Monday, September 24, 2018

Backpacking Duck Pass Trail to Pika Lake (Sept. 2018)

View from Duck Pass
This year when Mary and I were considering a backpacking trip to the Sierras, we saw that a lot of trails in the National Parks were already out of permits. Since we rarely get anywhere early enough to get one of the walk-in permits, we decided to check other locations. After all, we really enjoyed our trip in the Desolation Wilderness last year.

One of our primary interests is looking for pikas. The logical thing to do was to check iNaturalist for pika sightings and head to a location with a few recent observations. We found a few possibilities, and settled on the aptly named Pika Lake in the Inyo National Forest and John Muir Wilderness near Mammoth Mountain in the Eastern Sierras. We managed to reserve a 2 night permit for the Duck Pass-JM01 trailhead from

Backpacking gear
Next we had to get our gear ready. We would be backpacking for 3 days/2 nights then a night at a hotel so we could hit a day hike in Yosemite on the way home. The days would be sunny and in the mid-60s, which is beautiful hiking weather. The nights were likely to be closer to 30 and possibly windy. We both have pretty good sleeping bags and we packed a couple extra layers and hats and gloves.

Harmony House Deluxe Sampler
Rather than buying pre-made dehydrated meals, Mary decided to make some. We had bought a box of dehydrated ingredients, the Harmony House Deluxe Sampler, to have for emergencies and for backpacking. It contains 32 different vegetables, beans and vegan proteins. Following some recipes from the internet, she put together meals for 2 nights, one Mexican and one Thai. We put them in ziplock bags that could withstand boiling water. We also made some makeshift cozies out of packing foam to insulate the meals while rehydrating and making them a little easier to eat.

Day 1 (9/19/2018): Duck Pass Trailhead to Pika Lake

We hit the road at 6am. Traffic was light in our direction, so we made good time getting out of the Bay Area. Shortly after Oakdale, we decided to take 108 instead of 120. We had never been across 108 and we wouldn't have to pass through the gates of Yosemite. The route was a little longer, but not so much, although we did hit some construction delays coming south on 395. 

Posing with Smokey Bear
We arrived at the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center to pick up our permit at 12:15pm. You are supposed to pick up permits no later than 10am on the day. I had not requested a late pickup, but luckily the rangers were able to reissue our permit. After a restroom break and a photo with a local celebrity (see photo on right), we headed for the trailhead.

Duck Pass Trailhead
We got to the Duck Pass trailhead at 1:30pm. The trail starts at 9126 feet and climbs a little over 500 feet in the first mile. Having just left sea level that morning, the altitude was getting the better of both of us. We get in cardio most days, but we haven't been doing much hiking lately, so our legs weren't used to this workout either. Not to mention we don't usually have big packs on our backs (Mary's was 20 pounds and mine was 35). 

Arrowhead Lake
All in all, we struggled a bit. It took us nearly 50 minutes to do that first mile or so. We were happy to take a break when we reached Arrowhead Lake (pictured on right). We dropped our packs, ate a little lunch and rested for a bit.

In the next 0.7 mile we only climbed about 200 feet. We had arrived at Skelton Lake (pictured below).
Skelton Lake
Mary on the switchbacks
From Skelton Lake it is fairly level to Barney Lake at around 2.6 miles and 10180 feet. A little ways after Barney Lake is a slog up a set of switchbacks through a talus field (pictured on left). This was the main area we hoped to encounter pika, so we took our time passing through. At a few points we could hear the pikas' barking in the distance (eep eep!), but we did not sight any.

View from the top
The view from the top of the switchbacks is quite lovely (pictured on right). You can see Barney Lake immediately below, Skelton Lake further in the distance and Mammoth Mountain at the end of the valley. We were still hearing pika in the distance, but still no sightings.

Junction to Pika Lake
From the top of the switchbacks, it's a short distance to the junction for Pika Lake. The view from here is dominated by Duck Lake. The trail drops 200-300 feet toward Duck Lake and wraps around the northeast end of the lake.  

Filtering water at Pika Lake
After a mile or so we reached Pika Lake. We explored the north side of the lake and found we had our pick of camp sights. It seemed we would have the lake to ourselves for the night! It was almost 6pm, so we filtered some water, set up camp and made some dinner. 

We ended up having the Mexican meal for dinner. It was pretty tasty and the cozies worked pretty well (pictured on left). It was nice having separate containers. We usually split on back of the store bought meals. 

