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Creek Fire: Exiting the John Muir Trail During a Raging Wildfire

Sharing my experience of evacuating the JMT with my dog during the Creek Fire.

By: Kristen Fuller + Save to a List

Massive wildfires and forest closures seem to be a trend over the past couple of years. The fire season is becoming longer as the wildfires become larger and more uncontrollable by the minute. The anniversary of the start of the Creek Fire was this past weekend. Wildfires continue to rage and are currently destroying the Western United States, I wanted to share my experience hiking the JMT last year with my dog just as the Creek Fire broke out and the forests closed. I started on trail before both incidents began and my trip quickly took a turn for the worst. This is a tongue in cheek recount of my experience as this was my second time navigating an evacuation on trail due to a threatening wildfire and the first navigating this scenario with my pup, Moo.

My biggest takeaways from this experience:

  • Know your trail exit points
  • Always carry a map on you
  • Always have a Garmin Inreach (or other satellite device on you)
  • Always carry one day of extra food
  • Be prepared to hike your own hike at any point on trail

Day 1

“Are you sure this is the right way to the trailhead, Kristen”?

My friends asked me as we wound around dirt roads to drop me and little Moo off at the starting point of my creative thru-hike in the Eastern Sierra. There was a road-block. No cars allowed. We looked at each other I shook my head, chuckled and thought to myself

“Is this a sick joke”? I grabbed my pack and waved goodbye to my friends as Moo and I prepared to walk a 3 mile jeep road. We all had pits in the bottom of our stomach as Moo and I walked away. There were no signs, just a closed gate.

We eventually found the trailhead and it was a stunning field of dark green tall grass that brushed up against your legs just to the point that it was peaceful enough to feel but tall enough to stress about ticks. I quickly picked up Moo and carried her (she’s tick prone) and went on our way, past Walker Lake. One mile in and I was dying. This was the most strenuous entrance point I’ve endured in the Eastern Sierra (a short version of Shepard’s Pass but just as shitty).

It was a straight 2k elevation gain until the first lake, Lower Sardine Lake, in the heat. I was so happy to take off my pack, soak my feet, eat chocolate and feed Moo treats.

Then a group of 9 humans and 4 dogs showed up to this lake. “I don’t even know 9 people to hike with, I thought to myself.” Moo snarled at all the dogs trying to take her peanut butter and I quickly packed up in hopes to get far away from people. I like to go into the backcountry to find solitude, not hoards of people.

“Is there a new fire somewhere? I seem to be walking into a lot of smoke.”

I texted some friends through my Garmin InReach. The sky was dark orange and I began my way towards Mono Pass.

“No new fires on your route, just one around Shaver Lake”

I thought to myself, “where is Shaver Lake?”

Little did I know the Creek Fire started the day I got on trail and was burning by VVR, the exact direction I would be headed in less than 6 days.

I have been caught on trail in a lightning fire before, a terrifying experience, I wished to never endure again. As we made our way up and over Mono then Parker Pass, I began to take in all the beauty, despite the orange smoky sky. The sun was covered by dark smoke, and therefore the temps dropped to a level where I didn’t feel like I was going to melt, a silver lining.

There were so few people on the trail, and so many beautiful waterfalls that trickled into easy crossings. Moo and I finally got into our groove. I was listening to Joe Rogan podcasts and Moo was trotting along chasing pikas and marmots. We decided to make camp for the night next to a stunning lake right beneath Koip Pass. I wanted fresh legs for the morning since I heard this pass was going to be killer and bagging three peaks along the way at 13,000 feet with dense smoke was making me a bit nervous. We fell asleep to a thick blanket of smoke and ash raining into my tent.

Day 2

I woke up on the morning of day two sucking in ash and smoke filled air. We had to go up and over a 13,000-foot pass and attempt to bag three peaks along the way. I kept telling myself that the smoke would be better at higher elevations but the higher we got up Koip Pass, it seemed the thick smoke hung around. I started receiving messages on my Garmin Inreach, asking if everything was okay and how I was feeling.

