The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
Time to re-supply. My wife had brought a massive duffle bag with everything I might need for the rest of the trip. Most I had packed before I left, some she added after I phoned her from Reds Meadows. I could just barely lift it. It weighed about 50 pounds. My basic camping gear, clothes, cameras, etc., weighed over 30 pounds.
Spread out on a picnic table in the sun, it looked even more daunting. Not just more than I could carry, it was nearly twice what I could fit in my pack. I quickly rejected all the extra clothes except a pair of thermal sweat pants. I tossed out all the dessert treats except some packets of hot chocolate. Then went to work slimming down the dinners.
I had planned to carry 3500 calories per day, but I had been eating only 2500 to 3000. I removed a third of the rice/noodles/potato buds from each of the dinners–that saved me about three ounces per day. Then I got rid of half my sugary drink mixes and one of the two extra day’s food I had planned to carry. I also abandoned the extra fuel cylinder, figuring I could cook over open fires a few times to make up the difference. Finally I tried squeezing it all in my pack.
It almost fit. I was able to shove in everything except the thermal sweats, so I rolled them in a plastic bag and tied them on the outside. In two days I would have eaten enough to make room for them inside. I also tied on the mosquito headnet I had begged my wife to buy for me. No more evenings of frustration from whining clouds of mozzies!
There was one other extra she had brought that I decided to carry in my photographer’s vest–the tranny. Wherever we travel, we carry a tiny short wave radio. It keeps us plugged in to current events, entertains us, and somehow keeps us in contact with who we are. We mostly listen to BBC World Service. Half an hour, every evening, is our standard dose. I thought it might ease the loneliness, this touch of my normal travel routine.
I tried on my pack. Putting it on a bench, I kneeled down with my back to it, slipped my arms through the straps and stood up, slowly. It weighed about 60 pounds, and I also had the cameras in the vest!
My wife tried not to laugh too hard, though I really must have looked hilarious, Wordsworth’s pedlar plus. But at least I could carry it, thanks to ten days’ walk with a pack only moderately lighter. The only reason I could get almost everything in was because I own one of the largest internal frame packs ever made, a giant Lowe Expedition Pack, a model long since abandoned as too large for any sane person to carry fully loaded. When it wears out, I’ll have to travel lighter.
My wife left at noon. She wanted plenty of daylight to negotiate the twists and bends of the awful road back down to the Central Valley. I waited for the 3:45 ferry back up the lake.
John had decided to stay on another day. With his feast/fast routine on the trail, he enjoyed Katie’s pies, and almost everything else on the menu. We sat in the shade of a tall Yellow Pine and watched the afternoon clouds build up over Seven Gables and the Silver Divide.
“You know, Don, you made a very wise decision, starting from the north end of the trail about the first of July. So many people start from the south, so their first two days they drive up from sea level to 8,000 feet, and hike to 12,000, then climb Whitney. And then they have all the really hard up and down, especially up, since the passes are steeper from the south, before they’re really in shape.
“And the people who start later, who do the trail in August, they’re the ones who have to worry about storms. August can be vicious. Not like this. If we get a storm, it will start in mid-afternoon and usually clear up by sunset. You’re doing the trail at the right time in the right way. Except your pack is too heavy, but you’ll live.”
“What happened to Sean? And John and Matt?”
“Sean and I laid over a day at Reds Meadows. He’ll probably be on the ferry this afternoon. Matt dropped out.”
“Well, that was part of it, but only a small part. Do you realize he’s only 14? That’s just incredibly young for such a long trip. He was bored. I don’t know why he came along. Maybe John dared him. Maybe he wanted to get out of the house for a month. Who knows. John took him back to Mammoth and called his mother to have her pick him up. Then a day later, John decided he didn’t want to go on alone and so he dropped out too. So the five of us from a few days ago are now down to three. But I think we’ll all make it. How’s your blister?”
“Big, tender, ugly.”
“Will you live?”
“You’ll make it.”
Sean was waiting for the ferry. I didn’t have much chance to talk with him. The pies sparked his interest, and the fact that John was there waiting for him. I told him that, with my overloaded pack, I expected they would catch up with me in two or three days.
The John Muir Trail passes just beyond the head of the lake, or rather, where the lake reaches when the dam is full to the top. I had a mile and a half to hike, just long enough to feel the real weight I was carrying. About the time I needed a rest, I got to the trail junction and made camp. Semi-developed campsites abounded, with big, fat logs where I could ease down my pack.
I set up my tent, purified water from the nearby stream, then set about hanging my food. I failed. I had so much, four heavy bags full, that I couldn’t fling my rope over a suitable branch. For some reason, all the possible branches were very high. Maybe bears had broken off all the lower ones to get at the food of previous campers. Maybe too many campers leaving Vermillion Valley with too many heavy food bags had trashed all the good branches for hanging food.
