Copyright © 2011
by Richard S. Platz, All
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Little Boulder Lake
Trinity Alps Wilderness
Shasta-Trinity National Forest
July 26-29, 2011
Photos by the
Author and Barbara Lane Except Where Noted
"How much is enough?"
A sharp pain stabbed the center of my chest as
I hauled a forty-pound backpack up the steep trail. We were
climbing a long-abandoned logging road following a lightly-forested
ridge through a sea of manzanita toward Little Boulder Lake
in the Trinity Alps Wilderness. I stopped to give the pain my
full attention. The morning sun blazed down on the dusty path.
A bead of sweat ran down my temple. It took little effort to
convince myself the pain had to be my sternum strap pinching
the thin flesh above my breastbone, where wires from my old
open heart surgery still coiled. I loosened the strap. Rubbed
the flesh. Sure enough, the irritation began to subside.
"What's the matter," Barbara puffed,
catching up to me on the trail.
I explained about the irritation from the sternum
Concern flickered in her eyes.
"A surface deal," I assured her. "Nothing
to worry about."
Perhaps. But exactly
two weeks later, I felt a pain in the same location as I was
working up a sweat on the StairMaster back at home in Blue Lake.
Only that pain did not subside. It grew. I suddenly felt lousy
and sat down on the carpet to catch my breath. Then I had to
lie down. Barbara called 911, the ambulance came, and in little
over an hour I was shivering on the cold operating table in
the hospital cath lab. A total blockage of a coronary artery
had been reopened and stented. Quick emergency response and
a skilled cardiologist had spared me debilitating heart damage.
A strange thing is an anniversary. Disorienting.
Bittersweet. Barbara and I remembered when we first met. Stoddard
Lake. July 1986. We squinted at faded photographs of skinny
young folks, tan and lean-muscled. Abundant dark hair. The old
backpacking group. We couldn't help but compare and contrast
it all with the present. Mr. Popper now gone. We easing into
the rhythm of retirement. And all the while the clock continues
Boulder Lake was our choice for the first (and, as it turned
out, only) backpack of our twenty-sixth season, primarily because
the hike was short. Two miles. Six hundred feet altitude gain.
It would be a chance to test our muscles and stretch our tendons
to see if backpacking was still in the cards for us. Aging is
a constant experiment.
Also we chose Little Boulder because it is a
lovely little lake, with granite cliffs and all the charm and
wild beauty of more remote lakes deeper in the wilderness. Its
proximity to the trailhead makes it popular, even crowded on
summer weekends, but we would be hiking in on a Wednesday morning,
when most backpackers should be at work or school.
Barbara and I had been there before, but not
for years. In 1989, three summers after we first met, we had
convened at Little Boulder with the Annual Spring Acid Backpack
group. Seeking a more energetic adventure, I had hiked up some
three thousand feet into Sugar Pine Lake by myself, spent the
night, then cross-countried over a divide to the Boulder Lakes
Trail to join Barbara at Little Boulder. And I had returned
to Little Boulder with Mr. Popper seven years later to view
a total lunar eclipse.
On Tuesday afternoon we drove north on Highway
3, over Scott Mountain. A half-mile south of the Coffee Creek
turnoff, we turned left on signed Forest Service Road 37N52.
In 3.3 miles we arrived at a confusing junction, turned right
on unmarked FS 37N53, and in another 8 miles arrived at the
trailhead (N 41 03' 53.1", W 122 47' 26.1", 5760 feet).
There we found ten vehicles in the roomy parking lot. A long
California Conservation Corp van, two Forest Service pickups,
a single passenger car, and the rest trucks. Nobody was around.
We backtracked to a rustic hunting camp a quarter
mile back down the road and parked the van for the night. It
was a pleasant, secluded spot, fragrant from the pennyroyal
growing all around. The forest was tall and healthy and the
soil rich and pungent. The afternoon was warm, with no wind.
A few inept mosquitos buzzed around our evening campfire, but
not the bad biting kind. The temperature lingered in the upper
fifties that night.
Wednesday morning we breakfasted on oatmeal and
bananas, loaded our backpacks, and parked the van at the trailhead.
The same ten vehicles were still there, including the CCC van.
A young trail crew must have spent the night in the wilderness.
As we were tidying up the van, a VW camper drove in and parked,
and the young driver dragged out his backpack, strapped it on,
and started up the trail ahead of us. He was heading to Shimmy
Lake and on from there to "wherever."
The trail climbed steeply up an abandoned road
to the former trailhead parking at the wilderness boundary.
