As If Seeing For the First Time
Copyright © 2009 by Richard S. Platz, All rights reserved

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Devil's Punchbowl and Buck Lake Backpack
Siskiyou Wilderness
Klamath National Forest
July 29-August 1, 2008
Photos by the Author and Barbara Lane Except Where Noted

"On June 20, 2008, a severe thunderstorm system moved through northern and central California resulting in over 6,000 total lightning strikes in more than 26 counties. The overwhelming number of lightning strikes, along with record dry conditions sparked over two thousand lightning fires."--California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection

Northern California was ablaze. The Yolla Bollies and portions of the Trinity Alps Wilderness were closed. Canyon Creek, where we had last backpacked less than a year earlier (Into the Granitic Heart), was closed. Thick smoke choked the Klamath and Trinity River valleys. Downwind smoke blanketed the Warners, Lassen, and northern Sierras.

In the first week of July we had attempted to outflank the conflagration to the north by backpacking into Oregon's Sky Lakes Wilderness. There we confronted an opposite dilemma. The southern Oregon forests lay verdant from abundant winter precipitation, over two-hundred per cent of normal. The high country air sparkled, but was alive with another peril. On a sunny afternoon we parked the van at the trailhead for Alta Lake, planning to hike in six miles the following morning. To check things out, I strode up the trail, sweating. Not a hundred feet into the shade of the towering trees I was engulfed by a cloud of ravenous mosquitoes. I fled for my life, scratching at a dozen swelling welts. The vision haunted me of a brittle husk, broken on the forest floor, sucked dry of every vital fluid like the corpses on display at Guanajuato's Panteón.

By the end of July, prevailing winds had clocked to the northwest. Barbara and I calculated that the western reaches of the Siskiyou Wilderness, which drapes the high peaks of the Siskiyou Range in northwest California just south of the Oregon border, would be upwind of the smoke and fire. We had wanted to return to the Devil's Punchbowl anyway.

One of my earliest backpacks, nearly thirty years before, had been to the Punchbowl, before the Siskiyou Wilderness was established. Then, a rough road allowed visitors to drive all the way to Doe Flat and beyond, where a foot trail continued another half mile to Trout Camp on Clear Creek, which carved a channel south between metavolcanic Preston Peak and granitic Bear Mountain toward the Klamath River. The access was an easy downhill hike that, unfortunately, allowed fishermen, hunters, and six-pack-toting bubbas to haul in grates and grills, nail boards and benches to the trees, and vomit their trash throughout the pristine understory. From Trout Camp a foot trail climbed southwest into Bear Mountain's glacial gorge a rugged 2000 feet in a little over three miles to the Devil's Punchbowl. Over the years I had camped at Trout Camp a half dozen times and dayhiked to the Punchbowl at least twice. Shortly after we first met, Barbara and I had camped there with Mr. Popper and friends and made the dayhike. Funny, though, how neither of us could recollect with any clarity the climb or the lake itself.

In 1984 Congress designated the Siskiyou Wilderness, and the Forest Service closed the road to Doe Flat, moving the parking back two miles to Siskiyou Gap and stymying the irate bubbas. Recently, we were told, the Forest Service had closed to foot traffic the old road to Trout Camp and constructed a new trail, which intercepted the old trail linking Trout Camp and the Devil's Punchbowl.

I telephoned the Ranger Station in Gasquet, and a cooperative ranger faxed back a map of the new route to the Punchbowl, complete with margin notes showing trail distances. According to the map, we could hike directly from the trailhead to the lake in a mere 4.4 miles. The new route contoured southeast around the slopes of Bear Mountain to intercept the old Trout Camp-Punchbowl trail, thus avoiding 700 feet of drop down to Trout Camp. And if the going got tough that first day, at the trail junction we could simply descend to Trout Camp and make the four-mile hike to the lake the next day. As we pored over the faxed map, the new route seemed simple, reasonable, elegant, and well within our capabilities.

