Sierra backpack to East Lake

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Casting near camp at East Lake

Weary of watching lawns turn brown and flowers wilt, we decided in mid-August that it was time to hit the Sierra. But, worried about how California’s mega drought had affected the high country, we wondered: Would our beloved streams and lakes be too low to fish, or even dried up?

I’m happy to report that there was plenty of green grass, blue water and even some wildflowers in the Hoover Wilderness backcountry, especially above 10,000 feet. No doubt the monsoon-season storms earlier in the month helped.

This was our second backpack to the Hoover, which borders the northeast part of Yosemite National Park and rises from the Great Basin to the crest of the Sierra. With a new dog in tow — our rescue pit mix Blue, who undoubtedly had never camped under the stars — we decided on a short backpack along the Green Creek Trail to East Lake, about 4.5 miles from the trailhead.

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Blue prepares to hit the trail

So on a warm mid-week day, we headed out from the trailhead, located at the end of nine miles of the bumpy dirt that is Green Creek Road, off Interstate 395, about five miles south of Bridgeport. Blue was happy to hit the trail, not at all seeming to mind toting some cooking supplies — and two cans of beer — in her doggie backpack.

The trail climbs gradually and is very rocky in spots, something to keep in mind when hiking with canines. We brought dog booties but Blue was a trouper and didn’t need them. We ascended to Green Lake at just over two miles, right after a turnoff to West Lake — a less-frequently visited destination 1.5 steep miles away that we’ll save for another trip.

We kept going another 2.5 miles to East Lake, and the trail was alternately sunny and shaded by pine, hemlock and aspen. With so much aspen, especially at the start of the trail, I think this would be a great day hike in the fall. The trail crosses Green Creek several times, which was easy going with the water so low.

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Blue contemplating her shadow at East Lake campsite

Without much intel on where to camp at East Lake — and no obvious spots to pitch a tent when we arrived — finding a site was a bit of a challenge. Luckily we ran into backpackers who were coming out and tipped us off to a peninsula on the northeast end of the lake. The site we eventually chose had great views of the lake and Epidote (10,951 feet) and Park Peaks.

Getting to and from the site from the trail took a bit of rockhopping and was a navigation challenge, but lake access and views made it worth it. At 9,462 feet, campfires aren’t allowed at East Lake (no fires over 9,000 feet), so we had to stick to the camping stove — but we saw plenty of abandoned illegal fire rings. We ended up moving to a more choice — tho windy — spot after the first night, spending two more nights with open-sky views and even better water access. At night we were treated to the tail end of the Perseid meteor shower, with the Milky Way spreading across the entire sky.

We took a day hike to small but scenic Nutter Lake, a short distance from East, where I caught (but was unable photograph, darn) and released a 14-inch rainbow on a size 16 ant fly fished just below the surface…first fish on my brand-new Orvis Battenkill III reel. The next day we trekked three miles to Summit Lake, a beauty at 10,184 feet, on the boundary of Yosemite.

Hoover Lakes

The trail to Summit Lake passes the Hoover Lakes

Wildflowers lined the trail, but I got the sense that we were about a month too late for the full bloom — which happened early this year because of the drought. Still, we saw spotty clumps that included Indian paintbrush, larkspur, purple aster, lupine and owl’s clover, among others. The extremely scenic hike to Summit passes Nutter, Gilman and Hoover Lakes — where it was windy and small brook trout were abundant.

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Hoover Lake brookie

Summit Lake was also windy — but beautiful — and the fishing was fruitless. We scanned the hillsides for bighorn sheep, which are apparently fairly common here, but didn’t see any.

Summit Lake

Not a fish in sight at windy Summit Lake

We stopped at the sign marking the entrance to Yosemite National Park at the west end of Summit Lake, but didn’t go any further since dogs aren’t allowed. Which was fine with Blue, who enjoyed a nice sit and a roll:

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On the hike back to camp, we were treated to great-light afternoon views, including nice reflections on Gilman Lake:

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We headed out on day four, all in all a great trip, with no complaints: lighter packs, no bear encounters, one mosquito bite between the two of us (I can’t speak for Blue) and one worn-out but happy pooch.

