Primitive and modern outdoor skills

Backpacking trip: Sierra, Dinkey Lakes Region



On this trip we learned:
In addition we came back with plans to make new shoes moccasin style shoes from Vibram soul sheeting material, and complete our tyvec rain-gear experiments.

(Jess Felix and Lizza picking blueberries)


How it happened

It was a 3-day weekend coming up, but I was going to be working on labor-day. Jess had planned to go on a bike-trip, and I was probably going to tag along for the first day and then head home.  On thursday though a friend of ours, Lizza, contacted me asking if we wanted to go backpacking in the King's Canyon Area. On the same day, I ended up (maybe) with labor-day off.

So, this was thursday, the plan was to meet up friday evening - 4 hours drive away. We had Thursday night to pack. Neither of us had been to this area, and we weren't sure when it rained up in the Sierra. Lizza sent us some data on temperatures that basically said it could drop to near freezing.

We got distracted Thursday night, and weren't packed at all come friday morning.

In the morning I got an email from a coworker which meant I had labor day off - so, the trip was on. In about 20 minutes we threw our standard gear in our packs. We both started backpacking on the east coast so our "standard gear" includes rain-gear, wool sweater, down vest, warm tights, wind pants (or similar), warm hat, extra socks, insulating sleeping mats, and 10F sleeping-bags. Scrounging a bit in the kitchen we got most of what we needed for food, with a very short list left to acquire (Gatorade and lunches).

We still had some logistics to figure out. I called Lizza and got details. We were meeting at a GPS point, at the intersection of a hard to identify tiny side-road off of a small back road. She has an HT radio for hang-gliding, and I have an HT because I'm a nerd with a HAM license. So, we figured out a frequency we could meet on if needed. I installed a bit of GPS software on my smartphone, and made sure to pack gear to power both the radio and phone off the cigarette lighter. I have a real GPS, which I should really learn to use for such purposes, but the phone was less effort this time.

I worked from home so I would have a bit more time to organize things and pick up a rental car (working from home saves me 2 hours commute time). I ran the numbers on zipcar, and several rental agencies. Zipcar is expensive in the summer, so they would've cost ~50% more in this case. We ended up with a Toyota yaris sedan from Hertz.

I still started working before my normal time. Then in the afternoon I quit a bit early as well and ran out to grab the food. Then I walked down to the rental place, got the car, drove back, got the gear, and drove down to pick up Jess. There I picked her up... and were off!

Getting There

Drive was uneventful. We stopped for food on the way. As a result Lizza, Brian and Felix beat us there. We found the point easily and they were waiting (it appeared that they hadn't been waiting long). We repacked and after some discussion concluded we should drive as far in as we could on the dirt (4wd only) roads... Note that I had a toyota yaris (a tiny economy car with poor entrance angle). By this time it was dark.

Well, we drove in, and I didn't trash the car. I dropped the frame on a rock once after taking a larger one under the right wheel. Brian managed to get one wheel of his Honda element off the ground on a steep drop, but it was no biggy. We got in pretty late.

We then pulled out our packs and humped off into the woods. We slept at a nice place just a couple of miles in. That night it hit 26F according to a thermometer Lizza and Brian had brought. There was also significant condensation. Jess and my down bags are a little water resistant on the outside, my toes got cool because I hadn't been careful to put my heals on my sleepingpad, but I slept fine. Both our bags had significant frost on them come morning. Brian's bag was holofill stuff, but wasn't water resistant at all, and wasn't nearly so warm. He had spent a cold night. Lizza had a -30F bag and was happy (she likes to be very warm).


Day 1

Due to the nature of the trip Jess and I had packed independently of Brian, Lizza and Felix, and with little communication. Jess and I were, effectively, along for the ride, as Brian and Lizza had planned the trip. So, come morning, we all made our own breakfast.

Lizza and Brian had made their own wood stoves! (apparently inspired by hearing about mine). So the 4 of us all fired up our wood stoves to make breakfast. I'll have to go into details another time, but their home-grown single-walled designs worked pretty well for having never been tested. There were minor airflow issues. Mine drafts a bit better than either of theirs, but they definitely worked. We also lit all 3 stoves with a spark from a "light-my-fire" sparker, using cattail fluff Jess had from our last trip. That was pretty exciting since Lizza and Brian had never done that before. We used a bit of dry grass from the edges of tufts as tinder, and the tips of dead pine-boughs as the next stage.

