Ansel Adams Wilderness,  June 2021


     The cryptic “oh... stream crossing...” uttered by a fellow backpacker as we shared plans should have been warning enough, but here we were, several hours later, having crossed said “stream,” a raging river, really, and having now gained most of the elevation of the day’s hike over a short half mile, realizing why most backpackers avoid the River Trail from Agnew Meadows to Garnet Lake. Sweat dripped from our brows, partly from the inclement heat, and partly from having to negotiate ice fields in their death throes, as we finally crested the last boulder and emerged on the south side of the lake. As George leaned on his trekking poles, he muttered “I hate bouldering...” in a voice reminiscent of Indiana Jones staring into a pit of snakes.


     It had been an anxious morning, a reflection of the improbable roll of dice that had, at the last minute, changed our plans yet again. Aside from a long trek along the Pacific Crest Trail, two trailheads lead to Garnet Lake and Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness: Agnew Meadows, within Devils Postpile National Monument, and Rush Creek near Silver Lake on the June Lake Loop. We’d opted for the first, but the confirmation for our wilderness permit was followed by a sternly-worded and discouraging email: Devils Postpile, hibernating beneath a thick

blanket of snow in the winter, had never opened to visitors before late June. Should we wish to stick with our plan, we would have to add 6 miles round trip, and a 1000’ elevation gain to an already long trip. As a backup, late on a Saturday night in early June, just two weeks prior to our hike, we secured a permit for Rush Creek, hoping that we wouldn’t have to use it. Then, just as we were resigned to starting on the more challenging Rush Creek trail, the opening date of Devils Postpile was moved up, bringing us back to “plan A.”


     It has become a tradition of sorts to pick up bagel sandwiches and large cups of dark roast coffee from Old New York Deli in Mammoth as a last meal before beginning our yearly trek in the Eastern Sierra. As we approached the Devils Postpile gate, set to open promptly at 8am, our anxiety grew as a long line of cars was already ahead of us. We ate our bagel sandwiches in silence, and I wished that the deli had had lemon wedges to cut some of the brininess of my lox and cream cheese on sesame bagel sandwich. With still more than 30 minutes to wait, I decided to walk to the gate and count the number of cars ahead of us. Our anxiety arose from the travails of the previous year, as missing out on parking at Agnew Meadows would throw a spanner into the works and add considerable mileage to our trip. I counted fifty-eight cars between us and the gate, but the atmosphere was festive, with tailgates open and children, their faces beaming with anticipation, dangling their feet or sticking half out of their cars’ windows, groups of fishermen chatting quietly as they waited, and others anxiously walking to and fro from car to car as I was. It was reassuring as not many of the cars ahead of us seemed to be backpackers, and we would surely find our spot.


     The gates almost didn’t open that morning... As I was nearing the gate on foot, a trash truck went past downhill, and as it negotiated a blind curve, I heard the loud screech of brakes. Moments later, a small car with two ashen-faced rangers, traveling on the opposite side of the road to bypass the long line of cars and reach the gate went past. From the looks on their faces, it must have been a very close call! Finally, at 9am, shady parking spot secured, heavy packs on our shoulders, we began the hike that would lead us to Garnet Lake.


     When deciding on a date for our trip, I had insisted on dates in June in hopes of milder weather than we experienced in the several previous treks we’d done in August. Having had cloudless and drab skies before, I was also hoping to catch a storm or two, almost pining for the daily hail- storms on my first ever trip in the Sierra decades ago. Nature would not cooperate, though, and we began our hike in the middle of a heat wave that smothered California, raising temperatures in the Mammoth Lakes area to over 80°F. An early season hike guaranteed another form of cloud, though, that of mosquitoes whose incessant buzzing would be an unshakable presence from the soundtrack of our hike.


     For nearly three miles, we followed the familiar River Trail, retracing our steps from the year before, and reminiscing about the last set of switchbacks and the last mile that seemed to go on forever as thunderstorms chased us out of the wilderness. Instead of turning toward the switchbacks leading to Shadow Lake, we forged ahead along a path leading through a hillside of red quartzite crunching underfoot, the last remnants of a warm, shallow ocean that covered this land millions of years ago.


