Across the South Fork
Copyright © 2013
by Richard S. Platz, All
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Black Rock Lake
Yolla Bolly Wilderness
Shasta Trinity National Forest
July 31-August 2, 2013
Photos by the
Author and Barbara Lane Except Where Noted
"Surprising there is even a trail."
Fires were burning again. The morning newspaper
announced that a new wildfire had closed Highway 96 near Orleans.
That was the route we were planning to take to the trailhead
for Rock Lake on the Salmon River rim. I phoned the Orleans
Ranger District. Highway 96 was now open to one-lane controlled
traffic, but the smoke was bad. And a new fire had broken out
overnight near Forks of Salmon, even closer to our backpacking
destination. Both blazes were upwind from Rock Lake.
Our packs sat stuffed and ready, but we no longer
had any place to go. "Maybe we should just call it quits,"
I muttered. "Game called on account of fate."
Barbara eyed our gear. "Where else can we
go to get away from the smoke?" she asked.
I looked at our short list and called the Caribou
Wilderness Ranger Station. "How's the smoke at Beauty Lake?"
"We're getting some smoke from the fires
in Oregon," the ranger said. "It's not too bad."
He paused. "But I wouldn't go up there on a bet."
"Mosquitoes'll eat you alive. Worst I've
seen in years."
So I crossed Beauty Lake off the list. One more
possibility. I telephoned the Yolla Bolly Ranger Station. "How's
the smoke at Black Rock Lake?"
"There's a bit of a haze," answered
the high lilt of a young girl. "The smoke is light. I was
just up at the lake last weekend. My first time. It's beautiful."
"Didn't run into any."
"Just a sec." I heard a paper rustle.
"New restrictions just took effect. No campfires in the
wilderness due to fire conditions."
I thanked her, hung up, and turned to Barbara.
"How about Black Rock Lake in the Yolla Bollys?"
"Fine. We've been wanting to go back there."
We first visited the North Yolla Bolly Mountains
in July of 1998, hiking in from West Low Gap on the south side.
It had been a hot, dry, shadeless trudge through burned-over
forest to North Yolla Bolly Spring. The second day we climbed
up Cedar Gulch to the seven-thousand-foot ridge and camped on
the north slope a couple of nights, melting snow for drinking
water. Fortunately we had packed in our snow shoes, which enabled
us to dayhike to the old lookout on Black Rock Peak.
following year we backpacked in from the Pettijohn trailhead
on the north and pitched our tent at Black Rock Lake two nights,
North Yolla Bolly Lake two nights, and Pettijohn Meadow the
final night. So Barbara knew what we were getting into. Though
only three miles, the hike into Black Rock Lake had been steep
and rough and unaccountably exhausting. And of course we had
been fourteen years younger.
"No campfires," I said.
"I'll carry the JetBoil."
"Let's do it." I began hauling our
backpacks out to the van.
We drove east on Highway 299 and had lunch at
Weaverville. Road work stalled us a few times. Then we turned
south on Highway 3, wound over Hayfork Mountain, and ran into
one-lane traffic in downtown Hayfork. At the Hayfork Ranger
Station we picked up maps and asked directions, then proceeded
to Highway 36 and turned east, where Barbara drove the curviest
eight miles of the trip.
I took over as we turned south on Forest Road
30 between tumbled chunks of rusty serpentine and Hayfork Creek,
then at Pine Root Saddle we veered southeast on Forest Road
35 and climbed through the pines. Both roads were paved, if
only single lane, all the way to Stuart Gap. From there, two
miles of gravel road brought us to the Pettijohn trailhead.
(N 40 13' 16.7", W 122 58' 45.3", 5756 feet). We had
managed to go 70 miles, as the crow flies, but it had taken
us over five hours. This place was rugged and remote.
No one else was at the trailhead, although we
heard voices and laughter and whinnying from a campsite down
a spur road just below. Horse manure was everywhere, but we
managed to scrape enough aside and pull halfway into the center
of the loop to camp comfortably beneath a grove of tall red
firs. Two California Conservation Corps vehicles were parked
beyond the pit toilet: a ten-passenger crew truck and a pickup
hitched to an equipment trailer. No campfires were allowed,
but it was warm that evening.
