NEVER AGAIN! Graham's Pinery, Ishi Wilderness, May 2-6th, 2001

Boy, where do I begin to write about this one?  How did I end up looking so exhausted and played out in that picture to the left?  And I felt worse than I looked in this picture.  I'm struggling to get a bit of nutrition from some jerky into my spent body.  (CLICK ON PICTURE FOR A LARGER VIEW)

This was not the trip I had hoped it would be, let's put it that way.

I flew to Sacramento Wednesday morning from Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, and the plane took off pretty much on time, about 9:15 A.M. I had parked the car at a parking lot a few miles away and took the shuttle to the airport which is both cheaper and you get dropped off at curbside.

I had gotten my ticket for NWA on-line, and had even printed out my own boarding pass on the computer. That went very smoothly. I had been able to change the seat I wanted to a window seat, I ordered the low fat meals, and did it all right from the computer.

The flight was a bit bumpy but only enough to prevent me from reading. The fellow next to me slept the whole way, so I rested also. Probably a good thing.

Richard Burrill, my author friend, met me at the airport, and drove me to his house, where we visited and did some sorting for the backpacking trip. Bob, the former park ranger, arrived a couple hours later, and we headed north to the Lassen National Forest, and the Ishi Wilderness, which was a couple hours away.

We talked on the way of how we would be able to miss most of the heavy brush on the Graham Pinery if we found the animal path we had struck last time on our way out. It made walking on that brushy plane so much easier! Then the idea was to drop off the mountain, into the valley, camp by the Deer Creek with a base camp, and methodically look for the storage cave that was used by Ishi. After we had done that, we would climb out the valley to Graham's Pinery, catch the animal trail, and we would almost be to the truck.

"The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.". -Robert Burns

We got to the Ishi Wilderness about 7:00 P.M. and started hiking in because we wanted to get to the "pinery" before dark to be ready for our descent in the morning. Let me explain that the Ishi Wilderness is not really mountainous, but foothills to the mountains, so they are a bit more like very steep, very big hills. The Grahams Pinery is on top of one of these hills, but you can access it from driving to a higher foothill, so you actually hike down to it. You hike quite a ways down a quite a steep angle which appears much much steeper on the way back as you are climbing it. But I get ahead of myself.

We hiked an hour or an hour and a half, and found a flat spot and put up the tent. I carried the tent, and when we put it up, it was much smaller than I had remembered it being. Bob and I had planned to sleep in this and he is much larger than I am, so we figured it was about a 1 ½ man tent. It worked fine, though, and we went to bed without eating a large meal since we had stopped at a Subway on the way to the Wilderness.

This place is called a "wilderness" for good reason. It is the most uninhabitable place that I can imagine, at least in this part. We saw not another living soul for the entire time we were there, and there is reason for that too. Not only is this terrain a test of your physical strength, it may test your emotional strength even more. The isolation, the desolate landscape, the ease at which you can get disoriented as to what direction you are going, can easily squash any little logical plan you might have had.

We rose to a beautiful sunny day on Thursday, and our intention was to find the animal path to move us across the Graham Pinery to where we would descend to Deer Creek, a thousand feet below. The Graham Pinery is a misnomer. There are very few pine trees there. A forest fire ravaged this flat piece of land about 11 years ago, and now it is covered in Buck Brush and Manzanita. Buck Brush is a low growing bush that reminds me of a sort of sage brush the way it stays close to the ground, but it is much thicker. It is very difficult to walk on because you have to raise your leg and foot and come down on top of it, rather than trying to force your way through it. Manzanita is a very pretty wood, but very dense, and very hard. When it is dead, and falls over, it is almost impenetrable to get through, and there are often sharp dead branches aimed right at you that are extremely hazardous if you would slip. And there are big logs to get over, and Poison Oak in large amounts.

And so we headed to the edge of Graham's Pinery, through the brush and bush and thickets, and the day heated up. We eventually found the trail we wanted, but it had taken much longer, and it was much more brush than any of us had remembered on our way out last time. But here too, on the pinery, you can get disoriented so easily because of the lack of being able to see any distance beyond the brush.

