Looking down the San Carpoforo River Gorge

Elk Camp Mishap: April 15-16, 2017

Jeff and I made plans for a quick in-and-out overnighter to Elk Camp Easter weekend. I had a family gathering to attend in the afternoon and we figured if we could get back to the car by 11 am then I’d have a good chance of making everything work.

I have recently finished reading a very compelling book that has me wondering about the stars so I wanted to star gaze on this trip. I normally hang from the trees in a hammock. But when you hang from trees you rarely get a good look at the sky, so that’s why I decided to plan to sleep on the ground. I figured since there are some very large pastures around Elk Camp that I’d have a great opportunity to watch an entire sky full of stars really close to camp which is under forest canopy.

The trip to Elk Camp is about 11 miles, the way we go. We have an off-trail route we like to take around the back side of Bald Top mountain to get down to San Carpoforo Camp. The normal route up and over the mountain starting at Baldwin Ranch road and Highway 1 just across the street from Ragged Point Inn to where the San Carpoforo Trail breaks away is a few miles extra, and because it’s a road we don’t like to walk on it. Most people go that way. It appears this year so far, most if not all people have stopped far short of reaching San Carpoforo Camp because there are two river crossings that need to happen to get there, and there’s a lot of fast moving water going through there right now.  The way we normally go on our off-trail route, our shortcut takes us directly to the camp bypassing the various river crossings on the San Carpoforo. So when we arrived to San Carpoforo Camp and saw how much water was there, I was flustered because I wanted to be the first to get to Elk Camp this year.

I wasn’t much in the mood for taking photos up to this point because the hike to San Carpoforo Camp is more or less routine for us. Though enjoyable! I just have taken many photos along the way already and didn’t feel like the lighting was great being late morning near noon.

Our normal crossing to Elk Camp trail was fully submerged with deep rushing water. We scanned up and down the banks of the river, to find a shallow spot to cross. There used to be a large tree that went over half of the river to a small island that allowed another easier crossing where you only momentarily get wet. That tree which was there for years was now completely gone. No sight of it. Plus that island was also gone. Things were very different, and it looked like if we were going to get to Elk Camp we were going to have to get wet. So we hunted for shallow and easy and took our boots and socks off and set out to cross the river. Unfortunately how things go, I didn’t make it to the other side without falling into the water trying to recover from losing my balance. In that process my boots and socks and gaiters were in my left hand, trekking pole in right hand and I my left hand went below water and I lost my socks and gaiters. Thankfully I didn’t lose my boots as well! The water was so fast flowing I stood no chance of recovering them.

So, now I was facing an ordeal of my own making that is one of those kind of ordeals that can make or break a trip. I was very upset but also I was very stoic, which for me was kind of unusual to witness myself turn stoic. I felt like crying or getting angry but instead I hunkered down and just smiled. I had a second pair of socks. Not the end of the world. Boots were wet but if we got to Elk Camp in time, I could set them out to dry along with the socks and maybe everything would be fine by morning.

After first mishap, boots in water and lost socks
After first mishap, boots in water and lost socks

After squeezing the foam inside my boots and setting them upside down to drain a few minutes, I dried my feet and put on new socks. Something about being with my buddy helped keep me smiling. We then continued on our trip up to Elk Camp on the trail. But as I was taking my first steep steps up the trail I felt my feet moving around inside the boots and them being wet and all I was worried about blisters forming. So, as soon as we got out of the forest canopy and into the first open pasture I stopped to check my feet. No big damage, so I was still smiley.

After first mishap, hiked up Elk Camp trail to safe place to check for blisters
After first mishap, hiked up Elk Camp trail to safe place to check for blisters

We then continued to Elk Camp and while I don’t have any photos from this trip, I do have plenty of photos from other trips in case you’re interested. Elk Camp is the very end of the line in the Big Sur trail system. It is the further south and east than any other camp. It has a picnic table built by cowboys that used to run cattle out there. There is a nice fire ring and grill too and there are some pots and pans hanging up for people to use. When we arrived to camp I found a sunny spot in the grass and rolled out a large Tyvek sheet and laid down and took my boots and socks off to dry, and I took a little rest as well, soaking up the heat from the sun.

Time passed and then I noticed it was about an hour there in the sun so I checked my boots and they were much drier. The toebox was still wet but everywhere else seemed dry enough to wear. Jeff and I discussed our alternatives and we decided to make our way back to San Carpoforo and camp there so that in the morning we could cross the river and hike over the mountain and go home.

Heading back towards San Carpoforo River
Heading back towards San Carpoforo River
Looking down the San Carpoforo River Gorge
Looking down the San Carpoforo River Gorge
Atop a tall ridge separating the lower from the upper trail to Elk Camp
Atop a tall ridge separating the lower from the upper trail to Elk Camp
Looking west up the Dutra watershed
Looking west up the Dutra watershed
Jeff above the San Carpoforo gorge
Jeff above the San Carpoforo gorge
One of the ponds between San Carpoforo and Elk Camp
One of the ponds between San Carpoforo and Elk Camp

There are some mighty beautiful woods between Elk Camp and San Carpoforo River. You may never suspect there would be from afar looking in this direction, but there are. This time of the year is amazing because there are the evergreen live oaks and bay laurels providing the dark greens, and then the budding deciduous oaks with their leaves now popping out and very bright green and glowing in the sunshine.

We camped in one of those live oak groves beyond to the right
We camped in one of those live oak groves beyond to the right

I don’t have any photos of our camp because while setting up camp I discovered my mattress had a hole in it. I was not a happy camper and didn’t feel like taking photos. I had a job to do, and that was find a way to have a more comfortable night.

When I discovered the hole in the mattress I had already set up a large Tyvek sheet for my ground cloth thinking I would be sleeping under the stars. I resigned myself to a less comfortable night but then when it was approaching dark, the condensation came in real quickly soaking the grass. I realized I was not prepared for that level of condensation and decided to pull my stuff back under the canopy of the live oak grove Jeff was hanging from. I tried to make my bed as smooth as I could and then to pad it with leaves. It was near impossible. The ground was a bit soft to the point that I could smash it down with my knees so I started doing that, side to side, up and down, back and forth. and got a reasonable area more flattened, but the process of doing that, my knees kind of “peened” the ground like imagine using a ball peen hammer which leaves all kinds of indentations, and the ground was also very compacted and hard. Not sure if I actually made it worse for the trees or not but it was dark by then and I had to make do, so I did.

I crawled into my sleeping bag, which by the way needs mentioning that it’s a Big Agnes Mystic SL 15 degree down bag. If you know the bag design it has a sleeve for the air mattress on the bottom side so the mattress won’t slip out. I was warm on the top side but the bottom of these bags have no insulation at all. The reason is they are designed to be integrated with an insulated air mattress. So I didn’t even have the marginal amount of smooshed down down insulation to warm my back side that you would find in any other normal sleeping bag. Laying flat on my back I got cold very quickly. Cold to the point that I was shivering to the bone. So I tried to find a comfortable posture. It was very difficult. Along the way I tried using my backpack as a way to get my torso up off the ground, but the shoulder straps were being a pain and they have all kinds of grooves on them, things poking out, my back complained. So I found my most comfortable position to be sideways in the fetal position and holding myself as rigid upright as I could so that I would only touch the ground on my thighs and hips and my shoulder.

I then held that position for hours. And hours. Oh, I got up to pee once, and I switched sides when one side got too cold but I didn’t sleep. I meditated instead. There is some mental skill I have which I can use to endure a hardship. I have to put full attention to the task but I can focus on enduring something like say climbing up a long steep slope, or ignoring pain for a very long time by turning my thoughts to each breath, each step. One step after another. One breath after another. I just focus on the hear and now and allow myself to be content with where I currently am and the fact that I have a long way to go. So, in light of that spirit, I endured 10 hours until 6 AM when my buddy showed signs of wanting to get up too.

Jeff made a tea from the abundant mint nearby
Jeff made a tea from the abundant mint nearby

I tried to stretch to alleviate the built up tension and strain throughout the night but that didn’t help much. What I didn’t realize at that moment was that I was already quite dehydrated. I had water and had been drinking a little here and there but really I should have replenished about 3 liters of water before going to bed. I also discovered that I insulated my frozen green juice so well that it was still brick hard in my Nalgene bottle. I don’t know how to begin a day without my green juice. It’s my main source of daily nutrition, and because I’m a mostly raw vegan I have to keep up my green juice regimen or I feel the affects quickly. We couldn’t wait until the juice melted thoroughly so I had to drink what little I could get to thaw out and then save the rest for later. Had the new day not been Easter and had I not had a family gathering to attend I might have just told Jeff let’s wait to get started hiking so I could have my full juice. So I wound up drinking it over the next few hours as it thawed out.