On Monday afternoon we set out for the trailhead, motoring north on Highway 101, then slicing northeast on Highway 199 at Crescent City. At Gasquet, I pulled off at the Ranger Station to thank the ranger for the faxed map and inquire about smoke conditions. Barbara stayed in the van. Inside, the receptionist was involved with a party of four, an older couple and a younger one, who were bemoaning at length a miserable failed attempt to hike into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness earlier that morning. Their trail had petered out in a nightmarish cloud of biting black bugs. Now they begged for a more benign and rewarding destination. As I listened in horror, the ranger recommended the Devil's Punchbowl.

Back to the van I fled, fearing that everyone who passed through was now being funneled into our secret destination. Barbara calmed me as I sped northward, pointing out that we were in no hurry, since we would be camping that night at the trailhead anyway. No one was going to beat us to the best campsite at the lake. At Little Jones Creek we left the Smith River and immediately began a long, steep climb southeast on Jawbone Road (Forest Service Road 16), which soon attained the splendid ridge top and began calling itself Bear Basin Butte Road.

Bear Basin Butte houses a refurbished lookout tower, which the Forest Service rents to private parties. Unfortunately, it had already been rented for the night. I pulled over to allow a dust-clotted gray sedan, which had been following too closely, to blast by us in a headlong rush to the trailhead. It appeared to contain the four backpackers I had encountered at the Gasquet Ranger Station. They were in a big hurry.

We turned east on Forest Road 16N02 and, passing beneath the lookout, dropped steeply into Bear Basin. We passed a broad new trailhead to Island Lake and then began climbing again. Siskiyou Gap is an unobtrusive 4,100-foot low gap in the stretch of the Siskiyou Range otherwise unbroken for twenty-five miles. There the road ended. A flat, narrow parking area was shaded by Brewer Spruce, red and Douglas fir, and spiced with red-barked manzanita shrubs. The Doe Flat trailhead (N 41 48' 50.9", W 123 42' 25.2", 4486 feet) sported a new pit toilet, a pair of picnic tables, and a half-dozen cars and trucks.

Parked near the trailhead gate, the Gasquet Four bustled about their dusty gray sedan in a flurry of activity, stuffing backpacks, checking gear, and putting things right for the hike in. It was already after four in the afternoon, and Barbara and I wondered about the wisdom of making such a late start, but no one asked our opinion. They seemed hell-bent on wringing every drop of adventure out of the remaining daylight hours. The two couples strapped on bulging backpacks, hurtled down the trail, and disappeared. Perhaps they planned to spend the night along the way.

Parked along the outside edge of the road were a long van marked "California Conservation Corps" and two Forest Service pickup trucks, one with an extended cab. Probably a trail crew. A big one. We expected to see them hiking out before dark. Most of the other vehicles had licence plate brackets or decals indicating they, like us, had driven in from the Humboldt Bay area. We had no way of knowing which had brought dayhikers and which backpackers, but solitude did not appear to be our long suit in the coming days.

The trailhead gate blocked vehicular traffic. Posted beside it was a sign:

Odd. Something had to be wrong. The calculations pencilled on the map the ranger had faxed us showed the total mileage between this trailhead and the Punchbowl to be 4.4 miles. Not 6½ miles! Maybe the sign was an old one, salvaged when the road to Doe Flat was closed and the trailhead moved back. Maybe it measured the abandoned route down to Trout Camp and thence up the steep trail to the Punchbowl. But the sign didn't look old. It looked brand new. Was there a confusion, I wondered, between air miles and trail miles? How would we possibly know, having never set foot on the new segment of trail? Irritable from the long drive, low blood sugar, and the prospect of a long, arduous hike, we ate sandwiches in grim silence at one of the picnic tables.

After dinner I leveled the van at a north-facing spur of the parking area. There we sat peacefully in our folding chairs and watched the long shadows creep across the vast landscape. The long view to the north was stunning, down the Siskiyou Fork of the Smith River, over unbroken green and magenta forested slopes. Directly before us the world dropped away into the dark woodland expanse of the Bear Basin Butte Botanical Area, reportedly one of richest coniferous forests in the world, containing more than fifteen different species of cone-bearing trees. To the west towered Bear Basin Butte, its all-seeing lookout backlit white by the late afternoon sun. The eastern horizon was dominated by the twin greenschist summits of 7,309-foot Preston Peak. Mr. Popper and I had climbed that peak twice, years before, once from Rattlesnake Meadow on the west slope, laid out before us now, and once from Raspberry Lake to the north.

