Mendocino National Forest above Clear Lake

Trip Date:  May 5, 2016

Find this Spot


This was essentially a bachelor party for Vince as he is scheduled to take the big step sometime in mid-June, so the boys figured we should have a gathering of fools in his honor.  There were a couple of other dates and destinations proposed, but as conflicts emerged and time passed on, Vinny settled on this date and Monitor for his “special trip”.

As the time approached, the weather and road conditions began to be checked with increasing frequency.  Highway 89 over Monitor Pass was closed the week before, and the weather, especially in the Sierra’s was looking to be wet, suggesting it was very unlikely that 89 would open and therefore, we could not get to Monitor Pass.  With our destination in flux, a flurry of emails resulted with suggestions far and wide for potential directions to head out in.

With each passing day, weather reports, road conditions, memories of prior trips destinations, and proposals for new destinations poured in.  The boys must have been taking more breaks from their work than usual, as the messages were flying with regularity at tiny intervals – our computers were flush with messages and responses and replies and corrections, and proposals and counter-proposals.  The breadth and depth of the research and science was impressive.

By Tuesday, May 3, it was generally agreed upon that we would head West above Clear Lake to an old spot Keir, Ken, Steve, and I had camped maybe 10 years ago.  The weather in the Sierra’s looked generally bad with rain every day in the lower elevations, and snow in the upper elevations.  At least in the Southern Mendocino NF, we had 70%, 60%, and 50% chance of rain instead of 90%, 90%, and 90% to the East.

Ken knew where the spot was from our prior trip and he was riding with Bob in Tom’s rig.  Vinny and Bob were going in Mike’s rig, and me with Bill.  I had spoken to Vinny while looking at Google maps, but it was hard for me to tell exactly what road the spot was on; I just knew how to get there, but it sounded like those two rigs were caravanning, I figured Ken would guide them in.  Unfortunately, Tom had a nail in his tire at the outset and so those 2 rigs separated.  We were able to exchange messages early on, but once Bill and I got up into the mountains above Clear Lake on Road 303 that leaves Highway 20 between Lucerne and Nice, I no longer got reception.  Fortunately, Verizon seems to have the best coverage and get the best reception out in the wilds, and Bill and Tom have Verizon, so they were able to communicate even in the mountains.

I swear the Mendocino purposefully puts little effort into road signage and almost none in road maintenance.  It didn’t used to be that way when I worked in the forest with Gabe and Marty, but that place tears me up now, at least the southern districts.  Of course, we worked out of Covelo and Alder Springs back then, having little to do with the south end of the forest, but still, I know we used to be able to get around easily.

On the prior trip to this spot, Steve, Keir, Ken, and I started out on the SouthEast corner of the forest and passed by Indian Valley Reservoir and proceeded along Bartlett Springs Road (303) which follows alongside North Fork of Cache Creek and Bartlett Creek, then rises up towards Bartlett Mountain Summit.  The spot is maybe a 100 yard long ridge covered in brewer oaks that is quite flat with much fairly level ground.  By the time we had found this spot, it had been a long hot, dusty day filled with ticks at the one spot we had stopped prior to finding this one.

So coming from 20 up 303, I knew it would be a tad of a challenge, not only because of the 10 years between visits, but coming from the opposite direction.  The biggest challenge however turned out to be the fog.  It was thick up top, seriously reducing visibility and grinding our progress to a snails pace.  We had talked to Tom via Verizon as we were in Lucerne and they were in Esparto.  We still weren’t sure of Mike’s whereabouts.

As we continued to climb, as dodge sprinkles, we stopped to explore a potential site, not ours I was sure, but a possible backup just in case.  While not adequate for a group our size, it had views of the vineyards and orchards below, the winery and the grounds and landscaping around it, and out over Clear Lake.  It was an oaky knoll, surrounded by tall lush green grass – it was quite a setting, but not what we needed.

