Saturday, July 26, 2008

Lost in Desolation Wilderness

I have just had a “once in a life time” experience. I was lost on a hike after sunset in the middle of the wilderness!

It was a warm afternoon in Lake Tahoe. The air was smoky from the wildfire in the northern California valley. I was planning to do a sunset and sunrise photo shoot during that smoky condition for a different color effect. I set up my new tent at a National Forest campground near the famous Emerald Bay – the most scenic part of Lake Tahoe. My original plan was to walk 1mile on the highway to Emerald Bay for sunset and sunrise.

I arrived at the campground in the early afternoon and the sunset would be around 8:30 pm… plenty of time before sunset. So, I decided to take a scenic route – about 6 miles of trail climbing up and down in the mountain.

The trail starts at the far end of the campground, and there’s a steep climb up into the pine forest. After about 1 mile of uphill trail, the forest opened up and looked out over Emerald Bay. Unfortunately, the visibility was bad due to the smoke… I decided I would save the view for a clear day.

The trail lead on to a small alpine lake through granite, rocky ridge, and the dynamic Sierra ranges were in the back drop. A group of backpackers came across from the other way. It was true wilderness in the Sierra Nevada, and I love the solitude. I took several rest breaks to just enjoy the scenery.

Finally, I thought, I reached “Eagle Lake” which is about 1 mile above Emerald Bay. I still had an enough time to hike down to Emerald Bay before sunset. I was relaxed and photographed the reflections on “Eagle Lake.”

Then, I followed the unclear trail along the creek. The trail was longer than I expected, and the sun was lower already at the moment. The setting sun painted the stream as orange. It was a nice warm color, so I set up my camera there. At that point, I already gave up trying to reach Emerald Bay before sunset. I found another great photo opportunity on the way, so it was OK to change the plan as long as I made to the highway before getting dark. I kept walking along the creek.

Unexpectedly, the trail ended at another lake. The lake was much larger than the last one, and it wasn’t on the map! Something was wrong… I must have been on the wrong trail. As I carefully reviewed the map, it seemed I had missed a turn off to Emerald Bay via Eagle Lake, and then I ended up a few miles north, at Velma Lakes area… far into the wilderness! I must turn back and retrace the trail to the campground before it gets dark. I was running back along the unclear trail under the setting sun. I knew I was going in the right direction from the landmarks I remembered, but I lost the actual trail. I passed the familiar rocks and ponds… but I still couldn’t find the trail… the sunset color in the sky gradually faded and the darkness began enveloping the wilderness. Some bright stars showed up in the sky… but I still couldn’t find the trail… I began to panic when I realized that I was lost in the middle of nowhere in the dark without shelter, food or water! I kept walking down to the direction of the campground in the last bit of remaining light, but then it turned completely dark.

I tried calling to my local friend. Oh, my goodness, my cell phone was working there! After my friend called around for information, I learned that it wasn’t going to be too cold for the night. I lay down in the hollow of a rock and tried making myself comfortable. The stars were very bright up above me even though the air wasn’t clear. I was amazed to see so many stars in the dome of the sky. I was somehow relaxed. The problem was, I only had on a thin fleece jacket. I used a tripod bag for keeping myself warm. I opened up the long padded bag and covered my body, curling up under the bag, and put plastic bags over my knees to block the cold air. In the mean time, my friend called to a local sheriff about me missing.

It was cold during the night, and lying on the granite rock bed wasn’t so comfortable… I switched my body positions every 5 minutes or so. A bright moon rose from down below. I only got a little sleep during the night, but I wasn’t scared of being alone in wilderness. I would have been much more scared of being alone at night in the middle of a big city.

After the long dark night, the sky finally shifted gradually lighter with the cold morning air. I began to see the terrain around me better. I studied the map and compared the mountain peaks above me. I was very thirsty… According to the topomap, the trail should be close to here, just a bit east fom where I stayed. I began searching the trail at dawn.

As I climbed up to the east, the first sunlight lit up the mountain range as a beautiful salmon pink, but I just didn’t have any energy to set up my camera.

The same kind of terrain: exposed granite rock beds, snow melting ponds, and pine trees, kept going on for a while. I was desperately looking for the trail to “civilization,” and kept climbing up as I followed my memory of the trail I was on the day before.

Finally, I found the familiar trail! It was clearly mark with rocks and some footsteps. I was happy to retrace the trail to the northwest where it would end up at the campground. I felt secure following the trail and seeing the landmarks I walked by the day before.

After the long descent into the woods, finally, I came back to the campground, and arrived at my comfortable tent, which I never even got to use! Soon after I came back, 3 men rescue team arrived in bright orange vests! A local sheriff also arrived and interviewed me for this incident. I was embarrassed to have made a scene. It was an unexpected adventure and learning experience.