Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Caribou Lakes Trail 2013, Pt. 1

Living here in Redding has given me a whole new set of recreational areas to look at for backpacking trips. I’d not given a serious thought about the Trinity Alps before. They were far away, and they seemed like a rugged wilderness you could get lost and into real trouble with. I think it might have had to do with the name “Alps,” also. When I thought of the Alps, I thought of Switzerland, pointy snowy peaks that people climbed with crampons, ‘biners, ropes, and guides, and less often, of Heidi, the Disneyland Matterhorn and cask-carrying St. Bernards.

But looking at the map and asking questions at the local outdoor store and consulting with my hiking partner, Melinda, we decided to do the hike up to Caribou Lake in the Trinity Alps. We invited Loreleigh to go with us and made it a threesome. Though I suppose you should really consider it a foursome with Melinda’s dog, Tess the Brittany. 

I figured on three hours to get to the trailhead. Two hours on the highway and one hour on the dirt road turnoff to Big Flat Campground where the trailhead was. We even got an unlooked for bonus, a driver!

Thankfully, both our trip there and back fell on a weekend and holiday, Memorial Day. Road work on Hwy 299 was supposed to make for long waits. And as it turned out, right after we got back, they went to 24/7 road work with one-hour delays to get the job done. Whew! Traffic was light and it seemed that we really zipped up there. Which was good, because the worst was yet to come. 

It’s hard to believe a long dirt, gravel, rutted, road in dodgy shape would be the route to a regular campground, and even harder to believe the normal looking houses we saw on the way. And some not so normal. One thing you don’t expect to see out in the middle of nowhere is a couple of old overstuffed recliners on the side of road. I didn’t look to see if there was a “free” sign on them or if they were sort of like patio furniture for the residents to enjoy the passing traffic.

Our plan was to hike up to Caribou Lake from the trailhead via the “New Trail,” spend two nights, do some day hiking the second day, and then hike, possibly on the “Old Trail,” rumored to be brutal, back down to the trailhead on the third day. The Old Trail and the new trail together look like the figure “8” on the map, with each forming its own “S” curve, intersecting just past the trailhead, at Caribou Meadows, and just before the trail down to the lakes. We all had different interpretations as to what the weather would be like. After reading one hiker’s gloomy experiences, I was convinced it would be rainy, cold and have snow around. Melinda let herself be lulled by descriptions of “July-like” conditions on the trail report update. In the end, she did decide to bring her raincoat. Wise move!

We bid our driver goodbye after we couldn’t convince him to accompany us down the trail a hundred yards to the river. 

The Salmon River was what had me worried. The guide said it must be forded. The gloomy hiker waded freezing, thigh-deep water in the dark. We ended up wading cold, mid-calf water at 10:30 am over pretty good streambed footing. And then, with our shoes back on, off we struck.

The first part of the trail is a well-enough marked single-track trail, but not especially well groomed. The hillside is steep, and the trail climbs, steadily and relentlessly. A few switchbacks aided in gaining that elevation needed without having to climb straight up. We settled into our hiking routine. Melinda and Loreleigh, the young and fit, in the lead. Me, the old(er) and less fit following up in the rear. I know my pace, and it is steady but slow. 

We knew there might be bears, so I told them to not forget about me back there, but check to see if I was still coming!

We were more than ready for lunch when we reached Caribou Meadow at 1pm. 

Now you may think it is a foolish thing to waste the pound of gear for something as indulgent as a chair, but it is one of my favorite objects to unlash from my pack when we finally stop for a meal or at the end of the day. When we hiked Pt. Reyes, my sister pulled her Crazy Creek Chair off the back of her pack and shared it. I actually took a nap in it. So this time all three of us were dragging our chairs along on the hike. And lunchtime was payoff for the effort.

Directly after leaving Caribou Meadow, the scenery just got better and better. 

The views were stunning. You could begin to see why these mountains were given the name of “Alps.” We were seeing mounds of snow in the shady places and snow up above us on the mountainsides. Sometimes what we thought was snow was really expanses of white granite flecked with black. Once, when I looked up at the mountain, I almost expected to see the track of the Matterhorn Bobsleds. Part of the trail was cut through some of this granite. Water from snowmelt was flowing across the trail in several places, and at one point a beautiful cataract was tumbling into a granite pool in the trail and then falling down the side in a swift stream. We stepped on granite rocks to get across.

The next scenic section we were expecting from reading the guidebook, but the reality was still surprising. The dead forest. 

A forest fire in 2008 left a standing grove of charred gray snags. By now, we were used to scrambling or stepping over downed trees across the trail, but the next one was impassible. It had to be gone around. 

The burned dirt was loose and gave no traction. The mountainside was very steep. Everything you could grab was covered with carbon. 

Browns Meadow provided another source of water for our Platypus and Nalgene bottles. 

This is the only reliable source of water on the trail for later in the year. Between the three of us, we had two water filters; Melinda’s was an MSR ceramic filter pump, and mine was a Katadyn Hiker Pro.

