This is a continuing series about a mother-and-daughter thru-hike on the John Muir Trail (north to south) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains from July 19 to August 13, 2015.
Previous installments and additional photos are online at www.kaweahcommonwealth.com/john-muir-trail.
Day 15: Sunday, August 2
McClure Meadow to Wanda Lake
Our first peek from the tent revealed a clear sky. The clouds had moved on and weren’t threatening a repeat performance.
This realization was a relief because we would be setting up camp above timberline at the end of the day. It would be our first night of the trip spent above 11,000 feet.
The moisture left behind by the previous afternoon’s voracious thunderstorm was in various stages of dissipating. The frosty dew shimmering on the expansive McClure Meadow was due to the cold temperatures of the nighttime hours while the steam rising from the creek was reacting to the warmth of the just-risen sun.
McClure Meadow is a beautiful place and worthy of being a destination in itself. Jennie and I vowed to return here.
For now, we began breaking down a camp full of saturated gear. Today was a climbing day but short on mileage.
We left Evolution Valley, of which McClure Meadow is the centerpiece, and followed Evolution Creek for a 3.5-mile, 1,200-foot ascent into Evolution Basin. If we didn’t think the scenery could surpass the McClure Meadow area, we were sorely mistaken.
We took an early lunch break at Evolution Lake, and it would have been fine with us to never leave. We were in a magical fairyland surrounded by ancient stone castles.
These fortifications are actually peaks and pinnacles, all towering over 13,000 feet — Mount Mendel, Mount Darwin, Mount Spencer, Mount Haeckel, Mount Wallace, Mount Fiske, Mount Huxley.
Get it? These grand mountains are all named for evolutionists and fit in well with the place-name theme: Evolution Creek, Evolution Valley, Evolution Meadow, Evolution Basin, Evolution Lake. Collectively, yet informally, these great granite spires are all known as the “Evolution Group.”
The peaks, except for Mendel, were named in 1895 by Theodore Solomons, the visionary who established the route for the John Muir Trail along the Sierra crest. Mount Mendel was added in 1942 after being proposed by the Sierra Club.
Sitting at the shore of Evolution Lake in this cathedral of stone, the spiritual world meets scientific theory, adaptation collides with divine creation.
Was it the hand of God or prehistoric glacial erosion that molded and shaped this most perfect, exquisitely alluring place? Both, I concluded, and there is not a more beautiful place on Earth than this spot in the Sierra.
Tears welled up in my eyes because I worried that this might be the only time in my life that I would be here, that I will never be back to this place. This actually happens to me often while exploring these mountains; I want to see every nook and cranny, and I have so many places that I want to return to and spend more time. But there’s this little issue of mortality that’s always looming large, and the years continue to fly by at warped speed.
We reluctantly tore ourselves away from lakeside and continued the day’s journey. The trail parallels the east side of Evolution Lake directly beneath Mounts Mendel and Darwin.
At the inlet on the south end of the lake there is a wide ford that could entail getting one’s feet wet in a high-water year, but for us it required just a lengthy rock-hop on some strategically placed boulders about the size of ice chests.
From here, it’s a gradual ascent —about 550 feet over four miles — through Evolution Basin to Wanda Lake. We passed the aptly named Sapphire Lake, shimmering like a blue gem in the plentiful sunlight.
Next we passed a good-sized, unnamed lake that is a catchment for the Mount Warlow glacier melt. It was right around here that Jennie and I caught up to a duo and stopped to chat.
Lo and behold, I recognized the name of one of the men as the moderator of the John Muir Trail-Yahoo group (and one of the moderators of the JMT Facebook group). I had used these online resources extensively during the planning phases of our trip — permit questions, gear lists, resupply points; the databases are exhaustive.
We chatted while continuing our walk toward Wanda Lake. The JMT guru is from Reno, Nev., and was on his seventh thru-hike of the JMT. His companion had just joined him on the trail, flying in from New Orleans a couple days previously, and they rendezvoused at Muir Trail Ranch.
The companion’s favorite trail of all time is the High Sierra Trail (Crescent Meadow to Mount Whitney). He is a Louisiana native who has made quite a name for himself as a medical doctor and researcher, and he hopes to one day retire to Three Rivers so he may be within an hour of stepping onto his beloved HST.
The four of us arrived at Wanda Lake (elevation 11,426 feet) in the early afternoon. Situated in the shadow of Mount Goddard (elevation 13,568 feet), campsites are sparse in this alpine terrain, but the seven-time JMT hiker knew exactly where to pitch tents. We set up in close proximity to each other.
From the lake, one can see Muir Pass, at nearly 12,000 feet the highest point on the trail so far. Straddling the pass is Wanda Lake, named for one of John Muir’s two daughters, and on the JMT’s south side, Helen Lake, named for his other daughter.
Fish out of water
When Jennie and I arrived at the northern edge of Wanda Lake, there was a commotion in the water. We stood on a boulder and peered into a shallow cove.
It wasn’t the normal crystal-clear water we’d been witnessing. It was black and bubbling like lava.
It took us a moment for our brains to decipher what we were seeing. Tadpoles! Hundreds of them. As we stared, we began noticing frogs too. Frogs sunning on rocks, frogs in the water. The sheer number of these amphibians in various stages of metamorphosis was astounding.
This lake and, as we would discover the next day, Helen Lake and its outlet waters are two of several dozens of high-elevation lake basins in Kings Canyon National Park where nonnative trout have been, or will be, eradicated by the National Park Service in an effort to restore the native population of mountain yellow-legged frogs, which are on the verge of extinction. Park researchers report that before about 1870 these high-elevation lake basins were naturally without fish.
Over the span of a century or so, trout were planted in many of these lakes. And when the fish came, some native species went into decline, most notably the frogs.
But the trout aren’t the only threat to these native residents of the High Sierra. There is an infectious skin disease called Chytrid fungus that is wiping out amphibian populations in the Sierra and around the world. The pathogen has already caused the extinction of many amphibian species.
NPS biologists at Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks have been working to rid Wanda, Helen, and other lakes of the nonnative fish while attempting the reintroduction of mountain yellow-legged frogs. To Jennie and me, it looked like the strategy was hugely successful.
“Why are those frogs white?” asked Jennie.
The shoreline of Wanda Lake was crowded with these tiny swimmers from polliwog to frog. But in the midst of the crowd, there were some frogs, both alive and dead, with no color to their skin. But it was only a few compared to the massive amount of healthy frogs.
Little did we know there was peril lurking in the dark depths of Wanda Lake.
To be continued…