Packin' for Trout

Packin' for Trout

by Mike Livingston

You open the garage door to the industrial, valley air. You've told your flyfishing club that you'd be willing to organize a backpacking trip, but first you want to scout it out. Throw the packs in the truck, tether the dog, and you and your good hiking buddy are off to the Sierras and the Golden Trout Wilderness.

* * *

The Golden Trout Wilderness was designated by Congress in 1978. Its 303,000 acres span between Sequoia National Park on the north, the South Sierra Wilderness to the southeast, and Mountain Home State Forest to the west, all on the southeast tip of the Sierra Nevada range. This is the only place in the world where you'll find native golden trout, namesake of the area, and of which there are three distinct species: Volcano Creek, Little Kern, and South Fork Kern.

* * *

Power lines along 395 are suspended by cold steel scarecrows guarding some fenceline of progress. Nitrates and flourocarbons obscure the distance.

Two hours later, steel gives way to rocks, scrub and trees at the base of the Sierras. A winding, narrow road teases you from sage and scrub oak to Jeffrey pines and white fir. You stop off at the Forest Service station for a Wilderness permit. Carla's a talker, but it's all good info.

At the trailhead, 9,000 feet, you'll descend five and a half miles, 3,000 feet of elevation, today to Jordan Hot Springs. Tomorrow, another three miles, and 1,000 of elevation, to the South Fork of the Kern.

Patches of snow obscure the trail, otherwise wet in spots, but the earth is firm. Muscles resist, but eventually succumb to the futility. Hikers, flushed and beaded with pearls of sweat, pass on their way back up the rocky path to civilization.

One hour in, 8,200 feet, Casa Vieja Meadows opens up like a primal breast. Rolling velveted swellings, laced with shadows, and Ninemile Creek coursing through its heart.

Twenty minutes lost in pensive reverie, the descent to Jordan continues along Ninemile Creek. From the nipple of Casa Vieja meadows, Ninemile Creek trickles at first, but quickly descends a steep grade, rapidly building volume until the creek is swollen beyond normal passage. In most crossings, and there are several, you get wet.

Two and a half hours in, the creek is flowing at about the same rate as Deep Creek near Devil's Hole. You're distracted by it, looking for rises, for hatches, imagining what types of nymphs might be moving about its detritus. Then you're there, Jordan Hot Springs.

* * *

Jordan Hot Springs was a private resort until the owner died, the lease on the property expired, and Congress designated the surrounding area National Forest Wilderness. The story is that a stage used to carry guests up to the resort as far back as the 1800s. Many of the old buildings remain, harboring ghosts of those bygone days.

* * *

The springs bubble water too hot to touch. You take off your boots and pick a spot where the cold water of Ninemile Creek steams to a compromise with the scalding water of the spring. The currents eddy in swirling temperature shifts. You resign to stand here for awhile before scouting for a place to fish. Forty minutes later, you're sitting on the bank with your feet dangling into the stream, lost in the soothing currents. Lost ... .

Saturday, breakfast of oatmeal, dried fruit and coffee. Pack the day pack for a six mile trek to the Kern and back.

Creek crossing in less than a quarter mile. Only a spongy branch provides dry crossing. Horseshoes and hand granades - a thunderous splash and you're in up to your waist. You save the camera though!

Flowers bloom all around the trail. The fragrance is narcotic. You could lie down in their cradle and nurse from the dandelion clouds, never regretful for missing the rest of the day's planned activities.

At the creek crossing before Soda Flat, one mile from the Kern, the creek is too swollen. The flow is clear, but too deep and fast for your conscience - the borrowed camera and your dog.

You've attempted to sample Ninemile Creek several times for aquatic bugs, but always empty. One stonefly husk clings to a nearby tree. Hmm ... . But the rush of the water, overhanging snags and partially submerged trees prevent you from finding suitable water to wet your line. You decide instead to eat lunch and get back to base camp at Jordan.

You're only carrying a daypack with some bad-weather clothing, fishing gear, first aid supplies, and the remainder of the food. Still, you find yourself stopping to rest every half hour. And these aren't stops to commune, these are physical requirements. Sweat is stinging your eyes and you're sucking air like a fish out of water. You begin thinking about the hike from Jordan out to the truck with 40 pounds on your back.

A couple hundred yards from your campsite, a large man in camo fatigues tracks toward you like a tank. "Fishing?" he asks. You explain the creek condition at Soda Flat. He tells you about the log crossing upstream and excitedly reports his success at reaching the Kern and at catching a 14-inch rainbow. A spinning rig rests almost cocky against the tree. You ask him what he caught him on. He says, "Flies" and removes the face of the spinning reel to reveal a size 14 Renegade. You think to yourself, "A dry fly no less!" He adds that fish have been reported caught in Ninemile Creek all the way up to Casa Vieja Meadows.

You return to camp frustrated for not making it to the Kern and disgusted with yourself for your poor physical condition. Your legs burn as you drag your bed mat out under a tree where you can catch the breeze dancing down from the ridge above. Your buddy turns to you and says, "What do you think about hiking halfway out this afternoon, and the rest tomorrow?" You think about how you struggled today with the day pack. Sounds like a good idea. You'll break camp at 4:00; for now, you rest.

4:30--Mosquitos in your face like fog, and legs on fire. Rocks shoot out of the ground to snipe the toe of your boot. Waterlogged, your feet don't know whether to peel or blister. "Just a little further" you keep telling yourself, "Just a little more." Sweat gushes from every pore. A voice in another universe replies in panicky, Scottish brogue, "I'm doin' all I can Captain! She's givin' us all she's got! I've already shut down peripheral demand and centralized resources. Oxygen is virtually exhausted. We're about to explode with lactic acid!"

You find a rock in the shade where you feel reasonably comfortable dying. For the first time, you can feel your pulse ... all through your body. You try to remember the threshold pulse rate before your heart explodes. A commercial comes to mind: engines without oil, pistons seizing, curls of smoke like departing souls.

And then, like some lost episode of the Twilight Zone, this scene replays, again ... and again ... and again ... .

Four miles and four hours later, you come to Casa Vieja meadows. The terrain levels out and you suddenly feel recharged. But it's getting late, so you hike through the meadows to where the trail begins once again to rise toward your portal. The map shows a widening off the trail about a quarter mile up. You decide that that is where you'll stay the night.

8:30--Pitch the tent. Eat cold, heavy foods. 9:00--Sleep.

Sunday, one hour on the trail, waiting for it to suddenly point to the treetops, it suddenly levels out into a saddle. The map shows a couple of spots like this on the way out. Just about the time you've convinced yourself that this is the saddle before the steep incline, painted metal appears between the trees. You're at the trailhead.

At the truck, you strip off your pack and water the dog. Your buddy turns to you with the look of a new mother and says, "You know, when I'm right in the middle of it, I'm cursing, 'What was I thinking?' 'I'm doing this by choice?' But when it's over, I look back on it and what stands out is what I accomplished, and that's what makes it all worthwhile." You suspect he's drunk and consider jumping him for the flask.

You stop in Kramer Junction for food and gas. Astro Burger speaks with the voice of civilization, "Oh. Did you miss me?" The steel bench clumsily cradles your butt and back. The fries are hot, and the Coke is nectar. "Oh yeah" you catch yourself cooing out loud.

Body and truck fueled, back to the highway. Near Adelanto, you come upon a stakeside truck. A little purple dinosaur doll is glued to the back. Beneath it, a sticker: "Nothing is more often opened by mistake than the mouth."

What are you going to tell the club?