     The trails in the Ansel Adams Wilderness are never far from rivers and streams rushing downvalley. On the way to Garnet Lake, the middle fork of the San Joaquin River dominates, singing a song of the mountains to all who would listen. Two hours into our hike, we stopped briefly at a stream crossing where I was instantly fixated on a tiny rivulet that had created a microcosm of bright green in a pine forest of muted colors. Mossy boulders surrounded the stream, and its diminutive splash on the rocks below was reminiscent of Japanese sozu fountains. Perhaps more attuned to the sound of the river, George found a much more impressive cascade nearby, and off came our heavy packs for a much-needed break. The sounds of the forest closed in on us... the rush of wind through the treetops, the chirping of birds, and the rush of the cascade, now with an audience for its song. Standing on its turbulent shore, you could hear its tale of

alpine lakes filled to the brim with snowmelt, of clouds dancing overhead, of the red quartzite and granite it cleaved in its mad rush to the valley floor... There its song would turn into a whisper, but for now, its voice was strong, its spray refreshing, and its path one that we soon followed upstream.     


     An hour later, we arrived at an unmarked junction where three trails seemed to separate. The leftmost trail, the one we were to follow, soon terminated at the middle fork of the San Joaquin, and a long and deliberate search failed to locate a good way to cross the wide and snowmelt-engorged river. This was, in fact, the “stream crossing” mentioned to us back in Agnew Meadows. We were tired... The stifling heat of late morning had slowly sapped our strength, and now we faced an uncertain crossing in mid-thigh-deep rushing water over slippery rocks. It was time for a break, as the crossing was but the gateway to the steep trail that would eventually lead to Garnet Lake, perched more than 500 feet above us, feeding the torrent we were about to cross. After our snack break, we changed into our river sandals and crossed the river just above a set of rapids, where it was widest but also relatively clear of slick boulders. If anything, the river crossing was refreshing, as our sandaled feet cooled down in the glacial water and the day’s heat was briefly chased away.


     Our packs felt instantly lighter and our aches disappeared as we finally approached the wooden bridge over the steep drainage from Garnet Lake and beheld the lake for the first time. White cumulus clouds, all puffed up from dancing on the afternoon winds, crowned Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter and cast kaleidoscopic shadows on the landscape. A refreshing breeze blew across the lake, corrugating its surface and adding the sound of lapping waves to nature’s adagio.

     The campsite we chose, a further half mile from the bridge, was just above where my son Tadeh and I had camped two years prior. A copse of pines gave shelter from wind and filtered the afternoon Sun, but did not in any way shield us from the thousands of mosquitoes that descended on the lake. From Garnet Lake onward, we would be surrounded by a buzzing aura of bloodsuckers without respite.


     I always marvel at the hikers on the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails, covering long distances day after day, sleeping as soon as the Sun sets, breaking camp at the crack of dawn, and on the road before I contemplate my first cup of coffee. My tendency on backpacking trips is in the opposite direction. I yearn to spend time just staring at a lake and surrounding peaks, impatiently welcome the first star to announce the end of twilight, look for the Milky Way night after night, and am up at the crack of dawn to photograph the sunrise. Returning to Garnet and Thousand Island lakes wasn’t because of a lack of choice or imagination, it wasn’t for the want of being swarmed by mosquitoes, but was rather a deliberate decision to challenge myself to see beyond lake and mountain, to explore what was unique about these lakes in the Eastern Sierra.


     Adorning the western stretch of Garnet Lake, and dotted throughout Thousand Island Lake are the myriad islands that are the namesake of the latter, and oft forgotten in the former. We had all afternoon to explore the lakeshore, to see the changing light upon its slopes and on the last whispers of snow on the slopes of Banner Peak As we walked, we glimpsed an improbable shape, a wedge poised to plow through the water like an icebreaker in the arctic, bearing upon its shoulders an outburst of conifers. We waited patiently for the Sun’s glare to flee the lake’s surface, for the subtle to emerge into view, for a singular island to become the focus of our meditation. I would never make the mistake of spending too little time in such grandeur ever again...


