Untamed river
Untamed river

I suck deep breaths of the crisp, thin mountain air.

Panting, I gaze to the east at an amphitheater of 12,000-foot snowy peaks guarding the Sierra crest like stoic sentries.

One thousand feet below, Highland Lake's deep, blue water sparkles in the sun like a sapphire.

I am standing atop 9,730-foot Folger Peak, high in the Sierra. At my feet, a small, six-inch-wide gully forms almost imperceptibly in the rocky ground leading down the mountain.

This is the true source of the Mokelumne River.

When snow falls and melts on the top of this peak, the water collects in this tiny wash. The snowmelt is funneled into a small creek lined with menthol-scented herbs, vivid purple lupines and orange columbines. The creek becomes a small brook as it hits the treeline and spills into Highland Lake, which is listed on maps as the source of the Mokelumne.

From here, on top of this remote mountaintop, I can see beginning of the river as it carves a path through a rugged wilderness.

This is where I am going.

Before it meanders through the Central Valley and the Delta, before it is harnessed for irrigation, drinking and power, the 160-mile Mokelumne River begins as just a trickle high in the Sierra.

The wild river here flows through steep canyons layered with granite and dense underbrush. It is seldom explored except by a few intrepid backpackers and wilderness kayakers.

News-Sentinel photographer Brian Feulner and I recently backpacked a 35-mile stretch of the river from Highland Lake to the Salt Springs Dam to discover the beginnings of the mighty Mokelumne. We had already explored about 80 miles of the Mokelumne from the Electra Powerhouse near Mokelumne Hill to the Delta.

1. Extra food and water

Extra food means food that is not part of a planned meal or snack-food you do not expect to eat. One or two high-energy sports bars might be a good choice. Always carry a full liter of water, and keep it full. Refill at every water source. The next source may be a long way off. Always keep some iodine in your emergency kit whether or not you travel with a filter in your pack.

2. Extra clothing

This, too, is gear you do not expect to use. A polypropylene or wool sweater is fine. Even better is a small Mylar space blanket, the kind that comes folded up in a little cellophane package about 2 inches by 4 inches.

3. Map

A topographic map is essential for any wilderness navigation. It can also be tucked inside your clothes for insulation or used to leave notes or directions addressed to potential rescuers.

4. Compass

Be sure you know how to use both a map and compass or they won't do you much good. If your compass is the type with a mirror, it can double as a signaling device.

5. Flashlight with extra batteries and bulb

A small AA-battery light is fine. Its most important use is for reading a map, and perhaps for signaling. You will probably find that if it is absolutely necessary to walk after dark, starlight alone provides enough light once your night vision adjusts and you are sure of your footing.

6. Sunglasses and sunscreen

These are absolutely essential for survival in deserts, on snow or in high mountains above timberline where the atmosphere is thin. Sunburn can lead to severe dehydration. The same conditions can cause snow blindness, a particularly painful, though usually temporary, condition that can occur within less than an hour's exposure.

7. Matches in a waterproof container

The wooden strike-anywhere variety is best. Just be sure to store them in such a way that they cannot rub against one another and light themselves. An airtight pill bottle or film canister will keep both oxygen and water out.

8. Fire starter or candle

In rain or wind, a match will not stay lit long enough to ignite damp tinder. A candle - or even a small piece of candle at least a half-inch in diameter - will give a more lasting flame. Better yet is fire starter, available at outfitting stores in several forms, from tablets or small blocks of paraffin or other flammable material to a gel that squeezes from a tube.

9. Pocket knife or utility tool

One simple blade will do, though the models with scissors, saws, tweezers, screwdrivers and other utility tools are handy for preparing tinder, preparing food, first aid, equipment repair and almost any other task you can imagine.

10. First-aid kit

Your kit should include a few alcohol swabs or moist towelettes, antibiotic ointment, aspirin or ibuprofen, Band-Aids, small tweezers and scissors. If you travel alone or carry the main kit for a group, take a more elaborate kit.

Source: Recreation Equipment, Inc.

Our journey would take us through the Mokelumne Wilderness, 105,000 largely untamed acres. We'd have to scale craggy cliffs and hack through dense manzanita. We would bounce between huge boulders and scrape and claw for every mile.

We would search for an endangered frog and a reclusive mountain man's cabin. We would see coyotes and traces of bears - and face tiny, fearsome microorganisms in our drinking water.

We would be tested mentally and physically in this quest to unlock the mysteries of the Mokelumne.

Day 1: A trickle of water

We watch the truck that dropped us off bump down the dusty Highland Lake Road and out of view. We are now alone. Brian's Jeep awaits us at Salt Springs, 35 miles away.

