An Illusion of Going Somewhere
Copyright © 2004 by Richard S. Platz
All Rights Reserved

Boulder Creek, Foster Lake, Union Creek Backpack
Trinity Alps Wilderness
July 7-11, 2004

"She looks steep"

Nancy and Mr. Popper are hiking companions. So are they domestic partners, significant others, paramours, and, if one believes in such things, soul mates. Barbara and I had backpacked on numerous occasions with Mr. Popper, but, alas, had never shared the pleasures and pains with Nancy. This we resolved to change.

Bargaining began at the end of May as Mr. Popper and I dickered over a mutually acceptable destination for the first week of July. I argued for someplace new. Mr. Popper leaned toward familiar grandeur. No nuance was left unturned. No ramification escaped scrutiny. Elevations and trail lengths were considered in detail, and so were topography, geology, forest cover, trailheads, campsite capacities, and assembly logistics. Negotiations waxed and waned for the better part of June.

Duck and Eaton Lakes in the Russian Wilderness, and Lion and Foster Lakes in the Trinity Alps, were the final contenders. Barbara and I had camped at Duck and Eaton Lakes twice, but neither Mr. Popper nor Nancy ever had. Magnanimously we offered to return there and share with them the magnificence of those jewels set in the rough granite. I printed out a trail profile of the Duck Lakes trail. Mr. Popper studied the profile, rubbing his chin.

"She looks steep."

Though the trail to Lion Lake was longer and steeper, at least its evils were known. Mr. Popper had been to Lion on three separate occasions and was comfortable with it. The terraced and glacier-polished granite landscape was magnificently familiar. In 2000, even as their romance blossomed, he and Nancy had visited Lion and Foster Lakes, which lie a half mile apart on opposite sides of the 7000-foot divide separating the Boulder and Union Creek drainages.

Barbara and I had stayed at Foster Lake in September of 2000, our last backpack before my hip replacement. I had barely managed to limp out propped between two trembling hiking sticks. Returning with a healthy titanium hip was enticing.

So we settled on Lion and Foster Lakes.

Negotiations shifted to timing. Nancy's sister Margot would be arriving from Sedona for the Fourth of July. Their father would join them. Nancy wanted them to view the fireworks from a boat on the Humboldt Bay and then spend a day sightseeing in Weaverville. The earliest they could meet us for the backpack would be Wednesday evening. Margot had agreed to join us on the hike.

That was fine with us. We would spend the holiday clearing brush away from the cabin and outbuildings at our land in Oregon. We agreed to meet at the Boulder Creek crossing four or five miles up the trail, where water abounded and the campsite would accommodate five. The following day we would lug our packs up the two thousand feet to Lion or Foster Lake. Which lake was left for future bargaining.

Tuesday, before dawn, the loud, bawdy cries of Sandhill Cranes gave way to the soft, sweet call of a Mourning Dove. In the fog rising from the water Barbara watched the cranes and elk until her arms grew tired from the weight of the binoculars. Ground squirrels (which Barbara calls "bubonics") chased each other up and down the trees. The sun rose clear and warm.

Driving south from Oregon, we headed for the Boulder Lake trailhead with the sun blazing through the windshield, irritating even with the air-conditioning blowing full-blast. It seemed inordinately hot even at the 5000-foot summit of Scott Mountain. We grew increasingly cranky as the heat eroded our strength. Later we would learn that the temperature had set a record 108 degrees in Redding.

Just south of the Coffee Creek bridge on Highway 3, a graveled forest road climbs 11 miles west to the Boulder Creek trailhead. Half-way up, as we rounded a curve gouged into the steep, forested hillside, we startled a bear in the road. As the van bore down, the bear loped across to the slope and scrambled up the sheer bank. Round and brown and healthy, but not large as bears go, it weighed maybe 200 pounds. Probably an adolescent. Powerful muscles rippled beneath its sleek fur. The bear took only a few seconds to scale the steep slope and disappeared into the brush above us.

At 5800 feet, the parking area at the Boulder Lake trailhead was broad and wide, scraped flat from a rounded ridgetop in the midst of a stand of tall red firs and spread with white gravel. A steel gate blocks the old logging road that once continued on to an upper parking lot at a log landing a quarter mile higher. The trail now follows the old road.

