So I came back from my first 9 days in the field and boy was it intense! I think it’s safe to say it was the most physically challenging thing I’ve done in my life (definitely for something over an extended period of time). We covered approximately 100 miles in 8 days, with much of it being off trail. I’m just happy I did not get tendinitis! The first day we surveyed meadows that were right off the road so it would be a sort of training day for me and I could learn everything about the protocol for data collection. After that we were off for 8 days of backpacking! I’ll give a day by day summary with little random tidbits here and there.
Day 1: As I said before this was sort of a training day for me. The guy I am working with, Paul, who is doing his master’s project on the charismatic Yosemite Toad (Buca canorus, a Sierra endemic) is looking at where the toads are, what habitats they prefer, how they disperse, and which of their genes are being selected for. The work requires that we walk through meadows and look for the toads (mostly the tadpoles, since adults have already left for burrows on higher ground). We take notes on various aspects about the tadpoles and about the environment (vegetation cover, other species, etc.). We also take tail clips from some tadpoles for genetic analysis. Some of the meadows are pretty big (like a mile or two long), so it can take awhile to sift through all the potential habitat. Most of the time we split up and do meadows individually.
After a full day of surveying, we car camped near Mono Lake (which is right down the road from Tioga Pass which enters/exists the east side of Yosemite). I love the Mono lake scenery- a very lunar place if you ask me- and it reminds me of the good ol’ cross country Mammoth camp days too.
Day 2: We were supposed to start backpacking out to other sites in the morning, but we still needed to finish up work from the day before so we went back to meadows from day 1. We ended up not getting on the trail until 4:30 p.m. Michael, the other intern could not come unfortunately- he had a massive blister on one of his heels that was so bad it made him limp. We hiked in up a trail part of the way and then went off-trail to get over this 11,200 ft pass we need to climb up and over. For those who aren’t familiar with off-trail travel– it is often a lot harder and takes much longer than on trail travel. Trails are luxurious in that they go around trees, boulders, brush, and other obstacles for you.
Anyways, going up this path, Paul unfortunately led us up the wrong side (by wrong I mean we couldn’t climb down from that point without having rock climbing equipment) so we had to back track and climb up the other side. The scenery was spectacular, but I couldn’t really appreciate it because I had to not lose track of Paul- which is not an easy task- this guy has basically been backpacking in the Sierras since he was born.
It was a lot of boulder scrambling and for me – carrying a 40lb. pack + already being tired from the day’s work – was admittedly pretty difficult. I knew I had to be careful because the slightest mistakes could lead to cracked bones or worse. We also had to scramble down the pass and it was getting dark. To make it worse, I was starting to feel the effects of altitude sickness and exhaustion. I had a headache and felt super nauseous. We got to camp a little before 9 p.m. and I wanted nothing more than to crawl into my sleeping bag. I made my dinner, but I could not eat. I just had no appetite whatsoever- not even chocolate seemed appetizing- which for those of you who know me is especially disconcerting. It was not good for me to skip dinner after so much exercise, but I just could not force myself.
Day 3: I was still feeling the effects of the altitude this day, but felt a little better. I still did not want to eat, but was able to force myself and I think it helped. It was another exhausting day of off-trail travel, surveying, and making friends with thousands of mosquitoes. I wore my mosquito net under my hat instead of over and my ears got severely chewed by those nasty ‘skeeters. So much so, that both ears were red and swollen and the left ear was rather gross looking- I won’t go into further details.
Random tidbit: The pack– 40lbs. is more than I should (or want to) carry for sure, but when you carrying 8 days of food, normal backpacking gear, and extra gear for field work it’s hard to go under that. Of course, it does get lighter as the days go by and food and fuel are consumed. Someone asked about what I ate to be able to fit 8 days in bear box. First let me say it wasn’t enough, definitely felt energy low and calorie deficient especially on last two days. Here’s about what I ate each day:
Breakfast- a poptart and some freeze dried raspberries
Snacks- 2 big handfuls of trail mix, 2 bars (usually chewy, sometimes a protein bar or something else)
Lunch- a baby bell, some salami slices (or jerky), a piece of tortilla bread. Some plantain chips.
Dinner- 1 serving of those dehydrated meals (e.g. Mountain House), peanut m and ms
Miscellaneous- powder for drinks (e.g.ice tea, Gatorade), tea, instant pudding for 3 of the days
Next time I will try to bring more (but there isn’t really much room!) and I’m definitely bringing Nutella to slather on everything!!
Day 4: More backpacking and more solo off-trail surveying. On the way back to camp I decided not to rely on the GPS that we are told to use, and use my map and compass skills instead. I plotted my bearings and navigated my way through the forest. Tree by tree, and I came out of the woods exactly where our camp site was! It made me really happy to know that if you know where you are starting from and you plot bearings precisely, the map and compass are great tools to trust. And it was fun!
It was another long day and I was so happy to tuck into my sleeping bag again. There was never really a night where I wanted to eat my dinner, I just wanted to sleep.
Day 5: Basically, this was a really long and tough day. Backpacking and surveying all day and not a moment to spare! We hiked until 9pm.
