Monday, May 24, 2010
05-16-2010 Sespe Gauntlet
Tar Creek, Sespe, Bear Heaven, The West Fork, Topatopa Mountain
I've been thinking about this hike for a long time. I think it started a few years ago when I was looking around on the internets for info on Tar Creek when I came across Christopher Brennen's web-book. In it he describes a hike that starts at Dough Flat links up with the Sespe at Alder Creek and ends at Tar Creek (or Devil's Gate). The most intriguing part of the hike to me had to be what he called "The Squeezes", three deep pools on the Sespe that had to swam across to be passed. The idea of floating alongside my pack in the Ventura backcountry has fascinated me since I read about it. I know that Frank and Zach had made a sort of ill prepared attempt at this hike ten years ago. Only to be turned back by a raging Sespe and to be driven out of Lions Camp by the late Tony Alvis.
Sleeping Indian Rock
Instead of starting at Dough Flat, I wanted to start at the Piedra Blanca trailhead (Lions Camp)and then camp at Willett Hot Spring, then Sespe Hot Springs, then in the Sespe Narrows, and finally camp at the Tar Creek / Sespe confluence. So, armed with Brennen's directions we headed out for six days of adventure on the Sespe. The hike out to Willett is nothing special. I described it in my last post. What I didn't mention in that post was that we had stashed supply's and eight beers up there. That allowed us enough room in our packs to bring fresh food for dinner the first night. What a meal we had. Frank brought Fillet Mignon (wow!), I brought some Tri-tip and Zach brought Bulgogi. Jeremiah rolled into camp with some fresh veggies.
Zach and Jeremiah grill it up
We had so much food we were able to feed the two other people staying up there as well. One them told us he was a runner in The Coyote Two Moon, a crazy looking race. After diner we headed up to the tub and relaxed with our beers for a bit. The four of us were able to sleep in the bunk beds at the condo that night. In the morning we had a big breakfast and then got ready to head on to Sespe Hot Springs. At one of the creek crossings along the six mile trail to the Hot Springs we ran into a group of upbeat kids from Thacher School. They had spent the night at Shady Camp and were headed towards Willett. What awesome school to go to. We walked past Cottriell Flat. I didn't stop to see if the camp was still there.
Right as we got into Hot Spring Canyon it started to rain lightly. We made our way up to the Hot Springs and pitched camp at spot with a couple of palm trees. Frank measured the temperature, and the hot water bubbles out of the side the canyon walls at 189 degrees Fahrenheit! Right next to the Palm Tree Camp are a couple of one person pools that were a nice 106 degrees, perfect for a nice morning soak. It continued to drizzle rain throughout the night. I was a little scared that we might have to postpone going into the Sespe. The threat of flash floods is real. But the rain was light, and didn't really raise the water level at all. In the morning I got up and took a nice bath in one of the hot pools. Jeremiah earned canyoneer of the week honors for packing out a bunch of Keystone Light cans that some jerk had left behind.
Relaxing in scalding hot water
Right where the Upper Sespe Trail starts to head up over a saddle towards Shady Camp there's a sign that says, "Devil's Gate: 15" this is where you should take off your hiking boots and put on your water shoes (I'd also recommend some heavy wool or neoprene socks).
A good sign
We spent the next five hours walking down the middle of the Sespe. I think trying to find a way through here without getting your feet wet is next to impossible. Slogging through the creek was actually a lot of fun. The water was only about shin high most of the time. After a couple of hours we could feel the cold water of Alder Creek mixing in with the Sespe. We saw our only Condor of the trip circling above the Stone Corral.
Contemplating my next move
Finally we reached the campsite described in Brennen' guide. It's actually not a campsite per say, but more of a beach with a stone fire ring.
Overhang Falls Camp
There was plenty of room for the four of us. The site was so nice, that we decided to spend the next day there too. So we spent our forth day just exploring and swimming in the canyon. Late in the afternoon two other hikers passed through (Jen and Wes? Sorry, I forgot your names). They were real cool, and we would see them a few more times before our trip was over.
