When we reached the banks of the San Joaquin we halted and stared in dismay. The river was flowing in flood stage, at least two feet higher than it was when we had crossed it three days earlier. And, of course, memory does not serve: some recall that the rain stopped at the point of crossing the river; others believe that the rain was still continuing. And now? Now, we simply call it “the Rain Trip.” Details of the Rain Trip, a long-planned backpacking event in August, 1976, have now faded into the mists of time, but taken as a whole the experience of a flooded High Sierra still remains remarkably fresh.
At the beginning of the hike the sky was overcast in the morning, unusual for August, but the old Sierra hands poo-pooed the idea of any significant rainfall: “Don't worry. It always clouds up in the afternoon. Tomorrow morning will be gorgeous.” Alas, unknown to the old Sierra hands, the overcast represented the advance tendrils of a devastating tropical storm, which even at that moment was sweeping in from the Gulf of California and pounding the Southern California desert. At some point in the afternoon of the first day, it began to sprinkle. The old Sierra hands poo-pooed the sprinkle and set up camp along Shadow Creek. Hali & I were there, along with Joe (brother) and Joe (brother-in-law), two other couples, two Irish setters and one sheltie.
There was light rain in the morning. Well. There was nothing to do but adapt to the new conditions and plan a day hike up to Lake Ediza. During the hike the rain increased in intensity; back at camp puddles began to form requiring that the tents be moved. The day hikers moved in a constant, sometimes tantalizingly bright, overcast, and the rain. “The Minarets would be up there if you could see them.” After the hike the campers, all in ponchos and raingear, gathered in the dwindling light and the downpour for dinner, amid a gathering consensus that it was time to get the hell out. The cry went up: “We aren't carrying any booze out. Everything has to be gone by tomorrow.” And all the while, my brother's peanut butter and honey sandwich went unnoticed at the bottom of his pack.
Early next morning, Hali and Mike laid inside their teepee-like Sierra Designs tent, listening to the unnatural early-morning downpour. They heard footsteps, and then brother Joe's voice:
“Wow . . . you know . . . Shadow Creek? Whoa! It’s now a river. Wait . . . there goes a log.”
Mike’s stomach began to churn.
Shortly thereafter, the Joes, who were packed first, headed on down, only to return ominously a few minutes later. The reason for their return: what had been a rivulet was now an impassable torrent; what had been a meadow was now a lake. What followed was an actually quite dangerous flight by the whole party that included wading through water waist-high and an extremely hazardous crossing of the San Joaquin River, this last involving a human chain across the river. Brother Joe crossed once with his pack and then returned to carry Maggie (the sheltie) over. After the crossing, most of the hikers spent their time jogging around an outhouse to fight off hypothermia. And as if in compensation, fate arranged that the storm clouds would began to dissipate and that we were able to locate a friend’s cabin to stay in that night.
The (comparatively) luxurious surroundings of the cabin and the subsequent (dry) trip back to Los Angeles only served to heighten the trip’s seeming unreality, which the intervening years have only enhanced. And now? Now, we simply call it “the Rain Trip.”
Photo: Meadow in Rain—Sierra Nevada, 1976