     Fading light found us clambering upon a ridge of shattered stone, bursting with energy from our carb-engorged dinner, setting up our portable chairs, and watching the Sun sink behind Banner and Ritter while sipping an excellent Cabernet out of our Sierra cups. As we watched, the wind tore at the clouds above the lake, shredding them one by one till only a lone wisp of cloud remained for the last light of the Sun to paint in the golds and pinks of sunset.


     Sunset was already a memory when we returned, but backpackers on the John Muir Trail were still streaming by our campsite. One looked up at the lake, and asked, “Thousand Island?” We were at Garnet Lake, but I didn’t blame him for his confusion, as the western flank of Garnet is dotted by islands that are perhaps more eye catching, complicated, and decorated than those of the nearby and more famous lake. The first quarter Moon was hours from setting, and a second visit to the wedge-shaped island only earned me two sets of scrapes from falls on the way there and back. Sleep should have come easily as the labors of the day finally caught up to us, but so did the aches of carrying very heavy packs all day, and neither of us had the restful night of sleep we were looking forward to.


     Before dawn the next morning, I ritually peeked out of the tent as I was getting dressed. As soon as George heard the tent flap open, he called out, “Are there clouds?” He knows exactly what my dream sunrise would be, but then we have to leave dreams in our tent and face reality, don’t we? To my eyes, shut in exhausted sleep moments before, the lightening sky looked cloudless and bland. But no, I realized, it was actually completely clouded over, and groaned in disbelief. Which was worse? No clouds or too many clouds? Soon I was on a rocky bluff overlooking the lake, with cloudy skies above and the first light of day

not yet allowed into the vast basin in which the lake had formed. It was the blue hour, and the lake surface a perfect reflection of the skies above, refusing to abandon the azure of its depths as the Sun rose, rippling here and there with each hint of wind, craving the reflection of the peaks rising to the west. I waited and watched as the cloud cover thinned and the skies above Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter began to clear well after sunrise. It would be hours before the Sun finally shook away a persistent band of clouds on the eastern horizon keeping it at bay, but in the meantime we were treated to a muted and altogether serene sunrise over the crags of the Sierra.

     The hike between Garnet Lake and Thousand Island Lake was certainly shorter and less challenging than the uphill trudge from Agnew Meadows the previous day. Mindful of the heat, we began early enough, and were soon done with the short uphill climb to reach the shores of the diminutive Ruby Lake. Someone really got carried away with the gem analogy here, as after Garnet Lake, you expect grandeur from Ruby Lake and Emerald Lake, and all you find are ponds hemmed in by uninteresting slopes of scree.


     “I can’t wait to see Thousand Island Lake,” George exclaimed as our footsteps brought us closer and closer to the lake. George had now been hearing about the beauty and grandeur of the lake for years, and knowing from past treks that photographs can never match the experience of being there in person, was anxious for that first view. Leading us there, I suddenly thought of the perfect introduction. In my best Gandalf voice, I would raise my staff (trekking pole) and exclaim “Minas Tirith...” as Gandalf did when that city first came into view. But, unlike the City of Kings, and unlike most lakes in the Ansel Adams Wilderness it calls home, this lake refuses to reveal itself at once to the casual backpacker. The first glimpse of the lake is one without islands, and even the junction of the Pacific Crest Trail at the southeastern flank of the lake

only reveals an island of two and a peninsula that blocks the view ahead. I wonder how many backpackers’ only glimpse of the lake is from this spot as they decide to power ahead on the PCT... After two days of exploring the lake, George and I would joke that you’d need to stand atop Banner Peak, fly a drone, or hire a helicopter to see the magnificence of the lake all at once. But what you do see as you walk around the lake is vista after amazing vista opening before your eyes, reflections of clouds as they hurry by on the textured surface of the lake, golden light reflected from the peaks, and island after island vying for your attention. But I’m getting ahead of myself...

     Campsites at Thousand Island Lake are scattered along its northern shore, a loamy expanse of grassy meadows bursting with wildflowers, granite boulders, and narrow beaches of fine sand. Early on a Friday morning, we had the lakeshore to ourselves, and chose a site perched atop a large granite boulder overlooking the lake. An hour later, as some of the clouds hiding the Sun began to evaporate, we realized how exposed our campsite would be in full sunlight, and finally moved our tent, after we had pitched it, to a spot under pine trees that would provide shade throughout the day.


     Though we were still exhausted from the previous day, we began to explore the northern shore of the lake. Every turn of the narrow trail along the grassy shoreline revealed a different view of the lake and a new set of islands, so that if it hadn’t been for Banner Peak imposing its presence, one could have easily imagined each view being that of a different lake. Wildflowers bloomed everywhere... Stands of red Indian paintbrush, purple lupine, beardtongues and woolymule’s ears grew between granite boulders, phloxes decorated the cracks hewn by ice over the ages, and cornflowers in various stages of bloom grew along the shoreline. How long would these last in the early heat of what promised to be a very long summer?

     Though it was hotter than it should be this time of year in the Sierra, cumulus clouds racing overhead provided ample shade on our walk. With the Sun setting behind Banner Peak, the islands we discovered would be the focus of my attention all afternoon and evening. The beauty of not being distracted by the monoliths that dominate Sierran lakes is that you pay attention to the subtle changes in lighting as clouds come and go, as the Sun sinks lower toward the horizon, as breaths of wind send ripples against the islands and the shoreline. At one point during our walk, dark clouds gathered at the northeastern end of the lake, briefly casting a black smudge on the slopes to our east, creating a sharp contrast between the slope and the islands bathed in golden light. And so it went all afternoon, with yesterday’s trend repeated once again as not a single cloud remained overhead at sunset.

     Thousand Island Lake is very popular with backpackers, and we longed for the relative solitude we felt at Garnet Lake. Groups of boisterous campers had pitched tents in every available campsite, so that even the short walk to the lake for water or for one more photograph now passed a number of camps closer to the water than we were. At sunset, most campers gathered in groups of twos and threes to silently bid the day adieu and to watch the Sun slowly withdraw its tendrils of light from the lake. Soon after, the sounds of humanity filled the lakeshore again as dinner preparations were made, and a group in a stand of trees at a higher elevation even had the audacity to start a campfire.


     We slept much better, and I only recall a moment in the middle of the night when I woke to glimpse a sky full of stars out of our tent’s window before falling asleep again. Once again, as dawn broke upon the Sierra, the sky had successfully fended off clouds from the mountaintops, chasing them away downvalley... I showed my disdain by lowering my gaze to the water, admiring the reflections of sunrise, and avoiding skyward glances until a puff of white appeared, if only briefly. It would be well past sunrise when vermilial light first touched the crest of Banner Peak, but one could watch the Earth turn as shadows fled and the red hand of dawn swept down the mountain slopes to the lake.


     The hours immediately after sunrise were filled with sounds of backpackers breaking camp and leaving the lake, and for most of the morning and early afternoon, we had the solitude that we craved. As more and more overnighters filed out, the lake basin was filled with a silence that not even the wind dared break. It would be hours till the campsites began to fill again, and in that respite we had the best views on the planet all to ourselves. From the high perch of our campsite, we watched as each island reacted to the gentle morning breeze like a ship run aground, its bow bravely diverting ephemeral currents egged on by the breeze. The surface of the lake was like litmus paper, changing color with the direction and intensity of the wind... Where the wind coaxed choppy waves, it left behind the dull earth tones of dredged sand. Where it blew across an island, it left a multi-hued wake, but where it could not penetrate a chain of islands that kept it at bay like circled wagons, the lake surface was pure glass.


     The southern slope of the lake is a rocky hill decorated with hardy evergreens and patches of windswept scrub brush, mostly Lemmon’s willow. And though it has the privilege of basking in afternoon light, it pales in comparison to the jumble of terrain on the northern shore. After breakfast, we walked toward the PCT trail junction and headed toward a short trail that would take us atop the southern slope. Would we finally find that expansive view of the lake we longed for? Alas, no... We would be thwarted once again by the expanse of the lake, and would only gain glimpses of the headwaters of the middle fork of the San Joaquin rushing away from the lake and a set of islands we could not see from our campsite.

