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Island Lake backpack 6-12>14

Summer 2015 Trip Chronicles:  Page 9  

Island Lake backpack

As a warm up gear shake out prep for a 9-day trip in early July into the John Muir Wilderness, 3 of us did a 2 night weekend trip from Wright's Lake to Island Lake in Desolation Wilderness. The week before I'd reserved and printed out online, a wilderness permit at recreation.gov. Thus on Friday afternoon June 12 left my workplace in Newark and headed north on I880 through unpleasant commute traffic to Vacaville where 150 minutes later I linked up with a couple bros, Joe and Mike. Drove east on I80 through Sacramento and up US50 into the Sierra Nevada areas of El Dorado National Forest. By 10pm we reached Wright's Lake at the 6941 foot elevation and 20 minutes later were walking down the road towards the usual trailhead. Unfortunately the forest service had blocked off the paved road to the trailhead about one mile west at a road junction to the lake near the outlet spillway. Thus were rather unhappy our expected 1.5 mile night hike with headlamps was instead going to be 2.5 miles. Unlike the trip 2 of us made in 2013, there were no mosquitoes about on the night hike in, probably due to the drought. And note our coming 9-day backpack will also begin with a short night hike.

Link to online topographic map of:
Wright's Lake Trailhead for Island Lake Trail

My carrying weight was just 50 pounds, the lightest backpacking weight I've carried in decades. At 140 pounds in my old age, more usual just a few years ago were crushing weights tipping 70. That was whittled down to about 65 by using light weight gear like the UL1 tent. The previous summer had finally stopped lugging the weighty 4x5 view camera gear, switching to a 24 megapixel sensor Sony A6000 APC-C camera. However that included a rather hefty motorized Gigapan Epic robotic head for stitching frames adding about 6 pounds including spare batteries. On this trip for the first time would be replacing that with a much lighter Nodal Ninja III manual panoramic head that I thoroughly sized up use with the previous week. What this all meant was that for the 9-day trip my carrying weight may be about 57 pounds given the added food inside a Garcia instead of the Ursack I now carried.


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The one mile paved road was level. We stopped a couple times to sit briefly on convenient roadside boulders before reaching the usual trailhead lot that is near the inlet. A strategy of mine on group backpacks because it allows opportunity for clothing and pack adjustments. Along the way we noticed vehicles of summer cabin residents thus they had access to the metal bar road gate combination lock. Just up the road from that gate is the public campground and our suspicion was the gate closure was a result of a forest service interest in preventing visitors from illegally using the campground until it was formally opened. Of course the same types that might do so despite signage are also more likely to be types that leave garbage that is an unfortunate reflection on our culture today.

The trail drawn on the topo from the trailhead is inaccurately shown further up the slope than reality. Instead the paved route bends north and passes through another metal bar gate with a combination lock. A bit down that paved road on the east side, the wide signed trail begins. Note trail junctions along the trail are well signed including mileages. The trail routes a bit north in flats adjacent to the edge of lakeside swampy areas before reaching bedrock slabs that are about a half mile along the trail from the normal summer trailhead. For those arriving during evenings interested in moving up the trail a bit from the parking lot, clean gruss sand spots within the open glaciated granite bedrock slab areas offer easy choices for throwing down sleeping bags.


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The following 3/4 miles climbs 450 feet on a rocky tree root covered trail within a mostly lodgepole pine forest just northeast of the stream out of the Grouse Lake basin. At this early summer time of year there are frequent seeps coming off the forested slopes to the southeast making the trail somewhat messy with mud. Fortunately we saw no signs of horse hooves that could make that situation more unpleasant. In any case it is a rather irregular surface with many step ups, loose rocks, and roots to stumble against that will keep any hikers keenly focused on each foot placement. I stopped a lot on each convenient thigh high boulder or cut log opportunity beside the trail as is my usual leisurely tact especially on first pack carrying efforts of a summer. Anywhere along this section a group could cross the creek and find open slab areas to camp on that would be out of view of the trail.

At 7400 feet the gradient relaxes while seeps running in the trail increase and the trail moves close to the stream. After climbing another 100 feet, unlike the line shown on the topo, the trail swings well away from the creek into the lodgepoles before returning at the trail junction that is about 50 feet lower than shown. All this confused me on our 2013 night hike in to the point I just moved out on the slabs cross country. That however becomes complicated by dense areas of blocking brush within joint cracks one needs to work through in order to reach the divide 250 feet above. Thus value in keeping on the actual trail versus cross country. The current trail crossing of the creek does so where it broadens out across bedrock into several channels and is hard to follow even during the day. By time we reached that point it was approaching midnight. From this point on, the trail routes through many granite bedrock slabs areas with rocks placed beside the trail as guides.


