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Sierras trip, 2016

This trip was kind of a monument to bad planning, although we ended up having a good time.

We wanted to spend some time in the Tyndall Creek area, so we were originally going to go up Shepherd Pass, but we realized that it was going to be extremely hot in July. The way to do it would be to stay somewhere nearby (there's nothing but more heat at the trailhead) and get up really early, but we hadn't prepared by getting a motel room. So we decided to go in over Kearsarge Pass instead.

One thing I did not know, that is not on the National Forest website, is that if you want a walk-in permit for the NEXT day, they will not give that out until 11 AM. Same-day permits are given out right when the visitor centers open. I got us a fraudulent same-day permit and made up an itinerary based on the mileage we were able to do 8 years ago when we were near the end of our JMT trip.

So... we got a campsite in Onion Valley (not that easy to do at the season, but it was early in the day. Another note: the walk-in sites confuse people and are more likely to be open, although we got a drive-in). And the next day we headed up Kearsarge Pass.

Kearsarge Pass, the basis for Pelambar Pass in my books, is pretty easy, but not totally trivial on the first day with a very heavy, ill-fitting, borrowed pack (Solstice peed in my regular pack), and we went all the way to Bubbs Creek, which is about 12 miles. It was hot. I was definitely ready to be done.

I've become fonder of lower elevation areas as I've become a birder, and there were lots of birds down there (my year Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches were up on the pass, though, right by the trail), and also deer, both moms with fawns and bachelor herds. There were also lots of wildflowers throughout the trip. Less pleasant, there were lots of people. And really gross, there was lots of poo and toilet paper right up the hill from the creek, and even right by the creek, and even in a campsite we were in later south of Forester Pass. What the hell is wrong with people? Go farther away! Bury it! Pack it out! I packed out not only 99% of my TP but all my sanitary products (third year in a row this has been necessary. YAY... not), and everybody else can grow up and do that too. I wonder if they should put bins with bags, like the bins in busy dog-walking areas. Not really compatible with wilderness, but neither is the open-air latrine thing.

OK, so enough of that. We then hiked up to Center Basin, an area I had seen on the map and thought "hmm, what's up there?" If you look at the map and the trail you will find the way to this beautiful, mostly empty, high set of lakes under Center Peak and Mount Bradley. There was such amazing glacial polish here that I had to touch one rock just to make sure it wasn't actually wet. We camped by Golden Bear Lake and day hiked up a series of moraines to look at high tarns and the cross-country route to Junction Pass. The hot weather was giving way to threatening storm. In the night we heard an odd yipping, squealing yodel -- I tried to figure out what it had been, but really wasn't sure until the morning brought a whole chorus of coyotes. Someone had been singing the soprano part unaccompanied.

We continued over Forester Pass. This is a beautiful hike but not easy. I do OK with elevation, but at around 13200, it's fairly high, and it climbs a lot. At one point I sat down and declared that we had to fix my pack, which was crushing my shoulders like a medieval torture device. We re-rigged it, which made it bearable, and went on. On top the one sky pilot plant I remember had multiplied into a whole field of beautiful blue flowers. And down we went, into the increasingly ominous weather.

At this point, I had planned for us to go to the Tyndall Frog Ponds, and maybe I should have insisted, but it just seemed too far, and so we camped in a pretty campsite near the bridge between the two lakes visible to the left of the trail immediately below the pass. It was a beautiful spot. (There was poo, but anyway.) And the skies opened.

Post-skies opening, my SteriPen quit working. We had been planning on spending the next day day-hiking to Lake South America. But with the weather, and worrying that boiling all our water would use up all our fuel, we decided to head out.

Over Forester Pass two times in two days. I'm not sure how many times that has actually been done. It's easier from the south side, and we made it ahead of the dark clouds. The high country was full of marmots and adorable, confiding pikas.

My toe, which had an ingrown toenail and ended up needing surgery, oral antibiotics and a tetanus shot, was not particularly happy with this schedule.