Bob went out ahead of Richard and I to make sure that it was the right way, and where we wanted to be, and when he came back, he said he had scared up a mother bear and her cub. The mother bear was a brown/gold color and the cub was the color of hay. They would have been called a black bear, but a variant of color. Wish I had seen them. Then we headed down. Now this is not your leisurely stroll down to a gentle creek. We had to hunt and peck our way down to avoid dropoff's, sliding rock, impassable thickets, and other hazards that tried to hold us back.

When we paused for a moment, and took a couple pictures, I took off my backpack, and noticed immediately that I had lost not only the tent but my pad for under the sleeping bag. They had been cinched on the backpack by some tethers at my neck, and some brush we had gone through must had caught them just right, and torn them off. There were many times when you had to just force your way through the brush and vines.

We decided that Richard and I would go back for the items, and Bob would remain where we had gotten, and would look around. We had a set of two way radios, so I took one and Bob kept the other, and Richard and I headed back. Of course, it ended up that I had to climb almost back to the top of the pinery to finally find the items, and it took a lot of time and wasted a lot of time. Richard and I headed down, and called Bob on the radio.

This was where we made one of our largest mistakes of the trip. Bob suggested that, since we were quite a distance from him, that we work our way down to the creek from where we were, and he would work his way down to the creek from where he was, and we would meet at the water. How easy that sounded and how difficult that was!

Richard and I headed down, and did some exploring around some interesting rocks that may have contained caves. We found some small ones, but no larger ones suitable for storage. I should point out at this time, that the scenery we were surrounded by, both distant, and under our feet, was unbelievable. The variety of wild flowers, the lush green grass and trees, the distant mountainous ravines and cliffs. It was quite awesome, but so much of our time had to be spent looking directly ahead at where we were putting our feet. It worked, most of the time.

Bob headed down toward the creek also, and we figured we would soon meet. The crevice, or ravine that Richard and I were in was terribly thick with vines, poison oak, grapevine, trees, shrubs, and loose rock, so the way down was treacherous. We knew it would be great to get to the water though, cool off, and set up our base camp.

We soon discovered that, although we could now see the creek below, there was about a 75 foot sheer drop in front of us, and we would have no other recourse than to go back up the ravine we had just come down. This was extremely difficult, because remember that we had our backpacks on this entire time, and they work much better with gravity than against it. We had both slid on a couple places that I knew we could not climb again with our backpacks, so I suggested we use a rope to tie the packs. Richard ascended first, and I tied my bag on to it, and he slowly and painfully pulled it up towards him. He was anchored behind a tree on the slope, so he balanced the pack behind him, and sent the rope down again. I attached the second pack to it, and before he pulled that up, used the rope to ascend to the tree. It was getting crowded. Unfortunately, his pack kept getting hooked up on brush and roots, so he went back down to help free it and send it forward, so as he would lift, I would pull, and slowly, we ascended. We had to do the same thing at the next slide, and Richard developed a bad cramp in his leg to make it even more difficult climbing. We finally beat our way through the brush and out into the open after about an additional hour or so. This was the heat of the day.

And so, after talking to Bob by radio, we headed toward him. He had found a way down to the creek, a bit downstream of us, but he did not have any filtration purifiers for the creek water. He was so thirsty, however, that it was necessary to drink the water directly from the creek. Many had done this before without ill effects, and the water was fresh from the melting snow in the mountains.

Richard and I struggled over toward the next ravine, and knew that this had to be the one to meet up with Bob, so we headed down. Again, very thick brush, very steep slope, very tough going, but we eventually saw the water ahead, and were beginning to think our ordeal was over. Wrong.

We reached the water, but there was a sheer rock cliff right at the water's edge that prevented us from walking the shore downstream, and although this is called a creek, it has ice cold, very deep, rushing water that is not conducive to swimming or wading.

And so, after talking to Bob on the personal radio, we both decided that we would exit the creek, climb up, and rendezvous and then head toward the water again. It was getting towards evening, and we had not eaten all day, so we were hoping to reach each other soon, and have a nice evening meal. The climb out was again extremely slow, and extremely tiring. We still had our backpacks on, so there was no choice but to climb out, and move toward the direction we knew Bob was. Finally, after terrible struggles, made worse by the fatigue setting in, we got out of the ravine, and onto a grassy slope. I called Bob on the radio, and we called out to each other with our voices trying to locate each other. We knew we were close.

