Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Leavitt Lake, an unplanned adventure - July 2012

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What does Mount Whitney have to do with Leavitt Lake in the Sonora Pass area of the eastern Sierra? And, while we’re at it, what does Leavitt Lake have to do with eastern Nevada’s Snake Range? Maybe as I meander through putting this narrative together I’ll answer those two questions. Better hold me to it. I’m pretty good at wandering down different trails.

It was Saturday morning at home. We had had a fairly miserable Friday afternoon; the kind that can alter plans. We were up at our usual early time, coffee, breakfast, sort out the day, the weekend.
“Let’s just leave,” I said, “and get back Monday in time to drive down to the appointment in Folsom late in the afternoon.”
“We’re going to go nuts if we just stay around here.” The Lady was agreeing. “We just need a couple of things food wise. I’ll go to Safeway.”
Safeway is a half mile away and the Lady is a whirlwind. I backed the truck out of the garage and had most everything ready to go when she returned.
“Where should we go?” I asked as I started backing the truck out onto the road.
“Leavitt Lake,” the Lady answered.
“That could be busy. It is a summer weekend and we’ll be getting there around early mid afternoon.”
“We’ll find out.”
“You’re sounding like me.” I replied.
And so we were off – Leavitt Lake, an unplanned adventure.

It was as busy as we expected but the Leavitt Lake area is fairly large and can accommodate a lot of groups. There were several campsites still available. We took advantage of our new relaxed outlook on life, slowly cruised the area and thoroughly checked out the opportunities. We found the perfect spot for us, high with a view and away from others.

With camp set up we did a slow hike around the lake. A couple of young women were enjoying kayaks.

Yeah, I know, no pfd’s and out in the middle of an ice cold alpine lake.

Leavitt sits at 9556 feet. It was spring time at this elevation with the wildflowers at their best. We were especially taken with the Rock Fringe.

This area is an ocean of Whitebark Pine. Whitebarks are a five needle bundle short needle pine very similar to its cousin the Lodgepole Pine. It has identical bark and needles but grows in clusters and its cones are larger and placed high in the tree on the ends of branches likes those of the Western White Pine, another close cousin. Their lower trunks often show the crushing effects of snow load when they were young trees.  It has a close relationship with the Clark's Nutcracker and they are abundant here.

As dusk came and the majority of the other campers huddled around their illegal campfires – seasonal fire restrictions prohibiting campfires were in effect and signs wereposted – we slowly walked and watched the day wane………………..

…………… the shadows climb the ridges………….

………………. last light hit the ridges to the east………………………

…………………and light the Sweetwater Range beyond.

It had been a good move, just leaving for the weekend. A new day coming, with a grand vista and the light of a rising sun. Life is all anew and refreshed.

I had to climb high just to try and take this all in.

As I descended, the Lady met me with our steaming mugs of Peets. We hardly spoke. We didn’t need to. We were glad we were here, together in this dawn.

A Cassin’s Finch joined us as we had breakfast.

A few notes about the Leavitt Lake area. It is reached via a three mile dirt road off of Highway 108. The road has a few rough spots where 4x4 is helpful. It is evident that the area has suffered from indiscriminate vehicle use in the past but this is turning around. The Toiyabe Forest has taken some proper steps to try and help and manage use. There are barrier rocks placed to keep vehicles off of the shore and from driving into the lake. Some routes are closed off. Along the road on the way in, signage reminds us, the public, that cross country and driving off designated routes is prohibited. Unfortunately fresh tire tracks are found that show some still try to drive vehicles anywhere they please. Fire rings abound in this area. This has to be one of the fire ring capitals of the Sierra.  Unfortunately several are visible cross country and become attractors for people to drive to. My next time in this area I will consider taking about a day and half with a shovel, rake, and work gloves and help restore these places. There are abundant choices of campsites right along the roads. How do we gently help people become aware of or be reminded on Leave No Trace ethics? Two other items surprised me, the amount of cigarette butts and spent shell casings. It was disappointing that people do not think of these as litter and also pretty surprising where people have stood and fired off several rounds. Smoking outside of enclosed (windows up) vehicles is also prohibited under current fire restrictions. From what I saw with signage torn down, I get the feeling there is a segment of folks who use this area who resent anything they see as infringements on their activities.

