Saturday, September 1, 2012

Beef jerky and s'mores

First into camp last night, Jim and I enjoyed our pick of tent spots. We set up as night fell, then went for burgers and beer at Miller's Landing. Others started late out of the Bay Area, or took the train to Merced and rode 50 miles. They began arriving at 10pm, as I fell asleep. 

At breakfast a Ruby Red Chai teabag and a Via packet serve as friendship offerings. So far, so good! We are 13 campers. I'm surprised to recognize Peter, from SuperTour last year. Another familiar face, besides Jim.

We need to stow the cars and pay for parking. It's not clear how to do this, and by the time bureaucratic tasks are complete it is 10am. I'm not worried. My thought was, this will be an easy tour. ~35 miles a day, 3 days. Even with all this gear on the bike, it should not be hard.

For someone who usually rides solo, it feels a bit different (and nice) to roll out with a group.

This route has a reputation for being poor in services and rich in scenery. Well, it's a warm day and by the time we stop in North Fork at the one and only store, Lis and Jim are talking ominously about 'the long climb' coming up. My reaction is to buy beef jerky. It's pretty much all that fits in the saddlebags at this point.

A guy comes into the store and asks if there's a Wal-Mart in North Fork. The clerk has to tell him no. The nearest one might be in Madera. Can't imagine Wal-Mart trucks coming in here on those narrow winding roads.

It is a long uphill. 24 miles to be exact. Thankfully a scenic byway offers plenty of diversions. Our first stop is at Redinger Overlook, above Redinger Lake. Lots of hydroelectric projects in this neck of the woods. The San Joaquin River is watering and feeding many folks downstream. A redtail hawk screeches and circles above us at the pullout, rising on a thermal. 

Just to our right lies the Exact Geographical Center of California. A road goes down, then up over the ridge, then down again to the center marking. On this hot morning, no volunteers for exposed bonus miles! We'll just gaze in its general direction...

The center is over that little ridge in the foreground.
More climbing, but as we go up the scenery gets wilder and more profound. Traffic is light to non-existent. Lunch is at the Ross cabin,  one of the oldest standing homestead cabins in California. Also a fabulous, shady lunch spot.

Mick wheels his bike to the cabin for lunch.
When he was 25 years old, Jesse Ross came from Missouri to the Sierras to escape the Civil War. It was 1860. With more Americans lost in that war than in any other war in our history, migrating west might not have been a bad idea! In the late 1860's he homesteaded a piece of land 1/2 mile from where the cabin is located today. He used skills no one has anymore to hand-split lodgepole pine trees into cabin-ready lumber. The homestead is marked on an 1859 survey map of this area. In those days it was quite hard to reach, but well-known.
Hand-hewn lodgepole pine.
Ross also planted an extensive apple orchard. After lunch we looked backward a little ways down the road, and there is still an apple orchard at about the right spot (where the cabin originally stood). Kind of amazing, 150 years on. 

Up the road Jim and I reach the Rock Creek campground. Our little group does not have reservations, so it's up to us to scout the best options. I tour the entire campground and locate a multi-family site. Jim scouts free camping off a dirt road, one mile up the hill. The group chooses Rock Creek for its amenities (running water and pit toilets).

We set up tents and hike a mile uphill to a swimming hole. Another camper mentioned  natural water slides, and after bushwhacking our way upstream we are not disappointed. 
I'm too chicken to slide down the granite, but many are brave enough. The water feels cool and refreshing. After a dip you can hang out on the rock, letting the stored warmth of the sun radiate back into your body. It feels good to get rid of some of the dust from the road. It's obvious too that this group has plenty of expertise with swimming holes.

Back in camp the conversation is about 2 things:
  • new people who try to come on these trips, and the various outcomes that befall them
  • bears stealing our food
We are out in the back of beyond (as Aussies say). Far from organized civilization. In many ways, that's a good thing. But in addition to tents, sleeping bags, food, etc. we were encouraged to bring bear canisters. I don't own one, didn't have room to carry one, so didn't bring one.

Tom devises a pulley system with ropes to hang panniers from a tall fir tree. Ingenious. The panniers are too close to the trunk to be effective, but I don't mention this. I hang my own food in a plastic grocery bag in a young tree, too small to be climbed. Within headlight distance of my tent. That's all I can do. 

Jim is right; he says that bears are not in these campgrounds because they are hunted here. It is National Forest Service land, not a national park. Bear season (bow and arrow only) has already started. The bears stay away from the bait. This must be so because there are no bear boxes for campers' food. Even the campground dumpsters are not secured.

Tom brought fixings for s'mores, enough for everyone. He is carrying all kinds of stuff! Jim gathers wood and builds a fire. We make good use of it, for warmth and roasting marshmallows.

The Summer Triangle is overhead at 9:30pm, framed in a space between the tall pine trees. Wish I could stay awake, savoring the air that is good to breathe, the forest that shelters us. But a cricket-like creature sings a creaky song, singing me to sleep.

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