Since my wife has been laid up with tendonitis in her foot, I decided to take advantage of a week-long volunteer trail crew opportunity in the Mokelumne Wilderness, once again with ranger Chip Morrill.
Here's the report on that week: I got to the trailhead about 5 p.m., and met our packers, Randy and Al, there. Once Randy and I discovered that we had both spent decades exploring the Sierra, loved fly-fishing, and liked to paint watercolors, this turned into a delightful three-hour conversation. The rest of the group, seven hikers from the American Hiking Society, a local volunteer, and Chip, arrived later, and we all turned in quickly and caught some needed sleep.
The next day was a long hike into the campsite--somewhere between 7.5 and 9 miles, depending on which signs you believed. But it was not without incident. Carla, one of the AHS group, slipped on a steep gravelly slope and did some real damage to her ankle in the process. She could not continue the hike. Just as Chip suggested that the best solution would be for me to accompany Carla back to the trailhead and hike in a day later, we were relieved to see a 4x4 on a nearby road. We flagged down the driver and imposed upon him to take Carla back to the trailhead, where she could rest, use Le Vin Blanc to get around, and figure out what she wanted to do for the rest of the week. And then we hiked on. And on. On the map, this didn't seem like a long trail. but between the long rests we took, the dry, hot air, and the smoky haze everywhere, it took its toll. We met a pair of young men who had just hiked up the trail we were going to be working on. They were tired, a bit bloody, and described parts of it as a wall of impenetrable brush. There was work to be done. By the time we arrived in camp, almost 7 hours after we left the trailhead, we were tired and perhaps more importantly, dehydrated.
Randy and Al had left our food, kitchen, and trail tools for us, so we got to work setting up camp and getting water. And that was a bit of problem. Because of the dry year, the creek at the foot of Munson Meadow was running very slowly, and not very clearly. We gathered water in buckets and carried them back to camp, only to find that it quickly clogged the gravity filter. I set to work boiling water on the camp stove. and spent most of the evening doing that. Since it was the first night, I thought it made sense to get some of my co-op camp duties out of the way, so I also helped make dinner (hamburgers with all the fixings, if you can believe it!) and clean the dishes. Early to bed, looking forward to a full day's work in the morning. On day two most of us were up and about by six a.m., Sandy doing her yoga before that. Breakfast was on our own, but John, the AHS host for the hike, had provided an assortment of cereals, oatmeal, bagels, pop tarts and both fresh and dried fruit. I have never backpacked with the assortment of fresh food that John had organized. Chip laid out a work plan, and we all chose our options, grabbed the appropriate tools for the task, and headed down the trail into the canyon towards camp Irene. It was hot, it was dusty, and the smoke was pretty thick at times. But we worked hard, with no slackers in this group, and made some pretty good progress. We were joined later in the day by another ranger, Chris, who brought us news that Carla seemed to be working things out, although without a lot of mobility, back at the Silver Lake trailhead. He threw his back into the work as well, and by the end of the day, we had worked our way half-way down through the nastiest part of the overgrown trail. But this was the day we also learned one of the bittersweet lessons of working on this trail. The more progress we made, the deeper into the canyon we went. It was hotter down there, and the hike back to camp was even longer. The section we were working on was 1500 feet below camp, and climbed all of that elevation in less than a mile and a half. Once we got back to camp, we were fully done.
Dinner that night was a great fresh chicken pasta, and we ate late it was our last meal. And we were in bed by 8:30--every single one of us. I discovered that the back-flush syringe for my Sawyer Squeeze would work on our gravity filter, and I also insisted that we pre-filter all the water through my bandana. That gave us a system that seemed to work, slowly, for 4 liters at a time. This was the night that I discovered that my Neo-Air mattress has a serious leak. Two hours after I climbed into the sack, I was on the hard, hard ground. Not a great night. Day Three: More of the same, but Chris was headed back out today, and did some nice trail work on the way out. Chip suggested that some people could work on defining the trail more successfully up on the ridge nearer camp. Lots of the group agreed to do that. Only Sandy, Nancy, and I agreed that we would go back down into the canyon to tackle that massive wall of brush down below. And we did. I have to tell you that Sandy and Nancy were tough cookies, and by the end of that day. we had made it through the thicket of manzanita, huckleberry oak, and white thorn bushes in the sun-baked lower slopes of the trail, and into the more shaded and forested section below.
Whew! It was damn hard work, and Chip sweated alongside us--even volunteering to hike down another half-mile to a spring to bring us all fresh water bottles half-way through the afternoon. That made a huge difference as we climbed back up the canyon later in the afternoon. By the time we returned, the rest of the group had started dinner (Tofu, red beans and rice!) and our smaller crew were able to take the evening off from most of the camp duties, although Sandy still helped cook, and I still boiled some water. But I also actually found and fixed the leak in my mattress! What a relief. And it worked perfectly for the rest of the trip.
