Stepping Across the South Fork
Copyright © 2013 by Richard S. Platz, All rights reserved

(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."

"Why not?"

"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."

"Campfire restrictions?"

"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.

The 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 Lakes.

"So they've finished clearing the trail to Black Rock Lake?"

"They finished that last week."

We 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.

The 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 marking it."

"Because people steal ‘em," he said.

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.

The 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.

Abig 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.

So 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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