Unearthly: The Little Lake Earthquakes in the Back Country

By Paul Gipe

It was the sound you noticed first, an unearthly rumble that grew louder but never quite reaching a crescendo as it neared you. Then the ground beneath your feet moved. The solid earth we stood on moved. The ground that we take for granted as solid as anything can ever be–moved. Then the movement and the sound died away. It was exhilarating, but also unsettling. If the earth can move like that, what can we rely on as solid, unmovable?

This was just a foretaste of what was to come.

It was the Fourth of July. We thought we’d escaped the fireworks and that big parade back East by hiking into the South Sierra Wilderness. There were seven of us. We’d just began what we thought would be a four-day journey into the back country and were plodding through the heavy dust of a motorcycle trail. We were approaching the wilderness boundary when we thought we heard the unwelcome sound of a distant motorcycle.

As the sound approached it was clear this wasn’t a motorcycle. Then we felt the first wave. It was 10.33 PDT says the US Geological Survey that the 6.4 earthquake rolled through.

The tremor generated much conversation, but we had miles to go before camp, wet meadows to cross, and downed trees to clamber over. Hiking with all your gear on your back forces the mind to more pressing concerns: slaking your thirst, the easiest route ahead, avoiding falls onto jagged broken limbs, when’s the next break . . . and will camp ever come into sight.

The forest has suffered greatly since we first began going to this idyllic spot in the Sierra. There has been drought and fire. The trail into Beck Meadow is little used and not maintained. For long stretches trees were down in every direction. Big trees. Little trees. Downed trees going every which way, but always they seemed to be across the way you wanted to go.

There was no clear path down the descent from Hell to our first camp. It was late in the day, we were tired–we’re not spring chickens any more–and we were getting grumpy. As our campsite finally came into view it was clear that our destination was no longer an oasis. We would have to camp amidst the dead and blackened snags. The memory of that quake in the morning was unnerving. What would happen if a big quake came through while we slept? We didn’t have much choice. It was camp here or in the wet meadow. We made camp. After all, the odds are there wouldn’t be another quake, at least not another big one.

When we awoke, one of the first questions was “Did you feel the quake?” Most of us hadn’t. The 5.1 tremor came through at 4:00 am PDT.

For most of our group, the Beck Meadow hike is an annual tradition. For two of us it was a test of recovery. For one, it was a recovery from a deadly auto accident. For me it was recovery from surgery. I hadn’t carried a backpack in four years.

Friday morning we strolled leisurely down the Meadow looking at the dense displays of lupine and the bright reds of paint brush amidst the granite outcrops. It seemed much longer than the two miles it is, but we found our usual campsite on the edge of the meadow a little after noon.

We each set about finding the softest spots among the sedges–or were they rushes–where we could sleep well.

We were all alone. The four-mile long expanse of Beck Meadow spread out before us and no one else but the western meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, and the occasional marmot.

It was peaceful, full of bird song and the gurgling stream we camped beside. The bright sun was intense, but the breeze cool.

At the end of the day we sat on our pads near the water, drank, and shared snacks. Then it was time for supper of the reconstituted dried food we call freeze-dried swill.

Soon it was time to turn in. We all were tired. Veronica was already in her tent when she called out “I feel another one.” I kidded her. We hadn’t felt it. She was just jittery and imagining it. Again it was unlikely that there would be more quakes.

Then we heard the sound–the rumble. And this time we knew what it was. As it washed over us the earth beneath our feet seemed to roll. Only this time it didn’t end, it grew stronger, and went on–and on. I let out a whoop but we all soon fell silent. This was no joke, no minor temblor. This was big, maybe even the “big one” that all Californians fear.

I jotted down 8:20 pm.

The USGS says the quake that rolled through our campsite then was a magnitude 7.1. That’s big in earthquake terms. We didn’t know it then, but we knew it was big. It was big if the epicenter was near us. It was really big if it was some distance away, say, along the San Andreas Fault. If that was the case, was Los Angeles or San Francisco burning?

Most of us on the hike knew a little geology. We were in the Sierra Nevada after all, a place bounded by faults and not infrequent quakes. We were only a few miles due west from the great Sierra fault itself. We were 150 miles south from Mammoth Mountain a seismically active old volcano. Fortunately, there was no volcanic plume on the horizon.

There ensued much talk of what this meant. What was happening in the outside world? Was it still there? There was an edge of unease. It felt as though we were characters in an apocalyptic novel. Were we the survivors? The ones in a meadow where no trees would fall on us or boulders crush us, no gas lines to rupture.

Yet even as we talked, the swarm of tremors continued. And they continued intermittently once we were zipped warmly into our sleeping bags–all of us wondering what it all means. It’s an eerie feeling–the not knowing.

At breakfast Saturday morning the talk quickly turned to what should we do next. We’d planned a full day of hiking–sans backpack–with a welcome dip in the Kern River. One couple in our party had children and grandchildren in Southern California. They were concerned about them. We were all curious. What would we find once we got out? Could we get out? Would there be trees down across the road? Would the cell towers be out of service?

It was a sober debate. There wasn’t much that we could do if this had been the “big one.” We reluctantly decided we needed to know so we broke camp, saddled up, and started the six long miles out.

Like going in, more immediate matters dominated our thoughts. When would we stop for a break? How much further to the top of this ridge? Should I slow down? Can I speed up? Why am I doing this? Is this trail ever going to level out? When will the trail go down hill again?

We got to the Blackrock Ranger Station about 4:00 pm and learned that the largest quake was centered on the Little Lake Fault zone.

We had been camped only 20 miles from the eponymous Little Lake and no more than 30 miles from the epicenter east of Little Lake.

Yowser! The biggest earthquake to hit California in two decades and we were almost sitting on top of it. Some 30 million people likely felt the main shock. Some felt it as far away as Baja California, Mexico. Our friends watched their homes sway in Bakersfield.

We were in what seismologists call the Eastern California Shear Zone. This is where movement on the distant San Andreas Fault, and the plate boundary it represents, causes the earth to adjust like Saltine crackers sliding in a box when you pull a few out.

The USGS estimates that there’s only a 2% chance of another quake in this series of 7.1 or greater. That’s good. However, it’s almost a certainty that there will be another quake of magnitude 5 in the Little Lake sequence. That’s enough to get your attention that the earth beneath our feet is not as solid as it seems.

The Little Lake quakes were big, but not the “big one.”

Once I was within cell-phone range, the notifications started coming in from far flung friends and from Nancy. Was I ok? She was fine. All was well in San Francisco. It hadn’t fallen into the sea. I reassured everyone I was in one piece and looking forward to a shower and a good night’s sleep.

The world still existed. Highways, cities, smog, it was all still there. The windmills were turning in Tehachapi, welcoming us back.

It was all good–even if the earth had trembled beneath our feet.