Muir once lost his food to bears. It was on a trip with Keith. They had arranged for a packer to cache food for them, but bears got it instead. Muir hiked back to Yosemite Valley and returned with more. It was probably the only time a bear ever inconvenienced him in the mountains, though he was once bitten by a “tame” bear when he tried to pet it.
It’s odd, really, that bears have become such a problem for backpackers. Early visitors to the Sierra rarely got as much as a glimpse of a bear, they were so wary of hunters. Muir told of seeing only two close up in all his time in the Sierra. They would come around his camp at night, but he kept his food with him and often kept a fire going all night, though Merrill Moores said the fire was to keep away coyotes, not bears. If he walked through thick brush when there were ripe berries that he knew bears liked, he would shout as he went along, and they never bothered him.
Earlier in this century, Yosemite and other parks put on “bear shows.” Bears were fed garbage, providing a spectacle like a Roman Circus. Gradually, bears throughout the Sierra have learned to love people food. It’s amazing the contortions they’ll go through to get even the most tasteless freeze-dried food that only a starving backpacker would eat.
Property damage by Yosemite bears increased three-fold in the mid-seventies at about the time the park’s dumpsters were bearproofed. Park Service biologists hope that long- term interdiction of human food sources will gradually wean the bears from chocolate bars and potato chips.
Now I found myself hovering within ten feet of my food, which I had wrapped in a large, clean plastic trash bag and put out of sight in my tent. I sipped hot chocolate and watched the light fade. Just at dark I turned on the tranny and listened to BBC and relaxed, bears or no bears.
Hanging food is one of several ways to protect it from bears. At some popular camping areas sturdy metal lockers are provided. The latest technology is a piece of unbreakable plastic pipe that you use as a food safe. The bears can’t get their jaws around it.
One of the most effective ways is to travel with pack stock. They can smell a bear and wake you before you lose your food. Then you chase the bear away by shouting, waving your arms, or throwing rocks.
It all seems so silly. Especially since the bear so often wins. I thought about other ways, and about the dislike of backpackers for horses, manure on trails, and the expense of building all bridges and trails to take horse travel. I thought about huts.
In most of the world where hikers go to the mountains they stay in huts. Huts provide shelter from storms and foster the camaraderie of the mountains. In addition, they can control sewage problems and help keep people from camping in sensitive areas. Sometimes they even provide meals.
There are a few huts in the Sierra. The Sierra Club built and maintains four backcountry huts in the Tahoe region for the benefit of cross country ski and snowshoe parties. Like Ostrander Hut in the Yosemite backcountry and Pear Lake Hut in Sequoia Park, they are basic, with wood stoves for warmth and bunks of sometimes-dubious cleanliness.
The deluxe Yosemite High Sierra Camps provide clean sheets on cots in seven-foot-high tents and serve steak for dinner.
To many people, mountain huts are abominations. They demean the Wilderness character of the mountains. The Wilderness Act says there shall be “no structures.” The sites of the High Sierra Camps are designated “potential Wilderness Areas,” destined to be returned to a natural state when no longer commercially viable. But I wondered, that night and many others, if a few well placed, well-designed huts might not solve some of the problems that plague the Sierra. The problems of pollution, both pathogenic, from sewage in the streams and visual, from colorful tents scattered about. The problem of altered animal behavior, from animals attracted to food scattered around campsites spread throughout the mountains. The problem of access for those too weak to carry a fifty-pound pack. Even the problem of hiker-horse conflicts. If there’s a hut every ten miles, horses become irrelevant, so they could be banned from the few highly used trails like the JMT, though allowed elsewhere, where there were no huts.
Periodically, horse use in the Sierra is attacked as physically damaging, esthetically unpleasing, or just plain unnecessary. The High Sierra Camps were started specifically for the benefit of “hikers.” David Brower’s first published article, “Far From The Madding Mules” celebrated the freedom of tramping the mountains without pack stock. But how free was I with a sixty pound pack that included 25 pounds of food I had to protect from bears? So I wondered whether a few discretely-placed huts might not be a better way to manage travel on this heavily used “Wilderness” trail.
I crawled into my sleeping bag and pulled out the tranny. BBC had faded, so I tried the AM band. A station jumped out at me, loud and clear, but gibberish.
“The Santa Monica’s backed up from the 375 split. The Harbor’s a mess, but Mulholland’s okay. City streets around downtown are okay, but there’s an accident working on I Five near the airport intersection.”
I was getting the LA traffic report!