My plan was to camp at the 7750 foot divide that has many sand flats full of pussy paw flowers between exfoliating granite slabs. That would allow us to rise at dawn and just have an easy less than one mile hike to our destination giving me an opportunity for early morning photography and a full day to enjoy the basin. Since mosquitoes were not about and temperatures balmy in low 50s, after arriving I just tossed my Marmot Pinnacle sleeping bag tentless down as a blanket atop my Neoair pad and blue plastic ground sheet. Well I was well away from my 2 bros that snore haha. In the distance we could see lights of Sacramento and valley areas and above was a moonless clear night with the Milky Way. In the distance was the sound of the Twin Lakes basin stream and not a few croaking frogs. With earplugs in place I soon slipped into dream land.

Dawn Saturday June 13 rose at an early 5am and woke this early riser. I managed to fall back to sleep before waking again at 5:45am as pink light of the earth shadow traveled over the high ridge to the east. All of us got up and pushed gear back into our packs. Above image shows my sleeping spot. I've spent as much time on backpacking trips using just a bivy as a tent and despite being a light sleeper, as a thin light person, I have no problem sleeping on uneven crude surfaces. While the others slowly prepared leaving, I wandered up about the slabs and in skylight with fill flash shot the pussy paws, calyptridium umbellatum, third image from top, growing out of a granite crack with moss. Three decades earlier this species was the first good wildflower image I captured at Brown Bear Pass in Emigrant Basin on Kodachrome 64 with an OM-1N 35mm SLR, then made a small print from, that my beloved mother framed and much enjoyed. Encouragement that resulted in a growing interest in native flora. She passed away a few years ago at 85 from AML leukemia, the probable result of years in her 20s as a naval nurse during WWII performing X-rays during an age science didn't quite understand how to properly protect those performing such.


Sluggishly moving up the trail, by 6:40am we reached the outlet of Lower Twin Lake at 7980 feet where the trail crossed the stream on piled up loose stones often boot deep underwater. Wearing Vasque Bitterroot Gortex boots with my tripod extended as a support, I easily crossed quickly but bro Mike required a shoe change rummaged out from deep in his pack so the whole crossing session lasted about a half hour. Just beyond we encountered a couple camping groups. One with tenting gear was only about 50 feet from the lake edge. Without stopping, I calmly said hello while stating they were set up too close to the water. When groups know other backpackers may say something to them for ignoring policies, they are less likely to do so in the future. We cannot leave that up to backcountry rangers because there will always be far too few of them. A large area of flat granite slabs on both the north side of the lakes and southwest of the lower lake provides ample choices for legal camp spots. However all too many groups have the ironic habit of plopping down at the first open tentable spot they see upon arriving at destination lakes even if too close to lake edges, trail, or others as though the sign of one group camping signals an ok camping zone. The result is often several groups almost on top of each other amid otherwise empty wilderness. Topo:

mapper.acme.com topo link

The image above right shows a view down towards Lower Twin Lake with a tent nicely well back from the lake edge on a gruss flat. We continued climbing up past Boomerang Lake to Island Lake, crossed the small outlet cement dam at 8150 feet and moved to the south side of the lake where it took us quite some time to locate a usable zone to place 3 tents about. A century ago numbers of natural lakes in the Sierra unfortunately had small few foot high cement dams placed on their outlets with lake lowering mechanisms to allow late season flows downstream when such streams were often otherwise dry. However that tends to ruin sensitive lake edge environments that took centuries to evolve. The geology about the lake changes from bedrock slabs at Twin to a chunky darker granite like one sees about Rock Creek's Little Lakes Valley but without any normal tentable spots because there is minimal small eroded fill between rocks. Thus one can say there is almost nowhere to tent at Island Lake a legal distance from lake edges unless one accepts an uneven bumpy surface which in this person's case is fine. That said we later noticed a couple places people illegally tented and made ugly campfire pits along the few spots with a flat turfy lake edge. Our water supply was 50 feet away, a gurgling seasonal seep within talus from snow patches just above with a couple instantly filling cup dipping spots between boulders.


I set up my tent and was quickly down at a nearby pond by the lake at 8:53am to take the image at page top within 10 minutes, a 3x1 panel panoramic stitch using 17 focus stack blended images, my first with the Nodal Ninja III head. The view is west with white hued serviceberry blooming in the foreground. Note the brown needle top branches of stunted lodgepoles at right and across on the far shore. I'll speculate that is somehow related to our droughty winter in which the snow depth was so shallow these branches were sticking out into the open where harsh winter cold and winds was harmful. All too soon an increasing up canyon breeze ruffled what was a calm surface making further work difficult. After an hour I wandered back to camp, tended to other chores, then cooked up a Knorr Lipton pasta sides with broccoli. We had quite the humorous time commenting on the abundant marmots, chipmunks, and even a few pika, that continually were on raids to our gear. Was pleasantly surprised there were more critters about Island Lake's south shores than about any place I've camped at in the Sierra. However the good supply of seeps coming off snows on the north side of Mt. Price above keep an abundant supply of vegetation healthy plus the rocky geology is perfect for their rocky homes. I joined the others taking a nap given our short Friday night of sleep.


