Sierra divide

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Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts; and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish.
John Muir, Sierra Club Bulletin, January 1896

On a granite saddle overlooking the Great Western Divide, nearly 12 miles from Sequoia's Giant Forest and just off the High Sierra Trail, sunlight lances through a forest of lodgepole pine. Mule deer graze in the distance; Steller's jays and marmots are hunting for pine nuts. It's early morning at Bearpaw High Sierra Camp, and breakfast is in the air.

Today it's a tomato and cheese frittata, hash browns, sausage, pears amandine, orange juice and coffee. A small group of campers forms outside the mess tent. Sleep is etched in each face, hair tousled in spectacular disarray.

But to call the residents of Bearpaw campers is something of a misnomer. Guests would be the more appropriate term for the fortunate few who can spend $350 a night ($175 per person per night; double occupancy required) for this pampered, if not epicurean, adventure.

As the guests finish eating, plates gathered up by the kitchen staff, the floorboards inside the mess tent suddenly begin to shake. A mechanical pounding fills the air. Some guests bolt outside, and staff members bound quickly over a nearby ridge.

In the distance, the black nose of a helicopter rises into view above Mineral King Valley to the south, its blades slicing the air. To the east lie Mt. Lippincott, Kaweah Gap and Eagle Scout Peak, serene and still in the morning haze.

Whoop. Whoop. Whoop.

Such is the wake-up call for luxury. As the chopper pauses above the tent cabins, the sun glints off its windows. The pilot looks for a good spot for the drop. A 100-foot cable carrying a cargo net of fresh vegetables, fruit, propane and clean linens moves like a metronome above the tree line. For the guests, it's a hypnotic reminder of why they are here.

Comfortable yet rustic, Bearpaw is a contradiction in camping, a throwback to a time when camping didn't necessarily mean sleeping on the ground, gnawing on freeze-dried stroganoff or practicing the ethics of leave-no-trace. Here the prices are steep, and the payoff — a hot shower, a soft bed and a home-cooked meal in the middle of Muir's wilderness — is, for these campers turned guests, worth every penny.

"Last June was my first trip and I thought it was God's country," says Belinda Ordonez, 42, of Aptos. "This is the Ritz-Carlton of backpacking."

Founded in 1934, Bearpaw is one of a handful of backcountry camps. It is the only one in Sequoia National Park; five others are in Yosemite National Park (which remained closed this season due to heavy snow and low temperatures). While most of the camps accommodate between 32 and 60 people, Bearpaw is the smallest, handling about 15 — and for some that is 15 too many.

"I was walking on the John Muir Trail to Merced Lake [in Yosemite], and I was hiking for quite a few hours," says George Whitmore, chairman of the Sierra Club's Yosemite Committee. "And all at once you walk into a volleyball game…. I never went back, I found it so distressing."

Roughing it revisitedTO most campers, the high-country camps are not a four-star experience, but for backpackers they are pure luxury and they opened the Sierra to Californians nearly a century ago. Sustained by pack trains, these camps appealed to well-heeled travelers, who took advantage of the tent platforms and commissaries as they made their way into the backcountry.

Muir himself enjoyed the hospitality of these way stations, and the Sierra Club considered them central to its mission. Preservation of the mountains, it was argued, would be guaranteed so long as everyone had access to them and could see their beauty firsthand. After World War II, however, this ethic changed, and the Sierra Club shifted its stance from "explore, enjoy and render accessible" to "explore, enjoy and preserve."

Today nylon and aluminum backpacks have replaced the wood and canvas Trapper Nelson models, but Bearpaw remains popular as ever. Its vacancies, up to 15 per night, fill up quickly each year, as soon as the phone lines to the concessionaire, Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts, open at 7 a.m. Jan. 2. Guests are rarely first-timers. Most have been coming here for years.

Delle Maxwell discovered Bearpaw 18 years ago on a hike from Mineral King to Kaweah Gap. "We had lemonade and brownies on the porch," she says (the camp sometimes offers snacks to passing hikers). "And I thought it would be a nice place to stop some time."

At 53 and an active Sierra Club member, Maxwell has spent six summers here and is introducing the experience to her sister, Lynn Gascoyne, who's traveled from Texas to take in the mountains.

"This place is a cross between primitive and gourmet," says Gascoyne. "You hike 11.5 miles and you still sleep in a down comforter."

And the rules are simple: Keep towels as long as you can. Snacks should not be kept in your cabin. Boxed wine is $4 a glass and it's on the honor system, so keep track of what you drink. Showers are available only in the afternoon before dinner. Lunches can be purchased for $4 to $8, just tell the staff at dinner. And the last person to go to bed must douse the campfire with a bucket of water.

A staff of five works eight-hour shifts, with the 5:30 a.m. shift stocking and cleaning the kitchen and making breakfast. At 11 a.m., the dinner cook starts baking desserts and bread. The mid-day shift comes in for housekeeping, dishes and other cleanup duties around camp.

At Bearpaw, there's no electricity, no phones and the only cellular phone reception is a mile from camp on a slippery cliff edge called "the Phone Booth." But according to Carolyn Pistilli, Bearpaw's on-site manager, few guests complain about this or about the dust that seeps into boots, backpacks, clothes and linens, or about being awakened at night by deer or a marmot chewing on the floorboards.

