Saturday, August 20, 2011

First Sierra Horse Packing Trip: Helms Meadow and Beyond

We've visited all of the western sates, and there are so many beautiful places. But the Sierra Nevada always gets me. It's truly heaven on earth - mountains, trees, fresh air, lakes, creeks, waterfalls. What's not to like?

OK, this year, the bugs were an issue - specifically those blood-suckin' mosquitoes. And where the mosquitoes quit, the black flies began. The only exception was along lake shores when the wind was up enough to keep the little frackasses busy.

We packed up the horse, Maddie, and all her gear and ours Saturday morning and headed out for the 6-hour drive to the trail head. We made only one significant stop (for lunch and horse watering), and Maddie did really well. She rode quietly and didn't flee from the trailer upon arrival at the campground, so the ride must've been OK.

After camping at the trail head Saturday night, we packed the gear again and hit the trail near Trapper Springs Campground on the west side of Courtright Reservoir.

The trail was fairly easy for the first five miles or so, including a spectacular walk through Helms Meadow where the wildflowers were poppin' and the views of Dogtooth Peak where out of this world. But perhaps a little over a mile past the meadow, the trail markings weren't quite so clear, and the trail itself was grown over or blocked by fallen trees more often than not. Old blazes had long grown to pretty well-healed (nearly invisible) scars. Even with the GPS and topo maps in hand, we found following the trail difficult. And blazing our own trail with a horse packed for bear (VERY wide horse) was time consuming given all the fallen wood and dense forest.

We worked our way past the trail head to East Lake, then opted to backtrack a bit to a granite slab where we made camp for two nights. We knew we could make it to our intended location nearly 2 miles away if we worked at it, but the old folks and the horse in our party were all tired - particularly tired of backtracking and circling in efforts to stay on the trail. AND we knew that we'd probably have the same issues on our departure day - no fun!

Making Pine Needle Syrup
So granite slab it was. We aimed for the mineral soil and slab because we'd noticed throughout our hike that these spots had fewer mosquitoes than another spots along the trail. Still, we used more insect repellent on this trip than any two trips combined and still came home looking like chicken pox clinic refugees.

Monday, I took a pretty short ride up the hill to East Lake. The GPS noted it was "only" 3/4 mile, so I saddled Maddie and off we went. It took us awhile to come upon the proper trail which we ultimately followed to the east side of the lake (the swimmin' rock side). There was a nice little meadow there for her to enjoy while I took a dip and some photos, missed my dad and missed Grandma Kathy, then opted to spend that time remembering great pasts rather than regretting their absence at the moment.
Such great memories here - lots of laughs, for sure! After Maddie tanked up on lake water, we headed back down the mountain, this time following the trail all the way back to camp. Someone has done a LOT of work maintaining the markings on this trail, including cairns, fallen branches lining the walk, rocks marking the path over granite slabs. But all these are quite temporary, and I didn't notice more permanent - like blazes.

Tuesday we decided to walk part way back toward the trail head and find a spot along Courtright Reservoir's northern shore (still in the wilderness area). The idea was that our walk out would be shorter the following day, thereby making the day that would ALSO include the 6-hour drive home more tolerable. It would also get us on a lake where V (OK, and Mr. B and I) could cast a line. The hike down was especially fun for me where the Helms Meadow trail disappeared. Rather than continue looping and spinning through the trees trying to find a route wide enough for packed horse, she and I enjoyed a nice creek walk while the little people and their dad had a fairly straightforward walk along the bank. The water was cool but not cold, refreshing, and SO clear! We spotted lots of fish along the way before finally returning to the Helms Meadow trail where it re-emerged along the bank.

We came upon a really nice, well-established camp at the mouth of Helms Creek where the fishing was fantastic! V and her spinning/fly combo setup didn't get any bites (can't imagine why, though), and Mr. B's similar setup brought in a couple of bites, but didn't reel any in.

Since I count Sierra seasons not by weather, but by bug life, I know that mosquito season is followed by "bee" season. Yellowjackets come out en masse, I believe to gorge on the mosquitoes, late in the summer. With so many mosquitoes out, and the temperatures still warming, "bee" season must be just around the corner. So I decided to tie on an early season trout treat - a small "bee" fly. I cast a few times in an area that was more lake than creek, then Mr. B pointed me to the sweet spot where he'd had his nibbles. Sure enough - first cast I brought in a 14" trout! V helped me release it before my second cast brought in a smaller rainbow trout. The next big bite resulted in the loss of that little bee, and with mosquitoes doing their darnedest to suck V and me dry, we headed in for the night, happy as could be.

Prather, then the long slog home.

It was a great escape to one of my favorite places in the Western U.S. We also learned a few lessons. Next time, bring the horse her own bug spray (big bottle), bring the horse's light blanket (forgot it in the trailer when we packed up at base camp), bring an extra set of shoes for each kid, too, and, for our family, probably don't plan on hiking more than 5 miles per day on a back country trail which is, more likely than not, going to disappear on us a time or fifty.

I can hardly wait to do it again!

1 comment:

  1. These pictures look so much like the Uintas. I need to get a pack for my dog like you have for Maddie.

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