As we were eating dinner a Forest Service pickup
drove in pulling a long horse trailer. We watched the ranger
unload a half dozen horses and mules and tie them to the outside
of the trailer. I walked over and chatted with him. He intended
to take his animals in first thing in the morning to pack out
the CCC's equipment from Chicago Camp beyond Cedar Basin on
the south side of the ridge. They had been in the wilderness
for ten days clearing the Pettijohn Trail all the way to Chicago
Camp and the spur trails to Black Rock and North Yolla Bolly
"So they've finished clearing the trail
to Black Rock Lake?"
"They finished that last week."
went to bed even before it was fully dark, but were awakened
when a second truck crunched in pulling a second horse trailer.
Another four animals were unloaded in the truck lights and tied
outside the new trailer. They did not use the corrals, and it
made us both uncomfortable to think of the poor animals tethered
to one spot by a short rope all night. But these cowpokes weren't
squeamish, and I guess that's the way they do it. No wonder
there was horse shit everywhere.
The packers were up before us the next morning.
The new arrival turned out to be a cowgirl. Soon a couple of
new horse trailers rattled in and more animals were unloaded.
Wranglers led a string of horses up from the campsite below.
The Horsemen's Association had arrived like a dusty cavalry
to assist the Forest Service in packing out the trail crew's
equipment. We found ourselves in the middle of a whirling circus
of more than twenty horses and mules and ropes and wranglers
and yippy ti yi yo. They were having the time of their lives.
We were on the trail by nine that morning, tender-footing
our way through the fresh livestock droppings. This trip we
were limiting ourselves to Black Rock Lake, a three mile hike
with a total elevation gain of maybe a thousand feet, and a
loss in the middle of about four hundred. There is a lot of
up and down along the way, which made it a harder hike than
appeared on paper. I was carrying about forty pounds on my back,
and Barbara a little bit less. Considering our combined ages
of 139 years, that was more than enough.
first mile or so was mostly uphill to the unmarked junction
with the Black Rock Lake trail (N 40 12' 23.2", W 122 59'
1.7", 6330 feet). We had already ascended almost six hundred
feet, so we took a break to consult the map. A file of six or
eight CCC crew members in dirty uniforms loped past us on their
way out with picks and shovels and axes and hoes and saws slung
over their youthful shoulders. I asked if this was the trail
to Black Rock Lake. The trail crew boss, a slight, heavily grizzled
young man, assured me it was. "How come there's no sign
"Because people steal em," he
The trail immediately began to drop and soon
passed a campsite beside the South Fork of the Trinity River
as it flowed out of Pettijohn Meadow. We had camped there before,
and it would make a fine destination for a short backpack. The
river was no wider than a small creek, and we stepped easily
across (as we have stepped across the main fork of the Trinity
at Deadfall Meadow in the Eddy Mountains and the North Fork
at Grizzly Lake in the Trinity Alps). The tread continued to
drop and rise, but mostly drop another three hundred feet, before
it began to climb again four or five hundred feet more. On the
steep, forested slopes east of the lake the trail cut through
a green rockfall of serpentine. As we neared the lake, a single
thirty-inch tree had fallen across the trail, and we had to
scramble around it on the steep slope below. We couldn't believe
the trail crew would have left it there. It must have fallen
in the past week.
We arrived at the lake just after mid-day, and
no one was there. We had our choice of campsites. After checking
another obvious campsite near the overgrown inlet on the east,
we took the one at the trail's end on the north ridge beside
the outlet stream (N 40 12' 46.8", W 123 0' 12.1",
6213 feet). This turned out to be where we had camped on our
first backpack to Black Rock Lake in 1999. The lake seemed different
this time. The lake was low and the outlet stream dry. The long
Spring drought had failed to drop enough snow on the mountains
to recharge the watershed. Alders and willows had grown up to
block the view of the water from the camp. Although it would
be more difficult to access drinking water, we agreed that this
was clearly the best spot, providing shade, a good tent site,
hammock trees, and a dearth of horse manure. From the lip were
good long views down into the canyon and beyond, although the
mountains to the north were hazy with smoke.
rocks of the North Yolla Bollys are predominately greenstone,
a gray-green-black melange of ancient metamorphosed volcanic
deep-sea rock. It is crystalized basalt, not the ultramafic
serpentine we encountered on the way in. In the rock face above
the lake and in massive boulders and slabs of shattered, sharp
flakes of talus below the cliffs were patches of yellow and
white lichens and quartz intrusions. Barbara found the multi-colored
patterns and patches fascinating, some lavender, some with intense
violet swatches, like a quilt, some jagged with sharp-edged
slats, and some rounded with bright lichen.