I sucked in smoke the entire way up the never-ending steep switchbacks as I watched Moo chase marmots and pikas for days. I was once again, overly impressed with how much energy she still had after climbing this relentless pass. After going up Koip Pass and bagging Koip, Kuna and Parker peaks, we made our way down to Alger lakes (which is absolutely stunning). Moo and I ate lunch at Alger Lakes and she trotted along the cool alpine lake shores to soak her paws and cool off. I decided it was time for Moo to wear her booties since I wanted to protect her paws in every way I could.

The plan was to camp at Waugh Lake but little did I know that would surely change. Moo and I reached the backside of Waugh Lake after approximately 12 miles and I was overly excited to be done for the day…however the dam at Waugh Lake was fully opened and therefore the entire lake was drained and bone dry. I looked on my map to see where the nearest creek or water source was and it seemed I still had a few miles to go. We ended up spending the night off trail in the forest next to a running bubbling creek just off the JMT/PCT junction. I have learned along the way that it is always wise to be open to camping in other locations besides your planned campsite, since so many things tend to happen…too tired, no water, overly crowded, blisters, etc.

Day 3

I woke up on the morning of day 3 and although the smoke was a tad bit better, it was still painful to hike in as I couldn’t see any of the granite landscapes and my lungs and eyes were still burning. As we walked over Island Pass, the smoke obscured the entire view of Thousand Island Lake. Although I have seen this stunning lake multiple times, I knew the smoke was bad, even though I kept telling myself it wasn’t. Since day 1 and 2 were both big trail days, I decided to take a nero day at Garnet Lake. A nero day (named after a zero day) is when you only hike a few miles and take the rest of the day to rest or do chores at camp. We set up camp, went for a swim in the lake, did my laundry and ate a bunch of snacks out of my bear canister. As I was sitting in my tent in my underwear, devouring calories, I received a text through my inReach saying, “Kristen, they closed all the forests”. I had no idea what this actually meant as I was currently in a National Forest and it looked open to me. This was unprecedented. Does this mean I have to exit? When?

As I’m trying to figure out more information from level headed individuals, this random middle aged white dude strolls by and rolls off a snarky comment towards me about me being on my phone in the backcountry. Mind you, I am sitting in my tent in my undies with my dog, minding my own business and eating out of my bear can. I did not make eye contact with this person nor did I have any desire to engage with him. People worry about other people way too much these days. I mentioned to him that I am receiving text messages through my satellite device about the forest closure and I am trying to find out more details, and respectfully he should mind his own business and enjoy his hike. He then told me he also received the messages and proceeded to ask me where the unmaintained trail was around Garnett Lake. I mentioned he should take out his phone and look on his map as phones do come in handy in the backcountry.

He probably shouldn’t have gotten cheeky with me about being on my phone.

I spent the afternoon resting in my tent, chatting with other thru-hikers about their game plan and trying to figure out what my next move was, as this has never happened before. A couple of friends contacted forest service and it seemed since I had a thru-hike permit and I was already on the trail before the closure, I could continue my hike and reassess my exit strategy at my re-supply location (Red’s Meadows). I kept hearing mixed reviews of whether or not Red’s Meadows was allowing thru-hikers to pick up their re-supply boxes. I figured if I could not get my re-supply I would exit the trail and call it. One of my friends called Red’s and verified that they are still re-supplying thru hikers and not to worry that they have my re-supply box waiting for Moo and I. VVR, Reds and MTR all stayed open for thru-hikers and are also staying open for thru-hikers during this current 2021 forest closure.

I was crossing my fingers that the restaurant, showers and store were also open, but that seemed like a big ask at the time.

I soon found out that this forest closure went into effect not only because of the Creek FIre, but also because of the erratic weather and they were nervous about not having enough resources if new fires popped up. They wanted to keep people out of the forests since many people still are having illegal fires in the backcountry (and let's be honest) there are lots of idiots out there. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening at Garnet Lake reading my book and resting my feet and knees.

Day 4

As I’m making coffee and brushing my teeth in my tent, I mumble hello with a wad of toothpaste in my mouth to a passerby hiker. Moo, who is still half asleep in my sleeping bag, starts barking and losing her doggy mind at the “intruder”. The hiker’s face was priceless because he couldn't see this creature who was barking at him and I think the last thing he expected was a little dog to bark as he passed by my tent. Moo then went straight back to sleep. I noticed that she has been sleeping much later in the mornings on this trip. Usually she is up at dawn guarding camp and chasing pikas but she doesn’t get up until I am midway through packing my tent and I knew this was because of the smoke.

