Day: Tuesday, May 31st 2016
Miles: 427.0 – 448.6
Poodle Dog Detour Midpoint 427.0 – Remote Camp 448.6
The trail thus far has been marked by mostly gradual rises and descents, with moderate changes to landscape, flora and fauna and a temperature range that has been sympathic to my delicate Irish exterior. This is Southern California and whilst Los Angeles has been mired in a perpetual murk for the majority of my time in the LA basin region, the hilltops surrounding it have been gloriously cool, generously sunny and pleasantly shady when required. Only in Warner Springs and a little around Ziggy and the Bears, has the temperature range become uncomfortable, and my nuclear sun-umbrella shade option has only been used on a handful of occasions. That of course was bound to change, and today was the day that a stern taster of things to come, along with an awareness of the changing terrain ahead, became gloriously and bluntly applied to my walk in the woods.
After an extended period on roads due to the Poodle Dog Detour, I was quite happy to re-enter the trail this morning. The rumour-mill of the PCT Facebook group and one of the online forums suggested the Poodle Dog Bush was dying-off in the second half of the detour range and that little if any kalesthetics would be needed to avoid it. I have not been served badly by the rumor mill (at least yet) and happily embraced the trail once again. Immediately surprised by how the character of the trail had evolved in this section, I was suddenly surrounded by an incredible alpine meadow scene, dense with grasses and shrubs, scented of a multitude of sweet fragrances, colorful flowers and the busy murmur of honey bees and hummingbirds.
The thought that this area was a raging inferno a few years back was quite shocking and would even solicit doubt from the most believing of wanderers. I enjoyed the scene as I walked the first mile or two, even entering some beautiful old growth oak tree stands where the fires grasp had obviously not managed to reach. Impressed with the additional glorious luxury of an AT&T LTE cell symbol, I took the moment to FaceTime my Mum. It seemed like an appropriately lively scene of color and noise that she would appreciate! Whilst dialing I was passed by another hiker who was equally impressed with the surroundings, but who provided an unhappy grimace at my frenetic phone tapping, no doubt presuming I was engaged in less productive social networking activities than calling home! After a lengthy video chat, and ready to walk a bit further, I was buzzed by a curious hummingbird, seemingly attracted to my camping pad which I attach to my pack. This persistent fellow kept returning for a closer look until realizing this colorful mesh had little to offer. The company was still welcome. I started back at the trail only to immediately realize that something was just ahead in the bushes, and that something was large. A doe! And what appeared to be a heavily pregnant doe! She realized I was there quite quickly, and without much hesitation bounded down the hillside, across and ahead of me, before effortlessly bounding back up the hillside with an agility and purpose. She was able to delicately avoid anything in her way. As Colin McGregor would say, precision over power. I was quite in awe of how quickly she moved through a tangled weave of broken trees and burnt branches, terrain a human would find to be simply impenetrable. With the excitement of the moment abating and the doe a dot on the hilltop peering back towards me suspiciously, I continued along the trail further. The temperature began to rise as it departed the heavily wooded and green-clad ridge, assuming a dense green shrubbed personality with views towards Simi and Ventura County to the west. A cloud inversion ensured that views of the sea were non existent, with only aircraft departing Burbank Airport breaking the view of serenity and an otherwise pristine sight of what one would presume to be barren countryside – however dense urban communities lay right in front of me.
The trail dropped significant elevation to a closed campground, a large sign warning potential campers of falling trees due to the burn zone.
Continuing further and views expanded to the north and my destination. The treeless and sand-clad mountains between here and the low plain of the western Mojave. By now it was obvious, the remainder of the day would edge between hot, hotter and hottest.
The destination for this mornings walk was the virtually abandoned North Fork Ranger Station. Inhabited only by a caretaker since the Station Fire, and densely posted with signs that remind you that the USA owns it, and that you should probably not be here. It was a strangely desolate and forbidding place, as well as the only source of water for miles around.
I arrived around midday and despite the no trespassing signs, found a welcoming shady tree, a number of other “buzz-off” signs about loitering, a drop toilet, a picnic bench, 4 large filled water jugs, a sign threatening prosecution if you could read the sign, and a large sign inviting hikers to ignore all the warnings, because the ranger station barn had a large cooler filled with ice, Coca-Cola, Sprite and Orange Crush ($1) as well as Snickers bars ($1.50) (with any additional donations great fully received).
Accepting all of the conflicting signals, I passed all of the no-go signs, tendered my $3 and enjoyed a cold (not melted and mangled) Snickers as well as an Orange Crush under the shady (and likely punishable by imprisonment) tree. It was the most pleasant rest I’ve ever had, whilst simultaneously breaking so many Federal laws and by-rules.