Everything was overgrown and the old trailhead was hard to identify,
but we remembered it. It used to cut a half mile and two hundred
feet off the climb. Barbara and I had hiked this portion before
not only on our trips to Little Boulder Lake, but also more
recently on two fourteen-mile hikes to Lion and Foster Lakes.
(See, e.g., An
Illusion of Going Somewhere.)
The path continued to climb and soon reached
the spine of a spur ridge on the way to the junction with the
Little Boulder Lake Trail. Long views opened up of the snowy
granite peaks to the west, above Lion and Conway Lakes, and
to the southwest above Cub Wallow. It was on this segment that
I felt the pain in my chest. And dismissed it as an irritation
from my sternum strap.
the Little Boulder trail junction (N 41 03' 08.7", W 122
48' 04.9", 6297 feet) the trail cut southeast to climb
over the divide between Little Boulder and Boulder Lakes. The
grade eased as we crested the rounded, open ridge strewn with
granite sand and white granite rocks scattered like gravestones.
As we descended the steep drop through boulders and around granitic
outcroppings to enter the lake cirque, the flora changed abruptly.
Manzanita gave way to Sadler Oak, which has taken over the
job of tripping passers-by and choking the understory into an
Approaching Little Boulder, we descended new
granite steps and encountered our first humans. A middle-aged
man and woman were herding two boys in their early teens up
the trail on a dayhike to Boulder Lake. They lived in the San
Francisco Bay area, they told us, but had a summer place in
nearby Douglas City. They were camped at the best campsite at
the far eastern end overlooking Little Boulder. That, alas,
had been our destination.
No one was at Little Boulder
when we arrived. We found an excellent campsite right on the
north shore (N 41 02' 51.5", W 122 47' 47.9", 6329
feet), where we stopped and offloaded our packs. Barbara remembered
the sprawling site to be where the ASABP group had converged
in 1989. Tiny azaleas ringed the water's edge, not yet fully
bloomed. Tall trees offered good hammock anchors. Red fir, tall
and slender and open with massive yellow cones at the crowns.
White fir. Unhealthy lodgepole pines in the wetter regions.
White pine with new cones dangling down, curved like ten-inch
bananas, not yet open. All set in a sea of Sadler Oak, under
whose green foam a man could easily drown. Directly across the
lake to the south rose the towering white wall of granite and
talus left by a departing glacier.
And I remembered it as the campsite Mr. Popper
and I had taken when we hiked in together to watch the total
lunar eclipse in 1996. The whole deer-slaughter fiasco came
back to me like a vivid dream. It had been hunting season. I
was in the lead across the narrow outlet dam a little further
along, when I had nearly bumped into one seriously creepy armed
killer as he lurked silently against a tree trunk at the far
end. All swathed in camo, face smeared with black, rifle at
the ready, he neither spoke nor smiled. Just stared. Homicidally,
it seemed to me. Like a renegade special forces assassin.
Popper and I had turned back instantly and set
up camp at this same campsite. The hunters were camped at the
far end of the lake. They made us uneasy, so we had no intention
of crowding their space. It was clear that they were going to
kill something before they hiked out. It turned out to
be a big buck that they wounded at first light the next morning,
shocking us awake. Like vultures they perched on the shore as
their wounded prey swam round and round in weakening circles
in the deep, silent, silvery water. Waiting for it to crawl
out by itself. Sport hunting. They had not looked sporting to
Barbara and I dug out the food bags and deployed our mats. After
lunch a flock of jabbering children arrived at the lake. Three
young men supervised them. Fathers, we presumed. Most of the
crowd wore flip-flops instead of hiking boots. They went for
a long, noisy swim before heading back up the trail to Boulder
Lake. One young man led his four-year old daughter on a shortcut
up the stark mountain of sharp granite boulders across the lake.
There was no hint of a trail. We followed their progress with
binoculars as they slowly picked their way up and over the crest
to Boulder Lake.
We hiked across the outlet dam and explored the
east end of the lake, careful not to intrude on the occupied
campsite. Back at camp, I went in for a swim. Two dayhikers
came in, a mother and daughter, and jumped in. They swam to
the other side of the lake, staying in the brisk water for nearly
a half hour, and came out white-fingered, blue-lipped, and cold.
As we lounged in our hammocks, an intrepid chickadee
landed beside a hole in the ragged shard of a long-dead snag
at the waterline, not ten feet away. The little bird eyed us,
then ducked into the hole. In a moment he popped out and flew
off, followed by a second chickadee. Over and over again, like
clockwork, the industrious pair brought insects to a brood of
nestlings inside. We could barely hear the babies chattering
each time a parent arrived at the nest.
