May 14, 2020
I have failed my mission into the golden trout wilderness to fly fish the headwaters of the Little Kern River. I’m home; I’m supposed to be in the wilderness fly fishing. Yesterday turned into 2 separate 5 hour drives to and from the trailhead, plus a brutal, miserable, & frustrating 5 mile out and back hike at 8000 feet with 45 pounds on my back. Once it got too hairy, I did the safe thing and turned back.
My mission was to find a place that was backpackable within 5 miles to fly fishing that still fished well during the runoff stretch March to July when the Upper Kern river was too blown out to be fishable. A place that I could lead many beginner backpackers and beginner fly fishermen/women that would reduce the misery of backpacking and enhance the fun of fly fishing. I talked to many experts about it and the Headwaters / upper stretch of the Little Kern River seemed perfect. Couple that with a variety of tributaries of the Little Kern in the area that supported an abundance of one of the most concentrated species in the world, the Little Kern Golden Trout. And finally a place that during the pandemic was legal to hike into and fly fish (unlike the entire eastern side of the sierras).
I had planned this trip for weeks. I studied maps and satellite images for weeks. I had been looking forward to this. This quarantine thing is killing me. And it’s killing my wife kelly that I’m home 24/7. I have travelled hard for 20+ years of my career. This year was going to be my 2 million mile milestone on United. I just don’t have the personality to handle the monotony of doing the same thing every day. It’s like I’m stuck in the movie groundhog day. Although I have been getting out and hiking, mountain biking and running the Carlsbad open space hills for weeks getting in shape, it is not enough. Work is stressful; that is why they call it work. The virus has acerbated the behavior of some of the people I work with. It’s hard for me because one of the few genes I got from God (along with good teeth) is being able to manage stress….well, at least I think I do better than most under stress.
But… the dirt roads to the trailheads are still closed for the winter. Each year the western divide ranger district has the herculean task of clearing the roads from fallen trees, rocks and other debris that just happens as a byproduct of the erosion of melting snow and winter storms. Well, that and the damage that the pine beetle does to the trees. It’s not like the State of California is wildly funding these efforts. Over the last 20 years we have seen a shrinking of budget to the point where we can’t even keep our trail markers and signs intact. And the lack of care (ie: budget) for the California wilderness is a true shame. That is a key part to this story.
So, I was not able to drive to the trailhead I actually wanted to try and explore. Because the roads are not open yet. So, my plan was a 6-7 mile trek (on the summit trail) to the actual trailhead I wanted to take (Clicks Creek) to the headwaters of the little kern river. The total hike looked like around 12 miles and my plan was to break that up in 4 segments (2 hikes out and 2 hikes back; breaking camp each day and hiking in the mornings).
Here’s what happened:
As I drove up the Tule river on 190 (Porterville) it went from hot and sunny, to overcast, to rain… by the time I got to the trailhead around 7500 feet…which was not that easy to find, it was completely fogged in, lightly raining and 42 degrees at 1:30PM. Leading up to the trip, I had watched the weather like a hawk. It was supposed to be hot and sunny for 3 straight days. The satellite image over the area was totally clear that morning as it had been for a week, lacking any form of clouds. My worry on this trip was mosquitos…not snow or rain or visibility. I did not pack any of my cold weather backpacking stuff, short of a down vest. But, since I drove all the way out there 5 hours, planned for weeks, I set out anyways. I had 6.5 miles to hike in the first day to make it to the Clicks Creek trailhead. At the trailhead or a few miles down the trailhead, I was told there was fishable water for the little kern golden trout so that wouldn’t have been a bummer to fish the evening hatch, then camp for a single night. Remember, the only reason I was doing this summit trail hike was because the road in was closed which prevented me from just driving dirt roads to the actual 4.2 mile trail I wanted to take.
