My Girl Scouts are bad-ass backpackers who are motivated, skilled and a high functional group. I met my Scouts at the Chilnuaina Falls trailhead to begin an eight day trip to Chain Lakes, an alpine basin located in the SW corner of Yosemite National Park in July. This Backpack Interest Group is a year round, girl led and volunteer adult supported backpacking program. Once a month, throughout the year, they go backpacking to build their outdoor skills and fitness, preparing them for their summer expedition, “The Miler”. Every summer, I join “The Miler” as their designated Wilderness First Responder. I also bring a love for maps, navigation and scrambling up nearby summits to offer options for girls to build on technical skills and route finding. This year was no different. Again, I was impressed with our Girl Scouts’ high performance, endurance and spirit of adventure.
No time was wasted before we shouldered our packs to start our expedition. The trail began at 4200′, busy with day hikers, and topped out at 6400’, six miles later, above Chilnuaina Falls, a reasonable first day for a strong group. We were 6 girls, ages 13-16, and 5 adults, ages 36-58. With full backpacks, the hike was a hot and dry grind uphill for a few hours. The girls charged along with short and infrequent breaks. Clearly, they were an experienced and fit group with their focus on getting to camp. At the top of the falls, we paused for a proper break. Finally, we shed our backpacks to take in the expansive views of the valley we just climbed up. We see our first granite dome, Wawona Dome, nearby, to the south. After a 15 minute break, we dart off to find camp. The topography changed from an uphill traverse to easy rolling terrain along a broad forested riverbed. We found our first campsite along a tributary creek that branched off of the main riverbed. Once we got to camp, the girls continued to take charge and set up camp. Next, the girls wandered down to the nearby creek for a little self care- a little birdbath before launching into evening tasks. After some down time, back at camp, the Scout Leaders bust out the menu, jump into dinner prep and fire up the stoves. They have it wired. I feel like I am on a guided trip but as a client. Our primary role, as adults, is to provide a safety net by serving as first aid, lifeguard and navigation support. We supervise from a distance still contributing our share to group chores and providing input as needed.
At our evening meeting, our Scout Leader, who serves in this role for the entire expedition, reviewed the next day plan. She announced a 5:30am wake up with a goal to be hiking by 7:30am. Nobody protested except for me. I am sure that my mouth dropped and eye brows shot up. I was surprised and curious. I say aloud that 5:30 is an early wake up and ask to hear their motives. The Scout Leader and her assistant thoughtfully shared that an early start would take advantage of cooler temperatures, avoid hiking in the heat, and enjoy an early arrival to camp to have time to relax and chill out. Good reasons. I am onboard. First time ever, in my 30 years as an outdoor leader, I have witnessed teenagers choosing to get up so early. An exceptional group of teens, I think to myself.
Looking through my outdoor professional guide and director’s lens, I am impressed with their organization, strategy and choice of lightweight options. “Light is Right” has been one of my mottos for backcountry travel. With adult support, the girls have been involved with all of the planning, logistics and prep work that goes into an expedition. Each girl has chosen to do this trip and has invested in this experience because of her pre-trip involvement. Choices on gear and food are based on a target goal that each girl carries no more than 30% of their body weight. They carry tarps for their shelter and use their hiking poles if needed to set them up. Dinners are freeze-dried, easy to cook and cleanup. Lighter packs allow the group to hike 8-10 miles daily and move efficiency in mountainous terrain. With systems in place, their structure provides clear expectations and guidelines. The girls are dialed in with basic skills and appear ready for new challenges. Each girl steps into the role of trail leader, navigator, cook and clean up. By rotating through all of the roles, the girls hone their skills as backpackers and are comfortable living simply. They demonstrate competence in their backcountry skills. They are real outdoor girls, at home in the wild.
On our second day, we gained more elevation to discover a late summer bloom due to epic record breaking snowpack this past winter. At 8000′, flowers were bursting with colors- purple of lupine, red Indian paint brush and orange tiger lilies. We also encountered an occasional snow patch and marshy areas where the mosquitos swarmed us. It was time to bust out mosquito head nets and bug spray. For the rest of the trip when we were at this elevation, mosquitos dominated. We arrived At Johnson Lake, 8300′, and scouted for a campsite with the mosquitos in mind. I spotted granite slabs just above the west side of the lake. Exposed without trees and the charm of good weather, this camp was ideal. We enjoyed a light westerly breeze to keep the pests away. The boulders provided shelter for our kitchen. We left the mosquitos behind in the forest and found our refuge. Happy campers. We settled in. A few of us took a dip in the lake. That night, the big dipper and summer constellations shined brilliantly. With unobstructed stargazing, everyone opted to sleep on the slabs under the stars without any shelter.