Heading to bed
It was a little after 7pm. The sun was down, but there was still a little light in the sky. The temperature was dropping fast, so we finished setting up the tent, stowed all the food and scented items in our BearVault and settled into the tent. 

Inside the tent we set up our Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads, sleeping bags and some new inflatable pillows we bought for this trip. By 9pm we were settled in the for night. We did indeed have the lake to ourselves. Other than a few eerie coyote howls in the distance it was very peaceful. In spite of the peace and quiet and extra comfort, neither of us slept very well.

Day 2 (9/20/2018): Day hike Pika Lake to the PCT

Pika Lake on a calm morning
It was still pretty cold in the morning. In fact, our Platypus water container had ice in it. We lingered in our sleeping bags until about 7am. Pika Lake was like glass (photo on left).

Golden-mantled ground squirrel
This morning we headed to the east end of the lake to explore some talus there in hopes of finding pika. We didn't hear or see any. We headed back to camp for breakfast where we were greeted by one of the locals (see photo on right).

Camp at Pika Lake
Breakfast consisted of an oatmeal mix we made, stored and served in a similar way to dinner the night before. We had steaming cups of hot chocolate to help warm us as we waited for the sun to take the chill from the air. The squirrel really wanted to join us for breakfast, but we kept shooing it away. It had the last laugh as I left my pack unattended, and it helped itself to some trail mix in the side pocket.

We left our camp set up at Pika Lake. Today we were going for a day hike along Duck Lake and down to the Pacific Crest Trail. Mary had brought a small daypack, but I had to clear out my Deuter pack and carry it.
Duck Lake
Pika Lake beyond Duck Lake
We hiked our way back around Duck Lake (pictured above) and up to the Duck Pass Trail. There was a bit more of a climb as we hiked along the west side of Duck Lake. From the trail summit we could see Pika Lake across Duck Lake (see photo on right).

Duck Lake is pretty big. It's more than a 1/2 mile along the west side. After crossing the outlet for Duck Lake, the trail starts to descend towards the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Before it descended much, we had some great views of the valley beyond (see photo on left).

Duck Pass junction with PCT
We headed down the trail for about a mile. We reached the PCT around 12:40pm (photo on right). We thought about continuing on to Purple Lake a couple miles further, but decided to head back instead. We still had hopes of finding pikas at Pika Lake.

Mary at Duck Lake
We got back to Duck Lake a little after 1pm and stopped there for lunch. There were a couple of other people there, planning to camp for the night. We ate lunch and got back on the trail.

We covered the same ground across Duck Pass then down the Pika Lake Trail to the other side of Duck Lake. We got back to Pika Lake around 3:20pm.

Talus at southwest shore of Pika Lake
This time we headed to the southwest shore where we had seen another promising talus field (pictured right). We spent a good hour or two there. We did hear and see pika at this location, but only fleeting glimpses.

While we were watching for pikas, we saw a group of guys arrive at Pika Lake. Fortunately they set up camp to the west of the lake, far enough away from our site. Eventually we gave up on getting a photo of the elusive pikas and headed back to our own camp.

Moon and alpenglow
As the sun was setting the moon was rising. We could see the moon above the peak at the east end of the lake. The setting sun giving the peak a nice alpenglow.

While we were preparing dinner a little mouse paid us a visit. It was pretty cute, but we didn't want it anywhere near our food. We had the Thai meals for dinner this night, followed by some hot chocolate. After dinner we settled into our tent. We managed to sleep a bit better this second night.

Day 3 (9/21/2018): Pika Lake to Duck Pass Trailhead

Mary searching for pikas

This morning was our last chance to photograph pikas at Pika Lake. We decide to give the talus area on the southwest shore another try. We grabbed a couple of energy bars and headed there before breakfast (see photo above). Once again we heard them and saw some in the distance, but managed no photographic evidence.

Breakfast companion
During breakfast, we were visited once again by our squirrel friend. It was still very cute, but we did not share any of our food with it, not even the trail mix! We ate our oatmeal and hot chocolate and started the break camp.

Goodbye Pika Lake
We had spent quite a while looking for pikas in the morning. Then there was breakfast, filtering water and packing up. By the time we were ready to say goodbye to Pika Lake (photo on left), it was after noon.