On the way back down to Bubbs Creek, we were struck by a very cold storm that began with hail. There had been SO many people heading up the pass, including a train of three elegant llamas, but they have wool. The many young women in running shorts (seems like the new trail fashion) hopefully had something they could quickly change into. It's great to see people out hiking, a more diverse population than in the past with lots of younger people and lots of women hiking alone, but you need to be aware of the weather, and many people we met on that day seemed not to be. I got very cold very quickly from that storm and I wasn't wearing shorts nor high on the pass when it hit. We set up the tent and hunkered down, but soon the rain stopped, and we headed for a really nice campsite I had seen on the way up.

At first I couldn't find the site and was frustrated, but then we found it, a gorgeous site next to waterfalls. (There was poo. ARGH) We got to watch a pair of bucks grazing, which was interesting to see, because one alerted, put his head up and started staring at something. The other clearly had no idea what his friend was looking at, and instead of watching the same spot, he watched his friend! When the first buck relaxed and put his head down, so did the second one.

The next day we returned to Kearsage Lakes. The connector trail up from Bubbs Creek is in fairly bad shape and a definite slog. The trails within the Kearsage basin are also in an awful state. But the weather had cleared to classic, sparkling Sierras sunlight, and to our surprise, we were alone at the lakes! I spent most of the day sitting on a rock watching a doe graze with her fawn, who would periodically get the puppy crazies, pretend something scared him, and dash around in wild circles around his mom.

The next day we descended past a horde of incoming hikers (it was Saturday) and, after handling a dead battery, spent the night in Bishop.

It was a great trip. I'm especially glad to have checked out Center Basin. But I need to have a more realistic idea of what mileage we (by which I mean me and my dad) can do, I need to just bring extra SteriPen batteries despite the weight or else switch to a rechargeable one (but then you have to also carry a recharger and you have to trust that it will work since it seems not to also be able to use AAs), and I definitely need to buy a couple of LifeStraws for backup (my dad thinks that boiling water for 30 seconds! kills Giardia etc., of which I'm not at all convinced). And I need a new pack. Even the one Solstice peed in is painful on my shoulders, to say nothing of The Crusher, which I since found out was my sister's pack when she was a ranger in Denali in 1994. At one point we met a 20-something guy who praised it as "old-school". Yeah, old-school like the Iron Maiden was old-school.

And both hikers and wilderness managers need to do something about the poo. Not to harp on it, but I've been backpacking in the Sierras since I was 13 and I've never seen it like this. Put up bins in the heavily impacted areas, is my vote.



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Alaska

Denali

Green and mist, the mythic North of bagpipes and tartan, of runestones and sagas, for that matter of wildlings and walls of ice, only not. But it is, only a hemisphere away: the north of my ancestors, the icy peaks, the green, the fog. Sleepy wet bear, wet heather. Bright-eyed baby moose. Blackpoll song.

Nome

A cold shore, a disarray of buildings and debris. Weather unkind, until it clears and midnight is bathed in gold. More mountains, more wilderness that I want to be immersed in. Long-tailed Jaegers, musk oxen, gyrfalcons, Spectacled Eider, Harlequin Ducks.

Kenai

Another place I need to come back to. Sparkling seas and hidden mountains. The wind off glaciers. Sky and water full of birds. Puffins (much more competent, less bath-toy than I expected), auklets, murrelets, humpbacks. Sea stacks. There is so much more of this to see. St. Elias is waiting.

Barrow

Ultima Thule, ice land, fog land. Is this the anthropologists' fabled point of Dorset darkness? (Still waiting to reread Arctic Dreams from the county library). I can see plenty of darkness in the impoverished town, but when the sun shines all night the pools are indigo, the tundra gold, the black gravel beaches are made of onyx, garnet and citrine. Neither Red Phalaropes, nor Snowy Owls, nor in particular Steller's Eiders with the sun on their breasts, would live in any evil place. But what is it in winter?

