John Muir Trail: Hello, Mr. Coyote!

There are number of advantages to hiking alone. One is that you are probably making a lot less noise, and less noise means seeing far more wildlife.

No encounter illustrates that better than one I had two days before summiting Mount Whitney, at the end of my southbound hike.

I had just made my way over Forester Pass, all the while marveling at the extraordinary trail-making skills of those who had designed and built the trail. Despite Forester being the highest pass on the John Muir Trail*, the trip up was easier than either Glen Pass or Mather Pass. Coming down the southern side, the trail was gentle on the feet and I was making good time. There was a little wind in my face, but not much.

As I rounded a corner I spotted a coyote, sitting just to the left of the trail. My quiet footfalls and the wind direction had given me the rare experience of seeing a wild animal, fairly close, before he was aware of my presence.

I stopped and got out my camera (which I kept in a case on my belt). I shot a couple of pictures and then just spent a few minutes watching him.

He was obviously looking for lunch. He had selected some high ground and had oriented himself so that he could see across the low ground in front of him. He scanned the terrain with near radar-like precision—back and forth—looking for small critters that had strayed a bit too far from cover and concealment.

Amazingly, he had no idea I was behind him. After watching a while I continued to move, shoot, move and shoot. The last shot I took is the one shown here.

I have no idea what alerted him to my presence; I never really made much of a sound. I’m convinced he got a whiff of my not-too-subtle fragrance (my last bath was at Muir Trail Ranch). Once he knew I was there—not just there, but close—he was not happy.

When he saw me he nearly jumped out of his skin. He may not have been sure what I was, but he could see I was bigger, uglier and, who knows, he may have even sensed that I was hungry. Off he went, at high speed, no doubt thinking that he needed to be a bit more careful in the future.

Good hiking, Ray


*So, here’s the thing: when I say Forester Pass is the highest pass on the JMT someone always feels compelled to remind me that there is a higher pass, Trail Crest, that you will encounter once you leave the John Muir Trail for Whitney Portal. If, on the other hand, I call Trail Crest the highest JMT pass, someone quickly reminds me that it’s not REALLY on the JMT. I can’t win!

John Muir Trail Gear: Footwear

They say that social security is the “third rail” of politics. (The third rail on a train or subway is the one that transmits electrical power to the motor, so if you touch it—you’re toast). Footwear could very well be the “third rail” of hiking gear discussions. There are folks on the trail who will look with disgust at anyone wearing hiking boots as they float (effortlessly, they tell me!) along in their trail runners. The more traditional among us, at the same time, see only two types of trail runner wearers: those who have seriously sprained their ankles, and those who are about to.

So, let me get my position out right up front: wear what works for you. (There. Is that noncommittal enough?)

That said, I think both camps would agree with the following:

John Muir TrailWhatever shoes or boots you decide to wear, make sure they are thoroughly tested for at least a dozen hikes over similar terrain and with similar loads. You must get this right. Footwear is NOT just a matter of comfort on the trail; it’s a matter of safety. A hiker with ruined feet, especially far from civilization and with bad weather moving in, is a hiker in danger. Your feet are as important in the wilderness as tires on a car or wings on an airplane, and your feet are defenseless without well-fitting, durable, boots or shoes.

Treat them well on the trail. True, good hiking footwear is designed to take some abuse, but limit it as much as possible. I always keep my boots in my tent (or in the vestibule). Why? Because there are critters out there who love to chew them. It’s cute when your puppy eats your slippers. It’s not so cute when a marmot, pika or chipmunk destroys a lace or chews a hole in your upper.

Understand that your choice of waterproof or non-waterproof footwear will affect the way you hike. Waterproof footwear does a good job of keeping VERY SHALLOW water and environmental dampness out of the inside of your boots or shoes. On the other hand, once the inside of those same boots or shoes becomes wet it will be far more difficult to get them dry, simply because that same waterproof layer which keeps water out, also keeps water in.

That means you will probably want to remove waterproof shoes or boots PRIOR to crossing a stream that is more than an inch or two deep. (Depending on the previous winter’s snowfall and time of year, you might encounter one such crossing a day, on the John Muir Trail, or one during the entire hike!)

Footwear without waterproofing will dry much more easily, but can also leave you with wet feet even if the only water on the trail is the occasional unavoidable puddle or even vegetation covered with dew.

Snow on the trail can make a difference as well. If the top of the accumulation falls beneath the tops of your waterproof boots, you’re in good shape. If the snow manages to work its way inside your boots from the top, because it’s a foot deep, that’s another situation, entirely.

I’m an ex-infantryman, so I’m a big believer in dry feet. I use waterproof boots and I keep their insides dry. Even if it rains, I put on rain pants. Going through a stream, my boots and socks are well away from the water.

Last, don’t scrimp on the socks. Get quality hiking socks and never—ever—buy cotton.

I’m not much for changing clothes on the trail, but socks are the exception. I always carry three pairs: one to wear, one to strap on the back of my pack, and one to sleep in. Each night I take the clean, dry pair off the back of my pack and put them in my tent. Afterwards, I soak my feet and wash the socks I wore that day. My liberally powdered feet are then slipped into my plush, comfy sleeping socks. The socks I wash that night spend the next day on the outside of my backpack, drying. The next morning I may be wearing the same shirt, the same pants—even the same underwear—but my socks are fresh!

Good hiking, Ray