Saturday, December 28, 2019

Our Last-Minute Journey around the Thousand Island Lake Loop

I never would have guessed that we'd be back in the Eastern Sierra backpacking like two people without a care in the world after becoming homeowners, and especially not after becoming pregnant.  Our lives had changed so much in the past few months that we never bothered to entertain the thought of going on a trip anytime soon.  We barely even got to do one leisurely hike after moving in, even though the hiking trails were more accessible than ever from our new place in Altadena.  In the whirlwind of events, we miscarried at six weeks.  It was crazy because just as we were starting to wrap our heads around the fact that we were expecting, we had to accept the fact that it wasn't happening anymore.  Well, since there was no longer a baby on the way, I figured that a getaway into the backcountry sounded like something that we should prioritize.  It also seemed like a worthy time to take a pause in our fast-paced homeowner life and put the brakes on the rollercoaster of parental emotions.

Even though we both knew that it could happen to us, it was really sad when we experienced the pregnancy loss.  By the time Labor Day rolled around, enough time had elapsed for us to process it.  I've come to focus on the idea that what I have now is always more than what I had yesterday, even if I had a potential baby in my belly yesterday.  It was hard to think this way at first, but it is true.

I, myself, feel stronger as a woman for getting through it, and I feel that I can now sympathize more with those who have struggled or are struggling with pregnancy in general.  This whole unpredictable journey to having a baby can be either debilitating or empowering -- I emphatically chose the latter. The situation has given me an even more fiery drive to stay in control, and savor what the present has to offer instead of over-anticipating the future or fixating on the past.  Life is still beautiful the way it is, so I put the past behind me and found ways to enjoy what I am able to do now, and only now.

As a couple, this was our first time both going through a joint loss.  Despite the sadness, I was pleasantly surprised by the depth that this has added to our outlook on parenthood and our relationship with each other.  Wes was so kind, yet logical, and he helped me to honor the situation rather than resent it during the first couple of days.  Our emotions around starting a family have become more intricate, more mature, and more resolved.  We have, in this unexpected loss, expanded our capacity to be grateful for when we do get our rainbow baby, which I am very optimistic will happen!

Booking our backpacking permits felt surreal.  We got really lucky to get permits for this particular trail, which has been on my bucket list for a while.  Someone must have cancelled, because two spots opened up on this very popular trail that usually gets booked well in advance.  Time to gather that camping stuff and brush up on our hiking endurance and backcountry survival skills!  We were barely finishing up with unpacking, fixing up our house, getting the yard in order, and my body was still adjusting back to its usual cycle.  Even though it felt like we were leaving behind loose ends and unfinished business, I knew that we needed this.

It's always freeing to be out there in the rocks, trees, and lakes, but this time it was something else.  It felt safe and yet adventurous in its own way, and it proved to me that life is still as good as it was before. Wes joked that the only difference now is that we have to live with the fear of our home being burglarized.  Not to worry, when we had a shred of reception, we checked our security cameras for activity.  We also made sure that there were no Labor Day deals that we were missing from our favorite furniture stores!  But other than that, our bodies were surprisingly still in shape, and it wasn't hard to slip into that backpacking mentality.  The trail that we chose was challenging, our packs were heavy, and we hadn't actually hiked long distances for months, but I believed in us!  I also felt glad to be out here, all things considered health-wise.  Most of all, I felt grateful to have a loving, steadfast, and supportive partner by my side who not only knows how to make me laugh, but who I can count on to hang a bear bag, steer us in the right direction, and stop to take as many photos as I want.  The three days went by at a good pace and it was all very rewarding!

We highly recommend taking your time to complete this scenic ~30-mile loop starting and ending at the Agnew Meadows campground in Mammoth Lakes. The loop incorporates sections of both John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail through the Ansel Adams Wilderness of Inyo National Forest. It is commonly done clockwise, starting on the River Trail and ending on the High Trail. However, we did it the opposite direction because it made more sense for our permit, and we loved it exactly this way! We did it in three days and incorporated a few extra side-hikes and plenty of relaxation time.
Day 1 - Agnew Meadows Campground to Thousand Island Lake

Starting from Agnew Meadows (8340 ft)., it was a long and steady 10-mile climb with 2,300 feet of elevation gain along the exposed High Trail, which is a part of the PCT.  We thought that we might end up stopping short of Thousand Island Lake and sleeping somewhere along the ridge because we got off to a late start, our packs were heaviest on the first day, and we hadn't done much hiking to train for this.  We made it, though, with the help of a Subway sandwich that we picked up this morning!  

We could have taken the River Trail to make our lives a little easier on the first day, but it seemed a little too boring and short.  The other option was to take the High Trail, but we'd have to try to push for Thousand Island Lake, because that was a campsite that was allowed on our permit.  Fortunately, we made quick progress on the High Trail (the hardest part of the loop!) and arrived at Thousand Island Lake to scramble to a good campsite and set everything up before the sun went down.