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For conditions and how to obtain a wilderness permit, contact the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest at (760) 932-7070.

 

A trio of Central Coast hikes

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View from the Bluff Trail at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve

One of these days we’ll hike to the top of Bishop Peak or one of the other volcanic morros near San Luis Obispo. But our recent Central Coast visits kept us closer to the water, and there’s plenty of hiking there too. Here are three that are super easy, and two are dog-friendly: 1. Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, Cambria: It doesn’t get much easier or scenic than the 11 trails winding through this former ranchland owned for a century by the Fiscalini family. The ranch was eventually sold — thankfully spared from development — and turned into a preserve. Just look at the homes around this biologically diverse open space to see what could have been. I don’t (usually) begrudge anyone a seaside residence, but enough was enough in this case. The most popular trails are the unbelievably view-filled Bluff Trail, which, fittingly, runs a mile along the bluff and allows leashed dogs. Marine Terrace Trail parallels it on the inland side (and allows dogs off-leash, but they must not disturb wildlife), so a nice loop hike is to enter from Windsor Boulevard, take the Bluff Trail, and return on Marine Terrace. Trail maps and more info are available at the Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve web site. Here are some photos to whet your appetite: Several cool benches are located along the Bluff Trail:

Fiscalini bench1 Fiscalini bench2

Bluff Trail views are truly amazing. See what they mean by marine terrace?:

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Blue at Fiscalini

2. Harmony Headlands State Park: Drive north on Highway 1 from Morro Bay and you’ve likely whizzed right past this small state park located about eight miles north of Cayucos. A small parking area on the ocean side of the highway is easy to miss but the park is signed so you’ll know you’re in the right place. The one-mile Headlands Trail leads across grasslands, past an old bunkhouse and eventually to Pacific views. In spring, the hills are vibrant.

Harmony Headlands

Like so much of the open space along the Central Coast, the headlands were once a rancho, eventually sold to cattle ranchers, and yet again the American Land Conservancy intervened to help eventually preserve the land as state park. The park is still surrounded by cattle ranching tho, as hikers are reminded by trail signs. We saw some clumps of California poppies, and in wetter years the hills are awash in wildflowers. I wish I had photos of the ocean views but unfortunately on a trek here last spring I had to cut my hike short in order to check on our Lab who we had to leave in the car (he was fine). Even though it was a cloudy day, it was warm, and, being a state park, dogs aren’t allowed on the trail, so keep that in mind if Fido is along. A map and brochure are available online at the park’s website.

Harmony sign

3. Estero Bluffs State Park: Another easy-to-miss spot just north of Cayucos and west of Highway 1, the Estero Bluffs are a great way to get sweeping views all the way to Morro Bay. You won’t see the sign for this trail until you pull off the highway. The park preserves coastal terraces and intertidal areas, and a seasonal stream bisects an informal trail along the bluff. Dogs are allowed on-leash south of the creek. We saw elephant seals along pocket beaches here, likely stragglers from the Piedras Blancas colony further north. A dead seal attracted a flock of turkey vultures as well. Beware of ticks; our dog Blue (check out her buns of steel below) picked one up here and fortunately we nabbed it before it did any damage. A brochure and trail map can be found here. Snaps from Estero Bluffs:

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Blue’s first Sierra adventure

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Blue along the Middle Fork San Joaquin River, near Upper Soda Springs Campground.

Guest post from Blue, the pit mix rescue we first heard from in May…

Hi again, everyone. Just wanted to report on an awesome trip I took to this place with really big rocks and lots of water. My folks call it the Sierra Nevada. I call it a bit overwhelming but really cool. The hiking I really dug; the water kind of scared me, frankly.

