2010-04-27

Trip Report: Mendocino National Forest

2 days 2 nights.

Jess and I wanted to go backpacking last weekend. We were planning to do the skyline-to-sea trail, but it turns out that the campgrounds simply aren't open today. We considered just going anyway, but decided against it.

Before Jess was suddenly free I'd been toying with doing a trip up to Yosemite, despite the deep snow etc. This was a questionable though awesome sounding plan, but it turned out that Jess' boots are dying. She could still wear her five-fingers though for a warm-weather trip. I'd also been toying with a trip up to Mendocino National Forest - so we decided on that.

So, on Wednesday evening we gathered all of the food we needed. On Thursday I went to REI to buy maps and pick up a new sighting compass for Jess... no maps. Okay, fine, whatever, we'll pick them up on our way up. So we reserved a mazda 3 zipcar and packed our backpacks with everything we might need.
Additionally on thursday my Bush Buddy wood stove arrived http://bushbuddy.ca/. This is a pretty cool piece of gear, and a review will be forthcoming.

Anyway, on friday I got home a bit later than intended, we grabbed our gear and jumped in the car. We'd heard that there were issues with pot-growers shooting people who stumbled on their fields in Mendocino wilderness, so we figured looking more ragpicker/travler/hippie might raise our chances of survival. As a result Jess had grabbed her external-frame pack and I was wearing my hat (also good for sun).

It took us about 3 hours to get up there - not too bad. We stopped at a gas-station and picked up a pretty so-so non-topo map with no trails marked, and continued onward. We wound our way up into the forest down a pretty small dirt-road. It had a few pot-holes, but was pretty easy driving in the mazda (I was doing some drifting around the turns).

We were poking around one area to see if a side-road was public when two guys in an old isuzu trooper pulled up alongside our car. One guy had an FBI had on and kindly advised us that locals tend not to take kindly to people pocking their noses about in that area. It turned out that we weren't in the national forest yet - and with the stories of the pot-grower shootings we were thankful and believed the advice.

So we continued down the road a ways and eventually found a nice little turnoff that looked promising. We parked the car and walked down and made camp. As it turned out we camped right next to a small stream, the area was fairly wet, but that was okay. The dew had already begun to gather. We ate a bit of gorp and went straight to sleep under the stars and moon, just laying down a groundcloth. The moon wasn't full, but it was VERY VERY bright. Later in the night when I woke up the night the sky was absolutely amazing.

The next morning we woke up in fairly wet sleepingbags, but that was fine. We stayed in them for an extra hour or so and let them dry off. We also left them out as we proceeded to cook breakfast using the new wood-stove. This went swimmingly. I used a lighter and some dry grass to get it started and it light right up. We grabbed a few loose branches and braking them into small pieces shoved wood at it as fast as we could - we had a full rolling boil of 3 cups or so in about 10 minutes in the 1-liter titanium pot designed to house the stove. We used this to make some cream of wheat with brown sugar and reconstituted blackberries. Quite tasty. We folded up our sleepingbags and the groundcloth while waiting for the stove to cool. Then we dumped the tiny bit of ash out on the ground and kicked it around a bit, then kicked the grass up a bit so it wouldn't all be totally flat and would recover faster from being slept on. Then we hopped into the car and continued down the road - looking for a good place to hike in.

After a while of drifting and beating a bit on the suspension of the mazda - the dirt road ran into a small paved one. We turned right and soon saw something that looked like a visitor area - with a parking lot. There were no trailheads, just a sign for a resort a ways off - looking around we saw some very inviting looking hills - so we took a quick sighting with the compasses and took off across the fields.

Ah yes... the hiking!

We forded a small river and walked up a green hillside, heading east. Up the hill a ways the brush looked kind of impenetrable. We walked along the hills for a bit until I decided I wanted to see what was past that brush. Eventually we saw a small ravine going up into the hills farther, and that was brush-free. Jess was so-so on this plan, but I was curious so we went up the steep ravine. Soon we pushed our way into shallow brush. This continued and every time we tried to get out we ended up in deeper brush (I was largely directing, though occasionally asking if Jess had any ideas). We were going largely south-east. At some point the bushes got large enough that we couldn't push them over anymore, and dense enough that we couldn't get through with our backpacks on, so we were pulling our packs along through the brush. As we came down a hill (hoping to hit a meadow again) the brush got so dense we could no longer get between it, but it was short enough that with a lot of brute force I could knock it over and walk on it. It was exhausting. Eventually, after another stint of going through high-brush with our packs off we turned west  and pushed our way out, finally finding the field again. This entire escapade was made far more difficult by our extranal frame packs. Mine has just a couple of posts above my shoulders head, so it's not much worse than a small internal - but Jess' had the full sack up behind her head - and it caught on everything.