I realized around now that it was hot on this side of the ridge. Very hot. The trail dropped a significant elevation from here and I was slightly surprised at the level of heat given the time, around 1PM. This must mean the sandy canyons below are significantly hotter I pondered. After some time, and once again bumping into Sonic from Seattle (who I had not seen since Ziggy and the Bears), I departed along the northbound trail, a little gleeful at least that the westbound part of the trail was coming to an end and once again a predominantly northwards track replaced our westward movements. The trail had an enormous fall to the right hand side for the first few miles demanding care and attention, the elevation dropping slowly at the beginning before quickly falling into the valley and canyonlands below with furnace-like heat erupting almost as soon as I dropped out of the breeze-cooled ridge.
I wasn’t sure about the destination despite the view, as the trail disappeared in and out of the canyonlands repeatedly into every direction. The heat became a distraction at this point. Despite being well watered, I was finding the sheer beating heat to be very intense and unfurled my sun umbrella for the down section. This was quite unprecedented I thought,the range in the space of 2 miles had completely changed the nature of the day and I wondered whether there would be much shade at all ahead. At the base of Mattox Canyon, the heat seemed to plateau at a level that can only be referred to as repressive. The trail did not match the elevation chart as I expected, instead rising significantly from what seemed like the low-point. Feeling a burst of energy thanks to my purposeful and unending snacking all morning, I made a leap for the last three miles, adding addition diorolytes to my water. Soon I saw a hiker ahead who seemed to be finding the scenario at play particularly tough. I spoke to him for a moment and whilst he was in good spirits, he certainly was not making any progress and seemed to be a little disorientated as a result. A woman (trail name Hippy) and her daughter (Pipes) were similarly hesitating around the hiker and had given him diorolytes and their sun umbrella. They decided to stay with him for a while so I moved on, eager to get out of the heat myself. After two winding miles and after passing Bourbon (trail name), I heard a helicopter overhead, passing from the north. A breeze cooled things around this point, assisted with some ridges facing away from the sun.
Another mile further and the helicopter was flying past me slowly, the words LA County emblazoned on the side. This time heading westbound. I wondered whether it was a training run, then thought back to the earlier hiker, might they have called it in? I ventured further down the trail eventually ending at a new carpark and equestrian trailhead,finally ending the torturous trail from North Fork. The distance was short however if this was a taste of things to come, I needed to drastically rethink how my daily routine would align with the Suns peak.
There were a few people resting at the trailhead, including Jameson (from Switzerland) who was traveling with Hippy, Pipes and Bourbon. We chatted for a while, mostly complaining about the heat and the impressively evasive trail, which kept hiding from our view during the heights, only to surprise us with another unexpected climb or ridge when we least expected it. Eventually Hippy arrived with news that Diego, the struggling hiker had been airlifted out of the canyon. They had made a call based on his progress and decided that self-evacuation was not an option, especially given his enormous pack and the height/distance ahead in the heat. The LA County S&R helicopter had arrived in minutes, landed on one of the low ridges, collected its cargo and headed off with little time wasted. An impressive feat when you think that the helicopter was called, flew to the pickup point, landed, pulled out the rescuee and departed inside the time it took me to hike 2 miles (at about 2.5miles per hour). After some discussion, Sonic and some other hikers arrived down from the trail with news of seeing the helicopter and similarly feeling burned out from the section. We all trekked the one mile road-walk to the Acton KOA east of the trail, with the intention of finding a water spigot.
Later, having found a shop, our desires expanded to delicacies such as Cheetos, ice cream cones and blue gatorades. I guess we all crave our own cravings! After a feast of junk-food and calories, and the with the sun finally lowering in the sky, this oasis of green in the straw colored sandy Solidad Canyon came to a close. Many of us had decided that staying at the KOA was tempting but some further miles would bring us that bit closer to tomorrow’s destination of the aptly named Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce, and the Acton KOA would likely involve further procrastination and money spending. At 6:30pm I crossed the Antelope Valley Line rail tracks of the LA Metrorail, denoting one further ascent for the day directly north. The trail was beautiful in the evening light, little vegetation decorated the hills, but the richest red colored rock and dark red sand covered the hills to the north of Solidad Canyon. This was a distinct change in the color of rock and variety of landscape for the third time today, from green alpine meadows to white sandy canyonlands through to high and red colored clay hilltops. Most importantly it was blitz fully cool. Today’s experience tells me that morning and evening hikes are likely all that will be possible now that we’re entering the Mojave elevation zone properly.
Electricity pylons punctuated the landscape in many directions highlighting this as an important crossroads between the northern LA suburbs into the Mojave cities of Palmdale and Lancaster. These two cities are known to me from their iconic role in aerospace design, as current home to Lockheeds “Skunkworks”, also known as Air Force Plant 42. Skunkworks, although moved from Burbank in the 90’s, was the birthplace of many of the United States most impressive and highly classified aircraft at their inception, such as the U-2, SR-71 and F-117.
As the nighttime starry sky replaced the twilight, my quiet evening climb summited at a bluff overlooking the busy CA highway 14 about 2 miles distant. I decided to settle in for the evening after a hot and exhausting day, with the sound of distant cars whizzing by and 6 miles to go to Agua Dulce and Hiker Heaven. I think I learned a lot today about the heat and to an extent realized that it is far far stronger than me. Treading carefully for the next few sections will be the order of the day.