We arrived in the late afternoon, tired, hungry, and drained by the valley heat. A dozen middle-aged dayhikers, returning from Boulder and Little Boulder Lakes, were loading their vehicles. I asked about mosquitoes. One of their group had encountered mosquitoes when he hiked into the lingering snow beneath the towering headwall at the south end of Boulder Lake, but otherwise the trails were clear and bug-free. No one was camping at either lake.

We deployed our folding chairs on a small forested knoll above the parking lot and ate store-bought sandwiches. The place grew eerily familiar. Half-remembered specters of days and deeds long past lurked in the shadows like old dreams. Two tired backpackers momentarily broke the spell as they descended the final hundred yards to their car and departed. As their motor died away, we began to remember. In this same clearing we had eaten supper on our last trip four years earlier when my hip ground bone on bone. A year or two before that, Mr. Popper and I had backpacked in to Little Boulder Lake from this parking lot for a total lunar eclipse. After witnessing the unexpected barbaric slaughter of a stag in the lake next morning, we had chanced upon the untended trailer needed by the hunters to haul out their prey. Seventeen years ago, shortly after Barbara and I first met, the steep primitive road circling our knoll had been open to the upper parking area. Barbara had driven in to meet me at Boulder Lake at the end of my solo backpack up Sugar Pine Creek, cross-country over to Lion Lake, then down to Bolder Lake. Alone and frightened, she had rattled, banged, and bounced her precious Honda up the rocky, rutted road, punching a hole in the radiator in the process. And twenty-five years ago I had first climbed up the brutally steep Boulder Creek trail to Boulder Lake, and on learning there was a shorter way in, had hitched a ride out through this place in the back of a pickup truck. Like swatches of threadbare cloth, so many years were layered one upon the other.

The shadows lengthened. Only two other vehicles remained in the parking lot, a white Blazer marked with the California Fish and Game logo and a similar green Forest Service SUV. We toyed with this concurrence, assuming one was driven by a biologist and one by a ranger. The ranger male. The biologist female. Yin and yang. As evening fell, we speculated on what they might be doing in the wilderness together, alone.

Twilight crept in early beneath the tall red firs, while the mountains to the east still caught the brilliant last rays of sunlight. We walked down a steep spur road on the east side of the ridge as far as a stream crossing and were rewarded with views of the sunlit granite massif above Little Boulder Lake. In the dwindling alpenglow we readied our packs and fell asleep in the van. That night, while Barbara slept, I heard coyotes howling close by.

We arose with first light Wednesday morning. The day promised again to be hot. After breakfast we began to sweat in the sun's first rays as we stuffed our backpacks propped against the van. On the trail by 8:30, we climbed the old logging road through the tall timber, past the abandoned landing where Barbara's Honda had bled antifreeze, then ascended southward up the east side of a long moraine. The trail rose moderately, mostly in forest shade, before cutting abruptly west to climb more steeply over the moraine ridge and into the Boulder Creek cirque. The forest grew sparse and duff gave way to white granite scree, rock, and boulders. A little more than a mile from our van, a signed trail forked left to Little Boulder Lake, which drains directly into Coffee Creek east of the Boulder Creek drainage. We took the right fork toward Boulder Lake.

Shortly we crested the rocky divide at 6380 feet, almost 600 feet above our van. This would be the high point of our day. By evening we would descend a thousand feet to the Boulder Creek crossing at 5380 feet, 420 feet below the van. Carefully we descended the steep, rocky, scree-covered path to a triple trail junction on the forested north shore of Boulder Lake. Here at 6100 feet the Poison Canyon trail headed south along the lake's east shore, and the Lion Lake trail continued west.

The lake appeared deserted. In no hurry, we hoisted off our packs and stretched. Barbara found a path through the wild azaleas to the water's edge and took photos of the granite dome headwall reflected in the lake's still waters. I climbed the gently terraced east shore in search of a private place, musing that in the wilderness, all the world is a toilet, and each of us a petty player recycling nutrients through the topsoil's thin biological stage.

The Lion Lake trail crossed the stream flowing north out of Boulder Lake, which we hopped across on large, dry rocks. The maps gave the outlet stream no name, but it joined Boulder Creek two mile north, about half-way to Coffee Creek.

