Copyright © 2006
by Richard S. Platz, All
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Morris Meadow, Emerald and Sapphire Lakes
Trinity Alps Wilderness
August 27-September 2, 2005
Photos by the Author Except Where Noted
"What is always in motion, but never
Emerald and Sapphire Lakes, the Crown Jewels of
the Trinity Alps, lie a long way from the trailhead. The sign
posts and guide books do not agree how far. From the
locked gate at Bridge Camp, estimates of the walk to Sapphire
Lake vary from 14 to 17 miles. Emerald is maybe a mile closer.
The trail climbs the roadless right-hand bank of the Stuarts
Fork of the Trinity River, so there is no way to drive a motor
vehicle up there and check the odometer.
The distance, elastic as it may be, presents a
weight problem for the backpacker. For the elder trekker, the
prudent minimum timeline would be three days to hike in, a day
at the lakes, and three days out, for a total of six days. We
calculate two-and-a-half pounds of food per day per person.
So Barbara and I would begin the hike toting at least 30 pounds
of food on top of all our other regalia and paraphernalia. We
had been to the lakes once before, but more than thirteen years
had slipped by since then, and the bell-curve of aging had steepened.
There had to be a better way. Taking a cue from
NASA's Saturn moon rocket, we decided that the first stage of
our launch vehicle should be comprised of mules, which would
pack our gear to Morris Meadow, where we would set up base camp.
The second stage boosters should be our own feet, carrying our
backpacks to a higher camp somewhere above Portuguese Camp,
from which we could dayhike to Emerald and Sapphire Lakes. Two
other couples, old backpacking friends Judy and Murray and Mr.
Popper and Nancy, were willing to give it a try and share the
cost of the mules and a wrangler. Judy located Dee Potter of
Trinity Outfitters, Inc., out of Weaverville, and the deal was
For anyone accustomed to fair-weather backpacking,
seventy-five pounds represents an obscene amount of "stuff"
for a single week. But that was Dee Potter's per-person weight
limit to spot our base camp at Morris Meadow. Even more obscene,
Dee found the six of us to be fifty pounds overweight
as he loaded his three sturdy mules at the Bridge Camp trailhead
on the Saturday morning our expedition began.
This entire horsepacking business was alien to
us, each accustomed to toiling up the trail with our gear strapped
to our own backs and sweat dripping down our faces. This time
we would carry only light daypacks and let three mules do the
heavy lifting. True, the hike into base camp at Morris Meadow
would be nine or ten miles (again, opinions of trail length
differed) with a 1600-foot gain, but unencumbered, we expected
it to be child's play.
Barbara and I were the first to arrive at Bridge
Camp Friday afternoon. Our favorite campsite at the end by the
turnaround was occupied, so we parked the van at one in the
middle, across the road from the river. We clipped receipts
on campsites on both sides and across the road to reserve them
for our comrades.
The horse staging area was full with three big
horse trailers and a tent bivouac. The packers, we were told,
had been hired by the Forest Service to haul in timbers, materials,
and supplies for a work crew redecking the bridge over Deer
Creek eight miles up the trail. The bridge was closed, so we
would have to cross at the stock bypass.
Popper and Nancy took the stream-side site across
the road. The afternoon was hot, so they immediately scrambled
down the steep bank for a swim in their favorite river pool.
They set up two cots with mosquito netting draped from a line
over their bed like some outlandish African safari.
Murray and Judy arrived last and took the campsite
just south of us. Then the four of them drove off in Murray's
Explorer for dinner at the Bear's Breath restaurant at the Trinity
Alps Resort. I built a campfire in Murray and Judy's fire pit
(in case we retired before they returned), and Barbara cooked
dinner. Tiny mosquitoes began biting us in the cool of evening,
so we slathered on repellant. The fire had become embers and
we were preparing the bed in the van by the time the Explorer's
headlights swept the campground. We went to sleep while they
were still fumbling in the darkness.
First to arise Saturday morning, I built a small
campfire. Barbara and I drank our tea and coffee in silence.