These are minor gripes and shouldn’t impact you on deciding to visit this area. Leavitt Lake is worth visiting. It gets use, but from what we saw this weekend, most folks were pretty well behaved and happy to be up here. I guess the gripes are a reminder to practice good stewardship, be nice neighbors, set a good example, help educate, and bring attention to damage so it can be addressed.

The lady’s knee is doing well after surgery. Recovery has its ups and downs and worry but the knee continues to strengthen and improve. Today we would give it a little work out. A use trail to the north  leads to Koenig Lake.

Looking back at Leavitt Lake, the Lady remarked that the Rock Fringe looked like fluorescent paint had been splashed on the mountainside.

Koenig Lake sits in a basin, an easy hike of about a mile from Leavitt.

But we headed even higher. Latopie Lake sits above and just below the summit of Leavitt Peak. We stopped along the plunging outlet stream.

Steep sidehills and outcropping of volcanic cliffs reminded us to be prudent with recovery. We headed back down.

As I mentioned, the wildflowers were great. Paintbrush with Mule Ears.

And, one we were unfamiliar with, the Giant Blazing Star.

We were soon back at Koenig Lake where the Lady iced her knee and I rigged up my fly rod.

It is amazing that we can walk just a short ways from a busy place like Leavitt Lake and have this all to ourselves.

We wandered back down to Leavitt. It was early afternoon.

More knee icing.

I saw no evidence of fish up at Koenig. If they are there, they are deep. I had done no prior investigation as to fishing or trout species. This was an unplanned adventure. Fishing with a couple of nymphs under a PNW strike indicator, I got no takers. This is a technique I was taught by my cousin, the Big Guy. At Leavitt, the same got two hits which I missed. The afternoon zephyr, an upslope wind from the east was building white caps on the lake making for difficult fishing. Since I had seen a couple of grasshoppers on our hike, I tied on my favorite hopper pattern and gave Gary LaFontaine’s floss bow line technique a try in the wind. The rainbow hammered it near shore; it had length but didn’t feel heavy on my now bent rod. It ran for deep water. The Lady was up and beside me, ready for the show, just as it broke free.
“No rodeo rules on that one,” she said.
“That wasn’t eight seconds?”
“Not even close!” Her answer was final but she was smiling.

We made our way back to camp and popped up some jiffy pop on the stove. We sat in our chairs, took in the view and ate hot popcorn. This is not normal behavior for the Ski3pins.
“This is fun, like going to a movie on Sunday afternoon!” The Lady looked out from our camp.
“I think this is a little better than a movie, don’t you think?” I asked.
“A lot better than a movie.”

One thing to note if you are navigating in this area, you are on the border of two 7.5 USGS quads, Pickel Meadow to the east and Sonora Pass to the west. The Pickel Meadow quad uses a 40 foot contour interval and the Sonora Pass quad uses an 80 foot contour interval, therefore 400 feet between index contours. So if you look west the tendency is to think the terrain sure got gentler and if you look to the east it is easy to think things sure got steeper in a hurry – there are a lot more close contour lines.

I saw it as we were walking back from Koenig Lake, a use trail. I had the Lady pull out our topo quad map. Ski Lake sits in a high basin about a mile east of Leavitt Lake. There is no trail shown on the map but here was one clearly visible crossing a high steep mountainside.
“That looks like a use trail up into the Ski Lake basin,” I said. “It looks like it starts out from the area of the Emigrant Wilderness Trailhead near where we are camped.”
“Great, we can run up there later this afternoon before dinner!” the Lady added.
Even with a recovering knee, she is still the Lady.

Icing ‘em up in Ski Lake.

We returned to camp and pulled out our John Muir Laws guide.

We identified birds and wildflowers we had seen and that little critter that had darted away from the Lady up at Koenig Lake was a Short-tailed Weasel. She liked it's small masked face. The abundant large hares we saw at dusk were White-tailed Jackrabbits.