Clients

I expected to be the remedial student on a Wings trip, with everyone else more advanced than me, a bunch of fanatical listers who might not be very nice. Not the case. I have my birding mentors to thank that although I wouldn't say I was at the top of the class, I mostly didn't make a complete fool of myself. I was surprised at the lack of broadmindedness shown by people who are quite a bit older than I am and presumably have a lot of money. Really, not realizing there were going to be vans to climb in and out of? And double really, complaining that the tomato sauce came from a jar in Nome? (Nearest tomato plant: Somewhere on the other side of Canada?) Odd. There's also a sort of client mentality, kind of we'll ride along and you produce the birds for us, and that's not a role I'm really accustomed to or interested in for one reason and another, so hopefully I wasn't obnoxiously ... I think the word I want is prepotente, which no one will know what that means. Uppity? Non-clientish. I did find friends.

Peeing

Luckily, I pee freely in all ecosystems, so I was fine with the tundra. Heard odd "peent" calls. Could not see a bird, decided it must be ventriloquizing ground squirrels. Later, someone (I suspect it of having been Evan but don't remember for sure), said to me, "Oh, Eastern Yellow Wagtails. Those were circling over your head yesterday when you were peeing."

The second time round, and also at a different pee stop on totally the other side of Nome, saw the yellow wagtails.

Had no trouble seeing the two floatplanes that buzzed me during a 'rest' stop on the shores of the Bering Sea...

Zugunruhe

Two days after coming home, I signed up to go back north next year, to Gambel and the Pribilofs.

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I really need not to read Internet comments. Much less respond to them

I KNOW this but sometimes it's hard not to feed the trolls.

So Nyquist, after going extremely fast early in the Preakness and tiring to third (a pretty damn good third, considering the 22 and change first quarter), popped a fever. No way of knowing if he was already getting sick before the race, although it could help explain why he was so reluctant to relax.

The trolls apparently think he didn't really get a fever but was scratched because his trainer/owner (which I'm not huge fans of either of them but I don't think it's reasonable to believe that every word that comes out of their mouth is just automatically a lie, either) ... something. Knew he couldn't get the 1 1/2 miles in the Belmont? Um, who cares? If they had said Nyquist was tired after the Preakness and the Belmont was too soon/too far, the effect on the colt's value would have been: Nil. I'd love to say that staying 1 1/2 miles was a huge selling point for a stud, but really, it's not.

So there was no motivation, as far as I can see, for them to lie, so per Occam's Razor, they're probably not lying. The horse came down with something. He's a nice horse and hopefully he'll be back.

I recommend to everyone Steve Haskin's great column on Exaggerator on bloodhorse.com.

What frustrates me about this is it reminds me of politics. It doesn't matter what, let's just say Hillary Clinton, says, because the trolls are convinced that it's automatically a lie. Fact checking is not necessary (I recommend politifact.com, by the way). Actually knowing fuck-all about anything, having any authority or expertise, has become beside the point. To me this is one of the very real and very damaging downsides of the Internet, which otherwise exists to make it easier for me to buy obscure bagpipe music CDs. So much crap, nonsense, trolling, and pseudo-streetwise cynicism gets out there. Comments on environmental sites are another example of dangerous stupidity getting out there in the world. And it's not just a case of idiots getting on my nerves; it could be a case of us really, really screwing ourselves in this upcoming election.

It's that time

This year I have no clue. I never really have a clue. I'm just going to use my same old usual handicapping methods and hope.

I'm going to bet the Oaks/Derby double, some trifectas and superfectas in the Derby, and some cheap Pick 3's involving the Derby.

In the Oaks, my top picks are Rachel's Valentina (duh: Rachel Alexandra's daughter), Lewis Bay, and Royal Obsession. Alternates are Weep No More (best name ever for a Thoroughbred filly, but she just gets herself so far back in the field), Cathryn Sophia and Land Over Sea.

In the Derby, it looks like this:
Creator (Doesn't actually score that high on my handicapping system, but I loved, loved his Arkansas Derby. He lagged back and made a huge move. Wove through horses just like they do in... the Derby. Bred to route. Don't love the 3 hole, but he is athletic and may work out a trip)
Exaggerator (Maybe benefited by a wet track and fast pace last time, but looked like a happy horse and has plenty of back form. I think the pace should hopefully be honest enough)
Nyquist (Duh. I didn't think this horse was bred for a route, and, well, he's not, but sometimes that doesn't matter. He has tactical speed and is undefeated. He doesn't like to let other horses pass him but he is also OK with stalking.)
Mor Spirit (Surprised me that he scored so high, but I do have a futures bet on him anyway. It's partly the connections, but I also think he may prefer the fast track he's supposed to get on Derby day. This is a colt I've seen in person and he is gorgeous.)
Brody's Cause (Think he can improve in his third start off a layoff, or second if you take the view that he didn't run at all in Tampa. Good back form from last year. Route should be OK.)

