The Beauty of Backpacking

October 25, 2012

Now my husband would be surprised to hear me say there is "beauty" in backpacking - since he knows all too well that I have never been a fan of dirt, sweat or sleeping on the cold hard ground. But I have to say this most recent backpacking trip to Nelson Lake in the Sierras really won me over. (The fact that I caught 24 trout in 2 days didn't hurt either - but I digress...)

We started out at the Cliff Lake Trailhead in the Sierra National Forest. We hiked 5.3 miles up to Lake Nelson. The trail was a moderate one overall, winding through beautiful forest and rocky areas. In some places the area was covered with rocks as far as the eye could see and truthfully I would not have known which way to go if it wasn't for trail markers like this one by those who had gone before us. Seemed quite metaphoric of life's journey and God's guidance along the way. (Being out in the quiet of the wilderness with no city noise pollution allows you to think a bit more deeply!)

We passed the Courtright Reservoir, which was drained nearly dry from the long summer. The cloudless sky was perfectly blue and the air temperature absolutely ideal for hiking. It seemed like we could not have chosen a better day. Though the weather report for the next week was calling for storms and snow levels down to 4,000 ft elevation - we had a window of a few days of perfect autumn weather to enjoy one last backpacking trip before winter set in to the mountains.

As we hiked I wondered about the wildlife that inhabited these parts, having just become aware that it was the final weeks of hunting season.We chatted with two hunters at the trailhead who had spent the past week at Nelson Lake without bagging their desired game. But a group of hunters we had seen along the road up to the trailhead had fared much better. They had shot a 400 pound California Black Bear and had it sprawled out across the back of their pick up truck. It was displayed like a trophy - with the head facing the back so if a driver pulled up behind them the sight of the bear with mouth propped open showing off its impressive teeth would certainly startle almost anyone.

The thought of that hunter's prize bear made me wonder how many of his friends and relatives lived in these woods through which we were now trekking! I kept my eyes wide open scanning the surroundings for any sign of bear activity as we walked along the trail.

Later that night, after everyone had retired to their respective tents, and were fast asleep, I was awakened suddenly by the unmistakable sound of footsteps crunching the dry pine needles that covered the ground around our campsite. The steps were close by - and seemed to be walking a few feet from my head just outside the thin wall of our backpacking tent. I held my breath and listened. I tried to discern the direction of the footsteps - were they headed toward us or just passing by? Was it the steps of a human or animal? Since our tent was the closest to the lake shore I ruled out a middle of the night bathroom run by our fellow hikers - since I knew they would go away from the lake not toward it. That left a short list of animal suspects to consider.

Mountain lions were a possibility but I was fairly confident they wouldn't attack a tent. Deer were everywhere in these woods - and it was my hope that one just had a sudden desire for a drink of water from the lake! And then there were those 400 pound bears to consider. I prayed we had removed every crumb of food from our surroundings and there wasn't even a scent of dinner in the air. I knew if it was a bear - he would be very interested in our backpacks which were a few feet away from the tents - propped up on a large granite boulder that was serving as an inpromptu table. I waited. No sound of rustling through our backpacks came. The sound of footsteps crunching pine needles underfoot grew dimmer as my suspect moved away from our tent. I breathed again. Must have been a thirsty deer I concluded, and turned over and fell quickly to sleep.

When morning came, the dawn over the lake was beautiful. The water was perfectly still and the quiet of this isolated spot was awe inspiring. It made me realize how used to the noise of the city we are. I didn't want to make a sound but just breathe in this rare moment of stillness.

It was very cold - ice crystals had formed all along the lake's edge and gave the look of light snow along the shore. Despite the chill in the air and the lack of insects flying over the lake surface, fish started jumping out of the water every few minutes. This inspired me to grab my fishing pole while the guys huddled around the campfire and drank coffee. I figured those fish were hungry and the worms I had brought would make a very nice breakfast for them! My efforts were rewarded immediately as I pulled in one brook trout after another. It seemed almost unfair to the fish! But I released them quickly and they all survived my sporting efforts. Most of them were fairly small- but I caught one that would have made a great dinner for a family of four! That trout had managed to survive quite a long while in this beautiful lake.

Dave and I decided to climb up the granite hillside to look for another small lake called the Upper Nelson. We found a trail that wasn't terribly steep so we followed it up until we got to the top and could look back down to the beautiful lake view below. We found the upper Nelson lake but after a few casts of the fishing pole -we concluded that there wasn't a fish in sight and no doubt the Forest Service wasn't climbing up there to stock it. But the view we had from the top was still worth the climb.

Because it was now late in the Fall and the snow levels would start to drop soon we knew this was to be our last backpacking trip before we would launch out for Kilimanjaro in December. Though I cannot say I have become the least bit fond of sleeping on the ground through this time of preparation I have come to the place of realizing that you will never experience the fullness of the beauty of the wilderness without the sacrifice of going places that have no five star hotel accommodations! There is something amazing about being so close to nature that you are making a campfire from wood that you dragged from the forest floor rather than the pre-pressed fake log you bought off the grocery store shelf for your urban fireplace!

So yes Dave...there is beauty in backpacking! I can see it now. And I honestly can hardly wait to "see what we will see" climbing Mt Kilimanjaro.