20 years ago I never would have imagined that I would be embarking on my first “family” backpacking trip with my husband and 2 little girls in the midst of a pandemic, protests, political & societal unrest.
20 years ago I never would have imagined that the world I thought I knew would be turned upside down and deeply shaken till all the hate, ignorance, fear and lack of humanity was exposed for all to see how much work we as individuals and as a country really need to do.
20 years ago I never would have imagined that I would need backpacking as an outlet for me and my family…that I would need solitude in nature to help heal my heart, my mind, and ground me once again so I could find my path during this uncertain time.
In the late 1990’s I was fortunate enough to spend my summers working in the Emigrant Wilderness in the Stanislaus National Forest as part of the Volunteer Wilderness Patrol program. These summers were monumental in my growth, independence and security. It shaped my adult life in a way for which I am forever grateful. I remained faithful to my love of the backcountry and took many trips with friends and family until I landed a full-time job and started dating a surfer (whom I married). My priorities switched a bit to surf trips in Baja, camping trips in Big Sur and the occasional trip to a tropical beach destination.
Backpacking wasn’t a foreign concept to my daughters, as I had shown them pictures and told them of my adventures. We had even purchased a backpack for Abby’s 7th birthday in February in anticipation of a trip in the near future. Now with campgrounds closed, travel restrictions in place and a general uncertainty in any activity that could potentially be around others, there was no better time than now to make the leap to our first backpacking trip.
It was obvious to me that I needed to return to the Emigrant Wilderness, but during a pandemic with a 4 year old, a 7 year old and an avid fisherman, there were a few considerations that needed to be heeded in the planning of this trip: a) length and difficulty of the trip; b) popularity of said location; c) elevation; and (of course), d) how’s the FISHING?! Although we were taking a risk with a very populated trail, we settled on the Crabtree Trailhead with destinations of Grouse Lake, Bear Lake and Camp Lake. The loop would be a total of 13.8 miles over 4 days.
We made it to the campsite at the trailhead in a little over 5 hours drive and set up camp for the night. We ate veggie burgers and the girls enjoyed hot cocoa and climbing the rocks around camp until the mosquitos chased us into the tent at dark. As we settled in for bed, I noticed the quiet that surrounded us. I was wondering if the girls noticed it, when a little voice next to me said, “wow… it’s so quiet.” I knew at that moment this was what we all needed…to quiet our minds and find our ground.
Let’s just say that after our first night car-camping at the trailhead, my expectations for this trip changed! No one slept the first evening thanks to a stuffy-nosed child and the general sleeplessness of a long awaited night in a
tent. I awoke and promptly informed Charlie, my husband, that we would venture to Camp Lake and Bear Lake…forget the loop idea!
After a breakfast of egg and tempeh burritos, tea, and hot cocoa, we were ready to get moving. But first…time for a lesson in going nature potty in the backcountry. I am not sure if I should be proud that my girls were delighted to complete their potty duties outdoors and marveled in the fact that you could make it “look like it never happened there…leave no trace!”
As with many Forest Service camps, there were no bear boxes, but what we didn’t quite expect was no trash service. So our trash had to be left in the car in a cooler…yikes! This left me with a sense of uneasiness that I would come back to a car ripped to pieces by the can-opening claws of Ursus americanus! But alas, we secured what we could and headed for the trailhead.
Abby’s pack weighed approx 19.5 lbs with 1.5 liters of water (which she of course advertised to every person we passed on the trail: “my pack weighs 20 lbs and I am 7!”). Ziya carried her small pack with her 1.5 liters of water and a couple of snacks weighing in at under 6lbs. Charlie and I…well, we fared ok at under 50 lbs per pack.
Armed with black licorice, chocolate covered almonds, and energy balls as incentive, we set out for Camp Lake, an “easy 2.4 mile hike.” We passed a few groups on their way out who shared helpful intel such as, “there were 30 camping groups out here over the weekend, so you picked a good time to come,” and “there are no fish and lots of mosquitoes at Camp Lake, just head straight to Bear Lake.”
The girls remained in good spirits even amidst the grumblings about their packs, and the question all parents love, “when are we going to get there?” We took rest stops, photo stops, power snack stops, and finally a lunch stop at Camp Lake. Camp Lake was picturesque, with the granite rocks reflecting in its clear, mirror-like water. After lunch, we made the climb out of Camp Lake and journeyed on the 1 mile to Bear Lake.
We arrived at Bear Lake a mere 5 hours from leaving the trailhead. The girls were thrilled to pick out their campsite and venture around the rock looking for chipmunks. Charlie and Abby brought back trout to accompany what we packed for dinner. And for dessert we surprised them with yet another treat, freeze-dried ice cream!
That evening as I sat on the rocks next to our tent, with a world of granite in front of me, I felt the wilderness breathe life back into my soul. I could feel the noise of the “bad news,” social media, and pressures I had set on myself fall into the background. What lay ahead of me was far more powerful and healing.
With the exhaustion of the hike in, our second night of sleep went far better. We awoke slightly more refreshed and ready to enjoy the day. We moved our camp to space where we could enjoy the hammocks and find a little shade. We swam in the cool lake water and warmed our bodies on the granite rocks. We hiked upstream in search of more fishing holes until we were chased away by mosquitoes. We admired the colorful display of wildflowers in the meadows and the beauty of the Juniper Tree that stood so strong growing from what appeared to be only rock.
I was amazed again at the quiet…the quiet contentment of our girls as they play “rock climbers,” the quiet of Ziya as she drew pictures in my journal and “wrote letters” to her friends, the quiet concentration of Abby as she fished with her dad, and the quiet of my mind as I watched my family enjoy this experience. This is what I was searching for…this kind of quiet.
The breeze had died down and once again, we were chased into the tent by mosquitos. Abby asked the question we all ask: “why do mosquitoes even exist?” After explaining that they provide food for fish, frogs and birds as well as pollinate many species of plants, she appeared to find resolve with the mosquitoes’ existence.
Then…Charlie and I did something we have not done in a very long time, we opened our own books and read for our own pleasure! My love of getting lost in a book had been put on pause for Dr. Suess. It’s a simple enjoyment, but one we had both gotten away from with the timewarp of raising children. We read far too late into the evening, knowing that our departure was looming in the morning. Sleep was once again a struggle due to the inconsolable, uncomfortable, stuffy-nosed child thrashing around next to me.
With the girls fueled by chocolate covered peanuts, the hike out took a quick 2.5 hours. Swallowtails kissed us as they crossed our path gliding effortlessly back and forth, while the Fritillaries frantically darted around the flower clusters lining the trail. We were reminded that the holiday weekend was quickly approaching as we passed more than 30 people on the trail on their way in.
Nearing the trailhead, we caught glimpses of the sunlight reflecting off the cars through the trees, and my world somehow felt a little different. Our family had accomplished something we could feel good about…we had completed our first backpacking trip. There was a calm about each of us; an understanding of the power of nature to heal and restore.
Anxiously, we approached the car… and there on the back window were the paw prints of Ursus americanus, dusted in pollen like a crime scene. Somehow we had managed to escape damage to the car from the curious marauder. We unloaded our packs from our backs and into the car, digging out more snacks for the drive home. No sooner did we get into the car than Ziya fell asleep and Abby began asking “when are we going to get there?”
The trip was perfect… not “perfect” perfect, but its own kind of perfect. We ran out of stove fuel and we forgot Ziya’s allergy medicine (which would have relieved us all from the blasted stuffy nose), forcing us to cut it short by one night. But that was ok. It was perfect for us, for our first trip…for me to find that part of myself again that I felt was missing. I found my quiet. I found ground. We all found ground.