Journey-man’s Journal by Scott Feuer
The plan was to do something unique, something atypical of the traditional birthday celebration; a gift to myself to escape the time-crunched routine of daily life while enjoying my hobbies of cooking, photography, and the outdoors. This was something my late father had inspired in me. (Since his passing, and a variety of peculiar incidences, my mother and sister are convinced my dad came back as a hummingbird to watch over us.) For my birthday, I chose to spend six days on my own backpacking the glacially-formed granite valleys and lakes of the alpine and subalpine forest in the Desolation Wilderness located west of South Lake Tahoe. It was truly a remarkable, inspiring, and emotional experience.
Weeks before leaving I organized an impressive culinary menu of homemade dehydrated rations to sustain the 6-day journey. Dehydrating fruits and vegetables, meats, and seafood non-stop for three weeks, I assembled hearty meals of cowboy chili, pasta and cheesy tomato spaghetti, Hawaiian shrimp and rice, spicy corn chowder, rice and beans, oatmeal and granola fruit concoctions, and of course, a birthday cake.
I kept the base weight of my backpack to just under 18 lbs. (not including food, water, and cooking fuel weight). It is not uncommon for traditional backpackers to carry 40 to 50 lbs. of gear in their packs, which in my opinion, significantly hinders the overall hiking experience. My ultralight gear was limited to the basics: a tent, sleeping quilt, cooking system, layered clothing, camera, water purifier, and food. Once packed and ready, my wife and family wished me well and I was on my way.
The first couple of days were fantastic. Leaving the Lower Lake Echo trailhead near Hwy. 50, I made my way past Lake Aloha over the 9,400-foot elevation of Dick’s Pass and explored Velma Lakes. The stunning expansive granite peaks, subalpine forests, and crystal-clear lakes under blue skies made for excellent days of trekking and provided great photo opportunities. I rounded off each day with late afternoon swims in the refreshing cold snow-melt lake water and an evening of stargazing. I was absorbed in tranquility and beauty.
By the third day, the temperatures increased to the mid-80s as I made way through Rockbound Valley and up to Horseshoe Lake, a more remote less traveled area of the wilderness. The single-track trail meandered up and over granite outcroppings, through dense forests, and across a few streams. I struggled with the heat and elevation gain and lost the trail four different times wandering around the forest trying to decipher where the path lead. Uneasy to say the least. However, I succeeded past McConnell and Leyland Lakes and finally over Red Peak pass to Lake
Schmidell for my anticipated afternoon swim. It was a strenuous 14-mile day. Too exhausted to set up the tent, I snuggled in my sleeping quilt exposed to the cool mountain air and enjoyed a star-filled night with a couple dozen bats flying overhead.
By morning I felt completely rejuvenated and broke camp early and headed towards Clyde Lake for lunch and back around Lake Aloha in the afternoon towards the far end of Lake of the Woods. The day felt like I was at a spiritual retreat rather than out hiking rugged mountain trails. That evening, I relaxed, sipped hot tea and watched the sunset over Pyramid Peak.
I arose the next morning on my birthday, the last full day of my adventure. Excited, I decided I would climb to the top of Ralston Peak and savor the views. With four days less food in my backpack, it shouldered light. My leg muscles had acclimated to my new daily hiking routine. The steep ascent to the summit felt good. As expected, the 360° views atop the rocky peak were spectacular. I spent quite some time enjoying it there.
After a snack of sweet potato bark (dehydrated sweet potatoes), I headed down to Triangle Lake off the beaten path of the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) for lunch then to Ralston Lake to settle in for the evening.
I found an unbelievable place to pitch my tent on a precarious cliff overlooking the cobalt blue lake below. Such a beautiful spot to camp and celebrate my birthday, I thought. There was as steady wind blowing off the lake and I struggled to set up my tent, but soon I had it pitched with my sleeping quilt neatly spread out inside. No need to stake all four corners of the tent, I told myself, two corners facing the wind should do. A few minutes later while attending to other camp chores, the wind sporadically changed course from the opposite direction and scooped up my tent along with my down sleeping quilt high in the air and over the cliff towards the lake. Astonishingly, a small tree at the edge of the lake snagged my tent right before it plunged into the water. I raced around the cliff and slid down the steep rocky bank to retrieve my tent from the tree before another gust of wind would free it into the lake. Never underestimate Mother Nature. That could have been a real bummer trying to sleep in a soggy wet down sleeping quilt.
Relieved, I securely re-staked all four corners of my tent and prepared a well-deserved dinner. In celebration of my birthday, I rehydrated a homemade chocolate strawberry angel food cake for dessert, inserted a lit match as a makeshift birthday candle, and snapped a couple pictures to arouse a few laughs for my friends back home.
I was about to make my wish and blow out the candle when I was distracted by an energetic buzzing sound. A curious little hummingbird darted around me attempting to crash my solo birthday party. I was awestruck that a hummingbird could even survive at this high elevation. A flush of emotion washed over me as my eyes began to tear. Perhaps Mom is right, it had to be my father, I thought, stopping by to wish me a happy birthday, the best birthday gift of all. What an unbelievable way to round out my adventure and celebrate my birthday.
Eating my cake as the sun went down, I reflected on the last few days of spending quality time immersed in the rhythm of the great outdoors. I hiked a total of 72.7 miles, climbed 10,830 feet of elevation gain, and burned upward of 6,000 calories a day. That night I slept like a baby.
I awoke for the hike back to the car ready to see my wife and family and share my incredible experiences. On the drive back home, I realized that a big part of enjoying life is taking time for yourself to seek adventures that inspire you to do what you love. You just have to get out there and let it unfold!