While the kids were staying with their grandparents this past week, Family Man and I took the rare opportunity to go backpacking. This was our first backpacking trip we’ve done together since we’ve been parents, so it was pretty exciting. I gathered our gear together and went shopping for items we didn’t have. Family Man chose our destination trail and researched it online. We went to a spot in the Trinity Alps Wilderness called Mill Creek Lake on Red Cap Hole Trail.

view of the lake and trees and surrounding granite ridge

Once we got out there, it became clear we’d chosen the trail less traveled. It was overgrown in places with a lot of deadfall laying across the path. A forest fire swept through the area some years ago (2009 if I remember correctly from what the ranger at the Forest Service station in Willow Creek told us before we headed out.) The thick underbrush that grows in quickly after a fire was completely over the trail in places. From what we could see, Red Cap Hole trail has gotten a lot less traffic since the fire than it once must have. Which was delightful, because it was just as beautiful and as wild as can be.

orange orchids grow wild along the creekbed

We didn’t see a single person the entire two days and two nights we were out there. But we hadn’t been on the trail long when we saw a black bear in the forest just below us. I’m sure the bear saw us first. It alerted us to its presence by snapping a stick with its footfall and then huffing out a great breath of air. For a moment, we paused in awe, and then respectfully continued along, looking back over our shoulders to be sure we hadn’t upset the impressive creature.

black bear walking through the underbrush of the forest

Now that we were distinctly aware of being in bear country, we saw bear scat along the trail frequently. That trail may not often be traveled by people these days, but it is clearly a bear highway. That kept us really on the lookout for bears on our trip, but we didn’t see any more, though we felt their presence constantly, knowing that we were in their territory. We did see many ground squirrels. And also birds, insects, dragonflies, and wildflowers.

ground squirrel pausing on a rock to check us out

pretty light purple wildflowers

yellow wildflowers in the meadow

red Indian paintbrush flowers growing along the trail

The other plant we saw in abundance along the trail were thimbleberries, which must be where the name Red Cap Hole trail comes from, we concluded. We stooped along the way to eat the ripe ones along the path, but left the ones out of arms reach for the bears. No wonder they like that area so much.

The first day, we hiked as far as we could get past the lake, until the trail became so obscure that we were forced to give up following it over the ridge. We backtracked to a lovely meadow above a creek and set up camp for the night.

Family Man smiling near the tent as the sun goes down on the meadow

After dark, we lay in our tent listening to a podcast on the cellphone. Suddenly, we heard two loud banging sounds in quick succession. (I thought the sound came from far away on the hill behind us, but to Family Man it sounded as if it was just outside our tent to the front of us. I had my hood over my head, so I questioned my perception, I’m still not sure.) We heard the loud sound again, followed by a yowling noise, which struck fear in us both. We sat up with hearts pounding. After a pause, we heard both sounds again. And another pause. And then again. I can’t even describe what it sounded like, but we were both terrified. I immediately thought the yowling sounded like a noise only a mountain lion would make, though I’ve never heard one before. We’d also spent the day following bear tracks and spotting bear scat all along the trail, so we thought it more than likely that bear, or bears could be outside the tent. (After coming home and listening to various wild animal noise recording on the internet, I’m convinced we heard a mountain lion, possibly its mating call. But I still don’t know what the other loud noise was. When it first happened I thought of gun shots, but it was not quite as sharp a noise as a gunshot. Loud though. To Family Man it sounded like hooves or feet pounding just outside our tent. Whenever I bring it up, he says it could have been a Bigfoot.)

Anyway, I can tell you, I’ve never been more afraid in the great outdoors than I was in those moments in the dark that night. The moon was a pretty sliver and we couldn’t see a thing outside the tent and were too scared to shine our flashlights out. As we sat there, waiting to be mauled or eaten, I kept trying to whisper to Family Man and he kept motioning for me to be silent. After enough time went by, and nothing more happened, I lay back and slept like a baby. Ever the protector, Family Man stayed awake much longer, envying me my restful sleep.

The next day, we decided to hike back the way we’d come and spend night 2 camped by the lake. We both longed to see what was on the other side of the ridge to the east, but given the impassable trail, we had to let that idea go. Backcountry camping is every bit about preparation, since you are out in the wilderness on your own with only the tools you brought and your wits to get you through any situations that arises. And it is equally important to be flexible and make changes when Plan A doesn’t pan out. As arduous as the trail had been coming, I truly wanted to continue forward and not have to go back the same way. But it just wasn’t possible. So, back we went, through the woods and meadows and brush, back to Mill Creek Lake.

Beautiful Day Mama sitting on a granite boulder in our camp kitchen

We explored around the lake during the day and lucked out, finding a perfect flat campsite just above the lake among the granite boulders.

Beautiful Day Mama sitting on a granite boulder in our camp kitchen

After dinner, as we were looking for a spot to hang our food, we startled a deer. Then as we were hanging the bag in a tree, the deer came back and calmly walked right past us to graze on flowers in the meadow. As it climbed up past our camp, and later when I came upon it again climbing back down, it appeared curious and cautious, but unafraid. That evening, as the sun was setting and dusk was coming on, we climbed down to the lake. Family Man was the first to spot this otter out on a half-submerged log. (He saw the bear first, too. He’s pretty sharp like that.)

somewhat blurry photo of the otter on the log out in the lake

That is the best photo I could get, my camera doesn’t do well in low light. It was a beautiful sight to behold, this sleek creature at home on the lake. It checked us out as we watched, and then dove into the water and swam across the lake. Later, back at our tent, I could hear it splashing in and out of the water as the sky became dark and the stars came out. We hadn’t seen any sign of fish in the lake, but maybe the otter finding some.

Family Man and Beautiful Day Mama selfie on the trail

The backwoods of the Trinity Alps Wilderness became our home away from home for two days. We walked among the wildlings while the sun was up and beheld the mystery of billions of sparkling stars from the cocoons of our sleeping bags at night.