Along the San Carpoforo trail, you must cross the river like a minimum of three times to get to Elk Camp trail. During the night I had been thinking about that river crossing. I actually took a little break and went and looked at the sky and asked for help from above. What to do. And right away this idea came to me that we would have no river crossing to worry about until way further upstream where it usually runs dry or close to it anyway, with the water flowing underground mostly. All we would have to do would be to bushwhack about a mile up the creek in a jungle basically.

There was a lot of dense thick poison oak and other vines and spider webs and the foliage of trees interweaving around each other. I had already scouted some of this territory before last year and was aware of some adjoining pastures that we could flank around and then poke through the jungle to get down to San Carpoforo trail where the main crossing would occur to get back home. Even though we were constantly scouting and moving and making our way through the jungle, it took us about an hour and a half to get about a mile upstream on the Elk Camp side of the San Carpoforo. I got to the place in my mind I was attempting to navigate to. There was far more water than I’d ever seen here before and the crossing that was normally dry or easy to cross was now thigh high, or waist high in fast rushing water.

My heart sank.

We had to get to the other side to get back to civilization.

We scanned up and down the river bank, looking for more advantageous places to cross. We found none nearby. We decided to keep going upstream on the wrong side of the river hoping to find passage somewhere else. By this time we were already on the Baldwin Ranch which is an old historic ranch on this old historic property originally an encampment for Portola’s expedition. Mary Baldwin, the heir of the ranch is dead. Before she died, she left most of the ranch to some Buddhists who now run the ranch as a meditation retreat.

I stood on the opposite bank looking at the various Buddhist prayer flags flying at Baldwin Ranch. Somehow I had to get across. Jeff decided to take his socks off and put his boots back on and cross without socks but with his boots on. I decided I had had enough hardship on this trip so far. I wasn’t going to hike back in soaking wet socks. So I went further upstream. I found a place where there was a shallow passage to an island so I went out to the island and noticed that there was one location I could get across without falling into the rushing water if I could only submerge my foot about mid calf.

Earlier when I was fretting, I had thought about taking my Tyvek ground cloth and fashion two waders with them, to fully encapsulate the boots and legs. I had some extra shoe laces I used to tie this contraption up with. Turns out it worked very well, very very well actually. I kept my boots dry and crossed to the other bank. But the other bank was only about 6 inches wide and the rushing water carved out a vertical bank. It was about 15 feet high and straight vertical. There were a few roots hanging out here and there but nothing substantial for a foot hold on the way up. So I hung onto the roots and side sloped on about 4 inches or so of “bank” for about 20 or 30 yards until I found a place where I could ascend up the slope to the flat pasture above.

Finally crossed San Carpoforo River but had to trespass through Baldwin Ranch
Finally crossed San Carpoforo River but had to trespass through Baldwin Ranch

I then very quickly rushed my way across Baldwin Ranch to the front gate where Jeff was waiting for me with his camera! Tyvek in hand, I was smiling because my hard efforts worked and I kept my boots from going under!  At this point there would only be the normal barriers of time and distance and elevation to contend with!

Though I was very dehydrated and didn’t realize quite fully what was going on until I got home but I should have rehydrated more because we had to climb a mountain and I was sore and aching and punch drunk from having no sleep.

The trip back was slower for me but I didn’t complain too much. Just had to stop every once in a while and rest up. Dehydration is a serious problem and in retrospect I would have done some things different. Actually I would have done a number of things different. I am sharing this post and my story so that others might not make the same mistake as I did.

Next time I want to sleep on the ground I will check the mattress first before leaving home. I will also bring a spare closed cell foam pad since they are so light. The extra bulk might get in the way of a nice good bushwhack but definitely would save a trip like this last one if I had one with me.  Also, I am going to work on a DIY project. I would like to make some ultralight waterproof “waders”. To slip over my boots and go up to my crotch. I could tie them off with a sewn in channel on the top seem. They will need to have a durable bottom material so I’m considering how to make that work but essentially they will just be slip-overs. This will allow me to do some water crossings that until now have limited my path. I don’t think I want to take my socks off again. I considered buying some sandals or some lightweight water shoes but they would be so bulky for only one little bit of use. Anyhow, those are some of my thoughts presently on how to ensure this sort of thing doesn’t happen to me again! Thanks for reading!