Day Four was a rest day for all of us except Chip, who was going to work on a spur trail along the canyon rim; and Mark, the local volunteer who has leaving us today. We all agreed to hike about two miles over to Long Lake, where we could bathe, wash clothes, and take life easy. It was a sweet day, and we all took advantage of the water. It was still somewhat smoky from the nearby Donnell Fire, but the morning was a bit better and we loved just resting, sitting in the sun or shade, and rinsing off three days worth of real grime. Naps were the order of the day, and then lunch, and then a slow, hike back the two miles up to camp. Dinner was tacos--and that led to a wonderful discussion with Paul, our Chinese volunteer, about the relationship between tortillas, tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, burritos, quesadillas, etc. By the end of the evening we were all in great spirits. Day Five: This was the grand finale. We all hiked down about 500 feet below the rim of the canyon to tackle a huge log that had blocked the trail. As Chip readied the bucksaw for use; Rich, John, and Chinese Paul and I trimmed branches and prepared the work area. But by the time Chip had the saw ready, Rich had a plan to use one of the severed branches to lever the whole log out of the way. And his plan worked like a charm, with all five of us pushing, shoving, and grunting.
With the log out of the way, Rich, John and Chinese Paul headed back up to the top of the canyon to work on an exposed section of very faint trail above, and Chip and I tromped off down into the canyon again to join Sandy and Nancy and tackle the rest of the brush down below. Man, it was hot. We worked very hard, and at one point Chip and Sandy hiked down with about eight liters of water bottles to bring them back up to Nancy and me for the hike back out. Meanwhile, Nancy and I kept lopping away on the nasty white thorn that had shredded hikers legs for too long. Finally, we called it day and slowly but surely dragged ourselves back up the tail to the rim of the canyon, where we found the rest of the group absolutely exhausted and covered with dust. We looked good!
Chip shared some of the fresh water with them, while Sandy, Nancy and I slowly walked back to camp. Dinner was stew with lots of chopped veggies and canned beef, and Sandy and I found ourselves chopping carrots and potatoes as if they were manzanita bushes. The water filter crapped out completely at this point, and so we also boiled pot after pot of water for cooking, dishes, and human consumption. Day Six: Extraction day, as they say on "Naked and Afraid." We cleaned up camp, got everything ready for the Randy to pack out on his mules, and hit the trail. I led the way so that we could keep a nice steady pace, with short rests and plenty of water. And it worked. We had an early lunch at Horse Thief Spring, and were at the trailhead in about 4.5 hours--a big difference from the hike in. Even better, the smoke had cleared for most of this day, and the AHS group from around the world finally got to see the Sierra sky that we know and love so well. T
he American Hiking Society organizes these trips all over the place, and I would encourage you to check them out. John, our trail host, had extensive experience leading boy scout hikes, and did his very best to keep us all fully fed (I had a fresh orange for lunch on the hike out!) somewhat amused (with lots of games and conversational gambits) and even a bit organized (morning circle exercises for the whole group) even though we were an unruly herd of feral cats. While not everything he tried worked out the way he expected, we certainly all gave him the benefit of the doubt, and the organization of food was amazing. Highly recommended. Rich, the local contact for AHS, owns a citrus grove near Sacramento, and brought a wealth of information and technical expertise to everything we did. If ever something did not work, Rich was the man to figure out why. Chinese Paul, who leads hiking trips for kids in China and specializes in outdoor education, was great fun. He worked on his English every day, tackled everything he was asked to do, and spent one memorable evening trying to explain China to us, from the influence of Confucius and Buddha to the Cultural Revolution and his work in changing the educational system there. Howard was a psychologist specializing in traumatized infants under three, and despite being 76 years old, carried his full share of the workload. His discussion one night of autism was really interesting, and his sense of humor was a delight. Sandy had lived in China, Japan, and the Philippines. She was always first to volunteer to help do what needed, and the experiences she shared from around the world were fascinating. A real team player. And Nancy, a young computer engineer from LA, was the best possible companion--hard working, always smiling, and lots of fun. When she sat down to play a new board game that John had introduced to the group, the rest of us all knew we were out of our depth.
Of course, the man behind it all was Chip Morrill. He was the perfect leader for a volunteer work force. He always did way more than his share, both on the work crews and around camp. He hiked ahead to meet the packers at our campsite and make sure it was ready to go, and he stayed later to meet with them again on the way out. His cheerful attitude, his willingness to offer a wide range of options for our workers every day, and his obvious gratitude for everything we did made the whole trip worthwhile. I'd do another one of these with him in a heartbeat.
Finally, the smoke that we saw every day was a constant reminder of why it is so important to protect these forests. Each day the plume from the Donnell Fire was bigger, and slowly drifted our way. Since I know that area so well (we've hiked there so many times) it was like losing an old friend. A very sad sub-plot to our week of hard work.
The rest of my photos from the trip are here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/G2MRZLJg6umqt6gV6