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Emigrant Wilderness 2012

Day 5 of 6

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Friday, August 17th
Wood Lake to Upper Relief Lake
9.9 miles
1460 vertical feet (ascent)
950 vertical feet (descent)

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GPX File

The wind died down last night, and it was quite pleasant actually. In the morning, the skies were clear. I took some sunrise pictures and after packing up camp we got started around 10am.

Wood Lake sunrise

Wood Lake sunrise

Wood Lake sunrise

Since we'd camped at Wood Lake instead of Long Lake, today's hike would be over a mile longer than originally planned. We rejoined the main trail, turning right at the intersection to head north toward Deer Lake (the left fork goes toward Groundhog Meadow).

Almost immediately, we saw an unmarked intersection. The trail appeared to continue northeast along the lake, while we could clearly see that another trail was visible across the stream to our left. I consulted the map and saw that we did need to cross the stream, and so we went across. We figured the other trail was just a side path next to the lake. Now, if I had taken the time to look at the map more closely, I would have realized that we were supposed to follow the contour of the lake shore for a lot longer before crossing the stream. Or perhaps if I had been able to access the memory of this part of the trail from when I'd done it 11 years earlier (in the opposite direction), then maybe I wouldn't have made this mistake. But unfortunately I did make this mistake.

We followed the trail across the stream and soon ran into a couple of older backpackers coming in the opposite direction. I mentioned that we were heading toward Upper Relief Lake, but they didn't know where that was. They said they were going to Wire Lakes. I didn't have the map in front of me at the time; if I had, I would have asked them why they were heading this way, since Wire Lakes was in the opposite direction. In retrospect, I should have asked them where they were coming from. I've usually done that, but for some reason I didn't do it this time.

Every person you pass on the trail in the opposite direction is a valuable resource. More valuable than a map, a GPS, or a guidebook. They can help you figure out exactly where you are on the trail, how far the next trail intersection is, how hiking conditions are up ahead (muddy, rocky, etc.), possibly where the best campsites are at the next lake you're staying at. You should take advantage of this resource, even if you think you know exactly where you are. Besides, it's always nice to talk to other backpackers on the trail to find out what their route is, and pick up other ideas from them.

So, I totally blew that opportunity. I was suspicious when the trail didn't start climbing immediately, but after a short flat section, it did start climbing. Then I forgot about my suspicions and marveled at how well the kids were hiking today. And then the next thing you know, we had hiked almost a mile. I looked at my compass and realized that we were hiking due east instead of north like we should be. Ouch!

Somehow, we had gotten onto the trail toward Groundhog Meadow, even though we had specifically not taken that trail, and I don't recall ever seeing a trail coming in from the left. But there was no disputing where we were. We thought about backtracking, but decided that it would better to just keep going forward; since we had already hiked a mile, heading back would be about the same distance as going forward. Either way, we had just added about 2 miles to our original route.

Frustrated, we plowed through the next section of trail, then turned right onto the trail toward Gem Lake. Now this part of the trail I definitely remembered from 11 years ago - a steep climb on bare granite with a hard-to-follow trail marked by rock stacks, the sun beating down on us. Thankfully it's only about a half mile, after which we found ourselves at little Gem Lake.

Gem Lake

Some people were enjoying a swim in the lake as we stopped to eat and rest. I apologized to my family for making the navigation error, but they made me feel better by not blaming me, even though they knew it meant a longer hike today. Still, as the planner and leader, I felt a responsibility to keep us on the right track.

Now I was worried about having to hike until sunset, so we didn't have any extraneous breaks today. We would only stop to eat. After our break at Gem Lake, we turned right to head toward Jewelry Lake. About 20 minutes later we reached it. This stretch of trail from Wood Lake to Gem Lake to Jewelry Lake to Deer Lake was the only stretch in common with the trip that Jean and I did back in 2001 (before kids). Some of it started coming back to me. The trail from Gem Lake to Jewelry Lake and then Deer Lake has a little bit of climbing, but it's not too bad.

Approaching Jewelry Lake

Jewelry Lake

In between Jewelry Lake and Deer Lake, we ran into the same couple we had run into near Wood Lake. They'd gone around in a circle and they now said they were headed toward Gem Lake. They were probably surprised (and maybe a little confused) to see us, too.

We soon reached Deer Lake and settled down for a break. I took the opportunity to filter some water and make some Gatorade. While we were there another backpacker came by and said he was very impressed that I got the kids to come out this far. I would have to say that pretty much everyone we saw was either impressed or encouraging or both when it came to the kids. As for the kids themselves, I'm not sure if they realize how impressive they are; I think they're just out doing their thing with the family. Nathan, for his part, never seemed to get tired on this trip (maybe I should have given him more weight). Jared struggled at times, complaining that his feet hurt, but he kept plugging away and really didn't complain much for a 6 year old. Mostly he seemed to just be commenting that his feet hurt, not that it would stop him. I assured him that my feet hurt, too.

