Stargazer Rock Campout 2005

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August 25: Here I am at the 5th Annual Stargazer Rock Campout. It should be the sixth, but the cow mashed my truck and I could not tow a trailer last year at this time. (Read more about that in the report of my Summer 2004 cross-country trip.)

I have never sent out a report on Stargazer Rock, so this will be a journal of this year plus some history of other years, especially about how Kenny tips over. More about that later.

But first some explanations and definitions. My family and I have formed a habit of naming places that have no apparent names, so you wonít find Stargazer Rock on the map. We found it on the ground back in 2000, although many people know about it and camp here. It is not an official campground, but there are a number of well-established campfire rings, several good spots to camp, and a dozen or so usable sites that wonít really handle a trailer. Four-wheel drive enthusiasts know it as Bald Mountain Base Camp. 

To the west of the main camping area is a large, flat open area, much of it a level granite rock, which is the actual Stargazer Rock. It is good to take an air mattress or at least a blanket and lie out there after dark, watching for meteors, and just enjoying the huge star field that is visible when you get above the light and dust and other pollution that makes stargazing fairly futile in big cities.

For those of you familiar with this part of the Sierra, the site is about five miles off the Dinky Creek Road, down the Rock Creek Road, then west on a road that goes out to Highway 168 above Shaver Lake.

The camp area is on a large bench with a thick stand of evergreens on one side, mostly lodge pole pine, red fir, and white fir. Up the slope across the road the forest opens up and the ground is more rocky, and there are a lot of Jeffrey pines, with lots of space between trees. There are some sugar pines scattered around the area, especially along the road coming in. Itís very dry and dusty, but I put a tarp in front of the trailer to catch most of the dirt, and overall itís a beautiful spot.

After our first visit here, I determined to spend a week or so here every summer, and Iíve been successful except for last year. Family members and friends come up whenever they can, for as long as they can. The campout of 2002 was our biggest, when we had: My daughter Teri, her sons Mikie and Johnny, husband Tim, Timís cousin Kenny and his wife Leslie; my daughter Jennifer and her husband Rod, his nephew Jim, Teri & Jenniferís half brother Mike and his fiancťe Emily, and me Ė all here at once.

Other years have seen smaller crowds, and weíve had people here in shifts, never being able to get everyone here at once. Others in attendance have been Tim & Teriís friend Russ, and Johnnyís friend Neil. This year, although most of the people listed above canít make it, weíll add a couple of new faces, my friend Janell Sidney and her grandson Mark, age five.

Of course, camping involves lots of activities, and you have to go somewhere else to do many of them. Stargazer Rock is on a hill, so thereís no creek running through it, no lake, no swimming hole. Eating, drinking, talking, sitting around the fire, reading and even TV watching (mainly on the nights when Iím here alone) are among the in-camp activities.

Rock Creek is within walking distance, but it has very little water in it this time of year, so you can do only the most minimal sort of swimming and fishing. But we have good spots for both of those, which Iíll talk about later. The big activity that everyone likes is four-wheel driving, which means going over roads where if your mother is with you she says, ďSurely youíre not going to try to drive up THAT!Ē But of course, we are.

A few miles back toward the Dinkey Creek Road is the Bald Mountain Four Wheel Drive Trail. This is a moderately difficult route, which eventually brings you to the top of Bald Mountain, site of an abandoned fire lookout. There is a good view of Shaver Lake and all the surrounding forest country, but of course, the main goal is getting there, not being there. In a few places itís advisable if not essential to place all four wheels in precisely the right spot. One of these is a sort of ledge that does not actually look wide enough to drive on, but is if you hit the right spots. If you donít, for example like Kenny, you find yourself sitting in a truck that is leaning to the right at not quite a 45 degree angle, with the left wheels well off the ground. Donít think of this as a high speed rollover; when youíre negotiating those tricky spots, speed is around two miles per hour.

An event like this first requires everyone to get out and have a beer and discuss the situation. Then the other driver (never 4-wheel alone!) hooks up a tow strap and pulls Kenny back on the trail, and youíre off again. Last time (2003) I figured it was safe to ride with Kenny because surely heíd learned his lesson, but no, once again Kenny tipped over. Iím sure Kenny has gone on many four wheel drive trips where he didnít tip over, but two out of three does raise suspicions.

Then thereís fishing, which can be combined with four-wheel driving. I donít fish myself. When people say, ďItís a nice day for fishing,Ē I say, ďIf itís such a nice day, why spoil it for the fish?Ē But I have no objection to sitting beside a creek or lake, preferably with a drink, a chair and a book, while others fish. My son-in-law Tim is an enthusiastic fisherman from way back, and both grandsons like to fish. So you jump in the Toyota and leave Stargazer Rock behind for a trip to Courtright Lake.

This is a beautiful man-made lake at about 8,000 feet, surrounded by granite domes and tree-covered slopes. The best fishing is on the back side of the lake, accessible only by boat, foot, or four-wheel drive vehicle. The fishermen usually have good luck here, and Mikie has caught some pretty impressive trout.

Another nice activity is swimming. Mikie can ďswimĒ in Rock Creek, but he can play happily in any body of water larger than a bucket. The bed of Rock Creek is made up mostly of large granite slabs, and in late summer the small amount of water that still flows runs under the rocks, so the creek appears to be dry for dozens of yards. Then youíll find a trickle running out from under a rock, feeding into a pool maybe a foot deep and six feet across. Good for Mikie, but not really enough room for an adult.

