Copyright © 2004
by Richard S. Platz, All
Deadfall Lakes, September 4 to 7, 2003
Shasta-Trinity National Forest
A couple of years have passed since Barbara and
I visited our siblings in the Chicagoland area. We both moved
to Northern California years ago to escape the arctic snows
of winter, muggy swelter of summer, and the city's crush of
indifferent strangers. We could not comprehend why they had
not done the same.
As we were leaving my brother George's house
for the airport, my niece Susan announced "I'd like to
come out and go backpacking with you and Barbara sometime."
"Fine," I replied, a little confused.
Susan's not exactly an outdoors girl. She's enrolled in the
Music Conservatory at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Although I strummed a guitar a bit when in college forty years
ago, I believe my brother and I are more or less tone deaf.
My relationship with Susan has been cordial, but not intimate.
I hadn't really believed she was paying attention when I would
occasionally sing the splendors of backpacking in the high country.
I was flattered that she might actually wish to spend a little
time with her stodgy old uncle when she could be, well, doing
whatever it is that young people do nowadays. "Good idea,"
I said, not believing it would ever come to pass. "Let's
But in the late summer of 2003 it actually happened.
Barbara and I drove to the Arcata Airport to pick up Susan.
She was flying in from Portland and arrived all bright-eyed
and bushy-tailed. We retrieved her bag from the carrousel and
headed for Eureka, filling each other in on a torrent of detail
about our divergent lives. En route, during a pause in the bright
flower of reunion, I brought up the subject of time,
and the bloom wilted. We had to make a choice, I pointed out,
to either go backpacking or dilly-dally around. If we were
going backpacking--as I thought we ought inasmuch as
that was the premise of the entire visitation--then we were
on a tight schedule. Three-and-a-half days was not a
lot of time to pack up, drive to the trailhead, hike in, camp
for three nights, hike out, and drive home in time for Susan
to catch her flight home on Monday. And three nights on the
ground were the absolute minimum if our young apprentice was
to begin to perceive what backpacking was about, and why we
bother doing it.
What we needed was a Task Master. I volunteered
myself for the job. Caught off guard, Barbara and Susan were
too flustered to object, and the nominations were permanently
We stopped for dinner at Applebee's in Eureka
and discussed all the things we would not have time to do. No
hike through Redwood Park in Arcata. No drive through the Avenue
of the Giants. No boating on the bay. No shopping in Old Town
or Ferndale. No idle strolls around Blue Lake or down along
the Mad River. No evening theater at Dell Arte. But Susan was
content to miss all the touristy stuff. She'd been there, done
that. She was hot to try her hand at backpacking.
Back in Blue Lake I vigorously discharged my
duties as Task Master. The first
order of business was to select appropriate gear for Susan's
backpack. We fitted her with
Barbara's old Kelty external-frame pack, then began filling
it with polypropylene
underwear, rain gear, a pillow, flashlight, down jacket, and
all the personal necessities.
Susan would carry our old Sierra Designs Clip 3 tent, my old
down sleeping bag, and
some of the food. She would break in her brand new pair of trekking
boots on the trail.
Friday morning we arose with the dawn, tossed
down a quick breakfast, and loaded
our gear into the back of the van. Our destination was Deadfall
Lakes. At the end of a
relatively level three-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail
we would find plenty to see
and do there. Our NOAA weather station, however, was not cooperating.
were forecast over the northern California mountains, precisely
where we were heading.
We drove east on Highway 299, with Barbara and
I alternating driving and sitting
in the folding chair wedged behind the front seats of the van.
Susan rode shotgun to
better take in the sights. At Weaverville we stopped at Topp's
sandwiches and final provisions. To save time, we ate in the
car as we motored north on
Highway 3. As predicted, thunderheads materialized in the far
in an otherwise cloudless blue sky, except that we were heading
straight for them.
At Parks Creek Road we turned right and followed
the rocky wash of the Middle Fork of the Trinity River into
the mountains, climbing directly toward the blackest of the
thunderheads we had been watching for miles. This was the same
road we had come down just four days earlier beneath blue and
cloudless skies. Smoke from the Oregon fires no longer obscured
the air. The single-lane blacktop crossed the Little Trinity
on a concrete bridge, then wound up the Middle Fork to its junction
with Deadfall Creek near the headwaters of the Trinity River.
A mile or two further we arrived at lush Deadfall Meadow, 800
feet below the lakes. Above us lay the cirque holding the lakes,
and above that towered Mount Eddy.
The Eddies, at the easternmost extension of the
Klamath Mountains, are a narrow
range of sedimentary and metamorphic rock trending north and
south between the
Trinities and the Shasta Valley. Standing alone, 9025-foot Mount
Eddy would be an
imposing monument. Unfortunately, however, it is dwarfed by
14,162-foot Mount Shasta
looming northeast across the valley. From Deadfall Meadow the
old Sisson-Callahan trail
climbs east past the lakes and over the southern shoulder of
Mount Eddy before
descending into the Shasta Valley. Our road, however, hair-pinned
north and climbed to
the ridge crest separating Trinity and Siskiyou Counties. Here
it intercepted the Pacific
Crest Trail at 6750 feet.
We squirmed out of the van onto the parking lot,
stretched our legs, and looked
around. Mount Eddy wore a sombrero, as the Mexicans are fond
of saying. But this was
not the flimsy, wide-brimmed, wheat-straw bonnet of the arid
Sonoran desert. No. Not at
all. Before us towered a ragged buffalo-hide warrior headdress
of an angry Indian
shaman, festooned with crackling lightning and booming thunderclaps,
torrents of rain underneath and ascending thousands of feet
skyward. Our trail circled
three miles southeastward, ending abruptly beneath the roiling
black thunderstorm. A
few wind-whipped raindrops torn from the storm tingled our skin.
Yet above our heads
the summer sky bore the clear blue of a washed marble. Floating
in the blue around us
towered the white billows of a half dozen other cumulonimbus
like the tall sails of
merchant ships plying a tranquil ocean. What to do? Camping
that night at the trailhead
was not a favored option. We could wait out the storm, or we
could plunge into our hike
and trust the monster to move out of our way. If we waited too
long, the next storm,
sailing in steadily from the west, might catch us on the trail.
Chances were we could hike
in and set up our tents before the next one hit.
we performed the final loading and stowing, strapped on our
backpacks, locked the van, and set our boots on the Pacific
Crest Trail hiking south. The trail was a good one, contouring
along the west and south slopes of a landscape of Martian red
peridotite sparsely forested with incense cedar, ponderosa pine,
and a few hardy red firs. Magnificent vistas open up across
the Trinity River Canyon to the Trinity Alps crowned by granitic
Bear Mountain, Sawtooth Ridge, and Thompson Peak. The trail
rose imperceptibly and after a mile curved south as it entered
a thickly forested slope of granitic scree and duff.
Susan's backpack was heavier than we planned
for her first trip, although not as heavy as ours. She endured
increasing pain in her shoulders and neck, so we stopped in
the forest shade to refit her pack. I set the shoulder straps
closer together and jury-rigged a sternum strap. By tightening
her belt to transfer more of the weight to her hips, Susan found
the pack more comfortable, if not perfect. We pressed on. After
two miles the trail emerged from the forest onto a precipitous
exposed slope of sharp granite boulders and the climb steepened.
Below us Deadfall Meadow opened out in a lush green sward. As
we finally climbed into the cirque containing the lakes, the
terrain again changed into the rough red ultramafic rock supporting
a sparse growth of trees and shrubs. Our path dropped to a crossing
of the northern fork of Deadfall Creek, and on the other side
lay the junction with the Sisson-Callahan trail rising to meet
us from Deadfall Meadow.
From the junction we cross-countried to a boulder-strewn
lateral moraine above
the northwest shore of the large Middle Lake where we had camped
before. The moraine
runs east and west, dividing the drainage in two. South of the
moraine the Middle Lake
and the smaller Lower Lake populate a fracture line between
granite to the south and
peridotite to the north. A white wall of granite talus rises
above the Lower Lake with the
southbound Pacific Crest Trail scratched through it. Water spills
from the Middle Lake
into the Lower Lake, then tumbles down a granitic lip toward
Deadfall Meadow below.
North of the moraine the Callahan-Sisson trail climbs along
the northern fork of Deadfall
Creek as it spills down from the Upper Lakes above.
There on the rise between the Middle Lake and
a grassy meadow we found our old
campsite at the edge of a grove of mountain mahogany. A well-used
fire pit had been
built of large rocks stacked against a massive, sharp-edged
slab of red boulder. The sun
had disappeared and the sky threatened imminent rain. This campsite
was high and dry
and protected by the tall trees of a spare mixed conifer forest,
so we dropped our packs
against the pale hulk of a fallen tree and hurriedly made camp.
The first order of business was to erect Susan's
tent, then put up our own before the deluge hit. No time for
backpacking lessons. While Susan stood clear, we deployed our
familiar old blue tent with the quick precision of the Blue
Angels jet fighter team. Still only a few sporadic splashes
of rain descended, though the sky was growing ominously blacker.
While Susan unloaded her sleeping bag, mat, and clothing into
her tent, we set up our own tent in a clearing beside a small
red fir Christmas tree. Miraculously, no serious rain fell before
we managed to stow all our gear and cover our backpacks with
was still afternoon, but we decided to build a fire and cook
supper while we could. As a light drizzle began to fall, we
donned our ponchos. I modified the fire pit toaccept our grill
while Susan and Barbara gathered dry sticks and twigs. The drizzle
was not heavy enough to dampen the fire once we got it blazing.
Susan sat on a rock and watched Barbara cook a freeze-dried
dinner in our new oversized, three-person cook pot. Still the
heavy rain held off, and the sky even seemed to lighten, as
Susan had her first taste of freeze-dried, back-country fare.
As usual, it was delicious after the long hike in.
After dinner, the overcast continued to brighten.
We scrubbed our dishes and
explored the area. Patches of blue sky appeared and some late
afternoon sunlight glanced
through the humid air. We strolled down to the Lower Lake and
returned as the sun set.
That night it rained, heavy at times, but we slept snug and
dry in our tents.
Clear skies and a freshly-washed earth greeted
us Friday morning. I strung up the
hammocks, and Susan joined in our ritual morning coffee, tea,
and silence. A few puffy
clouds swam in the mostly blue sky. After breakfast, we again
strolled down to the
Lower Lake. Comfortable in a short-sleeved T-shirt, Susan sat
on the black boulders
exposed on the receded shore and watched a thousand tadpoles
metamorphose into a
horde of tiny hopping frogs.
I was feeling tired, so we decided to take an
easy stroll around the big lake we were camped on. In a wet
bog at the marshy northeast corner we showed Susan a patch of
carnivorous Darlingtonia, or California Pitcher Plant. We also
encountered abundant wildflowers, including bright red paintbrush,
blue gentian, daises with yellow centers and bright purple rays,
vetch, and the lacy white heads of what we decided was cow parsnip.
The meadow at the east end was dry and easily passable. No one
was camped there or at the big campsite in the boulders at the
southeast corner. From the steep south shore the views were
impressive of Mount Eddy, with its signature white slash of
vertically intruded granite.
As we wandered through the flood plain at the
west end of the lake, the wind rose.
None of the campsites there were occupied. We had the lake all
to ourselves. By the
time we returned to our camp in the afternoon, the wind had
become a steady, irritating
nuisance blowing straight off the lake. By late afternoon, it
was a gale, and we had to
drop over the rise to the meadow to escape it. There we fired
up our Sierra stove and
cooked dinner in the lee of the moraine. We ate on our foam
pads at the meadow's edge.
Saturday morning I was still tired, but we decided
to begin the 2000-foot climb
toward the summit of Mount Eddy and see how far we got. We immediately
a long straggle of day-hikers attempting the peak. Someone had
gone to a lot of trouble
popularizing Mount Eddy in Sierra Club newsletters and catchy
feature articles in the
Sunday magazines of big-city newspapers far away. During our
four-day stay we
encountered three groups of ten or twelve middle-aged hikers
with walking sticks and day
packs, but few other backpackers. This was clearly not a trek
for solitude seekers.
We ascended the Sisson-Callahan trail as it wound
up the moraine north of the
lakes, finally cresting the ridge at a small lake where we had
once camped years ago.
The area was sparsely forested with lodgepole and rare foxtail
pines. The path continued
up into the cirque containing the Upper Lake directly beneath
Mount Eddy. There the
water was the lurid, startling, and inexplicable color of Pepto-Bismol.
