I was all set for another exciting weekend of backpacking with the usual suspects, when at the last second- everyone else bailed out. Fortunately, I’ve spent so much of the past year traveling, backpacking, and camping by myself that this no longer poses even the slightest problem for me. Going it alone has become a necessary evil since I started getting serious about my photography, bringing a tripod along on my trips, and needing quite a bit of freedom to “get the right shot”. That’s not an easy task alone, and becomes quite impossible when being hurried along by impatient friends!
It’d been just about a month since I last visited Spruce Grove Campground in Angles National Forest, and I wanted to see if the torrential rains Southern CA experienced over the last couple of weeks had caused any damage to the area. I was somewhat worried that the campground itself could have simply been washed away by the swollen North Fork of the San Gabriel River, but I found out that this was certainly not the case.
I’ve spent more nights at Spruce Grove than any other campground – or anywhere other than the places I’ve “officially” resided over the years – and have developed quite a kinship and appreciate for the place. Trips to Spruce now feel like “returning home”, offering a comfortable familiarity that allows me to quickly settle my mind, and really just enjoy the surroundings.
The drive up the hill to Chantry Flats held an ominous, but beautiful sight, of fog banks slowly rolling over the hillsides to the North (pictured above). In all the trips I’ve made to the area (at least 10-15 now), it was the first time I’ve ever stopped along the way to look out over Los Angeles, and I think it was entirely worth it.
When I arrived at the Chantry Pack Station I found that it was already too late to get a legitimate parking spot so I positioned my car along the side of the hill in a somewhat precarious position right over a drainage ditch leading off the hillside and down into Santa Anita Canyon. If it had rained hard enough, my car could have easily washed away.
I posed for a quick self-portrait (just in case someone came upon my camera, but couldn’t find the body), and then was on my merry way. I’m still getting used to the new backpack – a Deuter ACT Lite 65 + 10 – and spent a good deal of the hike adjusting it to try and make things perfectly comfortable. It took me much longer than usual to reach Spruce Grove as I took a detour to check out Sturtevant Falls, hoping to shoot it in even daylight. Unfortunately I arrived too late and wasn’t able to get even a half-way decent shot of it, as the sunlight had totally washed out the upper third of the falls. I’ll have to try again next time.
Along the way up the Lower Falls Trail I heard some odd banging sounds that I figured must have been one of the local denizens working on their cabin, but it turned out to be a man hammering away at the rocky floor along the trail. I stopped to chat with him no more than 100 yards from the “No Horses” sign posted where the Upper and Lower Falls Trails meet, asking him what he was doing. He said that he was “making the trail safer for [his] horse”, which I found hilarious. In all the miles along these trails, there’s only one “No Horses” sign, and this guy was within eyesight of it preparing the trail for his horse- you can’t make shit like this up!
He was essentially chiseling out some steps in the “decomposed granite” floor, creating a flatter and more even surface on which his horse could more confidently step. That part of the trail was pretty iffy, so I don’t mind that he was obviously breaking the local rules. I figured he might even have been the guy in charge of the horse and mule trains used to resupply Sturtevant’s Camp, so I left the point alone and continued on my way. I later found out that he is somewhat of a local celebrity, “a real old time cowboy” I was told, who’s lead numerous pack trains all the way from the desert east of San Gorgonio to Chantry Flats (which is no easy task!).
At the top of the falls I stopped for another break to sit near one of the larger pools along this part of the San Gabriel River. This is one of my favorite spots along the river in the entire Angeles National Forest and perhaps even one of my favorites in all of Southern California. The sky, the canyon walls, and the river all come together so nicely here, and the roaring sound of the waterfall drowns out any other noise and creates a great spot for relaxation and meditation. I couldn’t resist myself and had to take another self-portrait (though I wish I hadn’t stood right in front of that little waterfall!).
When I finally arrived at Spruce Grove I was dismayed to find it busier than I’ve ever seen it before, to the point that I couldn’t even find an open picnic table to sit down at for lunch. I dropped my bag on the ground and used it as a seat (it’s more comfortable than a wooden bench anyway), and was lucky enough that a day-hiking couple cleared out just a minute or two later, making room for me. As luck would have it, I even managed to snag my favorite site! I set up my tent and unpacked my gear right next to a group of Koreans eating some spicy-smelling soup, then finished my peanut butter and jelly lunch.
