To Beck Meadow and Beyond–One More Time into the Sierra Wilderness

By Paul Gipe

Yes, I made it out of the Southern Sierra Wilderness on my own power but there were times when it was doubtful.

It was my most arduous backpacking trip since my college days when I was young and stupid. Now I am just stupid.

Sunrise over Beck Meadow camp.

I fell twice. I fell once on the way in and once on the way out. I was the only one of the five of us who fell. I told them I was taking the falls for the home team. Both could have been serious. Fortunately, the only thing that snapped was my walking stick. There was no blood, gushing or otherwise. One of our trail mates had been a senior engineer at the Naval Weapons base. He mended my stick with the strongest tape known to the Defense Dept. It held up for the nine mile hike out.

Brian Veit and my mended walking stick.

Yes, you read that right: nine miles.

It wasn’t supposed to be nine miles–or I wouldn’t have signed up. (I may be stupid but I am not an idiot.) But it was nine miles and then some. I had it at 9.1 miles the others at 9.4 miles. Either way it was much too far.

I was with a seasoned, congenial, and fit group. There were no slackers, no complaining, only some good-natured banter to keep our spirits up. To give a sense of their experience, Brian, the engineer from the base, has hiked 1,300 miles of the 2,600 mile Pacific Crest Trail.

We’ve never seen so many wildflowers on this route. And, as usual, we didn’t see another soul on the trail except for a young ranger we encountered on the way out. We also saw something we’d never seen before–a kayaker on the South Fork of the Kern River. He’d packed in his inflatable kayak and was headed downstream to Kennedy Meadows.

The weather was ideal for the Kern Plateau: bright blue skies, hard frost in the morning becoming refreshingly cool during the heat of the day.

While a goodly portion of the hike was on a trail, much of it was not. Much of the trail was obliterated by downed trees and hasn’t been maintained for decades. Those downed trees were what got me the first time. I was climbing over a series of logs waist high when I lost my balance and fell backwards, landing on my backpack and bending my stick over double.

California Evening Primrose (Oenothera californica) in Beck Meadow.

My second fall was just your normal, every day, slip on pine-needle-covered decomposed granite. My leg went out and I went down with a thump. When Annette automatically asked, “Are you alright.” I replied, “No, I don’t think so.” My leg was bent at an odd angle, like something I’d do in Yoga. But I raised myself up with my one good stick. Nothing hurt, terribly. So, all was good so far. Yoga apparently paid off.

Brian suggested a break and I said no, it was best if I could keep moving—slowly—to test my condition. My foot and leg worked and we took a break later. By then we had hiked seven of the nine miles and it was important to keep moving.

My balance was no doubt off. My legs were tired as we had to wend our way around and across swampy meadows flooded by the record snowfall of this past winter while trying to avoid wading through open water. The word “meadow” conjures a peaceful, smooth, lawn-like green expanse of grass. Meadows in the Sierra are anything but lawn-like. They’re hummocky and even when dry are difficult to walk across. And when the meadow was too wet we had to break a path through the meadow-bordering sagebrush. Tedious is the word that comes to mind.

On our “rest day” we hiked another nine miles to see the swollen South Fork of the Kern River. Did I say this was a tough bunch?

So, yes, I am out. I came out under my own power and now I have bragging rights of a sort. And I don’t hurt–too much.