July 4th in the GTW

July 1-4 2016

My wife and I recently moved back to CA after living in western Kenya for a couple years. We were consulting for an NGO engaging economic development in East Africa. Given that it’s been a whirlwind of a return, we’d not yet spent a night in the backcountry so we decided to head to the Golden Trout Wilderness with a good friend for the 4th of July.

As a child I remember our highs Sierra summer vacations fondly. The long trek up 395 perhaps was not the most exciting part of the adventure but the sight of the Alabama Hills and Mt. Whitney always cheered me up. I can remember forcing my family to always gas-up in Lone Pine so that I could look through a metal pipe welded to point directly at the peak (I’m sure some of you know exactly what I’m talking about).

Given that we were going to be using a non-quota trail we were in a catch-22. In order to register online for a wilderness permit we need to input a trail with a quota. Because ours was quote-less we could not e-register. This means we had to make it to the Inyo Wilderness Visitor Center before 4:00 so that we could get our permit for the following morning’s intake. The facility, just as I remember, is beautiful and well laid out. The staff is great also. Our pass was secured and we stayed in Lone Pine a bit longer to grab dinner. We found a great little place (Lone Star Bistro) on the main strip where we grabbed sandwiches and jerkey. We also grabbed a six pack of beer and a load of firewood for the night at Horseshoe Meadows. We knew that it was a popular stop for PCTers and thought that a good campfire would warm some weary spirits.

By 6:00 we made the ascent and hit the campground. Thunderstorms had slammed the site for about two hours before our arrival and many of the designated spots were flooded. In turns out that many PCTers had been forced to descend the mountain to dry out their gear. Between them and the weary packers just arriving we knew it would be a nice night. We double checked our gear and set up camp before lighting the fire. As it grew dark the three of us grew to about eleven as stories were swapped, backgrounds were shared, and laughter was felt all around. By about 10:00 everyone called it a night and retreated to their tents.

We awoke bright and early to begin our 10+ mile hike back to the creek of gold. We knew that it was going to be a slog of a day. For those of you who are unfamiliar, much of the GTW’s trails are sandy. Now, were not talking beach sand. But we are talking soft and coarse ground pebbles immersed in dust. It’s a quad-buster…not to mention calfs, glutes, and hamstrings. Our pace was really slow. Our feet were in zero conditioning and truthfully we had no clue how we’d hold up to the pack weight. Thankfully after trudging over mile after mile of the sandy trail we hit the mother load.

I knew from a previous trip that a great campsite was located just behind a large outcropping of rocks. Our fortunes paid off and we had the space to ourselves. This meant benches, a pre-built fire pit, and shelter from the wind. The last hours of daylight were spent gathering water, pitching camp, and resting our bodies. I could not resist and tossed a few flies in the water. I pulled out a couple small goldens which at least let me know that the drought had not slaughtered everything.

A dinner of mac n’ cheese, raspberry crumble, and a cup of hot chocolate definitely lifted my spirits. We were also exhausted so no card games were necessary. We were out within about 2o minutes of being in our bags.

Our first full day was agenda-less. We relaxed and fished around our campsite. That’s what I call a vacation! Our feet needed the rest and my hand needed to be reminded of how to use a fly rod on small skinny water. But like they say, it’s just like riding a bike.

We worked some undercut banks, plunge pools, and riffles. The largest fish was between 6 and 7 inches which for such a small creek was a really nice catch.

 

The next morning we decided to explore Volcano Meadow. On our way we passed a section of creek that was too good to pass up. A number of nice sized goldens were seen darting under the banks and holding tight against a fallen log. I strung up and braved the sand flies (more on those bastards later). I spent about an hour working a 200 foot stretch of water which held a relative beast. I finally got him to hit a size 18 giffith’s gnat and brought him to hand.

We continued on our way to Volcano Meadow and after another hour or so heading up an over the saddle we hit our mark. I had a bad feeling on the descent which was confirmed upon reaching the the center of the meadow: Volcano Creek is bone dry as it runs through the valley. There is water flowing in from the streamers but it immediately vanishes underground upon reaching the meadow…only to emerge again as a marsh only meters before leaving the meadow.

 

Hopefully this system can return to former glory with a few sustained wet seasons. We enjoyed a nice lunch in the shade of the pine trees at the southern end of the meadow and made our way back toward camp. We fished a bit more at the day’s earlier spot and the three of us pulled in at least 60 fish combined. Tired and hungry we went back to camp.

After two and a half days without seeing anyone we were greeted by the sight of a pack train and a group of 5 from Alabama around our campsite. This was no problem, just a surprise. You begin to forget that there are other people in the world after a few nights in the wilderness. Regardless, the added company made for increased security as we were fairly certain we heard a nice sized bear not far from camp the night before. Remember those sand flies? Well after about 6 hours of experiencing them the craziest thing happened: giant purple splotches turn into welts wherever they unknowingly bit me. My ankles and feet were covered in horrible dime-sized bites that both burned and itched at the same time. I would take mosquitoes bites over these guys any time.

Our plan for the following day was to pack up in the morning, fish a bit of the South Fork, and continue hiking toward Mulky Meadows where we’d spend the night. Our logistics fell into place and after packing up camp we made out way north-east. After about two hours we hit the water again and busted out our rigs. It was a good opportunity for my wife to capture another native subspecies (at least according to Benhke). We also ate lunch and rested our feet.

We slowly continued our journey out and made a surprise decision to just hoof it all the way back to the car. We knew that our feet would only be worse the following morning and given their current “okay” state, we pushed for it. This turned out to be a wise decision and after an exhausting trek made it back to Horseshoe.

 

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