The river burbled below the bank. Perched in a treetop, a robin
sang the late summer sunlight. From the time the others arose,
however, the campground reverberated with chit-chat on any subject
that happened to pop into someone's head. Gregarious by nature,
humans have raised conversation to a cherished art form, and
Barbara was easily drawn in. Talk of food seemed always
to predominate. Endlessly on they prattled about good and bad
cholesterol, free-range chickens, trans fatty acids, the proper
way to prepare a cup of coffee, long-grained rice, the joy of
exotic new restaurants with Namibian or Eskimo cuisine, and
much, much more.
"I eat to live," I protested
feebly in an attempt at cloture. "I do not live
to eat. There's really nothing more to say." But
they had heard it before. Dismissing me offhand as an uncultured
throwback, the filibuster persisted with the celebration of
a particularly fine, but inexpensive wine boasting robust body,
fruity bouquet, and overtones of toasted hazelnuts.
The constant chatter I found disheartening, recalling
fondly my short stay at the monastery, where monks worked and
ate without speaking. Everything there was meditative. And hiking
with Barbara for almost twenty years, I had grown accustomed
to a large measure of tranquility in the wilderness. Through
silence, the magic and wonder of nature never failed to manifest
itself. This closed cocoon of endless talk was
something I was going to have to deal with.
Dee Potter arrived a little after 9 am. I thought
he was early, but my wrist watch had mysteriously fallen 45
minutes slow. Dee parked his rig on the road right above our
campsite, because there was no room in the corral area. Lanky,
lean, and weathered, with a mane of neatly trimmed gray hair,
Dee was spare with his words like the mysterious gunslinger
out of a dime-novel western. He obviously pursued the wrangler
life more for the love of it than for the money. You couldn't
help liking him, and we felt lucky Judy found him.
We hauled all our stuff up for Dee to pack. Moving
with an efficient grace, he weighed our possessions on an ancient
spring scale, balancing each load evenly on the mules. As he
worked, we pestered him with a lot of tenderfoot questions.
He figured it would take him three-and-a-half hours to lead
the stock up the 10 miles to Morris Meadow, and three hours
to ride out downhill the following Friday. Even unburdened,
we thought it would take us longer than that to hike
in, so we proposed leaving before the loading was complete.
That was fine with him.
Murray and Judy set out first, and Barbara and
I followed a few minutes later, but soon lost sight of them.
Mr. Popper and Nancy were still packing up and would bring up
the rear. Where the canyon allowed, we kept
in touch by radio. Dee tuned to our channel as well. Less than
an hour into the hike, Popper's broken radio message informed
us that Dee had passed them on the trail.
the Deep Creek bridge, we caught up to Murray and Judy, who
were admiring the water cascade down the narrow, rocky gorge
beneath the bridge. Dee and the pack stock passed us at the
bridge, the bulging load of each mule barely clearing the insides
of the railings. Murray and Judy hurried on to try and be there
when Dee arrived. We did not see them again until Morris Meadow
three hours later.
Popper and Nancy caught up to us, and we hiked
together for a while. Nancy was able to identify many of the
plants along the trail. We stopped for lunch on the rocky river
bar of the Alpine Lake trail crossing, then filtered water into
our bottles where Stuarts Fork tumbled through great boulders
of rounded granite. The bright sun, breeze, and thunder of the
river were pleasant, and perhaps we dawdled too long. Barbara
and I managed to break the spell and pressed on while Popper
and Nancy continued to dream by the rushing water.
From the Alpine Lake junction the trail climbed
steeply until it reached the remains of the old La Grange Ditch
and followed its gentler embankment. Built in the 1890's, the
ditch transported water from Sapphire and Emerald Lakes through
ditches, tunnels, and an inverted siphon that crossed the river
at Bridge Camp to the La Grange Mine located just east of Junction
City on Oregon Mountain. Financed by Baron de La Grange, it
was the largest hydraulic mine in the world in its day.
Soon the ditch grew indistinct, and the trail
climbed relentlessly up the moraine above it. Signs informed
us that the Deer Creek bridge was closed, so we wound down the
stock trail and changed into our water shoes to splash across.