Tuesday morning we awoke to clear sky, but as we sipped our tea and mocha in chairs beside the van, clouds descended from the north. Black-bottomed thunderheads crawled over us like millipedes on legs of rain, most of which evaporated before reaching the ground. We each felt a single drop. We packed up and began our hike at 9:00. Barbara wrapped her new backpack in a waterproof cover, and I draped my poncho through my straps, ready, just in case. The CCC van and Forest Service trucks had not moved from the side of the road.

For the first mile, the trail followed the closed road, eroded now and impassible in places. The bank cuts exposed metamorphic schist, intruded with thin white lines like grandma's lace doilies, which fragmented into flat silvery flakes. We began our descent into a geological wonderland. Supporting the wild biological diversity of the Bear Basin was a melange of collided, uplifted, deposited, intruded, extruded, and metamorphosed rocks which had converged incrementally over vast geological time. We were entering the Preston Peak ophiolite, the basement rock of the Klamath orogeny.

Before long we came to boulders placed to permanently block the road to Doe Flat. Beyond the boulders the old road was already overgrown and the foot trail erased. Instead, a new trail climbed the slope to the right and began a long contour through the forest along the metamorphic slope at the foot of Bear Mountain. We took the new trail, which quickly passed the wilderness boundary sign, then rose and fell with the undulations of the land.

After rising to cross a low lateral moraine, the trail dropped through a moist understory of ferns, vanilla leaf, brushy alder, and bright orange tiger lilies to a rocky junction with the Buck Lake trail. A sign, lettered with a black marking pen, did not seem up to Forest Service specifications and gave no distances. We continued across the Buck Lake outlet stream, which the map showed to be the source of Doe Creek. A little further, the trail crossed an unnamed stream, which descended vigorously from the upper slopes of Bear Mountain, unseen above the thick forest canopy. Just beyond the stream we arrived at a clearing with a campsite on the upper edge of Doe Flat. We took off our packs for a morning break.

Doe Flat is not so much a specific point as a broad vicinity, underlain with the peridotite of the Preston Peak ophiolite, lifted and cooked by the as yet unseen granitic intrusion of Bear Mountain, and covered with glacial till and metasedimentary talus pried loose and fallen from the slopes above the new trail. Here the forest was open, with the white skeletons of deadwood, some still standing, some fallen, and some dragged over to frame the fire ring as rustic benches. Below the campsite Doe Creek babbled unseen in the willows and alders. We bookmarked the campsite for a possible sojourn on our way out.

As we were strapping on our packs, three members of the CCC crew whose vehicles were parked at the trailhead came marching up the trail. In the lead was a slender young woman in her twenties, followed by a younger man and woman who looked to be still in their teens. Bearing the heavy packs of a long expedition and toting mattocks, shovels, and other implements in their hands, they seemed glad for a chance to stop and chat on their way out. For a week they had been camped at Trout Camp, clearing the Clear Creek trail from as far north as Youngs Valley and Raspberry Lake to Wilderness Falls in the south. Mules, they warned us, would be packing out their tents and equipment. Trout Camp was going to be a bustling and dusty place for the next few days.

"So I guess we'll be meeting seven more of your crew on the trail then," I said.

"Eight," the older woman corrected, tossing her auburn hair. "The team has ten members and me. I'm the crew leader."

Two by two we met the other young crew members as we continued toward our destination. They hiked in pairs, probably a buddy system. Most stopped to chat, but a few plodded past, heads down, fixated on an end to their long ordeal. I wondered how my life might have turned out differently if I, in my teens, had discovered the wilderness as a trail crew recruit, rather than pissing away my time through four years of college, three of law school, and a final squandered year of graduate school in philosophy, dodging the draft. Would things have turned out better? Would I have understood?

For more than an hour the new trail undulated irritably through endless forest until, at long last, it emerged onto the steep canyon wall above Clear Creek, climbing to the final trail junction. The left fork dropped steeply 700 feet to Trout Camp on Clear Creek, while the right climbed the spine of the ridge toward the Devil's Punchbowl, still almost 900 feet above us. Over the ridge to the south, the glacier-smoothed base of Bear Mountain glided down to the creek.