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Awake about noon, I snacked more, then the 3 of us climbed up 100 feet to the lake bench due south up at 8260. By midday several other day hiking groups had reached the lake and we met 3 of them at that bench. The area is a beauty spot with a nice mountain hemlock grove along a pretty stream section. Image above with mountain hemlock, tsuga heterophyla and rusty peak 9441 in background with plantainleaf buttercup, ranunculus alismifolius, and alpine laurel, kalmia polofolia on the foreground shore. On the far shore edge of the stream in front of hemlock are wind pruned shrubs of Labrador tea not yet with blooms. Just west this stream that is larger than the Island Lake branch, tumbles as a cascade over a steep drop into Upper Twin Lake 300 feet below. We had quite a fine time there at warm midday relaxing in shade. Second image below page top shows a close-up of some delightful alpine laurel near our camp.

Winds really picked up by early afternoon. Back down at camp Joe and I spent some time fishing but within an hour decided to abandon that effort till later as such winds often cause fish to go off any feeding. A couple hours later at 5pm the breezes were slowing so we went out again. During the morning hour after arriving at camp, I'd seen plenty of 8 to 11 inch eastern brook trout roaming the shores so knew it was simply a matter of waiting till they began feeding. Within an hour I'd caught maybe 8, keeping 4 while Joe added a couple larger specimens. We cleaned the fish, returned to camp, and commenced our usual process of making a fish dinner. I had the easy part doing 2/3 cup of rice while he bake the fish in his new frying pan. In that process we lid pans with aluminum foil and after fish are well baked, remove head, bones fins, and skin. After the clean flesh has lost much of moisture, we mix in rice, then go through 2 or 3 more short cycles to steam off moisture. Complete we just add salt and sometimes lemon, as trout naturally fed on aquatic fly species insects have a fine natural flavor. After 7pm I wandered off with my camera again, however the still breezy conditions soon had me back in camp where I instead enjoyed music to end what turned out to be a fine day.


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Each time I woke at night could hear some our furry neighbors rummaging about. By the end of the day they seemed to understand we were not going to chase or harm them that if we were lazing quietly so they would slowly creep as close as 3 feet to sniff our gear. But always with a wary eye out lest we make any strong movements. Sunday June 14 I again rose at dawn despite the fact we would be in shadows the first hour due to the high ridge line of the Crystal Range due east. I just love the early morning with birds singing and tweeting in usual quiet morning air, still reflecting waters, and little creatures venturing out tasting flowery treats. That gave me time to pack most of my gear so I would be able to quickly finish packing once I was done with morning photography. Having surveyed the basin for prospective photos, as the sun made its way onto the lake waters about 7:15am, I was set up with my first subject at the above pond adjacent to the lake edge.

In the foreground are yellow hued Sierra wallflower, erysimum capitatum. I've amused numbers of Sierra visitors by having them put their nose up to this species which one will find wonderfully fragrant. Beyond the pond one can see the Island Lake waters that were not quite so calm and never became so this morning. Many Sierra Nevada lakes only calm during mornings a minor percentage of the time. Thus a reason I have not a few times when subjects are exceptionally strong, years later returned to try again. The lake had many more nice landscapes I could have pointed my lens at however that will have to wait for another summer visit. To the right of the prominent lodgepole pine, pinus contorta ssp. murrayana, across the lake in the background in the right enlarged vertical slice view, one can see a large red patch of red mountain heather, phyllodoce breweri. And those same red flowers are about the edges of the pond in the center slice. In the lower left slide are also some magenta hued mountain pride penstemon, penstemon newberryi, that were one of the common species about this rocky basin. Also around the pond edge is the ubiquestous Sierra willow, salix oresta. At frame right edge across the lake, the large tree with a reddish trunk is a red fir, albies magnifica. Notice the upturned trunk roots of the tree at frame edge left? Not an orientation I would expect if due to snow avalanches that obviously cull most taller trees in the basin. In this case, the big lodgepole may have fell off to the west during a east high wind event.


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The image above shows the east end of Island Lake with peak 9441 above. On the near shore is a patch of red mountain heather beside a small mountain hemlock at center. Visible in the enlarged vertical slice view center slice below that tree is white heather, cassiope mertensiana. And in the right slice at lake edge yet another heath family species, alpine laurel. In the background below the peak is a large surface oxidized orange hued lens of iron mineral bearing bedrock. At left is the edge of one of ten small islands shown on the topo for Island Lake. Many of the islands are more than mere rocky outcrops, having wind sculpted hemlock, heather, and willow much like those of famous Thousand Island Lake of the Ritter Range. By a bit after 8:15am I'd given up on the breezes so was back in camp as we completed packing up. Within 15 minutes we were making our way across the dam on our way out. Snapped our trip group photo on the trail picture at a small camas lily, camassia quamash, meadow. During the rest of the way out we passed dozens of Sunday day hikers including some rather large groups.

By time we reached the paved road, the soles of our feet were feeling the pain from the beating of downward steps for the first time in summer. And from experience I know that with each summer trip one's feet become less affected so. Thus the wisdom in having such short first summer backpacking trips. A couple days later mid week at my workplace, my body was well recovered and felt considerable stronger than just the week before.

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2015 Trip Chronicles:    Contents

   David Senesac
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