Looking for pikas
Climbing back up to the Duck Pass Trail was a little harder today with our full packs. Fortunately most of the rest of the hike would be down hill. On our way down the switchbacks we stopped numerous times to look for pikas. We occasionally heard them, but did not see them. 

Friendly pika
Near the bottom of the switchbacks we found a nice rock to sit and rest. Shortly after we dropped our packs, we hear the "eep eep!" call of a pika. We sat patiently and waited. We were finally rewarded when a pika showed up to pose, eat and scurry around the rocks!

We stayed here for about an hour enjoying our visit with the pikas. We reluctantly decided to move on so we could get down before dark! Here's a short video of the little pika doing pika things:

Us-ie at Skelton Lake
We were happy to finally get some shots of pikas. We were still smiling when we stopped for a snack at Skelton Lake.

It was Friday, and we were seeing a lot more people on the trail. We even saw a few hunters, which was a bit odd for us since we're used to hiking in National Parks. Between Skelton Lake and Arrowhead Lake, we took a different trail back to the parking lot. This trail passed Emerald Lake and seemed to be less traveled.

Emerald Lake (pictured below) is a deep green color as the name suggests. It was nearly 5:30pm by this point, so we continued on. We only passed one hiker and her dog on the Emerald Lake Trail. We arrived back at the car around 6pm.

Emerald Lake

We drove into Mammoth Lakes and checked into a Travelodge for the night. We quickly showered and went out for a nice dinner. It was nice to spend the night in a bed (although not nearly as comfortable as the one at home). 

Wrapping Up

While we didn't see as many pikas as we hoped, we did get one great visit on the last day. The high Sierra scenery was absolutely beautiful. We struggled with the hikes more than we would have liked, but fortunately we hadn't signed up for more than we could accomplish. All in all, we had a great time on this backpacking trip.

For more photos from the trip, check out the album.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Backpacking in the Desolation Wilderness

Mary and I went backpacking in the Desolation Wilderness September 14-16, 2017. It had been a while since we've been backpacking, so out first issue was to make sure we had all our gear. Everything we needed seemed to be in working order. We would be spending most of our time around 8000', so we packed extra cold weather clothing. In typical fashion, we brought along more than we really needed, but I guess we got extra exercise!

We were planning to hike from Echo Lake out to Heather Lake and spend two nights there. We heard there were a lot of pikas around Heather Lake! We would do a day hike on the day in between. The trail is part of both the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT). We've only been on short bits of the PCT before, and this would be our first time on the TRT. Unfortunately all the reserved permits for the area in question (zone 33) were booked. We would have to take our chances with a walk in permit.

Day 1: Echo Lake to Heather Lake

We got a decent start, leaving the house by 8am. We made a quick stop at Subway to pick up a sandwich and another stop at the Pacific Ranger District to get a permit. Luckily we were able to get the permit we wanted! We arrived at Echo Lake around noon.

We lucked out again, finding a parking space just up the hill from the trail head. We decided to eat our Subway sandwich before hitting the trail. After lunch, we made a quick stop at the facilities by Echo Chalet and were on the trail around 1pm.

On the Trail

The trailhead is between Echo Chalet and Lower Echo Lake. After a short climb, there's a 20 yard detour to see Lake Tahoe off in the distance (photo on right). We got back on the trail and started following it along the shore of Lower Echo Lake. The trail climbs a bit more, and soon we were looking down on the lake and the cabins along its shore. After a mile and a half, we topped out at about 7600' and made a bit of a descent towards Upper Echo Lake.

After 3 miles, we were past both Echo Lakes. As we started to really climb out of the basin, we looked back to see the lakes we were leaving behind (photo on left). We were going to climb to about 8300' over the next 2 miles or so. 

About halfway from Upper Echo Lake to Tamarack Lake, we passed into the Desolation Wilderness (photo on right). Even though it's getting late in the season, we were happy to see a number of wildflowers. Most notable were Indian paintbrush, larkspur, tiger lilies and columbine. In the forested areas we saw a variety of mushrooms as well.

Gloomy Lake Aloha

As we approached Lake Aloha, we kept to the PCT. We wanted to get to Heather Lake with enough light left to set up camp. Also, the skies were starting to look a bit ominous (photo on right) and the wind was picking up. Half way along Lake Aloha, it started to rain a bit. We got out our rain jackets and wished we had ponchos to better cover our packs. 