It was so dark that I dug out the flashlights that I had and gave one to Richard, and we walked toward where we figured Bob was. He had put his headlamp on, and was moving toward us, in the dark. And finally, we found each other! I was very happy to see his light in the distance! We had no choice but to find a fairly level piece of ground, and drop our backpacks. The piece we found was very small, and on quite an incline, but we were so tired, and we had no idea of where someplace better would be, so we set up for the night. Although we could not have used it that night, this is when I discovered I had lost the tent for the second time that day! The brush and bush had defeated us the entire day, and we had very little water, and no energy to cook a meal, so we decided we would go to the creek in the morning, get water, and cook a hot meal, and then head out of the Ishi Wilderness.

We snacked on a few of the goodies we had, got our sleeping bags ready, and I found that my sleeping bag, which I had borrowed from Bob, was really slippery. It had no grip at all, and as soon as I got in it, it started heading downhill. Immediately. There was just no way to stay put in it, so I eventually positioned myself so that I had my feet on a branch, and braced myself so I would no keep slipping. This worked very well, all things considered, except I had a pretty lousy night's sleep. I was up early, let's put it that way.

We did discover that there are red ants in the Ishi Wilderness, and that they do bite. They stayed underground while it was dark and cold, but at first light, they decided to come out, and they joined me in my sleeping bag. I decided to get up while there had just been a few visitors, rather than wait for the whole colony, so we eventually all got up, and headed to Deer Creek.

I knew I was getting battered and bruised and cut from the brush and rocks, but in the light by the creek, I could see that actually, I was quite a mess. I had dozens of scrapes and abrasions on my legs, and my arms were ever so slightly better. My shins and knees, though, had taken a beating, and were covered with so many bruises that they kind of blended in to one large bruise, darker in some spots than others. Richard noticed that he had gotten poison oak, and had begun to have red splotches on his arms and chest. He has had it numerous times, and knew that it would only get worse before it got better.

Amazingly, my back and muscles felt pretty good. I washed off as best I could in the cold creek water, and started purifying water for our "spaghetti breakfast".

It really was quite tasty. Followed by a cup of coffee, I felt it was good to be here, and that this country really is special, not only because of its remoteness, but it is literally untouched by humans for miles around. No wonder that Ishi, the Last Yahi Indian, could hide here for forty years with his small tribe.

Across the raging water, there was a cliff, and from the cliff hung a gigantic plant of blue flowers, looking like a very elegant hanging basket. I have no idea how it could be growing there.

It was around 9:00 A.M. and we knew there still was lot of ground to cover. We discussed getting to the pinery early enough that we could still walk to the car, get to Chico, have a meal, and get a motel room for the night, rather than driving all the way back to Sacramento.

And so we started to climb out of the creek bed and up the steep slopes. It was again treacherous going, because we had our heavy back packs on, and some of the springs in the ground had softened the soil on the sloping path. After exiting the ravine and fighting the gradation upward and the brush, we came to some open areas where there were large rock formations, and so we thought that, since it was the reason we came, that we should at least briefly look for caves. Bob headed slightly to the right, and Richard and I went straight above. We dropped our backpacks for this search, and that made things so much the easier. Richard climbed a bit further than I did, and said he as heading back, so I went back to the backpacks and gear, and waited for both him and Bob.

After a while, Richard still had not returned, so I yelled for him a few times, and got no answer. I went back to where I had left him, and there was no sign of him there either, so I yelled some more. Still no answer. I called Bob on the radio and told him that Richard was not answering me, and he said he was heading back my direction. Soon, Bob called back, and said that he was heading back, and that Richard was with him. He had somehow managed to pass above me when he was returning and had gotten completely turned around. Bob asked him what direction he thought I was from them, and he pointed in the opposite direction to where I was.

It is a deceiving landscape. You see a landmark that you know you saw before, when, in truth, you have never been there before. That could have been ugly if Bob and Richard had missed each other also. Another lesson in staying together, especially when you only have two radios. And what if the radios had not worked, or one had gotten dropped?