Popper and Nancy caught us there, but stayed to enjoy the water
while we pushed on. The long hike had worn us down, and the
final climb up the shadeless moraine just before Morris Meadow
sapped the last of our reserves.
Near the first Deer Creek trail junction, about
a mile shy of our destination, we met Dee leading his string
of empty mules back down. We had been hiking for almost six
hours, with maybe an hour for lunch and rest stops, and were
tired. At Morris Meadow, Dee told us, he had unloaded our stuff,
then sat and drank coffee waiting for someone to show up and
take possession. An hour passed, and he had mounted up and started
back, just as Murray and Judy entered the meadow. He led them
back to the large horse camp at the southwest corner of the
meadow where he had deposited our possessions, then turned around
and headed back out.
The three couples straggled into Morris Meadow
in descending order of age. We all found this curious and couldn't
understand why. Perhaps it had something to do with motivation
and world-view. Nearly a quarter of a century separated the
oldest from the youngest. The healthy work ethic of the Eisenhower
years appeared to be eroding. The younger generations were straying
down the road to hell. So be it.
In the deep shade of towering Douglas fir, incense
cedar, and Ponderosa pine, our backpacks, food bags, duffles,
tables, tents, cooking gear, sleeping bags, and lawn chairs
ringed the trunk of a massive fir like unwrapped Christmas presents.
Around them the extensive campground spread through the trees,
housing two huge fire rings and plenty of level tent sites.
A hundred yards down a spur trail through
a meadow, Stuarts Fork sparkled in the sun as it meandered through
a channel cut deep into the sand and gravel of an ancient lake
bed. We were home.
our last excursion there three years earlier, Barbara and I
had dreamed of the campsite in a younger mix-conifer grove we
had passed just up the spur trail (N 40 58' 10.8", W 122
57' 08.6"). With its long, majestic, open view across the
meadow to the steep, spired wall of Sawtooth Ridge straight
ahead, and Bear Gulch and Sawtooth Mountain looming on the left,
we had hoped to camp there all along. The campsite lay a long
stone's throw shy of the main camp and, miraculously, was unoccupied.
A little distance between us and the social center of the main
fire pit would be welcome. "Let there be spaces in your
togetherness," Kahlil Gibran had put it. We felt extremely
fortunate as we hauled our gear back up the trail and pitched
our new tent, free-standing and roomy, but too heavy for a horseless
The others set up their tents at the edge of the
large camp, peeking out on the meadow. Odd it seemed to have
chairs and tables. After a leisurely dinner we hoisted our ponderous
food bags into the lower branches, out of bear reach. Mr. Popper
strung up hammocks. Nearby to the southeast a helicopter droned
annoyingly. Since there was no smoke to indicate a forest fire,
we wondered if someone had been hurt. As it grew dark, the helicopter
swept the rugged terrain with a blinding searchlight that made
us feel like fugitives from a weird, low-budget prison escape
movie. Mr. Popper speculated that the search was focused on
the Siligo Peak area. A few young deer circled in the meadow,
but none came into our camp. The day had been hot, but by evening
we each dug out our down jackets. Eventually the helicopter
As the meadow disappeared into the gloaming, we
sat around a crackling fire in the main camp and shared bottles
and stories. In the flickering light, Murray recounted the privations
of his early hunting trips, when in levis and a thin jacket
he would sleep the night on bare ground beneath a bush, waiting
for deer to emerge in the first light of morning. Then he told
a bizarre account of fighting off a snarling coyote in the door
of their tent while Judy slumbered peacefully by his side. We
laughed and shivered and passed the bottle in the relative luxury
of our abundant gear. Finally Barbara and
I stumbled back through the dark to our campsite as the cold
night air enveloped the star-domed meadow. Despite a few remnant
visions of snapping coyotes, we slept well in our new tent.
was a lazy day. The helicopter returned for a while as it grew
light, then was gone. Murray and I had been concerned about
what we would find to do for a whole week at the same campsite.