Day 6: In the morning Paul discovered that his itouch (what we record the data in) had been water damaged. This is really unfortunate because it means that all the data in it is potentially unrecoverable. It makes me think about how technology is still a little too fragile sometimes. For that day though it did mean that I had some time to relax. I did one meadow with paper and pencil in the morning while Paul did 4 with the other itouch. I got back to camp around 1 p.m. and had time to sit up on a ridge with those darling mosquitoes and read, watch the scenery, and write. The whole view made me realize how truly vast the Sierras are. It makes you believe in the wild untouched land of the west again.
I started reading John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierras that day. His knack for description and observation is astounding- he writes the 1000 words that are worth the picture.
Around 4p.m. we backpacked to our next site. We surveyed another meadow until 9p.m. again. I was in my sleeping bag by 10:30, which on camping time, is quite late I should say!
Day 7: This was the longest day. We woke up at 5:30 because the places we were hiking to were so far. My meadow assignment was an off-trail hike through the woods again. I decided to trust the GPS thinking it would save me time and that I was more likely to make a mistake with the map and compass. Wrong. The GPS doesn’t show as many contour lines and I went one contour line too low. Which brought me to a stack of impassable boulders. I noticed that two of my “navigating” features were not where they should be in my field of view. So I checked the map. That’s when I knew I was in the wrong place and it was good to realize before I got too far off track. I back-tracked and got on the right path. As I walked I noticed that I was walking parallel to deer tracks. I decided deer must be my “spirit animal” or something because every time I thought “okay now I need to turn this way, or get around these boulders here” I would come across the deer tracks again. It was reassuring to see their tracks guiding me through the forest. And they led me right up to the meadow I was surveying!
Now, Paul had told me if I did not find Yosemite Toad tadpoles to collect from at this meadow I would need to hike to another meadow. I could not find them anywhere. There were plenty of shallow pools that they usually like, but no tadpoles. I really wanted to find them because I knew that if I had to go to another meadow I would get to where we were camping until way after dark. I finally found them in the one spot of the meadow I did not expect to find them. I took the tail clips and started my cross country hike back to last night’s camp. I got all my backpacking gear there and then it was time to go go go. Miles to go before I sleep. Down about 3000 ft. and up the same. I hiked feverishly. Down, down, down, up, up, up. A lot of trees were knocked down due to a windstorm earlier this year and navigating my way through them slowed me down quite a bit. Around the tree, over the tree, under the tree. Miles to go before I sleep. The mosquitoes sure were great motivation to hike faster. Unfortunately, they did not disappear when I got to the most mosquito-y camp of the trip right around 7:30. Exhausted.
Day 8: On this day I was feeling the calorie deficiency more than ever. My energy was super low and I was ravenous. I could only think of when my next snack was. Okay at 10 p.m. I’ll let myself eat this bar. Then at lunch I can also have some trail mix. Then at 4 p.m. I can let myself have another bar. Those kinds of thoughts!
We backpacked to and surveyed two really huge meadows, each about 2 miles long. These meadows have far more to them than meets the eye when you just pass by them. They have all these nooks and crannies of hidden ponds, streams, marshy ground, dips, and hills. Many a creature finds refuge in them.
We finished work around 6p.m. Originally we were going to spend the night and hike out the next day. But, instead we decided to hike 11 miles out to the car that evening. After all we had already done and being so energy low, it was quite the feat. But, I don’t think I ever hiked so fast and so furiously. The motivation of the last stretch- whether it’s in a 400 meter track race or an 8 day backpacking trip is always enormous. I got to the car at 9:30, only 10 minutes after Paul. On my way down my headlamp fell on two glowing eyes. I thought it was a bear so I started clapping my trekking poles and making noise. However, Paul had recently told a story about coming back late and seeing a mountain lion- so I got a little scared. But, then, I moved my headlamp to get a better look and it was just a deer. It ran off soon after. Miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep.
We had hoped a restaurant would still be open for a nice big burger or pizza, but when we got the nearest town everything was closed. We did find a convenient store though, so I had a dinner of icecream and a peach. Fresh fruit and dairy are probably the foods I miss the most when out on the trail. We car camped at Mono Lake again (illegally in a park because it was late and there was nowhere else to go).
Day 9: Woke up. We drove back. I was still ravenous, so I ate ate ate all day. I don’t think I had ever been so tired and hungry in my life!
Overall it was quite a challenging trip! Time is so different out there- backpacking trips often feel like small eternities. This one was bizarre though in that I also felt rushed much of the time (which I don’t like while backpacking and which is a peculiar feeling when in nature). Hopefully next time that won’t be the case though because we won’t be missing our 3rd person.
As I hike my thoughts are either repetitive and all the same- repeating quotes, lines, or poems to keep me going – or they wander up and down the peaks and canyons of my mind. I often think of the people that I would like to share these landscapes and experiences with and I suppose that writing this out is just a small way for me to do this.
Backpacking is truly an amazing activity. Moving with the strength of your feet and the will of your mind, and all your livelihood on your back and in the environments around you. I love how dually breathtaking it is- for the lungs and for the sights- on this particular trip I just wished for a little more time to relax and enjoy the scenery (I know it’s not recreational in purpose, but still…). For now though it’s time to fill up on fruit and yogurt, and lounge by the river under the great pine trees and blue skies all in the gentle light of the afternoon sun. John Muir says of the Sierra day that “one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.” I suppose that is what I am looking for!