Deer Lake

After our break at Deer Lake, we turned left toward Salt Like Meadow. This part of the trail is a steady uphill climb, some of it over rocks where the trail is marked by rock stacks. It was quite hard to follow at one point, until Jared pointed out the well-worn path to our right. This part of the trail climbs for about 1.6 miles. As we neared the top, we ran into a large group of day hikers. I'm not sure if they were doing a really long day hike, or had a base camp, or were heading toward a horse camp. They all had only day packs, though. I did make sure to ask them how far the next intersection was, and I was glad to find out we were nearly done with this part of the trail. The hiker I talked to also said that the intersection toward Upper Relief Lake was well-marked. I felt better about our situation now, as I knew once we reached the top here, we only had about 4 miles to go, much of it downhill or flat.

Pond next to trail toward Salt Lick Meadow

Just a couple minutes after we saw the hikers, we reached the intersection at the top. To the right was a trail leading to the north end of Long Lake. We took a brief break and then continued straight ahead toward Salt Like Meadow, heading downhill. Soon we passed another trail intersection, with a trail leading to the left down to Wire Lakes. We continued straight ahead.

At the bottom, we reached Spring Meadow, a sprawling meadow which we walked right through. On the other side, we climbed briefly. We next saw a large group of backpackers, a high school group I think. Or at least that age range. As we continued along the trail, we could see dark clouds to the east, very similar to yesterday. I was hoping we'd be spared any rain, just like yesterday.

Spring Meadow

Pond between Spring Meadow and Salt Lick Meadow

Next we reached Salt Lick Meadow. The sky by now was completely overcast, but the clouds seemed high and not too threatening. At the end of the meadow we re-entered the forest and started to be on the lookout for the trail intersection. We stopped for one final food break before finding the intersection and turning right to head uphill toward Upper Relief Valley.

Salt Lick Meadow

We now had a small climb, about 250 feet, but it hardly registered as it was very gradual, spread out over the 1.5 miles to the valley. We did have to contend with two things on this part of the trail, though. First, we heard bells -- not of horses, but of cows. A group of cows was grazing right in front of us. Most of them moved along to the right, though one stayed to our left as we walked cautiously by.

After passing the cows, mosquitoes were our next problem. This was the only stretch of trail where mosquitoes seemed to be an issue. We put on repellent and walked through as fast as we could, and didn't have too much problem. Any time we stopped, though, they would hone in on us. Or at least me. By the time we reached the top, however, they were no longer a problem. And when we reached the top, we broke out into the open and into the beautiful sight of Upper Relief Valley.

Approaching Upper Relief Valley

Approaching Upper Relief Valley

Upper Relief Valley

A huge expanse of meadow lay out in front of us, with mountains on either side. The sun was starting to come back out from behind the clouds. We reached the next intersection (the left trail leads to Whitesides Meadow) and knew that the lake was just to our right. We walked a little ways before deciding there probably wasn't any official trail to the lake, and just cut across to the right toward the granite rock outcroppings. From the top of those, we could see the lake on the other side.

We meandered through the granite before we found some nice camp sites among the granite. In one spot there was a campfire ring and lots of wood waiting to be burned. It didn't look like there were many good campsites closer to the lake, as it's surrounded by grass in most directions. The eastern side of the lake is backed by granite and forest, but there were already a couple of backpackers (and their dog) camped there when we arrived. I'm guessing they had the best campsite in the area.

Crepuscular rays above Upper Relief Valley

Despite worrying about getting in near sunset, we actually arrived at our campsite around 6pm, nearly 2 hours before sunset. We set up camp and I went out in search of a good place to filter water. This would not be easy. I put on my sandals and thought I would just walk out into the lake and scoop up some water with my big floppy Nalgene water bag. That was a big mistake. I took two steps toward the water and my sandals got sucked into the mud. I swear it felt like the mud was alive and was pulling me in. Thankfully I had my trekking pole with me to steady me, and I yanked my feet out forcefully. I spent the next 5-10 minutes scooping up water and pouring water over my feet and sandals to clean them.

Eventually I found a spot where someone had placed two rocks at the edge of the water, where I could step on them and grab a little bit of water above the algae clearly visible in the lake. Later, on another trip to get more water, I saw another backpacker also searching for water. I pointed him to those two rocks.

As we made dinner, we could hear the cows approaching. Their bells made it easy to tell they were now at the southwest end of the meadow, heading up the trail just like we had done.

Nearing sunset at Upper Relief Valley

At dinner time, we witnessed a beautiful dramatic sunset, colorful red and orange clouds hovering over the mountains to the west. After sunset we thought about having a campfire, but in the end just went into the tent. It had started to sprinkle a bit and we just wanted to get in the tent and rest for our hike out the next day.

Upper Relief Valley sunset

Upper Relief Valley sunset

Upper Relief Valley sunset

Upper Relief Valley sunset

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