Wheeler Lake Adventure 2010

Published: July 8th 2010
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SNOW SNOW... lots of SNOW... and lots of water from all that melting SNOW.

We started off at the Sandy Meadow trailhead a few miles east of Lake Alpine on Hwy 4. The first stretch of approx 1/3 a mile was clear, and beautiful. It was an uphill climb, which helped warm up our legs and our lungs.
At about 1/3 mile in, we encountered our first snow drift.... certainly nor our last, or the largest, but it was a flavor of what was to come. We made a few discoveries in that first drift.
First, it is difficult to find the trail on the other side, especially when the trees with the trail markers have fallen, or when the trail on the other side is covered by a small pond.
Second, where the melting snow make a river under the snow (usually where the trail is), the snow is a lot thinner and will often cave in when you walk on it. (Thanks to Kyra, our dog, who found this out without injury so we did not have to get wet.)
Third, snow is very cold... and wet.
Just before we got to Sandy Meadow, we met up with a lady on a horse who had made the trek to Wheeler lake that morning. She said there was a lot of snow near Wheeler (which was correct), but that we could make it. She was right... we made it.. but only because she had passed that way (more on that later).

We passed Sandy Meadow, and made it, without event, to 3 unnamed lakes about 1/2 way (2 miles or so) from Sandy Meadow. That is where the adventure really started.

The trail passes between the one of the smallest lakes and the larger. In summer, those lakes are usually stagnant and dry inbetween, where the trail goes. Not so this time. There was SO much water that there was what appeared to be 4-5 feet of water in the passageway (turns out there was a shallower path, but we didn't see it until the return trip). Instead of getting soaked, we decided to go around the lake. Long story short, we got lost (not an uncommon theme this trip).

We shortly found our way to the main trail again, just before we were to make our first major river crossing. The river, thanks to the snow melt, was 2x as large as it is supposed to be, but luckily, only a foot or so deeper, making it approx 2.5 feet deep.
This was the case with every river crossing... mostly wider than the original banks, but only 2-3 feet deep. The hardest part was finding the trail on the other side, as the trail often became another river, and was sometimes hard to distinguish.

After completing this first major crossing, we entered a portion of the trail heavily covered with snow. In fact, there was more ground covered with snow than that without snow. We very often lost the trail, but could see the brands on the tree (upside down !). However, sometimes we went 1/4 mile before picking up the trail. The snow was often 2-3 feet deep, and slick and steep. We had quite a challenge navigating these obstacles without slipping and without getting soaked.

The only way we were able to not get hopelesly lost was to follow the hoofprints of the horse that we met. I think we would have returned to Sandy Meadow had that horse not been there.

We finally got to what we though was our final river crossing. We forded the river, and on the other side, after putting our boots back on, we could not find the trail. Looking at the map, we determined that if we keep the river to our right, we woudl end up at Wheeler lake. Unfortunately, we missed a few things. First, we missed the brand on the tree on the original side of the river before crossing. The crossing was not necessary, but in our defense, it really looked like a crossing. We think it was a swimming hole, which it would have been splendid.
The second thing we missed was where we were. We thought we were still 1/2 mile from Wheeler lake, but in actuality, we were only about 5 minutes away.
The third thing we missed (or rather neglected to think of) was the fact that, while Wheeler Lake was West of us at this point, we were headed East by following the river.

Long story, and long 2 hour walk) later, up and down hills, and up and down rock scrambles, we wound up back in a small clearing with a small pond, a log with a spot that has clearly been walked on, and a meadow in sight. It was extremely familiar. We followed the path to the meadow, then to a river crossing.... umm.. the same river crossing we had done 2 hours prior. We had made a giant circle back to a spot 3 crossings back. We scratched our heads, but by this time, the sun was starting to approach the hills, and we were very concerned that we were going to not make it to wheeler, or have to hike at night.