It turned out not to be a problem. By wriggling free of the
mantle of civilization, we also tossed off the obsessive-compulsive
need to be constantly busy. We became men of leisure. As if
reading the morning news, we watched the sunlight move across
the landscape, drying the dew from the meadow grass. Following
the movement of changing shadows across the face of the Bear
Gulch, Sawtooth Mountain, and the Sawtooth Ridge became a full-time
Beyond the Sawtooth Ridge divide to the northeast
3 impassable miles away lay Ward and Horseshoe Lakes, where
Barbara and I had backpacked less than a month earlier (see
Our Respects to Granite). Beyond the divide to the northwest
lay Caribou Lakes, five trail miles and 3600-feet elevation
change away. We had been there too. Small world.
Two young men who had been camped at the Morris
Meadow campsite a quarter mile away hiked past our camp on their
way out. We strolled around the meadow comparing Ponderosa and
Jeffery pine cones, then explored their campsite, where Barbara
and I had spent two nights in the Spring of 2002 (see Deer
Ate My Hat).
In the afternoon Bob and Nancy discovered two
fine swimming holes in the river at each end of a sunny gravel
bar. We set up our chairs on the bar, swam naked in the cold
water, and dried ourselves in the sun.
and Judy found a cozy campsite beside the river at the lower
end of the main camp and moved their tent and belongings there.
We were spread out in three adjacent campsites on the southwest
corner of the meadow. All the other campers had left. In the
afternoon it grew windy, but we were sheltered by the trees.
We again convened around the blazing campfire and slept well
in the big tent. How swiftly the day went by!
Monday morning Barbara and I loaded our spare
tent and gear into our backpacks for a hike further up the canyon
toward Emerald and Sapphire Lakes. Mr. Popper and Nancy would
follow in their own good time. Judy and Murray had not brought
backpacks nor an extra tent. Instead, they would stay at the
base camp, fish Deer Creek, and dayhike up to the lakes the
following morning, where we would meet them. It
would be a long dayhike of between ten or fifteen miles, depending
on who you asked.
Midmorning Barbara and I set out up the canyon
in the direction of Portuguese Camp to look for a place to spend
the night. Nancy and Bob dawdled at the main camp, promising
to meet us there. Across
the meadow to the west blazed the white granite of Bear Gulch,
at the top of which perched Smith Lake. No trail led there,
and the climb was said to be a blend of strenuous bush-whack
and dangerous rock-climb. At the north end of the meadow near
a giant, two-trunked Ponderosa pine the main trail entered the
forest. A half mile into the towering trees we found several
nice campsites on the bank of the rushing river. As we climbed
out of the forest on the brushy eastern slope, the views grew
ever more spectacular. After a couple of miles we stopped for
lunch opposite a sheer rock face of Sawtooth Mountain. Gazing
back down the canyon, we could not see Morris Meadow because
the trail had already begun its gradual westward loop into the
upper canyon. Bob and Nancy radioed that they were on their
As we approached the base of the Sawtooth Ridge,
we entered an open area where Mother Nature had not played nice.
Here at the mouth of the stark upper canyon we crossed a rugged
battleground where floodwater, rock slides, and avalanches had
scoured away the forest trees and soil. Squeezed together by
the steep rock walls, the trail, river, and several washes converged
in a open boulder field of rock and brush. Bright red and blue
berries clung in profusion to the thick bushes. Piles of bear
scat studded with berry seeds littered the trail. We had entered
serious bear territory.
The trail cut through alternating patches of forest
and rough, open slopes of thick brush as it climbed above the
creek on the steepening moraine and rockfall at the base of
Sawtooth Ridge. As we began to tire, we entered a wide red fir
forest that stood on steep benches above the river. Fallen trees
littered the ground. A cracked stone Forest Service fire stove
sat beside the trail, but level tent sites lay beneath fallen
limbs and brush. Wind gusted relentlessly down the canyon. The
only good campsite was in a rocky clearing down beside the river,
unprotected from the wind.
