Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Snow Camping at Lodgepole: November 2015

(Remember that you can click on the photos to see a slideshow, and then hit "escape" to get back to the text.  Also, a note on the photo credits: as always, both Felice and I took these shots, and many of my shots resulted from her suggestions.  I do the photo editing using Lightroom; my goal is to reproduce just what we saw, as faithfully as possible.)

The weather service had predicted a small snowstorm for the southern Sierra, so we packed up and headed out to Lodgepole Campground in Sequoia National Park for a few days of snow camping.  (All of our usual Sierra boondocking areas were completely closed for the season.)  We left home on November 8, the day before the storm was supposed to arrive.  It took us about seven hours from home to the campground; we had to stop at Azalea Campground in Kings Canyon for water, because we were told (erroneously) that there was no water at Lodgepole.

When we got to the campground, we found out that the campsites that were supposed to be available for RVs were not.  (As we later discovered, those campsites were much too icy and steep for safe driving and maneuvering, anyway.)  Instead, we were told that we could park the trailer at the edge of the big overflow parking lot, which turned out to be a lot better than it sounds.  Our "campsite" was overlooking the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River.  There were no other RVs in the entire campground.  Unfortunately, there were a couple of groups of tent campers on the first day, one of which played loud music into the late evening (even though the weather was far too cold for sitting outside).

Monday, November 9:  The day was cloudy, dark, cold, and windy, with intermittent snow flurries – not great for photos, but perfect hiking weather! We hiked up to Tokopah Falls along the river:

We came across a "paper wasp" nest that had fallen onto the trail; the striations in the paper casing clearly showed how the wasps had chewed up plant fibers and had fabricated the outer shell.  The snow basket on the hiking pole shows the size of the nest:

When we got to the falls, there was no one else around (not surprisingly).  The falls themselves were not particularly powerful, since the snow season had just begun.  And the white water didn't seem as white as it does during the summer – instead of contrasting with black rocks in bright sunshine, the water was flowing over snowy white rocks in dull, cloudy light.  It was still great to be there by ourselves:

Someone had placed a small snowman near the falls, and Felice couldn't resist adding rabbit ears:

On our way back down to the campground, the Watchtower emerged from the fog, two thousand feet above us:

It started to really snow as we returned from the hike to the falls -- Felice shot this view of the snow falling on the river near our campsite with her iPhone.  The quality is not great (because the image has been enlarged by Youtube), but the river can be heard in the background:

We still had some daylight left, so we took a drive through the snowstorm to Lost Grove.  Although it was snowing hard, there were only a couple of inches of snow on the road – no problem in a four-wheel drive with all-terrain tires.  When we got there, a ranger was parked on the highway.  He got out of his truck and told us that the highway had been closed behind us -- too dangerous to drive!  We were worried that we would have to drive down to the San Joaquin Valley and abandon the trailer, but he told us that another ranger would soon escort us back through the locked gate to Lodgepole.  While we were waiting for our escort to arrive, we spent a few silent minutes enjoying the sight of the falling snow against the red Sequoias:

Just after we got back to the trailer, the wind began to howl down the canyon.   The awning had already accumulated a lot of heavy snow, and we were concerned that it would collapse.  So we partially retracted it, hoping to have some minimal protection from the snow as we went in and out of the trailer.

That night was quite cold and stormy, with pellets of ice and snow audibly sandblasting the windows.  There was absolutely no one else in the campground.  It was absurdly delightful to be buttoned up inside our little trailer, protected from the storm.  After dinner, we made "Scotch chocolate," instead of Irish coffee – just hot chocolate with a splash of Scotch.  It was surprisingly good.

We were bundled up with blankets, heavy sweaters, and warm hats, enjoying dessert and reading.  The Danish language has a word for this  – "hygge”  -- pronounced "hoogeh."  The term is untranslatable, but it apparently means something like "the conscious enjoyment of cozy contentment, warmth, comfortable companionship, and good food."  The Italian phrase "dolce far niente" is similar; it means "pleasantly enjoying the sweetness of doing nothing."  But "hygge" is well-suited to a cold climate.