The trail climbs through trees from the meadows all the way up to the ridge, past the treeline.  Then, the rest of the trail follows the ridge, offering a grand view down into the valley below and a glimpse of Shadow Lake on the other side.   We'd be napping at Shadow Lake two days from now!

The trail is very exposed, but luckily there are no mosquitoes at this high altitude.  We took that as a good sign!

Our arrival to Thousand Island was grand.  It, and its many small islands, were all unveiled to us little by little as we went over hills and rounded bends.  When we finally reached its shore, we were just enthralled by its beauty.

Finding a secluded, high campsite was actually pretty easy--there were lots of good options higher up on the rocks. We had a stunning view of the lake until the sun went down.  Wes went back down to the lake for water after we pitched the tent and tied our bear bag to a tree far away while I blew up the sleeping pads and made our “beds.” The weather was nice, and we felt pretty comfortable despite having hiked so much today!  It also felt good to know that the hardest day of the trek was over.

Freeze dried mountain meals are the best!  Lightweight and hearty, easy to throw together, and they come in great flavors.  We had chicken gumbo and Kathmandu lentil curry for our first dinner.  They don't look like it, but they were both tasty and filling!

When the sun went down, we looked at the stars above us and stayed out, hunched over on our Z-seats, watching the Milky Way light up, even though we were very cold.  It was so, so gorgeous to see all of the stars out on a cloudless night.

Day 2 - Thousand Island Lake to Ediza Lake

This was also a long day - we hiked another 10 miles from Thousand Island Lake to Ediza Lake, passing Garnet Lake on the JMT.  The trail was up and down the whole day, descending from a lake, ascending to another, and descending from that one, to yet another.  It was still rigorous, even though the total elevation gain was only 1,350 feet according to our recordings.

I woke up to the sunrise in the morning and crawled out of the tent to look around.  I hadn't slept that well, but it was so beautiful that I forgot about my sleepiness and perked up right away.  Wes, however, refused to move from his cozy spot in the tent, so I left him in there while I walked around and took it all in myself.  It was peaceful and stunning...and cold.

Eventually, he woke up and made us some coffee, haha.

It's nice that we have established routines out here, too.  Make coffee (Alpine Start!), eat something, admire scenery, put stuff away, pack lunch, try to poop, admire scenery some more, stretch, filter water, plan out the day.

Leaving Thousand Island Lake was hard, both from a nostalgic and a physical standpoint.  It was 2.6 miles from the Thousand Lake junction to Garnet Lake up at 9680 ft of elevation on the John Muir Trail.

The first view of Garnet Lake after climbing uphill for quite a bit was rewarding and magnificent - we were now seeing Banner Peak from a different angle.

We descended down some switchbacks to get to its shore to lie down and eat our instant Indian food.  It was super easy to fire up the Jetboil and heat them up, and they were a nice change from the freeze dried dinners.

We left the lakeside as it was starting to get windy, and soon after, found some pink algae-stained snow...

...and arrived at a great look-out point before a descent into the valley below.

We actually laughed about how this descent seemed like nothing compared to what we had to do on the Tour du Mont Blanc last summer.  But the feeling of being high up and looking down at where we'd have to go next was very similar.

Now we were getting close to the lake, and we remembered the warnings that we'd heard at the Ranger Station and on the AllTrails forums about a broken footbridge at a stream crossing.  We had heard that the water level was waist deep for people who had done this trail a week ago, and our fingers were crossed that the level may have dropped.  I brought an old pair of TOMS that I didn't mind getting wet and throwing away just for this. We arrived at a stream and were able to balance on rocks with the aid of our trekking poles to cross over it.  But that wasn't the one!

We arrived at Ediza Lake and saw where the crossing was.  Camping on this side of Ediza was not allowed for some reason, so people have to cross a stream to get to the other side.  We decided to seek higher ground on this side if possible, rather than needing to cross a stream and get all wet.  Finding our campsite far away from the lakeshore added at least an extra mile to our already-long trek today, but it was worth it.  Good thing we had some freeze-dried strawberry ice cream to give us a much-needed energy and morale boost before the final push.

Wes unstrapped his pack and scrambled ahead of me up a very steep rockpile into the boulders above the trail while I waited.  I was getting a tiny bit worried as the sunlight started to fade, but he returned, looking excited.  There were some really good, hidden spots up there, and this meant that we wouldn’t have to cross high streams and get our feet soaked.  So we scrambled up these rocks, arrive at some good campsite possibilities, but decide to keep going up.  We eventually found a pleasant nook, complete with our own little winding stream, tree cover, a view of the minarets, and just a short distance away from a jaw-dropping lookout point over Ediza Lake.  We didn't think much of Ediza Lake when we first arrived, but it looked way cooler from up here!  At our home for the night, we were able to easily filter water, hang our bear bag, pee (and poo the next morning) without worrying about being accidentally seen, enjoy the colors of the sun playing on the cliffs, and fall asleep under the stars once again.  There were some mosquitoes this time since we were by some water, but it couldn't have been as bad as what it would have been down at the lake.

