I awoke to the sound of birds chirping and clear, white light seeping through the walls of my tent, and I knew it was going to be a superb day. Nature is the only form of alarm clock I find to be even remotely acceptable.
I was informed by friends that Atwell Mill campground was ridiculously beautiful, and it did not disappoint. When I unzipped the door and stuck my head out, all I saw were trees, trees, and more trees.
I had slept well the night before. Not deeply, but well. The pure silence the night had poured on us was so steady that I'm sure my brain didn't know to react, as accustomed as it was to punctuations of car horns and motorcycle roars, so it wasn't able to shut off completely. Still, as I climbed out of the tent I felt refreshed. I took a deep breath and got a whiff of Christmas tree scent mixed with campfire, and I did a little happy jig before remembering how badly I needed to go to the bathroom.
Breakfast was a hearty one of oatmeal, tea, grapes, bananas, and applesauce, the former two cooked over Toby's tiny little propane stove that folded up into itself in an easily stashable manner. I normally dislike oatmeal, with its thick, snotty texture (almost just gagged even writing those words), but on this morning, it hit the spot. As we ate, we could hear the few other people staying at the campground starting to stir and get ready for the day; within a couple of hours, they were all gone, and we were alone in the woods.
Atwell Mill Campground is located in a once-logged grove of giant sequoia trees in the Mineral King section of Sequoia National Park. Silver was discovered in the area in the 1870s (hence the name Mineral King), resulting in small settlements being built throughout the region, which still exist in the form of clusters of cabins that we saw as we traversed the long, winding road in from the main highway. Logging in the grove was stopped a long time ago, but its effects still remain, as you can see from the giant stumps in the photos above. The campground is well off the beaten path, and we were informed by a ranger that it is most popular with backpackers and hikers who use it as a starting or ending point for their trips.
We decided to take a quick morning hike to get us warmed up for the day, so we wandered around the campground until we found a trailhead, and followed a slim dirt path which cut into the forest and wound its way along hillsides and over small creeks.
Being in the woods completely alone, miles away from anyone else, is an experience made up almost entirely of peacefulness. The lack of manmade noise on our hike was blessed bliss to my ears. Outside of our voices, the only sounds to be heard were birdcalls, the wind whooshing through the tall treetops, and the sound of the Kaweah River rushing in the valley below, hidden from our sight. Kalen stopped to hug trees while I examined the mid-morning light and the way it trickled through the tree trunks, casting stripes of shadow and sunshine onto the green carpet of the forest floor. Occasionally there was a break in the trees and we could see the peaks of the mountains on the other side of the valley jutting up against the bright blue sky.
About a mile in, we decided to turn around, knowing that we would be attempting a more grueling hike later in the day. Halfway back to the campground, we both froze mid-conversation as we came around a bend to a loud scratching and scraping noise that disrupted the relative quiet.
"Do you hear that?" I asked Kalen, although the answer was obvious; we were already grabbing and squeezing each others' arms as we frantically looked around for the source of the noise. "Do you think it's a bear?"
She gasped. "Up there!" She pointed up a small incline to our right, and there, about a hundred feet away from the path, we spotted a smallish brown bear sitting contentedly behind a tree, running its long claws deep into the bark as it rooted around for food. At that exact moment, it paused its efforts and peered around the side of the trunk. We stood as still as possible, barely breathing. The bear looked directly at us for a few excruciatingly long seconds, decided we weren't an issue, and resumed its work. We scuttled away down the path, not turning our backs to the bear until the noise of its scraping had almost completely receded. I spent the rest of the walk (and, let's be honest, the entire trip) being as loud as possible whenever we were away from other people. I also cursed myself for not being brave enough to take a photo in the moment, but I got over it pretty quickly. Not being bear food > everything else.
Having survived our first bear encounter, we arrived back at camp slightly jittery and ready to get our adventure on. We moseyed around the campground for a bit longer and then packed up to head further east to the ranger station at the end of the road so we could get hike recommendations from someone who knew what they were talking about, instead of pointing at a map and deciding willy nilly what our next outing should be (although that would have been pretty fun too).
We got some excellent advice, but I learned a hard lesson while on our mountain hike later that day about wilderness preparedness: actually be prepared, or you will suffer the consequences. But I'll save that ditty for the next post.
Happy Hump Day, amigos!