It was almost noon. We decided to press on, rather than surrender the precious altitude we had gained and endure the noise, dust, and mule trains bound for Trout Camp. Abruptly our trail began to climb a series of short, incredibly steep switchbacks, stitched like surgical closures up the forested spine. I could not recall a steeper ascent, but at least it was, for the most part, in the shade of the trees. About halfway up, breathless and growing disheartened, we stopped for lunch. After apple chips, cashews, cheese, and a few crackers, we pushed on toward the ridge top.

Once we attained the crest, the rough granite domes and spires of Bear Mountain presented themselves across a broad, slick-rock, glacial-carved valley. For the first time we could imagine the tectonic collisions and intrusions that gave rise to these mountains. The Bear Mountain batholith had bubbled up and metamorphosed the sedimentary rocks through which it rose. To the northeast, the mafic basalt of Preston Peak had been cooked into metavolcanic greenschist. And, probably as the result of an ancient island-arc collision, Bear Basin and Doe Flat were underlain by an ultramafic block of peridotite which should not be here, but should have subducted back into the earth's mantle.

Over the near shoulder of Bear Mountain, we could just make out a long gorge running down from the peak, where a glacier had gouged a trough. That was our destination. There lay the Devil's Punchbowl. A long hike still remained between us and the lake. Already tired, we no longer doubted that our trail would stretch to at least 6½ miles.

As we were admiring the view a middle-aged man came puffing up the trail from the direction of the Punchbowl, accompanied by his young daughter, who appeared to be just in her teens. He eased himself down on a boulder to catch his breath and for a quick palaver. He cautioned us that getting around the steep-walled lower lake just below the Punchbowl was tricky. Carefully piled stacks of rocks, or cairns, would tempt us to take a variety of trails through the brush on the steep slope high above the tarn, but we should not follow them. They were false trails. The surest way around was at shoreline.

We thanked him and began descending the metamorphic moraine toward the slickrock gorge. A little further along, we meet a small group trekking out. They claimed to be the last ones camped at the Punchbowl. We should have the lake all to ourselves. A group of four, they told us, had set up their tents at the lower lake. We assumed them to be the Gasquet Four.

We continued down the valley flank until we met the floor rising towards us, where on well-placed rocks we easily crossed the creek flowing down from the Bear Mountain gorge. A giant incense cedar marked the crossing, which we noted as a return landmark. There we filled our water bottles.

The final ascent was a steep rock-climb over terraces of bedrock. No longer did sand or duff or topsoil provide a tablet into which a trail could be written, so we let the cairns guide us. In places we had to dangle our walking sticks from our wrists so we could use both hands and feet to scramble up short gullies and over rocky prominences.

"I don't remember it being this tough," Barbara panted.

"Me neither."

In about a mile we reached the small lower lake. Two tents had been set up on a rocky terrace above the far shore. The trail down to the water was steep and rocky. There, as instructed, we began circling clockwise at shoreline beneath the impenetrable brush. An overhanging dogwood branch caught my pack and forced me to my knees. My right foot slipped into the muck and shallow water. Twisted and unbalanced beneath the stiff branches, I could not regain my footing without Barbara's help. A little further Barbara suffered a similar fate. Scratched and wet, we managed to circle to the far side and dragged ourselves out of the tarn basin through prickly manzanita. No way were we coming back this route.

Beside a fallen log near the two vacant tents, we located the trail. The final climb to the upper lake was only a quarter mile, but challenging. The boulders and terraces kept getting bigger, and at times we had to rock-climb over glacier-polished granite beneath the cumbersome sway and over-balance of our backpacks. When we finally crested the last granitic bench and beheld the Devil's Punchbowl sparkling in the late afternoon sun, we were exhausted. From across the lake a fresh breeze blew into our eyes. Wearily I dumped my pack at the first open campsite, an exposed spot of level sand scraped smooth between slabs of glacial-polished granite and a fire-blackened rock ring. It had taken us six hours to reach the lake, though we stopped along the way three times for a total of about an hour.

