6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Yosemite Disenchantment

          This is hilarious. I’m gonna die. A few feet in front of me, I can just make out the faint silhouette of my wife on her mountain bike as she floats across a sea of darkness. The faint white glow of her headlamp creates a barely visible nimbus around her head giving me something to focus on in the moonless night. If I don’t keep the front wheel of my bike all but rubbing the back wheel of hers, I will veer off the narrow bike path and into one of the countless rocks or exposed tree roots lining both sides. With no helmet or pads, the crash is certain to hurt.

          For some reason, possibly the buzz from two chalices of dank IPA, the revelation regarding my mortality strikes me as more humorous than concerning. I can’t stop smiling. Or, maybe it’s because the dark forest feels like an actual wilderness for the first time all day. This is our inaugural trip to Yosemite and we’ve had to redefine certain expectations of a National Park. The only animals we’ve seen are people, tons and tons of people, and this is the first time either of us has experienced gridlock in the mountains.

          I suspect the average Californian doesn’t blink an eye at the chaotic zoo that is this basin, but for a native Idahoan and Wyomingite, the traffic and crowds are all but unbearable. No strangers to other parks, we’ve seen Yellowstone and Glacier at their worst, but Yosemite is on a whole different level. At the last second, I let Jamie talk me into cramming bikes in the truck along with the rest of our camping and backpacking gear, and I’m thankful I did. Were they not at our disposal, I might have already killed someone. This is one Snakeduck that does not do well in traffic.

          As we made our way into the heart of Yosemite, we were met with a wall of cars and progress slowed to a near standstill. With our vehicle inching along, and my intolerance already through the roof, I managed to pull over and just barely fit our truck on the shoulder of the one way loop and left her there. We stopped back by a few times throughout the day only to find the traffic even worse. All we could see through shimmering waves of stinking emissions was an endless line of faces fixing us with death stares for having the foresight to bring bikes.

          Several hours later, we are making our way back to the truck from the backpacker’s communal campground, and hoping to finally move our truck to an actual parking spot for the night. Naturally, to kill time after spending the afternoon biking around the hot basin, we endured the jostling lines of a saloon to drown our deserved thirst with local microbrews. During our stay amongst the herd having to share a table with strangers, we met an old timer who had worked for the park when they still conducted the nightly fire fall ritual.

          Back in the day, a massive bonfire would be lit on top of Glacier Point, and as night settled over the valley, park employees would topple the blazing mass of embers off the cliff for a visually mesmerizing 1,500 foot waterfall of fire. Over the years, as the granite walls turned black from accumulating ash, the ritual was finally discontinued. I’m glad they did away with the whole thing, but listening to the guy’s excited recollections, I wish we could have seen the flaming spectacle just once.

          Somehow pushing through the dark without crashing, we finally bike clear of the forest trail and onto a main road. In the last couple of hours the traffic has gone from insane to almost non-existent. The day trippers have gone home and most of the overnighters are back at their respective campsites. When we finally reach our truck, the road is all but deserted for the first time all day. We stash our bikes in the covered bed and make the short drive to the general parking area closest to the backpacker’s campground.

          As we pull in, Jamie and I notice a young couple standing outside a Subaru hatchback just a few empty spots down from us. Parked on the far side of them is a law enforcement vehicle and a cop is questioning the two individuals. I’m tempted to find another parking space, but in addition to leaving our vehicle behind, we also need to utilize the nearby steel lockers so we don’t wind up with a nocturnal visitor breaking into our rig. Yosemite’s black bears have a reputation as being the cleverest thieves of any ursine population in the world, but they certainly aren’t above a smash and grab job.

          As I jump out of our truck to round up perishables from the backseat to stash in one of the communal bear boxes, I can overhear the conversation between the cop and the twenty-something man and woman. They too have backpacking gear in their car and considering their ratty clothes and unkempt hair, they resemble our kind of folk.

          “This is bad, this is bad,” I hear the dark-haired woman repeating.

          “Do either of you have a marijuana medicinal card?” the cop asks before lowering his voice to an inaudible level and speaking into his walkie-talkie.

          The young couple exchange nervous glances, before the man finally answers. “No sir, they don’t have those where we’re from.”

          The cop looks them up and down like one might a leper. “I’ve never met you people before so I’m calling for backup to watch you while I conduct my search. Before I examine your vehicle, tell me where it is and how much I can expect to find.”

          Having stopped in my tracks to witness the exchange, the officer fixes me with a disapproving stare. I return the look with as much vehemence as I feel I can get away with. “Just go about your business, sir,” he says to me.

          The cop is short and scrawny and obviously using a fake deep voice to project some kind of authority. In any other situation, he would intimidate absolutely nobody. “And why don’t you mind your own business, Napoleon,” I think to myself while turning my attention to the cooler in my backseat.

