Following the Trickster
Copyright © 2010 by Richard S. Platz, All rights reserved

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Fox Creek, Virginia, and Section Line Lakes Backpack
Trinity Alps Wilderness
Klamath National Forest
August 21-24, 2009
Photos by the Author and Barbara Lane Except Where Noted

"We would carry him along in our hearts"

Our friend Mr. Popper, master of practical jokes, had died the previous Fall. On the final day of September he succumbed to a glioblastoma. Nancy had been at his side. He never intended to leave her alone – his love, his companion, his soul mate and friend – but what could he do? Ol' Death had come unbidden that night and whisked the Trickster away.

Rudely summoned from her lullaby of lifelong harmony, Nancy awoke to a nightmare of bereavement. She dealt with it the best she could. Ten months of tattered days had fluttered past by the time we invited her to join us on a four-day backpack into Fox Creek Lake. Popper and Nancy and Barbara and I had backpacked several times together, most recently in August 2006 to Patterson Lake in the South Warner Wilderness (see Highway 299 Revisited ). That was Popper's last backpack. Now, being dead, he could of course no longer shoulder a backpack. So instead we agreed to carry him along in our hearts.

Fox Creek Lake is one in a cluster of four lakes situated in a high rocky canyon at the head of the Fox Creek drainage on the northernmost slopes of the Trinity Alps Wilderness. Glaciers had ground out cirques from the Mesozoic granite bedrock of the Craggy Peak Pluton, spilling the tailings northward as an apron of moraine. Fox Creek cuts northward from the lakes through the glacial till to join the South Fork of the Scott River, thence the flow continues north to irrigate alfalfa fields of the Scott Valley. Of the four, only Fox Creek Lake and Mavis Lake can be accessed by a maintained trail.

I had been to Fox Creek Lake before with the Annual Spring Acid Backpack Group. That was in July of 1984. A quarter of a century had passed, and my recollections were faded and threadbare, though some few swatches of whole cloth remained.

On one such scrap I found embroidered memory of the steep hike up to the lake. James Aaron and Joan had joined me from Chico. As we sweated uphill in the blazing sun, I recall observing, "Every backpack is painful. It's just that the pain lasts longer on some than on others." I recall it all because that same thought has returned like a homeless pigeon during subsequent hikes of every season.

Mr. Popper played a memorable role on that earlier trip. He had led the group on a dayhike from Fox Creek Lake, where I believe we were camped, over the ridge to Virginia Lake, thence cross-country up to the Pacific Crest Trail on the high granite cliff above Section Line Lake. I recalled nothing of Fox Creek or Virginia Lakes, not the forest, not our campsite, not the terrain. But seared into my memory was that act of pure madness when, following Popper, we had scrambled down a vertical, rocky couloir on an ill-advised and dangerous shortcut from the PCT straight down to the south shore of Section Line Lake. Everyone on the dayhike had followed along. Not one had turned back. Peer pressure ruled, I guess, and youthful delusions of indestructibility. Miraculously, no one had broken a single bone. Clearly I recall the plunge of sweet relief into the icy waters of the lake and then sunning ourselves naked on the rocks.

Neither Nancy nor Barbara had been to Fox Creek Lake. Though we included it annually on our list of possible backpacks, it was a chance conversation at a birthday party a few weeks earlier that had determined our fate. Barbara had chatted at length with a new acquaintance, an avid backpacker, who advertised Fox Creek Lake as one of her favorites.

I could not recall the lake at all. The map gave the trail distance as four miles and the climb 1,300 feet. Not insignificant, but hopefully still within our range. The suicidal scramble down to Section Line Lake from the PCT could easily be avoided by a leisurely three-quarter-mile stroll up-slope from Fox Creek Lake. Or so it seemed in the planning.

This backpack would be Nancy's first since Popper passed away. She chose to bring along her longtime friend and neighbor Patricia. This was fitting, since both were younger than Barbara and I and thus more attuned to a rhythm of vigor and impulse. We, in our dotage, were more set in our ways.

Access to the Fox Creek trailhead is from the dying little town of Callahan in a southeast twitch of the Scott Valley tail. Nancy and Patricia would drive in Nancy's station wagon and meet us at the rustic, drive-in campground at Scott Mountain Summit. There, at 5000 feet, we hoped to find the night air cool enough to sleep. Next morning we would drop down to Callahan, drive the short distance to the trailhead, and get an early start hiking.

