There are wild canyons in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California that are devoid of trails and almost always devoid of people. Sometimes these places are guarded by difficult access; high passes and craggy river basins make getting there a chore. No one goes to these places by accident, or to spend an afternoon. When you do arrive in such a spot, there is little or no evidence that your fellow man has been there. A faint foot print or two, maybe an old horseshoe from days gone by.
Bench Canyon is such a spot. It lies just south of Yosemite National Park, and is also crossed by the Sierra High Route. The canyon lacks trails or easy access, but is otherwise among the most serene and comfortable canyons in the Sierra. At the very top of Bench Canyon lies Blue Lake. Nestled in white granite at 10, 400 feet, the lake is indeed deep blue, with a few patches of grass and a small meadow to make you feel welcome.
On my recent hike along the Sierra High Route I traversed some of the most remote regions of the Sierra Nevada. I used trails some of the time, but the majority of the travel was cross country and off trail. Across meadows and forest floors, over mountain passes and across slabs of granite. I traversed endless mountainsides of broken rock, in every size from volkswagens to marbles.
On the toughest day of the hike, I climbed over two trail-less mountain passes early in the morning, and crossed the high, rocky labyrinths at the headwaters of the North Fork of the San Joaquin River. Smoke from a far away forest fire filled the valleys below. All day I raced, never setting foot on a trail and navigating with laser focus. Getting lost or wasting time was not in my plan. It had been raining hard every afternoon, so I had to move when the weather allowed. If I reached Blue Lake by late afternoon, I would be home free, only 6 miles from a trail, and a day and half from a rendezvous with my wife. I was 7 days into the hike - this would be the most difficult day.
In mid-afternoon, still a few miles from Blue Lake, it began to rain. I briefly hid under my tarp, then continued on, pushing hard to beat the building storm which would surely hit soon. Things went smoothly, and soon I was walking up Bench Canyon. I hadn't seen a soul in 36 hours. A perfect alpine world of rushing water, green grass, white rock and sparsely spaced trees danced in the building wind, under steel gray skies. I climbed a final hill, breathing hard, to reach Blue Lake. When I crested the hill, and gazed down onto the lake, a weird thing happened. Someone waved at me. Several people, in fact. A cluster of tents was pitched at the lake. Immediately friendly, the group waved me over and introduced themselves. They were a group of friends, about my age, who get together every year to traverse a remote part of the mountain range. They had been doing this together for over 25 years. They loved the mountains, good food, and good friends. I was now their guest. They would treat me to their style of hospitality, for one evening, until we parted ways. They even have a web site, trans-sierra.org.
The rain came down, but that didn't stop the laughs, or the jokes, or swimming in the lake. I was served garlic bread and brie. French Onion soup, with croutons! Fresh parmesan cheese was grated off a block! We downed shots of tequila, and toasted a friend who had gone on to the beyond. I could see a connection among these men that is rare among people these days, and when it was my turn to make a toast, I could only think of friendship. Rare and beautiful friendship. We laughed and shared stories and gazed at the skies until darkness and cold forced us into our sleeping bags.
The next morning, I packed up the last of their tequila, which was given to me to share with others. I shook a few hands, thanked my new friends and parted ways, headed north over a pass into Yosemite National Park. I had expected to spend a night alone in one of the most remote and wild places in California. But no matter the locale, we are social animals. Serendipity is sweetest when it is least expected.