          As I gather up what little food is inside, I continue my eavesdropping. I have worked with too many cops and had too many friends physically abused or had evidence planted on them to have much faith in law enforcement. I am secretly wishing the couple the best of luck, but I know full well they’re screwed. They can thank their lucky stars we aren’t in Wyoming or Idaho, or being screwed would be a colossal understatement. Despite the fact that doctors in neighboring states prescribe the plant as medicine, where we’re from, marijuana is classified no differently than crack cocaine. Frankly, it’s almost as pathetic as our rancher, hunter, and politician crybaby attitude towards wolves and grizzlies. Then again, it’s to be expected when barely literate hicks run the joint.

          The cop’s backup, a big ol’ bubba with a walrus mustache, arrives shortly after and takes over the watching of the perps while his diminutive partner begins rummaging through their hatchback. Having witnessed enough, Jamie says, “Let’s get our shit squared away and get out of here before something makes me sick.”

          “Good call,’ I say as we once again remove our bikes from the crowded truck bed and ride over to the row of heavy steel boxes with our small sack of edibles. Unlike gym lockers, these bear boxes cannot be locked or reserved. Anyone, at any time, could open one and help themselves to whatever’s inside. Being naturally paranoid of my fellow man, I’d have an issue using the communal storage if we were stashing anything more than a couple pieces of fruit and a box of crackers. I just don’t like the idea of someone stealing from me when there is no chance I’ll be able to catch them in the act.

          Following another harrowing, and possibly hair-brained, bike ride through the dark, we arrive back at the backpacker’s campground. My beer buzz, dampened by witnessing the cops harass the young couple, is now all but completely gone and in its place I feel a headache slowly building. There are a limited number of actual campsites, but in a situation where there are far more hikers than camps, the entire area is littered with tents. As people who tend to get up early in order to beat the heat of the day, the site is already quiet. Jamie and I slink through the maze of colorful fabric pushing our bikes. Despite having a good idea of where we erected our tent, it still takes us almost five minutes to locate our portable home in the pitch black. Ten minutes after that we both slip off into an alcohol aided slumber.

          Seemingly seconds after closing our eyes, the first light of morning drags us back to the land of consciousness and pain. I can’t decide which is worse, my headache, the shriveled state of my dehydrated tongue, or the sporadic waves of nausea. What was in that brew? One of our best friends back home is a brewer for the best microbrewery in Boise, so we’re not strangers to powerful beer, but Jamie and I suddenly feel like drinking rookies. The last thing either of us feels like doing is hitting a trail that will take us from the basin of Yosemite all the way to the granite dome peaks, but we spent over fifteen hours in our truck with the solitary intention of doing just that. We probably deserve the punishment, so we force ourselves out of bed, break camp, and bike back to our truck.

          By the time we arrive, our condition has considerably worsened. Feeling as though we could vomit at any second, and with our headaches refusing to wane, my wife and I drive to a vacant day-use picnic area and park in the shade. After unloading and re-arranging our gear, we climb into the covered shell for a nap. We’re not going anywhere until we can sleep off at least some of this hangover. The hike will have to wait, but the necessity of more sleep means our climb won’t start during the cool morning hours like we initially planned.

          Three hours later we are no longer sleepy, but little has changed in the nausea and headache department. From the air-conditioned cab, we try to ignore the fiery orb climbing higher into the sky causing the shade to slowly disappear. It’s really just the natural angle of the sun as it marches across the sky, but it creates the illusion that even shadows can wilt in the midday heat. Parking our truck at Pohono trailhead, we waste little time on the scorching asphalt before we have shouldered our packs and begun the steep ascent towards the spectacular granite domes capping this visually stunning expanse of wilderness.

          I use the word “wilderness” a little loosely in regards to Yosemite because of its lack of large mammals. If there aren’t grizzly bears and wolves in the vicinity, I am hard pressed to consider any natural landscape as truly wild. Not to mention the lack of elk, moose, bison, and mountain goats. As it was in all of our “protected” parks, Europeans first decimated the native animal populations, many species now regionally extinct throughout North America, before the senseless slaughter was reluctantly curtailed. Black bear and deer are pretty much the only survivors of Yosemite’s genocide.

          To me, this national park feels like it exists for people, not for the natural flora or fauna or for any sense of preserving an ecosystem. I detect a spiritual vacuum in the absence of my large mammal friends and I believe the old trees radiate a particular sadness as well. What Yosemite does still have is an impressive array of giant Ponderosa, Cedar, Sequoia, and Redwood trees, and these ancient sentries must miss the hunters and hunted who once perpetuated that primordial dance beneath their collective canopy.