Holy switchbacks!

The climb out of shadow lake was unexpected. I met my first solo female hiker on trail and that made my heart flutter. Moo and I hiked past Shadow lake and I was jaw dropped as we came down to Rosalie Lake. Rosalie Lake was stunning and although I have been in this particular area a few times, I have not hiked past Rosalie Lake because I usually hike out of Agnew Meadows and when I have hiked out of Red’s Meadows I have gone in the direction of Minaret Lake. I decided to take some time and eat my lunch on the shores of Rosalie Lake. I filtered water, charged my battery pack, played fetch with Moo and took in all the sights and somewhat fresh air. I didn’t want to leave but I knew I should make my way to Red’s Meadows to figure out the status of this Creek Fire.

On my walk into Red’s Meadows I came across a few people that commented on how awful it was to have to carry all of Moo’s food. I thought that was a strange viewpoint since I consider it such a privilege to be able to have her on the trail with me. As I was walking the road into Red’s Meadows, a LE ranger passed by me in his truck asking where I was headed. I told him I was headed into Red’s to resupply. He mentioned that they were evacuating the entire valley and wished me a good hike.

I passed the Devil's Postpile walking into Red’s Meadows. It was the first time I have ever seen it in person since I generally avoid crowds. It was pretty impressive.

As I entered into Red’s Meadows, there were quite a few people taking some time to figure out their next move. There were plenty of hikers exiting the trail and a few more were continuing on. I bought a few beers, paid for a cabin and $15 shower tokens, grabbed my re-supply box, bought Moo a chicken patty and sat down to figure out my next move. There seemed to be no hard orders to exit the trail but I knew I was going towards VVR which is where the Creek Fire was raging.

“I have enough food for another 10-12 days on trail but damn do I want to carry 10-12 days of food for me and Moo in this smoke?”

Everyone at Red’s loved Moo. She immediately jumped into bed as soon as I opened the door to the hiker’s cabin. The staff at Red’s were beyond accommodating and friendly. The Fire Marshall came by and told hikers to be aware and hike their own hike and be ready to get off trail if things go sideways. There was no one person telling us we needed to exit, which made my decision even more complicated. I took the longest shower that night, washed my hair and clothes and lathered on a facemask. Tomorrow will be a new day and I will decide what to do.

Day 5

I woke up after a great night’s sleep and was ready to get back on trail until I stepped outside. It was floor to ceiling of thick smoke and Moo’s eyes were bright red. I paid for another night immediately in case I could not grab a ride out of Red’s but my decision was made; we were getting off trail. The smoke was suffocating and no way was I going to walk little Moo through this toxic smoke. I texted some friends and told them my situation. Unfortunately the gate into Red’s Meadows was locked. When my friends called the Mammoth Lakes Police and Mono County Sheriff they seemed to have no idea how to help (big surprise). My friends finally got a hold of Forest Service and they were granted the combination code into Red’s Meadows.

Apparently when they were driving down into Red’s Meadows they could not believe the amount of thick smoke that covered the valley. Moo and I jumped in the car as my eyes filled with tears of sadness and gratitude. The ride back home into Mammoth was jaw-dropping as we ascended out of the valley. The entire Red’s Meadows was covered in a thick dark cloud of smoke and Mammoth was moderately clear.

A couple of days later, a friend drove me to pick up my car which was staged at my exit trailhead. I had a notice from the Forest Service on my windshield that I need to evacuate the trail ASAP which was interesting because how am I supposed to see a notice on my car while I am on trail?

It took me a while to write this blog because I felt that I failed on the trail. I felt because my trip was cut short because of the active Creek Fire, I failed as an individual. I kept quiet for a couple of weeks as I watched the Creek FIre roar even bigger. Our windows were shut for 2 months as I stayed inside because the smoke was unbearable with an AQI of over 1,000 most days. It took me a while to realize that I made the best decision for both myself and my dog. The trail will always be there and luckily I was able to complete most of the trail this year with my dog and new puppy!

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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