We were not alone. Four figures approached us from the water's edge, and for the first time we stood face-to-face with the Gasquet Four. The older woman looked familiar. She had recently appeared before the Blue Lake City Council. I had seen her on television. She and her husband were physicians practicing together in Arcata. I had played basketball with him years before. Small world. I explained who I was and introduced Barbara, but I am not sure they recognized either of us.

She in turn introduced us to her daughter and fiancé, the younger couple, who were soon to be married. They had dayhiked up from their tents at the tarn below, they explained, had just finished a brisk swim, and were about to return to their camp. The previous evening the four of them had made it all the way to the lower tarn by dusk, and in the glooming thought they had reached the Devil's Punchbowl. As darkness fell they set up their tents at the sheltered campsite on the clearing high above the water. They liked the spot so well they had decided to stay there while they dayhiked to the upper lake and around the general area for the next several days.

"Are there any better campsites than this?" I asked, gesturing to the exposed sandy clearing where we had just dumped our packs.

"You really oughta take a look at that one," the young man said, pointing across the outlet stream. "It's got wind breaks and furniture and everything." Like an agreeable flock of pigeons, the whole group headed that way to show us. I followed, but Barbara, waving me on, lowered herself onto a rock to catch her breath and center herself.

After they left, we had the lake to ourselves. Aching and a bit muddled from the long hike, we gazed out across the rippled green water, as if seeing it all for the first time. A narrow skirt of dazzling snow clung to the headwall just above the water. Beyond, Bear Mountain Peak, 1500 feet above, peered over the steep, rough-sculpted granite walls, which crowded in on three sides. Though we had dayhiked here before, drunk in this vista, and swam in the chilly waters, it all seemed unfamiliar. The mind is thus merciful in its quirks and machinations. The pain and danger of the long scramble up from Trout Camp and back in a single day had been so interwoven with the afternoon's short stay, that the entire event had been blurred together, blunted, suppressed, and forgotten as completely as a woman's memory of child birth. Only by spending the next two nights here, with a day of leisure in between, would we remember this experience with clarity. Only thus would we be truly here.

I took a few minutes to explore for alternative campsites. Eighty per cent of the shoreline was uninhabitable, where the nearly vertical cliffs plunged deep into the water. Scattered along the bedrock granite dike that formed the relatively flat north shore of the lake, I found perhaps a half-dozen tent sites, mere rough clearings, treeless and exposed. A few more were hidden in the manzanita rooted in the glacial till above. Lost in a grove of small trees near the towering east wall was another good site. But the place our friends had shown us appeared to be the best.

Barbara and I lugged our backpacks over a striated dome and across the narrow outlet channel cut deep into the granite lip of the lake. We entered a secluded little swale where industrious campers before us had been busy. A flat patch of ground had been cleared and leveled, and hundreds of boulders and rocks rolled and hoisted and stacked into two low-walled, roofless rooms that looked to me like ancient breastworks designed for defense against marauding savages or secessionists. Massive flat slabs of granite had been erected as a table, chairs, and a raised fire pit with stone windbreaks. A couple of stout white pines offered a little shelter from the morning sun. Azaleas and scrub alders graced the shoreline. The granite dome offered the campsite a little privacy, and our view of the lake and surrounding cliff walls was unparalleled.

In a quest to lighten our packs, we had purchased a brand new and expensive Big Agnus Seedhouse SL3 ultralight tent, which we now deployed. It was slightly roomier than our reliable Sierra Design Clip 3 Flashlight, yet more than a pound lighter. In the spirit of being prepared, we had erected it successfully in the backyard at home, and everything seemed fine. But as we inserted the unique three-pronged front hub into one of the side poles, the end of the pole splintered. Exhausted and now thoroughly demoralized, I sank onto a rock stunned, staring into nothingness, believing the tent utterly useless and that ourfate would be to die in the night of exposure like drunken lowland gerbils in this hellish, rocky, alpine wasteland.

Luckily, however, Barbara was undaunted. She produced a yellow roll of duct tape that she had been squirreling along for years. We soon found a way to anchor the splintered pole sufficiently that the tent stayed up, albeit with a jagged peak poking into the thin fabric above the entrance, where a graceful curve had been intended by the manufacturer. Zipping the mesh door was tricky and had to be done with care, but all held together.