Portuguese Camp was not as we remembered. We leaned
our backpacks against the trunks of a massive fir and looked
around, remembering. In June of 1988 Barbara and I had hiked
this far through increasingly stormy weather. On our third day
out, beneath a relentless drizzle, with the mountains shrouded
by low clouds and fog, we had spent the night in this place,
as the rain grew heavier until rivulets became waterfalls and
clearings puddles. By morning our tent sat in an inch of water.
That morning we had surrendered and begun a long hike all the
way out, never making it to the lakes.
I left my backpack to explore the trail ahead.
Forty-five pounds lighter, I danced up the trail as buoyant
as a ping-pong ball. After cresting a rocky promontory above
Portuguese Camp, the trail settled into a moderately steady
grade. Tall thickets of berry bushes, huckleberry oak, and manzanita
crowded the path on both sides. A hundred feet downslope the
river, hidden by groves of willow, alder, and maple, crashed
unseen down the rocky canyon.
A quarter of a mile above Portuguese Camp I arrived
at the signed junction with Caribou Lakes Trail. In about a
mile the trail ascended twenty-four-hundred feet up the brushy,
shadeless, south-facing slope of Sawtooth Ridge to a gap in
the spired pinnacles. Beyond the pass lay big Caribou Lake.
The view back from the summit into the Stuart Fork Canyon, from
Morris Meadow in the south to Sapphire and Emerald Lakes and
Thompson Peak in the west, is perhaps the most spectacular in
all the Trinity Alps. In August of 1991 Barbara and I had descended
the countless switchbacks to this same trail junction on a week-long
through-hike from Big Flat on the Salmon River to Bridge Camp.
A use trail dropped through the hundred feet of
brush and tangles to a small, rough campsite beside the water.
The spur trail was probably used more for thirsty pilgrims descending
the merciless Caribou Lakes trail than for campers. I felt sure
we could do better. But after twenty more minutes of brisk hiking
up the trail, I was about to turn back, when I found an excellent
campsite in a tall grove by the river (N 41 00' 08.5",
W 122 58' 49.8"). The site was sheltered from the wind,
with two level tent sites right above the tumbling water, a
private beach, and thick rough-cut planks set on rocks and logs
for benches by the fire pit. The planks made me think it was
the same campsite we had found so charming thirteen years earlier.
Hiking back along the main trail, I was startled
by a loud crash in the thick brush just above the path. It was
something big. I froze, heart pounding, adrenaline rushing,
and fumbled for the paltry little lock-back blade I call my
"bear knife." I didn't see what had made the sound,
but several fresh piles of bear scat insinuated the worst. As
I tip-toed past the spot, little knife trembling, another crashing
came from a little farther away. Whatever it was seemed even
more frightened of me.
I made it back to Portuguese Camp skittish and
exhausted. The wind still gusted down the canyon. I described
to Barbara my close encounter. We agreed to press on to the
sheltered campsite further up the trail and thus awaken the
next day that much closer to the lakes. Bob and Nancy had not
yet arrived, but a call on the radio assured us that they were
closing in. We hoisted our packs and hurried up the trail so
we could have the pick of the tent sites.
Mr. Popper and Nancy arrived at Camp One as we
were setting up our tent. We took an invigorating dip in the
river, poured cocktails, built a small fire, ate dinner, and
whiled away a pleasant evening in our hammocks beside the musical
stream. As night fell, Barbara was startled to see two eyes
in the brush reflecting back the light of her headlamp. She
thought the wide-set, dipping eyes were those of a bear about
to charge, but Mr. Popper's flashlight revealed it to be a deer,
dropping its head to graze. That night the roar of the rushing
river eased our cares as it spun its chrysalis of dreamless
When we awoke on Tuesday morning,
the temperature at Camp One had dropped to a chilly thirty-seven
degrees. The first to arise, I built a small fire and put the
pot on for coffee and tea. One by one Barbara, Nancy, and Bob
arose and began an incessant chatter around the fire. Morning
meditation was spurned. So
I dropped down the bank to listen to the river and watch the
dappled sun spread over the water. Along the river, rolling
over rounded granite rock, grew maple, alder, and willow, with
an overstory of white and red fir, cottonwood, aspen, and pine.
