Sunday, April 21, 2019

Henry Coe Backpacking 2019: Still in one piece...

A few weeks ago I began to get the itch for another Coe adventure.  I'm not sure why - I've been to every corner of this park in all kinds of weather and different kind of conditions.  The fun of the mystery of exploration and seeing what's over the next hill is out at this point: I know this place like the back of my hand...  And yet there is the pull to keep coming back for more.  Of course this is the case for any of my trail running exploits at this point.  Even with the thousands of miles of great trails around the bay area, I have traveled them all, in races, out of races, training runs, backpacking adventures, etc.  I keep going back because it is fun!

Spring is the ideal time for Henry Coe.  The winter rains have saturated the watersheds - the ponds are full, the creeks are flowing, the water is nice and cold, and the grass is green, and the flowers are blooming.  I was keen on a solo backpacking experience, not because I'm anti-social, but because there is a real experience to be had in being in the middle of nowhere all by yourself.  The feeling of vulnerability and overcoming the tough physical and mental obstacles give a very real payback of achieving a certain amount of confidence and aptitude that is appealing to me.  Day to day life seems to provide a fa├žade of safety and comfort that is nice - this is why as a civilization we have decided to tend in the direction of climate controlled dwellings within range of supermarkets.  Nothing wrong with that - it is what I signed up for as well - a great place to raise a family...  But there is still the itch to insert just a little bit of adventure to spice things up.

 This particular weekend, on which I planned a three day trip Sat through Mon, was the only weekend of April that worked with the family schedule.  It happened to be a weekend with great weather - lucky me!  I've made a few changes to the way I approach these Henry Coe trips: I now go with full coverage to protect from the brush and the sun.  It gets pretty warm, but the payoff in terms of avoided pain is well worth it.  Nylon hiking pants, long sleeve white perforated light tech shirt, my lucky Wheaties bandanna around the neck, and a full brimmed hat was the way to go.

  • Red was day 1: 32.45 miles with 5463 ft climbing
  • Green was day 2: 27.82 miles with 7726 ft climbing
  • Blue was day 3: 11.29 miles with 3258 ft climbing
  • Totals: 71.56 miles with 16447 ft climbing

As I ascended the valley from the Hunting Hollow entrance to the park I was forced to wade through the creek multiple times.  While refreshing, it did mess me up later as the wet feet began to show signs of wear as the day went on.  I made a silly rookie mistake by wearing regular running socks instead of my trusted Injinji toe socks.  This led to multiple hot spots developing on my toes as the day went on.  I took a break in the middle of the day to dry out my shoes and socks, while filtering water and eating lunch and applying duct tape to the problem toes.  This provided temporary relief, but as the day went on there were more creeks to wade through and more damage to deal with.  At the end of the day when I was able to air out my feet and remove the tape I was both relieved to give the feet a break, but also worried about how they would hold up for another couple of days.

The hike was pretty magical.  The greens were brilliant, the spring flowers were in full bloom, the birds were singing, and the views were forever.  There was such complete sensory stimulation with the eyes watching the teeming of life, the ears hearing birds songs, and the nose picking up the aromas of the various pollen wafting through the air, and the skin feeling the warmth of the sun and cool of the breeze.  And there were no distractions, it was just me and the hills, and it was great!

When everything is going great it is kind of sad how just a little bit of doubt can start creeping into the head and start dominating your thoughts.  When I was several miles into the hike I began to notice that there seemed to be excess moisture coming off of my backpack.  Generally this just means I am working hard and sweating and that sweat gets channeled down the back, but I have had issues with my hydration bladder springing leaks before and that was my fear.  The problem is that if that thing springs a leak, almost everything in your pack is going to get drenched, and depending on the size of the leak, you may not have water carrying capacity either.  These are all pretty catastrophic situations for backpacking at Coe, and it started occurring to me that my trip might be cut off prematurely.  Fortunately when I took that break to fix my feet and eat my lunch, the inspection of my pack revealed that all was fine and that huge worry was lifted from my thoughts.

Coit Lake

As I headed north through the park I decided to take a route that would bring me to each of the lakes along the way.  This route wasn't necessarily the most efficient to get to my main destination of the Orestimba Wilderness, but I wasn't there for efficiency, I was there to see things.  The lakes did not disappoint, it was a joy to witness the vibration of life that thrives near the water.  At one of these lakes I met some fellow backpackers and we had the usual conversation about where we were headed and what was going on.  When the guy heard what I was up to, he got this far off stare in his eyes and confided in me his desire to one day make it to the wilderness on the north end of the park.  Apparently last year he had gotten himself in pretty good shape and was ascending the final ridge that separates the state park from the wilderness, the Mississippi ridge, when he injured his knee because he was pushing too hard.  He had to turn around, but at the top he did get a glimpse of wilderness and vowed to return one day and complete his mission.  Its stories like that that remind me not to take my health and capabilities for granted, and it reminds me that these things are hard and deserve the attention and respect that they require...