"Why don't they call it ‘the East Fork of Boulder Creek'?" I wanted to know. Boulder Creek itself originates at Cub Wallow, the valley two miles southwest of where we stood. Another unnamed perennial stream flows down from Lion and Conway Lakes west of Cub Wallow, which should by all rights be called "the West Fork of Boulder Creek," but is not. "Or why not call the main stream ‘Cub Wallow Creek' and this one ‘Boulder Creek'?" But, of course, no one paid me any mind.

We intended to spend the night at the Boulder Creek ("Cub Wallow Creek") trail crossing, only about a mile due west. But to get there, the Lion Lake trail had to contour three miles north, west, and south high on the moraine separating the two streams. Neither of us has ever liked this segment of trail, even though the views are spectacular over the Coffee Creek valley to the naked rock dome of Billy's Peak dominating the opposite slope. For one thing, it always seemed longer than three miles. A lot longer. For another, the tread constantly rises and falls, randomly, unnecessarily, and becomes exposed, steep, rough, rocky, narrow, and slippery in its final descent through thick, snagging brush to Boulder Creek. In the brush, the day was hot and windless, and mosquitoes salivated at our sweaty scent before pouncing.

We encountered a group of backpackers puffing up the trail from Boulder Creek and swatting mosquitoes. They turned out to be the fabled Biologist and the Ranger, about whom folk songs longed to be written. Actually, they had brought her brother in for a pleasant, uneventful backpack up to Lion Lake. A family outing. Not a wilderness bacchanal. Not even government business. So much for folk songs.

When at long last we arrived at the Boulder Creek crossing, Barbara was too weary and irritable to sit down amid the bugs to take off her boots. Instead, she splashed across with boots on, but slipped on the wet rocks and went down on all fours in mid-stream. There for a terrible moment she teetered like a giant tortoise, in danger of toppling over pack-first into the swirling, calf-high water and soaking everything. Still strapped to my own pack, I watched helplessly from the bank behind. Slowly Barbara regained her purchase, steadied herself, and pushed herself upright, arms and legs dripping, but unhurt. In a showing of solidarity, I slogged across the stream in my own hiking boots.

On the opposite bank, the trail followed the alder-lined creek downstream as the deep glacial valley narrowed. We left the trail and squished uphill two hundred feet to a cozy little campsite in a grove of tall conifers with an almost-level tent site and a large fire ring. Everywhere else the terrain tilted steeply down to the creek. Dropping our packs, we peeled off our shoes and socks, poured out the water, and laid them out to dry on the rough, rounded granite sculptures studding the open duff and low brush below us. We wiggled our bare toes in the sun and ate lunch. It was just after noon and growing hot.

We scouted the area and found only one prime tent site, uncomfortably close to the developed fire ring, where we had camped before. Scattered amidst the boulders, grass, and short groundcover were several other open areas, marginally level, which were, if not elegant, adequate for sleeping the night. We tormented over whether to commandeer the best spot for ourselves. What would Mother Theresa have done had she been the first to arrive? Or Master Po? What would Mr. Popper do? Ah, therein lay the key. We easily concurred that Mr. Popper would certainly have grabbed the best site for himself in a heartbeat. And besides, we did not expect our compatriots for another three or four hours, if they managed to show up at all. Guilt assuaged, we set up the tent on the prime site and strung our hammocks between the best trees nearby.

As the afternoon grew hot, we languished in our hammocks or else sprawled in the shade, shooing away a few curious deer. Down along the creek, Barbara heard the beautiful rolling trills of a Swainson's Thrush. The wilderness holds no mirrors. Or at least not the literal, silvered-glass instruments that reflect ancestral faces of old age and impending death. This explains in part the rejuvenating tonic of feral lands. There, like cats, gazing outward only, we steadfastly refuse to recognize our own reflections. In the song of the thrush we hear instead reverberations of our own strength and youth and vitality.

Our reverie was broken sooner than expected. Around four o'clock a lone young backpacker climbed up the slope from the creek. It turned out to be Aaron, the son of backpacking friends, whom we had watched grow as he accompanied his parents on group backpacks over the years. In his early twenties, bright and fit, Aaron brimmed with promise and potential, still decades away from the ugly realization that nothing will work out. He now lives next door to Mr. Popper and Nancy, and Mr. Popper had persuaded him to drive them over in his four-wheel-drive Isuzu. None of us could figure out why he enjoyed spending time with a wizened horde of senior citizens. But he genuinely seemed to.

We moseyed on down to the creek with him to watch the other members of the expedition straggle in. Nancy's sister, Margot, had already waded across and was retying her boot laces. We introduced ourselves. Mr. Popper and Nancy, boots in hand, splashed through the cold, swift current. They had spent the previous night 4000 feet below at the Trinity River Campground, tossing and turning in the unseasonable heat.

Without a grumble, the newcomers selected suitable sites and set up their tents. Mr. Popper uttered a muffled yelp as he plunged briskly in the creek's icy waters. No one joined him. I passed around a flask of cheap Amaretto di Santo. Mr. Popper concocted for his squad a batch of Mountain Margaritas, which, because the snowfields were beyond reach, they drank neat. After the long hike, a few belts of alcohol infused the fellowship with a thick-tongued enthusiasm. We muddled through dinner, then lay back in hammocks around the campfire and palavered, swatting an occasional mosquito.

As soon as it grew dark, we bid the others good night and crawled into our tent in preparation for an early start the next morning. But sleep was slow to come, kept at bay by the conversation and occasional chortle from the nearby campfire. Thus did we discover the true consequences of commandeering the best tent site at the social hub. Karma, no?

We awoke with first light Thursday and quietly built a fire, heated water, then sipped tea and mocha in our hammocks. By the time we ate breakfast, the others had arisen. We explained that we wanted to do most of our climbing before the heat of the day. Mr. Popper agreed that the tent sites were limited at Lion Lake, and that we should probably hike over the divide to Foster Lake. The distance was less than two miles as the crow flies, but more like three trail miles. The problem would be the 2000-foot climb up to the divide, much of it in the full sun. Still, we spent a leisurely morning packing up.

Around 10:30, as the others were just beginning to take down their tents, we headed out. We would keep in touch with radios. The trail followed willow-choked Boulder Creek north for a quarter mile to a junction with the Lion Lake Trail fifty feet below our campsite. The trail elbowed west to climb the forested slope, beginning in abrupt switchbacks interspersed with impossibly steep stretches through brush and fallen timber. Immediately we began to sweat and suck down deep breaths. The day grew hot as we climbed. After 800 long feet of elevation gain we climbed over a ridge into the upper Boulder Creek basin and the grade eased. Through the thinning trees a vista opened. Above us, on the north slope, loomed the ragged spires and cleavers of Sugar Pine Butte. To the south blazed a roiling sea of granite, frozen in time. A mile or so to the west we would climb through a pass between Sugar Pine Butte and the varnished granite summits above Cub Wallow. Below us lay a vast canyon of glacier-polished granite. It was difficult to keep our eyes on the trail.

As we hiked steadily, gazing from Thumb Rock in the distance in the south along the rim to the towering snow-bearded summits ahead, Aaron caught up to us. Chatting, we ambled along for a while. But youth grows impatient, and Aaron moved on at a rapid clip despite his heavy pack.

At a stream crossing in a broad, wet meadow, the trail turned north and began climbing an exposed slope of brush, talus, and granite rocks and boulders. The path was steep as it zig-zagged ever upward amid huge rocks and manzanita. Only a few trees cast meager patches of shade. Occasionally the trail rose through a muddy seep choked with alder and willows. We finally stopped for lunch at an open area with a small stream. Aaron had backtracked to meet us there because he had run out of water. We lunched together and pumped water, sharing our cheese and cashews with him, because the only snack food he was carrying was Mr. Popper's Milano cookies. Mr. Popper called on the radio. They had stopped for lunch, too, at the wet meadow just below the exposed ascent through the rocks and brush. As a motivational exercise, I lied that we had eaten his cookies. Then Aaron took off again.