First we hiked along a big river and stopped a bunch of times so my humans could do this really boring thing called fly-fishing. It’s where you stick a big pole in the water and just stand there. There were lots of great smells so I was on high alert, but boy, watching them do that fishing thing was really dull. The water was cold and fast, so I didn’t get too close but did take a couple drinks and wow did it taste good.

Another day we took a really long walk (note from editor: 3 miles each way along the River Trail out of Agnew Meadows) to a place called Shadow Lake. I was really excited about this hike. It had all the canine requirements: tons of trees to sniff, water to keep an eye on and nice cool temperatures so I didn’t pant too much. Here I am telling everyone which way to go:

Blue-Shadow sign

We walked and walked and walked some more until we got to this part that went back and forth straight uphill. I think they’re called switchbacks. Sometimes there were even stairs built out of rock:

Blue-Shadow steps

You mean I have to climb up those?

When we finally got toward the top I could see a creek and waterfall (scary) that was coming out of Shadow Lake:

Then we got to the lake, which was sooooo pretty. All sparkly and stuff. I got so excited but had no interest in hopping in the water. Very cold. And of course, scary. My humans did some more of that fishing thing:

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Then it was time to head back down. I really don’t understand the whole switchback thing. How come you can’t just run straight across the rocks?

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Here I am on the trail. Yeah, I have that “Don’t mess with me” look, but I’m actually very friendly:

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Anyway, I was really tired that night and didn’t even worry too much about any of the other dog smells and barking back at the condo. That usually gets me really upset but I was so frickin’ tired, I was like, whatever.

The next day it was time to go home, but on the way back we stopped at another cool place called Bishop Creek. My peeps had to yet again do the stick in the water thing (this time fish were actually caught, which I found mildly entertaining). My bro’ Sammy and I just hung out and took a snooze:

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Time to, yawn, plan our next trip.

Lawn care and dog health

Fertilizer pic

Here’s something that drives me nuts: In some neighborhoods here in Southern California, having a perfectly green lawn is a matter of civic pride. But at what cost to our pets?

I’ve had the photo above in my iPhone for awhile now and finally had to share it. How ironic is it that the pesticide manufacturer chose to show a dog on the bag of a lawn-care insecticide product, when studies have linked use of such chemicals with canine cancer?

The primary bug-killing ingredient in this product is bifenthrin, a pyrethroid that is a possible carcinogen. People: is obliterating bugs and having a green lawn worth it when it means possibly sickening your pets? “Protect your lawn from invading bugs”? How about protect your pets from harmful pesticides.

Dogs walking and rolling on treated grass pick up traces of these chemicals. Studies have shown links between risk of canine lymphoma and bladder cancer with certain herbicides and pesticides. And cancer isn’t the only concern. According to the Pesticide Action Network, pyrethroids are listed as possible carcinogens by the EPA, and can affect the central and peripheral nervous system. Poisoning symptoms include muscle tremors, hyperexcitability, depression, ataxia, vomiting, seizures, anorexia and death.

If wiping out bugs and having an emerald green lawn is that important, a group called Pesticide Watch based in Sacramento offers these chemical-free alternatives:

  1. Adjust the pH so that your soil is at peak pH for grass to grow (around 6.5).
  2. Use organic, slow-release fertilizer.
  3. Overseed to encourage more  grass to grow. Spread seed especially in the spring and fall.
  4. Mow high (around 3 inches) to crowd out weeds.

The group also recommends spreading the word about dangerous lawn chemicals by putting “pesticide free” lawn signs up and talking to neighbors about their use of lawn care products. Wind can carry herbicides about 50 feet from the application site, according to an expert at Purdue University, so what your neighbors do can affect your animals’ health. You can read up on canine cancer research at Morris Animal Foundation.

