Saturday, August 4, 2012

Day 105: Shackleford Creek Saddle to Cold Springs Creek

I opened my eyes.  The U-shaped bend of an inchworm perched on my sleeping bag, just inches from my face.  The inchworm stretched out its front legs, flattening the bend, then scrunched up its body again, moving its back legs close to its front legs, once again forming the upside down U-shaped bend.  The worm inched along slowly as it repeatedly stretched and scrunched.

From our camp on the ridge (6,590 ft) we could once again hear the chorus of bells as a herd of cows grazed on the meadows and grassy hillsides below.  As we hiked, the sounds grew steadily louder, punctuated by the occasional low note of a cow trumpeting its distress.  Switchbacking down to a low forested saddle, we realized why the bells had grown so loud.  Several large cows blocked the trail, and countless others grazed in the trees lining the trail.

The cows in the mountains above Etna roam freely, unrestrained by fences or watchful human eyes.  Locals say that at the end of summer, the animals instinctively wander down from the hills on their own.  With so little human contact, the cows seem to fear humans and animal predators alike.

Panic ensued as we approached.  The cows began stampeding down the trail, slowing periodically only to begin charging down the trail away from us as soon as we approached.  We hiked almost a mile this way, following the panicked herd.  Finally, one clever cow veered off the trail, and the rest of the clanging herd followed her.

Just below we dropped into the Marble Valley in Marble Mountain Wilderness area, we reached a large deposit of creamy white and gray marble.  Some of the stone was smooth, although it lacked the polished look of finished stone after it has been worked.  Other stones showed the rough texture of the large crystal like structure, reminding me a little of rock salt.

We stopped in the Marble Valley to gather cold, delicious water at the creek.  Then we climbed, passing first through forest, then grassy hillsides blanketed with a  rainbow of wildflowers: white cow's parsnip, purple lupine, red paintbrush and columbine, yellow and lavendar daisies, electric blue penstemon, and a variety of other flowers in yellows, pinks, and purples. 

The trail passed under several marble cliffs and next to a large, flat marble balcony with several deep caverns worn away in the stone.  Black Mountain towered over the valley, its dark peak a stunning contrast to the large bands of creamy gray marble below.

Stopping for lunch, we were immediately swarmed by flies.  Flies have been an almost constant problem since entering cattle grazing land a week or so ago.  They buzz in circles around our heads, land on our bodies, investigate our food, and find hundreds of ways to invade our space.  Yellowjackets also frequently swarm nearby. 

Late that afternoon, a loud buzzing sound and the smell of slightly putrid, stagnant water announced our arrival at Buckhorn Spring.  Hundreds of flies and yellowjackets swarmed near the spring, the ground vibrating with their collective hum.  Twenty or more pale blue butterflies flitted along the damp ground.  Searching along the length of the spring, I found only small pools of muddy water connected by damp ground.  Although we had planned to stop for water and an early dinner, we hiked on.

A small depression contained dry, cracked earth and white powder covered rocks signaled our arrival at the next water source listed in the Data Book, now completely dry.  Although clusters of tiger lilies and other wildflowers indicated possible springs father down the trail, the springs offered only damp ground and an occasional dirty puddle.  With six miles to the next water source, my Platypus water container was empty.

With no water available, I felt thirstier than ever.  Sierra graciously shared the little bit of water she had.  But as we hiked on and on, water dominated my thoughts.  Six long miles later, we heard the roar of Cold Springs Creek (3,200).  We gathered water, then found camp for the night.

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