The hike proceeded up and down the ridges until finally I dropped down off of Mississippi to Orestimba creek where I followed the old farm road past the Rooster Comb and on to the confluence of the Orestimba and Robison Creek where I filled up on water one last time before climbing up a slight hill and making camp and preparing for the ascent of Mt Stakes in the morning.  One interesting tidbit from this hike was that I saw the first woman that I have ever seen in the Orestimba.  I was shocked when I was about to leave Orestimba creek to take the Rooster Comb trail and I see a woman in short shorts, running shoes, and a small fastpack coming off of the trail in my direction.  I asked her what she was up to, and she told me all about the trail/not a trail situation that she just went through.  I would imagine she didn't really know what to expect from the wilderness as the maps clearly show where trails should be, but when you actually go out there you find out that it's been a long time since anybody did any work on them, so a lot of times you are dealing with remnants of a trail.  I think she was glad to be done with it.

The Rooster Comb

Camping on the hill was a peaceful affair.  You could hear the water falling over the rocks in the distance and the frogs starting their chorus.  I chocked down my AlpineAire Chicken Gumbo (average), crawled into my tent, and sent my wife a good night message through the satellite messenger.  I then read until I thought I could pass out and then began my regular backpacking routine of barely sleeping at all.  As the first light became available in the morning I slowly started packing up my stuff.  At some point while crouched over in my small tent I felt my back give a slight twinge.  Not good.  I then slowed everything down, paying close attention to my posture and being extra cautious, got ready for the climb up the mountain.  The climb was uneventful.  My back complained, but I found a rhythm and routine of changing posture that seemed to provide some relief.  When I finally pushed through the last chaparral bush and ended up on a newly graded dirt road on top of the ridge, I knew I had made it.  I followed the dirt road west towards the high point of the park at which point I recognized the outlines of the old farm road following another ridge back down to the Robison valley.  As I climbed back down the ridge I found a fork in the road that might have been the Mt. Stakes trail that headed toward red creek road.  One day I may explore this path, but I knew that this trail is notoriously overgrown and hard to follow as you near the valley floor, so I opted to follow a path that I was already familiar with.  As I neared Robison creek I must have missed the trail that Sachin and I were able to successfully navigate several years back and was forced to bushwhack down the same gully that I was forced to take the first backpacking trip that I had done at Coe.  After refilling my water at the creek, I did my best to navigate the brush and creek climbing up-river towards the pass that leads to red creek on the other side.  At some point I realized I had missed the trail and ended up on yet another bushwhack.  Finally I linked up with the trail and was able to successfully navigate down to red creek, but not without first twisting my ankle in a hole in the grass field.  The issues were piling up at this point:  my back was bothering me, my toes were chewed up, my ankle was messed up, and I was rattled by all of the bushwhacking.  When I got down to the creek I decided to take another break to eat some lunch, air out the feet, and dry out my camping stuff that was still damp from the morning dew.  It was a good decision as I was able to chill out in one of the most beautiful parts of the park, and regroup before the big climb up the chaparral trail back to Mississippi ridge.

I hiked to Mississippi lake, which is kind of a stunning place given it's location high up on the ridge and the fact that it is the biggest lake in the park.  There I sat down to review my route options to get back to the car.  I had seen most of the stuff that I had set out to see, I had climbed Stakes, and now I was trying to figure out where I might want to make it to set up camp that night.  I aimed at making it to Los Cruzeros, which is a beautiful confluence of streams in the middle of the park.  This also happens to be the place where my family and I had quite the adventure several years back.   I made it to the stream as the sun was starting to set, and refilled my water.  Learning from that family adventure, I decided to climb up from the stream to an open meadow to camp that night to avoid the extra moisture from the running water and the cacophony of the frogs.  Again, it was another peaceful night.  I enjoyed my Backpackers Pantry Three Sisters Stew (average), sent the wife a message, read my book and passed out.  This night I slept like a rock - I think I finally wore myself out!

The next morning I had almost no flexibility in my back, which made packup really challenging.  Somehow I muddled through the whole affair - just took my time and tried to enjoy the beautiful morning with the early sun just starting to glow over the green pastures around me.  My hike up to Mahony Meadows was incredible.  This ridge is definitely one of the most stunning places in the park right now with the bright green open grassland dotted with ancient oak trees and placid ponds.  As you hike along the ridge you are treated with views forever.  As I headed south along the ridge I could see the steep drop down to the coyote creek valley below and the Coyote ridge on the other side to the right.

I made it back to the car just before lunch time and concluded what ended up being a great trip to Coe.  Mid-April is definitely one of the nicest times of the year to explore the park.  Here are some pics a vids:

Video Montage: