JMT Day 15: Backpacking is Gross

[to Florence Lake Trail Junction, ~11.5 miles hiked]

Today’s glamorous day of backpacking, in brief: Mosquitos. Horse poo. Mosquitos. Horse poo. MOSQUITOS! MOSQUITOS! MOSQUITOS! Horse poo. Flies. Hot. Hot. Horse poo. Camp. [Accurate. –Cyn]

Yeah, it’s pretty awesome out here.

In the night, I dreamed that I was being kicked out of a hotel room because the Obama family was staying there. When I snuck back in to retrieve my belongings, I passed an open doorway and looked in to see a fancy office. I knew immediately that it was Barack Obama’s office, because on the chair sat a pillow with Michelle Obama’s face lovingly embroidered on it. This dream made Cyn laugh for many minutes in the early morning, which is a big win, because she is not prone to laughter in the early morning. [It’s still making me laugh. Toby’s brain is adorable! –Cyn] [That pillow was adorable! –Toby]

As usual, today began with mosquitos. I’d been wearing my headnet at least part of every day lately, and swatting these bloodsuckers was starting to feel like just another part of our regular routine. A few nights ago at Deer Meadow, Cyn declared herself a mosquito slayer, and I solemnly intoned, “In every generation…” For the rest of the trip, every successful mosquito smash warranted a triumphant cry of “SLAYAGE!” In addition to mosquitos, we encountered an unusual amount of horse poo this morning. Various pack trains (horses, mules, llamas) carry provisions in for trail maintenance crews and remote ranger stations, and also for hiking groups who pay to have their resupply brought in or even to have their food/gear carted from campsite to campsite. This means that there’s always some amount of pack animal poo on the trail. Before we started this trip, we’d heard that if you ever worry that you’re accidentally off-trail, you should look for the horse poo. (I can now confirm that this advice is sound.) But this morning, there was really a lot of horse poo.

We hadn’t gone very far before a SOBO hiker approached and asked if we had any duct tape. His shoes, though brand new at the start of his hike, were completely falling apart. It looked like he’d been trying the duct tape for a few days already, to no avail, but I shared some of ours with him anyway. Later I realized that superglue would have been better, but sadly this didn’t occur to me until we were long past him. I hope he was able to find some kind of fix and finish his hike safely.

Pretty sure this is McClure Meadow.
Pretty sure this is McClure Meadow. With bonus moon.

We hiked along with our mosquito entourage, dodging the horse poo, and passed the McClure Meadow ranger station, where I suddenly remembered that I’d meant to bring that huge knife to the ranger. Oops. I wonder if someone else found it, or if it’s still under that rock. We walked alongside the beautiful Evolution Creek for a while, and I started feeling curious/anxious about crossing it. Evolution Creek is one of two major fords on the JMT, and early in the season it can be pretty deep and swift. We passed the turn-off for an alternate crossing, used when the water level is too high to be safe at the regular crossing point — and because we had no idea if the water was too high, we hiked on and hoped for the best. Going north, it’s about a mile between the turn-off and the regular crossing, so we really didn’t want to have to backtrack to take the alternate. Finally, a pair of southbounders told us it was fine, and I believed them because one of them was as short as we are. Whew.

There was lots of soft mud at the creek bank, so the whole place was teeming with mosquitos. As we slapped at them and tied our trail runners to our packs, we shouted reminders to each other about fording technique, and then waded in quickly to escape the bugs. Actually, it was pretty great. The water was just above my knees and the current was only strong in the middle, so the ford was just a little challenging and mostly fun and refreshing. [This ford was totally not scary, but it did give me a good sense of how scary fording can be. When the current got strong, I definitely felt the creek trying to sweep my feet out from under me as I took a step. With the water at this level it was fine, but higher water would have been very tricky. –Cyn] As I emerged on the other side, dozens of mosquitos immediately descended upon me. They were thicker in this area than on any other portion of the trail. Cyn joked that it was because of their easy life here: “I dunno, it’s amazing, people just keep coming here and presenting me with their bare feet!”

Evolution Creek, near the crossing point.
At the Evolution Creek crossing, looking downstream. Mosquito hell.
Big waterfall further down Evolution Creek.
Big waterfall further down Evolution Creek. We hiked right along the edge here.
Another portion of Evolution Creek. I really wanted to slide down this.
Another portion of Evolution Creek. I really wanted to slide down this, but settled for filtering water from it.

After this we had a very long, very dry descent down to a footbridge crossing the South Fork San Joaquin River. While eating lunch by the bridge, we chatted for a long time with a southbound solo hiker. I realized during this conversation that there’s a really broad range of knowledge/experience across different hikers on this trail. As we told him what to expect at the Evolution Creek crossing, he consulted his map and said, “Oh, so it’s called Ford Creek. It says ‘Ford’ here.” “No,” I explained, bewildered, “that notation means you’ll have to ford at that spot.” He also didn’t really seem to have any sense of where we actually were on the map. I mean, I’m definitely no expert with navigation skills, and I know the JMT is pretty clearly signed, but I was a little shaken by his confusion about basic map reading. (He’d made it about halfway through the trail so far, though, so I guess all was well?)