Every year, especially at the start of our trip, I coach the Trail Leaders, a role that rotates daily. Their task is to lead the pack with the support of their Scout Leaders. Every day, two girls are appointed to navigate, time our breaks and lead the group along our route. Consistently, I have found that the girls tend to start out rushing on the first day. They march along the trail, focused on a schedule and maintaining the pace of their busy modern life they just left behind. Every hour or so, our Trail Leaders would call for a short break with their backpacks on and tell us when to start hiking again. Only at lunch, they’d take their packs off. Though I appreciated their desire to get to camp early, the girls would rush trail breaks and even lunch. The practice of timed breaks is a useful tool without missing the moments – to take in a view, a ten minute power nap, fixing a blister or even taking off boots to soak in a creek. I teach “no hurry, no worry”, as a motto- to emphasize the importance of not to rush. I learned it from my Sherpa friends who I worked with as a guide in Nepal. Rushing can interfere with being present, enjoying the journey and being spontaneous. Entering into the wilderness means tapping into and adopting the pace of nature, letting go of the busy mindset and multitasking. I had to coach the girls in this area of self care and being flexible with individual and group needs. As a leader, I teach the importance of self-care throughout the day and have a quick check in method to stay connected with group members that informs group decisions. As the week went on, the girls relaxed and aligned with mountain rhythm and tuned into each other.
Day 3, we were up at 5:30am and hit the trail again by 7:30am. By now, this is the norm. These girls are hard core. Miles later, by midday, we top out at a small pass, break out of the trees and able to see across the valley, a tributary of the Merced River. In the distance, across the valley, we could see the Alpine basin that is our destination today, still another 7 miles away. Since we had such a great vintage point to orient our selves, I initiated an impromptu map and compass session to identify land features and peaks, passes and basins. None of us had backpacked in this area, so together, we identified key land features such as Fernandez Pass, Triple Divide Peak and Sing Peak that towered above our Alpine basin. I love to explore new places and my enthusiasm was contagious. Once we were more connected to our sense of place, the group was energized to get to our next camp at Chain Lake, 9000′. Late afternoon, we arrived to enjoy cooler temps and less mosquitos. After ten miles of hiking, camp set-up, cooking and clean up, the girls still had energy to do sunset yoga. Yoga was led by our Scout Leader. Impressive! Pink alpine glow lit up the peaks surrounding us that added a magical touch to our already amazing day.
Before settling into sleeping bags, we discuss the next day’s plan. I suggest a nearby peak climb, 1000’ above the lake as option for morning. I had studied the route earlier and the ridge looked to top out at the summit with some scrambling. All of the girls and most of the adults opted in for the peak climb. The Scout leaders proposed a 7:15 am breakfast so we would have time to do everything on our agenda with ample time. Our layover day plan was to climb the peak, swim, and hike to the upper lake in that order. All activities were challenge by choice. In this case, a layover day just meant that we would not move camp. I loved their adventurous spirit!
Day 4, we were greeted with a beautiful, sunny and warm morning. Minimal mosquitos. I woke feeling such gratitude for the gift to explore and enjoy this majestic alpine lake basin today. We took off for our peak climb by 9am. The route up to the Peak started out from the lake and ascending gently along a smooth and continuous granite ridge. I could see that the upper half of the route would require good route finding and navigation. As the ridge steepened, it was broken up, jumbled with boulders and several gullies. We could also see snow patches along the route. It was more than a walk in the park but doable without any specialized gear. For this group, it was the perfect challenge. Due to its more technical nature that required scrambling, route finding and ascending steep gullies, it took us nearly two hours to summit our Peak, at nearly 10,000’. The views were stunning in all directions. Our lake looked dwarfed. We yelled down at out two adults who stayed behind at camp. Now, they look like ants. We did the usual photo shoot, enjoyed a snack, and made it back down to camp in an hour by 1pm.
After a brief lunch, a swim in the lake was next on our agenda. With our adult lifeguard taking her job very seriously, we all swam across to a small granite island and sunbathed on the warm granite slabs. We also found a fun small ledge to jump off back into the lake and did a few rounds. The water temperature was surprisingly warm and speculated it was because the lake was relatively shallow, granite lined and received a lot of direct sunlight. Our last adventure of the day was round trip hike to the upper alpine lake, a mile further up the basin. The trail ended at the lake, surrounded by an amphitheater of steep granite walls, boulder fields, and towering peaks that were mesmerizing. On a boulder next to the lake, we sat together taking it all in, while the sound of running water dominated. The snowy north facing slopes were melting and feeding the creeks that drained into the lake. The sun dipped behind the peaks prompting us to return to camp. Quietly, our group started back at staggered starts, enjoying some solo time on the return trail. After dinner, everyone was up for playing two truths and a lie, a fun campfire evening activity. Though we had a full agenda, the day unfolded with ease. The pace, nor transitions never felt rushed. It was a fun day of exploration, relaxation and adventure.