Tuesday, November 10:  Peering out the window in the morning, we could see that there were several inches of new, light fluff.  This is the view from the door of the trailer up the canyon toward Tokopah Falls:

The rocks in the river next to our campsite were capped with fresh snow:

This shot shows our attempt to partially deploy the awning.  Obviously, it didn't work well – the "valley" filled up with heavy snow, and later we had to clean it off.  The blowing snow had accumulated not only on top of the trailer but on the sides and front:

In this picture, note that we pulled the windshield wipers away from the glass prior to the snowfall, so that the wipers would not freeze to the glass.  Please don't ask me how I learned this trick:

That morning, we drove over to Giant Forest, not far from the campground.  There were a few people around the General Sherman tree, but then we were all alone for several hours, in an area that is normally full of tourists.  It was really a treat to be in the grove just after a storm, with snow dusting the trunks and the foliage:

This is another in a long series of "small person, huge tree" shots – Felice is the small dark-blue object to the right of the base of the tree:

This is the Senate Group in Congress Grove -- Felice is in the lower right corner:

The Park Service named this tree "The President."  We put pressure on the President from both sides:

The falling snow got deeper and deeper.  We decided to put on our snowshoes so we could get off the established trails and cut across the terrain in the deep snow; this is a rare treat because we can't go off-trail during the summer (to protect the trees' fragile roots).  Felice is modeling her blue snowshoes at the bottom of this shot, but the snowshoes are barely visible:

The snow was falling in thick clumps, drifting down from the treetops, 300 feet above us:

That night was the coldest we had ever experienced while camping; we found out later that it had gotten down to 11 degrees.  We piled on a down comforter and three blankets, and we slept like hibernating bears.  

Until . . .

The trailer started to shake violently -- someone was pounding on the wall, three inches from our heads!  We immediately realized that it had to be a bear – no other animal would have the size and strength to shove the trailer back and forth, and there was no human around us for miles.  We shouted at the bear and pounded the wall, right back at him.  He left after a very exciting minute, but it took us quite a while to fall back to sleep.  Lots of adrenaline sloshing around in our heads.

Wednesday, November 11:  We slept until after 8 o'clock in the morning, an unheard-of hour for us – cold, silent, and dark, with a thick layer of heavy blankets.  It was 28 degrees inside the trailer when we awoke, by far the coldest interior temperature we had ever registered.  Ice coated all three of the metal window frames and the insides of the glass panes, even though we had left a hatch open to cut down on the condensation.

After we got dressed and turned on the heater, it was time to prepare breakfast.  Problem: the water pipes had frozen, something that had never happened to us in many nights of cold-weather camping.  By process of elimination, we figured out that the low-point drain leading from the water tank to the pump had frozen, which is not surprising, since that is the most vulnerable part of the water supply system.  We eventually realized that there was nothing we could do immediately to thaw it out, so we just planned to go hiking anyway and then come back and (if necessary) bravely take a sponge bath (with hot water from the tea kettle) if the lines were still frozen.  As we often say, “It’s camping!”

As we stepped out of the trailer to leave for the day, there were (of course) bear prints in the snow -- these were about four inches across:

Shortly thereafter, the bear himself decided to make a cameo encore appearance, strolling right past our trailer:

Later, talking to the ranger, we found out that this particular bear is something of a sad story.  He's just a yearling, and all of his buddies and pals have migrated to lower elevations or have gone into hibernation.  But he has been hanging around the campground, hoping for handouts, getting thinner and thinner.  The ranger wasn't sure that this small bear would make it through the winter.

Anyway, back to more cheerful subjects – the new fluffy snow had consolidated during the night and had formed big intricate hoar frost crystals:

The morning sun had melted some of the snow near the trailer; the meltwater promptly re-froze into sheets of "black ice," and both Felice and I slipped and fell within a few minutes of each other, despite a great deal of care and despite our heavy-duty snow boots with very aggressive soles.  That was not fun.  Bruises, but no permanent injuries.

