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Here is an exerpt from the journal I kept when my friend Dan and myself hiked the Theodore Solomons Trail in June of 1976. It still seems like it was yesterday, the memories of mountain adventures are the stongest ones. When you hike a long trail you come back a changed person, shaped by the power that the land has over you.
Hope you enjoy this.
Serpents in Paradise
By Peter Hussmann
The valley is sensed long before it is seen, almost an inexorable force urging us onward to it’s rim. Thick stands of red fir prevent any early glimpses, and waist high bracken ferns line the trail as we walk. We are fifteen days into our hike of the Theodore Solomon’s Trail and are about to encounter one of the major geographical features along its 271 mile length. We arrive at Poop Out Point on the edge of Tehipte Valley, where we are rewarded with an awe inspiring view of one of the most dramatic valleys in the Sierra Nevada. Certainly this view rivals that of Yosemite Valley form Glacier Point, where we began our trek a little over two weeks ago.
The Theodore Solomon’s Trail is an alternative route to the John Muir Trail roughly paralleling it through the middle Sierra. It was conceived of by Dennis R. Gagnon in the early seventies and named after the man who himself laid out the route for the Muir trail in the late 1800s. It was Gagnon’s hope that the new route would help relieve the latter of its overuse, and although a guide book was published (actually little more than a pamphlet) little was known about it. I was fresh off of completing the Tahoe Yosemite Trail in the fall of 1975 and found myself yearning for more. I was drawn to the Solomon’s trail because of its obscurity which would translate into fewer people. Admittedly I was also intrigued by the idea of being one of the few who had up to that point attempted and completed it. My hiking companion would be my friend Dan who, although lacking in backpacking experience, was enthusiastic about the challenge ahead. Through the winter of ‘75/’76 we plan the logistics of the hike, pouring over the topographical maps, determining each day’s mileage and camping spots. We plan the menu and food lists, work out the locations of food drops, determine our equipment needs, and a myriad of other details. Our excitement and anticipation mount as the winter wanes and we take care of final details. It has been a light winter in the Sierra so we opt for an earlier start, which will work for the lower elevations we will be hiking through. Finally the day arrives and we are standing at the trailhead, saying our goodbyes to my parents, and despite heavy packs we feel light and free as we begin our month long journey.
Taking a break before beginning the descent from Poop Out Point, we take in the almost aerial view of the valley below in silent wonder. It is one of those humbling moments in life when you realize you are but a tiny piece of the whole, and you are grateful to be there in that moment. We tighten our boot laces, shoulder our packs and begin the knee wrenching 3,018 foot descent. There are 71 switchbacks to negotiate down to the valley floor in three miles; the trail is rough and the heat oppressive as we carefully negotiate our way. We are all too aware that there are rattlesnakes in this type of environment so our eyes scour the trail with some trepidation while our ears are alert for the telltale buzzing of the serpents rattle. This is my first experience hiking in their habitat and I am on edge, which makes the rocky overgrown trail all the more strenuous. We finally gain the openness of the valley floor and level ground. Unlike Yosemite Valley this valley is more sandy and arid, the Middle Fork of the Kings River possessing a swifter current and straighter channel, thereby preventing deposits of sediment which would encourage the formation of meadows. Tehipte Dome looms to our left, a magnificent sculpture of granite lording over the canyon. We walk up the canyon along the banks of the river and encounter our first snake lying on the trail. This one gives no warning rattle as someone has smashed its head with a rock. We pause to reflect on what we feel is an unnecessary death, and make a promise to not kill any snake which we might encounter. The remainder of the day’s hike is uneventful and we find a nice spot to camp where Blue Canyon Creek meets the Kings River. A small sandy beach bordering the emerald green pool is a perfect spot to spend a layover day after two weeks on the trail. We are dirty, footsore, and weary; but also happy and at peace. We have long ago shed any baggage we were carrying from our everyday lives, and have given ourselves over to the rhythm of the mountains. Our layover day at Blue Canyon Creek is blessed with warm sunshine and we spend the time refreshing our bodies with quick dips in the chilling water. We wash clothes and spread them on the granite to dry. Sitting on the sand at the rivers edge, I watch in fascination at the flow of winged insects moving up and down the river, their wings highlighted by the sun. Birds swoop down and trout rise up, feasting along this highway of life. The ramparts of the Monarch Divide soar above the canyon walls, an unimaginable sweep of rock upon rock. We are able to supplement our freeze dried food with fresh trout caught using drop lines and aquatic insects scoured from the undersides of river rocks. We are stuffed after dinner and lay by the fire watching the alpenglow fade on the walls above. We are in complete contentment in this wilderness paradise as we drift off into a blissful sleep. Morning light creeps down the canyon walls and we slowly drag ourselves out of our cocoons. While we are eager to see what the rest of the valley has in store we are also reluctant to leave our little slice of heaven. Shoulders and hips rebel against the load but after a short distance pack and body form an uneasy alliance. As the sun rises so does the temperature, and with it also comes pesky black flies which hover incessantly around ones face. I am in the lead as we enter a stretch of trail through a stand of Jeffrey pine, the ground littered with pine needles and branches. Suddenly one of the branches moves and simultaneously gives off a telltale rattle. “Snake” I yell, as I turn and abruptly plow into Dan in my retreat. With our adrenalin pumping we cautiously approach, verifying the snake’s position and scanning the ground for others. It has not moved and undoubtedly is also trying to determine where we are, its forked tongue testing the air. We marvel at how the skin color and pattern combine to make it look so very much like a branch from a pine tree. Satisfied that this serpent is alone we are able to detour around it and continue on. We leave this snake behind, still lying in the same spot, and Dan now takes the lead. Our senses are fully awake now and every movement or sound in the bushes that line the trail adds to the tension. There are also a profusion of Alligator Lizards in residence and they scurry through the undergrowth. All of our focus has now been directed away from the river and canyon walls to the few feet of ground in front of us. Dan encounters the next rattlesnake about an hour later, lying directly on the trail. This one does not give off a warning; it appears to not have sensed us. There is not room to detour around this one, so we will need to encourage it to move along. Once more we observe how this snake is perfectly colored to match the oak leaves on which it lies. Dan prods it with a stick but it does not seem to care. We surmise that it might be digesting so therefore is somewhat sluggish still. Finally after about five minutes of prodding it moves off the trail and under an overhanging root where it curls into a defensive position. It has not rattled once during this encounter, hopefully there are not anymore of the “silent” type around. We continue onward, our nerves on edge, sweat running down our faces, flies buzzing around our heads, packs weighing heavy, feet stumbling. The day seems to drag on interminably and we long for more open trail. Late in the after noon we arrive at section of the trail which allows for access to the river. We take a much needed break and cool our feet in the water, eat and drink, and try to relax. For the first time today I am able to appreciate the river and the surrounding canyon, I close my eyes and listen to the river. We rest for about an hour and decide to move on to Simpson Meadow where we will camp. As we boulder hop back to the trail I top a rock and have a choice to step left or right, I choose left and Dan who is following me says “Good thing you didn’t go right”. I look to where he is pointing and there is a large rattlesnake coiled, flicking its tongue in and out. This snake is a mottled gray and black, same color scheme as the boulders which surround it. For a moment it does not register with me that had I stepped to the right I would have been right on top of it. I feel like a punch drunk fighter, not able to fully comprehend the situation. Then my adrenaline kicks back in and I once again become extra vigilant for the remainder of the day. We see no more serpents and gratefully reach the bridge which spans the river. We jokingly consider camping on the bridge itself so we could see any snakes approaching. We do however find a nice “packer style” campsite devoid of any vegetation where we gratefully dump our packs. It has been a grueling eight miles and we are exhausted both physically and mentally. What we had envisioned as an easy relaxing day instead became on of the more trying ones of the trip so far. That evening as we sit by the fire, we reflect back on the day and come to understand that sometimes in order to fully appreciate the beauty and majesty of these mountains one has to face the challenges they place before you. We will look back on this day and realize that it was one of the most memorable days of the entire hike. This canyon of the Middle Fork of the Kings River will remain as one of the wildest places I have ever been to, teeming with life which in turn made me feel fully alive as well. Yes there were serpents in this wilderness paradise, beautifully adapted to blend in to their environment, and we can take some pride in the fact that, in spite of our fear we kept our promise and left them alive to play their vital role in the web of life.
The following day we would tackle the 4000’ climb out of the canyon (appropriately nicknamed “The Bitch”) and on to more challenges and awesome beauty. Our adventure would continue another 10 days and end prematurely at Mineral King, end because of a microscopic bacterium which would render me too sick to continue. I had fallen in love with the Sierra Nevada on the Tahoe Yosemite Trail the previous fall, and on the Theodore Solomon’s Trail, having been pushed to my physical and psychological limits, had come to respect them. Yet as I recovered from my bout with Giardia I had to admit that the experience of hiking this trail, and specifically through Tehipte Canyon, has only left me yearning for more. Smiling to myself as I begin to unfold my maps, I ask “where to next year”?