Barbara and I departed Blue Lake in the early afternoon on Thursday. The river valleys were mercilessly hot. At the Straw Bale House in Big Bar the temperature stood at 101. In Weaverville, where we bought sandwiches and gas, the thermometer soared to an inhuman 105. Fortunately our van was endowed with air-conditioning, but we fretted that Nancy's station wagon was not.

A weathered plaque commemorates the historical significance of the Scott Mountain Summit, proclaiming something about toll roads and Indian raids. We arrived there before five o'clock and found a large, shady campsite halfway back to the meadow, where we ate our sandwiches in the lingering heat. Mr. Popper, Barbara, and I had camped together in this same campsite in 1994 on our way to Grizzly Lake (see Shortcut Into Grizzly Lake ). Only one other person was settled within the campground proper, a long-haired fellow and his dog in the next campsite, across the road from the only pit toilet.

The gentle knoll above was blighted by a small city of recreational vehicles, travel trailers, people, dogs, and yelping children in a camping area we had never seen, apparently a rogue arm of the campground separating us from the PCT. It looked like they were planning a lengthy stay. A converted school bus had "CHRISTIAN OUTDOOR GARDEN OF CHILDREN," or some such, painted on the side. I felt a little uneasy, like camping next to the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.

"All relatives," explained a young man emerging from the toilet. "Just a family get-together."

Mollified, we settled in, hiked down to the Darlingtonia fen, then took the PCT south a little ways toward the Marshy Lakes. Back at camp we built a small fire with split logs we had brought from home. As it grew dark, we watched the stars emerge against a blackening sky.

Around nine o'clock or so, with the fire reduced to glowing coals, blinding headlights and a bug-spattered grill poked a roaring snout into camp. Nancy and Patricia climbed out of Nancy's station wagon. They had gotten a late start. Without air conditioning, they had stopped to swim in the North Fork of the Trinity River, then dawdled over dinner at the Bear's Breath at the Trinity Alps Resort. They had spent half an hour searching for us through the campground in the dark. By headlights and flashlights they spread out sleeping bags on the broad flat campsite. No tents. We all turned in by ten o'clock.

Friday was forecast to be another blistering day, so we arose with the first hint of dawn to get an early start hiking in. I wanted to leave by eight o'clock, drive to the trailhead, and start our hike by nine. But things did not work out that way.

Barbara and I ate breakfast, packed our backpacks, stowed the van, and were ready to go by a little after eight. Nancy and Patricia were still chatting and packing up. We lent them a 2-way radio and started down the highway toward Callahan, where we would meet.

No more than five miles down the highway, at the cusp of broadcast range, we heard a garbled message on the radio. Something about car trouble. We turned around and found our friends on the side of the road just below the Scott Mountain crest. The right front tire was flat as a pizza. Nancy had a spare, but it was soft. Fortunately we had a 12-volt air pump, so we pumped up the spare and bolted it on. The process ate into our precious morning cool.

At Callahan, we studied the map, asked a passing tourist who knew nothing, then took South Fork Road which shortly intersected with desired Forest Road 40N17. We puzzled our way through a couple of intersections without benefit of signs, climbed southwest until we passed the East Boulder trailhead, and finally arrived at the signed Fox Ridge Trailhead about ten (N 41 14' 58.13", W 122 50' 03.22", 5388 feet). The parking lot offered plenty of space, was flat, graveled, and groomed, and sported only two other cars. When we began our hike a little later, the air temperature was still bearable. In the shade.

The trail ascended steeply south in blazing sun through tall manzanita, up a long, straight medial moraine that divided the Fox Creek canyon to our right (west) from the West Boulder Lake drainage to our left (east). The Fox Ridge. After a quarter mile we crossed another graded road and entered the wilderness. As the trail rose southward, the sparse Ponderosa pine gave way to an ever-thickening mixed-conifer forest of white and red fir, white pine, a few scattered incense cedars, and at least one Brewer's spruce.

Nancy and Patricia would hike on ahead, then wait for Barbara and me to catch up. This suited me, for I found that their constant dialogue, enjoyed by many hikers, would distract me from the silent communion with nature and each other that Barbara and I customarily enjoyed.

