August 7-15: Two trips to the same place, Blayney Meadows on the South Fork of the San Joaquin.
Every year I visit the John Muir Wilderness in mid august to enjoy the Perseids meteor shower from the warm womb of the Blayney Meadows hot spring. I first visited in 1988, hiking down from Humphries Basin when I was too bored by the fish on every cast. That eighteen mile hike made the hot springs something special to me, and in autogenic training for peak performance I made it my mental room. Ever since that first trip I take the boat ride and easy five mile hike from Florence Lake.
The first trip was a fishing trip with brewing buddy Russ and his friend Tom, an experienced fly angler. Packs were heavy already but we fit in eighteen beers and a fifth of Jack Daniels. Our goal was to get Russ into a trout and we fell short on that but there were no complaints from him because his goal was to enjoy.
The runoff now in mid August was still higher than I'd seen in May of normal runoff years. Snowfields still flanked the peaks above 10,000 feet. Some high trails were just opening up, but many stream crossings were still risky and all of this kept the crowds to a minimum. To get to the hot spring you need to cross the main river, and not everyone knows about the log a quarter mile upstream from the normal crossing. On both trips we were able to camp near the hot spring with just another party or two on that side of river, and none within earshot.
With the river raging the fish were concentrated in the few eddies where they could find quiet water. Spotting them was easy with polarized glasses and practice, but getting flies down to them proved more difficult. When we did they took our large stone fly and smaller caddis imitations, and we kept two for trout burritos. Russ is a caterer and food was a highlight. He had fresh dried tomatoes from his garden and made a sauce for pasta as good as he would serve to high society. Tomato and red pepper polenta trout burritos, and cornmeal pancakes left us content and not overly inclined to strain for day hikes to the surrounding beautiful high country.
Saturday after we slept until the sun jarred us awake, Tom and I hiked three miles up and fished the occasional eddies back down the river while Russ stayed in camp, swam in the lake, and read in the hot spring. I found a good rock to lean on with a perfect view of Pavilion Dome where Piute Creek flows down from Humphries Basin to join the South Fork, and sketched. I have felt some change growing in my outdoor painting style, painting comfortably now in the bright light of high open granite, and this one felt very natural as it almost jumped off my brush in the time it took Tom to fish just two small eddies.
Pavilion Dome and South Fork San Joaquin River, John Muir Wilderness.
The hike out was far easier than the hike in with our packs lightened by our appetites. Two days of work reeled me back to city life but the lure of the high country that we had not ventured to drew me back. Deedee is my favorite backpacking companion because it is she who compells me further that I'd normally have the energy to go. This trip was no exception, except that was happy to find myself in condition to keep up.
Normally we set up camp beyond the hot spring but with a late start she was willing to set camp there if I agreed to hike up to Sally Keyes Lakes on a day hike. I'll agrre on anything to stay at the hot spring when it is so uncrowded. The weather had changed from the previous weekend and now clouds boiled up and rained even in the morning. On a leisurely first day fishing near camp Deedee slipped on wet granite and gave her knee a bad bruise and bloody scrape, but the next day it was her idea to hike anyway.
From the topo map we could see that Sally Keyes lakes were at 10,000 feet and we were at 7600. We couldn't tell the distance of the trail because it was mostly switchbacks. As we left camp and wound through boulders the size of city buildings we turned a corner and surprised a small bear just twenty feet away. It scampered away as we carefully looked for a mother that we might have stumbled into in peril. A few seconds later we saw its curious and deceptively cute face above a notch to watch us, it must be a yearling just out on its own. We waved hi bear, then resumed our hike, just a bit anxious for our packs and sleeping bags that he could mess with if he smelled food on them. Our food was hung but we keep hearing of bears figuring out the correlation between the food above and the ropes on the tree trunks.
It rained most of the way and though we had rain jackets we had no warm clothes, and in concern discovered that neither of us had brought matches. Two long distance backpackers that we waited out a burst of rain with were glad to trade us a pack for two flies that had worked there in the rivers, weighted black bomber and yellow jackets from Ted Fay Fly Shop in Dunsmuir. At Salley Keyes lakes we were rewarded with clear and sunny weather.
Golden trout with their bright red bellies cruised the shoreline everywhere, but instead of fishing we chose to hike another mile or two up to Selden Pass for the view to the other side. It took a little longer than we hoped; we knew we were trading away the time to fish for the golden trout below. The view of freshly glaciated granite stretched out with gems of lakes garlanded below, an amazing view that I would like to have painted but in the moist cold air all I'd have would be a smeary blur, at the risk of not making it back to camp by nightfall. I snapped a picture and we ate peaches, and I'll eat peaches to try to remember as I work on a painting back home.
The hike back was in a steady drizzle and we were pretty well soaked as we made it back to camp. A guaranteed remedy for the first shivers of hypothermia is a hot bath. A few shooting stars and the company of another two long distance backpackers made it as good as it gets. The next night we were back in the thick air of our cities, a tragedy by comparison.
Shadow of Mt. Ward, John Muir Wilderness.