I went camping in the Sierra Nevada in August, 2012 with a group of about a dozen friends for several days. We stayed at Governor’s Camp in Fish Valley, in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness Area, enjoying hiking, fishing, drinking, lightening and thunder, etc. Several of us opted to hire the services of a packer and his mules to carry our stuff (best decision of the trip.)

The camp was named after a California governor who used to camp there decades ago. It’s in the Lost Cannon Quadrangle topo map from the USGS, so-named after a brass howitzer cannon carried by an expedition led by John C. Fremont. His army troop was transporting it across the Sierra in 1843 when they abandoned it in a canyon near Little Antelope Valley. It was later found and passed through several hands, primarily playing a role in 4th of July celebrations in Tahoe City.

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For several days before our trip, I collected all my gear, tested it, and made a shopping list. I purchased food for five days, a headlamp, a camp chair (second best decision), fishing license etc.

I packed everything into my backpack and a duffel bag (about 60 pounds) for the mule, and a new Kelty daypack to carry on the walk in.

Thursday: Drive to pack station; hike to camp
Nanette and I drove to Bob’s house at 6:00 AM, arriving simultaneously with his son Chris, into whose truck we transferred our gear. Nanette went home and back to bed, and Bob, Chris and I headed east. We crossed the Altamont Pass, the Great Central Valley, and the Sonora Pass before reaching U.S. Highway 395. The commuter traffic in the opposite direction coming out of the valley was quite heavy, and we were glad we didn’t have their 2-hour commute. We drove north a short distance to Walker, and turned left onto a gravel road which led up to the Little Antelope Valley Pack Station in the eastern Sierra. http://www.littleantelopepackstation.com

When we arrived, a man was standing in the corral with a big cowboy hat on, looking annoyed; he said that he had been expecting us at 7:30 that morning and that the animals had been saddled and ready since then. After we apologized profusely about the mix-up, he lightened up and started packing a mule with Bob’s and my stuff, and was helpful and friendly from then on.

Chri shouldered his pack and started up the trail, and Bob and I soon followed with our daypacks, before Jim and the others arrived. The trail climbs up a mountain slope through a mixed-conifer forest for a mile or so, before reaching a wide open treeless plateau covered with sagebrush. It was quite warm, with the full sun beating down on us. We were passed on the trail by other members of our group and the pack train. We saw a cairn built of stone a couple of meters high, built by the shepherds who tended their flocks there in the last century.

After crossing the plateau we descended gradually to Silver King Creek, and started upstream, towards the south along the creek, climbing again. We reached Long Valley, a wide flat mile-long valley with the creek meandering through it. All along the way, Bob recorded the milestones together with the time and the number of steps he had taken, according to his pedometer, and compared them with data taken on previous trips. He leads a measured life. At the upper (southern) end of Long Valley was a short canyon, after which we reached Lower Fish Valley. After another mile we arrived at Governor’s Camp which lies across the creek; there was a makeshift bridge across the creek made with two skinny logs, which creaked ominously as we carefully crossed.

The camp is at the confluence of a smaller creek with Silver King Creek, nestled in a grove of lodgepole pine trees. The other members of our group had already arrived, and were busy setting up camp. After resting a bit, we set up our tents, sleeping bags, etc.: Bob in the same spot he’s been using for decades, and I in the area which I used a few years ago. After unrolling my sleeping pad and unstuffing my sleeping bag, I crawled exhausted into my tent and rested for a while. Later I washed off in the creek (no soap), put on clean clothes, and joined the group around the campfire.