My first heads up of concern: The trail marker at the road was unreadable and weathered. I knew I was in the right place from the GPS in my truck. But, the trail itself was barely distinguishable. and it was cold. The first mile of the trail is switchbacks, very steep up hill, much brutal than the forks at points. And I was at altitude and even though I had worked hard getting in shape for months I was definitely huffing and puffing. I had talked to a few experts and got a tremendous amount of help from “Steven Ojai” and others. I was told I wouldn’t be alone on that stretch of the trail; that it was very popular. I was alone. Alone not only because of the weather I learned as I kept hiking. I was told I’d see mountain bikers. And there was no way a mountain bike had been there for 6 months. The trail was filled with deadfall, fallen trees and branches, etc. there were no human footprints. And it was really steep. I was the first of the season on that trail for sure. The real concern/bummer was that I could not see more than 10 feet at times it was so fogged in. I was told it is a beautiful part of the sierras, with giant sequoias everywhere…but, I couldn’t seem them. Plus, it was hard enough just staying on the trail it was in such bad shape: I had to keep my head down. Every once in a while I could see a set of horse tracks going the other way…that looked to be a couple weeks old. That kept me encouraged. But, zero signs of any other human being on that trail for months. Hmmm…
I knew what was ahead of me… a north bound trail, but, a winding trail for miles of N, S, E and west turns as it navigated over and down mountains and around marshes and meadows. I knew I’d have to reference my maps and GPS. So, I was a little concerned. But there was always going to be a dirt road generally close to the trail. And I had my Garmin InReach 66i; a handheld gps with txting ability. And I had printed maps at a resolution with enough detail that I had confidence.
I got to the top of the switchbacks huffing and puffing. Then the trail headed basically headed straight down hill on the other side of the mountain. After 1.35 miles the trail intersected a dirt road and ended. I stared at my gps and the maps and couldn’t figure out where I was. This dirt road wasn’t on my gps so I speculated it could have been one of 2 places on the paper maps. But, the mileage was off from my paper maps….as if it was not on my paper maps. So, I had to assume the dirt road was the trail. But I had to guess at which way to go…west or east because it did not match anything I had on the maps. I went west. ½ mile later I figured out that I guessed wrong. That turned into a half mile long detour on a road that ended into a temporary horse coral with no trail continuing in any direction…especially north where I was ultimately headed. I stared at the map again and the gps and just couldn’t figure it out. It didn’t match to what I saw on the maps. The gps has a tiny screen and it’s hard to navigate with simply by staring at it’s topo map.
here’s an example of the visibility…and this is on a road!
So, I went the other way backtracking the ½ mile on the road. And other ½ towards the east there was a trailmarker off the side of the road headed north. but it was badly weathered and not distinguishable so what trail it was, who knows? I said to myself, “this has to be it. But, if I have to continue getting lost and losing the trail this is going to be a long day and I might not make it to my destination by dark.” I took it for a mile and it was very steep downhill. It ended up in a marsh/meadow. At this point the trail was almost impossible to follow. It would disappear and reappear 100 feet later, but I could only see around 20 feet so I ended up wandering in an 180 degree circle while bushwhacking trying to find the trail. I lost the trail a bunch of times like this…wasting more time and getting more frustrated. Around 2.75 total miles (which included all the lost detours so I was in the middle of the wilderness, but still fairly close to my truck) it seemed like the trail crossed this marsh / meadow to the other side. But, I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t see and I couldn’t imagine a trail going through a foot of water and the sinking mud that might go with it. It appeared something had crossed fairly recently but it wasn’t a human. At points it seemed to be a foot of water or deeper. And it was so foggy I could barely see across. I managed to get across hopping fallen trees and such. But, my boots were wet for sure now. That was much better than sinking into mud to my waste and dying of hypothermia not being to get out…. On the other side it kind of looked like trail, but it dead-ended into bush on two sides and foot deep of water marsh on the other. If I could see, I would have bush wacked to try to find the trail. But, I couldn’t see farther than 20 feet so it wasn’t like I could look far ahead for trail. The bushwhacking literally looked like dense forest. I stared at my gps and could see a dirt road fairly close, but there was no way to get to it without one hell of a bushwhack or trek through marsh. And I was not convinced it was North road; the road that was closed that ultimately I’ll just drive to the Clicks Trailhead with.
