Backpacking to Caribou Basin Part 1

“I’ll be there between 6 and 7,” Chris texts me. I tell Darlene.

“So, what, about 7:30, then?” She asks.

I laugh. Chris is not an early riser. However, he is there by 7. Nearly. So, being in a great big huge hurry, we sit around and chat for twenty minutes. Chris and Darlene are old friends. Finally we get it in gear and load my stuff in his truck. He is driving this time. It is July 11th, and we will be spending the next six days in the Trinity Alps.

We top off the tank at the mini-mart and head out. Down the hill, over the one-lane bridge and out Rush Creek Road, where we hit Highway 3. Its 40 miles to Coffee Creek, then another 20 miles up Coffee Creek Road to the trailhead. It is paved at first, but mostly dirt road. Real back-country dirt road. If you care about your vehicle, you do not make good time on it.

There are some really nice cabins along this road, and some really nice scenery. At the end of the drive is Big Flat, a huge beautiful meadow, which is part of a private ranch. The trailhead is in the campground just past the meadow.

Find the right trail! It’s not that hard, but you could go wrong. The right trail runs down the hill to the South Fork of the Salmon River, which eventually empties into the Klamath River. You are in Siskiyou County now, not Trinity. Coffee Creek runs out of the Big Flat Meadow to the upper Trinity. This is a strange sort of headwaters divide, in a meadow. It takes us awhile to understand this. Most divides are along a ridge.

Down the hill, the trail crosses the river, which is really a creek at this point. There are two ways to cross; take off your boots and wade, or walk across the log.

“That’s a slick spot right at the beginning,” I say.

“I see it,” Chris says. He tests the depth of the hole below the log. Longer than his hiking staff. The only purpose to this test is to know that you are really going to get soaked if you fall in. He does not. Nor do I.
There is a trail that follows the river, but our trail goes up the hill, climbing steadily for three miles. Not really steep, but really steady. It is 10:30 by the time we get to this point, and we are hiking uphill on nice soft dirt trail, part shaded trees and part open brush, and we are sweating like pigs. Three miles, no water, no let-up. I knew I should have gotten in better shape.

Finally we top out at Caribou Meadow. Not much of a meadow, but a darn nice stopping spot. For once, I am in the lead, as Chris had to mess with his shoes or something.

I am just going to tell you right now how it goes when we hike together. Chris leads, and he hikes on way ahead of me. He waits for me occasionally. If for some reason he has to stop, I do not wait for him. He will catch up easily. That’s how it is; he’s a lot faster than me. My days of speed and glory are long gone. This trip is even more so, as I have been having trouble with my feet, especially my left heel. I have determined that if I walk slowly, stroll really, I do not aggravate it. Chris accepts this, asks me how I’m doing. Well, at this point, I’m having some pain, and feeling tired and beat. Its ok. We do not have to make Caribou Lake today. We will look for a good campsite up ahead, at Brown’s Meadow, where we know there is water.
In the meantime, we rest in the shade and make coffee.

There is another thing I need to divulge, and I might as well just bring it out right here. One of the purposes of wilderness is to clear away the mental debris of civilization. Observe, meditate, commune with nature. I try to do this, but I have a problem. Throughout the whole trip, I have rhythm and blues in my head, specifically “Hold On, I’m Coming,” by Sam and Dave. If you really want the flavor of this trip, you had better click on the link, and listen while you read on. Its a great song, but there is a certain incongruity, here. Sorry about that, but that’s how it is for me, the whole trip. Now that you have it in your head, too, we can continue. It could be worse.

Things look much better after a cup of coffee and a rest. We have lots of catching up to do, and have always enjoyed each others’ company. We have six days to do this, and no need to hurry. Things are looking pretty good from that perspective. Plus, the trail levels out, swinging sidehill.

It is rocky trail, but there is water. Lots of it, running right out of the hillside. Snowmelt. We trust it to drink. Why is this important? We have water purifiers, right? Right. We do. We both use UV (ultraviolet) purifiers, which are much lighter to carry and easier to use than water filters. They work very well, unless you forget to put new batteries in them, like Chris did. Then they don’t work so well. I, on the other hand, have put new batteries in mine and I have spares. The only problem is that they are cheap batteries I got thru the internet, and they give out before finishing a single quart of water. Good thing there is snowmelt! We may need to boil water, at some point, but now we fill our jugs.

