Returning to the PCT from the preserve, we continued up Whitewater Canyon until we reached the Whitewater Creek crossing. Not wanting to stop to take off our shoes, Sierra and I plunged right in, enjoying the sensation of the cool water seeping into our trail runners and bathing our hot feet.
But when we reached the opposite bank, the trail was nowhere in sight. Instead, a myriad of footprints aimlessly traipsed through the sand in every direction. We followed first one set of tracks, then another, to no avail.
Spotting two other hikers confidently striding through the creekbed, we turned downstream to follow them. "I'm afraid we are leading you astray. We don't know where the trail is either" one of them called back a few minutes later.
Finally, I pulled out the map. As I was studying it, I heard a noise, like the drone of a squadron of bombers. Looking up, I saw a thick cloud of bees swarming over our heads. After waiting for them to pass, we headed off in the opposite direction, confident we would find the trail again after consulting the map.
The trail climbed steeply up a hot, barren canyon, then followed the ridge. The ridge top was windy, with strong gusts that literally blew us off the trail multiple times. We were relieved when we finally dropped down to the first shady crossing of the east fork of Mission Creek.
But the climb out of the canyon was hot and exposed, with little breeze or shade to cool us down. The canyon is narrow, with steep rocky walls, forcing the trail to cross back and forth over the creek many times. We felt like pinballs, bouncing across the creek from one side of the narrow canyon to the other.
Shortly after our last crossing of the day, I heard a short familiar rattling sound in the grass next to the trail. A rattlesnake was partially coiled, with tail outstretched and head alert, poised to strike if necessary. We froze instantly. Then the rattlesnake slowly slithered away from the trail into the bushes.
We found a sandy, open camp a little farther up the east fork of Mission Creek. In the distance we could hear the chattering of the creek, and the crickets and the frogs serenaded us with a lullaby.