For our evening entertainment an osprey perched
on a bare branch across the lake, circling, hovering, and diving
for fish. The weather was mild. Mosquitoes were few. They had
been worse at the trailhead. Here on the moraine on the north
shore the forest was more open, and on the south stood the sheer
wall of granite. The sky was clear and the first of a million
stars began twinkling. As a frog chorus was tuning up, we retired
to our tent.
Early Thursday morning, the other backpackers
left as we were eating breakfast. I ambled over to check their
digs. It was the lake's premier campsite (N 41 02' 47.7",
W 122 47' 43.5, 6347 feet), with a commanding view of the entire
lake and an impressive bench above the campfire ring, where
you could sit on a flat log and lean back against a sloped boulder.
Solid. Sturdy. Comfortable. Slabs of clean white granite, tumbling
into the deep water, bore a few sturdy trees, but on a hot or
windy day the site would be very exposed.
In the late morning we hiked over to Boulder
Lake, an obligatory ritual. On the way we came upon a young
man hiking to our lake to "finish up" the work on
the granite steps along the trail. He said there was nobody
at Boulder Lake except for some of his CCC crew. The rest of
the crew was camped down at Boulder Creek crossing. They had
just finished brushing the trail to Lion and Foster Lakes the
day before. As we chatted, we saw a Clark's Nutcracker land
on the trail, a large, striking bird with long, pointed black
beak. The trail back down to the junction seemed steeper than
we remembered, as was the downhill to Boulder Lake.
Where our trail met Boulder Lake was a major
trail junction. Trails were signed south to Poison Canyon and
Lilypad Lake, west to Coffee Creek Road (and Boulder Creek and
Lion and Foster Lakes), and back north the way we had come to
Little Boulder and the trailhead. There at a large horse camp
we sat on campfire logs and enjoyed a leisurely lunch. Azaleas
ringed the shore. Pond lilies floated on the still, shallow
surface. Mosquitoes would probably be a problem in the evening
with the moist soil and dense manzanita understory.
After lunch we hiked south
along the east side trail. Beyond the lake's south end a spur
trail crossed an inlet creek to a big wet meadow. Beyond the
meadow lay a great campsite with good lake access. The Poison
Canyon Trail continued its energetic climb southward, but we
let it go. Back at the main trail junction where we ate lunch,
we encountered the same CCC youth laden with heavy trail tools
across both shoulders. Axes. Saws. Mattocks. He was retrieving
the tool cache from the Little Boulder work site.
one was at our lake when we returned home. So we went in for
a swim from the boulders at the vacant main campsite, then rested
there on the neatly crafted bench solidly overlooking the lake.
So relaxed were we that we may have dozed off for a while. Neither
of us was sure.
Friday dawned clear and beautiful. The lake was
a mirror. Calm. Peaceful. Reflecting the granite wall across
the lake. And ourselves. And hummingbirds hovering over the
water. As we sat quietly drinking our tea and mocha, I thought
about the scourge of multitasking, so popular among youth. I
came to the realization that Zen is the art of untasking. An
antidote to multi-tasking. A notch down from doing nothing.
We broke camp and by eleven were ready to hoist
our backpacks and get on the trail. At that moment four horseback
riders descended the steep trail to the lake. Two men. Two women.
Cowboy hats and saddlebags. They were leading two heavily laden
pack horses. Looked like enough gear for a stay of weeks.
I thought. We're getting out just in time.
But they had not come to camp. They were volunteer
backcountry horsemen and were there to stock Little Boulder
Lake with Eagle Lake Rainbow Trout. We watched them unload from
the pack frames huge plastic cooler chests packed with dry ice
and large plastic bags filled with water and oxygen. Confused
eight-inch trout stared dully from the bags. The big fish were
an experiment, we were told, as they used to bring in thousands
of fingerlings. Another group with ten horses and five riders
were on the trail behind them.
As we hiked out we met the second wave of horsemen
and stepped off the trail for their pack train to pass. We also
met scads of dayhikers coming in with fishing poles. Somehow
they knew that Little Boulder Lake was the place to be for good
fishing that day.
Two weeks later we were preparing to meet with
friends to plan our next backpack. But the heart attack scuttled
all plans for another trip in our twenty-sixth season.
I can't help wondering about that pain in my
chest on the trail to Little Boulder Lake. Had it really been
just my sternum strap? I suppose I will never know for sure.
But I am haunted by visions of what might have happened if a
heart attack had felled me on that wilderness trail, many hours
away from help. And I wonder about next year. Will Barbara and
I have a twenty-seventh season? Dare I risk another backpack?
I guess I will cross that bridge if and when I come to it.
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