Since the sun was out, we deployed our new portable solar panel, which meant that we could run the heat as much as we liked.  Although the heater is propane powered, the fan draws a great deal of electricity; and although we have two hefty storage batteries (massive “Group 31” marine deep cycle batteries, rated at 110 amp-hours each), they are not unlimited.  It was sinfully luxurious to warm up the interior of the trailer whenever we wanted, rather than carefully conserving electric power as we usually do.

We drove over to the Little Baldy trailhead, hoping for views of the snow-covered mountains.  We weren't sure whether we would need our snowshoes; the snow was almost too deep for hiking:

One other small group of hikers had made it part way up the mountain (breaking the trail for us), but we were the first to make it all the way to the summit (at around 8000 feet) since the storm on Monday night.   It's fun to make the first tracks on a trail after a snowstorm – it gives us the spurious sensation of being explorers:

Just after we took that shot, we stepped up toward the summit, and we were astonished by the brilliant rainbow sparkles in the snow, something we'd never seen before in our many years of snow sports.  These pictures do not capture the true beauty of this phenomenon – the sparkles were spread out over the new-fallen snow like chips of colored gemstones.  Dazzling:  there is no other word for it.  It looked like an accident in a hobby store, with Mylar glitter flakes spilled over the whole mountain-top.  These strange sparkles were on the gently rounded summit, and nowhere else:

When I processed these photos in Lightroom, I did everything that I could to make them look exactly like they did in real life, as I always do.  The pictures are pretty close to the real thing, but the snow looks a little gray, despite my best efforts.  Also, note the wind-related ripples in the snow – these are called “sastrugi,” a Russian word that means (surprise!) “ripples in the snow.”  Apparently, the Eskimos have many words for all of the subtly different kinds of sastrugi, but one is sufficient for me:

We noticed two odd things about the sparkles – first, if you looked directly toward the path of the sun, the sparkles could not be seen.  Instead, they were in a wide band off to the side of the ribbon of sunlight – I think they were at 22 degrees to each side, exactly like “sun dogs,” those patches of rainbow ice clouds that sometimes appear on clear winter days.  Rainbows, by contrast, appear in the side of the sky away from the sun, not toward it.

Second, the colors were brighter and more intense when we took off our prescription sunglasses – our nearsighted eyes caused the dots of color to blur a little, so the smeared colors looked bigger.  Very counterintuitive, but interesting.  In this shot, I deliberately blurred the image a little, to show what it looked like to us without corrective lenses:

This is a close-up, with normal focus:

All of these pictures, while interesting, do not really capture the brilliance of the sparkles, nor the full range of color -- for example, the deep indigo tones do not show up well in the photos.  Oddly, there are few references on the Internet to this jaw-dropping phenomenon -- perhaps it is fairly unusual.

After we had finished oohing and ahhing over the sparkles, we soaked up the view to the east.  The whole Great Western Divide was spread out before us, with a coating of fresh snow:

We found a dry rock and sat down to enjoy the view:

As an added bonus, we hiked down the mountain, drove back to the trailer, and discovered that the water line had thawed out during the day.  Hurrah for hot showers!

Thursday, November 12:  Although it was another cold night (around 20 degrees), the water line did not freeze – so apparently there is a threshold level, around 15 degrees, at which freezing becomes more likely. 

Since it was a sunny but cold day, we decided to go to Muir Grove, on the theory that we would be more likely to have it all to ourselves.  (We did.)

As expected, the snow was not so deep that we had to use our snowshoes, which would have slowed us down a lot.  There were a few icy places on the trail, but mostly it was like hiking through a mixture of whipped cream and mashed potatoes:

As we approached the grove, we were greeted by one of Felice’s oldest friends:

(Unfortunately, that shot is slightly blurred.)  Purely by luck, we got to the main part of the grove at the perfect time – the slanting afternoon winter light lit up the orange-red bark of the Sequoias:

The view from the ground toward the treetops was, as always, breathtaking:

Felice had a great idea: despite the snow, we could sit on our insulated pads and lean back on our backpacks and spend a few minutes looking straight up, in the middle of the grove:

As we got back to the trailer that evening, the alpenglow lit up the canyon to the east: