by Janet Bein, Young at Heart Diva
The concept of backpacking appealed to my quest for adventure. When my youngest daughter would stop by my house, grungy and exhausted after a week in the wilderness, I noticed the satisfied twinkle in her eyes. She might be sunburnt, scratched, and even suffering from the painful itch of poison oak, but she was also happy.
But I had always been daunted by the size of the backpack she had to carry. It looked almost as big as she was. Overnight backpacks have to be large enough to carry extra clothing, cooking gear, sleeping bag, and a tent.
Would I be strong enough to carry such a huge and heavy backpack and still be able to cope with a multi-mile hike?
“Why on earth do you want to do this?” my husband asked me.
Nevertheless, I was intrigued when my outdoors-savvy friend Jane invited me to join her on a two-night backpacking trip to Point Reyes. She phoned me on Tuesday, and the plan was to leave very early Thursday morning. Not much time to decide.
“You don’t need to bring anything other than your own personal items.”
Her twenty-four year old daughter and teenage niece—both experienced backpackers—would also be coming. I’d be the only “newbie.”
I owned the essential personal items—safari pants, hiking boots with appropriate socks, fleece and rain jackets. I had bought those items when I celebrated early retirement with my first adventure trip to Peru.
Jane was going to supply all the other gear, including all the food.
True, I am pushing the border of middle age and edging closer to senior status. But I’m still reasonably strong, particularly in my legs. I like challenges. I trusted Jane. Not only does she have twenty years of backpacking experience, but she believed in me. If she had faith that I could do this, so did I.
On Wednesday afternoon, I went to Jane’s house to pick up the gear that I needed to pack. I tried on the aluminum frame backpack, and Jane showed me how to cinch it tightly around my hips. “You need to carry the weight there, not on your shoulders.”
I selected two Nalgene water bottles from Jane’s large collection. The blue and purple bottles glinted like gems in the sunlight. Filled with water, these bottles would be two of the most important and heaviest items that I would have to carry.
Checking in at Point Reyes
Arriving at Point Reyes, the four of us went over to the Information Center to check in. Jane had made a reservation for two campsites, Wildcat for the first night and Glenn Camp for the second. The man behind the desk twitched his small white mustache and raised his bushy white eyebrows when he looked at us. “Do you realize that there is no potable water at Wildcat?”
“No problem,” Jane said. “We’ve got a water filter.”
Her calm and confident manner must have squelched his misgivings, and he handed over the requisite campsite tag that would identify us as properly authorized campers.
After I had tossed the water filter, food, and tarp into my backpack and pulled the drawstrings tight, Jane showed me how to strap on my sleeping bag and foam sleeping pad. I was spared from having to carry a tent, one of the heaviest items.
“Don’t ever try to lift the pack with one arm,” Jane instructed me. She’d caught me trying to do this earlier with the barely loaded bag and stopped me. “We don’t want you to wrench your arm right at the beginning of the trip.”
She showed me the proper way to get the backpack onto my back without injuring myself. It’s best, if possible, to rest the backpack on something like a bench or a large rock, sit in front of it, and then slip your arms into the harness straps. Or let someone else assist you. Jane lifted the pack for me and I slipped my arms into place and fastened the straps, feeling a bit like a donkey getting hitched to a cart.
Strapped up and rearing to go, I got someone to snap our first group photo—all of us still dry, clean, and smiling.
On the Trail
From the trailhead to Wildcat campsite it is 6.3 miles. Even though my loaded pack was the lightest one in the group, it was far heavier than anything I had ever carried before. But my initial enthusiasm helped to keep me trotting along and I was able to keep pace with the others. We took a long break for lunch, removed our backpacks and sat on a fallen tree next to a creek.
“If you have to go to the bathroom while walking along the trail, be sure to pick a spot that is far way from the water source.” I was told. “And do not leave any toilet paper. You have to take it with you.” Jane had a supply of brown paper bags in reserve, just in case. “For peeing, you have the alternative of drip-dry.”
The bathroom issue had been another reason that I had demurred about backpacking. I’d been relieved to discover that there are actual toilets at the Point Reyes campsites. Not flushable, but at least I wouldn’t have to dig a hole or take away my used toilet paper.
Other than the lack of toilets, hazards on the trail include poison oak and nettles. My hiking mates helpfully pointed them out, “Watch out, Janet,” warning me to keep my arms at my sides, to step around, or over the plants, as needed.
The Coast Trail was a surprisingly narrow, dusty path in the middle of fields of tall yellow grass, generously interspersed with the now familiar poison oak. I was thankful that I was wearing long pants, although Jane warned me that I could get a rash indirectly by touching the cloth that had brushed against the plant.
Finally, we got to a viewpoint where we could see the sea, and from there it was an easy downhill path to Wildcat Camp.
The Waterfall on the Beach
Wildcat Camp is in an open clearing without a single tree to shade us from the mid-day sun. The campsite’s redeeming trait is that the beach is only a few yards away. “We’ll set up the tents and then go to the waterfall,” Jane said.
In my old days of occasional car camping, my husband had taken charge of the tent setup. It had been a time-consuming, frustrating process. Jane’s tent was a miracle of modern engineering. The two of us managed to set it up in a matter of minutes.
Even without the typical fog cover of Point Reyes, the beach rewarded us with a pleasant breeze. I waded into the ocean, where the icy water and soft mud soothed my sore and tired feet. “Are you up to walking a couple of miles to get to the waterfall?” Jane asked. “We could just rest here.”
“No, I feel fine.” I was totally refreshed and revived by the ocean air. Jane’s daughter and niece had already charged ahead of us.
As we strolled along the water’s edge, we watched the pelicans glide over the water’s surface and saw seals playing in the surf.
Alamere Falls appears like a mirage—a gushing, fresh waterfall on an ocean beach! In the midst of California’s dry season! We could have happily stayed and splashed about there for hours. But high tide was quickly rising. If we dawdled, there would be no way to walk back along the beach. The only escape would be a hard and risky scramble up the sharp, steep cliffs. So we pulled ourselves away from the mesmerizing waterfall and headed back on the remaining strip of beach to our campsite for supper.
We tried hard to keep the campsite scrupulously clean, putting both our food supplies and toiletries in the specially provided, animal-proof metal box. Nevertheless, a skunk came to visit. He first showed up right after we finished eating our Pad Thai. Maybe the delicious aroma enticed him. We were careful not to startle him so that he wouldn’t feel the urge to spray.
He was polite enough to skitter off into the bushes for a short time, giving us access to the path leading back to the beach for the very late evening sunset. But he came back again after we were settled in our tents, and we heard him scooting about during the night.
The Coveted Campsite
Our next campsite was 4 miles away from Wildcat. Less of a distance than we had hiked on our first day. But by late morning, we could already feel the effect of the heat wave hitting the entire San Francisco Bay Area. As we plodded up the slope that we had hiked down the previous day, I wondered if we should have skipped our additional morning visit to the waterfall and moved in the cool of the day.
When we reached Glen Camp, no other campers were in sight. Jane and I zeroed in on site #2—a tantalizing spot, shaded by two large trees with graceful, green, leafy branches. We settled ourselves down at the #2 picnic bench, and removed our backpacks. This was clearly Glen Camp’s best spot for a sweltering day.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t our spot. We were assigned to site #8. The two younger members of our party dutifully walked up the dry, dusty hillside on our right in search of our assigned location. After a few moments, Jane felt pangs of conscience and went to see what they had found. Site #8 had only one straggly tree. Since the girls had arrived there first, they rightfully claimed the tiny spot of partial shade to pitch their own tent.
Jane and I both wanted to remain in the pleasant shade of site #2. Perhaps the campers who had secured this site had changed their mind about coming? Maybe we could doctor the number on our camp reservation tag to it look like a “2” rather than an “8”? But what if the assigned campers showed up and claimed it as their own? That would be awkward and embarrassing.
So we dragged ourselves up the hill to pitch our tent in campsite #8. Since there wasn’t even the faintest trace of a breeze, we didn’t bother to stake down the tent. We just tossed our sleeping backs inside. If no one showed up to claim the coveted, shady site #2, we could easily move.
In the meantime, we decided to be “squatters” in site #2 until the properly assigned owners showed up. We brought our foam sleeping pads, napped, and read.
Several people wandered into Glen Camp as the afternoon wore on. But no one came to claim site #2. At 6:30 PM, we decided to cook supper at site #2. We had finished eating our rehydrated Chicken a la King and were about to open our dessert when a tired-looking, young couple appeared and came walking directly toward us. We could tell by their expressions that they were more interested in having us clear out quickly than in sharing our dessert. So we mumbled apologies and excuses, got our stuff together as quickly as possible, and scuttled away.
Luckily, campsite #8 had cooled down enough that we could sit comfortably at our assigned table. After polishing off every last trace of our chocolate-halvah dessert, we played a bunch of goofy drama games and charades until it got too dark to see each other and the mosquitoes started to bite.
Our second and last night was so balmy that we omitted the tent’s insulation covering in order to allow more air to flow through the tent. This gave us an added bonus—a clear view of the starry skies though the tent’s fine mesh top.
We were scheduled to meet Jane’s in-laws for lunch at the Information Center picnic grounds, only 4 miles from Glen Camp. But we weren’t taking the direct route. We had agreed to detour on our way out to visit Arch Rock. The hike from our campsite to Arch Rock was easy. Our backpacks had become a bit lighter as we had already consumed most of the food, the trail was flat, and there was a good amount of shade.
When we got there, I sat on the flat top of the jutting rock, admiring the striking rock formations of the cliffs and watching the kelp beds drifting back and forth in the water below. Jane pulled out her binoculars to observe the cormorants and murres that were nesting on one of the larger island-like rocks.
Before long, Arch Rock started to get crowded. Apparently, this is a popular spot for day-hikers; it’s just a few miles from the Information Center.
The Final Mile
Soon we hit the trail again. These were the final miles of my first ever backpacking trip.
My stomach was cramping, I was developing a nasty blister between two toes on my right foot, and the day was much too hot. My face was dripping with sweat. Hopefully, the sweat wasn’t washing off all the sunscreen that I had so carefully applied. I willed myself forward.
Jane noticed my slower pace and offered some words on encouragement. “Sometimes, the last mile is the hardest.”
I murmured agreement.
Suddenly, we saw two male day hikers approaching us on the trail. They were heading in the direction of Arch Rock. When they got close to us, they said, “You are superior to us in every way. We bow to you.”
I looked at Jane quizzically. “Men so easily get intimidated,” she said.
I just smiled and pushed my way to the finish.
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