Up High in the South Sierra, 3: The Cranes of Sand County

August 17, 2019: Guyot Pass to Soldier Lake, Miter Basin, and Crabtree Pass

1.

There’s frost when we wake, and deer: half a dozen yearlings and does, surrounding the tent.

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We pack up and switchback down to Rock Creek as the sun warms the night’s ice to morning mist. The deer seem to follow us, galloping through the dewy underbrush just at the edge of what we can see, until finally, just before the creek, they cut west, into the Kern’s steep valley and the vast wilderness beyond.

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2.

“Wilderness,” that word, probably comes from a combination of the Old English word for undomesticated plants and animals (“wilde”) and the Common Germanic word for beast (“deor,” also the root for our “deer”). Together, they form “wilddeor”—“untamed creature.”

An etymology is not a definition, of course, but there is something in this root that’s stayed with us through the intervening centuries. Untamed creatures—sometimes feared, sometimes seen with wonder—have been central in our dreams of wilderness since we began having them.

3.

Watching the deer run along Rock Creek’s rushing water, I think of those dreams, the dreams of noble creatures in wild land. And something odd strikes me: those dreams have, more often than not, been dreamt in times of strife, when humans were behaving as beasts.

Thoreau, hearing news of the Mexican-War and watching the gathering storm that would become the American Civil War, wrote repeatedly of a wild cat in the woods near Walden as a sign that there was something beyond us—something beyond the petty, crumbling world we’d made. And a century later, with the world still recovering from World War II and just a few months before his death, Aldo Leopold wrote of watching a wild crane in Sand County—the folding of its wings, the lilt of its fragile neck—and seeing in its solemn, lonely grace an incarnation of everything the world could be:

When we hear the crane’s call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.

4.

We follow Rock Creek east in the deep shadowed gorge below Mt. Pickering, then pick our way on faded trail to a grand plateau overlooking Soldier Lake, where we set up our little tent and eat a late lunch, watching wind on the water.

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It’s unlike any place I’ve ever seen, but it reminds Krista of northern Yosemite—of that first big solo trip she took years ago. And we make a plan to go there together, maybe next year.

5.

From camp, I wander off trail over a minor pass west of Soldier Lake, then down to the headwaters of Rock Creek and Miter Basin—a broad, almost perfectly flat valley nestled between Mt. Pickering and the main Sierra crest.

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There’s no official trail here, but an obvious boot path leads up along Rock Creek to acres of blooming flowerbeds, then further, up a short steep scramble to Sky Blue Lake, which fills nearly the entirety of a deep granite cirque, bounded on all sides with smooth bright white towers.

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6.

I sit for a while near the lake’s edge, and watch a small black bear trundle down from an unseen valley to the flowerbeds I just left. Then, from above, a family of deer dash down along a small stream and into the other side of the bed.

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I think again of Thoreau’s cat and Leopold’s crane, and of the consolation they offered. I don’t need consolation now. It’s been a beautiful trip, at the end of a beautiful summer. But then I think, as I often do out here, of something from William O. Douglas’ autobiography, about the retrospective comforts of wilderness.

Toward the end of his life, Douglas endured a series of illnesses that left him confined to bed for weeks at a time. But he wrote that the memory of wilderness—the southern Washington Cascades, a wilderness area now named after him—allowed him to escape out the window and back into the world:

The Cascades have been particularly undeniable when I have lain in sickbed. In days of fever and sickness I have climbed Mount Adams, retraced every step from Cold Springs to the top, recrossed its snow fields, stood in an icy wind at its highest point, and there recaptured the feel of adventure and conquest and the sensation of being back millions of years at the time of the Creation.

During hospital days I have explored many streams of the Cascades, looking for the delicate periwinkle. I have cast a fly on dozens of their lakes, and searched the pools of the Big Klickitat, the South Fork of the Tieton, Bumping River, and the Naches for rainbow trout. I have sat on the crags of Goat Rocks 500 or 1000 feet below the summit, waiting for a mountain goat to appear in silhouette against the skyline. I have seen lively bug hatches on Fish and Swamp lakes. I have heard the noise of elk in the thickets along Petross Sidehill.

These have been haunting memories that in illness returned me to the world of reality even when it seemed I might be close to the other side of the river.

I take a dozen pictures, thinking of my own future windows.

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7.

From Sky Blue Lake, the way trail fades to a set of braided paths, more deer than human, but the way leads easily through a set of small valleys to more talus-lined lakes. The going only gets tough in the last half mile before Cottonwood Pass, as the talus turns to tennis ball scree and the valley I’ve been following steepens to a scramble.

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I stop for a snack perched precariously on the far side of the pass, then hurry back to make the time I told Krista I’d be “home.”

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8.

Jogging down through the valley, the light’s softened. My deer friends from earlier are still on the far side of the flowerbed, nipping at the grass. In my mind, they’ll always be there.

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Rather than the pass from earlier, I take a “shortcut” through a steep notch just south of the Major General, and scramble down through thick willow to our camp, where Krista’s waiting. “Two minutes early!” She smiles. “How fast did you run?”

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August 18, 2019: Soldier Lake to South Fork Lakes

9.

The next morning’s covered in ice. Frosty grass fractures under our feet as we climb through a long rocky draw to New Army Pass. There’s a creek nearby, the southernmost fork of Rock Creek, and it cracks like small thunder in the early morning sun. It sounds like Leopold’s crane.

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The sun rises to a proper day, and we spend an hour swanning around the high plateau between New and Old Army Pass. Below—to the east, where we’re headed—half a dozen lakes lilt in the shadow of my favorite mountains in the world.

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10.

Our pass is overhung by an icy cornice, but we find a way around, and down to a tangle of switchbacks and way trails precariously cut into the crumbling wall of the Sierra’s east face.

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At the bottom, we have our choice of lakes, though thick clouds of flies make meandering a little difficult. We swat our way off trail to the southernmost of the South Fork Lakes, where we panic up the tent and hide inside for half an hour as mosquitoes wait loudly just beyond our mesh. I try to hear in their biting buzz something like the crane’s call. And as the shadows grow long through our little window, I can just about do it.

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August 19, 2019: South Fork Lakes to Horseshoe Meadows

11.

We walk out together—we always walk out together—first Krista in front, then side-by-side on the broad, horse-beaten path that leads to Horseshoe Meadows.

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We follow Cottonwood Creek out of the wilderness, then past a series of private corrals into a jumble of clean-smelling tourists—some with backpacks, some cowboy hats—all like seagulls leading the way to shore.

12.

The last half mile to Horseshoe Meadows feels holy. I see myself half a decade ago, on our first day on the JMT, unsure how to carry a bear can, or of what it even means to be in the wilderness for weeks. I see the fear, and the excitement. The feeling of standing at the edge of everything.

And I see us: holding hands through the smoke; talking each other to sleep, off the ledge; cheering each other at the top of the pass; limping together, teary-eyed, that last mile to the car; driving home through a new world.

I see us, and I see the windows through which I’ve watched those memories of us—all the winter nights lit by those warm summer days. And I see today, its own little light, like the sound of a crane in the winter to come.

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