Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Big Sur, Big Rains // A loop around the Silver Peak Wilderness, Part 2

Finally finishing this up after spending time in LA, doing a trip with Dunn's Sophomores, and a personal backpacking trip with friends along the Pine Ridge Trail in Big Sur.

Thursday PM: Estrella Campground to Spruce Campground

The navigation out of Estrella was challenging, and I have to give the students a lot of credit for finding the route. There were a few use trails which led to impassable spots, and we had to explore up and down the creek to find a way. Luckily, one of the students in the other group had mentioned to us a knee-deep water crossing, which was key in helping us find the way. While I tend to prefer to navigate based on landmarks and terrain, the compass was extremely useful after we crossed the creek, and I wish I had it out sooner as it would have saved us some time. I was thankful for my students' patience and their ability to stay in good spirits. 

On this stretch of Salmon Creek Trail, we were stopped in our tracks by deadfall-- two large trees had been knocked down across the trail, making it look impassable. I tried to scout out a way around it down the hill, to no avail. Here was another lesson for me; I could have saved time by looking more closely at the deadfall first. It turned out that the trees were stable, though of course awkward to get around with a big pack. I helped them each across and many of them found that it wasn't as hard as they originally thought. 

The rest of the way to Spruce was, thankfully, very straightforward. The girls later told me that I started hiking very fast after we crossed that obstacle. I was eager to get to camp, and glad to take advantage of the downhill trail. We came upon Spruce Camp very suddenly after crossing a low creek, and walked past it to the trail junction because it seemed to come up so soon. There was no signage at this campground other than an arrow pointing to the trail across the creek and one of the students adamantly said she would make a sign there so that no one else would make that unnecessary .15-mile uphill trek. I'm not sure it happened, but it was a nice thought. 

At this point, knowing how much poison oak we'd just trampled through, I passed around some poison oak wipes for everyone to use on their face, hands, any skin that had been exposed during our hike. I haven't yet had a poison oak reaction myself, but that doesn't mean I won't. Sneaky plant, that. I'd previously used Tecnu for washing off poison oak on trips, never wipes, and I still prefer it. 

That night, during our satellite-phone check-in (the connection was awful), I learned that more bad weather was coming in, and we were to hike out early the next morning and get back to school rather than to have the planned car-camping night with the other groups. I facilitated a small closing ceremony after letting everyone know the new plan. There was some celebration by the students that there would be one less night of camping, which is to be expected with a compulsory trip, and I let them know that I regretted that they wouldn't be able to gather with the other hiking groups as planned. Sharing experiences with one another before returning to school is a very special part of trips like this, and would probably have been extra interesting for them with all the weather-related challenges we had in the beginning.

It was a very warm closing ceremony, and we got to bed early. Just before turning in for the night, I found a tick attached to my left side, explaining the strange ache I'd felt there all day. In my fatigued state, I pried the tick off ungently before even thinking to reach into the first aid kit for tweezers. Ticks have to be attached for at least 36 hours to transmit Lyme Disease, and tiny nymphal ticks are much more likely than adult ticks to stay attached for that long. Still, upon returning to town, I was glad to be prescribed a round of antibiotics (doxycycline) as a preventative measure.

Friday: Spruce Campground to Salmon Creek Trailhead

We woke for our very last morning stretch at 6AM, put out breakfast, and began to take down camp. As predicted, at 7AM, the first drops of rain began to fall and quickly escalated. We got out of camp 1.5 hours after waking, and covered the two miles in around an hour. Everyone was in relatively good spirits, which is not surprising since we were heading toward hot showers and warm, dry beds.

The last mile winding down toward the trailhead was especially lovely, the switchbacked hills covered in poppies, beautiful even with their petals closed against the rain.

There was much rejoicing as we reached the vehicles-- we were the first ones out. Soon after we arrived, a school vehicle pulled up. The trip director was in the process of evacuating an instructor for a severe poison oak reaction. By the time the evacuation happened and all the groups were out and ready to caravan, the storm had fully established its presence.

Back to School

Statistically speaking, driving is the riskiest part of most outdoor programs. The hour spent winding around Highway 1 under sheets of rain and gusts of wind required my full concentration. The students slept through it, for the most part. There were moments when it poured so hard that I considered pulling over just before they passed. I felt sweet relief upon pulling into the gravel lot back at Dunn.

The students were gathered, gear was collected, and they were dismissed at around noon. Due to the change in schedule, the post-trip clean-up which students would typically participate in was left to us instructors. Not ideal or efficient, but so these things go sometimes. Gear cleanup and storage is a vital part of all trips, and I wish the students had been able to participate in it.

Thankfully, the next day and a half were sunny and warm as we dried out the tents, laundered the sleeping bags, tested and fixed the stoves. And then we were done.

After Thoughts

I would love to return to the Silver Peak Wilderness and do this same loop on a personal trip. Some of the erosion along the trails is worrisome, but manageable. This trip was the first time I held such primary responsibility for wilderness skills and risk management, and to be honest I started out quite intimidated. I heard somewhere that a great way to learn something is to teach it. I became a backpacking instructor two years ago with only two short personal trips under my belt, and I'm continuously refining my skills and learning more about pedagogy and facilitation. This recent increase in responsibility has improved my confidence in both my outdoor skills and my leadership skills, and it's taught me that I still have a lot to learn about managing time, giving structured and unstructured lessons, and facilitation.

It's surprising how these trips seem both long and short. Something about being removed from your daily context that does funny things to time. One moment it's only beginning, and all of a sudden it's over. I look forward to the next.