On we pushed, deeper into the fog and near 100% humidity; past the Subaru’s and canvas tents of the Precious Forest reducing my confidence we were still heading in the right direction, because I sure don’t recall that place.  Then we came to the 4-way intersection of Bartlett Mountain Summit, still not looking familiar and further reducing my confidence.  The further we headed East, the less I felt we would pass our destination; until, of course, we did.

It definitely was different this time.  I couldn’t recall if the entrance to the site was right off the road or if we had to drive out the ridge a little before the end of the site at the road.  It certainly did not have 7 dump truck loads of gravel piled up at the entrance to the road – that I do remember.  The road dropped off quite steeply at the entrance, so I had Bill stop and I ambled out to scout.  It was of course, the hardest rain we had of the entire trip at that exact moment.

It did not damped my spirits however, as I was joyous at confirming we had arrived at our intended destination and it was not occupied.  Bill turned around to back into the drive so that we could easily see the road in either direction as we enjoyed a celebratory beverage and joked about being in the steamy car fogging up the windows.  Bill again was able to raise Bob via Tom’s Verizon phone to let them know we had arrived.  Still we could not raise Mike/Bob/Vinny, but the guys said they were between us so we should see them shortly.

Of course, we turned our heads for a minute and they must have gotten by us.  We eventually figured we would drive into the site and unload while we waited for the others.  We must have been paying attention as we picked our way through the oaks and/or unloading at the site and not seen Mike drive by or seen him heading down the grade past us off in the distance.  Somehow he got by us in the 10-15 minutes we were away from the road.

Once unloaded, Bill returned to the road to wait.  Before long, the blue FJ with the white top rounded the corner and came to a stop nose to nose with the Tundra.  There was much rejoicing.  Once Bill moved his rig to let Tom access the site, he must have followed him down in there.  I do know though he opened up his gigantic rainbow umbrella and left it on one of the gravel piles at the entrance to the site.  But he must not have had his truck out there.  In any event, we were all at the site unloading and carrying on when we saw Mike pulling up the grade from down the hill a few turns shy of the entrance to the site.

None of us really hurried up to the road because we had left the umbrella.  However, as I ambled up the path to the road, I could hear Mike’s rig rounding a bend off in the distance heading away from us again.  This was impossible to consider he had missed the umbrella.  But when we all got to the road, no Mike and no umbrella.  It was breezy with maybe a gust every once in a while, but even if the umbrella had blown away, there was no way it could have gotten anywhere we couldn’t see it at all.  That was not possible.

Tom and Bob mounted the FJ and sped out to catch them.  We walked the road in both directions looking for the umbrella.  It had totally disappeared.  Two vehicles had passed by the entrance to the site and one of them must have nabbed it – there was no other way for it to completely disappear – what a drag.  Especially with the Subaru laden getaway down the hill, we figured it could have ended up over there.

Tom and Bob returned shortly with the Mike mobile in tow and all were united.  It was still drizzling on and off, but it wasn’t bad at all.  By the time you got your gear on it stopped, so pretty soon I didn’t worry about it.  In a bustle of activity and coordinated effort, the rigs were emptied, tents erected, and 2 soccer tents rigged that we would duck under when the fog turned to drizzle.  In between setting up the kitchen and getting a fire going, the boys would venture out to the rock outcropping to enjoy the view of the valley below when the fog cleared enough or just enjoyed the fog show as the breezes pushed it in or blew it out, or small independent puffs floated freely on the currents.  It was quite a show.

Bill and I had brought a step ladder and that proved to be a winner.  Despite Bill being about 6’5”, he needed the extra step while fitting the new plastic covering over his new Costco soccer tent.  Wanting to continue its good use, I carried it down to a boulder mass a little ways down the trail below the site.  I may have scrambled up on these rocks 10 years ago, but certainly not this trip.  The ladder was a perfect fit.  It was still a couple of feet above that dangerous last rung of the ladder to the top of the rocks, but it got us up there without incident.