Alternates: Gun Runner, Destin, Mohaymen, Outwork

Wacky longshots to use underneath -- these are pretty much horses bred to go long that have run second in prep races: Trojan Nation, Suddenbreakingnews, My Man Sam

The good thing about all these favorites is that with the large fields and big pools the odds should still hopefully be OK.

Before the Derby, I probably won't bet the Distaff Turf Mile but obviously Tepin is arguably the second-best horse in training in the U.S. right now after California Chrome. Breaking from the rail she could possibly be upset by Isabella Sings or Rainha da Bateria, but she's the best horse running on Saturday's card.

In terms of races I probably will bet:
GII American Turf: Converge, Shakhimat, Azar. I like some longshots in here, Beach Patrol and American Patriot, but probably won't have the money to bet them.

GIII Pat Day Mile: Forevamo, Cocked and Loaded, American Freedom. Fellowship as an alternate.

GI Woodford: Bolo, World Approval (Really like this 1 1/8th specialist in a race where many want to go longer), Big Blue Kitten

After the Derby, there's an NIX in which I like Fish Trappe Road, Uncle Walter, and Smart Moon, and a maiden race in which I like Forever d'Oro, Virtual Machine, and Goats Town. I've never bet after the Derby so making an effort at that P-3 should be an interesting experience.

Spring Break: Zion National Park

There's been a lot out there recently about the crowds at Zion so let me say first:

Yes, it's extremely crowded. For Californians, Zion is pretty much the same as Yosemite. It's very busy for much of the year, many of the trails in the Valley/Canyon are easy and accessible, and you have to work around the crowds. Going on the Mist Trail/Emerald Pools Trail in the middle of the day will get you in a traffic jam.

But just as in Yosemite it is possible to work around this. Early starts, taking a break in the middle of the day, then a late stroll will help. So will coming in the off season, to whatever extent possible. So will getting farther out on the trails -- Kolob Canyons (the analogue to Tuolumne) is much less crowded.

The shuttle system is very efficient, and not having visitors driving their own cars in the canyon is a big help. And it's absolutely, divinely gorgeous. Not very birdy this time of year, but we did see two American Dippers along the Riverwalk trail and a California Condor perched on a power pole outside the park's east entrance.

The cabins are very nice and well insulated for noise. The food at the lodge is edible but kind of meh -- we had a great dinner at the Spotted Dog and good breakfasts at MeMe's Café, and there's a good coffee shop, which I forget what it's called but it is in Springdale like the other two places and is painted blue.

So the trails. Emerald Pools is a madhouse. The paved Riverwalk and Pa'rus trails are nice, actually, with lots to see, and the latter actually wasn't particularly crowded. The Watchman Trail is worth doing. At the Weeping Rock trailhead, we only just went up to the seep (which is cool) but there are longer trails waiting for the future. I'd also recommend not exploring the park when you have a kidney infection -- my backcountry exploration will largely have to wait for next time.

But the hike up Taylor Creek, in Kolob Canyons, is world-class, astonishing, A+++, one of the best hikes I've ever taken, a mystical experience. I'm not going to tell why. Go do it -- early in the morning, since it does get popular, and at a season when the creek is not running high.

I ended Spring Break with a beautiful life Common Black Hawk perched just over the entrance road in Red Rock State Park in Sedona, sitting calmly for a long time while we inched the car closer and admired.

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The southern sky glows with winter sunset.

On the shallow lakes that stretch out around the wooden viewing platform, shorebirds, ducks, and ibis gather. As the sun sets they stream across the shining sky in thousands: black ibis in skeins, ducks in calling hordes. Wings rush.

The cranes come in, honking in their medieval voices, gliding wide-winged down to rest.

The thousands of birds settle, and slowly begin to quiet down. The moon tries to rise through cloud. Rails squabble in the reeds. Starting to get cold and tired, we wonder how much longer we should wait. The celebration, the evening show, has been spectacular, but maybe it's over now. A goose or two flies in, calling, to land on the water.

A star comes out. Maybe it's not going to happen tonight.

A cloud forms in the sky to the north. A vague sound, like surf, begins to rise. Through binoculars the cloud reveals itself: snow geese, thousands of geese, darkening the sky. They stream across the moon. Their calls rise to a paean. The sound of their wings is like the sound of the waves on the shores of Elvenhome. Four thousand white and blue and silvery snow geese arrive through the dusk and land with nightfall on the lakes.

This is why.

The Breeders' Cup

Somehow I never posted picks for the Breeders' Cup. Won some, lost some.

Hey, there's a coyote sauntering through the vacant lot outside my office window right now.

Anyway, my fantasy stable horse Liam's Map, a beautiful, powerfully built, dapple gray, ran in the Dirt Mile. He was the huge favorite. But things didn't go quite as expected.

Bright sunny day at Keeneland. Liam's Map, the dapple gray favorite, turns his head in the starting gate to look at Mr. Z, the longshot next to him. Maybe Mr. Z is telling a story about how he bit off American Pharoah's tail a couple of years ago.

It's dark evening at Churchill. The lights have come on. The big black-bay mare prances, sidles, then consents to go into the gate.

Liam, a speed horse who has never failed to make the early lead in any race, breaks flat-footed and is immediately trapped along the rail.

The dark mare breaks slowly, the way she always does. She settles. This is no big deal for her.

The gray stallion is angry. His rider won't let him shoulder the leaders, Bradester and that distracting Mr. Z, aside. He tosses his head, fighting the bit, down the backstretch.

Time to move up, to start circling the field, but as the mare catches up with her rivals, one of them swings out in front of her and she steadies, losing her momentum.

Liam's rider tries to move up between horses. The hole closes. The gray steadies, trapped again.

Into the stretch in the floodlit dusk. The mare swings out to make her final move: the blazing move, the perfectly timed last run that has never failed her once. Another horse, ahead of her, is also coming out to make a run. She steadies again and swerves around him.

In mid-stretch the leaders tire and Liam gets clear, but Lea, a horse who has never lost at a mile on dirt, has gotten an unimpeded outside trip and spurted clear by four lengths. The rest of the closers are coming. The big gray looks done.

The dark mare storms down the stretch. It's not enough. She crosses the wire half a head too late.

Liam flattens his ears and surges forward with powerful strides. Lea isn't slowing down. The wire gets closer. In deep stretch, Liam's Map flies past Lea, and the sun glitters on his silver coat as he crosses the wire two lengths in front.

I don't know why Liam's Map's win in the Dirt Mile made me think of, and seemed like personal redemption for, Zenyatta's second in the Classic. It wasn't the only great performance of the event -- Tepin's Filly and Mare Turf, Songbird's Juvenile Fillies and Runhappy's Sprint stood out, as of course did American Pharoah's contemptuous dismissal of the Classic field. Victor Espinoza finally let him run. He ran the fastest mile and a quarter ever run on any surface at Keeneland, a track that has been in operation since the 1930's, without being touched by the whip. But Liam was the one I picked for my fantasy stable when he was a pretty yearling selling for 800K, and Liam's victory was the one that felt like mine.

Two hikes around Rock Creek

I stayed in the East Fork campground, which is really nice, especially now with the aspens all in their fall color. There are some RV sites and some large sites near the creek that are going to have tramp-throughs, but a lot of the sites are beautiful, private tent sites. The area is definitely birdy, although I never could get on any Golden-crowned Kinglets.

So two contrasting hikes. The first, to "Third Lake" (one of the Hilton Lakes), is a slogathon, through forest on a sandy trail, then down a steep descent, then up again some short but heinous switchbacks with big horse-steps. When you get to the lake it's a nice alpine lake, but such can be had without a 10.2 mile round trip in sand and blazing heat (the heat, admittedly, affected my attitude).