Anyway, sorry for the rant. It’s almost time for manure-on-the-lawn season, another pet peeve (ahem) of mine, so to speak. Time to walk the dog…

 

 

 

Is Olympus EM-5 the perfect outdoors camera?

View of the Alabama Hills and White Mountains taken with new Olympus E-M5.

View of the Alabama Hills and White Mountains taken with new Olympus E-M5.

My hunt for a new camera for outdoor pursuits ended recently when I (and my bank account) broke down and bought an Olympus EM-5 mirrorless camera. I’ve had it a few weeks now, and the switch from a point-and-shoot camera to one with interchangeable lenses has been eye-opening, to say the least.

Camera outsideI wanted to step up in image quality without sacrificing too much in weight and size, so decided mirrorless cameras were the way to go. Their sensors are smaller than those in DSLRs, and in a downsized body, but much bigger than those in compact cameras. And size matters when it comes to sensors and image quality. For all you camera tech geek wannabes, here’s a good explanation on micro four-thirds technology.

After a few weeks of research on sites like Digital Photography Review, I was frankly driving myself nuts. I narrowed it down to the Olympus OM-D cameras, and what eventually sealed the deal for me (along with a no-tax special at Samy’s Camera) was the EM-5’s splash- , dust- and freeze-proof weather sealing. My previous cameras have always managed to attract whatever environment they’re in — sand, water, dirt, dog hair — so I figured the extra bucks were worth it. We shall see.

So far, I’m very happy with the EM-5, but I haven’t ventured much beyond the automatic setting. I’ve played a bit with exposure compensation and the art filters, but I have a lot of studying to do on all the camera’s functions.

Mountains above Bishop Creek, using Olympus EM-5's diorama art filter setting.

Mountains above Bishop Creek, using Olympus EM-5’s diorama art filter setting.

My one rap on Olympus is the totally lame owner’s manual that came with the EM-5. The functioning of this camera isn’t exactly intuitive, a complaint I’d read about. Luckily an online FAQ from Olympus is providing some answers.

Camera bagThe Olympus came with a 12-50 mm telephoto, so I knew my old habit of shoving my camera in a pocket would be a thing of the past. Luckily REI was having a 20% off sale, so I picked up a fabulous new camera sling from Lowepro that worked out great on a recent trip to the Eastern Sierra.

 

 

 

 

Bag pocketThe sling has a zipped camera chamber that provides easy accessibility. And there are plenty of pockets for extra lenses, keys, wallet, water, etc. I was even able to fit the water bladder from my Camelback in the top of the pack.

Below are some more shots with the new Olympus from a recent trip we took to the Eastern Sierra right after Memorial Day:

Gardisky Lake, near Yosemite National Park, in early June.

Gardisky Lake, near Yosemite National Park, in early June.

Old cabin on Pine Creek Road, using the EM-5's sepia art filter.

Old cabin on Pine Creek Road, using the EM-5’s sepia art filter. A bit under-exposed.

Blue waiting patiently while her companions fly-fish at Bishop Creek.

Blue waiting patiently while her companions fly-fish at Bishop Creek.

Heading back south on Interstate 395.

Heading back south on Interstate 395.

The West Coast’s wandering wolf

Remote camera photo of OR7 captured on 5/3/2014 in eastern Jackson County, Ore. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

Remote camera photo of OR7 on 5/3/2014 in eastern Jackson County, Ore. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

Gray wolves were quite the media beasts last week. Wildlife officials approved protection of the wolf as an endangered species in California — where wolves aren’t known to exist. Except for the lone gray from Oregon, who spent a bit of time in the Golden State a few years ago. And had some news of his own.

Anyone who follows wolf news in the West knows by now about OR-7, the GPS-collared young fellow from a pack in northeast Oregon who traveled across the state and was spotted in California in 2011. I can’t say I blame him — Oregon’s great, but who wouldn’t want to hang in the Golden State for awhile? It was the first time since the 1920s that a wolf was spotted in Cali.