On the dry descent.
This descent was hot and dry, but ultra beautiful.

After lunch, we kind of zombie hiked another four miles or so. It was very beautiful, but very, very hot. Every time a breeze came through, I lifted my elbows to get some cool air into my armpits, which made me look like a walking scarecrow. [Somewhere in the middle of this zombie hiking, we stopped to filter water and try to cool down in the shade when three women flew past us, crossing the stream without slowing down. One woman even bent down to wet her bandana and tie it around her neck without the slightest change to her speedy stride. I decided they were probably PCT hikers, thus the speed, but I still felt pretty inadequate by comparison. –Cyn] We saw a deer, and later, a mule pack train. The flies were out. The horse poo continued. Finally I realized that the increased quantity of poo was because we were nearing Muir Trail Ranch (MTR), a horse ranch. Duh! Cyn noticed some garbage on the side of the trail that looked quite a lot like discarded toilet paper. We exchanged a look, and I said in a small, reluctant voice, “I could put it in my trash bag…” So Cyn used her trekking poles like tongs while I held open my gallon ziploc bag, saying, “Don’t touch my hands! Don’t touch my hands…okay drop it!” It was like a much, much grosser version of those claw games at arcades. Later, we saw another similar piece of garbage and repeated this process. Eww. Eww. [We are very good people. –Cyn]

Pack train. Therefore: more poo ahead!
Pack train. Therefore: more poo ahead!
South Fork San Joaquin River.
South Fork San Joaquin River. Those colors!
Hiking along the river. So pretty, so incredibly hot out.
Hiking along the river.

Eventually we reached another footbridge, under which several hikers were swimming in their underwear. Crossing this bridge marked our exit out of Kings Canyon National Park and entrance into the John Muir Wilderness and Sierra National Forest. After this it was a long, hot, rocky 1.8 miles to the turn-off for MTR. Cyn’s foot was hurting [damn you Golden Staircase! –Cyn], and we were pretty exhausted. Cyn: “I think the trail builders were like ‘This is too easy, let’s drop a bunch of rocks in here and see how they handle that.'” Finally, the turn-off. We were so glad some SOBOs told us which sign to look for, since nothing actually said “MTR” out here.

Leaving Kings Canyon, heading into new adventures.
Farewell, Kings Canyon National Park! You were wonderful.
Finally. Turn-off for MTR. We thought we'd never get here.
Finally. The turn-off for MTR (follow the Florence Lake signs). We thought we’d never get here.

We found a large set of campsites next to the river and decided on a site at the edge, hoping for a smidge of privacy. As we sat on a log there and had a snack, I kept smelling an unpleasant smell. Then I looked behind the log and noticed two separate, shallow cat holes, complete with toilet paper sticking up out of them! SO. GROSS. We moved to another site, set up our tent, and soaked our feet in the river until the mosquitos found us. By this time the whole area was pretty packed with tents. Two rangers came through asking to see permits. The one who spoke to us informed us that these tent sites aren’t technically legal, because they aren’t 100 feet from the trail or the water, but “I’m not going to make you move this time, because it’s so crowded.” I admit I was a little irritated by this. In Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks, you’re also supposed to camp a certain distance from the trail and water, but there’s an exception for already-established campsites, because reusing those tends to limit environmental impact. We had been scrupulous in following these rules and genuinely didn’t know that the exception was no longer in effect now that we’d exited Kings Canyon. But I wasn’t irritated about him telling us the rules (that’s his job, and I was happy to have the information) — it was the additional magnanimous “I won’t make you move this time” that rubbed me the wrong way. Either ask us to move or don’t. It just kind of felt like a weird power trip moment. (It also seems like unnecessary effort to have rangers giving that speech over and over every night. This area has at least 15 very visible, established tent sites all in one spot, and it’s marked as a campsite on at least two of the major JMT map sets. I suspect that, like us, many hikers believe them to be totally legal and think they’re doing the right thing by using an established site to limit impact. Maybe it would be more effective to post some signs here noting the rules for this area and/or just labeling these sites as closed to camping?) He then quizzed us on the rules for backcountry toilet practices, and asked if we were packing out our toilet paper. I couldn’t help adding that we’d packed out other people’s toilet paper twice today.

While enjoying our nightly reading time in the tent, we watched two robins chasing each other all around the campsite, chirping constantly. [We were pretty sure it was a parent and newly-flying baby. The younger one seemed to be begging for snacks while the older one was like, “Get your own!” –Cyn] Mosquitos hovered by the mesh doors as always. Two hikers came in late and set up in the gross toilet paper tent site we’d originally tried. I turned to Cyn. “They’re camping in the Toilet Camp! Oh, actually, that guy’s kind of downhill. He’s in Lower Toilet.” [This joke might need some translation for non-hikers. It’s really common for there to be places on the map with names like “Crabtree Meadow” and “Lower Crabtree Meadow.” Oh backpacking humor. –Cyn] We both cracked up, trying to stifle our giggles so we wouldn’t disturb other hikers who were already asleep.

–Toby


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