Halfway across the creek, the nerve endings in my feet began to feel like they were on fire. Direct snowmelt from the whiteclad peaks of the Trinity Alps had swollen these frigid waters, which I needed to pass through in order to reach the trail to lofty Caribou Lake. The cold was excruciating, and even though the shock triggered a rush of adrenaline, I had to subdue the impulse to quicken my pace. As the water level rose above my knees and its force multiplied, it became harder to grip the stones with my stiffened toes and not lose my balance. One fall would have ended the backpacking trip before it had even begun.
Slowly and steadily, I traversed the remaining distance, then threw my backpack down upon the opposite bank and lay back against a log, holding my painfully numbed toes in my hands to bring back normal sensation. My friend Mike had warned me that it was probably too early to visit Northern California’s Trinity Alps, considering how much snowfall had accumulated this past spring and winter. In fact, the San Franciscan drummer had declined to join me on this venture, but stubbornness and curiosity had drawn me to these mountains regardless of the unfavorable conditions.
The last time Mike and I tried to arrange a trip to Caribou Lake, it was the presence of forest fires rather than snow that derailed our plans. Back in 2008, as I was trying to drive into the mountains, a parade of firetrucks were driving out, so I gave up and went off in search of less smoky country. This time, despite the discouraging lack of other vehicles parked at the trailhead, I was determined to reach my destination.
The trail that wound across the slopes of Caribou Mountain was graciously straightforward, although unmelted snowbanks proved to be a perpetual hurdle. There were no other tracks along the path… except for bear tracks, of course. In a few hours, the upper basin came into view – a cirque containing three beautiful alpine lakes, all unfortunately trapped beneath a crust of ice and snow. The high country had yet to shake off the blanket of winter, and yet there were signs that the land was beginning to stir from its unusually-long slumber. Fissures in the ice and patches of dark, open water had begun to form on the lakes, enough to dissuade me from taking a convenient shortcut across the expanses.
After scaling a hill to survey the choppy-sea ridgelines of the Trinity Alps, I took time to wash up in the outlet stream of Caribou Lake. The process involved dunking the washcloth in the icy water, squeezing it out, and then laying the cloth on a rock to give it time to warm up and give my chilled hands time to stop aching.
My trip to Caribou Lake could have hardly been determined a success, except that before nightfall I managed to find the only flat stretch of ground in the whole snowbound country that was not completely soggy or covered with snow. I pitched my tent on a sandy patch in a hollow atop the granite hill that divided Snowslide and Lower Caribou Lakes… an elevated sanctuary where I was bathed by a steady stream of comforting warmth and light from the setting sun. The direct sunrays were matched by those reflected off the frozen surface of Lower Caribou Lake, almost doubling the energy that reached the top of my hill, melting most of the snow and creating a small, dry island in a sea of white. I was kept warm and contented until it was time to crawl into the sleeping bag for the night.