We had gone less than a quarter mile south.

So, we stopped and ate. We were exhuasted, our legs and arms were covered in scratches, but for no good reason we felt oddly accomplished. After that we decided no more brush.

We continued southwards down the river, on the grassy fields. Eventually we wanted to cross the river, because the other side looked interesting too - but we had passed a dam outlet and we'd have to swim. We almost jumped in anyway, but it turned out to be too cold. So we continued walking down the river, now through fields of lupin. As that ended we began following dear trails through a sparse forest with only a little underbrush. There were a LOT of very well traveled dear trail.

The hills were steep, and each time the river bent left (we were going downriver on the right side) they got steeper. In a few spots the hill was washed out. Crossing one of this I slid a couple of feet down and caught myself on a rock. A bit later crossing a particularly dicey section Jess nearly slid and got quite nervous. Her adrenaline rush lingered for quite a while afterwards. Had we slipped it might've resulted in a broken leg, but probably not death or similar. Jess' external frame had a  far higher center of mass than mine due to the way it was packed - causing her a lot more trouble on all-fours.

Shortly after that we found a beautiful field high up overlooking the river with some nice flat spots. Earlier we'd grabbed some Spanish moss and Jess had pointed out some cattail fluff that we had then gathered. So, we lit up the stove that evening using a sparker and cattail fluff - this worked beautifully and we soon had a delicious hot meal of raman-style pasta, freeze-dried vegetables, and a thai peanut sauce. We also added some fennel Jess had seen and picked earlier that day (a fine thing to do in a national forest). It turned out to be one of the better backcountry meals I've eaten

Jess found some nice dry, dead live-oak when gathering the sticks for the stove, and she got curious about trying to make a fire-drill. I have slightly more experience than her, having done it successfully 3 or so times - all with materials someone else had gathered though. She had done it once in similar circumstances. So, we proceeded to make fire-boards and drills. I used a pine-bow to make my bow and my second drill attempt was straight enough to work pretty well. I got smoke 3 seperate times, but couldn't quite get it going long enough to build up the packed dust needed. Partly this was due to oak on oak - both of which fire-harden after a while rather than continually making the beautiful fine dust that you need to build up.

We went to sleep after putting all the food in the ursack and tying it to a tree a ways off. The dew fell again that night, even more than the night before, and again the stars were stunning. In the middle of the night I heard rattling in the woods and thought it was a couple of bucks fighting, or one sharpening it's horns. After a minute I realized our food was over there, and that I was hearing Jess' cookset being banged around (it was tied to the outside of the ursack, mine was inside). So I woke up Jess so we could go scare the bear together.

We'll the bear ran off before we got there (this is a national forest, so animals are skittish due to hunting). We found the bear had bitten the side of the ursack hard and tried to pull it off the tree. It was covered in slobber, had a small hole in it and a few other stress spots, but was intact. We went back to sleep.

In the morning it turned out the bear had shredded the bottom of our bag of rice and refried beans, and had slightly mauled the edges of a few other items including the tortillas, the corner of the cream of wheat bag, and one of Jess' cliff bars. Oh well, we still had our food! It also dented the bottom of Jess' pot a bit and had bitten the edge of mine. I bent the lid of mine back into shape though. There's no better way to have a pot dented than a bear. "How'd you get the dent in that pot?" "Well, let me tell you a story".

So, the next morning we hiked back. The entire time we saw no-one. On our way back we got even more into looking at the plants and food around us. Between the two days we'd identified a dozen or more edible plants, and several possibilities. We also saw a small shelter someone had built using sticks and branches. The top was missing, but it's purpose was unmistakable. We resolved to come back to the forest and try more of our survival techniques.

As we were nearing the car, out in the open fields again, Jess saw some elk scat (larger than deer scat). Then, over the next hill, we spotted the elk - stairing at us. I couldn't resist, and we then attempted to stalk the elk - to see how close we could get. We circled around so we woudn't be upwind and came up from behind a hillside - but when we got there they had moved to a different place than I thought.

We were back at the car fairly early, and the drive home was mostly uneventful.

We were cut to ribbons. We almost fell down steep hills several times. Our pots are dented and my ursack is chewed by a bear. It was beutiful with fields of lupin, pretty views, open fields, and lots of edible stuff. Overall it was an awesome and fullfilling trip, I can't wait to go back and practice other skills.

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