      I had looked forward to a lazy afternoon to meditate, to read, and to write, and not even the incessant buzzing of mosquitoes, and their frequent bites, would derail my desire to bask in the grandeur of the wilderness surrounding me. In the Sierra, the wind is often unsubtle, proclaiming its arrival with a howl long before branches bow to its presence. The sound of an afternoon wind through the trees, amplified by the vibration of thousands of leaves, is only sometimes followed by a gust whipping the surface of the lake. With each gust, though, we gained brief respite from the mosquitoes, and so the howls of the wind that didn’t clear away the buzzing cloud were just disappointing. We stayed close to camp for sunset and were rewarded with one last view of the lake and Banner Peak at sunset, and even a marmot decided to join us and bask in the last light of the setting Sun.


     One concession that we had to make when we planned this trip was to forego the nightly views of the blanket of stars we had become accustomed to in previous years. The Moon set later and later each night, and viewing or photographing the Milky Way wasn’t on the menu unless one set an alarm for 2:00am. Two years prior, I had had the fortune of catching the alpenglow of moonrise on Banner Peak, and was not interested in photographing the same view at the same lake, minus the alpenglow. I would, instead, wake for each sunrise, intent on catching that first glimmer of sunlight on the peaks surrounding us.


     A cloudless dawn greeted us once again, but our footsteps this morning were heavier as our time in the wilderness would soon come to an end. We drank in the views, we revisited reflections, and absorbed as much of our surroundings into us as we could... A week later, these would be the memories we’d play in our minds over and over again... the inflorescence of phloxes bathed in the first reflected light of dawn, grassy islets along the shore of the lake, and the song of waking birds filling the air...


      At last, we could no longer linger at the lake, and a cloudless sky promised an early warming on the exposed High Trail we would follow back. Our descent from the lake was rapid, with the staccato of trekking poles striking rock providing the cadence of our march. The fertile ground was still soaked from snowmelt, but the footing on the trail was firm and we made good time. As the name implies, the High Trail stays at high elevations for miles, and two hours into our “descent,” we found ourselves at the same elevation as Thousand Island Lake! For the next several miles, we would traverse long, exposed stretches where only the hardiest of shrubs grew, punctuated by oases of streams crossing our path. These were obvious from afar... the sun- burnt landscape would shift to a lush green, and stands of lupine, purple spears pointing skyward like soldiers at the king’s castle, would guard the flanks of the waterlogged and fertile soil. The miniature cascades and the overhanging rocks within each oasis would often be the only shady spots on the trail, and we would deliberately slow down or stop for brief relief from the full morning Sun. We took our first and only packs-down break after the last stretch of switchbacks took us to an even higher elevation at a stand of aspen trilling in the wind. Directly across from us stood Shadow Lake, sapphire blue in a setting of deep green forest and granite glowing in every color under the Sun. The white finger of a cascade rushed downstream, bringing back memories of treks in both directions along its mist-drenched banks. Further along the trail the landscape changed gradually into meadows of cornflowers before we finally entered the shade of a pine forest, and the palette of nature changed once again. Browns, dull greens, and a trail strewn with pine needles now dominated our vision and our path grew easier despite the stifling heat. Another, much larger oasis was the last splash of water we saw as we neared the end of the trail, and a quick set of switchbacks had us back at our car in Agnew Meadows. Unlike the previous year, we eagerly looked forward to lunch, and the overly stuffed bison burger I had at Burgers Restaurant in Mammoth, washed down with a brown ale, crowned a superb ending to the events of the day. Of course, we were 300 miles from home, but aside from witnessing the first throes of a brush fire on the slopes of Mt. Whitney, the drive home was uneventful and only filled with reveries of the beauty we’d left behind.


     Science has clearly delineated the necessary ingredients for life... Organic molecules, energy, and water top the list. But beyond the necessary is the essential, and each of the seven billion of us crowding Planet Earth derives their essence from something or someone dear to their heart. What is the essence of my being? For all but a handful of days per year, my wife Carolyn, my children, my immediate family, and my close friends are my raison d’etre, but I confess that I could not persist for long if not for the restorative power of sunrises and sunsets spent in the backcountry, whether alone or with friends. I will again walk the paths that I’ve walked, and explore the unexplored for as long as my feet can carry me and long after, and so this is au revoir, till our paths cross again.


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