With the Lady’s summer break from school; our traditional vacation has been a long multiday backpack trip somewhere in one of the West’s high mountain ranges. We have racked up some great ones over the years. We have been lucky enough to enjoy trips into the Cascades, Wallowas, Beartooths, Wind River Range, White Clouds, Sawtooths, Sangre de Cristos, San Juans, and many others. While, as a young man, I enjoyed adventures in the classic southern high Sierra, the Lady and I have not backpacked there. With notches in her belt for many more difficult Colorado 14teeners and other lofty summits, the Lady has not been to the top of Mount Whitney. Last February (6 months prior) we learned the ins and outs of the Wilderness permit reservation system and secured a permit for 9 days entering from Horseshoe Meadows, summiting Whitney, and a cross country route back. That was to be this year’s big trip. No regrets about canceling out due to the knee, patience and a careful recovery will assure many more trips in the future. With her recovery looking good, we changed our plans to visiting one of our favorite places for new adventures and discovery – eastern Nevada’s Snake Range. We would do dayhikes out of our camper base camp with the possibly of an overnight with light backpacks. We were to leave this Sunday, this Sunday we were at Leavitt Lake.

That thought was far from our minds as we lived in the moment and enjoyed another sunset at Leavitt Lake.

It was Sunday night, the end of the weekend. Many had left Leavitt Lake. The south end, our end, was empty except for us, and down in the well used area below us, “The Beer Boys.”

They had come in behind us in a clattering diesel F-250 4x4 crew cab, its bed filled with traditional camping supplies. They made camp in close proximity to others in the large camping area at road’s end. There was four of them, early middle age, and we passed by them on Saturday afternoon while circling the lake. Their camp was set up, cooking area and tents, with the four of them in the middle, comfortable in their chairs, two without shirts. It was time for a beer, most likely several. They were happy to get the Lady into conversation. They tried hard but lacked a certain element of class. They would never reach Ted’s smooth sophisticated style. It appeared theirs was a trip “to get away” and maybe not so much to visit Leavitt Lake. We dubbed them “The Beer Boys”.

 “The Beer Boys” had music the previous night. They had even run the big diesel for awhile to charge the battery to make sure the tunes would last well into the night. This night they must have thought they were alone since the close neighbors were gone. The music was louder – and why is it the stuff played at times like this is of questionable taste?

The Lady began her before bed rituals of fussing in the camper. I walked off and found a high spot above their camp where I could see all four of them and they could see me if they ever looked up from their campfire. I found just the right spot in the setting sun. I worked on my best Clint Eastwood silhouette. An Ennio Morricone score built in my head. Why couldn’t they play something interesting like Ennio Morricone? I yearned for a stick of dynamite and then I yearned for the good old days before Homeland Security, back when it was all right to have a few sticks around. Handy if you needed to blow up a stump or a big rock or celebrate New Year’s Eve by blowing out (by accident, of course) all the stained glass windows on the north wall of Saint James Lutheran Church.

The Lady found me. “You’re thinking about dynamite, aren’t you?” She had me, pulled me right out of my fantasy. She went on, “Explosives are prohibited during fire restrictions. Come to bed. You can’t hear it in the camper.” She was right.

It turned out to be a wonderful quiet night. A few drops of rain woke us about two. Later we could see distant flashes in the night but too far away for thunder to be heard. That changed right at dawn. Thunder echoed in the basin adding an appropriate soundtrack to accompany the flashes of lightning. Rain built on the roof. Our windows were open and the smell of rain and wet earth filled our camper. And then it passed.

It made for an incredible morning, the kind of morning we live for.

It was time to head home. There had been so many special moments. I think the best moments were when we walked through lupine and mule ears and coyote mint, the scent so powerful it stopped us. We closed our eyes and breathed it in.

We made our way home and headed down to the specialist in Folsom. A few days before the Lady had noticed a change in a mole on my back. A quick stop for a routine look by my doc led to a center punch biopsy, a poor pathology report, a specialist to excise ASAP being sure to take wide margins. The Doc's urgency was unnerving.  

Now as I write this I have a stitched up, stapled, and bandaged 5” incision across my back. It feels like I stepped on a meat bee nest in the ground and got stung about a hundred times. I am cautioned about not moving at all. “You are a lot stronger than those staples holding you together,” I am told. We look forward to getting these stitches and staples out and await another pathology report.

But in the big picture of things, we will take this on as another unplanned adventure. We will put all our skills to work. What’s around the next corner or over the next ridge? We will find out.

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