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Blackcap Basin and Beyond

July 21st, 1996

San Francisco – Sunday, July 21, 1996. I’ve just returned from a seven day backpacking trip into the John Muir Wilderness and Kings Canyon National Park areas of California’s Sierra Nevada. The trek was a Sierra Club National Outing headed up by veteran leader siblings Libby and Chuck Dresel (Dresel is pronounced like Dray-zil). I’d previously hiked with these leaders two years earlier in Northern Yosemite and that’s when they earned my initial respect for their extreme competence, enthusiasm and professionalism.

Our group of 10 men and 5 women (including leaders) met at Courtright Reservoir late Saturday afternoon where we introduced ourselves to Libby and Chuck, and to each other. Since the end-of-hike trailhead was to be above the 20-mile distant Wishon Reservoir, we moved all but three vehicles to that location. Early next morning, we drove to the Voyager Rock trailhead on the other side of the lake and set out, with Libby Dresel leading, on trail for our first day’s camp, almost 10 miles distant on the North Fork of the Kings River. At mid-day we found a nice stream-side location for lunch and several of us took advantage of the time to play in the water. That evening we camped on the Kings River at an elevation of 8,165’, in near total isolation, just us and 17 million (more or less) mosquitoes. Fortunately, a nice little breeze off the water served to keep most of our flying “guests” at bay for much of the late afternoon and early evening. The river was too swift for serious swimming, however, several did manage to find a few calm places along the shore suitable for wading and bathing.

Monday morning saw us up bright and early and eager, with Chuck Dresel leading, to begin the 2,000’ uphill trek to Devil’s Punchbowl. We had a couple of more stately hikers in our party, so until mid-morning, we traveled in two groups. I led the front group (there were three of us) and Chuck Dresel followed with the main group a half-hour or so behind. This arrangement gave the advance group of slower folk a head start, thereby allowing the entire group to move at a better pace. The trail was a bit dry and dusty, with little evidence of snow and in many places, the path was somewhat difficult to follow. We were happy to see little rock “ducks” along the way serving as reassurance that our route selections were the correct ones. Lunch time found us in excellent spirits at a nice meadow near a snow-fed creek. The water proved a bit cold for serious bathing, however, it was suitable for short bouts of wading. Late afternoon saw us arriving at Devil’s Punchbowl, somewhat winded from the long uphill trek. We found it to be a pretty little lake located at an elevation of 10,098’ with a rim which provided an excellent view down into the forested valley below. After setting up camp, a number of us entered the water for a bit of swimming, wading and/or just plain splashing – an excellent way to remove the day’s accumulation of trail dust.

Tuesday morning saw us resume our dual-group mode of travel as we began our 10+ mile journey on the climb over 11,297’ Hell-For-Sure Pass and then along the South Fork of the San Joaquin River up Goddard Canyon towards Martha Lake. Arriving at the top of the pass at the head of our little advance group, I elected to make a solo trek to the top of nearby 11,951’ Red Mountain, from where I had an excellent view of Blackcap Basin, Goddard Canyon and portions of Martha Lake. After the remainder of our party had arrived and had a chance to rest, we descended down a snow-covered trail to a below snow level creek for our lunch stop. Later we continued down the Pass and then up Goddard Canyon to a meadow about two miles below Martha Lake where we made our next camp. Our flying mosquito “friends” and their relatives remained with us serving as a welcoming committee to the Canyon’s nicely watered meadows. Tuesday was one of those evenings when “Ben’s 95% DEET Insect Repellent” was practically a necessity for the continued survival of our species in that area. Next morning, those not camped under trees awoke to find tents covered with a thick coating of frost. That morning, it took a while for the sun to reach into that deep canyon, and until it did, cold hands and cold feet were common complaints. The chilly air did serve to keep the mosquitoes at bay, but that miraculous occurrence ceased the minute the first rays of sunlight hit the canyon floor. Oh well, as someone once said, “In the Sierras, everything is a trade off!”. Thank goodness for DEET! It melts plastic, dissolves synthetic fabric and probably alters the molecules in your skin, but at least it keeps the mosquitoes confused and at bay.