After an hour of hiking, our medial moraine merged with the terminal moraine that clothed the steep north slope of the main mountain block. At an open meadow, steeply tilting above a grassy swale, Nancy and Patricia had stopped to rest. Perched on rounded granite boulders exposed from the moraine, we ate trail bars or handfuls of gorp and enjoyed the view north into the Scott Valley. Already we had climbed high above Fox Creek and could see the valley floor below us arcing southwestward, rising toward a distant ring of jagged pinnacles and granite cliffs, which seemed to have migrated too far north. Our orientation had grown askew as the trail slowly wheeled, undulating in and out of gullies and ravines. We would continue to climb, following the greater arc of the higher mountain slope in a broad clockwise loop until, like a horseshoe, the trail would intercept the creek as it spilled from Fox Creek Lake.

When we resumed our hike, the trail ascended through a tilting, healthy, northwest-facing forest underlain with glacial till, until it gradually hooked westward, and we began to climb a series of lovely moraine terraces. Tall red firs decorated little alpine gardens of low manzanita and wildflowers, and brilliant white granite rocks and boulders studded the loose duff. As we climbed, the forest grew more open, allowing the sun to broil us as we trudged between the shrinking islands of shade. In time the trail crested a divide and began to drop through an open graveyard of exhumed boulders to a dry stream bed. There we came at last to a trail junction and a sign. One arrow pointed steeply uphill toward the Pacific Crest Trail, several hundred feet above. I unfolded the map. The route was called the Wolford Cabin Trail. Beyond the crest it dropped south to Wolford Cabin and a junction with the Granite Creek Trail in the Coffee Creek drainage.

A few steps up the trail a second sign announced that Mavis Lake was nigh, though not exactly where. Nancy and Patricia conferred. "Do you want to go on up and take a look at Mavis?" Nancy asked us. "Wherever it may be."

The hiking books had described Mavis as not very attractive. Art Bernstein called it "shallow, mucky," and "not worth the long walk." The map showed the Fox Ridge Trail continuing westward, at one point passing just a couple hundred feet below the north end of Mavis, then on around a ridge another mile to Fox Creek Lake. I looked at Barbara. We were already tired and overdue for lunch. I gestured on up the main trail, and Barbara nodded.

"I think we're gonna keep on going to Fox Creek Lake," I replied. "Maybe we'll catch it on the way out."

Nancy and Patricia discussed their options. Then Nancy announced, "Patricia and I are going to go look for Mavis."

"That's fine," I said.

"We'll see you at Fox Creek in a little while," Barbara added.

Our companions left us, and a little further along the trail we stopped for lunch. The last leg of the journey climbed around an open, rocky ridge of bedrock and granite blocks, dropped into the forested Fox Creek Valley, then climbed again in one last scramble to the lake. Though only a mile, the hike was tiring.

Barbara and I arrived at Fox Creek Lake a little after two. The trail dead ended at a primo site on the north shore of the lake (N 41 12' 41.2", W 122 50' 57.3", 6552 feet). The camp was vacant, so we leaned our backpacks against the wall of a massive, flat-toped boulder, big as a cabin, overlooking the water. The ground was open, clear, flat, and spacious, with a substantial fire ring, logs to sit on, a flat slab propped up for a table, and easy access to the lake. The sturdy forest of red fir, mountain hemlock, and lodgepole and white pine provided plenty of shade and hammock sites. A narrow buffer of trees and brush separated us from the lake.

Our water bottles were empty, so Barbara unstrapped the gallon plastic jug while I pulled out the water filter and pump. We waited to deploy the rest of our equipment until our companions arrived and bestowed site approval. That gave me the chance, as was my habit, to explore the vicinity for alternative campsites before commitment.

The campsite was perched on the domed lip of the bedrock bowl that held the lake, and was paved with exposed boulders, glacial till, and forest duff. We found an easy path down to the water's edge and stood on the long north shore looking south across the lake. The water had dropped two feet from its high mark of earlier in the season, leaving the shore wide and grassy, an easy corridor around the lake. The ridge to our left (east), around which we had horseshoed in from Mavis Lake, was low, but ascended southward to a high, distant crest. Beneath the ridge the water was shallow, with broad patches of lilypads wavering offshore from green swathes of grassy meadow.