Level trail, easy going, it leaves the watered area and swings north then west, around a big nob, passing thru an old burn. We make good time to Brown’s Meadow. Its a very pretty spot, with campsites up above the trail in the trees. Perfect place to camp for the night. The only problem is that neither of us feels like it. My foot isn’t hurting much, anymore, and I don’t feel tired. Lots of daylight left. Chris says, “It’s your call, bro.”

I say go. I’ve never really been known for having good sense, anyway. We know from the map that the trail switches back and climbs from here, but only for a mile or so. Nice soft dirt trail, in the trees. This is ok. As we go, the trees thin, and the trail turns rocky, but I’m doing fine. Chris is up ahead, waiting for me. He calls down, “You’re gonna like this!”

He is right. As the trail leaves the trees and starts sidehilling along the rocky slope, an amazing view opens up. Towering above us is Thompson Peak, the highest peak in the Trinity Alps, huge and awe-inspiring, looming on our right. The canyon drops away below our feet and there is only empty space between us and the mountain. Makes your stomach feel a little funny. The trail gets a little dicey, here, too. Cut out of the native rock. You could fall a long way at some points. Pay attention to your feet.
Then we look ahead, and the trail just disappears. Falls away into space. Sheer cliffs ahead and air below. This can’t be right! Lots of people come here! So, we both know this is an illusion, but it feels very spooky.

Of course, there is a way, cleverly cut in between the cliffs, and it is perfectly safe. Unless you slip and fall to your death. It is good trail, but pay attention!

This is the point where the trail starts to get long. Somewhere along here, it is supposed to meet the Old Trail, that goes up and over. I am tiring, plodding slowly along. It must be here pretty soon. Plod, plod. According to the map . . . Oh, hell. Just keep going. Plod, plod. Are we stupid? How come we didn’t camp back there? We could have gotten an early start tomorrow and made this an easy hike. But no, not us. We had to push on. Now we are both tired and slowing down, and my heel is sore and one corner of my mind is beginning to whine. Apparently, there are little areas of my brain that do not understand the “No Sniveling” rule. I suppress them, make fun of myself, tell jokes. Those treacherous little parts of my mind need watching, tho.

We do finally reach the Old Trail. At the edge of the trees, we can see the Caribou Basin, ahead. Then shortly we can see Lower Caribou Lake, and then Snowslide Lake, as we descend, switchbacking down along water-soaked trail. The two lakes are separated by a big flat ridge, with trees on top of it and granite along the lake shores. At last we reach Snowslide Lake. We are ready to make camp, really ready, so we drop our packs and split up to look around. There is a nice flat at the upper end of Snowslide, but there are three tents on it. The trail splits and sort of meanders thru the trees, and there are several half-way decent camp sites. I spot a really great site down on Lower Caribou, but then I see people moving around and a red food bag hanging in a tree. It is taken.

Back at the packs, we agee. There are no really great spots, so we pick an ok one. It’ll do. Before we sleep, Chris has a story to tell.

“Do you remember the first time we went backpacking?”

“Yeah. It was you and me and my brother, Bruce and Stan Wilhelmi and Mike Storms and Dave Barni. You guys were still in high school. I was back from college, logging for the summer. We started in at night under a full moon and bivouaced on the trail. I can’t remember which lake we went to, tho. It might have been Boulder.”

“I can’t remember, either. I do remember that you told me I needed to tie my shoes together, so that a raccoon wouldn’t steal one of them. ‘Just one?’ I asked. ‘Yep, just one,’ you said. I was just up from LA, and pretty green to the country, and I believed you. I was pretty concerned. I could picture trying to walk out barefoot, with just one shoe. I’ve never forgotten that. To this day, I tie them together.”
“I don’t remember that! That doesn’t sound like something I would say, does it?”

“Well, yeah, it does.”

Hmph! I can’t imagine that I would pull anybody’s leg like that.

Speaking of legs, ours are tired, and I am footsore. Not just the heel. Both feet. Maybe I’m just getting too old and broken down for this stuff.

. . . . . . . . .

In the morning, things look a lot better. For one thing, my feet hurt less than they have in a long time! Can’t figure that one out, but I’ll take it. And that’s the last you’re going to hear me whine about my feet in this article. They felt a lot better the rest of the hike, and still do. If its psychosomatic, that’s fine with me. There are still things beyond the ken of modern medicine.

Apprehensions lifted, I take my morning stroll. When I get back, Chris is talking with a very fit young man, 30ish. He tells us there is only one couple camped on Big Caribou and lots of campsites. He is hiking solo.