The Good To-Go freeze-dried bibimbap and Thai curry were awesome!  Shout-out to Margaret and Andrew for gifting these to us.

We watched the sun go down from our super neat spot and stayed past dark to stargaze again, but the stars weren't as bright as they were on that first night.

Day 3 - Ediza Lake to Olaine Lake

This was an 8.6 mile day, and rather than gaining elevation, we lost it as we descended all of the elevation we had gained in the past two days.  We could have exited the entire wilderness area today, but we gave ourselves an extra night out so that we wouldn't have to pay for a motel!



I set an alarm to ensure that we didn't miss sunrise at our epic spot above Ediza Lake.  I refused to give Wes the option to sleep through it for the second day in a row!  The sunrise was lovely, rising in the East over the lake below, lighting up the cliffs above.  It was cold, but we peeled ourselves out of our sleeping liners and sleeping bags and crawled out of the tent in spite of it.  When we started taking pictures of how beautiful everything was, I pretty much forgot about the cold.  It was one of those magical, alpine moments when you feel like you have the whole world to yourself.

Despite how early we were up, we natural laggers watched group after group pack up below us while we took our time.  We took luxurious dumps in the privacy of the cliffs, drank coffee, ate breakfast, and sat around.  We had a surprisingly satisfying freeze-dried coconut mango sticky rice this morning - fuel for our bonus hike to Iceberg Lake today.

It was just a 2-mile out-and-back detour to go to Iceberg Lake, so we left our packs near the trailhead and went up that steep and rocky 1-mile trail to see what I would describe as a slice of Iceland.  Pictures do not do justice to this otherworldly lake.  There were actual icebergs floating on its surface, and the water was like glass.  It was so clear and so flawless. We also tasted the water and it was pure and crisp.  We could see clear to the bottom of the stream leading out of the lake, it reminded me a lot of the Silfra Fissure in Iceland.  Amazing what we have right in our home state!

After we ate the last of our pouches of instant Indian food for lunch, we continued on the trail, traveling downward, and reached Shadow Lake.

We remembered seeing Shadow Lake as a little blue dot no bigger than my fingernail from far away when we were on the High Trail on the first day.  It was awesome that we were right in front of it now -- it's actually quite a big lake!  Couldn't resist lying down for a nap on that huge slab!

Frickin' Wes took these embarrassing photos of me knocked out...

The rest of the trek was a downward slog to rejoin the River Trail.  Once on the River Trail, we ended up at Olaine Lake to spend our last night under the trees.  The ranger did warn us that Olaine was not that great, and she was absolutely correct.  It was essentially a mosquito-ridden swamp, but we had no other place to stay unless we completed the loop and got a motel in Mammoth somewhere.  Olaine wasn't too bad in the end, though--comfortable and peaceful, once we got over how nasty the water was.  Wes actually walked an extra mile for fresher, running water.  Hard to believe that the water pooling in this lake literally comes from the same place as the water that we drank up at Iceberg Lake!  We spent the last night zipped up in our tent, looking through all of our photos and reminiscing on each small adventure.  We did also have some reception, so we caved and browsed furniture sales a little bit.  Who knew that we'd be so into furniture nowadays...

Day Four - Olaine Lake to Sakura Buffet (lol)

It was less than a two-mile hike back to the bus stop on our fourth morning in the backcountry.  We fantasized about all of the real food we wanted to eat the entire walk.  After we washed our faces and arms in the sink at the Mammoth visitors' center (the water came out very black!), we grabbed lunch at our favorite diner before hitting the road back home.  We had crunchy salads with croutons and grilled sandwiches with a bite while using napkins without worrying about running out.  It was also amazing to go to a sink and wash our hands with soap after the meal.  We were pretty grimy, but I guess we could have looked worse for having been without plumbing for three days!  After this, we hit up not one, but two bakeries for our favorite bread and cookies (cuz we deserve all of those carbs) and then stopped by a rustic, charm-filled craft fair in Bishop, where we ended up buying two birdhouses and a rolling pin made by some very adorable elderly woodworkers.  So much for mid-century modern!

We already had our no-frills dinner plans in mind.  Don't judge us.  When you've been eating freeze-dried one-pouch meals for the past three days, even a budget Chinese buffet in Palmdale that our own parents would probably never eat at sounds like a five-star restaurant.  It's comfort food, unlimited, and conveniently on the way home.

This is nowhere near a premium quality buffet, but they actually have crab legs, crawfish, hot and sour soup, orange chicken, some questionable sushi, and chololate froyo.  No regrets!  It hits the spot every time we head down from Mammoth.

I'm so glad that we were able to do this trip.  It was fun to revert back to our "old selves" after all of the change that has taken place in our lives over the past three months.  I think that there isn't such a thing as something that is "meant to be" or "not meant to be."  In the end, it's what you make of what "is."  We are glad that we took this opportunity to go on this retreat together.  Rejuvenated, we're ready to keep moving forward.

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