Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Black Oaks of Loafer Creek

Lows around 40 degrees and highs around 60, even though it was mid-January, here in northern California, it was perfect weather for a bike camping adventure. Lake Oroville is in the Sierra Nevada foothills, just at the edge of the Central Valley. It’s a large man-made lake, the water contained by the largest earth-filled dam in the United States.

Loafer Creek Campground lies at the east side of the lake, and the campground reflects the best of the foothills in winter: the black, naked arms of the oaks, covered with moss; the shiny green leaves of the branching live oak trees; last year’s grasses now sun-bleached husks beaten down and returning to the earth; bright green winter grasses, short and thick, where the sun shines most; and finally the gray and black boulders scattered by long-ago volcanic eruptions, their scaled, sharp shoulders covered by gray lichen and green moss. Above was the gray of low cloud cover and fog, occasionally the sun burning through, beams of light and blue sky.

I began my 14-mile trek in the valley, which has an altitude of about 600 feet in the valley around the Oroville area. Highway 162 begins its climb quickly, and I enjoyed the challenge of the hills and mountains up until just past the Wagon Wheel Market, where I stopped and pushed for a while, resting my climbing muscles. I actually enjoy walking a bit if the way is not too steep or the bicycle not too heavily packed. It’s an even simpler version of bike touring except the even slower pace allows for even closer inspection and appreciation of the surroundings--a tiny dark blue flower with a yellow center is one treasure I spied while pushing my bike. The first steady ride was about two thirds of my journey; the last third was an alternation of riding and pushing.

Pushing and riding delivered me to the top of the steepest hill just down-valley of The Oaks, a mobile home and residential home development. The hill drops down a long straightaway to the bottom of a valley and then climbs again, steeply, into the  hills. I pushed and rode my way that last bit and then arrived at the Loafer Creek turn-off. The campground was about half a mile down the canyon, the trip taking approximately 2-2.5 hours. I’m not sure because I didn’t have a watch, my cellphone was being repaired, and my computer was packed away in a pannier. I had left Palermo, a town south of Oroville about six miles, at 8:30 AM, and after arriving, searching for a camping spot and checking in, eating a bit and setting up my tent, it was 11:45.

I set up camp, bought a bundle of firewood and borrowed a hatchet, cooked some lunch, and explored a bit. The day-use swimming area was about another quarter mile downhill. That’s the way it is with a lot of camping spots--down a hole to the creek, river, or lake. The lake at its closest was still about three hundred yards down the fingers of the ravines of the lake because the water was low. I followed a red dirt-and-gravel service road from one ridge past the day-use area, and where the ridge ended, the marina spread out below me, many house boats anchored in one ravine-edged finger of the lake, the red erosion lines of the earth parallel to the water and climbing the ridge up to the highest levels of the lake when full. Above the bare, red earth were soft-shouldered slopes of dry grasses, an occasional scrub oak, bare-leafed, and above that openness, the green pines of the mountain summits.

It was beautiful, silent and open. Even with Man’s hand upon the land, a primeval majesty still prevailed. I sat upon a pale yellow-red sedimentary rock and just soaked up the silence of the sky, the green mountain summits, and the blue water of the lake. My leg muscles were tired from the trip up the mountain, and I knew I’d feel my toil when I had to head back up the hill to the campground. It was worth it, though. Maybe twenty minutes by car would have brought me to the lake, but my interaction with the foothills, with the sugar pines and the scrub oaks and the manzanita would have been minimal. Some of the manzanita were flowering, their pink bulb-like flowers massed in a carpet beside the road. The green winter grasses were dew-speckled and gleamed like jewels when the sun broke through the fog.

As the sun was lowering in the sky--early, around 4:30--I began my evening camp routine: dinner, clean-up, securing the bicycle, and making sure that anything outside was not food for animals or at hazard of soaking from dew. By the time camp was ready for the night, it was indeed dark. I built a fire from the wood I had split earlier, and spent some evening time feeding and watching the fire burn, enjoying the quiet, and reading a novel, using the headlamp I had bought on the advice of an experienced bike tourist. Winter bike camping means less sunlight, and for me that meant around ten hours of light and fourteen of darkness. The headlamp made reading easy, although turning pages wearing gloves was tricky.

As the sun set, the temperature dropped. I was not uncomfortable because I had brought ample warm gear, but I was glad for some heat and light from the fire. I read and went to bed early, about 7:00. Although I knew I would be warm enough, I wondered about my mattress, which had proven to not have sufficient insulation in colder weather. The sleeping bag was up to the task, but the mattress did leave me a little cool where I contacted the ground. I had dressed warm for the night, though, and there were no temperature emergencies; however, I do plan to research more on cold-weather mattresses.

Twelve hours of darkness in a sleeping bag in a tent alone is quite a long time, at least it seemed so to me. I slept a sufficient time but woke with hours of darkness ahead. What was my plan? I finished a movie on my computer, which was pleasant, since I wisely chose a comedy, Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? With good music and a light plot, time passed easily. I slept a bit more after that, and then sat up in my sleeping bag for a long morning meditation, finishing in the gray, early dawn.
A fire, tea and breakfast, and breaking camp and packing took up the early morning. I had originally planned to stay two nights, but I realized there was a reason my early-season bike touring expeditions were one-nighters: in the cool weather, bicycling and bustling around camp were enjoyable; however, for just sitting around and relaxing, the weather was a bit too cold. And that’s not even considering the long hours of darkness. If I were “motel camping,” then there wouldn't be problem. Actually, there wasn’t really a problem even with the tent camping. The one-night trip was enjoyable. Staying for more than one day, though, wouldn’t have the hours-long warmth-generating experience of bicycling. Therefore, I chose to come home.

The trip home, of course, was much quicker since it was downhill. I still had to walk a couple of sections, most notably the hill up past The Oaks, a long stretch of road straight up the hill. Also on the second day of an overnighter, I always notice the lower level of my stamina from the first day. That’s my main beef with overnighters, not enough time and mileage to really get in shape. I was patient with myself, though, and coasted (mostly) off the mountain and down into the valley fog. With my tail- and headlights blinking, I cruised into my brother’s mobile home park.

He was outside and said, “I figured you’d be coming in today,” and he was right. I woke up that night to the sound of rain on the aluminum patio roof. Dry and feeling a bit smug, I went back to sleep, another bike camping trip (my first out of the state of Iowa) successfully completed.