Citizen” series. For part one, click here.

Late this past summer, Charles Hodgkins spent the better part of a week hiking through particularly remote areas of Yosemite National Park’s wilderness. He thought he’d be a pioneer by leaving his car at home and riding transit between San Francisco and Yosemite, but no, it turned out he wasn’t much of a pioneer in that way at all. Part II chronicles his first two days on the trail, from Glacier Point to Lower Ottoway Lake.

Thursday

It’s a nearly two-hour bus ride this morning from Yosemite Valley way, way up to Glacier Point, the starting point of my imminent trek. My misstep of not making a reservation for the popular route is forgiven, as a handful of no-shows for the 8:30 a.m. departure enables me to score a last-minute seat onboard. I didn’t bother buying my bus ticket in advance, since on the two prior occasions I’ve boarded this coach for its downward trip, ridership has been sparse. Now I understand why: Most people ride this bus one-way up to Glacier Point, then hike the 3,200 vertical feet back down into Yosemite Valley over the course of about five knee-quaking miles.

Of course, my basic goal of descending back to Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point is similar. The main difference is that my return trek will cover 48 miles over the next five days, with a climb over 11,075-foot Red Peak Pass, the park’s tallest. I do a fair amount of day-hiking … but in terms of distance, provisions, and scope, this is my burliest expedition yet.

Along the twisting route up to Glacier Point, the bus trundles past a disturbing sight not more than a few miles off the road. The previous day, a prescribed burn — a deliberately set fire conducted under specified and controlled conditions, this one by the National Park Service — jumped its containment lines and quickly flared out of control. During his narration along the way, the driver questions the wisdom in taking such a risk in the 80-plus degree heat of late August, particularly after the third comparatively dry Sierra winter in a row.

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Today’s 11 miles on the trail are a roller coaster, in more ways than one. Gentle winds propel the fire’s smoke in the opposite direction all morning, and the Yosemite sky is deep blue as I take my first steps down the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point about 11:00 a.m. But within an hour, the capricious breezes change direction, and the air over Yosemite Valley quickly becomes choked and grey. Half Dome, seemingly close enough to touch when I shove off down the trail, is obscured by smoke within minutes. Fortunately, my route leads me southeast and directly away from the blaze, but it’s not until late afternoon that the final traces of smoke disappear for good.

From Glacier Point, I drop 1,100 feet into the toasty Illilouette Creek corridor. I then climb twice that amount by the time I drop my 50ish-pound pack for the day a little after 6:00 PM, at a relatively level spot just off the trail, next to the upper reaches of Illilouette Creek. As Yosemite scenery goes, what I see today — the rounded granite peak of Mt. Starr King, the sandy path through multiple recent burn areas, the compromised late-season stream flows — merits filing under “merely nice.” The grand exception is the first mile-plus out of Glacier Point, which even with the encroaching smoke is spectacular enough to bring eyesight to the blind.

But even up at 7,000-8,000 feet today, it’s real warm. Much sweating occurs, so my favorite stream-dipping bandana, featuring a topographical map of Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, is never out of reach. At one point after wringing it out, its relief colors and line-contours catch my eye, and I find myself thinking two things as I visually retrace a path I followed there on my visit about a year ago. One: I hope to follow through on my plan to spend several days trekking around Grand Teton next year. Two: How have I become such a hiking nerd that even my bandana has a topo map on it?

Friday

Even though I slog up to nearly 10,000 feet by lunchtime, today is by far the shortest hiking day of my trek. I spend just a little over three hours making my way up to my home for the afternoon and evening, Lower Ottoway Lake, which at 9,700 feet sits in quiet repose below the reddish brown piles of granite that make up the Clark Range. It’s right about at tree line, maybe a shade below, and it turns out to be a vividly striking spot to waste the rest of the day.

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I get a late start on the trail and still arrive at Ottoway before 1:00 p.m. Once I set up my camp on a semi-exposed bluff overlooking the southern shore of the small lake, priorities include soaking my hiking shirt in the cold lake water, drying it on the warm slab of rock next to my tent, laying out my inflatable sleeping pad and relaxing, and … laying out my inflatable sleeping pad and relaxing. And eating.

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Today turns out to be the first of three extraordinarily enjoyable days in a row. Despite mostly cloudy skies, the air is still warm even at close to two miles above sea level. I snack on sharply seasoned beef jerky, which my mother-in-law buys in bulk and gives me pretty much every holiday season; I also paw at dried mango and M&M’s throughout the day. I have some success fiddling with the macro focus on my camera, which I just bought a month before. I listen to a mix of Neil Young songs, mostly rustic ones from the mid-1970s that sound completely within their element in this spot, for a few hours, and realize the guy really is a national treasure, even if he grew up mostly in Winnipeg. And I immensely enjoy dinner — vegetable jambalaya and tandoori naan from Trader Joe’s, with a chocolate chip cookie chaser — before a startlingly purple sunset. Food that’s merely pretty good at home assumes a greater level of flavor in the wilderness, it really does.

I wear a ski cap I brought, plus wool socks, sandals, and a warm shirt. The living is easy amidst the granite and pines at high altitude, away from all cares and wildfires. “On the lake, the deep forbidden lake…”

Stay tuned: On Friday, we’ll publish part III of Charles’ trek, wherein he climbs over rocky Red Peak Pass and into the Upper Merced River Canyon

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2 comments for “I Become a Better Citizen: Several Days in Yosemite’s Backcountry, Part II — A Shade Below Tree Line

  1. Royce Hodgkins
    October 26, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    I thought you did a wonderful job of describing your trip to Yosemite and your hiking to the upper reaches of the park. I think the photos that accompany your article are excellent and tell a lot about the area. I am looking forward to reading about your other experiences along the trail. A job well done!. Dad

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