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A River Runs Through It

(8/22/08) Written by CJ | Photos by Glen

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it." Though those words were inspired by Montana's Big Blackfoot River, and though Brad Pitt was sadly nowhere to be seen, those words might have just as easily have been inspired by Perfect Pace's Fourth of July weekend expedition up the Tuolumne River. The river was our constant companion - providing not just water for drinking and cooking, but also refreshing scenery, a relaxing soundtrack, and welcome chances to cool off and clean up.

For our long drive through the Mojave Desert and Owens Valley, we were rewarded with a choice site in the Saddlebag Lake group camp overlooking the lake, a chance to acclimate to the clear air and high elevation, a chance to get to know our trip mates over some hamburgers and beer, and even a chance to spy our leader work up the courage to sport a daring Mohawk.

Independence Day dawned bright and auspicious, but a collective moan seem to rattle our car shuttle as we spied the long line of backpackers waiting to pick up their backcountry permits at the ranger station, with our appointed pick-up time by the YARTS shuttle rapidly closing in. But due either to his intimidating new do or to his irrepressible can-do attitude, Glen grabbed our permit without much ado and we were whisked off to White Wolf by our friendly shuttle driver.

Wildflowers in profusion greeted us as we finally put boots to trail, winding our way through forest meadows to the edge of the "Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne" to begin our long, knee-punishing descent into the low-elevation Sierra wilderness of Pate Valley. Skirting the lip of the canyon, we soon caught our first views of San Francisco's drinking water supply, Hetch Hetchy, surrounded by towering granite walls. The swirling Tuolumne below us got temptingly closer and closer as the afternoon wore on and warmed up, and gradually we traded firs for oaks as we neared camp. Crossing twin wooden bridges, we at last came to our long, lovely beachside camp. Most of us wasted no time making our first plunge into the river, and there were even unconfirmed rumors of skinnydipping, all followed by a delicious dinner of pasta with smoked salmon washed down with dirty martinis.

Our second day on the Tuolumne was a moderate, scenic ascent up the canyon beside tempting (and treacherous!) cascades and swimming holes, vaulting up and over Muir Gorge, followed by a camp on a gentle flat squeezed between some impressive talus caves and the river, much favored for some reason by many species of ants. More swimming, foot massages for a lucky few, and convoluted campfire tales about the three little pigs, Goldilocks, the big bad wolf - or some combination thereof - quickly put many of us to a sound sleep.

Our third day was definitely waterfall day, as we climbed a series of impressive cascades: Waterwheel Falls, Le Conte Falls and California Falls, all still robust from a healthy spring runoff. After a perspiring climb, we finally leveled off into the idyllic valley of Glen Aulin, where the Tuolumne calmed down into a lazy, meandering alpine stream. Arriving at the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp, several of us were shocked to hear how much guests paid to stay in one of the tent cabins there, often booked a year in advance. Thanks again to our leader's insider knowledge, we merrily skirted past them and the campers in the dark, noisy campground nearby up to our own private camp on a knoll above Conness Creek, where we were rewarded with views of the surrounding granite domes and promises of abundant starlight. Settling into camp, several of us remarked how little bothered we had been by two of the Sierra's most irksome summertime creatures: mosquitoes and bears. That was officially the end of our luck on both counts. The mosquitoes finally descended with a vengeance that evening, and, in the morning, an adorable cinnamon-colored bear decided to investigate our kitchen at surprisingly close range.

The adrenaline of our ursine encounter was a good caffeine substitute, and we were soon briskly setting off, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, on the last leg of our journey - across tranquil Tuolumne Meadows back to our cars on Highway 120, with a quick look at some inquisitive marmots and curious, rusty Soda Spring, which some of us tasted while others of us turned up our noses. Then it was back down Tioga Pass Road to Mono Lake, and one final surprise: the Whoa Nellie Deli at the Mobil gas station in Lee Vining. Rumors of their chichi fare turned out to be no exaggeration, as we feasted on gourmet burgers and salads in preparation for the long drive back to Southern California, where rivers like the Tuolumne are purely the stuff of dreams...and of happy memories of new friends and the Fourth of July.