I could not bring myself to choose a tent site and set up so I rousted the boys to join me atop the broken boulders to enjoy the view of the valley below.  It took me no time atoll this time to realize the valley we saw from the boulders was the same valley we saw from the rock outcropping up top, despite the fact I thought they were 2 different valleys the entire trip last time.  See how we grow and expand our horizons on these trips – just outstanding knowledge.

Some of the boys came and went whilst others cackled and hooted and howled up top by the fire.  It was great just hanging; enjoying the view; enjoying the beginnings of the trip; enjoying being all together now.  There was a very good vibe.  We scrambled back down the rock, not to return for the rest of the trip, despite last trip spending so much of the time there.  But it had served its purpose and served the boys well.  We were flying high.

The boys had a good fire going and an immense amount of coals going.  The fire ring was another good one, anchored by big triangle of a rock that towered above the rest and the wood of the fire below inside the ring.  Being a tad touched with consumption, I rested the middle of the grill on the tip of the triangle rock and tried to balance grill and sausages while they cooked.  While quite humorous, it was less than effective and even less sanitary as multiple weenies rolled off the rocking grill into the dirt.

The boys lent a hand, but rather than taking the grill off the point of the rock, they attempted to secure the ends of the grill on other pieces of wood, which soon caught on fire from the billion degrees of embers and coals that the boys had going.  Somehow the grilling was achieved and much consuming ensued.  There was excellent breads and crackers and cheese; sausage, chicken, pasta, and asparagus.  Beverages flowed, outstanding tunes were played; the weather was a non-issue.  I saw 2 stars in between the broiling late night clouds and then it was off to bed bed.  What a great day and fantastic night.

The morning was more drizzle; a few moments of clearing to see the valley below; then thick wet fog; maybe a few minutes of drizzle, then the wet fog would push out to reveal the typical high gray overcast.  The fog in the canyons and creeping along the ridges, rising and fallings, puffs breaking loose and free fallin; pushing up and falling  away – it was alive, magical, enthralling, mesmerizing; a constant source of entertainment and intrigue.

A great fire warmed us and dried us as needed (some more than others).  Coffee flowed in great quantities.  An excellent breakfast was prepared for the gang and consumed in great quantities.  There was much milling about and moseying around.  Some wandered down to the creek to wash off, some did some amount of cleaning/picking up, some were thinking deep thoughts.  A few boys strolled down the road from the creek passing under the road in the culvert at the bend, passing a steep rocky hillside facing south.   At first blush, this was just another hot, dry, rocky road cut.  At closer, more patient inspection, it was a mural of color, plant diversity, and wild flowers.  The variety was impressive, especially in such a fairly small area.  There was everything from crawly ground covers, to upright tall firecrackers and penstemon.  There were hardy succulents and dainty tiny single stems with tiny flowers.  There were yellows, reds, oranges, and blues, purples, and magentas.  The closer you looked, the more you saw.  We took a long time looking and seeing and being very impressed.  We also had a great perspective on our Brewer oak topped ridgeline campsite that gave the appearance of a Mohawk as it loomed narrow and much higher above the surrounding vegetation.  Here we were in no-where special Lake County, barely inside the Mendocino National Forest, along nothing special County road 303/Bartlett Springs Road, in no particularly special place, but we were blown away by the beauty we were in the midst of; just from stopping and being out and taking the time to look.  It was a trip.

By the time we meandered back to the camp, some of the boys had whipped out sandwich makings and were plying the gang with hoagies of all shapes and sizes and contents.  Perhaps being refueled, there seemed to be a renewed energy and a task force embarked on an epic journey down the road in the other direction.  It was part attempt to recreate a hike of 10 years ago, part random walk-about.  We had gone an immense distance, perhaps more than a mile uphill for most of the way with at least a 4% slope, when exhaustion set in.  Some of the boys began asking why and instantly we knew no greater distance would be achieved.  We pulled off the track and sat a spell, only to decide we should head back to a more comfortable setting perhaps near a babbling brook we had passed.