We continued to climb steeply up the terraced north slope of the valley to the signed junction with the Conway Lake trail, where Aaron was again waiting. At 6850 feet, we had already managed to ascend 1500 feet from Boulder Creek. Only 600 feet more to go. Removing our packs, we joined him for a deserved break. When we resumed the hike, Aaron took the lead. The trail entered a forested slope and climbed steeply in a series of long switch-backs. Although shade blunted the afternoon heat, we plodded along slowly, painfully, patiently, and soon Aaron was again out of sight.

The trail emerged from the forest shade and took us out onto the granite slope directly beneath Sugar Pine Butte. The grand vista of blindingly white rock and snowfields was immediate and intense. Below on the other side of the canyon lay tiny Conway Lake surrounded by lush meadow and trees. The only obvious trail, marked by cairns, sloped downward. We surmised that perhaps we had to pass below a sheer granite outcropping before resuming our climb. Following the cairns down a quarter mile through the loose granite sand and rock, we arrived at an overlook of Lion Lake. There the trail veered sharply downward, the cairns tracing a path as steep as a stairway to the exposed granite bedrock in the vee of the canyon, then up the other side into brush at Lion Lake's outlet. This was not the way to Foster Lake.

Groaning under our burdens, we turned back and re-climbed the talus slope just as Nancy and Margot emerged from the forest. Bob was still puffing up the trail somewhere behind them. We explained our plight. Fruitlessly we looked around for the trail that would take us up, exploring a game track here and there. Where the trail should have angled upward stood an impassible cliff of granite bedrock. Finally we regrouped at the edge of the woods where we had lost the trail. Our pack straps dragged down on our shoulders with a leaden despair. The sun ducked behind a lonesome cloud, turning our sweat cold.

"Where's Aaron?" someone asked. No one had seen him. He was supposed to be ahead of us on the trail, but we couldn't be sure he had successfully negotiated this maze by himself. We called his name a few times, but only echoes replied. Hopefully he had already found his way to Foster Lake.

As the sun returned, Mr. Popper emerged from the trees like a lumbering freight train and trundled out onto the open slope we had just explored. For a long moment he squinted at the bright granite, surveying the barren mountainside. Then, with the certainty of a Laysan Albatross returning from a 5000-mile flight over open water, he pointed confidently to two large trees three hundred feet above us.

"She's up there," he announced

Incredulous, we cross-examined him. How the hell did he know the trail was up there? Could he see it? Why would the trail go that way? Why didn't some track or trace lead up there? With a dismissive shrug, he explained that he had gone that way the first time he camped at Lion Lake. From across the canyon, he had seen the trail scratched into the granite and scree just above that grove. He had hiked up from Lion, caught the trail there, and continued on up to the saddle overlooking Foster Lake. He shifted his backpack painfully and began working his way up the steep slope. And yes, those were the trees. No doubt about it.

Doubt, however, enveloped the rest of us like a cold fog, but armed with no better plan, we followed Mr. Popper, up through the loose scree, white rock, and sparse brush toward his trees, and there, lo and behold, was a definite trail ascending westward above the granitic bulge. As we followed it, the trail grew more defined, and we began to suspect that Mr. Popper was right. It was, after all, from near here, at the end of the last century, that Mr. Popper had taken his famous photo-collage of Lion and Conway Lakes. (View Famous Photo)

As soon as we crested the bulge, we could see the trail snaking upward toward the divide four hundred feet above Lion Lake. Here, hanging above a precipitous drop into the lake, the loose sand footing grew precarious. It was probably here that the dead horse Mr. Popper had once found in Lion Lake had lost its footing and, tumbling, whinnied out its final breaths. God knows what became of the rider. A nasty business, that, and we tried not to look down as we contoured across a particularly exposed couloir.

The trail crossed the saddle above a weathered, gnarled old whitebark pine and a massive upright slab of granite. The saddle lies at a vortex of intersecting vistas and is one of the most spectacular places in all the Trinity Alps. Behind us tiny Lion Lake glimmered blue from a cleft near the head of the bedrock granite canyon sweeping downward two thousand feet to forested Boulder Creek. On the eastern horizon, beyond the granitic domes above Boulder Lake, loomed snow-streaked Mount Shasta. To the north, stark ecclesiastical facades of granite mounted upward on terraces to the unseen spires of Sugar Pine Butte. To the south the polished white bedrock rose from the rocky saddle to the varnished and fractured summits of the Boulder Creek rim, which still cradled robust fields of snow.

