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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Labor Day Lassen Volcanic National Park Trip

My complaint about last year's backpacking trip was that I continually heard jet plane noises all day and all night. So this year, Arturo suggested Lassen Volanic National Park. The big concern was the smoke from the recent fires, but a check on the webcam seemed to show crystal clear views. On Friday August 31st, Arturo drove all of us up to Red Bluff, where the smoke filled the air and Bowen started coughing. We quickly checked into our hotel room and turned on the AC, whereupon his cough went away.

The next day, we went into the National Park and at the visitor center, Arturo got a backcountry permit just before the mad rush landed upon our volunteer ranger. The ranger told him that the area we'd planned to visit, the cluster lakes had been burnt 2 years ago and might not make a good trip. He suggested a longer loop. We visited the mud pots and Lake Helen before heading over to the trailhead by Summit Lake.

It was 11:00am by the time we got going, so the first thing on the agenda was lunch. Since there was a steep climb following the lake, we just ate lunch at the summit lake.
After lunch, the trail headed steeply uphill to about 7000' before it started descending. I felt tired, which was strange because I'd slept well the night before. Then I realized that it must have been the altitude. "I swear I was fully acclimated when climbing Stelvio earlier this summer!" "You lose it fast!" Darn. Your body is the laziest thing on the planet. Bowen also started whining. The backpack, which had his water bladder, his bunny, and some clothes started to become too heavy for him, and Arturo feeling sorry for him, just took his entire pack and strapped it onto his backpack.
We realized that our original goal of heading to Rainbow Lake had to be modified. We got to Echo Lake, but a big sign on the lakeside said "No camping" in no uncertain terms. So we proceeded on to Twin Lakes, where at the side of the trail there was what looked like a perfect campsite. We put down our packs and scouted around and it looked great, so we pitched our tents and then went swimming in the lake.
Lakes in Lassen Volcanic National Park are the strangest things in the world. In the Sierras, you'd see streams clearly feeding a lake, and streams flowing out of a lake, but in this park, there was no apparent source or sink! Arturo guessed that these were lakes formed from spring snow and the lake levels would diminish over the summer and then get refilled over winter. There were "tide lines" along the lake that supported this view. But this phenomenon meant that every lake in the park was a surprise: you're not going to hear a stream as you approach, and that's the typical cue that a lake is nearby for the rest of us.
After the swim, we got changed and walked to the other lake that was part of the Twin. We looked for a loop trail around our lake, but it wasn't there. When we got back to the campsite, we saw a doe and two babies. They were completely unafraid of people and sauntered around our site. "We'll have to take down all the clothing that's drying overnight before turning in tonight," said Arturo. "Deer will eat anything that's got even a bit of salt in them."

We had dinner and discussed what to do next. Doing the rainbow lake loop that the volunteer ranger had suggested was clearly too ambitious, so we had to choose between staying at Twin Lakes and doing a day hike, or going through the burnt area based on the original plan that Arturo had. We stared at the map and I noted that the ranger had mentioned that the burnt area was around Cluster lake. "Did he say anything about Big Bear or Little Bear lakes?" "No, so there's a chance it could be unburnt." We didn't have any information, but at least there was an alternative. "Besides," I said, "If it turned out to be horrible, it's only 3.5 miles away from the car and we can have a long day and find a National Forest service campground to camp at." "Let's wait till tomorrow morning and see how Bowen feels."

Since we had all day on the second day to do whatever we liked, we slept late and woke up at 7:00am, getting a beautiful picture of the reflective lake. We'd ran out of drinking water in all our hydration packs, and so Arturo gave Bowen a lesson on how to purify water using Aquamira, a chlorine based purification system that gave a much less objectionable taste than the usual iodine tablets, but at the expense of the complexity of setup, and of course, the lack of iodine supplementation.
 We packed slowly and only got underway at around 9:00am, and headed down to the second Twin Lake and the trail intersection with rainbow lakes. The twin to our lake was slightly bigger and quite pretty, with a larger established camping area right next to the Pacific Crest Trail. At that intersection, we saw the backcountry ranger station, and met our first PCT through-hiker, who was going south bound.

The burnt area became very obvious, and we soon lost our constant tree cover. Despite the burn, the trees were not burnt to the ground, just that all the leaves were gone. The day before, Arturo had taught Bowen how to distinguish pine from fir trees, but today there couldn't be any distinction. One interesting thing, though, was that with the leaves stripped from the trees, sound traveled very well. As a result, whenever we got close to any kind of ridge that could reflect sound, any shouting would bring back a bunch of echoes. Once Bowen discovered this, he would repeatedly shout and scream just to hear the echoes. The nice thing about the backcountry is that with no one else around to be disturbed, he could do this until he got tired of it, with no one telling him to shush.
Bowen had stuffed his cap into the sleeping bag prior to my packing it, so he didn't have a hat today. I offered him mine but after a half hour of wearing it he got tired of it and gave it back at me. We had lunch at Feather lake on the only sheltered section of it. This was followed by a chain of lakes one after another, some not even named. The named ones included Silver lake and Cluster lake, where there was a trail intersection with the Noble Emigrant trail. "That's strange," said Arturo, "I have a marker here on my GPS. I must have hiked here on the Emigrant trail, had lunch at the lake, and then checked out the intersection before turning around."

Bowen got tired of carrying his backpack again and once again Arturo packed it into his bag. Upon reaching Big Bear Lake, we spotted what could be a nice campground on the other side of the lake from the trail, and voted to check it out. "That way we won't have to share Little Bear lake with the father/son pair that passed us earlier." comment Arturo.
There was a site, but it wasn't legal. The flat spot was less than 100' from the water. "What will the ranger do if they catch us?" "He'll make us pack and and move." Bowen thought about it and decided to keep hiking to Little Bear lake, which was just over a little hill from where we were." On the way there, however, we witnessed a burnt tree fall over, making a thunderous cracking sound. Once we got to Little Bear, we spotted a nice looking flat area that would make a great campground, with no burnt trees nearby to fall on us.
We pitched our tents, unrollwed all our sleeping mats and bags, and unpacked, then sat on the logs to recover. After we'd rested, we went for a swim in the surprisingly cold lake, though once you were in there and swimming, it was obviously much warmer than the usual snow-melt-fed Sierra lake.
We swam until we got cold, made decaf coffee and tea, and then had dinner. We looked at the map and computed that it was 3.5 miles to the car. "Let's see. If we get up at 6:00am, have an efficient breakfast, and left by 8:00am, we could be at the car by 11:00am, and that means with a 6 hour drive we can be at Fenton's at 5:00pm for dinner!" Bowen declared he wanted 2 packets of oatmeal for breakfast, and that was all we had, so I'd have to eat lunch for breakfast, but that was OK, because with such a short walk we could definitely make it to the car before then, and Arturo knew there was a sandwich shop before the park exit. Since no fires were allowed because of the dry conditions, Bowen had to make his marshmallows on the camping stove again.

The next morning, I got up at 6:30am, and started making hot water. We took our time with our breakfast, leaving at 8:46am. The hike out was uneventful and cool, since it was still early and we were now in a forested area. When we returned to the lollypop part of the loop I didn't recognize the trail at all!
Bowen this time happily carried his entire pack all the way. Clearly, he had acclimated to the altitude as well, since the day actually have quite a bit of steep climbing right at the start. We got back to the trailhead at 11:30, stopped for lunch at Manzanita lake, and then headed right to Oakland on the lightest traffic I'd ever seen and had dinner at Fentons before returning home. What a great trip!

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