After breakfast we packed up and headed off. Due to planning time frame Jess and I lacked a map except for one of the *entire* sierra's (not very helpful), but Brian and Lizza had one. We headed for a lake. Beautiful! Incredible views, clear lakes. We were already at >9000 ft in elevation. We could feel the altitude in our breathing. We found a patch of blueberries and snacked. Brian had a tiny rod and reel that he pulled out. In a short time he'd caught 2 fish about 10 inches long, while the rest of us lazed around on the beach. Then we packed up and wandered off to another lake.

On the way we lost Felix for a bit. Brian pulled out a slingshot and was practicing his aim to kill time... this seemed like an awesome idea to me - it would be great for hunting squirrels and such. I tried throwing rocks, but my accuracy wasn't nearly as good.

We camped at another lake that evening. Brian went off to fish while the rest of us went swimming and gathered wood. As there was no fire-wood by the lake, Lizza and I ran off up the hill - which turned out to be HARD at 9000 ft! I'm used to bounding up a hill for several hundred meters without any issue, and being able to regain my breath in a few seconds - not so much at 9000 ft. Jess is always a slower uphill hiker (but able to kick almost anyone's butt on a good downhill). Her limitation is cardiovascular+lungs. Up there when you work hard you can hear your heart beating in your ears. She'd been noticing the altitude strongly all day, where it only came up for me when I tried to burst.

Brian caught 2 more fish. We lit up a fire. All the wood was from various pine'ish trees. So it was going to burn fast and we needed a lot. We again lit the fire with a spark using cattail fluff and had it going in no-time. We cooked dinner, including the 4 fish. Dinner was amazing as everyone cooked up what they had and we just shared it around - nothing like a 5-course meal including fresh-fish, at 9000 feet on the edge of an alpine lake in the middle of nowhere.

For dinner we had several things. Fish, which had been slit on the sides and salt and various types of pepper rubbed in. They were then stuck on a 2-tined metal thing that fits on the end of a stick and roasted over the fire. Jess and I cooked vegetarian split pea soup with couscous added. It was actually very tasty, just slightly bland. Lizza, Brian, and Felix had brought some backpackers pantry which was pretty good.

Lizza had carried in some Esbit tablets. Esbit is a burnable tablet for cooking, it's supposedly light to carry and easy to use. She had 2 types. Lizza tried to boil a liter and after 8 gave up (this is at 9000 feet, BTW). Our conclusion is that Esbit is heavier than alcohol per pot of water boiled, and more annoying. It even required a better windscreen than the alcohol did. We were stumped as to how or why anyone would ever use it.

Day 2

Next morning Jess and I got up late'ish. Due to the dew problems on the first morning, we'd slept under a diamond pitched tarp, but there was no dew this morning. I had woken up at dawn, glanced around, and seeing no-one up gone back to sleep. I did this a few times. It turns out Brian had snuck off to fish, and Lizza had snuck off for a morning walk.

Out of curiousity I tried the Esbit, and managed to boil 3 cups of water, but it required 5 Esbit tablets. This was on the bottom of my flipped-over pepsi-can stove, inside my woodstove (so it had perfect airflow). The apparent uselessness of Esbit stood.

We cooked up breakfast. Brian ate the 2 fish he'd caught before we got up. Lizza and Felix had relit the fire already so we cooked everything on it. Jess and I had oatmeal again. We extinguished the fire, and picked a route past a couple more lakes that involved a couple of miles of bushwhacking. The bushwhacking was glorious. The difference between this and even east-coast bushwhacking was night and day. You just walk, it's almost as easy as being on a trail. Compared to Mendocino National Forest (where going 100m could take you half an hour) it was like a dream. During our bushwhack we found what Lizza called Gooseberries. Jess looked them up later and says they're probably more like currents - but it looks like gooseberries and currents might be kind of like plants of the rhubis genus, in that there are arbitrary gradations in-between, and all interbreed. Apparently gooseberries are the more prickly ones, and the berries are oblong. In any case, they were delicious so we picked a pile and stored them away for later.

