Bear Creek Throw Back 6/18-21/02

by Tony Plutynski

This was the first trip I had taken with my son, Mark, since October of last year. We were going to the west side of the Sierra into some lakes that I hadn't been to since '98. The hike is relatively short, but it involves a 1500-foot, non-trailed climb within about a mile—essentially a cliff with a few trees to grab in order to keep from falling. The fishing is quite good, but you always seem to pay the price one way or another.

Another complicating factor was the snow melt, which I didn't realize the extent of until I saw the magnitude of the rushing water in Bear Creek. But our first hurdle was the four-wheel drive, two-mile road to the Bear Creek Diversion Dam. I hadn't used the four-wheel drive on my Ford Explorer in about two years. I had put the vehicle in four-wheel drive about once every six months, but that is not really a test. When I actually needed it, it performed beautifully. Mark and I slept at the trailhead in the back of the Explorer with no interruptions. The parking lot had only one other car and the occupants were gone.

We got on the trail at about 8AM and the first part of the trail was a gradual rise of about a thousand feet in about three miles. The weather was glorious, with clear blue sky and a temperature in the high sixties. The first tricky part of the hike was to find the best crossing of a roaring river. The last time I did this hike, in '98, it was late October and there was no snow melt to speak of. Now the river looked quite different, with lots of water and foam. There were logs across the river, but of course they were well downstream from where we wanted to climb the steep terrain. If we crossed the river too soon, we'd face bushwhacking along the river to the point where we wanted to climb.

Consulting our topographic map we finally figured where we should cross and, of course, there was no log. The best available choice was still very scary. I told Mark that I felt I could make it, but if he felt that he didn't want to wade across at that point then I would be fine with that. Mark is three inches taller than me, but he doesn?t have the strength in his legs that I do. We could go on another hike. Or, if after I crossed, he didn't want to do it, I would come back and we would go on different hike.

We cut ourselves stout walking sticks so that we had a three point purchase on the bottom of the river. I changed to sneakers that I had brought along so that my boots wouldn't get wet. I put my pants and boots in the pack to keep them dry, if I stayed up. I told Mark to unbuckle the pack belt so that if he were to fall, he could loosen the pack easily and swim to the bank in the pool below. Saving the pack was not worth one's life. The first step I took into the icy water made me catch my breath, but as soon as I felt the very strong current I forgot all about the cold. The fear of falling kept me concentrated on staying vertical. It was scary and the water got up to my navel, but I made it. Mark followed. He, too, had fear in his eyes. Crossing done, we were glad to be over that hurdle. Now all we had to do was climb a cliff. We first stopped and had some lunch.

The rest of the hike to the lake was a grind up the cliff to the meadow below the lake. A trail by the meadow helped our progress. The last section of the trail into the lake was steep and there are some false tops that the trail builders seem to put in to discourage anyone trying to make the lake. There were a few snow patches by the camp site, but everything seemed as I remembered it from four years ago. Nobody was at the lake and, in fact, we didn't see anyone until the last mile of the trail on the way out.

After a short afternoon nap we tried the fishing. It was terrific, with a fish just about on every cast. Needless to say, we had fish with our soup for dinner. Candy bars for desert. As the evening cooled we built a wood fire and warmed ourselves with hot cocoa and rum. We sacked out anticipating tomorrow's visit to a lake with golden trout.

After a fish and oatmeal breakfast and hanging the food, we packed our lunch and headed up the stream towards the ridge that had the series of ducks to the "Golden Lake". The first time I had visited the "Top of The Cliff Lake", I had come from Golden Lake at the end of a week-long trip with Neil. Golden Lake had nothing but golden as far as we knew and it had some nice size goldens—up to fourteen inches.

At the ridge I couldn't resist throwing a snow ball at Mark. A short, furious snow ball fight followed until I called it off because I was losing, big-time. We climbed on, following ducks all the way to Golden Lake. We were alone. The lake was collared with snow banks. Fish in the shallows were fixing nests for mating.

We fished the lake extensively and it was tough fishing because they were really interested in mating, not in food. We did manage to catch four trout—one about thirteen inches. I think that they are the best eating trout in the Sierra, so I cleaned them for the trip back to Top of the Cliff Lake.

The clouds were building up for an afternoon shower. It was a perfect time for a nap until it blew over. It cooled a little after the shower. We had a perfect dinner of golden trout with spices and bug juice on a fish rock overlooking the lake. That evening we walked to another part of the lake and sat down on rocks, fishing for the overly abundant brook trout—almost one on every cast. A cool breeze blew; a few clouds still built on the Sierra Crest. It was a very good ending to a really good day.

The next day, we decided to walk out. We had caught plenty of fish and Mark wanted to get back to L.A. It meant going back down the cliff and then crossing the river. There was a complicating factor. Marks boots were killing him and so he decided to hike in his tennis shoes and of course those were the tennis shoes he had used to cross the river. What to do to avoid walking in wet shoes, uncomfortable hiking boots, and to have something to wear to cross the river?

Then I recalled the first time I had been to Golden Lake. Neil didn't have anything to cross a stream in and he didn't want to get his boots wet. The answer we came up with was for me to cross using my tennis shoes and then to throw the wet shoes back for Neil to use. It worked then and there was no reason that it wouldn't work now except that the river was roaring so loudly from the snow melt that we couldn't hear over the river. We solved that problem by walking along the river on the Top of Cliff Lake side until we found a good place to toss the shoes across and agreeing beforehand. Then we knew where to toss. It worked perfectly. The fear was still there but the water level was lower for it was earlier in the day.

We talked over the adventure at the Fruit Basket Restaurant in Madera over milk shakes and sandwiches. We agreed that we had to visit those goldens again when they weren't so interested in sex.