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Lower Evolution Valley

August 10, 2000
McClure Meadow along the San Joaquin to Muir Trail Ranch
A day of water crossings ... and feasting

0545-0645 — McClure Meadow (41°F; clear & brisk)

          We don't dally; up early and on the trail. I am anxious to get to Muir Trail Ranch and resupply our food. My appetite has kicked in and my gorp which I suck on during the day while hiking is getting dangerously low. I could run out! We sight a couple deer and I am back in the moment no longer obsessing over food.

          A grizzled cowboy rides up to us complaining about how cold it was this morning, frost on everything. He is looking for his mule. Seems the mule tagged along with the pack train that passed us last night. He has to catch up to them and retrieve his mule. I guess, this horse pack routine is not an exact science.

          We pass a couple other guys right before we get to "the crossing." One of the JMT stories we read in preparation for the trail mentioned something about the toughest JMT water crossing is in Evolution Valley. The trail brings us down to the creek. I see the trail continue on the opposite bank across some fifty feet of foot deep rushing water. Perhaps there is a crossing down stream. Nope. I go up stream about 100 yards but it doesn't look any more promising. Oh well, I guess we will have to wade across. The thing is, I don't remember those guys we passed as having soggy feet.

0800-1030 — below Evolution Meadow 37°11.706 / 118°47.080 - 9.2K' (70°F)

          After we wade across the creek we find a sunny spot on a ridge to dry our boots. I check the map (after the fact). It appears we missed another crossing opportunity in Evolution Meadow which may have been a less dampening experience.

          We spend a couple hours having coffee and granola, airing our boots, sorting the garbage in the food canister and I fix my gaiters and apply new tape to my feet (I have a couple toes that rub one another so I separate them with tape). Our boots are almost dry when we decide to get back on the trail. We lost some time missing the water crossing in Evolution Valley but it does not affect our progress.

1130-1215 — bridge 37°12.181 / 118°48.040 - 8.3K' (68°F in shade)

          We take another break to again air our feet, snack and wash up at the second bridge over what is now considered the South Fork San Joaquin River into which Evolution Creek drains. While we are here, that twenty mule team pack now without baggage passes over the bridge going back out to the pack station. They have dropped off their clients in McClure Meadow. Oh boy, we get to follow them and wade through fresh horse s--- the rest of the day!

          We have been down this river gorge before, right after some major winter avalanche damage. It appears to have recovered somewhat although there are still many young aspen. What I hadn't remembered was how magnificent the older aspen are through here. There are forests of them. I imagine it will be very spectacular in the Fall when all the round shimmery leaves turn gold and it looks like money really does grow on trees.

          The rich blue-green San Joaquin rushes and tumbles through the gorge. In places it has carved a channel thirty feet deep in the solid rock. It is hot but somehow just the sound of the river so close makes the day seem cooler. We startle a mule deer close to the path and pass a few more backpackers on their way south. We slow down as we approach the Paiute Creek bridge. Irene wants to just take it all in.

1330-1400 — Piute Creek Bridge 37°13.441 / 118°49.920 - 8.0K' (79°F in shade)

          We lunch beneath a majestic old California juniper, one of many at this juncture. Interspersed with the juniper are towering red pine trees. They are so regal and perfectly spaced, you appreciate each one individually as a monarch of his environment.

          Over the bridge the large pines are even more spectacular. Even the dead ones have stature. There is a specimen right by the trail which must be 150 feet tall, totally without needles due to a recent trauma (probably lightning) but still holding on to most all the branches and still towering into the sky. It will be a sad day when this giant falls to the ground, especially, if he falls on his healthy neighbors. I am out of film so I have no picture for the record.

          Irene notices a cloud drifting over the southern ridge and wonders out loud whether there are Sequoia in this valley since they thrive only where afternoon mist and clouds moisten the environment. But with closer inspection, this is not a mist cloud, this is smoke. There is a fire just over the ridge. The smoke is white so the fire as yet is not too hot. We continue to monitor the smoke and watch for flames as we head down toward the Ranch.

          We are pretty much out of food except for maybe a dinner. My gorp is down to a couple jelly beans. Water is low but the Ranch is close. We reach the Senger Creek trail crossing. We greet a veteran cowboy coming up the trail from the Ranch with a "howdy". He asks if we are going to the Ranch. I confirm and ask if he is the proprietor. Somewhat flattered he says no "just one of the hands." Later we discover he is being modest and our incidental flattery pays dividends. He is on an afternoon break; gonna hike up the trail a ways and read a book. Irene asks about the fire and whether the Ranch has any communication with civilization. He says they are in contact with the Store at Florence Lake and that there has been a fire south of here for the past couple weeks or so but he is unaware of any new fires. He is sure the authorities are on top of the situation. He has heard spotter planes fly over. Somewhat reassured we head on down to the Ranch.