Palpably missing across the lake was a sheer granite headwall. Instead, a rising bowl of dense forest stretched up and away for half a mile, obscuring the white granite rock and talus from which it grew. Above and behind this imperfect forest curtain, patches of talus, rock cliff, and ridge crest spires peeked through. To the southwest loomed a high crenelated dome of exposed granite, the highest point, from which a bare leg of slickrock granite descended to plunge beneath the deep water and dam the west end of the lake. The map showed it to be a ridge that divided Fox Creek Lake from the canyon beyond, which harbored Virginia Lake. We heard voices coming from that direction. We were, alas, not alone.

After sculpting this lake basin, the glaciers, as they withdrew to a higher, colder clime, had carved the upper canyon, rock by rock and grain by grain, in a series of bedrock cirques and terraces, then partially refilled them with stones and till released from the melting ice and blocks of granite split off from the towering cliffs above and sledded down the snow. In the distance to the southeast was our longest view, a valley that offered a glimpse of a sheer cliff, which probably stood as the headwall above Section Line Lake. The ridge above it provided a fairly level base on which the Pacific Crest Trail could traverse east and west.

Mr. Popper stood here once, beheld this vista. I wondered what became of all his memories. They had begun to fade like photos left out to bleach in the sun before the album was finally closed. As had my own. Was that not why I scribbled down these frail accounts?

Barbara volunteered to dip water from the lake and pump it into drinking bottles while she waited for Nancy and Patricia at the campsite. In quest of a more perfect campsite, I strolled along the shore toward the granite ridge rising over the west end of the lake. Two men were standing on a huge, rounded boulder that plunged into deep water. They were neatly dressed, perhaps in their twenties, and engaged in a loud banter as if strutting on the frat house steps for all to see. As I approached, I discovered a third man leaned against the rocks and actually typing something into his laptop. Their bright polo shirts and neatly creased golf shorts seemed out of place in the wilderness. Overlooking the lake, yet oblivious to it, they seemed bent on bludgeoning into submission everything wild and sublime with cleverness, their dandy clothes, and digital toys. They made a point of ignoring me.

I passed a little patch of water lilies floating in the shallows, then, just before the trail entered a grove of alders at the northwest corner, I sang out cordially, "Hello. You fellows come in on the Fox Ridge Trail?"

The nearest deigned to twist his head. "No. Came in the other way." He waved vaguely over the distant mountain as he turned his back on me. Dismissed. Conversation ended.

So I followed the trail through the alders and climbed up the slickrock saddle behind them searching for campsites beyond. Their tents and backpacks were crowded into a small clearing behind the rocks, and I veered around it as much as the terrain would allow. Beyond them I continue a short distance along the west shore trail and found a couple of small, rough campsites, but it soon became apparent we had already taken the best.

Back at camp I related my close encounter to Barbara as we pitched our tent in a flat clearing well away from the substantial rock fire ring. We had learned long ago, when camping with others, not to set up too near the campfire lest fireside prattle keep our slumber at bay.

Nancy and Patricia arrived a short time later. Pleased with our choice of campsites, they propped their packs against the big rock.

"How was Mavis?" Barbara asked.

"Small and shallow," Nancy replied. "But it didn't dissuade Patricia from taking a dip."

"There was a nice sandy beach," Patricia explained.

We all walked down to the lake. The water was a perfect temperature for a swim, so we strolled west along the shore in search of a good spot. The young frat boys had retired to their campsite, but when they saw three females had arrived, they clambered out onto the rocks again, pretending to fish. The gawking made the women uncomfortable, so they retreated eastward along the shore. Patricia had brought a swim suit, and Barbara and Nancy swam in their undies. Fearless, I swam naked as usual.

By the time we had finished deploying our gear, cocktail hour had arrived. Cocktail time comes early in the wilderness. Something about warding off bears or evil spirits, I believe. Nancy, draped in a stunning blue sarong, offered tequila around, and I our trademark amaretto. After numerous nips and sips and slugs, we found ourselves jabbering and laughing in hammocks strung around the campfire ring. Life was good. The camp felt like home. Patricia had carried in a pint of Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum, but before we got into that bad boy, the conversation turned to dinner.

I built a fire and Barbara quickly hydrated and heated freeze-dried Three Cheese Lasagna, which sobered us. Quick, tasty, and satisfying. Ingredients were probably listed on the package. I never looked. When we returned from washing our bowls and pot, Nancy and Patricia were concocting their supper from scratch. With running commentary, they mixed, sampled, boiled, and fried an array of rices, grains, veggies, roots, and tubers, some with unpronounceable foreign names, for their multi-course repast. It was like watching the cooking channel.

Patricia and Nancy had both brought tents, but chose not to deploy them that night. Patricia spread her sleeping bag out on a plastic ground cloth beside the big rock. Nancy set hers up on top. We cautioned her about sleepwalking in the dark, which might result in a ten-foot plunge, but she was not too worried. The stars overhead made the risk worthwhile. As darkness enveloped, we crawled into our tent.

Saturday morning Barbara and I arose with first light, as was our custom, built a small fire to boil water, and prepared our mocha and tea as silently as possible, so as not to waken our comrades. Then we meditated for the better part of an hour on our pads by the water's edge. When we returned to camp for breakfast, our friends were just getting up and beginning to fill the morning with the cheerful domestic banter of an ordinary kitchen. Barbara joined in. Why, I wondered, do folks so love to prattle on about food? Free range food. Wild food. Nutritious food. Pernicious food. Ethnic food. Domestic food. Exotic food. Erotic food. Flavor. Texture. Recipes. Cooking. Buying. And always the restaurants with interesting menus.

Excusing myself, I retired to the lake shore to commune with the voices of nature. The murmur of conversation and laughter wafted down pleasantly from camp, a sound as natural as the buzzing of cicadas. And as long as I could not make out the words, those pesky little pirates could no longer hijack my attention.

After breakfast Nancy and Patricia announced that they had decided to backpack up to Virginia Lake and stay overnight. We offered to dayhike along with them. Using the GPS and dead-reckoning, we crossed the slickrock saddle above the frat boys camp until it dropped into a thick forest on the other side, where we found and followed sporadic cairns and a few faint tracks. There was no trail. Our path looped back southward and climbed through the woods at the margin between the exposed granite blocks and talus above and the impenetrable willows, alders, and brush that choked the valley floor below. The pitch was steep and grew steeper.

Unable to follow the brush-choked outlet stream from Virginia Lake, we instead were forced to scramble ever higher into the sharp-edged granite blocks until we finally crested a slickrock ridge to gaze down at Virginia Lake far below us. For me the climb was deja vu. I had harbored a vivid memory of this same approach, but could never have recalled where or when it had taken place.

Barbara and I were glad not to be toting backpacks as we all scrambled down the talus slope to the water's edge. We arrived near a picturesque little island at the outlet. Virginia was smaller and cozier than Fox Creek Lake. More secluded. More remote. The towering headwall of bedrock granite, being nearer, seemed more sheer. Below the headwall, thick forest encircled the lake, climbing from the grassy shore into the rough granite blocks and talus split off from above. A wild place it was.

Nancy and Patricia found a perfect campsite right beside the water (N 41 12' 20.4", W 122 51' 26.7", 6840 feet). No one else was there. The shore was brushy and the lake's edge shallow, providing no easy access to the water, except for a massive fallen log that entered the lake like a dock. Nancy and Patricia swam off the log. The water, they claimed, was cooler than Fox Creek Lake.

As we picked at our lunch beside the fire ring, two women climbed down the talus slope to join us. They wore khaki shirts with Forest Service patches. The leader appeared to be in her forties. Her companion was much younger, perhaps twenty, still in college and learning the rangerette trade as a summer intern. They had come around to check the campsites and clean out the fire pits. We chatted as they dug out the ashes and dispersed them in the surrounding bushes. We had plenty of questions for them, like identifying trees and brush, and the best cross-country routes to the PCT and Section Line Lake. They were agreeable and, in the spirit of the Big Ranger, happily answered as best they could, even though they were on a tight schedule and had to make it back to their truck by nightfall. Then we watched them circle the small lake, stopping to clean out fire pits and pack out trash from two or three campsites we had not suspected were there.

In mid-afternoon Barbara and I found our way back to our camp at Fox Creek Lake. Having done it once, backtracking the route was not as difficult. The frat boys had quieted down, perhaps hungover. We went for a lazy swim, then laid on our mats in the sun by the water. A man and boy, probably father and son, wandered silently along the opposite shore, fishing. We could not tell if they were dayhiking or backpacking. Later we saw smoke from their campfire behind a stand of tall red fir beyond the meadow at the southeast corner of the lake. Quiet as shadows, they did not bother us.

The afternoon daydreamed past in a flash of silver, and we were unable to tell if it was fish or water. A handsome osprey fished the lake for our amusement. We saw water ouzels, cormorants, flickers, chickadees, juncos, redbreasted nuthatches, and hummingbirds. Though we enjoyed our tribe of four, the best of all worlds allowed us to have a single night to ourselves.