Realize I’m getting close to 2 hours of hiking and although I have 4 more hours before the sun goes down I am worried about losing time. I’m way way off the 18-20 minute per mile pace I’m used to. This was going to be a two hour hike of 6-7 miles and close to 2 hours and I have only gone around 2 miles. So I wandered the edge of the marsh for 30 yards or so in water/mud bushwhacking against the trees trying to find the trail. That is when I looked down. My foot was right next to a very fresh large black bear print. Since it was drizzling it was easy to see that the print was very fresh. It was in mud with water all around it; yet the paw prints were not filled with water yet. A max of 10 minutes fresh. I could hear things in the woods on my trek but, I couldn’t tell if it was just the wind, rain, or bears. Black bears don’t scare me. I have had tons of encounters with them. They are not typically attackers like the grizzly unless they are startled or threatened. I had bear spray with me. I know how to be “loud” on the trail so they scatter long before you see them. But, with so little visibility and the loudness of the rain and wind, it would have been impossible not to startle them or them startle me. Startling a bear scares me. I had heard animals in the woods the entire way as I hiked. I just couldn’t see them. I assumed deer. But, now with that print I knew at least one big black bear, just out of hibernation was close. I did the “hey bear! Hey bear!” thing.
Then I contemplated… Dejected, I said to myself, “That’s it. I’m calling it. I’m already an hour behind and I’m not even sure I’m on the right trail to start with.” I hiked that brutal ~2 miles back to my truck discouraged with the realization of my failure. “Doing the safe thing” just didn’t console me. I didn’t treat myself to the delicious beer that was waiting for me because I felt like I didn’t earn it. At my truck, I contemplated my options. I could wait out the storm. But, it was only 4pm. But, that meant waiting 4 hours for the sun to go down with nothing to read, see, etc. It meant eating backpacking food off a highway in the rain. then sleeping in the back of my truck. I was not close to cell signal nor a hotel. So, I just sucked it up. Accepted my failure and drove 5 hours back home. I could have waited out the weather. But, I would have lost a day meaning a 12 mile hike to my ultimate destination…on a trail I could barely follow.
In hindsight…if I had prepared to do it, I should have just hiked the closed road. Next year I’ll do that. It would have been another 2 miles making it a 7-8 mile first day to the trailhead. But, seemingly easy to follow. But, since I lost so much of the day that was no longer an alternative. This was supposed to be a fishing trip not an hiking / adventure / survival trip to find a fairly easy 4-5 mile hike to the Little Kern River for others. losing a day with the thought of either trying to navigate that trail again in the morning….or to alternately hiking a road for many extra miles to the real trailhead I wanted to get to. Turning a total 12 miler into a 18 miler with only two days to cover it. That would be a lot more hiking than fly fishing which I was not up for.
I’m bummed. But, it was the safe thing to do. I knew the weather was supposed to be good. In fact, today, the next morning I can see it is sunny and beautiful there like it’s supposed to be. I hit one of those freak sierras storms that just appear from nowhere. I also just noticed from Mountain Bike bill’s website in his notes of mountain biking the area that he makes a number of comments about how badly the trails are marked. In addition to my Garmin InReach 66i satellite tracker I was wearing my Garmin 735 watch. It’s not really so good for real time, but it does have a 2” resolution, so after downloading you can see your actual treks with amazing accuracy. So, I can see that was I standing right on the trail. But, I just couldn’t figure that out because it was so overgrown. I can see that I was not supposed to cut across that marsh. The trail actually goes around it. There were a number of fallen decaying trees that just made that route look impossible. So, I just took a fairly dangerous (because of the water / mud) short cut across it. I can also see that I was just 300 yards from north road…that closed road that ultimately gets you to the trailhead. It’s just that it would have been the most awful, brutal bushwhack through dense forest and fallen trees to get to that road. I didn’t see any way to do it even without the backpack on.
Ironically I insisted on doing that trek alone. I have lots of fishing buddies that wanted to join me, but, like me they hike to fish… they don’t hike for hiking sake. I wanted to figure it out before I subject anyone to any undue backpacking suffering. I just knew these guys (and gals) were not up for a 6-7 mile trek just to get to the trailhead that went to fishing…and the misery and anxiety that went with a place or trail I have never been to before. I knew it would be physical and anticipated frustration. So, it was a blessing not having anyone with me on this failed hike.
I’m not giving up, of course. My new plan is to simply wait until early June…just a few weeks for the roads to open. Then I’ll drive that dirt road to the actually clicks creek trailhead and do the supposedly moderate 4.2 mile hike to the little kern river.
I can’t say I don’t have regrets. I do have regrets. But, when backpacking alone you have to be smart and savvy. You have to deal with calamity. You have to make tough decisions which end up being safe. Sometimes “safe” is the opposite of fun.