Into the Universe By Way of Golden Trout

By Cam Spaulding CdeP 1992
Tagging along with the Muir Wise Summer Leadership Program.
John Muir once wrote, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” During the final three weeks of this past June, seven students from Thacher and a pair of other high schools set off to discover that universe on an educational adventure in the Sierra Nevada known as the Muir Wise Summer Leadership Program. The program’s goal is to offer a comprehensive investigation of natural systems and the human-nature interaction in order to deepen students’ understanding of the natural world, of themselves, and of the vital link between the two. Such an exploration inherently requires that students test and hone their innate leadership skills, emphasizing the value of cooperation, delegation, mindfulness, positivity, and motivation.

The program began with five days at Golden Trout Wilderness School, where students learned essential outdoor skills and were trained and certified in wilderness first aid. Once in the backcountry, the students assumed one of seven roles (Navigator/Medic, Naturalist, Artist, Historian, Poet, Tracker, and Skeptic), focusing their tasks as leaders and providing the opportunity to become teachers to their peers. Additionally, each student received a role-specific Kindle loaded with resources to help deepen their inquiry and teaching/leadership toolkit. We’ll pick up on day 7 as the students found themselves on the southern end of Sequoia National Park in the beautiful Miter Basin…

DAY 7: As the crew wriggled their way out of their sleeping bags, they awakened to the longest day of the year. In addition to being the summer solstice, June 20th happened to also host a full moon. The combination of these two events filled the day with a particular sense of excitement. It also helped that the solstice was scheduled as a layover, meaning that we wouldn’t have to heft our packs for the day, but instead were free to investigate the glacial wonders of the Miter Basin, explore the more than 70 texts we had on our Kindles, and allowed the students to begin to sink their teeth into their various roles. With a hearty polenta breakfast down the hatch, we secured our camp and fell in line behind our Navigator and Skeptic, making for the shores of Sky Blue Lake. On the day’s agenda as well as an ascent of 13,485 ft. Mt. Pickering, a Class 2 mountaineering route up a steep scree slope from the uppermost reaches of the basin. Once we achieved Sky Blue, our Navigator planned out a direct route to the base of the climb via the lake’s northwest shore. This required the crossing of some steep snowfields. With a couple in the group experiencing snow for the first time and others who were competitive skiers, it was wonderful to watch those more comfortable on the incline assist those less confident. Those slopes were just a warm-up, however, as few were prepared for the steep and vertiginous ascent to the summit of Pickering. With some fine teamwork and constant vigilance for each other’s safety all went smoothly, and soon the group was taking in a breathtaking view of the Sierra’s east crest, the Great Western Divide, and the Kern River drainage on a nearly cloudless summer solstice day.

Once off the mountain, we still had to circumnavigate Sky Blue Lake in the now waning light. As we reached the lakeshore, our Tracker noticed some golden trout on the lake’s edge, and deftly assembled his fishing rod, cast a few times, and pulled out a beautiful twelve-inch fish. Upon returning to camp we enjoyed a wonderful meal while the Poet read us some Gary Snyder. We ended our day talking and marveling as the giant disc of the moon slowly rose, illuminating at first the high peaks to which we’d ventured, then the vast glaciated basin, and finally our circle of bright faces amongst the foxtail pines.

DAY 8: Our anticipated camp at Crabtree Lake was a mere four miles away, but with so much to discover in between, our arrival time was anybody’s guess. Not that time was of much consequence, seeing as no one was wearing a timepiece and each Kindle displayed its own version of the wrong time. The goal of each day was to be in the moment, more concerned with where we were rather than where we were going.

With the summer sun just barely on our camp, we rose and ate, circled to read aloud Annie Dillard’s Living Like Weasels, and were soon hiking toward Sky Blue Lake and Crabtree Pass with the warming day. We stopped for a group discussion on the lakeshore, admiring Mt. Pickering from a distance now, and taking some time to swim in the lake’s azure waters. Finding some interesting plants on the lake’s edge, our Naturalist shared with us how to identify the club moss ivesia and dwarf lupine at our feet. On our way to the next lake in the basin, the Tracker discovered some worked obsidian amongst the buckwheat and bilberry, evidence that at least someone had wandered this trail-less path before us. We scrambled up some rose-colored granite ledges and found ourselves at a frozen lake with Crabtree Pass looming far above. By midday (or so) we stood atop the pass gazing back at where we had already ventured and looking down on the adventure to come.

After a difficult descent from the pass, we were treated to one of the great walks in the Sierra Nevada. Between the uppermost lake and our anticipated camp lay two miles of smooth granite causeway, bounded by jagged peaks, coursing with early summer runoff and littered with glacial erratic boulders. At its terminus lay the tourmaline waters of the second Crabtree Lake, and as we searched there for our evening’s campsite, the group stumbled upon a carcass of an endangered Sierra bighorn ram nestled in the stunted pines. We camped on those same ledges, the students scattering to find their own sleeping sites high above the lake.

DAY 9: From our aerie above the lake we were treated to a particularly spectacular sunrise before enjoying some leisure time on the water’s edge. We fished for giant golden trout, read from our Kindles, caught up on journal writing and drawing, and before we knew it, half the day had passed and it was time to pack up once again and head for our rendezvous with the ranger at his station in Crabtree Meadows. Rob Pilewski has been the ranger on the western flank of Mt. Whitney for seventeen summers. When he joined us at our campsite by his station, we barraged him with questions about living in the wilderness, his most challenging rescues, and his work as a National Park Ranger. We talked into the gloaming with Ranger Pilewski and the group was impressed by his warm demeanor, wonderful storytelling, and fascinating life.

DAY 10: Our morning began with the normal routine: We packed, ate, stretched, and honed our senses for the day, and then were treated to a fantastic drawing exercise from or Artist. We wandered down to Ranger Pilewski’s station for a tour, said a heartfelt goodbye, and joined the John Muir Trail headed north to the Wallace Creek drainage. We had been off-trail for the better part of a week and, as soon as that path was before us, the students dropped their heads and began hustling towards our endpoint. Our Skeptic intervened, helped to draw them out of their trail-induced stupor, and soon we were once again sitting trailside, sketching the profile of the stunning Kaweah Range from Big Sandy Meadow under the guidance of our Artist. As the Scottish orator, Gwyn Thomas, reminds us, “the beauty is in the walking--we are betrayed by destinations,” which could well be the Muir Wise mantra.

It wasn’t long before we began to drop into Wallace Creek, our Navigator leading us off the trail once again and up that majestic canyon. We joined the creek until it formed a series of shouting cascades where the Historian and Naturalist found us a wonderful campsite alongside the cataract. Wallace Creek drains an enormous glacial basin, notorious for its huge lakes, big-bellied trout, and wicked mosquito population. While we didn’t make it far enough up-canyon to vouch for the trout bellies, the mozzies soon made themselves known and we swatted and sprayed ourselves into the evening hours until they finally subsided. Just as the insects retreated, the stars emerged, and we wandered the constellations together and talked in excited anticipation about the following day.

DAY 11: We had to hike to meet our resupply, which arrived by mule train with the awesome help of the Schryver family and Katy Bartzokis CdeP 2009. It was now the eve of the students’ 48-hour solos and the prospect of spending two full days alone was daunting to most, but a huge part of the Muir Wise challenge. This experience would mark the transition into the final phase of the program, in which the students get to create their own week-long backpacking trip back to Golden Trout Wilderness School. And so, with heads full of stars and bellies full of butterflies, we slipped off to our sleeping bags to dream of the new day.

June 11 - July 1
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This story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Thacher Magazine

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