The wind came up that night, rushing through the branches with the roar of white-capped breakers. Gusts flapped the walls of our tent. But inside we slept warm and snug.

Sunday morning was still breezy and colder. We found harbor in the lee of the big rock, where we drank our tea and mocha bundled in down jackets, enjoying the soughing of the wind. From our new perspective, we determined that the stout tree leaning over our tent was in fact dead and rotting. Luckily the gusts had not blown it over and squashed us like bugs. How, after all life's fuss, would that look on the obituary page? The wilderness is not your Forest Service campground, where hard-hat workers behind bands of yellow tape prune away hazard trees and branches. Here, on your own, you have to pay attention. So after breakfast, we dragged our tent away from the snag.

Nancy and Patricia returned sometime after breakfast, just as I was loading my daypack to hike up to Section Line Lake. They had returned to our lake through the campsite formerly occupied by the three frat boys, who had packed up and left already. We never did find out which trailhead they used.

Nancy and Patricia decided to hike back to Mavis on the Fox Ridge Trail, then take the Wolford Cabin Trail up to the PCT and head west. Patricia had an older Forest Service map that showed a little spur trail off the PCT dropping down to Section Line Lake. My more recent map showed no such spur, indicating that it was no longer maintained. I retold my tale of the suicidal scramble down the cliff face to Section Line Lake with Mr. Popper, but she and Nancy wanted to give the new route a try. If the going got tough, they would turn back. In the late morning they headed off.

I resolved to cross-country directly up to Section Line Lake. Mr. Popper must have led us back that way 25 years ago, and since I could remember nothing of the hike, it must have been significantly uneventful. Barbara would stay behind because her achilles tendon was acting up.

Barbara walked with me along a fisherman's trail on the eastern shore to the big meadow at the southeastern corner. There we crossed an inlet stream, which I presumed was flowing out of Section Line Lake 500 feet above. We found a large, empty campsite containing two stout trees with deep blazes. I interpreted the blazes to be the gateway to the upper lake. Up the slope I also found several cairns that looked like the beginning of a trail. We had a leisurely lunch viewing the lake from a new perspective. Barbara spotted a kingfisher she wanted to keep an eye on.

After lunch I clambered up the steep bluff and found a faint use trail marked with sporadic cairns. Soon the cairns ran out, so I followed the arrow on my GPS into which I had programed the coordinates for Section Line Lake. The route was steep and brushy, climbing the eastern slope of a broad, shallow canyon down which flowed a stream. I assumed the stream was pouring out of Section Line Lake. The valley floor became too overgrown to follow the stream directly, so I climbed higher into the broken talus. The scramble was more difficult than I expected.

I was ascending a north-facing, thickly forested slope. The GPS lost the signal as the satellites dropped below the massif ahead, and thus kept pointing in the same direction. Finally I topped a treeless ridge, balancing in the middle of a field of sharp-edged granite boulders, and got a fresh reading. I had missed the lake by only a couple hundred feet, but the terrain was too rough to simply cut across to the lake. I had to backtrack down to the duff of the forest floor, traverse over to the right, and climb again. It turned out the stream I was following was not flowing out of Section Line Lake after all, but from a series of springs in a ferny glade below the lake. I crossed above the springs, then headed uphill again. It had taken me forty minutes to find the lake.

From the north ridge of the cirque above the Section Line Lake, I called Barbara on the radio and told her the climb had been rough going. Then I dropped down to the northwest shore (N 41 12' 088.9", W 122 50' 41.6", 7065 feet). The lake was small and intimate beneath a towering headwall, down which tumbled a swath of sharp, white rock, pried loose by water freezing in the cracks and seams of the granite cliff face. Enormous boulders pocked the landscape, one near the outlet, which no longer flowed. The green, rippling water was shallow near the north shore, but plunged deep below the headwall. A healthy forest had gained foothold in the rocky soil. The shore was bearded with low azalea, heather, and grass, through which a faint fishermen trail wound among the boulders.

As I circled clockwise taking pictures, I became aware of two young women on their hands and knees in the short brush and heather beside the water on the southeast shore. They were not sunbathing, but fully clothed, with broad floppy hats. They were preoccupied doing something slowly, painstakingly. Perhaps picking berries?