We re-crossed the rivers, finding it a lot easier the second time through to keep to the trail (but we still lost it a few times anyway).

We made it to that "final" river crossing again, but we still missed the trail mark. So we crossed the river and decided to keep the river to our left.

After about 30 minutes of scrambling through rocks and trees and LOTS of snow, we finally found Wheeler Lake and, after crossing the outlet, found our campsite. We figure it was approx 7PM... and getting dark and cold. We and the dog were all wet, and the fire dried us out, but our freaky dog Kyra was scared of the fire, so shivered in the tent all night.

The night passed just like normal backpacking. Fire, food, tent, stars, hammock, bear bagging, mosquitos, forgotten silverware, etc... That part was fun, enjoyable and totally worth the hike.

Next morning, we left the lake at approx 11am. We followed the trail (since we knew where it was at the Lake), and within 5 minutes, we came to the first river crossing, as expected. Anne and I started taking off our shoes when Michelle (our 6 year old) pointed out that we had been there before. At first we didn't believe her, but she pointed to where she had been kicking the snow and making marks so that she could see whether we have been here before (this being our third time, her effort was very appropriate)... smart girl.

THAT is when we finally saw the blaze marking the trail to the lake. Had we seen that the first time around, then we would have been in almost 4 hours sooner, and our trip would not have been such an adventure.!!!!

The trail back was much easier, especially since much of it we had seen twice. We still managed to lose the trail a half dozen times or so. We found, from the other direction, the shallow crossing between the 2 unnamed lakes, and had a DUH moment when we realized that this is where the trail must have led, so there had to be a shallow spot somewhere.

We were on our way back to Sandy Meadow to spend another enjoyable afternoon / evening. It was just after Noon, and I looked up to see that those white things that I thought were snowy mountains were actually rapidly developing thunder clouds. We decided to skip our second night, and double-time it back to the trailhead where, if all else failed, we woudl hitch at least one of us down to a payphone, or camp by the road and try not to get wet.

It turns out there is ONE spot I have found on the trail where we get Verizon cell service.

Near the top of the first hill on the east side of the sandy meadow turnout, there is a large log on the right, and 2 large boulders about 50 feet down from the trail. If I stood at the apex if the larger boulder and held my phone up to dial, I got 1 bar. Enough to send a text message, or place a call, after several attempts, and place on speakerphone (If I lowered my arm to my ear, the signal would be lost). I was able to arrange a pickup at the trailhead.

We raced uphill and then short downhill over snow patches (which we were becoming expert at by that point). At the very last place where snow was over water and thin, Anne and Michelle fell through the water (it was quite ironic). anne got her shoes a bit wet, and Michelle heroically clung to the side of the snow to await rescue. It was quite a scene, seeing anne flailing as she fell into the hole, Michelle cringing and screaming.. Kyra barking, all with the backdrop of a giant thunderstorm behind them and the booming of thunder in the not too distant distance.

The last 1/2 mile went quickly, we met my Dad at the trailhead, and got out of there before the rain started.

Things we learned:
1) always spend a VERY long time trying to find the trail, and don't go off in a random direction for very far if you don't find the trail (turn back and try more).
2) get a GPS unit.. we have been avoiding it.. but it is now time.
3) if people say there is a lot of snow on the trail.... DO NOT GO! (at least not when you have a 6 year old with us).

and speaking of Michelle... She was a super trooper. 12 miles in 2 days in some of the harshest hiking conditions I have ever seen... and she never complained, hustled, and was in good spirits the entire time. And after all of this.. she still loves backpacking, and wants to go again.. when there is less snow.

Tired...... THUD


3rd September 2010

Wheeler Lake Adventure June 2008
OMG, I read this and thought -- now that EXACTLY describes our experience hiking to wheeler lake Father's day in 2008. I won't ever forget it and now your blog has actually solidified all those memories. I remember losing the trail in the same places, crossing the water and trying to find the trail.. and falling through the snow! What an adventure.

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