We retraced our steps to the creek/brook/stream and headed off the road just a bit to get the feel of sitting out in the woods.  As I reached for my trail mix, protein bar, and water bottle, much to my dismay, one in the group unfurled a substantial water bottle filled, not with water mind you, but with the juice of life.   Not only did we have a quantity of Manhattan’s, we had a couple fancy glasses from which to imbibe them.  And, not only did we had fancy glasses, we had ice and fresh cherries to garnish our mystical beverage. There was much rejoicing.  This was the best hiking break ever.

The boys sat and pondered simple things in simple ways.  We passed the glasses around each taking a turn sipping from the goblet.  We had quite a few laughs and shared quite a few stories, memories, and vague recollections.  It was a blast.  With the consumption slowing, or perhaps the pourer tiring, we packed up and addressed the arduous trek ahead of us.  What became apparent at some point along the way, was the vast difference between this part of the road from the dry hillside below our camp.

This side was a dark, dense, green forest of Douglas Fir and White Fir.  There were definitely Pines and Oaks, but they were not the dominant species.  This forest provided heavy shade and much cooler temps and moister air.  It was calm and quiet in this forest.  However, that did not last at all.  For some reason, those in the group carrying the not one but apparently 2 jugs of Manhattan’s decided their burden was much too great.  They demanded we empty the contents of their packs to lighten their loads.  As 2 of the group had picked up speed and were far ahead of us, this task was left to the 4 stargglers.  Fortunately, both containers were in our midst such that the entire burden could be relieved.  Oh my.

It cannot be proven that this second dosage of the juice caused the change in the atmosphere, but the quiet and calm forest soon erupted in commotion.  A pile of fairly sizable oak branches lying below the road was soon resurrected from their resting place and each of us was dragging a 10’ branch down the road.  If no other benefit, the branches covered our tracks so we could not be followed, if it were not for the hooting and hollering at the determined absurdity of our actions.  As we drug our prized possessions into camp, we found that the other 2 of our group that had already arrived back at camp had also fallen to the same affliction.  For unknown reasons of their own, they had drug up an old battered truck door that was resting below the hill and they had the clear guidance that it too should be resurrected and drug to camp. It was uncanny how these insightful minds thought alike.

The insanity of it all thickened and solidified and erupted into unbridled silliness and joy.  The music was amplified, the dancing unique and the fire enlarged with the laying upon of the branches.  Axes swung freely, jocularity abounded, the branches of the living oaks singed by the incineration of the branches that had passed before.  I remember hacking on a branch with some sort of mining tool my brother gave to me; clearly I was having little success.  As I was totally bent over at the waist, with my head just above the ground whacking on a limb with this blunt object, an ax appeared in my vision; no hand, arm, body, face or any other evidence of how it was hovering in front of my face, but I remember how happy I was to have this ax in my hand and how effective it was compared to the blunt object.

I kept feeding the dead limbs into the fire and dancing about – I felt about as good as I had in years – free, happy, and full of energy – this was a pure celebration of life.  I vaguely recall someone naked with their whitey tighties over their heads dancing on the rocks.  I may or may not have taken pictures of said subject.  The next thing I remember I was falling down on the rocky outcrop – rather gently and in somewhat of a controlled descent.

I almost always get the spins when I drink too much.  Ever since high school, when Mike O and I drank Gin mixed with beer because we didn’t drink beer in high school we would drink Gin and some mixer/soda of some kind.  On this night, I believe it was at Lands’ End by the USS San Francisco Memorial – I can’t remember what we called it then – that both of us brought Gin and we had nothing to mix it with, so we borrowed some beers and drank that – bad bad very bad idea.  Alright, it might even have started in grammar school at the Grove when we drank pints of Bacardi and hurled in the bushes at the West end of Pine Lake.