Soon, it was getting close to noon, and the heat of the day, and still had a mountain to climb. About 12:05 P.M. we marked the beginning of the ascent. We had already used up a bit more water than we had anticipated by looking for so long for caves, and one of the bags of water that we filled had sprung a small leak, so we drank that one rather quickly. Another bag broke open in the pack, so we lost even more water. We did run across a small rivulet of water, with a small pool, and a frog in residence, and did purify some from this source, but we had lost two bags. Do not rely on Ziplock bags for your water supply.

And so we began the climb, moving somewhat horizontally in the process to try to work down the pinery at the same time. The climb was worse than I had remembered it. I am one who is not fond of heights, and we were climbing higher and higher, and at times, there was only rock above and rock below. Now this wasn't a vertical climb, but a slip would have been just as disastrous. There would be no way to stop once you began an uncontrolled descent to the bottom.

Although I didn't like the thick brush and vines, at least you would not be at the same risk of falling. The rock on these climbs is difficult to describe also. It is kind of a conglomerate....smaller rocks within larger rocks and boulders. You also literally bet your life on some of these rocks holding your weight or your grip while you pulled yourself up. And don't forget that we had our backpacks on at the same time. And the heat, and the necessity to greatly ration our intake of our valuable water.

We would climb for a while, and then need to go horizontally to find another area that would let us go vertically again. And it kept getting warmer and warmer, and we kept getting more and more tired. There were places that were so vertical that it literally meant I could go up about 15 small paces, and then needed to rest to catch my breath due to the exertion. Sometimes, if it were a very thick area, we needed to break through with our hands and feet, just to get a few feet. And all the of time slowly upward.

Deer Creek below kept getting smaller and smaller, and soon was barely visible. Bob decided that it would be a good place for a group photo, and he was about 20 feet below me, and believe me, even after getting off my backpack, I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to go back down for that photo. I did, of course, and I hope it turns out, because I have very vivid memories of it.

Soon, we were climbing again, foot by foot, looking for a way to get to the summit. The reason we needed to search is that the pinery is on the top of a very sheer drop, and the first 50-75 feet under the top are a sheer cliff. But it is an old sheer cliff, so gradually, there have been slides and animal trails that have managed their way through it. This is what we were looking for. After a couple of hopeful tries, we found one that looked like it may be passable. There may be a way to the top, and it would soon be in sight!

The fatigue was really taking its toll on me at this time. You know how, when you don't eat, you just start kind of getting shaky and weak? That's how I was feeling. I needed to eat and drink, and I could do neither, and I sure couldn't rest. Not until the top. So I kept forcing myself to go, step by step, handhold by handhold, to the top. And at last, at long long last, it was before me! I struggled to the top, dropped to my knee, took off my backpack, and there I lay, literally totally exhausted. But I had made it! There were times when I seriously wondered if I could. I took some sips of water, as did Bob and Richard, and after a few minutes, we started pulling out the snacks, the nuts, the trail mix. I here discovered an interesting phenomenon that I hadn't run into before. I had no saliva! I literally could not swallow until I took a drink of water to soften the food in my mouth! Trail mix would crunch, but would not go down without another sip to help it along. I wanted a long cool drink in the worst possible way, but of course, it was not to be. So we lay there. It was 5:00 P.M.. and we had been climbing for five hours, in the heat of the day, in some of the most remote and challenging lands in existence.  (THIS IS WHERE THE PICTURE AT THE TOP OF THE PAGE WAS TAKEN.)

Eventually, we had to decide whether to try to get to the vehicle and back to civilization before nightfall, or whether to spend a night on the pinery, and leave in the morning for the vehicle. We of course, wanted to get out, and it really depended on where we were in the pinery. If we had wrapped around far enough, it would actually be an easy walk out, and a difficult walk up back to the truck. If we were further back, and ran into lots of buck brush and manzanita, it was another night on the pinery.

Bob was optimistic that we were far along, and that the trail we needed to catch was close, but as we struggled through the buck brush, forcing every step, it became obvious that we not as close as we had hoped. We walked further, but as it got darker and darker, I knew that it was not going to happen. We walked until it was too dark to see in front of us, and there was no opening to the path we were looking for. We would not see civilization that evening, and it was another night on the pinery.

