Saturday, July 6, 2013

Day 18 - For the love of all that is holy, learn how to use a GPS

The day started off unspectacularly--packing up camp, having oatmeal for breakfast. Gangles and I were busy counting down the days to town (just 2 more days and 38 miles to go!), and eager to get there. Feeling perky, we were frankly trotting down the trail. After the first 6 miles (around 10am), we caught up with Trailbait, Grinder, Bigfoot and Barrel Roll. They were finishing up a break, and we decided to stop for a few minutes, so they passed us. Little did we know that would be the last time we would see them for almost two days.

Here's what happened: After the other sobohobos passed us, we came into a complicated section of trail. We are carrying the exemplary Jonathan Ley maps, and a GPS. The Ley maps indicated that the trail had 2 options, and one split off to the right. Our convention when travelling as a group is to leave arrows for each other at intersections, so we all end up in the same place. We make the arrows out of sticks, rocks and occasionally, wildflowers.

Gangles and I were hiking together, and we saw a junction. There was no arrow, but was in roughly the right spot. We guessed it was the trail we were supposed to take. We split to the right, and wandered through a horse camp, with stockade fencing and a hitching post. So, looked like we were on the right track. We saw the trail run directly to the river, just as it should on the map. We rock hopped the first river, then took off our shoes to ford the second river.

I was having my misgivings about where we were, but Gangles was quite certain, and showed me on the map where the double river crossing was--consistent with our recent stretch of trail. We booted up the GPS, but it was inconclusive, since only some trails are programmed in. We pushed on, and hit the next junction, where we switchbacked steeply up ~1500' feet to the top of a grassy meadow.

Now it is easy to type that last sentence, but it was difficult and exhausting to climb that high, especially on a pack trail of loose sand--imagine running on soft sand on a beach instead of hard packed trail or sidewalk. At the top, we looked South, and saw the bowl we were to climb out of, but couldn't see the trail. We booted up the GPS again, and found the CDT, and bushwhacked steeply down to it.

We travelled along the CDT for a few miles when I realized that I was getting a few too many spiderwebs in the face for this to be a recently travelled trail.

And so, beginning to panic a little, we did what some people and most hobbits would do in this situation: we stopped to have lunch. While Gangles make lunch (crackers with salmon salad), I booted up the GPS and really learned how to use the thing. Turns out, we were on something called the Whitetail Creek Trail. In and of itself, this is not bad--the CDT is only marked as such occasionally in the GPS. The CDT leverages other trails, and is all stitched together into one continuous trail. We could not find this mysterious Whitetail Creek Trail on our Ley maps, but did find 'Blacktail Creek Trail', and thought it might be some typo somewhere. By zooming way out (i.e., showing 200mi x 200mi), I deduced that we were way off the CDT, and there was no easy way back.

What actually happened was we turned too early, and went up a pack trail (i.e., intended for horses and mules) which was marked in neither the Ley maps nor the GPS. This pack trail took us West of the Ley maps, so we were in an unmapped section. Really, the only thing to do was backtrack.

We re-traced our steps back to the original junction, seeing no one for the first 4-5 miles. Gangles was foo-ing (a high-pitched whooping noise we make to scare off bears and indicate to other sobohobos that we are nearby), and I saw a flash of blue ~100' below. Turns out, we ran into an honest to goodness cowboy named Tanner. From the ankles up, he was all cowboy: cleft Western hat, plaid shirt, boxy jeans, bandanna around neck, big belt. Below the ankles, he was wearing a pair of Brooks running shoes. Maybe he was trying to break out of the mold.

We explained our pickle, and he chivalrously led us to his horse camp nearby. Horse camping is luxurious--they had sun showers, an entire kitchen stocked with fresh vegetables, and all sorts of food with pre-existing water. There were two older people at the horse camp, sipping tea and and chopping vegetables for dinner.

After Tanner explained that we were lost, the older gent went to his tent and pulled out an area map. The older lady poured us two glasses of watermelon kool-aid, and I don't know if anything has ever tasted so good. The map indicated that we were about 1.5mi from the CDT, and Tanner and the older gent pointed us in that direction. We took photos of each other--the horse campers in disbelief that anyone would be so silly as to walk through the Bob on foot, and we in awe of the homey comfort of the horse camp.

By the time we ended up back on the trail, it was 4:30pm. For those of you keeping score at home, this means we were off trail for 6 hours (10:30am-4:30pm) and ~10mi. We were now certainly behind the rest of the group, and still had 12 very tough miles to do to catch up.

We started up the steep switchbacks, already spent from our erroneous switchbacking and misdirection adventure. Dragging ourselves near the top of the climb, we happily ran into Columbus, and chatted with him. We climbed the last 1-2mi with him, but parted ways when he went to camp with Lush, Man Party and the Captain. Gangles and I were exhausted but decided to soldier onwards. We had another brutal climb up another peak, and were going as fast as we could, but by 8pm, I knew we were going to fall short.

We had climbed up on the ridge, which was relatively dry, and realized that we were both short on water, and weren't sure what was still running up on the ridge. We ended up camping by ourselves in a pocket gem of a valley up in the pass, away from the sobohobos, dehydrated and too tired to even eat dinner. This was going to be a tough last day to Lincoln. Even so, was so happy to be with Gangles, and knew we were going to get out okay.

Mileage: ~25mi from Welcome Creek Ranger station to some meadow on the ridge (including ~10 bonus mi)


  1. I certainly enjoyed your pickle. I did close to the same almost fifty years ago while hiking the John Muir with the Boy Scouts. I stayed late in camp one morning to do final cleanup. The Scout master's wicked son was to be trail leader that day and I figured that I could kick back by the lake, give them a couple hours and then catch up to them at lunch. I started out and an hour or so down the trail, I came to a fork. We used yellow and red ties. Red for left. There was a yellow tie out and I scampered down the trail. It got to be about 2pm and I thought that it was odd that I had not caught up with the rest of the group. A short time later the trail began to narrow and then abruptly came to an end. I did not have the luxury of a GPS but I did have my trusty compass and a hand drawn map. I sat down and figured where I had been and where I needed to go and took off cross country to meet up with the others. I had all the pots and pans but no food. I found a nice stream and it was trout for dinner and trout for breakfast. I caught up with the group at a lake the next day. As for the Scout Master's wicked son, He was laughing at me and scorning me for being "lost" after he left the wrong trail signs. I picked him up, over my head and threw him into the lake , clothes, boots and all. Great fun all and all - I think that it was a Mt. Whitney trip.

  2. That's hilarious. I think you did the only thing a reasonable man would do. That said, remind me to never *ever* cross you. Ever. I like my boots dry. Hope you're doing well in SD!