We missed our goal slightly on the bushwhack. Jess Brian and I were all sighting regularly with our compasses, Brian leading. We only missed by a short distance though, hitting a smaller (but very pretty lake). We figured it out based on topology and went the right direction. One HUGE difference between backpacking in the Sierra's and backpacking on the east coast or in low rolling hills is that you always know where you are in the Sierra. There are tons of landmarks, i.e. mountaintops and ridges of very specific and identifiable shape and size, such that you can just triangulate your position any time you need to. This was a totally new experience for both Jess and I who were used to dead-reckoning for long segments of a bushwhack.

At the lake we'd been heading for Brian caught several more fish while the rest of us mucked about, snacking and such. I was starting to burn a bit so I slathered on some mud, Jess as well (Brian and Lizza had brought long-sleeved clothing and sunscreen). Eventually we set off again, this time down a trail, heading for yet another lake nearer where we started, to make our trip out the next day a bit easier.

Well... we missed completely. We were flying, hiking at a really good pace. I was really enjoying stretching out my legs and took off in front in big strides, bounding down the rocks. As dusk was just starting to hit we reached a sign. Brian looked it up and found that we'd gone a *lot* farther than intended and in slightly the wrong direction. We'd lost the trail a bit once or twice and refound it. So, we probably missed an intersection during one of those. Jess and I sat down and ate food while Brian figured out what to do, and Felix got eaten by mosquitos (he was the only one). Brian suggested a lake that was only a mile bushwhack away. We thought that was fine. Everyone set off again.

Jess took a sighting and found a rocky mountain top only 1 degree off from our destination. We beelined for that, I just walked in the straightest line I could out front, towards that mountaintop - double-checking with the compass occasionally. We hit a high ridge-line eventually that ran up towards the mountain. Skirting this to the right we came up over and dropped down into a high valley, The lake had to be to our left (nearly behind the mountain), so we set off that way, following a mostly dry stream bed... and sure enough, there it was.

Brian had left his fishing pole at the previous lake by accident (sad), but we had 4 fish already. That night we ate Thai peanut couscous with vegetables, beans and rice, more fresh fish, fettucini alfredo, an indian dish, rice pealoff, and to finish it all off brownie's with the berries we'd picked. Now THAT is some amazing fare. We all ate till we were stuffed. Anyone who tells you backpacking food isn't any good isn't doing it right. My Thai peanut couscous was very popular - I'd purchased the spice-packet a while back. I'd forgotten to grab tortillas for the beans and rice Jess mixed up, they were tasty. Just a bit over salted 'cause Jess was dehydrated when making them. The other 3 dishes were backpackers pantry. The Indian dish had chickpeas that didn't rehydrate very well, so it wasn't so popular. The other 2 were delicious and disappeared fast. I also ate a whole fish, and half of Jess' fish - the fish from the first lake we ate the day prior had been the best (best fish I've ever eaten), but these were still pretty awesome.


We bunked down that night using a diamond pitch again. Again there was no dew at all. Brian and Lizza used a shaped tarp with 2 center support poles. It looked kinda nice, but kinda bad for snuggling.

Day 3

Next morning we all went for a swim in the chilly lake and then hiked back to the cars... Beautiful trip. We had seen a fair number of other people up there, but they were all friendly. And there was no-one else at the last lake we went to. Generally there were 1 to 2 other groups at each lake.

Brian was very low on gas, so we followed him at first. We came up on a couple of four-wheelers re-inflating their tires for normal roads and reorganizing gear. Brian asked if he could borrow some gas and the guy gave him 5 gallons - said to pass the favor on when it came up. Sometimes, people are just awesome. We'd been talking about how to siphon gas off the Toyota into his car, or about driving out and coming back with gas.

Our two groups parted ways at the end of the ruddy little back-road, saying we'd have to do something similar again soon.

One last note. Jess carried her heavy as hell boots the entire trip, wearing the 5-fingers the whole time. She had them in case of cold weather - and it DID get cold, but only at night. We really need a 5-finger style shoe that works with insulating socks. In other words... moccasins. We're going to try making our own as soon as we can get our hands on Vibram souls - our huaraches experiments have taught us that leather wears out too fast on pavement.