All the day hikers cleared out no more than 30 minutes after my arrival, leaving only a large group of (very loud) Boy Scouts to the North. I set myself to gathering firewood, planning on collecting for more than usual. On trips like these, I typically go to bed as soon as I run out of wood, but this time I wanted to get enough to make sure that I could stay up all night, if I were so inclined. I went a little overboard though, as you can see below. If I had used it sparingly (hah!), it probably would have been enough to last at least two or three nights at the campground. I even considered trying to borrow the Sturtevant Camp phone to make an emergency call to work, letting them know I wouldn’t be making it in the following day.
Collecting fire wood is an art form that I think most people probably can’t appreciate – mostly because they haven’t done it. Over the past year I’ve turned it into a science, developing my skills and learning which woods to go after (and which to avoid), and how exactly to go about it. I used to try and muscle my way through the branches, breaking them arbitrarily wherever I felt they needed to be snapped, but I’ve since learned to be patient and let the wood do the work for you. I used to work up a sweat, get covered in filth, and typically end the process with at least a bit of blood flowing from each hand, but I’ve learned to calm down, take it slowly, and conserve my energy.
I’ve always really enjoyed snapping sticks, and will still do that if I’m just sitting around idly and have some at hand, but it’s just not as rewarding as shredding large tree branches, snapping them into smaller pieces, and creating a gigantic pile of fuel to protect yourself from the impending cold and dark. I even got to try out my new knife (the incredible SOG Seal Pup Elite TiNi) to make the process a little easier. If it weren’t for campfires, I’m not even sure I’d be able to continue backpacking with as much zeal as I currently exude. Gathering the fire wood and relaxing by the fire has become an integral part of the process. It’s hard for me to believe that I used to do this without having at least a little backcountry fire.
I set up the godsend that is my Therm-a-Rest Compack Chair, awaiting the fall of twilight by settling in to read the final chapters of Carlos Castaneda’s absolutely breathtaking work “Tales of Power”. There’s nothing quite like reading about don Juan and Castaneda’s adventures while sitting in dense forest, right alongside a winding stream, amongst gigantic oak trees and the steepest mountains in the lower 48 states. It was a powerful experience, to say the least.
I still get dirty looks from people when they find out just how often I go backpacking, especially once they realize that I often go it alone, but I that many of them would enjoy it just as much as I do if they’d only get off their asses and try it sometime. Unfortunately this couch-potato, consumerist society in which we live doesn’t value this sort of behavior, and I doubt that the glowing rectangles will lose their strangle-hold over the general population at any point in the near future, so for now it looks like they’ll all have to live vicariously through me. I’d rather it be uncrowded anyway.
When night did finally fall, it came damn fast – the rush of darkness was so quick that I hardly noticed the twilight, that “gap between the two worlds” as don Juan calls it. I got my fire going relatively easily, especially considering how wet all my wood was. It took me three matches and two Coghlan emergency tinders, which is much better than usual, though still far short of my goal of using just 1 match without any chemical assistance. I know that I’m capable of performing that feat, but I always end up being too lazy to properly prepare for achieving it. Maybe next time…
For the next few hours I sat quietly by the glow of the fire, snapping hundreds of photos for my Fire Art Photography series, and just enjoying the beauty of the environment. It’s times like these when I actually feel like a human being, rather than some sort of automaton worker sent here to labor away in front of a computer terminal. It’s times like these that make the daily grind worth all the trouble!
At some point (pretty late I think – though I’m still uncertain) – I let the fire burn down too low and was unable to resurrect it, forcing me to retire to the tent for the rest of the night. As I lay down I noticed that I had accidentally given myself a great view of the near full moon (1 day past full) rising through the trees. I fell asleep listening to the sounds of the forest, and didn’t wake up until 11 am the next morning. It was a great trip, but I’ll have to return soon to take care of some unfinished business since my camera battery died first thing the next morning.