          People assume that the absence of large mammals biting, clawing, goring, and trampling folks would ensure Yosemite a safer bet than Glacier, Grand Teton, or Yellowstone. Truth is, animals are very rarely a problem, and Yosemite is a magnet for the most dangerous creature there is – a human who thinks they’re invincible. Splattered all over this park are the stains of rock climbers who made a mistake, or had some critical piece of gear malfunction, but that’s to be understood; rock climbing is a dangerous sport. Harder to comprehend are all the people who have drowned in the rivers, and even more incredulously, were swept over waterfalls. Apparently, people can’t resist thinking and behaving like jackasses in the rivers directly above the various falls and Yosemite has a plethora of these towering cascades. Nearly 1,000 people have died in the park since it first opened. Guess how many have been killed by the dangerous bears and mountain lions? The answer can’t get any lower because the number is zero.

          Instead of mammals, we see different species of lizards darting all over the ground and less than ten minutes into the journey, what we initially believe to be a colorfully banded coral snake. However, neither of us can definitively recall the helpful little saying to keep them and their non-venomous visually similar counterparts separated. Is it “red to yellow and you’re dead fellow?” Our snake is red to black and Jamie finally decides that makes him a “friend to Jack” and therefore not a coral snake at all. After racking my brain for a few minutes, I seem to recall pictures of a king snake from the Sierras with a similar banded look. I also seem to recall that coral snakes are strictly an east coast inhabitant. In any case, the sedate reptile slithers slowly across our path and doesn’t seem to mind as I close in for a few photographs.

          Later on, maybe a mile into a journey, Jamie and I are both suffering. In addition to the sweltering heat, the exertion of climbing the ridiculously steep trail in our hung-over condition is taking a serious toll. On top of that, my left foot is beginning to scream in pain. I can almost hear it whining aloud. A serious case of plantar fasciitis, coupled with the protruding foot bone of a tailor’s bunion finally prompted me to the surgical table for a couple of procedures during the early springtime. The doctors shaved a tendon on both sides, cut some bone from my foot, and after inserting a few screws to hold everything back together, they sent me on my way. And this was on the heels of a vasectomy. Take that, Edward Abbey. You may be one of my heroes, but you still fathered five children while having the nerve to lecture others on irresponsible breeding.

          The series of operations all but wiped out my snowboarding season and left me house bound for over two months. My strength and conditioning suffered immensely as a result. I can’t decide which is worse, my hangover, the physical exertion, this heat, my current state of bloat and sloth, or the deep rooted ache pulsating through my foot. This is not how I usually feel when backpacking; I typically enjoy the hard work and pain, but the converging crises are beginning to plague my mind with doubts. We still have some elevation to gain, several days to hike, and over thirty miles left in front of us. The hangover will fade, and once we hit the ridgeline, the hike will get easier, but my foot and conditioning won’t be improving anytime soon.

          If anything, the brutal hike quickly gets worse. Jamie soon looks more pale and drained than she did when we started, and while my physical sickness has flat lined, the pain in my surgically reconstructed foot is becoming a problem. By the time we reach the snowline, maybe four miles into what is supposed to be our epic journey, we are ready to call it a day. We find a campsite off-trail, erect our tent, and lay down to catch our breath. Jamie pulls out our map and scrutinizes it, her face getting more angry by the minute.

          “That backcountry ranger insisted we should trim a day from our itinerary, so now if we stop here for the night, the trip will be impossible. We’d have to push on for several more miles. If I could manage to eat something, I think I’d have the energy to make it, but even the thought of food is making me ill.”

          I can tell she is disappointed in how things are shaking out, and I’d like to inspire her to greater heights, but the reality of my healing foot is becoming more apparent by the minute. Even after removing my pack and boots, the appendage still throbs.

          “If we had that extra night, I might be able to limp through this, but as it is, I don’t think I can make it.”

           My voice quakes a little as I speak. Although there isn’t much I could have done differently, I feel disgusted with myself for being out of shape and injured. I hate the idea of retreating from a hike and I know Jamie does as well. It’s only happened one other time and that too was because of my messed up freak foot . The aggressive side of me wants to march on even if it means causing some irreparable harm, and were I younger, I might do just that. Pushing forty though, and already suffering from several arthritic aches due to injuries I never let heal, I can hear the voice of reason slipping past my stubbornness.

          “I miss the Sawtooths and the Wind River Range,” Jamie says. “If we have to call this off, let’s just go home to some of our mountains where there aren’t so many people… and traffic… and cops.”

          “You mean somewhere with actual wildlife?” I add.

          Jamie’s sick and pale countenance brightens at the thought. “I’ve heard this place is better in the winter anyway. Maybe we can come back for an epic snowshoeing trek for Thanksgiving or Christmas.”

          “Well, at least my foot should be healed by then. Six weeks of recovery time, my ass. I think we’re close to three months now.”

          “Don’t let it get you down,” Jamie says, trying to ease my frustration with a disarming smile. “You’ll be back to the real woods wrestling real bears before you know it. Besides, I don’t think either of us are cut out to be Californians.”

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