After a few pulls of Amaretto warmed my empty stomach, things began to settle back into a mellow perspective. A freeze-dried dinner helped even more. I set out in search of firewood. There was none to be found. Here and there a white pine, an incense cedar, a white fir, or a Douglas fir had managed to insert its roots into the rocky landscape, but any low or fallen branches had been picked clean by previous campers.

I climbed across the valley into a steep, dense forest and discovered a forest-service style aluminum toilet nailed to weathered two-by-fours, straddling a deep pit, with slabs of rock placed to fill the gaps. It looked precarious. There was no building, but a wall of scrub trees screened the toilet from the popular campsites beside the lake. Tentatively I stepped on the creaking timbers. They held my weight. This latrine would be a fine amenity for Barbara and her trick knee.

Towards evening two young women arrived with their dog. They kept to themselves in the wooded campsite on the far side of the canyon, pretty much out of sight. They were quiet, and we saw no campfire. But we had to be more circumspect in the use of the open-air toilet. Retiring early, we watched shooting stars through the mesh door of our new tent.

Wednesday morning the women slipped away early. We rested and imbibed the beauty of the lake, exploring the steep wooded cliff below our campsite, where the stream cascaded down in a series of waterfalls and pools. Birds there were plentiful. After lunch we dunked in the icy water from a good spot not far from our camp. An osprey spent the afternoon at the lake, then circled high above, calling out in sharp shrieks. A second osprey joined him, and they played and chatted aloft for awhile, riding the thermals.

That afternoon a young couple arrived with their son, perhaps ten years old, and took the vacated campsite in the woods furthest from us on the lake shore. The man told us they had hiked in ten miles from the Black Butte trailhead, spending the first night at Trout Camp. We could not see their tent, but that night we caught occasional glimpses of them around their campfire. Later a young man arrived and silently erected his tent above us on a bench of glacial till, and two woman dayhiked in for a quick swim and left.

The sun had already sunk behind the canyon walls when, as I was returning to camp with a few sticks of firewood, the boy approached me. Forlornly he asked, "Do you know where I can find some firewood?" He had been assigned an unexpectedly difficult task.

"That's where we found some," I said, pointing to the steeply sloping woods above the secluded toilet. I also showed him a pile of branches someone had recently cut nearby, but they were mostly green.

Later I proposed to Barbara that, since we would be leaving the next morning, we share some of our excess firewood with the newcomers. I carried a small armload over to their camp, which the young woman accepted gratefully, explaining that her husband and son were up in the woods looking for more. Our gesture proved to be unnecessary, for in their quest for firewood, the boy and his father must have stumbled upon the mother lode. Late into the night their bonfire cast paleolithic shadows dancing high onto the sheer cliff face above their camp.

Thursday morning a light haze dulled the sunlit cliff face. We broke camp and hiked slowly and carefully down to the puzzle that was the lower lake, agreeing not to attempt the shoreline route again. Instead we followed the biggest cairns and what appeared to be the path most worn into the steep, brushy cliff high above the water. For the most part, it was an improvement, until we came to a wide chute slashing across the path. Beyond the slide, the trail appeared to continue safely. But to get there we had to make our way across fifteen feet of loose soil, sixty-degrees or better in slope, with no handholds or footholds, a gully plummeting fifty feet down to the rocks and scrub on the lake shore.

This would have been a perfect spot for the CCC trail crew to have worked their magic. But there was a rub. They could not because this was no longer a Forest Service maintained trail. It had been deleted from the most recent map. Officially, we were "off-trail." Cross-country. Bush-whacking. On our own. Even though thousands visited here every year. For liability reasons, no doubt, a blind eye overlooked this route.

We made it across. Had we to do it again, Barbara would have chosen the mucky, wet shoreline route. The rest of the track was pretty good, rejoining the shoreline trail across the lake from our doctor friends' tents. We did not see them about.

The rock climb down the Bear Mountain gorge seemed even more precarious than coming up. Going down always does. But at least we were fresh. When we emerged from the canyon, the distant ridges and peaks were swathed in haze. Preston Peak was smoke-bound and blunted. The wind had changed and was now blowing in the thick, high smoke from the complex of fires in the Klamath River canyon just two ridges away to the southeast. Our fine long vistas from the spine crest had vanished, but as soon as our trail descended into the forest along Doe Creek, the haze disappeared.

Midway along our endless, undulating slog through the forested slope above Doe Creek, we encountered two horsemen, a man and a woman, leading a string of mules. With difficulty we managed to step down through the clinging brush and loose soil of the steep slope to allow them to pass. The were indeed bound for Trout Camp to retrieve the CCC tents and equipment.

Further along we met a pretty young female Forest Service Ranger with a light daypack and a cheerful smile. She explained that she was hiking in for the day to inspect the trails and campsites. Part of her job was keeping the area clean. Tomorrow she would return to pack out the trash invariably left behind at Buck Lake by dayhikers and fishermen who adored the short hike in. No talk of "bubbas." No bitterness. She obviously enjoyed her work, the wilderness, and hikers of every ilk. Zen, I guess. Every hiker is the best hiker.

I told her we were planning to stretch our trip another night by camping on the way out, and asked about Buck Lake.

"Buck is a pretty little lake," she replied.

I explained that we had been considering spending the night at the large horse camp beside the creek at upper Doe Flat we had seen on the way in.

"Buck is a pretty little lake," she repeated. "And I don't think anybody's there."

When we came at last to the Doe Flat horse camp, it didn't look as alluring as we recalled. Dry. Brittle. Broken. Perhaps it was the contrast to the stunning beauty of the Devil's Punchbowl. Tired, we unstrapped our packs, sat on a log to eat trail bars, and considered our options. Buck Lake was only a mile or so further. Though tired, we decided to press on, hoping for a swim before the sun dropped behind the towering western cliff.

The trail ascended through brush, crossed the rocky outlet, and arrived at last at the odd homemade junction sign. We turned south to climb a good trail that wound up a rocky moraine for perhaps another half-mile. At its crest, we found a dusty campsite in a broad clearing. The lake appeared through the trees just below. The fire pit was crammed with cardboard, cans, plastic forks, and paper plates. We dropped down to the lake and lifted off our packs at a good campsite where the trail ended at water's edge (N 41 48' 57.4", W 123 41' 19.8", 4110 feet).

Buck Lake was, as the Rangerette said, a pretty little lake. Sitting in its own glacial cirque, the small lake was mostly forested down to the shore, with granite cliffs exposed high above the south shore. I followed a fisherman's trail circling to the right and found a couple more campsites, but none better than where we had dropped our packs. There we finally found enough trees to make use of our hammocks. The water was warm and the swimming was good. We were only about a mile-and-a-half away from the trailhead, but no one else was there.

An osprey entertained us all evening, circling, splashing into the lake, then flapping back to one or another perch to watch the dark water. Around 8:30, he finally caught his fish, struggling in widening circles to gain altitude under its weight, then perching on a branch within sight of our camp. With a single foot he grasped the branch, while from the other dangled a large fish. When he was sure his catch would wiggle no more, he meticulously began picking it clean.

Friday we checked out two other sites around the lake, swam again, ate lunch, and prepared to pack out. All traces of smoke had disappeared. At the campsite just above the lake we met the same Rangerette and paused to chat. Cheerfully she was picking the garbage out of thefire pit to pack out.

Where the new trail met the old road down to Doe Flat, we took off our packs for a final break. There we were overtaken by our doctor friends from the Punchbowl. They described how, in one exhausting day, they had hiked down to Trout Camp, then south along Clear Creek to Wilderness Falls, then back to their camp. As we chatted, another group of women came down the trail, backpacking into the Devil's Punchbowl for the weekend. They knew the doctors, and we left them there to renew acquaintances while we climbed the final mile to the trailhead.

Near the parking lot, we encountered two young men with fishing poles bound for Buck Lake for the day. A third man carried a watermelon in his bare arms. If he made it, which was doubtful, the rind would probably end up in the fire pit for the Rangerette to clean up. They were followed by two women herding a gaggle of small children improbably down the abandoned dirt road. The group looked to be shrill and thoroughly ill-prepared.

The weekend was upon us. We had gotten out just in time.

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