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Yosemite Trails (1911) by J. Smeaton Chase


CHAPTER XV
THE HIGH SIERRA: LAKE BENSON TO LAKE TENAYA

We breakfasted next morning by half-moonlight, and by six o’clock broke camp. Field and I had prospected out the trail, the losing of which we nowise regretted, since it had thrown us upon this delightful lake, destined, I am sure, to become one of the favorite lakes of the Sierra.

The trail bore at first due east, and we started out upon it with confidence, believing that our perplexities were over. Fording the stream and crossing a low divide, we passed close under a remarkable peak, in shape a vast arch topped with a transverse elongated dome which terminates in a cliff of not far short of a thousand feet. A broad belt of snow lay along the foot of the cliff, and below that a huge promontory of talus ran off at a keen angle.

Rounding this mountain, my rose pyramid of last night appeared straight ahead. A snow-field lay under its summit, and from this the water streamed in countless rills, falling from slab to slab and filling the air with musical murmurs. Along the gullies flowers still grew thickly, columbines and larkspurs waving above thick beds of bryanthus and purple pentstemon. This latter is a handsome, generous-looking flower, larger but more ethereal than the much-admired crimson species of the lower valleys. Daisies sprinkled all the grassy hollows, adding a lovable grace to the stately gravity of the mountains.

It was not without a vast amount of grunting and complaint on the part of the animals, and several repackings, that we reached the top of the pass, for the trail was the steepest we had encountered. In the very neck of the pass was a small round lake surrounded by a meadow of the usual “short-hair” grass of high altitudes. It was intensely silent, lonely, and desolate. Three plovers were flying to and fro over the water, silently playing some ghostly kind of game; the wind silently trembled the brittle heather; the sky silently watched the lake, and the lake silently mirrored back the sky; the mountains stood silently around, pondering and intent. There was something spell-like in the absolute soundlessness, as though it never had been and never must be broken. Even the mosquitoes came silently to the attack, rising in grey, imp-like clouds from their ambush in the grass, and settling on us in a gloomy, predestined fashion that was most demoralizing.

This, as we later found, was Murdock Lake, lying at 9500 feet of elevation. At its north side rises a thousand feet higher my sunset pyramid (Volunteer Peak on the map of the Geological Survey). On the other side the trees march down to the water’s edge, and framed between mountain and timber runs the ragged line of the Sawtooth Ridge. Field and I climbed up on the shoulder of the hill to the west of the lake, and obtained, as we expected, a wonderful outlook, — an uninterrupted view for many miles of the crest of the Sierra, a tumult of peaks and precipices that rose and fell with the wild passion of the waves of a stormy ocean. The foreground and middle distance were a rocking sea of granite, running in abrupt points and hollows, and clouded with patches of forest.

On leaving the lake at the southeast end, the trail divided once more. One branch turned northeasterly, the other to the south. Knowing that we were already farther to the north of the Tuolumne River than we wished to be we took the latter, which we followed first down a wooded cañon and then along a grassy valley with a pretty, winding stream. I soon observed that the trail was making more westerly than I liked, but contented myself with keeping a look-out for any sign of a cross-trail. Mile after mile we went on until we reached the foot of the cañon. There the trail, throwing off all disguise, turned frankly westward and then northwestward, exactly contrary to our required direction. Still, with a miserable perversity which it amuses me now to recall, we kept on. It appeared later that we all had been possessed by the same insanity, each of us perfectly aware that we were heading the wrong way, and each doggedly keeping the knowledge in his own breast.

A few miles to the south I could see the precipitous walls of a gloomy gorge which I felt sure must be the cañon of the Tuolumne. I pointed this out to my companions, but they were gloomy too, and we marched on in devoted obstinacy. Then came a long, steep descent, down which we scrambled wearily; and threading our way through a jungle of vegetation, found ourselves in a small, aspen-bordered valley on the margin of a considerable stream spanned by a bridge, near which were traces of a recent camp-fire. Ignoring the bridge we forded the stream, and hastily unpacking our weary beasts went into camp once more in No Man’s Land.

We had seen from above that the trail, after crossing the stream, climbed the steep side of a forested mountain on the west. After an hour’s rest and a light meal Field and I explored this continuation of our trail for a mile or two farther, hoping, if not to find a cross-trail, at least to get some light on our whereabouts. As we gained an outlook to north and east we confirmed our suspicions that we had been travelling all day nearly in a circle, and that the creek we were camped on was none other than the one that flowed through Lake Benson. We were in fact again on Piute Creek, and only a few miles southwest of our last camp. We also suspected that the wooded mountain over which the trail continued to the southwest was Rancheria Mountain, and we knew that if that was so, by following it we should certainly find ourselves back in the Hetch-Hetchy. Near the summit a new trail led off to the northwest, but that promised nothing better than a return to the maze of mountains and cations among which we had lately been wandering.

Two or three times in the last few days we had come upon scraps of pencilled writing left wedged between boulders, or stuck into crevices of the bark of trees. They had been sometimes in the nature of serio-comic soliloquies, sometimes of complaints or disparaging comments upon the topography of the country: such as,—

“What the blazes am I going to do now? H. J.”

“Oh, where is the old trail at? H. J.”

“This is something fierce. H. J.”

It was here that we found the last wail of this unknown brother in distress. A leaf of a note-book was stuck among the stones of the monument that marked the fork of the trail, and on it was written,—

“All in. Can’t get through. Going back to the valley. H. J.”

With these somewhat gloomy items of intelligence we returned to camp. Bodie, with fine recklessness, had prepared a thumping dinner, topping off the hot bread, steaming murphies, and sustaining beans with a fancy course of rice and syrup, in which he had let his imagination run to the length of stirring in a short dozen of prunes which he had excavated from some corner of the grub-pack. Then, in a comforting scarcity of mosquitoes, we made a noble camp-fire, discussed the situation, and determined that we must retrace our steps in the morning and hunt out the easterly trail which we had somehow missed.

It was not without disgust that we started next day on our back-trail. Breakfast had revealed the fact that it was becoming a matter of urgency for us to make Soda Springs quickly. Our last potato stared us rudely in the face, and Bodie reported flour for only two more loaves. We looked carefully as we went along for any indication of a cross-trail. The scanty timber was all tamarack, a tree which, with its thin bark and excessive resin, is a simple one to blaze, but also easily becomes a snare to the traveller, since any scar made by falling trees or branches quickly fills with resin and is then difficult to distinguish from an orthodox blaze.

Coming nearly to the head of the long valley we found a distinct blaze marked on a tamarack on the farther side of the creek. This, then, was our clue; but a huge barricade of windfallen timber had wiped out every other trace of a trail. For an hour or more we worked like foxhounds at this problem, feeling sure that we were on the right track, but unable to pick up the trail beyond the windfall. At last Bodie, skirmishing far ahead on Pet, struck faint signs of an old track, more like a deer-trail than anything else, and we took to it with some misgivings. It headed up by the south side of our pyramid, passing close beside and around it. I now observed that the upper one thousand feet or so is built of thin perpendicular slabs, regular in size, and squared as if cut by a mason; the same formation, I suspect, as is found in the so-called Devil’s Post-piles. The top slabs had weathered apart, and some of them were leaning outwards ready to fall and add to the vast accumulation of débris at the foot.

Crossing a snow-bank we came upon another charming Alpine lake, narrow and winding, and dotted with rocky islets. Dark-foliaged pines stood about the margin, and on the south towered a great mountain, its rifted seams and gleaming snow-fields reflected deeply on a surface like liquid steel. It was Rodgers Lake, lying at an altitude of 9500 feet: a true Sierra lake, lost and inviolate among a wilderness of stately peaks. It stands high on my mental list of the places I hope to revisit.

The trail leaves the lake at its northern end and enters an amphitheatre of granite cliffs. The ground was soaked with snow-water that trickled down on every side, and some care was necessary to avoid getting our animals mired down. Then came another lake (Smedberg), hardly less delightful than the last. In the meadow surrounding it a few long-stemmed buttercups greeted us, though the lupines were not even yet in bloom. Here we ate a frugal lunch, drinking from the drip of a friendly snow-bank.

The scenery here is of the wildest, the very scrap-pile of Nature. Even the trees are of strange and painful shapes, a few dressed scantily with shivering scraps of foliage, but for the most part barkless, white, and polished like bone by scouring storms. Their appearance would call up one’s pity, but that they are pines; sympathy for that royal race seems a superfluous impertinence.

As we rose from our meal I became aware that a group of five buck, with horns in velvet, had been standing overlooking us from a rock hardly fifty feet above where we sat. There was the click of twenty hoofs on the granite, and in a moment they had vanished “into air, into thin air.”

A few miles more of strenuous climbing, and we crossed the high divide of Benson Pass at 10,130 feet. There occurs here a curious ridge of loose white sand, the result, I suppose, of an extreme degree of disintegration due to unusual stress of weather in this bleak pass. Once more we looked out upon a sea of mountains, no whit less rugged and intricate than those we had threaded. The air rang with the metallic tinkle of a thousand rills that streamed from the snow-fields around us. A curious effect is produced by the melting of the surfaces of evenly sloping sheets of snow under the direct rays of the sun. The crust, harrowed by the constant trickling of water, appears as though a fine comb had been drawn over it, the myriad channels all maintaining a perfectly parallel alignment.

Turning then southeasterly we entered a narrow, bouldery gorge with high, snow-laced cliffs on our right, somewhat lower barren ones on the left, and a bold white ridge barricading us in front. Isolated pillars of rock of grotesque shapes rose from the sandy floor of the cañon, which from its peculiar character we hoped might be Alkali Creek Cañon, debouching upon the Tuolumne River a few miles below Soda Springs. But at the foot the trail swung again to the north, and we had no choice but to go on, anxiously scanning the east side of the cañon for a cross-trail. At last we espied the blaze on the farther side of the creek, forded, and with fresh heart struck once more southerly.

But another disappointment awaited us. After climbing a steep ridge the trail headed again northeast, dropped into yet another cañon, and crossed another divide. Mile after mile and hour after hour passed in this puzzling work. We were making east, certainly, which was so far to the good, but northing also, which was entirely to the bad. So on we marched, fording creek after creek, crossing ridge after ridge, hemlocks giving place to tamaracks and tamaracks to hemlocks as we wandered up and down.

About sundown we emerged in a new cañon with a wide, strong stream, and, completely tired out, determined to camp, leaving to-morrow or some later to-morrow to solve the riddle. We had been twelve hours out, on the very roughest trails in the mountains, and had eaten hardly anything since five o’clock that morning.

A supper of flapjacks (no longer, alas, “men’s sizes,”—a jeu d’ esprit of our good Bodie by which he was wont to designate the plump “jacks” that he delighted to deal out to us in times of plenty), and a grateful pot of tea brought us quickly refreshment of body, and, more gradually, peace of spirit. A miserably cold wind blew strongly down the cañon, but not strongly enough to quiet the mosquitoes. Lighting a trio of smudges we spread our blankets between them and turned in, still out of our reckoning, but somewhere in the United States, as we supposed.

We were astir at dawn,—by this time a matter of habit,—and made a leisurely breakfast. Since we did not know where we were, nor yet where we were going, it seemed superfluous to hurry. Moreover, there was a feeling in the air that to-day would almost certainly bring us into the neighborhood of Soda Springs and fresh supplies. At the lowest computation, the distance we had made must have put us well into the angle that is formed, roughly speaking, by the main crest of the Sierra and the Tuolumne River. Still, it was a solemn moment when we saw Bodie convert the last of our flour into the morning flapjacks, and we gazed upon each spreading disk with some emotion.

Again we betook ourselves to our eternal cations, ridges, and divides. The trail led through a dim forest of hemlock and fir, where mats of the dwarf blue lupine in the openings gave back the hue of the sky in almost solid sheets of color. In damper places the giant variety grew to a remarkable size, waving heavy clusters of blossoms head high to the animals. Here I noticed the first appearance of a new kind of heather, which I identified as the Cassiope to which Mr. Muir refers so often and so lovingly. It is a delightful plant, graceful and delicate, yet with the sturdy demeanor of the mountaineer. The blossom is a white bell, borne in clusters in heather fashion, but larger and rather more open than the Erica of Bonnie Scotland. My much loved daisies grew prosperously in every glade and meadowlet, enchaining my affections daily more and more by their air of high-bred simplicity.

To our great comfort the trail, after traversing a succession of open meadows strewn with boulders, headed straight southeastward, and persevered in that direction, following a long, straight cañon. Remembering the past, we held our spirits in check until, after some miles of steady marching, we came in sight of a group of splintery peaks with a quaint, pencil-pointed horn beside them. We recognized them at once as the Cathedral and Unicorn peaks, and knew that Soda Springs, the much desired, the necessary in fact, lay a few miles on their hither side.

With light hearts we pushed on down a gentle slope, and about noon arrived at the foot of the cañon. Crossing a trouty stream, another mile brought us to the Tuolumne River at a point where there occurs a wide fall known as the White Rapids, —the first of a succession of falls and cascades by which the river begins to drop from the high levels of its upper course to enter the great gorge which widens lower down into the Hetch-Hetchy Valley. Here Bodie was himself again, and willingly resumed his abrogated functions.

Now that Soda Springs was within reach I was in no hurry to get there. I loved it not for itself but for the supplies it afforded; and in any case we should have to pass through the Tuolumne Meadows in order to reach Bloody Cañon, the pass by which we intended to cross to the eastern side of the Sierra. But we were here within a few miles of Tenaya Lake, one of the most renowned, because one of the few visited, lakes of the Sierra. So while Bodie with Clementine rode to the Springs, a few miles to the east, Field and I forded the river below the rapids and struck into a southwest trail for the lake, where Bodie was to rejoin us.

A change came over the scenery at this point by which we might have guessed, if we had not known, that we were not far from the Yosemite. In the sixteen days we had been out we had described what amounted in effect to a circle (though of a highly irregular kind), of which the Yosemite might be regarded as a narrow southern chord. We entered now upon domes and swelling contours, imposing in their gravity of line, though far less stimulating to the fancy than the wilder peaks among which we had been wandering. To a geologist no doubt every half-mile of all this cliff and cañon would be as a page of a book. I only see the vast aspects, and wonder at the finished product.

It is an overwhelming thought that in the view of Him to whom “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” the age-long processes of Nature may appear but momentary. How sublime would be the spectacle, so regarded, of the tremendous plane of ice, shearing with irresistible sweep these knotted mountains, and casting off to right and left like shavings the forest-bearing moraines!

A mile after crossing the river the trail skirted a narrow lake, of a peculiar greenish hue, named after some forgotten scion of the tribe of McGee. Then for some miles we traversed a rough tract of country where huge boulders powdered a granite plateau, mixed with a thin tamarack forest which in some miraculous manner has secured a foothold and forces a subsistence from this unpromising inheritance.

I was much entertained by the sagacious behavior of Pet, whom in Bodie’s absence I was riding in place of my regular mount. Field was in the lead on the black mule, who was usually assigned to that post for his virtues as a trail-finder,—his only, but admirable, characteristic. Following him came Jack and Jenny. Probably Jack noticed that Bodie was away, and presumed upon my milder rule; anyhow, he was particularly disagreeable, and pointedly refused to keep in the trail. Contumacy was in the very flop of his ears. After I had headed him off several times he became violently angry, and revenged himself by charging about among the trees and rocks with the plain intention of doing as much damage as he could to his packs. It was deliberate malice, and I rope-ended him accordingly.

Pet, who at every opportunity asserted his superiority to his four-footed companions by ranging himself with the bipeds, entered into the quarrel with great enjoyment. With tail switching he closed up on the recalcitrant burro, almost treading on his heels, and harassing him by biting him on the flanks: all the while keeping a sharp eye on his heels, you may be sure. Whenever the miserable jack, wrought to a pitch of frenzy, bolted from the trail, Pet would toss his head with malicious delight, gather himself for a jump, and waltz over the obstructions in the gayest of spirits, appearing unexpectedly before the enraged animal whichever way he turned, and crowding him backwards with his neck twisted almost to the point of dislocation. All that I had to do was to attend to the protuberant parts of my body, ducking my head to avoid branches and shielding my knees as best I could from contact with the huge boulders. It was as good as polo, but it was hard on the packs. The sinkienon, bound à la Mazeppa, and wedged between the horns of the pack-saddle, rode out the storm in safety, and the photographic plates, packed in strong wooden boxes, also came through undamaged; but the weaker brethren suffered some contusions, and the coffee-pot sustained a compound fracture of the handle, necessitating amputation.