Sunset on The Sespe
That night it was really windy. None of us got a good nights sleep. Part of it was the wind, and at least for me, it was partly the excitement of the next days hike keeping me up. We packed up early. I lined my bag with a garbage bag in case I took a dunking in the creek. Soon after we started out, we passed by the two other hikers at their camp. They had had a close call with a falling boulder in the middle of the night, and seemed pretty shaken up by it. We wished each other luck, and our group continued on. The area near the First Squeeze is known as the Sespe Gorge. The power of the Sespe is on full display here.
The creek picks up speed and thunders over the boulders into a narrow chute, the First Squeeze, then spills out into a wide pool. We were able to get through this section without swimming. As a matter of fact we were able to get through all the "squeezes" without swimming. I don't think the water was low, but rather the dep pools had been filled with sediment. I don't know if these will get washed out when a really heavy storm hits, or maybe that's what filled them up. We were all a bit disappointed that we didn't have to float our bags and swim the narrow sections.
The First Squeeze
The Second Squeeze
We had been taking turns carrying my 3lb inflatable boat for nothing. I guess it's better safe than sorry, though. As we trudged on through the Sespe we refilled our bottles with water springing right from the base of Topatopa mountain.
Pure clean water
Approaching the Third Squeeze
The river water got cloudy-er as we neared Grassy Flat. And there's nothing flat about Grassy Flat. It's just a lot of rocks and brush. The West Fork is so overgrown I didn't even notice it as we passed by. When we found several nasty open pits of bubbling oil seeping into the creek we knew we were getting close to Tar Creek.
An open oil pit
As we made our way closer to our camp I turned back to see how everyone was doing. Right at that moment, maybe a few hundred feet away from us and a black jet roared through the canyon at a ridiculous speed, pulled a high-G bank straight up near Tar Creek Falls, did a couple of barrel rolls, leveled out, and then shot off east like a bat out of hell. The sound of it rushing by was incredibly loud, and scared the piss out of me.
Soon after that we got to the two gigantic boulders that I call Patty and Selma. They block the way to Tar Creek. Where they meet in the creek they form a formidably powerful waterfall. The only way past them is to balance your way down a log placed on the east side of the creek. A few minutes later we were at the Tar Creek camp. Like Willett we had hiked in a few weeks before and stashed some beers and food. So that night as we ate up the rest of our freeze dried meals and drank our hard earned beer. We talked about what we wanted to eat when we got back civilization.
The next morning we packed up our stuff for the last time. We made sure our camp was completely clean. My policy is to pack out any trash (within reason) I find in the Condor Sanctuary. Zach dubbed the trail up from the Sespe to Tar Creek the Donkeyballs Trail because it's such a bastard. Jeremiah was able to cut over from the trail to the bottom falls of Tar Creek. We all met up at the Cascades.
Grace in motion
At first we were the only ones there. Jeremiah and I cleaned up the make-shift campsites at the Cascades. We found a bunch of beer cans, a disturbing number of Blow-Pop wrappers, and even an old rope. As we made our way up the Tar Creek hill I kept finding more wrappers and cigarette butts. And then at the top of the hill our ride was waiting for us. A few minutes later Wes and Jen rolled up. We had made it. Thirty some-odd miles (twelve or so in the water)over six days. I thought I would feel totally beat after such a long haul. But to the contrary, I felt supercharged.
So to sum it all up, I had a great time. Despite not having to swim through the squeezes this was a really rewarding trip. We all worked as a team, helping each other out when we needed to. In the past I was proud of making it through the Stone Corral, and "finding" the Upper Matilija Falls was pretty cool, and I've completed some other hard hikes, but this was the most satisfying hike I've ever done. I'd love to try it starting from Dough Flat some time.