Someday I will actually conduct tours of the City of all the places I puked, because it just always seemed like whenever I drank to much, I would get the spins and puke.  You’d think that would be enough to make me cautious about drinking too much, or perhaps not drink at all, but it didn’t.  However, on this rocky ledge, overlooking the valley below, enshrouded in fog hugging the ridges, I was suddenly struck with drunkenness.  In an instant, I went from cutting the limbs, dancing, singing, carrying on, and possibly wrestling guys towards the edge of the raging fire to unable to stand up.  Laying out on the rocky ridge was not bad.  I was comfortable, I was warm, I could hear the music and the laughter, and I didn’t have the spins.  I was just chillin on my rocky ledge.

At some point, I believe Ken came and got me, helped me to my feet and kinda drug me to my tent.  I sorta remember this happening although I was not looking up or around, just staring at the ground.  I do recall passing by a certain large tent and seeing the back of a balding head hovering above a puddle of bright yellow foam.  What a sight.  Another fallen comrade.  I don’t remember getting into my tent or anything happening in the tent, but I did wake up with Sponge Bob, so I know I was well taken care of.

Very much unlike the night at Tahoe with my high school buddies, when I again suffered from consumptions and it hit me real hard and real fast, I felt perfectly fine in the morning – no hang over, not even a headache.  I had some pain up the one side of my back from my rest on the rock ledge, but other than that, I was right as rain.  I’m not sure that could be said of the entire camp.  However, the fire was going and coffee abounded, the detritus of a wild celebration strewn about the camp.  One by one, the humanoids emerged from their nests and it wasn’t long before we were picking up trash and cleaning off tables and organizing bins and making piles of gear.

I imagine due to the fog and haze of the morning, the thought of moving vehicles and tents to clear the road to drive down to camp to load up was too much, so the boys were sherpaing their containers and good up the hill to the trucks.  It was great that they had been pulled out of camp and out of sight up by the road as it not only provided more space for tents and crap, but it also gave the impression of having hiked in or at least not having the rigs detract from our nature experience.

Bill and I were in the least hurry to get home, so we packed up our gear but left it in piles and the rest of the boys made trip after trudging trip up the hill to the rigs.  We rested with Bob and a beverage around the glowing embers of the fire, relaxing as numerous hands stuffed gear into the trucks and lashed things to the rooves.  It was an exhausting effort.  At last, the other 3 rigs were packed and off down the road.  Bill and I could finally have some alone time and backed his Tundra down the hill to the camp for easier loading.  We doused the fire, made one last trip around camp looking for anything we may have missed and headed on off down the road.

We got about 100 yards, down to the creek and our first stop.  I wanted to try to dig up some plants to bring home, so we had emptied a plastic bin and left it up on top accessible.  There were a couple Big leaf Maples, and an assortment of wildflowers in the shade of the creek I wanted to try to get.  It was exciting to get the plants, but it was also cool to hang by the creek and enjoy the cool of the shade one more time.  With a half dozen samples, we headed perhaps 200 yards further down the road to an open, sunny, rocky hillside for several more species samples.

The digging on the rocky slope was tough going and as I focused on trying to get enough roots without destroying the sample, I failed to notice the car that was behind the plastic bin I left in the middle of the road.  The road was too narrow to go around it so they patiently waited for me to notice them.  My box was getting full and super heavy, but there were so many samples I would have loved to get and maybe 2 or 3 of each to increase my chances of success.  But, the bin was full and it was time to roll.  In an hour or so we were by Indian Valley Reservoir and another hour brought us to the verge of a great lunch at the Road Trip Bar and Grill in Capay.  Unfortunately, as we walked up to the back door, we saw they were setting up for a private party, so that was the end of that.  Our trip ended with a whimper, but we felt we had sent Vinny off to his next chapter in fine fashion.

Find this Spot


Mendocino National Forest Photo Gallery