A Grand Week in the Russian Wilderness

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A ridge line reflection on Paynes Lake (photo by Leon Nelson).

I plunged under the surface of Paynes Lake in the Russian Wilderness and wondered for a few moments if I could continue swimming in the frigid water. It wasn’t that bad, I told myself. As long as I kept my limbs moving, I figured I could adjust. Eventually I did.

From the lake, I gazed at the steep ridge to the west. There were massive boulders and rock slabs, huge pines and fields of alder brush. Every direction was a crystal sharp postcard.

Perhaps it was the penetrating wake-up call of the cold water, or maybe the endorphin high of a strenuous day hike, but at that moment, I felt so very alive. It was one of those precious few times in life where you wish everyone you love could see and feel what you’re experiencing.

It was the third day of a backpacking trip to Russians, a small wilderness area south of Etna that’s bisected by the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The Russian Wilderness is somewhat sandwiched (and often overlooked) between the Trinity Alps and Marble Mountain wilderness areas.

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Backpacking along the Pacific Crest Trail.

Though I have done many trips into the Trinitys and Marbles, it was my first adventure into the Russians. It was also the annual gathering of the Beefaloes, a group of intrepid friends who have united each summer for such a trek for more than a decade. (Many Beefaloes didn’t make the trip and they were missed. We toasted them with the traditional elixir of the Beefaloe — an auburn-colored drink called wikky.)

Paynes Lake is a jewel that sits just a Frisbee throw away from the PCT. It was our base camp for day hikes, swimming, fishing, staring at the campfire, reading, playing music and telling stories.

Because there were writers in the group (and, perhaps, more versions of this outing to be told), we attempted to articulate why someone would strap on a backpack to reach a mountain lake for four nights of somewhat restless sleep. I mentioned something about what I had experienced from the lake. Someone else talked about the departure from the stuff of life — work, phone calls, e-mails.

The stillness is an element that can’t be ignored. There were long periods where everyone just sat around and did and said virtually nothing. This meditation was well facilitated by the landscape.

It occurred to me that our lives are filled with so much nonstop activity — writing reports, taking kids to games, shopping, texting, cooking, cleaning. On the whole, I don’t think we spend a lot of time defragging our brains.

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A group of “Beefaloes” pause for a picture (photo by Leon Nelson).

In Etna, we picked up four PCT “thru-hikers” and transported them to the trailhead off Sawyers Bar Road. These thru-hikers are amazing creatures — lean and mean and capable of covering upwards of 30 miles a day. Two were headed south and two north on the PCT. Their grand quest, of course, is to cover the entire distance of the trail from Canada to Mexico.

Such a trip takes months and I’m sure changes your perspective on a lot of things. Instead of hiking six and a half miles and vegging out like Beefaloes do, the meditation for thru-hikers must take place while the body is in constant motion.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be motivated to bag the entire PCT, but I’d sure like to spend a couple months along certain sections of it (the John Muir Wilderness jumps to mind).

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One of the great activities of all of life — staring at a campfire.

But thank God for every experience in these grand wilderness areas. Camped on the other side of Paynes Lake was 75-year-old Redding resident Leon Nelson, a backpacking expert who has trekked the Trinitys, Marbles and Russians for decades. Nelson is a fountain of information about all-things backpacking.

I think the paramount lesson we took from him was this: We all hope we’re capable of backpacking around the Russian Wilderness in our 70s.

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“Brother” Leon Nelson.

Like the Marbles and Trinitys, the Russian Wilderness is so sweet you almost don’t want to tell anyone about it. I apologize in advance. One excellent benefit is the view of Mt. Shasta and the Scott Valley from many sections of the PCT through the area.

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Upper Albert Lake (photo by Leon Nelson).

One of our day hikes lead us to Albert and Upper Albert lakes. The horseshoe-shaped Upper Albert Lake is a real beauty that’s definitely worth the climb. It’s clear and deep with giant boulders below the surface. A six-inch trout that swam along looked like it was the lone occupant in a massive aquarium. The water seemed to be a few degrees colder than Paynes Lake.

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Ralph Jennings from Taipei, Taiwan, looks into Upper Albert Lake.

On Friday, the trek back to our cars was a much easier slog. It’s amazing how much easier the effort becomes with a lighter pack when all the food and elixir is gone.

There was also the carrot of the Etna Brewery calling with its burgers, chips and fabulous Mossback Pale Ale. The brewery was as good a transition back to real life as one could hope for. We met another thru-hiker there and I think he called the place paradise.

As if he hadn’t been walking along it for the past 85 days.

jim-dyar-125Jim Dyar is a news, arts and entertainment journalist for A News Cafe and the former arts and entertainment editor for the Record Searchlight’s D.A.T.E. section. Jim is also a songwriter and leader of the Jim Dyar Band. He lives in Redding. E-mail him at jimd.anewscafe@gmail.com.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment.

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is a journalist who focuses on arts, entertainment, music and the outdoors. He is a songwriter and leader of the Jim Dyar Band. He lives in Redding and can be reached at jimd.anewscafe@gmail.com
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7 Responses

  1. Avatar Leon Nelson says:

    Hi, Jim…You captured perfectly the essence of a backpacking experience at Paynes Lake! It was a real treat to witness – and be a part of – the camaraderie of the Beefaloes! Here's hoping you'll be able to long-continue your Great Excuse to get together, and that I'll be kept in the loop on when and where your 2011 adventure will be! TarpMan

  2. Avatar RadioFreeJefferson says:

    Great account, Jim. Thanks.

  3. Randall R. Smith Randall R. Smith says:

    Thanks Jim,

    Your comment about "defragging our brains" is too true. One only needs to spend time with Brother Leon to understand the full effect. I can tell you the origin of "Tarp Man" and am so pleased he is still using it. Likely no one knows the Trinity Alps as well. Yours is the first picture of him in the wilderness when he wasn't wearing a stop sign shirt. May be the walking sticks are a substitute.

    Randy

  4. Avatar Sally Wells says:

    Having known Leon and Donna many years, and of course knowing Leon's legendary reputation as THE back packer, it was fun to see a picture of the king himself, together with photos he so expertly took. Thanks for sharing the adventure. It was a good read.

    Sally

  5. Avatar Adrienne jacoby says:

    Jim . . . as always, wonderful writing (see my comment on Adam's article). So graphic it almost made me, who hates to even WALK anywhere, think about wanting to see this place in person. Hmmmm . . . I wonder how much a helecop . . . . never mind!!!

  6. Avatar Joanne Lobeski Snyde says:

    I'm so happy to live in a time when I can share so multimedia in the adventures of others. Great pictures. Great story. Would that you had asked me to go along! Forget that notion. I would have slowed down the whole excursion. Great article.

  7. Avatar lenny says:

    Nice article Jim. I will always be in awe of the region we call home. Thanks for taking me back to the Russian.