After a dinner of pork tenderloin and poundcake with fresh strawberries and cream ("How can you go back to PowerBars after this?" someone asks), the guests gather around the fire pit, a small indentation in granite ringed by tree-stump seats. The summer sky is slowly darkening. To the east, Mt. Eisen is soon haloed by a full moon casting its light on the distant snowfields.

Uncommon groundWHEN Bearpaw was established more than 70 years ago, there were fewer rules and regulations governing the use of national park land. At the time, creating the boundaries of the park as we now know it, was difficult enough, and only more recently do we have the relative luxury of defining portions of the land as "backcountry" and as "wilderness."

Viewed by some as potential wilderness, Bearpaw is in backcountry, a designation for a primitive portion of park land that can be accessed by trails (to stay here, you must obtain a wilderness permit, just like backpackers). But only about 30 yards separates Bearpaw from wilderness, a designation for land that has no roads or improvements, and this 30 yards is just enough for some people to wish that Bearpaw would go away.

"For my personal point of view, I would rather [the Yosemite and Sequoia camps] weren't there," says Joe Fontaine, a member of the Sierra Club's Sequoia Task Force. "But they were grandfathered in…. Any time you get a lot of people in a small area, it has an impact in the immediate area."

Fontaine's opposition focuses on the footprint of these camps. Questions about sewage, which is treated on site by a septic tank; of trash, which must be hauled out; and of incompatible use are often raised. And though there have been a few proposals in the park's management plan to shut the camp down and restore the site to its pre-1930s state, none have succeeded.

The Sierra Club's Whitmore complains about the "Swiss-cheese" effect of these camps, little holes of backcountry development disrupting a continuous wilderness.

Because the camps can't be moved, they complicate any discussion of setting aside more wilderness space in Sequoia or in the High Sierra.

Bill Tweed, chief naturalist for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, takes a more traditional point of view, one that will allow for more diversity in the wilderness. The camps, he says, are "a pleasant leftover from a world with much fewer human beings," and Fontaine is a "wilderness purist."

"I would harbor the hope that even the environmental community could disagree a few times," he says.

Perhaps the most common grievance leveled against Bearpaw, however, concerns the pack trains, a string of six or seven mules led by two guides on horseback that carry supplies twice a week from the Wolverton trailhead on the High Sierra Trail to the camp. (Because of the lingering snowpack and dangerous stream crossings, a helicopter was used earlier this year.)

Whitmore cites evidence that these animals damage the trail and surrounding vegetation. "That's a major impact on trails — running livestock in and out twice a week," he says. "And other people say the helicopter would have an impact too, so maybe that raises the question: Maybe the camp doesn't belong here."

Short of their complete removal, however, Whitmore would like to see at least two modifications. First, replace the flush toilets and septic tanks with solar-powered composting toilets. Second, no volleyball, referring to the camps in Yosemite.

"There should be a reasonable guideline that any activity should be related in some way to the park itself," he says. "Or perhaps I'm being unreasonable. Maybe they should have a putting green at Vogelsang."

Vogelsang, at more than 10,000 feet in elevation, is the most remote — and by many accounts, the most beautiful — of the Yosemite camps.

Despite the arguments, Bearpaw is a business, and there are no guarantees for its future. According to Catherine Boire, a spokeswoman for Delaware North, the profit margin at Bearpaw — even at $350 a night for two — is slim. The cost of the helicopter, for instance, runs at almost $1,000 an hour, and the cost of setting up the camp each year is $15,000.

Another high camp?NAMED for the black bears that roam the area — and seem to be scarce this year, perhaps due to the colder temperatures — Bearpaw with its tent cabins is a familiar sight for backpackers en route to such backcountry destinations as Redwood Meadow, Elizabeth Pass and Hamilton Lakes.

One hiker, Jim McElroy, stops on the porch of the mess tent. He is on his way to Bearpaw Meadow Campground after spending two nights at Hamilton Lakes. The 41-year-old backpacker leans against the porch railing, memorizing the outlines of the distant peaks. He sees nothing wrong with the camp, but it isn't his kind of Sierra experience.

"I would never stay here," he says. "I like pitching my tent out in the woods."

As he leaves, the camp begins to fill with the smells of dinner: Indonesian ginger chicken, orange rice, molasses bread, broccoli-squash-pepper quiche and sautéed asparagus with almonds.

"There's this whole flap that this is a wilderness area and all this should be taken down," Maxwell says. "There are different ways to go up into the mountains without it being Disneyland."

Her sister agrees. "I'm out of shape," Gascoyne says. "I can't carry 60 pounds every day. There are people who can hardly walk 10 yards at Grant Grove. The park should be accessible to people in different ways. I don't think six tents on 200 square yards is bad."

Currently, the National Park Service is considering a plan to establish another High Sierra camp on the Hockett Plateau, an area in the backcountry south of Mineral King that is popular with equestrian users. The proposal is already drawing opposition.

*


Barbara E. Hernandez can be reached at outdoors@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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