It was only a matter of time before OR-7 tried to find a mate. Pickin’s were slim in California, but 7 appears to have found love back in Oregon. The Dept. of Fish & Wildlife there reported on May 12 that he hooked up with a female wolf in southwest Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, where he’s spent most of his time since March 2013.

And lo and behold, babies make four (and possibly more…the average litter size is 4-7): on June 2, two pups were spotted in the same area — the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. Oregon DFW reported that they and U.S. Fish & Wildlife spotted the pups close to where a remote camera spotted the female.

Wolf pups spotted by remote camera in southwestern Oregon. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wolf pups spotted by remote camera in southwestern Oregon. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Oregon is no stranger to wolves. There are 64 known canis lupus there, most in the remote northeastern part of the state; OR-7 was originally from the Imnaha Pack:

Wolf_Use_Map_Statewide_140225

It’s interesting that gray wolves will be protected in California, while their status in other Western states hangs in the balance. A decision to remove wolves nationwide from the endangered species list has been delayed until the end of 2014. I wrote about this contentious issue a few months ago. See more about gray wolves here. It’s been reported that with wolves in neighboring states, it’s just a matter of time before they become established in California. That’s an exciting prospect, and one I’m sure that will get some hackles up.

Winter drought equals early Sierra summer

Red's sign

Ahhh, summer in spring. That’s the Eastern Sierra right now, thanks to an exceptionally low snowpack — 18% of normal as of the final seasonal measurement on May 1. At Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park, the April 1 figure was 33% of normal. Right now, everything below 10,000 feet is pretty much snow-free.

Tioga Road opened on May 2 — the earliest opening since 1987. We drove it right after Memorial Day and snow was sparse in the park at about 9,000 feet, but still clung to the upper-elevation slopes. Tioga Lake was a gorgeous mosaic of breaking-up ice:

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We stopped at Tuolumne Meadows to fish and snap some photos. The Tuolumne River was flowing mightily, flooding over its banks in some spots. We took the obligatory pix of deer in the meadow and Lembert Dome:

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It’s such a gorgeous time of year at Yosemite. We usually visit Tuolumne in the fall, when the river’s low and vegetation is changing color. It was nice to see plenty of water in the river and green grass instead of brown.

Back in Mammoth Lakes, it was typical spring shoulder season weather: warmish (60s-70s), sunny days and cool nights in the 40s. In other words, perfect hiking and fishing weather. We had easy access to the Lakes Basin and the Red’s Meadow area, but as a story in the Mammoth Times reported, some areas weren’t open yet due to a bureaucratic snafu between the Inyo National Forest and its concessionaire who runs some facilities. Apparently the Forest Service hasn’t adjusted its opening schedule to account for climate change.

We tried getting to Horseshoe Lake and were surprised to see a locked gate restricting access. With our new rescue dog Blue in tow (more on her first Sierra trip in a future post), we didn’t feel like sharing the road to Horseshoe on foot with so many off-leash dogs, so we opted for Plan B: a hike from Upper Soda Springs campground (closed) to fish along the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River:

San Joaquin

The fishing could’ve been better — we need to brush up on our early-season/high-water technique — but we had the trail to ourselves and the weather was fabulous. We returned to the Red’s Meadow area a couple days later to hike to Shadow Lake from Agnew Meadows, again seeing hardly anyone on the trail. I think Blue will be doing a guest post on this hike in a future installment:

Blue on Shadow Lake trail

It can be tough to get a handle on what’s open and what’s not at this time of year, but calling the Inyo National Forest for updates is a good idea because their online report isn’t always up-to-date. Their visitor center is right on Main Street in Mammoth Lakes and can be reached at 760-924-5500.

For a look at Tioga Road’s (and Glacier Point Road’s) opening dates and April 1 snowpack since 1980, check out this page on Yosemite’s site, which isn’t always easy to find. The park’s current conditions are online and their information number is 209-372-0200.