There is a clear hierarchy of leadership and decision-making done by the Scout Leader and Assistant Scout Leader. This year, our Scout Leader was skilled and mature. Her leadership style was inclusive, assertive and respectful. She was open to everyone’s ideas, compassionate and set high yet achievable expectations. Her communication was clear and timely. At age 16, she was a role model for everyone and walked her talk. Other past Scout Leaders have been skilled with trail leadership and backcountry skills but lacked in their self-awareness, showing their true social-emotional maturity by being exclusive and hanging out with their “best friends”. That aside, the girls who did step into leadership, did so with apparent ease and readiness. At a young age, Girl Scouts, at large, fosters girls’ leadership by offering and valuing “girl led” opportunities in troops and programs. Girls are expected to be leaders. That is the norm. In other outdoor programs, I have witnessed girls to be “afraid” of stepping into leadership, worried that they would be labeled “bossy”. At the end of the day, these girls said, they feared other group members would no longer like them if they were assertive or perceived as “bossy”. The relational risk of losing their friendships wasn’t worth it. Consistently, I have witnessed Girl Scouts as well-practiced leaders who state their opinions and take charge fearlessly with unshakable confidence.
By day five, our group rhythm was well established. On the trail by 7:30, we were off to our next camp at Arch Lake, a ten mile hike. Cumulous clouds started to develop by 10am, continuing to build and darken. By noon, thunder began to rumble, the wind began to pick up as the dark thunderheads moved closer to us. Inevitably, the rain began. The girls busted out their raingear quickly, hardly missing a step and we continued along on the trail. Brief showers freshened the air and kept us cool while the lightening kept its distance to the east. Today, we skipped along. The trail miles went by quickly since much of the terrain was downhill or relatively flat. By 3pm, we arrive to our camp in the rain, set up shelters and waited for another squall to pass. The sky cleared up for dinner. While the sunset glowed with shades of pink, purple and reds reflecting off of the lake, some girls and adults sang camp songs. The girls were amazed to see the number of fish jumping for insects. One fish caught a dragonfly in midair. Another day of mountain magic.
Day 6. We had a very short but beautiful hike today, only covering 2.6 miles, the terrain changed from luscious meadows to granite flats to coniferous trees. As we dropped into Buena Vista Lake, we could see the silhouettes of granite domes near Yosemite Valley to the north. By noon, stormy weather looked inevitable so we postponed our climb of Buena Vista Peak. While the sun was still out, we enjoyed another swim, lounging on granite slabs and doing laundry. I appreciated that these girls have the self care skills to stay clean and healthy in the backcountry. Buena Vista Lake lived up to its name and provided a stunning place to enjoy down time. Thunder rumbled above us and light rain drove us to fetch our rain gear and back to camp. During dinnertime, the girls broke out into a Girl Scout sing-a–thon. They sang one song for every letter of the alphabet–and then some. I marveled that they could remember so many songs! The sky cleared again just before sunset. We took a short stroll up to a ridge where views of Yosemite Valley could be seen in distance. The alpine glow lit up Half Dome, The Three Sisters, Cathedral Peak, El Capitan and many other fascinating rock formations. We could also see smoke from the nearby and current fires burning to the NE inside the park. Blessed day.
On the morning of day 7, we rose early at 5am, greeted by stars and darkness. After a quick snack and hot drinks, we headed out of camp to climb Buena Vista Peak. For the first 45 minutes, we ascended a wide granite ridge above the lake to a little saddle as the sun rose. Here, the route became more challenging and required scrambling across large boulders for the final hour to reach the summit. When we arrived at the peak, the group was grateful for the breathtaking view, a bird’s eye view of the stunning Sierras and Yosemite Valley. The smoke from the nearby fires had filled the valley overnight and obscured the details we had seen the night before at sunset. On our descent, I chose a different route, avoiding the boulder field that allowed us to move more swiftly back to camp. By 9:00am, we had packed up camp, ate and hit the trail to cover our nine mile route. It was a relatively relaxed day, since the hike was mostly downhill and our packs were light. Our lunch spot was the perfect refresher. We stopped by a creek and put our tired feet into the water. Sprinkles of rain started again which forced us to cut our lunch a little short. Once we got to our campsite near Chilnualna Creek, we set up shelters because of steady light rain. The rain luckily stopped for dinner and evening activities. Our camp was located in the forest and along the river in the area where we had spent our first night. That evening we did some closing rituals such as giving each other trail names, snapshots of the trip to finish on a positive note before going to bed. We counted every mile and had covered over 60 miles in the past 8 days. In the dark, as we all were getting settled in, one of our adults returned very anxious from a last minute pee in the trees and out of character. She announces that a rattlesnake alarmed her with its hissing upon squatting to pee. With her headlamp, she spotted in its defensive coil. Rattled, she darted away safely. After hearing her story, laying in my sleeping bag, I started to think of the scenario if she had been bitten before falling off to sleep. I felt grateful that everyone was safe and sound.
Final morning, Day 8, up early again and on the trail by 7:30am. It was time to say goodbye to the group. With a light backpack, I jogged out to the trailhead, covering six miles in 2 hours. That evening, I wanted to get my outrigger canoe practice and beat the rush traffic in San Francisco. Wow, it was such a gift to share this adventurous journey with an amazing group of women and girls! I left our group feeling inspired and grateful for the adult volunteers who spend endless hours to support and mentor these young outdoor leaders. Volunteers continue to be the heart of Girl Scouts.
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