Thursday, November 8, 2018

Sequoia National Forest - October 2018

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The Magic of My Mountains and The Littlest Ranger's Book of Short Stories

Barking Spider - all the Spiders - have been our friends for decades. The times and adventures we have shared would make a great book, if we could only find someone literate enough to write it. But this is not our story. This is Barking Spider's story. This is the story of the start of his 37 year career with the United States Forest Service close to 50 years ago.

Barking Spider is a gifted story teller. His are the type of stories, no matter how many times you've heard them, that can still bring a tear to the eye from laughing so hard. Barking Spider is also short. He enjoys us calling him "Our Little Buddy." In answer to how he survived his growing up - oops, change that to childhood - years, he answers, "I learned real quick to have big friends." The Lady has asked him time and again to write down all his stories and put them in a book. "I've already got the title for you!" she adds. "The Littlest Ranger's Book of Short Stories."

Barking Spider has been "Our Little Buddy" for decades. That means we've been hearing his stories for decades. Last count, Barking said he's been retired for 11 years now. "Or maybe it's twelve?" I guess retirement will do that to you.

This trip would be a different sort of adventure for us. Barking & Ma Spider wanted to do a camping trip with us but asked if we could start the trip with a visit to the very spot that Barking Spider started with the USFS back in 1969. We'd get to share in the memories and we'd also see the places many of these stories actually took place.

We left Saturday morning. Evening found us at Fossil Falls. During our last ice age, large glacial melt water lakes dotted the Great Basin. Owens Lake spilled over into Indian Wells Valley across an ancient lava flow. In this now arid country the carved channel still carries obvious signs of scouring by a flowing river.

The small, very open campground would not be pleasant in summer, but it was very pleasant on a cool Fall day. The vistas are also eye catching.

The Lady & I were awake well before dawn, waiting for sunrise.

Our drive Sunday morning was over Walker Pass to Lake Isabella, where we then turned north ascending the North Fork Kern River. Our first stop was Johnsondale. The ranger station is where Barking Spider spent his first day working for the USFS in 1969.

The stories came rapid fire. Our favorites came from Barking's first duties, driving the garbage truck and hauling trash to the dump, which back in those days, was an open pit land fill. Groups of hippies lived in the woods during the summer. The flower children scrounged for food, often times asking Barking for a ride to the dump to see what food was left in discarded bottles and such. "Sure," Barking would holler. "Climb up in the back!"

Joe also drove garbage truck and on a run up to Peppermint Campground to pick up the trash a big sow black bear ran across the road right in front of Joe. He missed the sow but hit the almost grown cub right on her tail. Joe felt awful with the bear laying motionless in the road. Joe carefully approached and put his ear to the bear's chest. He could hear a heartbeat! Joe was a man of action. He grabbed some rope and hogtied the bear and then manhandled all that dead weight and finally got the bear into the back of the garbage truck. He drove as fast as he could back to the Johnsondale Ranger Station because he knew if anyone could help this bear it was his boss, John, because John had a degree in wildlife biology.

"What!!!!" echoed down the hall of the station when John heard there was a bear in the back of Joe's garbage truck and he was supposed to doctor it. Joe and John walked outside to the truck with a now very awake, agitated, and angry black bear inside. There was no way anyone was getting close enough to the bear to untie it. John got a long broom handle, taped his pocket knife to the end, carefully slid it through an opening and cut the bear free of the rope. The bear could not get out of the garbage bin without the gate swung open. "Now Joe," John carefully directed, "You take that bear back to its mother!" Joe did as he was told.

"Forest Service, cowboys, and loggers, that's who lived together up in these mountains," Barking explained talking about the old days. Right next to the station was the Johnsondale lumber mill. It was an old fashion company town, complete with housing, store, and a school for the kids. It ceased operations years ago and sat idle, a ghost town. The property finally sold and is now a private RV camp along with cabins - R-Ranch in the Sequoias.

The old school house has been turned into a saloon and dance hall, bingo too..

A man named Norman Norris also started his career with the U. S. Forest Service on the Sequoia National Forest, but he started work in the early 1900's when the Forest Service was a brand new agency. "The Magic of My Mountains" is the book Norris wrote sharing his wonderful memories of the early days. With the same National Forest - Sequoia - and both brand new greenhorns - but generations apart - this is one of Barking's favorite books. It's been passed around, we've all read it, a rite of passage in getting to know Barking Spider.

So included in this trip was visiting places Norris wrote about, these same places Barking also knew well during his time on the Sequoia. It was an opportunity to see back to 1919, move ahead to 1970, and then see the present. Does anything remain?

Doublebunk cabin sat on the edge of Doublebunk Meadow. The cabin had two bunks. but you've already figured that out.

Norris wrote that Doublebunk cabin was the first cabin on the Sequoia with a wood floor and glass windows. Barking told of busting two hippies with a campfire burning just outside the cabin. They had ripped up and were burning the wood floor for firewood. "You are going to see the judge!" Barking told them as he handed them the citation. Doublebunk Cabin is now gone. We searched but did not find where it once stood.

Our next stop was at one of the many groves of Giant Sequoia. We never tire of visiting these awe inspiring trees.

After classic big trees we headed for classic Sierra Nevada granite - Dome Rock. Barking was a rock climber when he worked here and he and friends climbed at Dome Rock and also The Needles.

We walked to the top of Dome Rock.