From the glacial till emerged half-buried granite boulders and
a varied puzzle of river-rounded metasedimentary rocks. A brown
creeper piped up a tree trunk. Just so. All was just
so, and not otherwise. I began to grasp an inkling of the Heart
Sutra's meaning. Here all things are empty. They are
what they are. They mean nothing. Solipsism of the present
Mr. Popper hopped down the bank with his coffee
mug, watched the water for awhile, then posed the question,
"What is always in motion, but never moves?"
I pondered the koan for a while, but had no ready
"A river hole."
Midmorning, while we were still eating breakfast,
I spotted Judy and Murray skipping past on the trail above the
camp. We called to them, and they joined us by the fire. Fit
and energetic in their shorts, tee-shirts, and small daypacks,
they glowed with health and vigor. Excitedly they described
their own close encounter with a big black bear they had startled,
serenely munching berries, just down the trail. On seeing them,
the bear had scampered off into the brush. They had gotten an
early start, had already hiked four miles from Morris Meadow
camp, and had intended to join us on the hike up to Emerald
and Sapphire Lakes. But we were hopelessly behind their timeline.
They were in full stride and had no patience for fools and dawdlers.
Murray and Judy struck out ahead while we finished breakfast.
They would see us up at the lakes.
The trail to Emerald and Sapphire Lakes was built
through metasedimentary bedrock and granitic scree as it climbed
the steepening north slope of the canyon. White granite capped
the rough, black schist across the river to the south. We were
ascending through an interface of massive geological structures.
In places the tread was wet and muddy and the forest floor moist
with ferns, thimbleberry, and shrubs bearing blue and red berries.
Piles of berry-seeded bear scat marked the way. We rose onto
the open glacier-polished bedrock among scattered patches of
Brewer spruce and western white pine. The trail crossing the
slickrock was outlined with rocks tediously placed by trail
crews. Near the top we entered a restricted
area, where campfires were not permitted, and a little beyond
found the last small campsite in a grove of trees to the right
of the trail. Ahead the canyon widened into the cirque that
cradled Emerald Lake.
his teens Mr. Popper had vacationed with his parents at Trinity
Alps Resort below Bridge Camp. On the wall of the store had
hung two photographs that seized his imagination and planted
seeds of passion for the wilderness. But though he had backpacked
far and wide for more than forty years, somehow he had never
managed to arrive at that magical starting place portrayed in
those yellowing photos: Emerald and Sapphire Lakes. Until
now. As if foreshadowing Mr. Popper's euphoric climb over the
slickrock lip that held back Emerald Lake, John Denver had written,
"Comin' home to a place he'd never been before."
Mr. Popper had at last come home.
trail reached Emerald Lake on the glacier-smoothed fault line
dividing white granite from intruded and multicolored metasedimentary
rock. Squeezed on both sides by towering granite walls, the
blue-green water sparkled in its stone bowl. At
an elevation of 5,500 feet, a dam built of massive granite blocks
once raised the water level another twenty feet, but a jagged
"V" had been dynamited in the wall after the La Grange
hydraulic mine closed. Here and there lay rusting remnants of
steam winches, gears, flywheels, pipes, and
equipment left behind by miners and dam builders and ditch tenders
long dead. The winches had been used to drag the rock into place.
This once-brutal incursion into one of the most pristine wildernesses
on the planet had long ago lost its teeth. The menace had eroded
along with the sharp edges of the stone blocks. Their builders
dead for almost a century, these monuments of rusting metal,
decayed wood, and weathered rock had become
archeological ruins, as quaint and mysterious as the pyramids
of Teotehuacan or the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque.
We explored the eastern shore of Emerald Lake
and scrambled over the dam's huge granite blocks, taking photos
of the lake, the dam, the mining equipment. The
trail continued around the north side of the lake, winding precariously
through huge granite boulders on sharp, loose talus as it climbed
toward the glacier-smoothed headwall. Sapphire Lake lay just
beyond. Although only a mile long, the
trail was slow going as it switched-back and climbed 600 feet
above Emerald Lake. Near the top Mr. Popper photographed the
remains of a rusting steam winch anchored to the slickrock between
the trail and the stream.
