Desolation Wilderness: Rubicon Reservoir Trip
July 3-8, 2005

Trip Report

Saturday 7/2/05 - San Leandro

My Texas friend Bud and his son Ryan arrived at my home in San Leandro on Saturday, the day I had originally planned to leave. This left little time for shopping, organizing and packing, but more importantly, it left no time to talk about the trip. This was Bud's first backpacking trip, and while Ryan had done some camping in the field as a Geology student, he'd had no real wilderness or multi-day hiking experience. I had imagined spending a couple of days before we left talking about it, to give them some idea of what to expect, what to take, and what to leave behind. Instead, the weekend was a whirlwind of gear and food acquisition that left no time for orientation or training sessions.

Sunday 7/3/05 - Loon Lake

We spent most of Sunday packing and organizing. We finally got away at 5:40 pm and drove 185 miles to the Loon Lake trailhead, stopping only to pick our wilderness permit from the drop box at the Ranger Station on Highway 50. We arrived at 9:20 pm.

Bud and I spent the night in the van at the trailhead parking lot. Ryan found a flat spot not far from the lot and pitched his tent there. I made tea for Bud and myself before we went to bed, which proved to be a mistake: I couldn't get to sleep for hours.

Monday 7/4/05 - Buck Lake

Up @ 06:36 after 4 hrs sleep. Organized packs and hit the trail at 8:50. Bud started out fast but slowed after about an hour. We stopped for lunch at 11:30, maybe a quarter of the way up a 600 ft climb over the pass to Spider Lake and the Rubicon Valley. When we resumed the sun was directly overhead, there was no shade and the heat reflected off the granite trail we followed. The combination of the heat and the ascent took its toll on Bud, who moved slower still. We were stopped once by a female ranger who checked my Wilderness Permit, finding it in order.

We kept going and reached the top, but still the heat didn't let up. By the time we reached Buck Island Lake, 6 miles from the trailhead, Bud was exhausted. He took a quick dip in the lake and then retired to his tent, from which he never emerged the rest of the night. Ryan cooked his dinner for him and served it to him in the tent.

I swam and washed after Bud and got in my tent to change into fresh clothes, then stayed there for a while to escape the mosquitos. Hunger finally brought me out.

After dinner I built a campfire and then went fishing, leaving Ryan to watch the fire. I returned to camp 90 minutes later, empty handed. In the meantime, Ryan had added three of the largest logs he could find to the fire, which was now roaring and, if left untended, posed a risk of starting a forest fire if the wind came up overnight. Logs so large are practically impossible to extinguish in the usual way, so one by one, I picked them up by the unburnt end and carried them to the lake, where I doused them.

Finally, I stowed my gear in my tent and went to bed.

Tuesday 7/5/05 - Rubicon Reservoir

After breakfast, Bud said he wasn't moving one step further from the car. I told him that if Ryan and I took weight from his pack and didn't travel so far that he'd be okay, but he wasn't buying it.

We hiked part way around the lake to a waterfall to take pictures and spotted a few campsites in that area. We noted that there were fewer mosquitos there.

After lunch Bud allowed that he might be willing to move camp near the waterfall. I offered going another two miles to Rubicon Reservoir and he said he'd think about it. After he took a nap he agreed, and after he had a swim he was up to leaving right away. Ryan and I both took some of Bud's weight. Then we broke camp and got away around 4 pm.

As we left Buck Lake, we finally crossed the boundary into Desolation Wilderness proper. Before that point, we'd been in, not the Wilderness, but simply a National Forest. Among other things, that meant that jeeps were allowed, and last night we could hear, from our tents, the sound of generators. From here on would be single track trails, no motors and fewer people. Bliss!

We had an adventure crossing a stream on the way. It was about 50 feet across, flowing fast, ice cold and came up to my thighs. We put on our sandals and water socks and took critical gear first. I separated items from my pack to lighten the load, since with the weight I had taken from Bud I was now packing maybe 70 lbs and the footing in the deep, fast water was unstable. Finally I tied my rope between two trees on either side of the stream and used it for balance as I carried my now lighter pack across. All told, it took us nearly an hour and a half to get ourselves and our gear across.

A little later down the trail we spotted a Marmot.

We arrived at our new campsite at Rubicon Reservoir with an hour of light left. We pitched our tents, ate dinner and went to bed.

Wednesday 7/6/05 - Rubicon Reservoir

Spotted a Bald Eagle.

I woke up before my alarm and immediately went down to the lake and fished. After a few minutes, I decided that I should have had my coffee first and returned to my tent to get it. Then I tried again. The fish weren't biting and after half an hour I decided to quit. But on my last cast, I snagged the bottom and lost my lure.

I found a shady spot and made tea instead. I was soon joined by Bud and Ryan. Bud said they were ready to head back the next day. I said, "Why don't you two get the car and pick me up at Fallen Leaf Lake?" Bud said we had a deal. But after I thought about it, I realized that if we split up, I'd have to give Bud his heavy items back and he would be overloaded again. And with the streams as high as they were, I might have a problem arriving on time. Better to stay together.

Bud and Ryan both took a nap and I hiked down to the dam wall and back. After they woke up and had lunch, I proposed that we all proceed to Inspiration Point in Emerald Bay. From there we'd take a cab to South Lake Tahoe, rent a car and drive back to the van at Loon Lake. The total distance hiked would only be a couple of miles further than if they turned around from this point, and they'd see new territory instead of going back over the same trail we'd come in on. Plus the route would take us past the lakes with the best fishing. Bud worried about the expense. I said I'd pay. He said he'd think about it.

Ryan went exploring. He came back excited that he could see the geologic history of the valley we were in (glacial) and went around pointing out the geologic evidence of the rocks and explained the story they were telling.

One at a time, we bathed in the lake. It was freezing. Only Bud got all the way in. I gave myself a sponge bath and then dipped my head in the water, letting the sun dry my hair.

I took pictures of the local flora.

After consulting with Ryan, Bud told me he was concerned about the climb over the pass between Campers Flat and the lakes on the other side, an elevation gain of 900 feet, give or take. Also, he said, Ryan wanted to get home. I offered to carry his pack for him. He could drop it at Campers Flat and the three of us would make the climb . Then I'd go back for his. No, he said, Ryan wanted to get back home. He didn't want to hike another four days when he could get back to the car in two.

Despite months of planning, driving thousands of miles, buying and organizing gear and getting pumped up for an eight day trip through some of the most beautiful terrain in the world, after 24 hours in the wilderness these two could talk about nothing but getting out and going home.

Disgusted, I went to bed.

Thursday 7/7/05 - Spider Lake

I awoke at 7 am and made breakfast. Bud and Ryan were packing. I went down to the lake to refill my water bottle and took the temperature while I was there: 55F. I went back up the hill to my tent site and began packing. We hit the trail around 10. We stopped for lunch at a stream northwest of Buck Island Lake and then resumed our hike to Spider Lake, which lay near the top of the pass that had given Bud so much trouble on Monday. We reached the top about 3:30 pm. There was no obvious trail to the lake, so I went scouting and found one. It was indistinct, but marked with cairns in a couple of places and that was enough. Once at the lake, we looked around for a suitable campsite and found a nice one on the west side of the lake. It had a big fire ring, room for all three tents and good access to the lake for swimming. Bud and I plunged in immediately, before setting up camp. The water was clear and a glorious 73. We swam for half an hour and then made tea before pitching the tents. Then we had dinner, made a campfire and went to bed.

Bud had travelled four miles - two fewer than Monday - and climbed 600 feet - the same as Monday - but since then had learned to adjust his pack better, to walk slower and more efficiently, to hydrate more often and to stop frequently at shady spots to rest. His load was also some 10 lbs lighter. The result was that he arrived in good spirits with plenty of energy left over.

Friday 7/8/05 - San Leandro

We hiked the remaining four miles to the trailhead without incident and drove home, stopping for lunch in Placerville. Bud and Ryan left for Texas the next day.

Lessons for next time:

The value of orientation and discussion became evident over the course of the first couple of days on the trail, as I learned that Bud's load included a pistol, a GPS, a VHF scanner ("to hail passing aircraft"), and beer. I believe all that extra weight was a contributing factor in aborting the trip.