Once again we lucked out as the rain never came. We made it to Heather Lake a little after 6pm. There are only a few suitable campsite at Heather, and the first one we came to was occupied. That one was right on the train, so we were fine with missing out. We managed to score a prime spot near the lake under some pine trees. 

Camp at Heather Lake

We set up camp and went to look for pikas. We found one in the dusky light, and watched it scurry around the rocks for a while. As the light faded, we headed back to camp to start on dinner. By the time we filtered water and boiled some for our dehydrated meal, it was dark. We ate dinner and drank hot chocolate in the glow of our headlamps, then cleaned up and hit the tent as the temperature started to drop.

Day 2: Day Hike to Half Moon Lake

Morning with Pikas

Morning at the lake was quite beautiful. Before breakfast, we went in search of the pikas again. We saw a couple of them, and watched them enjoy their breakfast. They would zip over to a plant, pluck off a mouthful, run back to their rock of choice and proceed to munch. After watching them for a while, we had our own breakfast, which consisted of oatmeal with nuts and dried fruit and some instant coffee with biscotti! After cleaning up, we packed some supplies for our day hike and set off from Heather Lake around 10am.

Susie Lake

The trail follows close to the shore of Heather Lake along a rocky slope. We're sure there were tons of pikas in the rocks, and did see one while we were chatting with some other hikers. It's a little less than a mile to Susie Lake. We passed a small patch of snow along the trail. Susie Lake was like a mirror as we passed along its shore. We circumvented the lake and continued along the PCT until we reached the turnoff for Half Moon Lake.

Half Moon Lake Trail

Half Moon Lake Trail is a 2.2 mile spur off the PCT. It climbs some 240' into a bowl containing the lake. We passes a couple of large ponds along the way, each time mistaking them for the lake. When we did finally reach the lake, it was considerably bigger than we expected. The lake must not get a lot of traffic as much of it was overgrown. We bushwhacked our way though for a while, but gave up about half way around. We stopped beside the lake to have our lunch.

Evening with Pikas

After lunch and relaxing by Half Moon Lake for a bit, we hiked back to Heather Lake. We reached our campsite around 4pm. We had some new neighbors so we chatted with them for a bit. They were not familiar with pikas, so we took them over to introduce them to our furry friends.

After watching the pikas frolic for a while, we returned to our camp and started on dinner. This time we had rehydrated lasagna for dinner. After the lasagne, we enjoyed some hot chocolate with marshmallows and some dehydrated raspberries.

Day 3: Heather Lake to Echo Lake

Final Morning with Pikas

By the time we got to our pika hangout the next morning, our neighbors were already there enjoying the morning light. Once again we enjoyed watching the little critters scurry about for their breakfast. We took our final photos and bid farewell to our neighbors (see video above). We went back to camp to have our breakfast. After breakfast, we packed up and hit the trail around 9:45am.

Sunny Lake Aloha

This time, the sun was shinning as we arrived back at Lake Aloha. When we reached the east end of the lake, we left the PCT and followed the shore a bit further. This section of the lake is really beautiful. It's a lot more forested and we passed a lot of nice looking campsites. In 3/4 of a mile, we took another trail back to the PCT.

Lunch Near Tamarack Lake

As we crossed the rocky slopes above Tamarack Lake, we stopped for lunch. We were hoping to see some more pika. We heard a few of their calls, especially when hikers passed with dogs, but we didn't manage to spot any of them.

The Final Stretch

We were getting a bit tired as we hiked the last couple miles along the Echo Lakes. I was wishing that the water taxis were still running this late in the season. We pushed on, taking a few breaks along the way. At a little after 4pm, we were crossing the small dam at the base of Lower Echo Lake.

We had a great time on our little adventure. We learned a few more things about what we should and should not take along. We'll file those thoughts away for the next time we go out, which hopefully won't be too far in the future.

For more photos, check out this Google Photos Album.

Monday, August 21, 2017

BearID Collaboration

In the latest hypraptive post on the BearID project, Kindred Spirits, we announced our collaboration with the Brown Bear Research Network (BBRN). We've also put a call out for photos and videos of bears.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Monday, January 23, 2017

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Hypraptive BearID Project

I started working on a new project combining two of my interests: wildlife and machine learning. The goal of the project is to build a facial recognition system for brown bears which can be used by researchers in conjunction with camera traps and citizen science to non-invasively track and monitor populations. The project, BearID, is open source on GitHub and I'm writing about it on the hypraptive blog.

The most recent post is FaceNet for Bears.