But before us--ah! Before us Foster Lake filled a basin of fractured rock 200 feet directly below, reflecting the green of the surrounding forest. Beyond the lake the western rim of this granite world dropped abruptly off into the lush forest greens and earthen reds of the Union Creek valley 1200 feet below, as if the forces of creation had grown weary of so much white. On the far side of the valley rose a low range of red-rock bluffs with pink mine tailings. This was Bullard's Basin, where the Dorleska mine had abandoned miles of underground shafts. The Union Lake cirque lay to the north. Beyond this swath of rusty ultramafic ridges, the creators must have rediscovered their passion for white, for granite rose in an imposing wave from the Caribou Mountain pluton in the south to Packer's Peak in the north.

Perhaps we tarried too long. The others had moved quickly on, and we now lagged behind. Protecting a sore knee, I minced carefully down the steep, rocky trail that circled inside the northeast wall of the cirque toward Foster Lake's outlet. Tonelessly I chanted a verse from Dylan's song, "And the first ones now, will later be last, for the times, they are a-changing."

We arrived at Foster Lake around 4:00 P. M., hot, weary, and worn. We had been hiking hard for five-and-a-half hours. Aaron was waiting at the large horse camp standing vacant on the forested flat a hundred feet northwest of the lake's shore of jumbled rock. He had encountered no difficulty following the trail above Lion Lake and could not comprehend why we had. So much for the wisdom of years.

At 7260 feet, Foster Lake is rugged, wild, and remote, and we appeared to have it all to ourselves. Mr. Popper, as we had speculated, selected the best campsite for himself and Nancy. Aaron set up nearby. Margot eked out a marginally flat spot with a spectacular view in the rocks just above the water's edge. We erected our tent well away from the main campfire ring, close to the outlet stream. Mr. Popper took a quick plunge in the cold water while I built a fire in the central fire pit. Amaretto and Mountain Margaritas again flowed freely as we prepared dinner. Later we lay out where the smooth granite fell away to the valley far below and watched the sun set over the western Trinities.

As an evening chill settled in from the snow banks on the south headwall and the last light drained from the sky, we sat wearily around the blazing fire chatting and joking, some in hammocks, some leaning against the hemlocks. We swatted a few mosquitoes. Margot had displayed an interest in Eastern religions (as well as epistemologies of a more contemporary ilk), so I presented her with his renegade doctrine of Megadeath Buddhism (see endnote). Solemnly Margot received it, as a sort of personal koan. And why not? Classical Zen refuses to distinguish the whimsical from the grave. The slightest distinction, they say, opens an insurmountable gap between heaven and earth. Whatever that means. Off and on Margot essayed answers to her new koan. I received them implacably, suspecting there was no answer and rather wishing I had never brought the subject up. Stars emerged and grew bright before we crawled into our tents and slept.

Friday morning Barbara and I arose before the others, boiled water over a little fire, then carried our tea, coffee, and sitting pads out to a rocky prominence overlooking the Union Creek valley. The shadow of our mountain crept towards us across the thickly forested valley floor, uncovering an inviting green meadow, which, from our perch, looked like a golf course. I wanted to go there. Maybe shoot a few holes. Just drop down the trail that we could see snaking through the brush on the moraine below Sugar Pine Butte. We could spend the night down in the trees somewhere along the creek and hike out Sunday on the Union Creek trail. Maybe, I suggested, we could talk Aaron into driving our van around to the trailhead. The hike out Union Creek is only a half mile further than the one back through Boulder Lakes. Barbara was game, if Aaron was.

The morning passed leisurely. Everyone was too tired to want to hike very far. After lunch Mr. Popper and I swam in the cold water, but not for long. Barbara took pictures of a waterfall on the south end of the lake beneath the towering headwall, where snow banks prevented us from walking all the way around. The day was cooler and the mosquitos not as bad as at the creek crossing campsite. But there were a few pesky biting black bugs. Barbara saw chickadees, yellow-rumped warblers, and osprey, and heard Clark's nutcrackers. In the afternoon we hiked with Mr. Popper up to a bluff overlooking a small, unnamed lake. From the high point we could see Red Mountain and Landers Lake, and beyond, on the Canyon Creek pluton, Thompson Peak, Wedding Cake, and the glacier above Grizzly Lake. After dinner we all enjoyed our last sunset overlooking the mysterious, enticing Union Creek valley.

I asked Aaron if he would consider driving our van over to the Union Creek trailhead so we could hike out that way. Aaron was open to the idea. I asked him to sleep on it and let us know in the morning.

Saturday morning our time at Foster Lake had come to an end. Aaron confirmed his willingness to help us. It was agreed that we would drop down into the valley and hike out the Union Creek trail. The others would return the way we had come and spend another night at the Boulder Creek crossing. On Sunday Aaron would meet us with our van at the trailhead. He thought he could get there by 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon. Mr. Popper would drive Aaron's Isuzu out.

Thrilled at the unique chance for a through-hike, Barbara and I packed up after breakfast. We would descend the slope into something new, a valley Barbara had never seen. To suddenly be able to leap out of the rut of the exact same hike we had done four years ago, spectacular as the setting might be, into the unknown, was exhilarating. Not knowing what we might find. Not knowing where we would camp. True, I had once hiked up Union Creek to Foster Lake, but that was almost twenty-five years ago, when backpacking had been new, and I no longer remembered much of it. I slipped a neoprene support over my left knee to guard against irritating an old basketball strain. We strapped on our packs and bid Foster Lake and our friends farewell.

The trail zig-zagged down the steep, rocky moraine through short manzanita, huge granite boulders, and sparse patches of timber. Near the bottom we entered the forest and snaked around huge trunks until we arrived at a crossing of the stream flowing out of Foster Lake. The stream is called Union Creek. The stream that flows out of Union Lake, less than a mile to the southwest, is not named Union Creek. Although it flows into Union Creek, it is not even a "fork" of Union Creek. It has no name. Go figure. We changed into our tennis shoes and waded across the cold, narrow, deep, swiftly rushing water and climbed through an opening in the willows on the far bank to the promised land.

The meadow, of course, was not a golf course, but a field of knee-high bunch grass, corn lilies, and low, wispy flowering plants whose prickly seeds clung to our socks when we wandered off the trail. It was lovely, with a Morris Meadow-like ambiance. In the moist mixture of granitic glacial till and rusty ultramafic soil grew giant ponderosa pines, red fir, and stately incense cedar, and along the creek, cottonwood, willow, and alder. We stopped for awhile in the shade of a stately Ponderosa pine and took in the views, from the daunting granite fortress rising up to Foster Lake and Sugar Pine Butte to the red rock mountains to the north and west, all lapped by an ocean of trees. Soon we would enter the forest and our vistas would be submerged in the narrowing Union Creek canyon. We paused to drink our fill before that happened.

We resumed hiking, quickly crossed the large meadow, and entered a dwindling series of pocket meadows. The forest closed in. The trail sloped gently downward. The creek moved away to the right. Through the trees we could see that we were passing a high cliff into Bullard's Basin, and when we entered we immediately encountered a trail junction. A sign bolted to a tree pointed west to "Dorleska Mine" and "Big Flat." Three years ago, the summer after our first trip to Foster Lake and my hip replacement, Barbara and I had started at Big Flat, at the other end of this trail, and hiked up to the top of the ridge to look back at Foster Lake and down on the Dorleska Mine. Small world.

Below the junction, things felt different. Subtly, but profoundly, the wilderness changed character. Above the junction, our trails had traced the contour of the land, where game tracks had evolved into Indian paths, into mule pack routes, and into maintained wilderness trails. But below Bullard's Basin, and for the rest of the way out, industrialized man had left his heavy boot print. A road had been rudely gouged into the bank above the creek to service the Dorleska mine. Rocky and rough, the road had been abandoned and was narrowed by slides and the slow encroachment of the forest.

The road was an infected splinter, and the taint of illness radiated out on both sides. Signs were obvious in some places, hidden in others: a rotting stump, a coil of wire cable in the tall grass, a rusting piece of broken machinery, an eroding skid trail, a washout spilling rock into the creek, a stunted forest of unnaturally even new growth.

True, other areas of the Trinity Alps contained artifacts of man's intrusion. Remnants of a wooden flume still snake down the North Forks of Coffee Creek, and a crumbling rock dam still raises the water level of Emerald Lake a few feet. These artifacts are curious, benign, and of little lasting impact. But this road, this scar, this sore, had opened the gates of exploitation, allowing mining and major logging of the wild land. Virgin nature had been pillaged and raped, and though the road was now closed, the deeper scars would take centuries to heal.

Probably five miles down from Foster Lake, a major creek flowing out of Bullard's Basin had washed out the road. Leaving the trail, we followed the upstream bank down to a broad, high flat of open moraine watched over by a few ancient incense cedars. There, in the tall dry grass, we decided to set up camp. Although we found evidence of an overgrown fire ring, no one had camped there for a long time. We erected our tent on the grassy flat high above the creek, but hung our hammocks and built a cooking fire down in the cool, deep channel cut by the creek, a little above its confluence with Union Creek. The creek bed was a jumble of granite, peridotite, serpentine, and cherts, with a spritely current splashing over and around the rounded rocks and boulders. All had been washed from the long tongue of moraine deposited in the canyon floor.

After dinner we hiked down to the confluence. The steep slope on the other side of Union Creek had been heavily logged and eroding skid roads cut into the near bank. That evening we saw an olive-sided flycatcher and mountain bluebirds, but would encounter no other humans until the afternoon of the following day.

Sunday, our final day, we broke camp and hiked out through forest of incense cedar, with flowers along trail. The road was rocky and eroded by storm flows below Bullard's Basin. We were each a different person from the one who had hiked up the road to Boulder Creek that first morning. More at peace. More self-reliant. More in tune with the wildness from which we all emerged.

A mile or two from our destination the trail crossed Union Creek high on a wood-decked, steel-girder bridge. When I had last come this way twenty-five years ago a twisted wreck of truss bridge had spanned the creek, crushed by the winter's avalanche of snow. It had been replaced. At the east end we found a few good campsites, with more probably down along both sides of the boulder-strewn river bed.

The final stretch of trail climbed up and away from the creek and over a ridge. Here the road was wide and well-defined and had probably been used to haul in those massive bridge girders. Ponderosa pine and a few rare Brewer Spruce offered their shade. Near the summit we met a man and woman leading six young llamas strung in single file and heading in for their very first trip to Union Lake. Strange, curiously intelligent animals, the llamas were. Hiking a little further, tired and hot, we came upon a small, stagnant, one-acre lake amid the peridotite and azaleas beside the road. We could not find it on the map. Ahead of the time line, we stopped for lunch and a swim in the shallow green waters. We took our time and watched a redbreasted nuthatch nearby.

As we started down the switchback road toward the parking lot, we tried to raise Aaron on the radio. Nothing. As we neared the bottom, Aaron pulled in with our van. We could see him walking below, and finally got a response on the radio. "You're just getting here? Really?" The timing verged on precision.

On the way out the narrow, dusty Coffee Creek Road, Mr. Popper, driving up in Aaron's Isuzu, nearly side-swiped us. He, Nancy, and Margot had come to see how the recovery was going. Aaron rode with us while the others followed in his vehicle until we rendezvoused at the LaGrange Cafe in Weaverville for dinner and to swap tales of the last two days. We shared with them our final conclusions: Union Creek is the gentler, easier way to get to Foster Lake, but the Boulder Creek route is by far the more scenic. Nothing, however, tops a through-hike and its illusion that you are going somewhere, not just walking in circles.


The Buddhist position on reincarnation is that one must go through many cycles of birth, living, and death. Rebirth, in Buddhism and in other early Indian systems of liberation, is seen as horrific. Buddhism expresses the overriding urgency of the need to escape from the cycle of rebirth. After many such cycles, if a person is able to release his attachment to desire and the self, he can attain Nirvana.

But modern technology offers us a shortcut, undreamed of by the ancients, a quick and dirty route to Nirvana. By means of well-placed nuclear warheads, we now have the ability not only to eradicate all forms of life, but to render the earth uninhabitable. Thus can we forevermore release all sentient beings from the wheel of birth and death.

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