Sophia and I wanted to get some backcountry fun in before the cold fall weather comes rolling in. We decided to try our hands at backpacking Reyes Peak. I had been to Reyes Peak once and ended up hiking to Haddock Mountain on the same day. I really thought the area was beautiful and I remember someone had been camping in a little flat area, just below the Reyes Peak summit. Since the hike was probably just a little over one mile, I thought it would be a great place to take Sophia.
We drove the usual route through Ojai and Wheeler Gorge. There weren’t that many people parked along the road and it wasn’t until we were just about to Pine Mountain Road did it occur to me that the gate at the entrance to the road might be locked due to the federal government shutdown. Luckily, it was wide open and we drove up the brand new road, repaved just a month before.
The road wound along the ridgeline, which offered us tremendous views to the north and south of Pine Mountain Ridge. Since we typically listen to one of the streaming music services while we ride in the car, once we lost cell service along the Cuyama Highway, we only had a few choices. So, enjoying some Beethoven, we wound through the mountains. It was a perfect fit. Sophia said, “It’s like we’re in a movie, dad.” Indeed it was.
Although the reservable campsites had signs on them indicating they were closed due to the shutdown, there were still several groups of campers, boulderers, and day-trippers. Red tape criss-crossed each fire ring, due to the Level IV fire restrictions: no campfires or stoves in the backcountry. All our meals would be cold while backpacking Reyes Peak.
We reached the end of the road, the last portion being unpaved, and prepared to start on the trail. The temperature was a pretty cool 64F, and we could feel the breeze. It had been 96F in Ojai when we stopped at the market to pick up our dinner and breakfast for the trip, so the cool air was a big change.
It had been pretty windy over the past few days, but the weather report indicated that the wind would die down at 3PM today. It was now about 4PM. We should be fine. I hoisted my heavy backpack, carrying enough for two people, and we started down the old access road that would meet three trails ahead.
It was nice to be outdoors with Soph. We chat constantly in the car, since I don’t really believe in in-car video players. As a result, she is entertained by what’s outside of the car, or listens to music with me. She is constantly seeing interesting things and pointing them out to me. “Look dad,” she pointed out on our ride earlier. “There are people rock climbing on these cliffs.”
We had been driving past Wheeler Gorge and spied some people high above Matilija Creek. A few weeks back, near Ventura while we were driving on the 101, she spied a shark in the water, likely eating a large fish. “It wasn’t a dolphin, dad, I could see two fins, a dolphin’s fluke is flat, while a shark’s back fin sticks up.”
I feel there is something to be said by encouraging a child to look outside while driving around.
That being said, her curiosity and attention to detail instantly kicked in, stopping to inspect pine cones and any tracks she saw in the trail. While I encourage this sort of behavior normally, I could feel the temperature continue to drop; it was expected to be in the 40s tonight. And every once in a while, a breeze would come up and chill us. Once we reached the trail intersection, I gently verbally nudged her up the steep trail towards Reyes Peak. We saw no one else on the trail. I encouraged us to take our breaks in the sun and helped her up some of the steep, loose sections. The smell of the trail and the crunch of pine needles under our feet was amazing.
Since we were over 7,000′ and the trail was pretty steep, we stopped to catch our breaths from time to time. The sound of the breeze through the trees and the warm glow of the setting sun flickered around us, I was once again reminded why I take so much effort to get outside. There’s a certain primal resonance that comes from being in this type of environment. It’s almost as if we are hard-wired to be here, and every moment we are in the civilized world, there is a battery that is slowly emptying. At some point, we all need to get out into this world of running water, dirt, animals, plants, and endless views in order to recharge this battery.
Along the way, we pointed out tracks on the trail. We saw some canine tracks. We thought it might be coyote, but plenty of people bring dogs along this trail. We also saw some deer and plenty of squirrel tracks. What we didn’t see, which was a little of a relief, were bear tracks. So Sophia decided to make her own bear tracks in the trail. I was pretty impressed with her memory of the shape and her ability to reproduce it.
The trail was bear track-free until I saw the trail came to a shoulder on the mountain. I looked at the slopes on either side of the trail and thought to myself, “This would be where bears would cross the trail.” Sure enough, when we got to that section, I saw bear tracks facing sideways along the trail. I saw the trail climb up ahead of us and was pretty sure, or at least hopeful, the bears avoided the peak itself.
We finally got to the point I remembered. We were near the summit and I could see the campsite that I had seen the last time I was here. Sophia was cold, so my first order of business was to erect the tent. My Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3 has served me well over the past couple of years, and it would serve me well this night. I got it up in no time, but the wind was gusting with great strength. I tied up or staked every guy line that was on it, and there were plenty of large rocks around that had undoubtedly served this purpose for other campers. Sophia got inside and ate her dinner while I secured everything and set up the sleeping pads and bags. I had purchased for her the Sierra Designs Eleanor 19F women’s sleeping bag. My wife could use it in a pinch and it would keep Soph plenty warm. I had checked out all the children’s sleeping bags and they all were very heavy and didn’t compress very well. Since I am carrying both Soph’s and my gear, this is pretty important. So I opted for this bag, used my 20% off coupon at REI and called it a good investment. A good night’s sleep while camping is worth a lot in my book.