The Sisson-Callahan Trail curved around the lake
and climbed the southern
shoulder of Mount Eddy to meet a junction with the Mount Eddy
trail before descending
the far slope into the Shasta Valley and the City of Mount Shasta,
formerly known as
Sisson. The exposed slopes above the trail junction were thinly
forested with stunted
white bark and foxtail pines. The wind blew powerfully from
the southwest. We climbed
up the trail for a while, dropped over the rim of the cirque
to escape the wind, and ate
lunch gazing down on the Pepto-Bismol of the Upper Lake and
the more plausible
blue-green of the Middle and Lower Lakes beyond.
After lunch, I felt tired. The glands in my throat
were swollen. Uncharacteristically, I vacillated about whether
we should climb the rest of the way to the summit in the blustery
southwesterly wind. Susan and Barbara both wanted to press on.
I considered waiting behind, but decided to keep going as far
as I could. The straw hat on my head bent and twisted and blew
off in the wind, so I tied it to my day pack. We all cinched
our windbreakers tightly about our necks and leaned into the
steady gale, pressing on one step after another up the barren,
steep switchbacks toward the top.
ten-thousand small steps Susan finally led us over the crest
of the treeless summit. Mount Shasta dominated the eastern horizon
of the 360-degree vista. Susan was exuberant. A sense of accomplishment
infused us. The gale was powerful and unrelenting, so we hunkered
down just below the summit on the east and gazed at Mount Shasta.
A few other day-hikers squatted out of sight below the rim to
the north. The sky hung pure blue above with a froth of haze
on the far northern horizon. The Cascades stretched from the
hazy pyramid of Mount McLoughlin in the north to the residual
snows of Mount Lassen in the south. Behind us, over the crest,
lay the wilderness of the Trinity Alps, the Russians, and the
Marble Mountain. We sat on top of the world.
An unrepentant novice geologist, I began to point
out the contrast between the
smooth flowing terrain of the Cascade Range and the crinkled
rough texture of the
uplifted Klamath Mountains. No one payed much attention as I
expounded on my
embryonic hypothesis of the Jefferson Slip Fault, and soon my
ramblings were totally lost
and died out in the howl of the wind. An awe beyond words settled
Time waits for no one. What goes up must come
down. Enlightenment passes.
Reluctantly we collected our things and began the long lugubrious
trek back down to our
campsite, the van, and the airplane that would carry Susan back
to Chicago. We had
attained a goal. So what?
By the time we got back to camp the wind had
died down and the afternoon sun
was hot. We determined to try a quick dip in the lake. Generational
values differ, so
Barbara and I took a quick skinny-dip while Susan put on her
bathing suit in her tent. We
were securely wrapped in our towels by the time Susan came down
and plunged into the
cold water for a refreshing, albeit short, swim. The sun warmed
and dried us.
last evening was quiet. The wind had quit. After dinner we sat
by the water and watched the sun set a golden red over the lower
lake. We found our way back to camp in the gloaming. A new group
camping at the end of our lake had built a blazing campfire
that reflected picturesquely in the still waters.
Sunday morning was cool, and we drank our tea
and coffee by a blazing campfire. We took down our tents, gathered
our things, loaded our packs, and hiked out. On the way, I posed
a question, to get Susan's fresh perspective on the activity
we loved. Why bother to backpack? None of us, alas, could
articulate a satisfactory answer. Perhaps that is because the
answer resides not in the head, but in the heart.
When we were young, my brother George and I would
be transported annually to Aunt Kate and Uncle Lloyd's house
for Thanksgiving Dinner. At the banquet table our elders would
pass the gravy and talk of creepy medical procedures, of what
they had eaten for dinner last Wednesday, and of aunts and uncles
and cousins with names like "John Brooks," "Candler,"
and "Cynthia and Elizabeth," who in my mind's eye
were faceless constellations in a receding and irrelevant galaxy
of kinship. Then we would nod off in an easy chair while a football
game droned on the radio. I loved and respected my aunt and
uncle, but I never really knew them.
I hope this backpack trip with Susan has pierced
that polite arms-length banality I
learned to be normal. I hope it exposed Barbara, Susan, and
me to an intimation of each
other's humanity and visions. Not that I would have Susan follow
in our footsteps. It is
more than enough that she appreciates our love of the wilderness.
Oh, and the swollen glands in my neck subsided
over the ensuing weeks as my vigor returned. The best guess the doctor could offer was Cat Scratch Fever.
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