Wednesday morning with Chuck leading, we finished the final lap to Martha Lake below Mt. Goddard. The lake at 11,004’ is above timberline and is a starkly beautiful body of water. After setting up camp, Chuck led a party of six or seven on a climb of 13,568’ Mt. Goddard, while I made an attempt on nearby 12,604’ Mt. Reinstein. After climbing over Reinstein Pass, I discovered my way blocked by snow and ice. Since I didn’t have the proper equipment for that environment, had to abandon my quest for the summit via the Southeast Route. Returning to camp, I learned that Chuck and his group had successfully reached the top of Goddard. While we were all away, luck was reported by one of those who had brought along fishing equipment. He managed to bag several good-sized trout which made welcome additions to the next morning’s breakfast fare. That night at Martha Lake was a bit chilly and those on cook crew arose to a morning temperature of 34 degrees Fahrenheit. When the sun finally rose over Mt. Goddard, it’s rays did a quick job of chasing those near freezing temperatures away.

Thursday saw us enroute over to Blackcap Basin via 11,760’ Valor Pass. The upper portion of our route (including the pass itself) was almost totally blocked by snow, however, Chuck Dresel performed an outstanding bit of rock reconnaissance coupled with much creative “ducking” in order to gain us a path up what at first appeared to be an impenetrable rock wall. By helping each other and occasionally passing packs up by hand, we managed to reach the top of the pass around noontime. After lunch and a mini-snowball fight, Chuck led six of us on a climb of Mt. Reinstein from our location at the top of the pass. The remainder of our party elected to continue down into Blackcap Basin and a campsite at Bighorn Lake. After our successful climb, we returned to the Pass, picked up our backpacks and trekked down to the campsite, arriving shortly before 6 p.m. Bighorn Lake was a somewhat welcome relief from those hordes of mosquitoes, though it was home to lots of gnat-like insects. The area was also noticeable for the sounds of frogs, leading one of our fishermen to wonder if the lake held anything worth catching. I never did find out the answer to that particular question.

Friday morning Chuck led us on our cross-country route towards Half Moon Lake. By lunch time we had reached a Forest Service trail in the Woodchuck Country along a nice creek were we stopped for lunch, sunbathing and playing in the water. Afterwards, Libby took over the lead and we continued our trek to a lakeside camp. That afternoon some of the folks swam near camp in Half Moon Lake while others rested, explored or did laundry. In the evening following dinner, Chuck built a small campfire and engaged in a bit of sleep-inducing story-telling. His narration style did the job quite well, for I have no recollection of having heard the story’s finish.

Saturday was our final and longest hiking day, for the all-trail route from Half Moon Lake to Wishon Reservoir covered over 12 miles. Again we started out in two groups, with the advance party of three leading the 1,000’ climb out of the lake campsite area. After reaching Crown Pass, the trail became extremely difficult to follow and my front group followed one “ducked” trail while the second group followed a different one. This resulted in the second group unknowingly passing the first group and the two parties were not reunited until lunch time. After lunch, folks pretty much hiked at their own pace until reaching trail’s end at the Woodchuck Country trailhead above Wishon. Between 3 and 4:30 p.m. all had safely reached the final trailhead, where we said our good-byes and wished each other safe journey back to our respective points of origin.

This was a particularly enjoyable trek for me. I continue to be impressed by the leadership qualities exhibited by Libby and Chuck Dresel and my views on this subject were certainly shared by all those in our party. They work well together and give the appearance of being co-participants with the rest of us in a grand wilderness adventure. Their choice of group commissary fare reflected numerous personal touches, including Chuck’s own personally cured Beef Jerky (much better than the commercial variety). We had a very nice mix of participants, several from distant points of the country (Utah, Arizona, New York, North Carolina and, of course, California). The weather was perfect, there was almost no snow blocking our route (other than over the passes) and the mosquitoes, despite their numbers, failed to diminish the enthusiasm with which we all faced each day on our week’s outing together. It was a pleasantly rewarding experience, hopefully to be repeated in future years.