Thursday, March 4, 2010
The Last of His Kind
The Last of His Kind
12.7 miles all on trail, moderate overnighter, Ostrander Lake, Yosemite National Park
I like to think he sat perched on the side of that tall lofty tree for so long allowing me to watch him because he was acclimating to people finally, and would make a swift recovery from the endangered species list. I know in my heart though, that more than likely I was just one of the lucky ones to have been afforded a glimpse of such a beautiful, rare and painfully shy creature.
Winter was nearly upon us, and while I awaited anxiously for the winter snows to bring skiing and snowshoeing, I nevertheless longed for one last late season backpack. Unable to find any partners, though truth to tell I hadn't searched very hard as I wanted to try soloing, I headed off excitedly in late October to Yosemite for one last backpack of the season. Arriving early in the morning, I made a routine tour of my usual haunts. Making a great find in the bookstore, then grabbing a salad and crackers for lunch, I continued to meander along the way to the trailhead exploring nooks and crannies of Yosemite as I went. Finally arriving at the trailhead about 2:30, I worried not one whit about the late start as I was only going a paltry six miles to my lake. Easily I'd be there by dinner relaxing at the lakeshore beholding the sun's colorful setting rays. Having been the only car at the trailhead surprised me, but not so much as it was so late in the season with the weather having already produced the winter's first snowfall a couple weeks back. Nevertheless, I paused every once in awhile to look back over my shoulder to see if anyone had started up the trail behind me. I really didn't think this would happen either though, simply for the fact that it was such a late time of day for most people to start on a trail. So, I wasn't surprised when I got up to the lake and found not another soul in sight. This was truly the backcountry trip that I had sought. But, on having gotten what I wished for, I started wondering once I was there if perhaps it wasn't what I really wanted after all.
The retiring daylight made the lake seem very dark, cold and forbidding on first glance. Looking up at the blackening sky and the clouds roiling overhead, I was disappointed also to realize I'd have to set up my tent. I much prefer a starry sky filled with bright twinkling shooting stars as my ceiling, and the gentle breezes soughing across my face during the night. And looking around, I saw not much choice in where to set up my tent either due to the recent early season snowfall. I had planned camping at the far corner of the lake away from any intrusive latecomers. But seeing the solitude around me as well as the snow cover discouraging it, I realized hiding in a corner was quite unnecessary. I threw my pack down on the largest flat snow free spot I found, and pulled out my tent. Setting it up with fingers stiffening with the plummeting temperature, I knew I'd have to get settled inside quickly. Looking around one last time before cocooning myself in my bag and tent, the solo hiker blues really started to get me. This lake was truly one of the ugliest I had ever seen. There was nothing special about it at all, and I was quite lonely all of a sudden and wishing I were anywhere else but there! Being almost dark though, to try and hike down the narrow forested trail would have been near suicidal. I knew I'd have to grit my teeth, hunker down and wait out the night.
While I lay in the tent though, thoughts of my husband at home, and my vulnerable situation high up at that isolated lake kept pounding away at me. Wanting to throw my things in my pack any old way and run down the trail, I tried to distract myself with the book I had brought along. What I got to read of Stephen King before the failing light caught up with me and gave my spirits another downwards kick, had proven poor reading material for a solo trip!
I finally fell into a restless sleep, then jerked awake sometime later to a large crashing noise, and snuffling sounds right outside my tent! I found myself being dragged in my tent for yards and yards before realizing this could only be happening in a dream! Now really awake, I listened for a moment to make sure a bear wasn't really out there, then drifted off to sleep once again. A little later I woke to the brightest full moon I had seen in a long time. I got excited thinking I could actually hike out finally if I wanted to. But, I had made it this far. I would stick out the night. The solo hiker blues were not going to chase me back down that trail after all!!!
The next thing to wake me was the chirping and scurrying noises of little critters running around outside my tent. I bravely unzipped my tent flap, afraid for an instant that it might still be night. I peeked outside, and finally saw what I had waited for so many hours to see, the morning sun! As I slowly gazed around at the early morning sun's warming effects, I felt all the weight of the misemotion from the night before start to float away. I lay watching the steam swirling lazily up from the lake's surface, while sunbeams bounced playfully off the water between the swirls. Maybe I could linger just a little while, long enough to get a few pictures anyway...
Grabbing my camera, I jumped out of my bag and headed around the lake. A couple of dozen shots later, I realized what a truly gorgeous lake I was visiting after all! The cold and forbidding lake of the night before had been magically transformed. Across the lake to the south, a sharp edged granite ridge knifed sharply out of a lacy skirt of snow, while the banks on the East side of the lake faded meekly away to a stunning vista of two connecting mountain ranges jutting up in the distance. After the early morning sun's alluring rays finally quit playing their cat and mouse game with the steam from the lake, I set down my camera. Finding a nice flat granite boulder to stretch my legs on, I sat soaking up the heat of the rising sun for the better part of the morning.
Once satiated with the warmth of the sun and incredible beauty of nature's own artwork around me, I packed up to finally head back out. About two thirds of the way to the car, I caught a slight grin creeping across my face. I was a little pleased with myself for having bested all the fear and loneliness of the night before. In fact, I became quite pleased with myself once I thought about it, and the grin slowly spread across my face from ear to ear. And I had the thought then, that I was ready for that darned bear of my dreams now!
Well, I didn't get to see a bear that morning, but about ten feet past that thought, the biggest owl I had ever seen in my whole life winged up from a burnt out snag about twenty feet from me. Flying to a nearby tree and landing to watch me, made me debate for a moment if I had time to get my camera out. Deciding I didn't, I stood mesmerized while he gazed curiously back at me. The two minutes we stood watching each other, etched indelibly on my mind. Every feature from his slightly sad expression, to his lack of ear tufts, to his wing coloration became a part of me. When finally he took wing and flew to another nearby tree and then another and another farther and farther away until finally he was out of sight, I still stood stunned by the magnificent creature I had just witnessed so close up. I thought briefly of trying to follow him with my camera, but decided I had been privileged enough and wouldn't abuse the gift I had been given.
I hurried back to my car and then down to the ranger station, anxious to find out what manner of majestic owl I had just seen. Upon describing him to the ranger and picking his picture out of a book, I found I had seen a Great Gray Owl. They are the largest of the owls, one of the shyest, and are on the endangered species list in California. There are Great Grays much farther north, but there are only 40 known individuals in the whole Sierra Nevada. I was stunned to realize what I had just witnessed on my hike. The ranger had me fill out an endangered species sighting report which helped commemorate the occasion. Then I left feeling so much richer than when I had come. That solitary majestic creature had been my reward after all for sticking it out despite all the worst fears and loneliness my mind could throw at me. I drove down out of the mountains that day listening to music that matched my reflective mood while I pondered what I had been through.
It pains me now to think of the loneliness of that beautiful animal for others of his kind. I like to think soon there will be Great Grays mating and nesting and hunting throughout the Sierra. And, having had such a small taste of his isolation up at that high mountain lake, I would like to think that breathtaking creature sat high up on that tree watching me for so long because he is finally acclimating to people and will be off the endangered species list soon. I fear in my heart of hearts though, that I was just one of the lucky ones....
*You might be lucky too if you care to venture quietly up to Ostrander Lake in Yosemite National Park. Go in the late spring as snow is melting and skiers are gone. Or, go late fall when most hikers have left the high country for the winter, to get enough solitude to try for your glimpse of one of the few remaining Great Gray Owls left in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range of California.