The camp apparently hadn’t been occupied much this year, and there was plenty of firewood available, including a couple of trees which had recently fallen in the middle of camp. The boys collected a lot of firewood, and built a roaring campfire. The group had brought in copious amounts of liquor, including 3 ½ liters of tequila, vodka, beer, lots of wine, etc. Most people had brought in steaks to cook the first night, but I only had freeze-dried dinners. After a few margaritas, the fire burned down a bit, they put a grill on the fire ring and grilled the steaks, while I bummed some hot water for my Mountain House Turkey Tetrazini. I walked out into a nearby meadow and looked up at the stars – they were magnificent, with the Milky Way broad and bright – you could see the dust clouds in the center. We old farts went to bed around 10:00 pm, while the younger ones stayed up late, carousing around the campfire. I was comfortable enough with a down mummy bag on a Thermarest sleeping pad, with a camp pillow. The nights were chilly.

Friday: Fishing Attempt; Around Camp

The next morning I got up when the sun shone on my tent (around 7:00am). The group has a portable toilet seat on a little stand, which is much easier to use than not (David said that he doesn’t like to strain his thighs while reading.) After a cup of coffee and leisurely breakfast of dried milk and cereal, I agreed with Bob to try a little fishing. We spent some time getting organized, and then departed, heading downstream, only to immediately run into problems. My fly reel was malfunctioning – the spool wasn’t meshing with the click apparatus, and appeared to be sticking out from the reel body, and Bob has having trouble with his fly line. So we gave up, turned around and came ignominiously back to camp.

After a little fiddling around with the reel, I figured out that the spindle which the spool turns on had come partially unscrewed from the body, preventing the spool from fully seating into the mechanism. I screwed it in and reassembled — problem fixed. I had lunch, strolled up the stream and saw quite a few fish in the section above our camp, which is posted as “No Fishing.” Later I took my chair down to the creek and read “Player Piano” by Kurt Vonnegut. Some of the others did some fishing or collected firewood.

Dinner that night was chicken breast for Jim, but most of us had switched to variations of freeze-dried (Chris had chicken pot-pie.) This was accompanied by a roaring campfire and much drinking and carousing.

Saturday: Owl Head; Lightening Storm
Each morning I was awakened by a chipmunk singing in a tree overhead, sounding to my awakening mind like an alarm clock. After breakfast of cereal and milk, Bob and I took a hike up to Owl Head, a small granite peak across the creek from our camp. Some of the others walked up to Tamarack Lake for a swim and a swing from a rope overhanging the lake.

Bob, with Owl Head in Background

We crossed the little bridge, made our way across the valley floor covered with scratchy sagebrush (I had on shorts), and started climbing up towards the ridge above. The soil was sandy and loose, with a few bushes and small plants interspersed with grand ancient cedar trees. We reached the top of the saddle, and angled left toward the peak, a granite outcropping with panoramic views. There were several picturesque cedars which I photographed, together with views of our camp, Long Valley and the surrounding high Sierra. I also made a panorama of several photos. After a rest and a snack, we headed back down, retracing our route more or less, sliding down the slope in the sandy soil, and back to camp for lunch.

Lower Fish Valley from Owl Head

Ancient Cedar on Owl Head

Panorama from Owl Head

It began clouding up in the afternoon, and soon we heard distant thunder, moving closer. We decided that it was a good idea to put up the rain flies on our tents, and sure enough, as the lightening strikes neared, it started to rain. There were big bright flashes nearby, and very loud thunder – exciting but a little scary. The hikers to Tamarack Lake reported being even closer to the lightening strikes. The rain tapered off, and stopped in the evening, so I took down my rain fly.

After another evening of camp fire, drinking, freeze-dried dinners, etc., we three went to bed around 10:00pm (biggest mistake of the trip.) As I was sleeping, I was awakened by cries and cheering from the campfire, but I didn’t know what was happening. The next morning I found out that they were watching the Perseid meteor shower, and the cheers were for the ones that left big trails across the sky.

Sunday: Fishing; More Rain
The next morning Bob and I decided to have another go at fishing. I put the fly back up on my tent after I had taken it down the previous evening because there were already clouds appearing.