After we ate, I wanted to go out and check out the sun setting on the valley below. We hiked to the southern edge of the summit and looked out at Rose valley below. We took some pictures, but a strong gust of wind convinced us it was time to head back to the tent. Along the way, Sophia said, “Look, dad, scat!” I looked down to see a large pile of bear scat.
“What kind of scat is that, dad?”
“Oh. I’m cold”
“OK, let’s head back to the tent.”
We scrambled back to our tent, passing no fewer than 12 more instances of bear scat. I looked at the low brush that grew up to the side of the summit boulders and saw small berries on them. This was the bears’ feeding ground. And we were right next door. Once Sophia was warm in the tent, I cleaned up the campsite and hung our food bag in a tree across the meadow. I then scouted the ground around our tent. The nearest bear scat was about 30 feet away, but once out of that range, I saw over 30 berry pit-ridden piles of bear scat in one general area. They looked at least a few weeks old, but not any more recent than that. I hoped that the lack of water nearby would prevent them from coming back this night.
We got settled in, played some Uno, read some Dragonlance, and watched the first portion of Mile… Mile and a Half on my iPad Mini before we both got tired enough to fall asleep. Sophia placed some glow sticks in each corner of the tent and we fell asleep.
I am not sure how much later it was, but the wind howled over the side of the mountain. My feet, which were touching the edge of the tent, lifted up a little bit. I was pretty confident that everything was sufficiently lashed down, but this was surprising. The weather reports said that the winds should have been done hours ago. The wind continued to howl through the night, with only an occasional lull, during which the silence was a welcome relief. Luckily, I was warm in my bag. And looking at the motionless lump beside me, she was warm, too. The wind woke me up many times throughout the night, but I still felt like I had a decent and comfortable night’s sleep.
In the morning, the wind had stopped and it was cold. So we hung out in our sleeping bags until the sun touched our tent. Sophia was hungry, so I got our food from the tree and we had breakfast. I saw no evidence of new bear activity. I asked Sophia if the wind kept her up. “What wind?” She had been cozy in her new sleeping bag and had not been disturbed at all.
When I asked her if she thought about the bear scat at all during the night, she replied, “BEAR scat? I thought you said DEER scat!”
I wondered how she was going to take this apparently new information, but I needn’t have worried, since she ran to the nearest pile and said, “Cool! Are those berries in there?” as she poked at it with a stick. “I thought I heard a something crunching through the pine needles last night, but I thought it might have been a coyote or mountain lion.”
Proud of her absence of fear, we packed up our site and got our packs ready. Before we headed down the mountain, we had one thing to do. We had to get to the top of Reyes Peak.
“Dad, I’ll find a way up” she said as we started scrambling up the north side of the summit boulder pile. She shimmied up a little chimney-like area and started excitedly hopping from boulder to boulder. “Here’s the benchmark!” She examined it to see if it could move and then took a picture of it with her hand-me-down iPhone 3 (with no service). She brings this into the wilderness to take pictures. She has my old Flip Video camera to take video when she gets the urge.
A few minutes before this, she had been a little cold and impatient as I packed our gear, and now she was excited, “Look at the view! It’s beautiful.” She walked out to the edge of a boulder to get a better picture of the view. She had a completely new level of energy.
We stayed up there for a little while, letting the sun and the view warm us up. I checked my phone and let her know it was time to start heading down. Disappointed, but understanding, since we were to go to her friend’s birthday party later in the afternoon, we descended to our campsite and hoisted our packs and started hiking down the trail. After a little while, she even removed a layer, since she was getting warm. Once again, I helped her down the steep, loose sections and she recognized our own tracks from the afternoon before.
She was pleasantly surprised when she put her hand out to touch a sapling along the trail and her hand was sprayed with water. She called me over to check it out. There was some sort of plant that was living on the pine tree. It consisted of tiny yellowish orange balls. When we touched one of the balls, we felt a small snapping sensation and water sprayed out. I later discovered that this was dwarf mistletoe, and this water pressure is something that it uses to spread out their seeds over a wide area. The little pods build pressure until they pop, sending seeds over 60 mph and usually over 30 feet.
We made it back to the car and we changed into fresh clothes. We stopped briefly at the Wheeler Gorge Visitor Center, just to confirm that it was, too, closed due to the shutdown.
Later that day, Sophia was sitting next to me on a boulder, a landscaping feature in a large backyard. She was eating shave ice. We were looking out at an extravagant birthday party, which included a bounce house, face-painting, a piñata, the aforementioned shave ice trailer, a playset, and a cupcake tray.
She turned to me and said, “Dad, what was your favorite part of today? My favorite part of today was hiking.”
I put my arm around her and kissed the top of her head. “Me, too, Soph. Me, too.”