Beneath the imposing north face of Black Rock
Mountain, the lake's glacial bowl holds a microclimate of its
own. Within the cirque the forest was mostly red fir, with a
smattering of white fir and white pine. Stunted alders and willows
grow around the shore and maples canopy the dry outlet stream.
On the trail just outside the cirque towers a massive sugar
pine, the ground strewn with its foot-long cones. We saw no
sign of the incense cedar, Douglas fir, or Jeffery pine so prevalent
at the trailhead or surrounding Pettijohn meadow. Above the
still water white flagpoles punctuated the gray rock and forest
green. They were the standing bones of red fir that have sloughed
off their cinnamon skin of dead bark.
From the bathtub ring on the rocks in and around
the lake shore, it appeared that the water level had dropped
two or three feet from its high mark. But I wanted to clean
up, so I decided to jump in for a swim anyway. From the flat
boulder near our camp where we dipped for our drinking water,
I lowered my feet into the warm water and ooze and took a shallow
dive toward the center of the lake where the water should be
deeper. It was not. Reeds and sedges tickled my belly and legs
in the two-foot alligator swamp. The whole lake was the same
depth and on its way to becoming a meadow. Scrambling to get
out, I stirred up the muck on the bottom. It was like swimming
in mud. I emerged dirtier than I had entered.
The flowers brightening the grassy slopes included
columbine, paintbrush, yarrow, and pennyroyal. Barbara identified
nuthatches, an olive-sided flycatcher, yellow-rumped warblers,
brown creepers, and hummingbirds, as well as the usual chickadees,
Steller's jays, juncos, and flickers.
wind kicked up that first evening and blew until long after
midnight. A campfire would have been out of the question even
without the restrictions. After the sun dropped below the slopes
of Black Rock Mountain, we sought shelter from the gusts. For
a while we lay on a flat slab of sun-baked rock and absorbed
its residual warmth. Then we crouched beside the water and watched
the wind waves before retiring early. The temperature that night
dropped to fifty degrees, but we slept warm and comfortable
in our down bags beneath the protecting tent fly.
The next morning was calm as we sat beside the
still water and drank our tea. Down the canyon the wind had
blown away the haze from the fires burning in the north. Before
long the sun warmed us in our hammocks. After breakfast we tried
to find a route around the small lake, but the chaparral-covered
slope beneath the peak was more than we cared to wrestle.
As we retreated through the
brush I felt a stab of pain in my left shoulder. A chill went
through me. This would be an impossible place to have another
heart attack. Even the mighty red firs die here, leaving skeletal
white poles to gleam in the sun. I had not finished what I started.
And I didn't have forever to do it. But the shoulder pain turned
out to be a strain in the old muscles from carrying an unaccustomed
backpack. A quirk. Nothing more. It came and went with no trace.
we circled three-quarters of the way back around the lake until
the cliffs and water stopped us. On our explorations, we discovered
two more campsites. One lay near ours across the dry, bouldery
outlet stream, and the other across the lake on the south shore
beyond the brushy inlet. The day passed pleasantly. No phone
calls to answer. No lawns to mow. We leisurely explored our
new home, touched the rocks and flowers, then lay in the hammocks
and dozed. We sat on our pads on the grassy shore and watched
the water and the cliff face and sky and the birds. That night
it got down to the low forties, but we stayed warm in the tent.
On the final morning, as we sipped tea and meditated
beside the mirror lake, I wondered how one begins to describe
how it feels to be there. Warming ourselves on the hot rock
after the sun had disappeared and the wind began to howl. Fighting
our way around the lake. Napping contentedly in the hammocks.
Sitting beside the still, reflective water. The most compelling
factor was the remoteness. The raw, rough beauty. After leaving
the Pettijohn trail, we had seen no other human beings. There
is only one way in. One way out. That's it. It's surprising
there is even a trail.
We took down our tent and stuffed our gear into
our packs for the hike out. Barbara led the way on the long
downhill sections. My legs felt stronger. As I fell into the
rhythm of the trail, I gave more thought to how it feels to
be there. It feels wild. And lonesome. Fully in the present.
Heart pounding, blood surging, sun blazing on leathery skin,
senses filled with the whip and the rustle and the fragrance
of wild nature. To go in and come out again is to be a wild
animal. A healthy brute without a name.
Our van struck me as an amusing artifact of clever
monkeys. But as we stowed our gear and changed into dry clothes,
the magic evaporated. We drove home by way of Highway 36 to
avoid the smoke.
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