The best place to swim is Bear Creek, which to us means not the whole creek, but a particular spot I ran across back in the 1970s. The water runs down across a smooth rock bed for several hundred feet, into a large, deep pool. The shallow run slightly warms the water, and makes this a good swimming spot for anyone.

In case youíd like to find it, just turn at the Swamp Lake trailhead sign, drive in past Laurel Creek, and watch for a rough dirt road on the right about a mile before Ruby Creek.

Hiking is an activity that can start wherever you are. From Stargazer Rock, the most obvious hiking destination is the creek. There is also a granite dome about a mile away that I have hiked to. It requires going down into the creek, then up and down over several ridges. Weíve also driven down a nearby side road and hiked around in another area of rock and domes. This is a good way to get your name on a landmark. You canít have a dome or hill or mountain named after you unless you go to the top of it. After a couple of years of urging, we finally got my little grandson to the top of what is now Mikieís Dome in 2003.

I should warn you against one other activity that Mikie used to enjoy. For a year or two he was fascinated by bugs, and owned special bug boxes and jars which his Uncle Rod referred to as "Mikie's big jar of death." One year MIkie and I went into the trees near our camp and started turning over fallen limbs in a search for bugs. Well, we found some we didn't really like that much - we disturbed a nest of yellow jackets (AKA meat bees), who came swarming at us with malice aforethought. I yelled "RUN MIKIE!", demonstrated what I meant, and we both escaped with only one sting each.

So anyway, here I am for the 5th annual campout. I arrived yesterday, August 24, around noon. The weather here was very nice, probably close to 70. Last night it got down to 39 degrees. Today has been a bit cooler, with more breeze.

Today my grandson Johnny came up with two of his friends, Curtis and Luke, and they went fishing in Rock Creek. The creek has more water than I have ever seen at this time of year, but is not a raging torrent by any means. The fish seem to like it, since only one agreed to leave the water, but the boys enjoyed the hiking and the cool, fresh air.

I hiked down to the creek earlier in the day before they got here, and also went on a wood gathering expedition. There are a bunch of round sections of trees that were cut on the other side of the camp area, so I brought a few of those back, and managed to split some of them. Then I went back a little road that loops from the back of the camp area out to the main road and picked up some smaller wood, mostly branches from a big red fir that fell several years ago.

I also drove back down the "main road" about a mile to the place we call the Phone Booth, because our cell phones usually work there. I was able to get a signal, but not enough to make calls. Other than these activities, I napped, read and fixed dinner.

August 26: Itís been a fairly lazy day so far, in other words, a perfect day of camping. I went for a walk, about ĺ mile this morning, got the fire ready to light, had lunch, took two naps, went on a bike ride, and finished my latest book (The Last Juror by John Grisham). Now Iím just waiting for the next contingent to arrive, which could be any time now.

August 28: Well, everyone got here and we got very busy having fun. Teri and Mikie arrived about 6:30 Friday, with Janell and Mark about a half hour behind. Tim and Teri have a new two-room tent, which Johnny (their son and my grandson, now disowned) borrowed and returned without the instructions. We managed to get it set up with only a couple of false steps. Janell, Mikie, Mark and I walked over to the open area to check out the stars, and saw one meteor.

Tim and Russ were supposed to be coming up after work, but we gave up on them when it got to be 10 p.m. However, they arrived shortly after I went to bed, although I did not hear them drive in.

Saturday Tim and Teri fixed bacon and eggs for everyone, then once we got things cleaned up we headed out for Bald Mountain. Russ has a 4-wheel drive truck, but only has regular duty tires, so we took the ďeasyĒ way up to the top. We came back on a slightly more difficult route, but it was downhill so no one had any problems and no one tipped over. Janell and Mark greatly enjoyed their first 4-wheel drive trip, and Janell even took the wheel to drive the Toyota up one steep rock that everyone goes up just to test their vehicle and their driving skills.

We just lazed around the rest of the day, having a supper of sandwiches when we got back (about 4:30 p.m.)

This morning Tim and Russ fixed a fabulous breakfast with cut-up potatoes, onions and peppers, plus sausage, cheese, and eggs. The boys and Tim and Russ drove down to the creek to go fishing, so Janell, Teri and I are enjoying the first quiet moments of the weekend.

Mark has never been camping, but he is taking to it like heíd been living in the woods all his life. He climbs up rocks, digs in the dirt, and generally has a great time. He and Mikie play together well most of the time, and if things get tense, I just take them on a bike ride.

Itís now 7:30 p.m. Sunday, and everything is quiet; Iím alone on the mountain. Janell and Mark left about 3:30; Tim, Teri, Mikie and Russ about 4:30. Our neighbor Ken left at 5. Since then there have been no vehicles, no people, just the quiet of the mountains.

Iíve got a lot of stuff picked up and packed, and Iíll head home after breakfast tomorrow. Everyone wants to come back for next yearís campout, so it looks like 2005 was a success.

--Dick Estel, August 2005

Photos (click to enlarge)
(Pictures open in a new window)

Rock Creek Sunset from Stargazer Rock Bald Mountain
Falls on Rock Creek On the hike to Neely Dome
Kenny in the ditch again Janell, Mark & Mikie on the Bald Mountain fire lookout
The gang on top of Bald Mountain Mikie & Mark out on a log Digging the dirt


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