"Hello!" I called out from a hundred feet away.

One sat up. "Hello." Her calm voice carried nicely over the still water.

"Have you seen two women hiking down from the crest trail?"

"No. You're the first person we've seen today."

"Are you camped up here?"

"Yes," she replied. "Over in those trees." She pointed to a small stand behind her, away from the lake.

"Is there a trail up here?" I asked.

"Yes. A rough one. From Mavis."

I explained briefly that I was supposed to meet Nancy and Patricia here. "If you see them, let them know I was already here and gone."

"Okay." She went back to whatever she was doing. Apprehensive, I approached no closer. Perhaps they were up to something kinky. How would I know? There were more things in this universe than what my philosophy encompassed. I decided to let them have their space and turned back to retrace my steps to the far shore. There I sat on a boulder for a while and took a few more photos. Then I headed back down.

While I was away, Barbara saw two young guys fishing, probably dayhikers, as she completed her clockwise loop back to camp. She was relaxing at our campsite, thinking all the dayhikers had left, when she was stunned by three thunderous gunshots nearby, right at the lake. She scrambled behind a boulder and kept her head down, her heart trip-hammering. But there were no more shots, and she never saw who it was. I called about fifteen minutes later to say I was almost down to our lake, and that I, too, had heard the shots echoing through the canyon. I saw no one on my way around the lake.

We walked over to the granite boulders near the frat boys' campsite and swam off the rocks, then rested awhile. It gave us yet another perspective. The weather was a little cooler and windier than before, but plenty warm in the sun.

Nancy and Patricia got back around five. They had arrived at Section Line after I left and talked with two women camped there. They were doing a frog survey for Redwood Sciences Laboratory. The frog populations of these lakes had been decimated in recent years, probably because the Forest Service had been stocking the lakes for years with non-native fish. Now the stocking had stopped, and biologists wanted to know if the frog population was coming back. (See Effects of Introduced Fish on Native Biodiversity and Ecosystem Subsidy.) What I had considered odd behavior, now made sense. The women had been counting frogs.

A cairn had marked the cutoff trail from the PCT. The hike down to Section Line Lake had not been difficult. From Section Line they had come back to camp a different way than I. We all agreed that it was steep and rough no matter which way you go.

We had Fox Creek Lake all to ourselves. Nancy chose to deploy her tent for the final night. "As long as I carried it up here," she said. I recognized it as the old one-person tent Mr. Popper had crawled into years ago. She had inherited it. The next morning she would tell us, "It was like sleeping in a sarcophagus."

It was pleasant again to sit around the fire with the whole tribe and watch the stars come out. We finished Patricia's rum. The tequila and amaretto we would carry out. That night was cold enough for me to zip up my bag, even with the tent fly on.

Monday morning we left around eleven, stopping at the outlet to watch a Cooper's Hawk chasing Barbara's kingfisher. We did not stop at Mavis Lake. If Barbara has taught me anything over the years, it is the hollowness of peak bagging. Or lake bagging. Just to say you have been there. For all I could remember, I may have been to Mavis twenty-five years ago. I cannot recall, and it doesn't matter.

The return trek through the beautiful moraine terraces was particularly agreeable. After a while, though, the downhill trudge became wearisome, as it always does. For me this backpack had renewed old acquaintances. With the lakes. With the route. With Mr. Popper. With Nancy. With Barbara. With myself. As usual, I was not the same person who had hiked in. But was I any wiser? Probably not.

Just beyond the wilderness boundary sign a single car was parked on the first dirt road crossing the trail, just above the hot, steep, exposed final descent. We figured it probably belonged to the two women at Section Line Lake. When I planned the trip, a ranger had told me about a jeep road that ends right there at the boundary, cutting off a quarter mile of steep uphill. But we had been in too much of a hurry to look for it.

Ours were the only cars parked at the trailhead. The sun was blazing hot. Nancy and Patricia had beaten us back by fifteen minutes, and they were ready to move on. Nancy wanted to drive in to Etna and get her spare tire repaired. Since we planned to head north to our cabin through Etna anyway, we agreed to look for them there.

We found Nancy and Patricia at the gas station on Highway 3 on the outskirts of town. They had searched for a garage to fix the flat, but couldn't find anyone to do the job. So they bought a can of "Fix-a-Flat" at a hardware store and were heading for home. We bid each other farewell and went our separate ways.

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