On the second day we went somewhere I've been wanting to see for a long time, Morgan Pass. That's more like it! The trail leads through a gently ascending basin full of whitebark pines (and about the greatest number of Clark's Nutcrackers I've ever seen) and shining lakes. Particularly beautiful dark rocks line Long Lake. The pass is pretty easy at just over 11K, although in my current sort of crippled state I still found it hard. On the other side is what I really want from the Sierras: little tarns in the talus with hardly any trees to be seen. I watched people fish and I was surprised to learn that those tarns can have rainbow trout in them! It's nice to get to a remote, alpine spot only about 4 miles from the trailhead (one way).

Rock Creek attracts a lot of unprepared hikers -- people heading out with just a pint bottle of supermarket water, or with nothing -- and even in late season it's very popular, but it's worth it.

A huge medial moraine above the campground blocked most of the eclipse, and when the smudgy, reddish, spooky-looking moon came up it was partly obscured by high clouds, but it was still pretty neat to see.

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Hungry Packer Lake hike

I once hiked from Lake Sabrina to Hungry Packer and back as a day hike. It was my most heroic moment. Unfortunately, I can't remember when it was (2007?) and I didn't blog it or take any pictures, apparently.

Now, post- being diagnosed with back arthritis and in much worse shape, I went back up with my dad as an overnight trip.

First day, to Blue Lake. Bit of a slog. We set up camp, then day hiked to Donkey Lake. Very pretty, fish, poorly marked trail that is easy to lose.

Second day, to Hungry Packer. How did I ever do this in one day?? Ow! Beautiful lake, beautiful sparkling weather. A couple of places where the trail is iffy to follow; watch for ducks and lines of rocks. Collapsed, then hiked around the lake. Lots of hungry mosquitoes. Family of Dusky Flycatchers. Baby marmots. Baby Belding's ground squirrel.

Stayed at Hungry Packer while day hiking up to Echo Lake. This is cross country. Contour around on the slabs, find some kind of way above or through the first talus, cross to the left of Moonlight (?) Lake to avoid some of the second talus, then stay near the outflow while climbing the giant talus. Echo Lake is beautiful, and there were Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches eating moths at the lakeside right by us, totally unconcerned. This was a tiring day, though, and knee pain kept me up that night.

Also cold wind and having to perform a biological operation at somewhere around 3 AM in said wind. However, falling stars.

So my back was basically fine, but my knee is screwed. Figures. We had meant to stay at Midnight Lake and day hike to Blue Heaven, but I looked at the route and thought it wasn't worth the possibility that my knee would give out completely, so we had lunch at Midnight and headed out. Midnight is nice but not necessarily worth its own trip. The hike out is godawful. Really, I did this in one day? Big steps, loose crap, pounded knees, rammed toes, rolled ankles. Woefully total lack of trail maintenance (our public lands are sadly underfunded. I found myself wondering what a similar trail would look like in, say, Switzerland). The last part along the lake takes forever! and it was hot. But there's a gorgeous selection of wildflowers.

Nice to get out and have a good time (despite my knee issues), no crises, perfect weather.


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In 1996, I started watching horse racing on TV. I'd loved horses all my life, but never had consistent TV access.

In 1997, Silver Charm was run down by Touch Gold in deep stretch, losing the Triple Crown by a couple of lengths.

I've been waiting ever since.


I didn't imagine it would look like this: a horse with his ears pricked, playful and happy, bouncing over the ground, nonchalantly brushing off pace pressure, running each part of the race faster than the one before (done before: by Secretariat), never tested, never anywhere near fully extended. Frosted, gamely trying in second, was making zero impact. They could have gone around again and never caught American Pharoah.

The final time of 2:26.65 was faster than Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and all of the Belmont winners for the last 12 years since Point Given, and he won in hand.

American Pharoah will hopefully run a few more times this year, and then a stud deal has been made. It's no surprise that a Triple Crown winner would rapidly go to stud. It's OK. Zenyatta needs a boy-toy.