“You should go up there,” he says. We don’t need too much convincing.

He further tells us that he went to the top of the pass where Caribou Scramble comes over from Packer’s Meadown, on the Stuart’s Fork. “Its a playground,” he says. “You just jump from rock to rock. Easy.”

Chris and I were fit young men, once. We know exactly what he means, how much fun it is to scramble around on granite slabs and boulders, but there will be no jumping from boulder to boulder for us. We can probably make it up to the pass, but no jumping.

Beautiful trail work up to Big Caribou. Sculpted out of the rock. Steps blasted out of granite. You can see the edges of the drill holes on the sides of some of the steps. Probably done with hand steel in the old days. Pack mules and dynamite, hand-lighting fuses.

When we get to the lake- really the big granite basin that contains the lake- the campground at the outlet is taken. We put the packs down and split up to look around.

“Find anything?”

“Not really.”

“There’s one over here that should do. You can walk over. The snow held me up, alright.”

We are careful about snow. It is treacherous. Before we can get the packs on, a party of four comes up from below; day hikers. A middle-aged man and three women. He fishes, they sunbathe and chat, pretty much where we were going to camp. Ok. We set our packs down and start looking, again. There is a lot of open granite on the east side of this basin, rolling and broken up, horizontal for a hundred yards along the edge of the lake, then climbing steeper and steeper to the jagged heights of the rim, far above.

Its early and there’s lots of time. Might as well look around and find the best spot we can. We set up camp in granite, just above the lake and forty yards back. There are sandy sleeping spaces in the hollows and enough shade to escape the sun. Water coming right out of a snow bank very close. Camping on granite is different. Lots of hard places to sit, and not much shade. There is a big lodge-pole pine at our spot, and a few smaller ones. Some soft areas where the granite is decomposed. We spend the afternoon chasing shade as the sun moves. Read sleep eat.

There is still a lot of snow here. Snow still on the edges of the lake, melting and falling in, plop, setting off waves. Snow in the dark places and the hollow places. Snow in a wide band under the high ridges. Little ponds and rivulets of snow water everywhere.

In the evening, we fish, when the wind dies down. It never really glasses over, but the ripples are small. Chris misses one fish, but that is all. We catch no fish. These high lakes are temperamental. Tomorrow.

About dusk, a doe shows up, nosing around, unafraid. We yell at her, and she just looks at us like we are being silly. We know her type. Trouble. We throw rocks at her and she moves off, unconcernedly. Neither of us is Nolan Ryan, but we manage to bounce a couple off of her and she moves away.

That’s mean, right? Throwing rocks at the poor deer? If you think that, you have never had a deer seriously mess with your camp. Besides, we are not throwing big rocks, trying to hurt her, just trying to discourage her. We are not mean people.

By this time it is getting dark, and we retire to our chosen sleeping spots. There is one really great thing about camping on granite. You sleep under a big sky. The moon is at three-quarters, waxing, so star-viewing is not good. Jupiter is in conjunction with the moon. Chris is a scientist, does not believe in astrology, so I feel I must share my knowledge.

“Chris, the moon is in conjunction with Jupiter. Do you know what that means, astrologically?”

“No, what?”

“It means they are really close together in the sky.”

He groans.

In the night I wake, and the moon is down, so I grab my phone and turn on my astronomy app. While it boots up, I review my knowledge. Find the Big Dipper and use the pointers to find Polaris, the north star. Everything rotates around that. Follow the arc of the handle to Arcturus. These I know. And there is Vega to the east, high in the sky. Easy to spot because it is so bright. Vega is in the constellation Lyra. These I know. Now I will use my phone to dispel my ignorance just a little more. The app works, in spite of the fact that there is no cell service here. Cool.

Down from Vega is another bright star. I focus on it, and I see that it is Deneb. Further, I see that Deneb is the tail star in the constellation Cygnus. And then suddenly I see the constellation as a swan, wings and tail and long neck! When you really see a constellation, it becomes yours. So now I have a new constellation and a new star. Pretty exciting stuff. Better turn off the phone, tho. I am using it as a camera, so I need to conserve battery life. Ain’t modern technology grand?

James Montgomery

James Montgomery calls himself a broken-down logger/garbageman who went back to school, got a law degree, and worked as a nonprofit administrator, before retiring. His interests include hiking, fishing, computers, kayaking, hunting and writing. He is now serving as president of the board of directors of Empire Recovery Center.

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