Before setting off, we have an errand: We will look for a frog.

We methodically search the grassy meadow surrounding Highland Lake for the rare mountain yellow-legged frog. Biologists consider the three-inch spotted frog with a yellow belly threatened, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may list it as endangered.

Scientists say 80 percent of the frog's population has been wiped out in the past 15 years because of the introduction of non-native fish, the destruction of its environment and a recently discovered, deadly fungus. The frog is only found in streams and lakes in the high Sierra, including Highland Lake.

We tramp through marshy springs and overturn rocks, but give up our search unsuccessfully.


We turn our attention to the river. The Mokelumne officially begins as a two-foot wide stream flowing out of the north end of Highland Lake. We follow the river as it snakes through a green field with an explosion of yellow Sierra mustard.

Soon, the stream drops into a narrow, rock-clad canyon. The waterway is shallow enough that we can walk along rocks in the river, but this soon proves treacherous.

After only two miles, Brian loses his footing on a slippery rock. His ankle buckles under the weight of his 30-pound pack. We wrap his ankle, but the sprain will hamper our progress.

He will be forced to limp for 30 excruciating miles.

After five miles, we come to Bloomfield Meadow and set up camp along the river. As I boil Mokelumne River water to cook our dehydrated dinner of chili and teriyaki beef with rice, I watch the setting sun's last rays gilding over the top of Folger Peak.

Like the river, our journey is still in its infancy.

Day 2: Wild things

The air here at 8,000 feet is crisp and we are happy to rise at dawn, get moving and warm up. The river meanders through a meadow and along Highland Lakes road for two miles before heading down a steep canyon.

We stick to the rim of the canyon, blazing a trail through mountain hemlock and lodgepole pines as the river rages 200 feet below.

Suddenly, across the river gorge, a young mule deer darts through the trees. We scan the woods to see what made the fawn jump.


Two silver coyotes sprint up the canyon in pursuit of their bounding potential breakfast. But they are too slow. The deer makes it into the forest. The coyotes pause and stare at us with their yellow eyes across the canyon. We move on.

The river crosses Highway 4 at Hermit Valley, a flat, grassy pasture with a few cabins. This is the last bit of civilization we will see for the next 25 miles. We stop for lunch, then launch into the Mokelumne Wilderness.

A well-worn trail follows the first two miles of river, providing welcome relief from the bushwhacking. Brian is limping badly on his swollen ankle. We begin to see black bear droppings, but we fail to spot the elusive animals.

We meet Michael and Diane Kriletich, two hikers from Paloma who are heading back to Hermit Valley after a few days in the wilderness. They give us an old map that shows the location of a cabin used by Monty Wolf, a legendary mountain man.

He hunted bear and trapped foxes and squirrels. This end-of-an-era recluse lived off the land along the river until the 1940s. He maintained two cabins in the Mokelumne canyon, although the upper cabin was torn down by the Forest Service in the 1970s.

The Kriletiches say that the lower cabin is still standing but it is nearly buried by thick woods.

"You can't see it until you are right on top of it," Michael Kriletich says.

The trail soon peters out and finding a route becomes difficult. We climb 500 feet up the side of the canyon, giving us great views of the surrounding high peaks. Back down to the river, we hop from boulder to boulder, the torrent of the adolescent river raging around us.

Tired and hungry, we find a small, sandy spot on the side of the river between two large rocks and set up camp. My water filter soon breaks and we are forced to drink water straight out of the Mokelumne.

The consequences of doing this could be dire. We risk ingesting a bouquet of intestinal bacteria. This could lead to a crippling bout of giardia.

But I am parched after the long day.

The clear Mokelumne water is wonderfully refreshing.

Day 3: Waterfalls

The soft light of dawn wakes us and we get an early start to the day. We still have 20 rugged miles to go before we reach civilization.

The rising sun soon becomes hot. It is much warmer down here at 6,500 feet.

Back to boulder hopping for the first mile. Soon the canyon widens and we are picking a path through a soft forest floor littered with pine needles and downed trees. Ferns and large mushrooms thrive in this dank environment.

The canyon narrows again and we find ourselves precariously clinging to the side of a steep granite slab. One slip and we could tumble 100 feet to the gushing whitewater below.

With our hands and feet, we begin nimbly traversing the precipice. My foot slips as a rock gives way and plunges into the roaring river below.

I grab a manzanita root.

It snaps.

Off balance, I quickly grab another.

Thankfully, it holds.

We reach solid ground and look down at the stretch of river far below. We are climbing above the section of river known as Fantasy Falls. A series of 20-foot waterfalls cascade down the canyon, pouring over granite edges glowing orange with lichen.

