October 9, 2015
Elevation gain: 5,500+ feet
It’s been over two months since I left the PCT for a job, and I have been aching to do some miles, to explore the Sierra near my new home in Merced. And what better way to combine hiking with my new position as a water scholar than a solo hike in my now local watershed, which just happens to include Yosemite National Park. The plan: hike to the headwaters of the Merced river, preferably as part of a 50 mile loop over Red Peak Pass, the highest stretch of trail in Yosemite at 11,078 feet. But since I need a walk up permit, the route and whether I go at all will be dictated by luck and the plans of others.
I wake to puppy whines (I have a puppy! I live in a house!) just before my alarm at 6am. It is dark. Full dark. Without any promise of dawn. The long days of June are far away. Outside there is only the barest slice of moon. There will be so much nighttime this weekend, I think. On the bus I feel out of place, my PCT hiking clothes like a costume. Despite all the summer backpacking, I am a bit nervous about this trip. I need a permit, I am headed into the remote reaches of the park and I only packed my tent fly. Will I still feel cozy and safe alone? Will the weather hold so late in the season? I don’t know.
I walk in to the Yosemite Valley wilderness center. I desperately need to pee after three hours on the bus but permit business comes first on this sunny holiday weekend. The ranger takes one look at me and says “I bet you are already in our system.” And I am. I guess the well-loved gear and dusty trail runners were a give away. Happy Isles to Illilouette, is all that’s left for today, even for a solo hiker. “I guess I will eat the elevation,” I say. Knowing that reversing the direction of my intended loop means an extra long climb out of the valley today.
The first mile flies by, passing day hikers left and right. Then up the JMT switchbacks, where almost everyone else is heading down. After 4 miles of relentless up, I reach my junction toward Ottoway Lake. The trail looks intimidating: a much narrower path with few footprints, heading into a burn area all exposed in the midday sun.Soon the trail levels out, but I am beginning to feel the elevation somewhere around 9,000 feet, having woken up at sea level. The dusty trail feels as lonely as it looks. One set of recent human footprints in the same direction and one of horse. And lots of giant four-toed prints that can only be cougar. I see no humans, and become increasingly conscious of each snapping twig, occasionally yelling “HEY-YAAA” down the trail. I can’t decide if this makes me feel better or not. Stop being paranoid, I think to myself. Then I see movement to my side, tawny fur. It’s a bear. A freaking bear is staring at me down this lonely trail. I look back and yell “Hey Bear!” Almost with confidence. And the bear bounds away.
I soak my feet and fill my bottles at Clark Fork, which is running well enough to make both tasks easy. Even in this very dry year, though there may have been storms up here last week. I keep walking, with fall-yellow leaves for distraction. Still, I see no one. I stop around 5pm, 12ish miles in from the Valley at a welcoming campsite complete with fire pit. Flames will be my friend tonight. I scoop water from puddles, Ilillouette creek not flowing at all this late in a dry year. Frogs jump into the water where tiny stranded fish swim circles in frustration. Thankfully the water is cool and comes out clear. It will do.
The evening is still, so still. I can hear every tiny sound. Pine needles falling on the ground, birds landing on tree branches. And the occasional unnerving cracking sound of big sticks snapping underfoot. Luckily I saw lots of deer prints today too and they are likely responsible for the night noises. Or so I keep telling myself. I have definitely hit the edge of my solo backpacking comfort zone. I decided against looking for a hiking partner for this trip, but now in this valley only a few miles from the bear sighting, I have second thoughts. Maybe I will just walk back out tomorrow? But that means another trip along the cougar super highway (or were they really just coyote prints?). Even in the eerie quiet of twilight I know already that I will go on.
The light fades to darkest blue and then black and my lonely little fire glows and I miss the PCT community. Even if you walk alone, how nice to almost always have someone to share stories with in the evening. But no one will catch me today and I may not see anyone tomorrow either.