Lake seemed freshly carved by the glaciers. The steep granite
walls towered 1600 feet above the steel-blue surface and plunged
200 feet below, making it the deepest lake in the Trinity Alps.
At 43 acres, it was twice the size of Emerald Lake. Sparse patches
of mountain hemlock, white pine, and an impenetrable beard of
manzanita climbed the tumbled rock falls and sprouted from cracks
in the glacier-polished cliffs and ledges. Here
too the La Grange miners had begun to build a dam, but the stone
and timber monument was never completed. Rusting steam winches
and decaying timbers of long-abandoned buildings added a haunting
quality to a place where man would never feel securely at home.
we arrived at the water's edge, Judy and Murray were just preparing
for their long hike back to Morris Meadow. They had explored,
taken pictures, eaten lunch, swam, and imbibed the starkly beautiful
isolation. Now it was time to return. Hunkered down in the sparse
shade of a hemlock that grew from a fissure in the slick finger
of granite sloping into the water, we discussed a hike around
the north slope and a scramble up the granite ledges to Mirror
Lake 700 feet above the western headwall of Sapphire Lake. There
would be no trail, and the bushwack would be an all-day struggle.
That would be an adventure, but better undertaken another
day when we could start from a camp at Emerald or Sapphire Lake.
After Judy and Murray left, we swam in the lake
and wandered about in the spectacularly austere beauty. It
was difficult to leave, but Mr. Popper and Nancy intended to
return to Morris Meadow camp for the night, so they had to get
back to Camp One, take down their tent, and pack up their belongings.
They did not want to be hiking after dark. Satisfaction intertwined
with regret as we descended the rugged trail to Emerald Lake,
where Barbara and I swam while Mr. Popper and Nancy continued
on their way. The water was refreshing.
We arrived back at Camp One just as Mr. Popper
and Nancy were strapping on their backpacks. We accompanied
them up to the main trail, where we bid them farewell, then
returned to our stream-side camp for another night. The solitude
was not unwelcome.
Wednesday morning we sat silent beside the moving
water with our tea and mocha. Sunlight advanced down the opposite
bank. I pondered Mr. Popper's koan of the previous morning,
which I had shared with Barbara. The mind never stops trying
to freeze reality into a photograph, a writing, a meaning. But
the motion never ceases. At last I spoke out loud, "The
Barbara looked up.
"That's the answer to Mr. Popper's question."
Barbara remained silent.
"What is always in motion, but never moves?
Popper's 'river hole' is just a metaphor for 'the mind.'"
Barbara was silent for a long time, then murmured,
"And for what is 'the mind' a metaphor?"
The hike down to Morris Meadow was tiring. Along
the tumbling creek lay the thick groves of willow, alder, and
maple, and along the trail a thicket of oak, manzanita, and
berry bushes. We kept up a loud and trivial conversation to
alert any feasting bears of our approach. Still fatigued from
the previous day's hike to the lakes, we arrived back at camp
just after noon to learn that a young couple had ridden horses
in the previous afternoon and were camped just upstream from
our swimming hole. Their three horses grazed stupidly in the
soft, wet meadow beside the river.
After lunch, we prepared to go for a swim and
wash off the trail dust. The two young neighbors, however, decided
it was time to wash their horses in the middle of the river.
I grew surly and loud, decrying the inconsiderate fouling of
the stream, until they sheepishly removed their livestock from
our water supply. After a while we proceeded to the river anyway,
swam in the still murky water, and sunbathed on the gravel bar
near a fresh pile of fly-infested horse manure. Mr. Popper picked
up a sparkling piece of quartz from the gravel bar and examined
it with a magnifying lens. He convinced himself that the bright
specks buried in the rock were pure gold. James Marshall could
not have been more thrilled when he plucked a few nuggets of
yellow metal out of the gravels of the South Fork of the American
River at Coloma in 1848. Life for Mr. Popper was about to get
a whole lot easier. He gathered more specimens to pack out.