Muir Trail Ranch

Muir Trail Ranch half way point on the John Muir Trail

1530-1800 — Muir Trail Ranch 37°14.275 / 118°52.830 - 7.7K'

          The Muir Trail Ranch spans the San Joaquin right at the bottom of the valley. It is mainly a rustic resort with few amenities other than the natural hot springs on and off the property. The Ranch provides food cache services for thru-trekkers. We are here to pick up our food which we sent via mail to the Ranch about three weeks ago.

          We wander around outside the gate wondering where we are supposed to go. A young gal at a picnic table outside what appears to be the main cabin tells us to just come around through the gate to the store. It is quiet. The girl seems to be the only one here. Then we notice folks with towels headed out across a field behind the buildings. They must be on their way to the hot springs.

          An elderly lady comes out of the house and meets us at the adjacent store. She asks for our name and looks us up in the receipt book. Our bucket just arrived with the last delivery. The Ranch only goes into town once a week and then the buckets must be ferried and packed into the Ranch which is about fifteen miles from the road. I am glad we don't have to sit around waiting for our food to show up.

          We follow the lady out to a stone shed where inside are stacked probably fifty to sixty five gallon buckets of supplies people have sent to the ranch. Some buckets are a couple months old. The people never showed up. The lady complains about that while I discover our bucket and Irene mentions we need white gas as well. They have about five gallons of gas sitting on a shelf, along with other stuff including used shoes. We take our bucket outside to a picnic table to organize our resupply.

          Irene asks the lady about bears because we may not get all our food into the bear canister. She says there are bears around the Ranch; although, there is no exposed food on the Ranch. But every year after everyone departs the Ranch the bears tear the roof off the stone hut looking for leftover food buckets. Irene asks if it is safe to sleep with some or your food (she has practiced this technique with our extra food for most of our trip). The seasoned lady tells a tale of a fellow dumped out of his sleeping bag by a bear looking for food. Even the scent of humans does not discourage the bear's single minded search for goodies. With this in mind, we set to work ensuring we get all our food in the bear canister.

          We plop down on the ground next to the picnic table and open the bucket. First order of business is to devour the six pack of donuts at the very top. Then we start making piles, counting the days to our next supply. A couple other trekkers pass by and chat before heading off to the hot springs. A threesome and guide return from a horseback ride to Selden Pass. We continue to sort and munch. The three guests hobble by a little stiff and bow legged but smiling and obviously happy with their horseback adventure but probably anxious to hop into the hot springs. Their guide and the young girl soon follow them headed for the ranch house. Just behind them the horses saunter by seemingly curious for a moment as to what Irene and I are doing and then nonchalantly trot up the hill through the open gate. I think nothing of it. Suddenly the young ranch hand and the girl come running out of the house and up the hill after the horses. I guess, the horses did not have permission to leave on their own recognizance. They were all obediently wearing their cow bells. Come to think of it, the horses did look a bit guilty when they passed by us. Sort of like "I can't believe this; they left the gate wide open. We're outa' here!"

          There are a lot of supplies in the bucket we just don't need, like the hundred pain killers, extra bug spray, power bars, candy and gum. We do need the replacement water filter, fresh batteries, lighter and film. We have enough valuable stuff left behind, we decide to have the bucket returned by mail. This is a surprise to the lady of the Ranch; I guess, they don't normally provide that service. She complies anyway.

          As we are finishing our chore and packing up, a young trekker comes hobbling down the path. He wears home made sandals with a bit of tape on his right heal and ankle. A couple walking sticks help him keep his weight off the bandaged foot. He approaches the lady and ranch hand. Soon he returns in our direction. We ask him "what happened." Seems he and his buddies on the JMT were coming down from Selden Pass and POW he felt like somebody whacked his heel with a baseball bat. He knew right away he had an Achilles tendon injury.

          Arty, a wilderness survival teacher is here now at the Ranch hoping to get a ride to the ferry about four miles away. He is amazed how cold and unhelpful the Ranch is. They offered to drive him to the ferry in their truck Saturday but they do not have the people to spare to carry him and his pack out today by horseback. After all, the Ranch is a business. Arty does seem like an impatient type. Although he is hurting, he did not snap his Achilles and probably could wait another day especially if the alternative is to hobble four miles and likely aggravate the injury further. We ask if he needs any pain killers or food (we have plenty to share). He says he's fine. Thinking positive, he appreciates this real "wilderness survival" experience that he can take to class. We have to wonder how such a fit young guy could have such an accident in the first place. Come to find out, he was carrying a sixty-pound pack and he started his trip carrying eighty pounds (to me that is crazy and over time such weight will crush anybody's feet). We wish him and his friends well and give him a card to email us with his story (hey, Arty, are you out there? How's it going?).

          We settle our bill with the lady. It is ten dollars for return postage on the bucket, a buck for white gas and two and a quarter for postcards. We plan to leave early in the morning like 0500 but no one will be up at the Ranch to take our outgoing mail. She tells us to just leave the mail in the blue pouch in the store. This store is wide open. You can see the sky through the roof in many places (probably isn't much rain here). They sell a hodgepodge of basic trekker stuff like water filters, batteries, bug spray, ponchos, bandaids, postcards and stamps, etc. There is a table and chairs where you can sit and compose your mail. There is cash lying out on the counter and desk. Business transactions are sometimes noted in a big old register. Really quite weird how the ranch is so open and at the same time "unfriendly?" maybe even down right "cold" to non-guests. The atmosphere almost feels like an old range war.

          As we are leaving we ask the veteran Ranch hand which is the best way to the public hot springs. We noticed folks earlier traipse straight through the Ranch. "Well", he says "they weren't supposed to do that"; it interferes with Ranch guests, specifically the massage lady set up down by the river edge. He points us to the path outside the Ranch fence. He says follow that straight across the river and when you get to the hot spring pool at the south end of the fence you will find a path inside the fence that takes you to a tree by a big rock under which is the hottest spring on the Ranch. I think we just got permission to use the private Ranch facilities. This is the dividend I mentioned earlier.

          The invitation is legit because this is not a mere Ranch hand but the Foreman of the Ranch and the Old Lady is eighty year old Mrs. Smith the owner of this family run Ranch. Evidently, the Ranch predates the park and was established in 1870 under the Swamp Act. The young girl is fourteen year old granddaughter, Hillary, artist and author of the book about the Ranch which they sell at the Ranch store. Hillary's mother tends to the ferry and the Store at the end of Florence Lake. Her dad takes care of the Ranch web site. It was he who said the Ranch would return our bucket via the mail (he may in the future want to confirm Ranch policy with the boss, his mother-in-law). The main Ranch property is outside Fresno. This is where the rest of their stock reside. Irene asked the young ranch hand what happens to their old trail horses and whether the Ranch ever sells them. The young man says they hold on to them all. The Ranch still has twenty and thirty year old horses. Sounds like Mrs. Smith is a real conservative. It is likely the family owned Muir Trail Ranch will be here for a good long time.

          On our way to the hot springs we run into another elderly lady, This one is a Volunteer Ranger. She asks to see our permit " ... If it is handy ... but if not I can check it tomorrow ... I don't have any real authority anyway ... but it is part of my job ..." The permit is not convenient; but, I assure her we have one. She proceeds to tell us all about the Smith family, the Ranch, the distinctions between private property and Park, the problems the Ranch has with trekkers, etc. Really quite a chatty lady. Meanwhile the sun is going down and we have a river to cross and hot springs to enjoy.

1830-1930 — Muir Trail Ranch hot spring

          Finally we break loose from the Volunteer Ranger and search for a way across the river. There is a log that spans a narrow cascade about a quarter mile up stream but most people this time of year just wade across the slow flowing river here at the Ranch property line. The river is probably 75-100 feet wide, between 1-2 feet deep with a bed of softball size and larger, semi-slippery river stones. We charge into the river and warily wade across without falling down. On the south side of the river, feet totally soaked we squish-squash along the path through a meadow where we come upon the private hot spring just as the Foreman had described. We hear other trekkers close by crowded into the public springs outside the property line and so we quietly slip into this two person pool behind a cover of tall weeds.

          It is wonderful having a spring all to ourselves but we are not entirely comfortable. We whisper and worry that we will be discovered by the other trekkers just beyond the fence. Of course, we are here by invitation. Fortunately, the public honors the Ranch no trespass signs and we maintain our privacy. There is not much daylight left so we must decide where to camp. We could bivy right here by the hot spring but then we would have to cross the river in the morning and get our feet wet again first thing. Besides that, we are on private property. Our invitation was to hot spring not camp. We will ford the river again and camp on the north side in a designated campsite, if we can find one.

2000-2130 — outside Muir Ranch 37°14.113 / 118°52.812 - 7.7K'

          Our return river crossing is without incident. I shoot a photo of Irene's technique for the record. We find the last remaining campsite on a little rise in the trees above the north shore. Although furnished with a fire ring and a warm fire sounds great after the river soaking, it is getting too dark to find firewood. There is probably no available wood anyway. All our neighbors already have fires blazing. We quickly lay out the bivies. Somehow in the dark Irene cooks up a tasty dinner. Hopefully, if there are any bears in the vicinity, they will go after the counter balanced food next door and we can rest peacefully.

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