Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Snow still on the ground up at Sugar Pine Lake, which sits at about 3600 feet on the Foresthill Divide. We had some storms and this snow came late in the season, but the ground’s warm enough to melt it in a few days. The mud is red up there. Between the pines, the mud, the sky, and the snow, it feels like we’re driving on a painter’s palette, down from the ridge line toward the lake. A few trail bikes fill the air with their snarling as we go.
As soon as we get out of the car, the rifle shots from a target range across the road spook the dog and he almost bails on the walk before we’ve even started. Luckily the pines are heavy there at the start, and the trail is paved for two-thirds of its length, so he can be negotiated with, especially when his pads first hit snow. After a few days the snow has lost its continuity and looks like it’s made up of hundreds of small white pellets, like styrofoam, but it still crunches when you walk on it. We pass three guys fishing on the banks — lawn chairs and two-man coolers — and ask them how it’s going. “Just drownin’ worms so far,” one says, and I get a feeling he doesn’t care for my Bernie Sanders cap. I’m way out of Bernie territory up here. The gunfire tells me that.
We come to a bridge over a creek bursting with whitewater flowing down over stepwise stones, the snow hardening here to ice because of cold air under the bridge. The roar of the creek makes it hard to talk so we don’t talk and instead lean on the rail and just look at it. It feels like the air is agitated and circling in a vortex. The dog wants to move on before he loses his nerve.
Now all we hear is the wind in the trees and the lapping of the lake waves on rocks. A stream flows right over the trail from above, widening out so that it’s only a quarter-inch deep and you can walk across it without getting your feet wet. It’s the easiest obstacle we’ll encounter.
In the sun now, and the trail follows the arm of the lake that was once Shirttail Creek, the course they dammed to form the lake, flooding a meadow the local Indians used to use for grazing animals and just chillin’. A photo on one of the informational signs makes it look like it was nice out there in the sun. Old times. We don’t know where the Indians went after the lake came, which bothers me because they probably went farther away than they wanted to, this land going to the loggers and miners and crusty recluses still prospecting the Shirttail for gold.
Once the pavement runs out about two-and-a-half miles in, our shoes sink into spongy, saturated soil as we avoid more water. Over here the streams inundating the trail are more aggressive and we have to pick our footfalls wisely, even though the dog just charges right through. He’s hearing the guns again, though, causing his tail to go down. Some macho man has an AK-47 or something over at the range and is getting off on long bursts that sound more like an industrial stamper than a rifle. Right about there we meet two women who tell us that the trail is closed ahead and we’ll have to turn around. Unless we don’t mind scrambling off-trail, that is. There’s storm damage.
We’ve never seen a ranger at Sugar Pine, so we keep going. Sure enough, within a mile or so we see the red tape blocking our way and a warning sign, but we duck under it so we can at least see what we’re up against. We come to it in a few minutes — a massive pine has toppled downhill, exposing a root ball like a city bus and cutting out a gash of a canyon where the trail used to be. I’ve seen trees down before, but it feels like there was major violence here, a conflict, and a smaller oak got itself cracked in half in the fight too. We limbo under a couple of smaller limbs and realize we’re not going to make it across the new canyon, not with the dog in tow. And just as we’re thinking of turning around and doubling the length of our walk, another couple shows up and tells us there’s a new trail the rangers made that goes up and around the fallen tree. “It’s narrow and dicey, but you can do it.”
And we do. We head up the steep hillside and grab the hastily cut trail, pausing at the top to look out over the chaos the tree made. It’s like someone is trying to pry the Earth open here like a walnut.
Made it to the other side feeling energetic and accomplished, even though it wasn’t hard. We just defied the warning and took responsibility for our own actions and don’t see anything wrong with that.
Back at the car we eat some popcorn and remember that this is the anniversary of the day we met, and we tell ourselves this one will be memorable for a while because of that tree, even if we come here many more times and other things happen to make this day fade a bit. Probably the last time we’ll see snow for a while, though.
Next year, in this very same place, most likely.
[Appreciation to pinklightsabre for the way he writes about the great outdoors.]