Day 3: Fear (7-24-12)

My pack is a never-ending source of amazement for a lot of people. It’s not only the size, but how well I pack it up, then show people how to clean and jerk the Beast onto my leg and then over my shoulders. My neighbors this morning were no different, the woman laughing as she attempted to even get the pack off the ground. Most think I enjoy lugging around a few anvils, but, in truth, I was already thinking that I should have paid for a resupply on the west side instead of trying to remain self-contained for two whole weeks. Before the sun crested the eastern rim of the Kern Canyon, I waved goodbye and bounced down the trail once more, looking for my next junction to start my climb up to the Chagoopa Plateau.

I swung through the gate above the river, choosing the steeper up path and turning west once more. Shallow switchers crawled up the western wall, the canyon broadening to the south and fading into forest. I kept my eyes peeled for movement, knowing the warmth was bringing out more and more critters of the slithery persuasion, searching for a sunny basking spot often in the middle of the trail. I paused at Funston Creek, glancing under a log to make sure I wasn’t disturbing anyone’s nap, then guzzling the cold water and munching away at the day’s snacks. A few flowers brought their blaze of color to an otherwise dry and not-so-recently burned area, green leaves dull and limp from lack of water.

A trail crew bustled about a half mile ahead and off the trail, I suppose breaking rocks for replacement steps or filler as the path wound through the young, rebuilding forest. I remembered this place so well from before: the trees at that time had looked like simple, needled ground cover. I never imagined so many would survive and thrive, now mostly up to six feet tall and never more than a foot apart from one another. Crowning a rise, Sky Parlor Meadow opened to the west, and my views finally included Big Kaweah and the peaks bordering the western edge of the Big Arroyo. Knowing I had reached my first hurdle of the day – climbing out of the Kern – I laughed out loud and practically skipped past the trail sign marking the turn to Moraine Lake. I had but a mile to go for the whole day, and it was only early afternoon, plenty of time to swim in the relatively warm waters of Moraine Lake.

The buzz was sudden, and unmistakable, despite my only ever having heard it a few times before. With almost sixty pounds on my back, I literally jumped off the trail to my right, spinning in midair and running back a few steps before I spotted the huge snake off to the left of the trail. Whimpering, I slowly moved back and right, and watched as the big animal raised the front half of its body as it slithered in the opposite direction. Horrified it might coil, I finally stood still and held my breath, willing myself to stop shaking out of terror. These rattlers are my worst nightmare, for some reason scaring me more than any exposure on a tall peak. And here I was, alone, the trail crew probably out of earshot (although I can get a bit of volume when necessary), and this creature was… OK, it was moving away at this point, it’s ten-rattle tail raised behind it like a wagging finger saying, “Now, now: I want to be left alone.” I managed to snap a few shots as the monster retreated across the open ground towards the tightly grouped pines to the east.

Fuck. Fuck. Arms rigid at my sides, I couldn’t slow my breathing through clenched teeth as I started to walk around the meadow. The fact that the trail was mostly overgrown with tall grass did not especially inspire confidence, either. I whacked at the grass and stomped viciously, thinking any other snakes might feel the mini-earthquakes and would vacate immediately. I tried to stop and enjoy the huge meadow, the reddish hued Big Kaweah rising tall overhead and the Whitney Crest glowing gold in the distance. I sped through open spaces, then slowed to crash through the grasses again, trying to reach Moraine Lake without further incident.

Never mind the buzz: the hiss is something I’d never heard in person until that moment. I passed a big tree near the final stretch into the lake when this snake decided I didn’t even warrant a warning rattle. As I slowly turned and backed away again, I spotted the red giant relaxed at the base, its head pulled into a strike position and its body slowly moving together. A whole new set of whimpers burst forth from my throat, already raw and tight from the last ¾ of a mile. I shakily took a few steps back and watched the rattler turn south through the trees, allowing me a few pictures of its huge, almost five feet of length. It wanted nothing to do with me, but the fear had been instilled, and it was all I could do to keep moving. A hundred yards later, I met up with three men and a boy headed the opposite direction. In warning, I pulled out the cameras and shared my pictures of the snakes. “I told you guys we had to keep our eyes peeled here,” said one.

Moraine Lake offered no comfort for me, knowing that two large snakes were in the vicinity. Like other animals, I probably would never see them again, but my brain would not rest out of fear. I rested only briefly in the camp area before making the decision to put as much space between me and those creatures before nightfall. Big Arroyo was only seven miles and 1300 vertical feet away, and that might just be enough to allow me to sleep that night.

I slowed on the climb out of Moraine Lake, at times struggling or stumbling over the blocks and rocks, leaning onto the boulders to regain my breath. I was emotionally spent, but each step up was a step away from the fear. I recalled the grand overlooks into the Big Arroyo and south to Mineral King, and stopped at each one to try and rest, eat, and shoot pictures in an effort to calm my rattled nerves. Fine dust poofed with each step as I descended from the high point of the plateau and into the upper junction of Big Arroyo. Quiet grottos of pines and ferns and flowers replaced the dry duff and rock of Chagoopa. I swung in behind the old cabin, claiming a flat campsite near Big Arroyo Creek. I scrubbed the remaining fear out of me in the cold water, shivering after the sun tucked in behind Lippincott Mountain.

I doubt the other campers there that night ever knew just how happy I was to have someone nearby.


5 Responses to “Day 3: Fear (7-24-12)”

  1. I can only imagine your fear. So far, even hiking every weekend I’ve only run across one small snake on my path and stopped to watch him slither on. I sure give you highest of marks for continuing on and working through your fear.

  2. I can relate to that jump. Even at the end of a long day, I can MOVE when that buzz sounds.


  3. Peter Hirst Says:

    Rattlers on the Chagoopa Plateau: Snakes on a Plain?

  4. In all the hiking I’ve done in the Sierra, I’ve only ever come across one snake on a trail. That time I was on the heels of the hiker in front of me, heard the rattle buzzing, and pulled him back before he stepped on it. I’m not entirely sure what would have happened if I had been in the lead.

  5. Man, them rattlers are all over the place in the hills of OC! The one thing I’ve learned is to turn my iPod off and senses up when playing in the hills.

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