The Lady used her see mores to watch two climbers on The Needles.

The Needles are known for the beautiful yellow lichen.

We backtracked down to the saddle north of the dome where we had found a nice spot to camp.

We watched sunset work its magic on The Needles.

Monday morning we drove through Ponderosa and turned onto the dirt road that leads to the trailhead for the hike to the fire lookout that once sat atop The Needles.

The lookout was one of the grandest of all lookouts, perched as it was on a knob atop the northernmost spire of The Needles. Sadly it was destroyed by fire in July 2011.

It was a pleasant walk of a couple of miles to the lookout's remains. The landscape and views are wonderful.

The long, high, series of stairs and walkways are a marvel.

The last three stairs are removed, a good deterrent for the unwise.

The views are spectacular up the Kern River all the way to Mount Whitney.

Whitney is the high point on the left.

We posed for photos, a proper thing to do.

Here's Ma & Barking Spider.

We pulled out our lunches and prepared to eat on the highest flat spot on the walkway. The roar of a jet grew in the air and we all scanned the sky to try and find the source. A FA-18 hornet fighter jet flew on an upward angle, upside down, through the notch in the spires just to our south. He was less than 100 yards away. He banked right and dropped into the Kern River Canyon just as I was able to get my camera from the wooden walkway beside my pack.

He dropped down to just above the trees, following the canyon upcountry. We wondered what aerobatics Norman Norris had witnessed in those early years.

Note to self - pick up camera right when I hear jet noise, then start looking for the plane.

There is hope that the lookout will be rebuilt, but it will take support from the public and a bit of well placed pressure to get it done.

It was a highlight of the trip, our visit to The Needles Lookout.

As we finished lunch, we were joined by Lisa from Tucson, traveling and hiking on her own. She was full of questions about the area and its history. Little did she know she had run into Barking Spider. The stories began anew. We had already heard about Luke who worked as fire lookout back during Spider's time here. Barking and his climbing partner - often times a fellow who called himself Doctor Demento - would check in with Luke before a climb and ask him to call for help if they hadn't checked back in before dark. He also told about their work crew stopping for dinner at Ponderosa and often times then deciding to run up to the lookout and wake poor Luke up, sometimes after ten. Barking now had a willing and appreciative new listener. He started in on stories we had never heard. By the time we reached our trucks, I figured there was a good chance Ma & Barking would be adopting Lisa.

We wanted to spend the night camping at Long Meadow but the gate was now locked. We had made a stop the day before to visit the old campground there. Humbly perched in the center of the campground is a small outhouse. The very first outhouse Barking Spider built.

"It's still here!" Barking cried out as he climbed down from his truck. "I can't believe it!" There were tears in his eyes. "We put the walls together back at the station and then trucked it up here to bang together." He ran his hand along the still solid boards and looked down. "Look at this rock work! I did all this rock work here at the base of the building on top of the vault."

"Did you scribe your initials in the cement?" the Lady asked.

"Boy, I don't remember!" He scratched his head. Ma Spider was already down low, searching every nock and cranny for B. S.. The Lady joined her.

I did not take any photos. I had other duties to attend to. Duties of a humbler sort - a private need, so to speak. I wanted to test the true quality of this close to fifty years old little crapper in the woods.

"Oh, you're not going to!" Barking cried. "Really?"

"Isn't this what you built it for?" I hurriedly asked as I moved closer, toilet paper in hand.

"You don't think my outhouse is fully supplied?" Barking asked with a smile.

"It's at times little this that I don't like surprises," I answered. "I hope you built the seat solid," I added as I closed the door.

Edit: Ma Spider has shared a photo of Barking Spider's outhouse and Barking asked in a very special way if I could edit the blog story and include the photo. "That's one damn fine crapper," Barking waxed nostalgic. "The story needs to have a photo of it!" 

Here you go -

With the closure of Long Meadow, we returned to our spot near Dome Rock and spent another quiet night with stars overhead.

We were all on top of Dome Rock at sunup.

In his book, Norman Norris tells the story of his first forest fire. I expect everyone remembers their first fire. Norris writes that up to then, a campfire was the biggest fire he had seen. He rode Bud, his horse, to the top of Dome Rock and looked to the north.

We reenacted what happened.

Norris saw no smoke. He thought he had a good joke on the fire lookout who reported it. But then he saw it, smoke. He estimated the distance and took a bearing on it. The country looked bad to travel though so he tied Bud to a tree and took off on a straight line cross country. It was an awful trip but he did it. He reached the fire and went to work. He then discovered the fire was only a few yards off the trail that continued past Dome Rock. Norris learned that most times in the mountains a straight line is not the quickest, or best, route to take.

It was time to leave the Sequoia and return to the east side of the Sierra. We had two nights booked at Benton Hot Springs, a wonderful way to cap off an adventure.

We spent the next day exploring around the area. This was the Spider's first time here.

We returned to Benton and relaxed and restored.

We watched last light move across Montgomery Peak on the north end of the White Mountains.

A big thank you to the Spiders for allowing us to be part of this special trip back in time and sharing in so many happy memories. Our Little Buddy, Barking Spider ought to write a book.......................................


  1. Great trip! Very sorry to discover (belatedly) that the lookout on the Needles had been destroyed -- we were there in 2010, I guess not long before the fire.

    1. Dan, thanks for the nice comment. The Needles Lookout is sorely missed!