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A lifelong love affair with the Sierra

Pat McCartney

If I could date my life-long love affair with the Sierra Nevada, I would start with the day more than four decades ago when I first ventured into the John Muir Wilderness.

A Los Angeles native, I had flirted with California’s great mountain range before, when my family vacationed at the warm-water lakes of the southern Sierra foothills. Then we started vacationing in the Eastern Sierra when I turned 10, just old enough for a deeper relationship.

My brother Mike, four years my senior and a foot taller, was already an expert angler. His aim was to hike to Duck and Pica lakes, little more than five miles from the trailhead near Lake Mary in the Mammoth Lakes basin, to test new waters. He’d heard there were big trout in Pica, and I tagged along.

After hiking for hours uphill through thick stands of fir and pine, we arrived at the pale green waters of Barney Lake, the last stop before tackling the switchback trail that climbs fields of jagged talus before ascending to Duck Pass.

On seeing the precipitous trail still ahead, my brother grumbled about the long march. But I was practically giddy. Something had clicked, a recognition of a simple truth: Most people would turn back at Barney, but we would persevere. Beyond the mountain pass lay wilderness, and something, a love of freedom and the unknown, stirred within me.

Once we reached the top, the anticipation turned to awe. To the west was a panoramic view of ridges and peaks that framed the headwaters of the San Joaquin River. Compared to the forests below, the willows and mountain heather at the pass were miniaturized. Around us grew dwarf whitebark pines, their limbs fancifully twisted by heavy snows and constant wind. Bathed in a translucent light, the alpine plants and rocky outcroppings resembled God’s own Bonsai garden.

And, for the record, there were fat rainbow trout in Pica.

I would return many times to the high country, hiking to remote basins carved by glaciers from the primordial granite, to pitch a tent on the shore of an unnamed lake. The presence of so much water, a spring or creek crossing the trail every hundred yards or so, made a deep impression on a kid from California’s arid south coast.

Over the years, the Sierra gained an important place in my heart. I learned to ski as an adult, the best excuse I know for being on the side of a mountain in the middle of winter. I’ve visited hot springs on both sides of the range, collected mineral specimens, hauled a large-format camera into the wilderness, stared mouth agape at the General Sherman sequoia, toured the Mother Lode, visited Mark Twain’s Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, marveled at the sight of Half Dome from Glacier Point. (In fact, one of my earliest memories of Yosemite was witnessing the nightly firefall from Glacier Point to the Valley floor, a long-since discontinued spectacle.)

All of which prepared me for my first stint as a journalist at Lake Tahoe, first for the Bonanza in Incline Village and then with the Tahoe Daily Tribune on the South Shore, both sister papers to the Sierra Sun. The two years I spent reporting on the Tahoe environment for the Tribune were the most satisfying of my newspaper career.

And now I’m back. After a tour as the city editor of the Auburn Journal, and years invested in a book project, I have returned to the place I love best. My desk at the Sun faces Schallenberger Ridge and Donner Pass. Cold Creek splashes past the office.

For what I hope is a long run, I’m staking out the entire Sierra Nevada as my beat. The love affair continues.


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