Jenny’s behavior was correct and ladylike as ever. Her place in the line was always following Jack, and I believe the meek little thing had a real feeling of loyalty to him. Whenever he became obstreperous she would turn off the trail after him for a few paces and then stand looking on with cocked ears, and an embarrassed expression like a third party at a quarrel. Once when I had to make a long detour in heading Jack into the trail, we had gone on for some distance before I noticed that Jenny was missing. I rode back half a mile, and was beginning to think I had missed her when I caught sight of her standing on a big boulder upon which she had scrambled, certainly with some difficulty, in order, I suppose, to be in plain view. She was patiently waiting to be called for.

As we neared Lake Tenaya the mountains showed more and more the capped and plated formation that is so noticeable in the domes of the great valley. The “monumented” trail passed over wide expanses of glacier-polished rock that glittered like glass and reflected the sunlight and the heat into our faces with unpleasant ardor. It was a relief to see the glint of blue water between the tree-stems, and shortly we emerged at the lake side. Following the edge of the lake to its northern end, we made camp in a thin grove of pines that fringed a meadow, and had hardly got things shipshape when Bodie appeared. He had made a quick trip of several miles more than we had covered, and had secured the needed supplies: not much, nor luxuries, but enough to restore the valuable flapjack to the bill of fare, together with sundry other items which had passed into history.

Lake Tenaya is one of the largest and most accessible of the Sierra lakes, and its repute stands high for beauty. Certainly it is a lovely sheet of water, clear as the element can be, and surrounded by fine, and at one end striking, mountains. Directly from its eastern side Mount Tenaya towers up two thousand feet above the lake, whose altitude is 8100 feet. To the northwest, a smoothly sculptured mountain of granite called Murphy’s Dome sweeps up to almost an equal height. Between them, at the head of the meadow, stands a quaint little truncated cone some eight hundred feet in height, shaped like a fez, or a candle extinguisher. A winding creek steals through the meadow, carrying the water of Cathedral Lake. Farther to the west Mount Hoffman rises magnificently to close upon 11,000 feet, and almost due south, and only five miles away in an air-line, Clouds’ Rest marks the eastern end of the Yosemite Valley. From the lower end of the lake issues Tenaya Creek, the stream which as it enters the valley widens into the pretty pool that is dignified with the name of Mirror Lake, and which joins the Merced River at the upper end of the valley itself.

With all my admiration of Lake Tenaya, however, I invite the appreciative tourist who may visit its charming shores to believe that along the almost unvisited High Sierra there lie scores of lakes equally or more delightful. I do not forget that tastes in scenery differ, but I think that the genius of a lake, unlike that of a river, accords best with the wild and desolate aspects of Nature. It is quietude embodied, and the voiceless solitudes of the upper world of barren peak, high thin air, and stainless snow-field are best suited to its lonely spirit. So I can hardly believe that any lake-lover would not agree that those lost, solitary, created-and-forsaken pools of silent loveliness, hidden away among the crags and fastnesses of the high back ranges, exceed in true lake charm even this handsome sheet of more accessible water.

To-morrow would be Sunday, so we should not move camp. Field, nevertheless, turned in early, with a sunrise picture on his brain. Bodie soon followed, soothed by the knowledge of being again in his own territory, and of grub-packs replenished to a point which would carry us safely to Mono Lake, where there are stores and civilization, of a kind. I for my part sat by the hour at the camp-fire after the last mosquito had retired, watching in the still mirror of the water the heavens and the earth gazing at one another, like lovers entranced. Every star was duplicated, and breathed with the breathing of the lake. The Milky Way was reflected in a dull smear of grey. The mountains merged and ran into grotesque shapes; at the lower end they became alligators, lying snout to snout. Once the silence was broken when a grouse drummed on the mountain side: I imagined him gazing in sleepy wonder from his roost at the red fire with its winking double in the water.

I walked around the little bay on the white, crunching sand, to note for myself the impressionist effect, and found it rather fine:—red, yellow, black, and grey, with murky brown lights on the under side of the smoke that trailed away over the lake. It was very quiet, and Nature was very big. It seemed an impertinence for man to light his puny picket-fires on her frontier. Pale sheet lightning began to play, flickering over the great mountain opposite like firelight dancing on the walls of a room. It reminded me of how I used to think, as a child, that when I was rich and grown-up (the same thing), I would always have a fire in my bedroom to lie and look at. For once, at least, I had two; and luxuriously I threw on another log to make a blaze to undress by. It is even so that many of our childish dreams come true,—with a difference.



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