We walked down to Long Valley, about a half-hour downstream; there were lots of small chipmunks running around on the logs, squeaking at us. As we were walking down, I noticed a plume of smoke rising from the nearby mountainside; this must have been a fire started by yesterday’s lightening. After debating what to do for a while, we decided to ignore it and continue with our planned fishing. It was a small fire, not moving much, and we figured it wasn’t too dangerous. I later confirmed with Joe, our packer, that the forest service doesn’t suppress fires in wilderness areas.

Silver King Creek is a small stream, lower than normal this dry year, so the trout were concentrated in pools along the creek. I caught four small fish, the largest three around 7-9 inches long, which I released because I didn’t want to deal with carrying, cleaning, cooking, etc. After my flyreel fell apart again, I was ready to quit, as was Bob by then, so we headed back up to Fish Valley for lunch.
After lunch, I borrowed a pair of pliers from Bob to properly fix my reel by really tightening the spindle. I decided to go back to Long Valley and try a little more fishing in the afternoon (bad decision.) The clouds were already pretty solid overhead, so I secured my tent and stuff.

As I arrived where I left off that morning, the rain was beginning to fall lightly. I decided to fish for a while, and head home if the rain got worse. I got a few strikes and had one or two on the line briefly, but didn’t land any more. The rain gradually intensified until I couldn’t ignore it anymore, and I headed back up the trail. The fire we saw the previous day was almost completely out by then.

As I neared the camp, I became completely drenched and cold, dressed in just a tee-shirt and light pants (I had neglected to bring my rain jacket that afternoon.) It rained for most of the rest of the afternoon and evening, putting a damper on our last night at camp. We hastily made dinner, trying to stay out of the rain.

A couple of the kids were still out fishing, and we were becoming a bit worried as it got dark, but then they appeared, Daniel excited and proud with a string of a half-dozen fish. They cleaned the fish in the dark by the stream, cooked them in copious amounts of butter, and enjoyed them immensely.

After dinner some stars came out, and I stayed up hoping for a repeat of the meteor shower, but it was still cloudy, so I couldn’t see any meteors. That evening I made a start on organizing and packing because our packer was expected early in the morning. Of course it was all inside my tent, in the dark; my headlamp came in handy. I noticed a small leak in my tent over my feet, but since the rain had stopped by then I didn’t worry about it much. A couple of times throughout the night I awoke to the sound of light rain, but it wasn’t bad – enough to get wet, but not to flood the tents.

Monday: Decamp; Hike Out; Drive Home
We got up around six the next morning and after a cup of coffee, started breaking down our camp. I stuffed my bag, rolled the pad, disassembled the tent, and packed some stuff in my backpack and duffel bag. Since I was mostly ready, I decided to have a quick breakfast of milk and cereal. During that time most of the other campers had packed up and started down the trail with their packs. Sure enough, before I was done, Joe arrived around 8:00 am, before I was completely packed up.

The Trail back to the Pack Station

I hastily finished packing and delivered my items to a growing pile under a tree. As Joe was packing the mules, Bob and I started walking out. It was nice and cool in the early morning after the rain, and we made good progress walking down through Long Valley. We slowed down a bit walking up the grade to the big plateau, and the sun was shining on us. By the time we reached the top, we were tired, but all we had to do was descend the last mile through the trees.

When we reached the pack station, we found our gear unpacked from the mules and sitting on the platform. After loading up Chris’s truck, we paid Joe and drove down for lunch at Walker Burger (bacon cheeseburger!)

Driving up Sonora Pass, we saw a large truck which had been unable to make one of the hairpin turns; it was stuck, and would have to back down or turn around. The stream churning alongside the road was a thick chocolate-brown, and we wondered why; later when I noticed that the soil was the same color as the creek, I concluded that there had been an intense rainstorm and a lot of soil had washed into the stream – the fish probably didn’t like it. We even saw a little snow or hail under the trees, left over from the thunderstorms.

Driving towards the Bay Area, we again passed all the commuters, heading home. We arrived around 6:00 pm, tired and happy.