After dinner Barbara and I visited Judy and Murray
at their camp beside a calm pool in the river. Murray had been
busy while we were away, gathering, snapping to length, and
stacking in neat, obsessive piles enough firewood to host a
National Boy Scout Jamboree. He clearly had no trouble filling
his time. Relaxed in her chair, Judy appeared entirely at home
in the wilderness. We all returned to the main camp and spent
the evening telling more stories around the fire. As soon as
night began to fall, we crawled wearily into our tent.
Thursday morning we awoke early. Some little creature
clicking near our packs had awakened us. I arose to investigate,
found nothing, and built a crackling fire in the 43-degrees
cold of early morning. At 7:00 a.m. the sun just brushed the
highest peaks beyond the meadow. Peacefully Barbara and I crowded
beside the campfire and drank our tea and coffee, I in my chair,
Barbara in her Thermarester, watching the sun melt its way down
the granite faces and into the trees ringing the meadow. We
saw no deer.
Shouts and whinnying emanated from the camp next
door. The couple seemed to be having trouble corralling their
horses. But before long the young man and woman, amount, with
the woman behind, struggling to lead the pack horse, passed
our camp on their way out. We waved, and they tipped their hats.
We ate breakfast in the hammocks as the sun spread over the
meadow. A Stellar's Jay chattered at nothing in the surrounding
trees. Another party camped over at Morris Camp also left that
morning, leaving to us the entire meadow.
Toward afternoon Murray and Mr. Popper decided
they wanted to hike into Bear Gulch to see if they could find
the trail up to Morris Lake. All six of us bushwhacked through
the thick, choked timber until we found where Bear Gulch Creek
merged with Stuarts Fork. The ground was soft and boggy near
the confluence, and Barbara wanted to turn back, so she and
I left the intrepid explorers and returned to camp for a peaceful
swim. We had the swimming hole to ourselves.
Late in the afternoon the others returned scratched and bedraggled
from their search. They had found nothing. We joined them for
a final swim.
dinner on our last evening we gathered our chairs into front-row
seats at the edge of the meadow near our campsite and watched
the sun crawl up the eastern slopes of the Sawtooth Ridge until
it kissed the highest pinnacles with an orange-red fire. Deer
browsed in the crepusculum. For a final act, the twilight painted
the lush green meadow a cold blue until night enveloped the
landscape and we could no longer make out distinct trees and
spires. The first stars twinkled overhead.
On our last morning, Friday, we arose and sat
solemnly by our individual fires feeling that tug of remorse
that always attends the end of something fine. As usual, Judy
and Murray were the first on the trail at 10 am so they could
get to the trailhead and meet Dee when he returned with our
gear. By midmorning Barbara and I had packed and returned our
ample belongings to the central camp where Dee had unloaded
them a week earlier. We followed around 11:30. Mr. Popper and
Nancy were still leisurely packing up their things and wondering
why everyone seemed to be in such a big hurry. Why not take
a morning swim?
Around noon we met Dee on the trail zig-zagging
up the open moraine below Deer Creek junction. It was good to
see him. When we asked, he told us that the helicopters a week
earlier had been rescuing a friend of his up at Summit Lake.
He believed the fellow would be all right. He rode on to load
up his mules and meet us back at Bridge Camp.
It was Labor Day weekend, and the workers were
all gone, so we crossed Deer Creek on the bridge, ignoring the
signs that said it was still under construction. Mr. Popper
and Nancy caught up with us as we ate lunch at the Alpine Lake
crossing. The hike down the river was long and tiring. Dee arrived
at the trailhead at the same time we did. It had taken us five
hours to hike out in the warm and muggy weather. On the way
we counted 28 backpackers hiking in, and more arrived
that evening as we spent another night at Bridge Camp with Mr.
Popper and Nancy. We had gotten out just in time. The weekend
was going to be a zoo in there.
Driving home on Saturday, we found the historical
steam-powered stamp mill in full operation at the museum in
Weaverville. Mr. Popper and Nancy joined us, and Popper allowed
the mill operators a surreptitious peek at his gold-bearing
quartz rock. They laughed. The flakes were iron pyrites. Fool's
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