As the river makes a big bend and heads south, we reach the area of Wolf's cabin. We spend an hour clawing through head-high manzanita and briars. My heart races as we search in vain for the hunter's hide-away. My arms and legs are scratched and bleeding, but we continue looking, thinking the cabin could be just behind the next grove of ponderosa pines.

It is getting late and dark.

Reluctantly, we call off the search. Monty Wolf lived in these woods because he didn't want to be found by society. Even 60 years after his death, his cabin still remains a mystery.

We climb yet another ridge and drop back to a flat stretch of river. At a clearing in a pine forest, we stop for the day at a spot known as Camp Irene, a small collection of wilderness camping sites. Rangers say the area is named after a local backpacker who liked to camp along the river with her family.

Another sandy beach will become our bed tonight.

We did not see another soul all day.

Brian's ankle is still throbbing and I have tweaked my knee in the course of boulder hopping. We are bloody and bruised, hungry and parched. Still, we have 15 more grueling miles to navigate.

A satellite phone is in my pack. At any time, we can call in a rescue and be back in civilization. But that thought doesn't cross our minds.

The phone stays in the pack.

Day 4: Fire

Stiff and sore from our efforts so far, we are moving much slower today. We follow a faint trace of a trail through the woods before climbing a vertical cliff face 200 feet above the river.

Dropping back down, we reach Cedar Camp among a thick cedar grove. We see our first people in two days, John and Betsy Griffith from Hathaway Pines. They have been camped next to a clear pool along the Mokelumne for eight days, living off rice and beans and rainbow trout they've pulled from the water.

We leave them to their solitude.

My legs ache. My shoulders are sore from the weight of the pack. It is becoming extremely hot here at 5,000 feet. High on the ridges, our water runs low. Descending back to the river, we suck down Mokelumne water whenever we get a chance.

The pine trees have given way to live oaks and acorns abound. These nuts were a staple of this canyon's original inhabitants, the Miwok Indians.

Poison oak has become another hazard growing in thick clumps along our route. Fence lizards scurry about under foot.

Finally, we crest another ridge and glimpse Salt Springs Reservoir glimmering like the Emerald City two miles in the distance. The jagged teeth of the Mokelumne Tetons are to the north.

Descending back to the river, we come to a playful waterfall spilling over a slippery slab of granite. Three teenagers from Danville are taking turns sliding down the flume into a pool of deep blue water.

"It's awesome," Aaron Baluh says. "You just have to go for it."

Indeed, it looks refreshing and inviting, but we still have five more miles to get to the car. The sun is low in the sky.

We plod on.

We are close to the reservoir now. On the other side of the river, we trek past an inlet. This is the location of Blue Hole, a deep blue mineral spring that flows into the reservoir. The salty water gives Salt Springs its name. Miwoks carved bowls into the granite here to collect and evaporate the water to make salt to trade.

Archeologists discovered flecks of obsidian here. The shiny black rock, which is used for arrow heads, is found naturally only on the east side of the mountain range. The archeologists have determined that Indians from east of the Sierra crossed the mountains to trade obsidian for salt with the Miwoks at this spot.

Reaching the eastern end of the reservoir, we find a flat, well-worn trail, which is a welcome relief from the scrambling of the last three days.

The setting sun is casting an eerie glow through a cloud of smoke that is becoming increasingly thick as we near the dam: a forest fire.

California Department of Fire choppers drop over the canyon wall and dive down to the lake, scooping up Mokelumne water and spiriting it off to fight the fire. As it gets darker, we can see the orange flames dancing in the trees on the side of the canyon just below the dam. The choppers increase in frequency, scooping water in large red buckets dangling below the crafts every minute or so.

Turning our attention back to the trail, we still have two miles to go. It is getting dark. I am thirsty and dizzy.

One mile to go now. The dam is getting close. The concrete expanse signaling civilization is taunting us.

Half a mile. My legs ache. One final hill is demoralizing.

My legs are wobbly. We have been marching for 13 straight hours today. One hundred more yards. Fifty. We climb over the dam and reach the parking lot, and the car.


We drive out of the canyon in the dark as the choppers slash through smoke and flame.

We put the river behind us.

We have now explored most of this river that is so important to millions of Northern Californians. This was one of the hardest experiences I have ever had in the outdoors.

On this journey, some secrets have been revealed. Many remain.

One day, I will return to explore the mysteries of the Mokelumne again.

But now, a hot shower and a cold beer.

Contact reporter Matt Brown at mattb@lodinews.com.

Recommended for you

comments powered by Disqus