We had no water for cooking, it was past 9:00 in the evening, and so we just settled in on a relatively bare spot of ground, surrounded by low buck brush and manzanita. It was a beautiful evening, with close to a full moon, and the stars were appearing overhead. The surface was pretty flat, so it was a vast improvement from the night before on the slippery slope, and I slept much better. I was thirsty, but knew we still had a walk ahead of us in the morning and knew we all had to ration our water.

I awakened about 6:00, or maybe earlier, thinking of the trip thus far, and the long walk still ahead of us to the truck. It had been a long incline down into the valley, and I knew the walk out would not be pleasant, but it was time limited. And I would take that hike over climbing another mountain any day.

We packed our gear for the last time that morning. Richard's poison had spread to his neck and face, and more on his arms, so this bothered him slightly, and everyone was feeling the toll from the climb the day before, but we wanted to get to the truck in the cool of the day, since water was at a real premium.

We actually were in the right end of the pinery, but there was still lots of brush to contend with, and many logs to climb over. I would estimate we walked an additional hour before finally coming to the path that we knew would return us to the vehicle. This walk back goes by some absolutely spectacular scenery, with deep canyons, basalt rock spires, and wide vistas, and the path, for the most part, is pretty good. The hills we needed to climb, though, were covered with golf ball and fist sized rocks that liked to slip underfoot, so it was treacherous walking in spite of the open trail. And it was a long way back. The water supplies kept dwindling, and soon, Richard's was totally exhausted, and I had but an ounce or two left. Bob had also run out, and was living on a few remaining drips. Bob found some beautiful wildflowers, so he stopped to take some pictures, but Richard and I, who moved slower, kept plodding along, stopping after any especially long climb to rest, and not get too far ahead of Bob.

The entire way is up for this last hurdle to the vehicle, and I searched for a mantra that would help get me closer to the destination, putting one foot in front of the other. I said, at each step, "Closer and". So each step went "closer and, closer and , closer and, closer and", keeping pace with my walking. It was my positive little message to myself that each step was indeed closer to the truck.

While we still had a ways to go, Richard and I stopped, and I knew he was extremely thirsty, so I gave him the rest of the water, and I told him that he'd have to ration it himself. He took it and drank it dry. He said, "I had to do that", and sat silently.

We soon took off for the truck, the last few blocks being steeper than anything we had encountered since the mountain. And soon, there it was, a big white truck ahead, glistening in the sun, holding cold water, pop, and beer. I struggled to the tailgate, released by backpack, got a can of pop, and guzzled it down as if it were treasure. It was a wonderful liquid treasure. Then I had some water, and then more pop, and then a beer because we had drunk all the water and pop we had along!

The road out was slow and rough but the truck handled it well, and soon, smoother road appeared, and then even smoother. Eventually we got to a town called Cohassett, and stopped at a gas station convenience store. I bought a cup of coffee and a liter of water, and a sweet roll. I was hungry, and I deserved it!

We were a sorry looking lot, but we stopped at a restaurant in Chico, and cleaned up in their bathroom as best we could. We had a late morning breakfast, and soon headed south a couple of hours toward Sacramento. We dropped poor Richard off, covered with his poison oak, and I picked up my stuff and headed to Bob's house for the evening. A long, hot shower, a few good laughs at how bad my legs and arms looked from Bob, his mother, and myself, and a nice quiet evening. The bed felt so wonderful in comparison to the previous few nights, and I slept very well, scrapes and abrasions and all.

In the morning we went out for breakfast, and soon Richard came to pick me up to take me to the airport. He had been to the doctor, gotten a shot and some medicine for the poison ivy, and really looked much better than he had the day before. And then off to the airport, on the plane, and back to Minnesota.

The adventure is over, and what it meant to me and its implications for the future are yet to be determined. We did some foolish things, some stupid things, and some factions of nature just worked against us, but as we discussed later, one thing we can we proud of is that we accomplished it, and that we did not let the wilderness defeat us. Much of the battle was psychological, and when I read long ago that the Ishi Wilderness is not for the meek, I wondered exactly what that meant. I wonder no more.

Hope you enjoyed the travelogue, and maybe have learned a thing or two in the reading. I called Joan shortly after leaving the Ishi Wilderness, and told her that if I ever start talking about backpacking again in this area, to contact a good psychiatrist or psychologist, and have my sanity questioned.