We were starting to come across small icy snowfields overlaying the trail. 

They were tricky, but doable with care and with our hiking sticks.

And then came the mother of trail-covering snowfields. There were faint tracks of one other hiker traversing it. We really should have stopped and stared at it awhile before actually attempting it. Melinda, in the lead, stepped off on to it, picking her way and trying not to slip. The angle was literally 45 degrees, I’m sure! 

Some time, between when I looked down and then looked up, she was no longer on the snowfield, but down on the lower ledge which was a tangle mess of branches, a downed tree, and bushes. I thought, “Wow, that was quick! Funny she decided to take the lower route around and not mention that!” But she had slipped, seeing her life flash in front of her eyes, I’m sure, knowing that the edge of the precipice was so near.

Loreleigh asked what she should do. Melinda advised her to do what she felt was safe. After two steps out on the snowfield, she apparently decided the horrible portage was the lesser of the two evils. After some crawling and bottom-sliding she made it half way around, and then I made my decision. I would also go around. Melinda was waiting up top to assist us across a tongue of the icy snow back on to the trail. As Loreleigh was trying to reach her, she fell backwards and turned turtle. Like a bug on its back that can’t turn over she lay there, eyes wide open. She didn’t know but that the edge was two inches away.

It was at that moment that I realized, Ah! This is how these little adventures turn into newspaper stories and Readers Digest articles about spending the night on the side of the mountain with broken legs and helicopter rescues! Happily, the downed tree blocked both her and the pack from danger, and she was able to slip out of it and get back up. Melinda helped us up, and we took one look back, shuddered, and moved on. No going back, unless what was ahead was much much worse.

There were more snowfields, and a little more slippage, but as Melinda put it, “At least if we slide off here, we’ll only get hurt, not die!”

The next section of trail ran precariously against the steep rocky mountainside. You could see it snaking along the mountain and switching back on itself. On the right you could look down, down into the deep rocky ravine that Caribou Creek poured out into.

Finally we reached the intersection with the “Old Trail” again and began the long descent to the lakes. We could see Snowslide Lake to the left and Lower Caribou to the right. The big Caribou Lake was hanging above them both, covered with ice and snow and blocked from access by the snow-covered mountainside.

We dropped our stuff in a damp little green clearing that would probably have been swarming with mosquitos a few weeks later in the summer. We were SO looking forward to dinner. We would find a camp spot afterwards.

Just like with the water filters, we each had our own system. Mine was a Brunton backpacking stove with a Jetboil canister that almost screams, “You vant hot vater? I give you hot vater, NOW!” Melinda was trying an experiment. In preparation for her ultra-light trip later this summer, she was trying out a homemade alcohol stove made from a Fancy Feast cat food tin with holes punched into it and a lot of aluminum foil to shield it. My guess is that if Loreleigh had a “hot vater, NOW!” stove of her own, she would have brought it, but since she didn’t, she experimented along with Melinda and made her own Fancy Feast stove.

It was actually quite enjoyable for me, sort of like eating your dinner in front of the TV, watching the pans resting precariously on these 2 inch cans of invisible flame surrounded by sheets of Reynolds wrap. The trouble with invisible flame is that you can’t see when it goes out, which was often. I enjoyed the scene without guilt, as I had already made the offer of a share.

After assuring the nearby campers that, no, we wouldn’t be camping there under their bear bag that happened to be overhanging, we gathered up our pots, packs, and chairs to look for our own site.

We found a lovely, level site, close to the lake and accessible for water supplies, and privacy not too far away, for any necessary trowel work that might come up. After setting up our tents, we finally got to the moment I’d been waiting for for weeks- Hanging the Bear Bag! (Link to my video)

It was not as easy as I’d hoped to find suitable branches. Conifers are just not built for the jutting limbs we needed. But when we saw the neighbor’s bear bag, 3 feet off the ground, we realized we just needed to do it better than them.

I made a few errant pitches, and stood confused and dumb with the rope and caribiner in one hand and the food bag in the other at times, but in the end, success for both Melinda and I! When I create my you tube video, I will place the link here so you can share my efforts vicariously. Loreleigh carried a bear canister, so she tucked it away in the same vicinity. Later that evening, we sat around in our chairs, enjoying the end of the day with cheesecake topped brownies and Wild Hare Lodi Zinfandel from my Platypus wine saver.

 It was not too cold, especially since, in my last minute panic to not freeze to death, I’d run up to Goodwill looking for anything down and found a Ralph Lauren down vest to pack up with me.

We enjoyed the novelty of going to bed at dark AND bedtime, not like Oholone where we went to bed at 6 pm dark! And went to sleep to the music of the little waterfalls of snowmelt falling into Snowslide Lake.


  1. Woah, maybe there IS something to hiking without a horse. That scenery is amazing! And there was defiance of death! Can't wait for part 2.

  2. My Gosh! This was definitely worth waiting for! I shudder to think of the slippage, and you're right, the scenery is stunning. Stay safe, my lovely family!

  3. next time you should go with us!