Read Three Days of the Chumash: Part I by the Los Padres Expat
Before the 1992 Los Padres Condor Range and River Protection Act formed the Chumash and most of our local wilderness areas, we just referred to this corner of the forest as “Pinos” or “the Badlands,” depending on what elevation one expected to find oneself.
The moniker applied to the lower north-facing slopes of Pine Mountain as well, though that was to be included in the Sespe Wilderness. I’d learned to shoot, fish, tie a blood knot (probably a bit rusty on that one), navigate cross-country with map and compass, ID my first rattlers, and who knows what else in this spot of country … long before Congress told us it was wilderness. This was 38,000 acres of granite outcrops, Jeffrey pine, and piñon, and it was the best backyard a kid could ever have.
And as with any place a person has come to regard as a second home, so too come numerous favorite corners, lunch spots, little rock faces (back when I clambered about on such things), and a few habits. When I was twelve we started running the last stretch from Puerta del Suelo to Cerro Noroeste Road hollering the “Rocky” theme at the top of our lungs, a tradition that yet lives. I never stop to wonder what somebody would have thought when last summer I barreled down Big Pine Road to the Alamo gate in full song, or — with barely enough air to breathe — how ridiculous I probably seem laboring up the last stretch of Beartrap Canyon to the Piedra Blanca saddle inquiring “you wanna ring the bell?” to nobody in particular. These things matter.
ZK has always understood this. But now comes another fellow — the Los Padres Expat — who knows something about forest-bound tradition and its import and the pivotal role hearty hounds, random Mel Brooks quotes, and single malt play in complementing a wilderness weekend. And he comes with a pack full of camera gear.
To the hills!
And so with red beards (some long, some … um, distinguished, and some unkempt) and hounds at the ready, we three dropped into the Chumash Wilderness from the old condor observation point on a blessedly breezy and cool afternoon. Granite monoliths and towering conifers who’ve watched me transform from a wide-eyed 7-year-old hiker to a half-crazed Caledonian sherpa over the past decades ushered us along clear tread of crumbling granite and patchy snow; indian paintbrush, yellow rabbitbrush, and the occasional blazing star dotted our route. But it’s been a dry winter and the flowers that are usually such a treat along the Mt. Pinos summit look to be taking a sabbatical this year. C’est dommage.
Jeffrey pine and white fir kept things cool, and in little time we arrived at Sheep Camp, the three-tiered site along the North Fork trail named for the “hoofed locusts” watched by Basque shepherds ages ago. We settled into the lower camp on the edge of the flat and each with a Guinness in hand soaked in the commanding views of Apache Canyon, the mesa, and the Cuyama. From 8200’ such features are quickly put into perspective.
After a few moments’ reflection, we fell into the usual routine. ZK set the fire and then headed up to the spring to replenish our water stores; I set to dicing up the onions and peppers and heating the steaks for the traditional first-night fajitas. Somewhere along the line a few more stouts passed through St. James’s Gate. We salute their sacrifice to the splendor that is base-camping at Sheep.
The Expat headed out along the ridge near a fourth “overflow” guerrilla site (where my young bride and I spent a wickedly windy night late last century) and engaged in that ritual of f-stop, something something, depth of field, something something, about which I am completely clueless but which yields the photographic highlights of any trek. I left the uber-hund atop the granite outcrop to keep an eye whilst the steaks spat on the coals; in due time the uber-hund returned and so we knew the Expat would arrive shortly thereafter.
Over dinner, we reminisced of trails gone and forgotten and ones for which we still hold some hope. The pack dozed ‘til their rations were thrown — loyalty of creatures of the wood is easily had: men require stout and/or whisky; women chocolate, warm feet and clean faces; wee hikers hot chocolate; the hounds a pound or so of raw steak. It’s a pretty simple equation.
Day the Second
We awoke to the lazy and almost half-hearted knocking of a pair of woodpeckers up-canyon; the usual horned owl sentries kept silent during the night. (A rarity.)
The morning fire heated the corned beef hash and the coffee was plentiful. We took our time and savored three or four cups. Over this breakfast, the realization truly sank in — we had no agenda today. How long had it been that I’d entered the forest for more than an overnighter with no “to do” list, no final piece of data to confirm for the guide, no waypoint to double-check, no mission to confirm mileage along a lonely stretch of forest? I couldn’t remember — these past few years have been a blur of coordinates, fuel receipts, edits, corrections, and hiking. (Lots of hiking.)
So with nothing demanding our attention, there was some indifference as to what we “should” do. Head down to Mesa Spring? Grouse Mountain? Cerro Noroeste? Back to Sawmill? Somewhere around the third cup of coffee and umpteeth tale of wilderness hilarity we casually agreed Grouse Mountain sounded good. In due time.
Eventually we stepped back into Kern County and wandered back up to the junction with the Tumamait/Mt. Pinos Trail and headed west. ZK’s boots were the first to break the snow and sheets of ice we crossed; we reckon it had been weeks since the last folk passed this way. At the saddle from which some of the very highest waters of Apache Canyon drop, we cut southwest along the old guerrilla route which — don’t hate us here — is clearer than just about any established route you’ll find in the Santa Barbara backcountry. It’s just ridiculous how easy it is to navigate this corner of the LPNF.
In little time we reached the stacked cairn atop Grouse Mountain (see the one atop Sawmill for impressive rockwork), and then it was another lazy couple of hours doing a whole lot of nothing at 8582′. We inspected a rock formation down the eastern slope, and then just took a cross-country tack back toward the trail. I think we had to duck the branch of a low-slung A. concolor at one point, but we could have just as easily walked around it. It’s almost cheating.
We headed back to camp, having accomplished enough for one day. Mid-afternoon Guinness all around (a few rounds). We lazed about camp picking apart the new Trails Illustrated map (more on that later), browsing Dibblee’s geologic maps of the Cuddy Valley and Sawmill quads, and reading sundry reports of the area. Yes, I carry a library into camp. And yes, my 6200 cu. in. (101 liter) pack is a veritable infinite pack of holding, thank you kindly. (It’s the undetectable extension charm that makes it all so manageable.)
Sunsets photographed, stories swapped, cross-country routes pondered, and the world’s problems solved, it was under a half-moon so bright it cast our shadows against the thick duff of the forest floor that we set to slumber.
Day the Third
The next morn we shrugged into our packs for the drop down the North Fork of Lockwood Creek. The initial descent from Sheep Camp to the first crossing of the creek is steep, there’s no sense in pretending otherwise. It’s the one scoutmasters use to get their young hikers in shape for summer Sierra trips, and with good reason. Going down is certainly easier, but can also feel like a ski run when things are dry. And things are dry right now.
After finding only a few points where the dogs could water and passing through the high flats, we broke from the trail and had a short lunch at our usual spot above Lily Meadows. Then it was down the throat above North Fork Falls (barely a trickle at present), and an extended segue to visit the nearby rock art. This was the Expat in all his fine-detail photographic glory. He was having way too much fun.
We moseyed the final stretch back toward Camp Three Falls with another fine (albeit low-impact) Chumash excursion under our hipbelts. Even when bereft of owls, wildflowers, and water, we never tire of this stretch of forest.
Here’s hoping it feels the same about us … ’cause we’ll be back soon.