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Late Winter Visit

By Christopher Nyerges

I had never been to Mount Lowe before, though I'd been to Echo Mountain many times. This was the mid-1960s. A friend from the neighborhood was in the Boy Scouts and he'd been up there with his troop. So one winter day he offered to lead the way to the old Mount Lowe Camp.

We hiked to Echo Mountain from the top of Lake Avenue, and then hiked into Castle Canyon. I realized I was unprepared for snow when we were about halfway to Inspiration Point and my feet were already wet and cold. I was wearing some old suede shoes, which were not waterproof. My friend assured me that we were "almost there," but every step was getting more and more difficult, and my feet were cold. I also saw the value in snowshoes during that hike, since my feet kept sinking into the holes in the snow that I made with every step. I was working hard step by step.

Fireplace in Ye Alpine Tavern, Mt. Lowe

This is the scene Christopher thought he would find on his first cold trek to Ye Alpine Tavern.

Since then, I have worn cramp-ons on my boots, as well as primitive snowshoes that I have fabricated from willow branches. The primitive snowshoes take about an hour or so to make, and you need some long flexible branches (I used willow), a knife or clippers to cut the branches, and some sort of cordage. When I have made snowshoes, I usually begin with three long willow branches, no thicker than my fingers, and at least four feet long. I tie them securely at each end, and then I secure perpendicular crosspieces. I usually have used yucca fiber for my fiber, but any twine would work. I make them only slightly wider than my feet, since if they are too wide it is difficult to walk. Then they must be securely fastened to one's feet.

Anyway, I did not have snowshoes on that first cold day to Inspiration Point and Mount Lowe Tavern. Occasionally, where we could not readily see the trail due to the thick drifts of snow, we would step out too far and our foot would go right into the ground and we'd have to jump back to keep from falling off the cliffs.

My friend began to tell me about the "tavern" -- I had not heard of it before then. He was explaining the people that went there, and what they did, and for some reason, he did all his explaining in the present tense. I had pictures of a modern ski lodge up there, and I was mentally counting the change in my pocket and wondering if I'd have enough for a hot chocolate and maybe, just maybe, I'd have enough money so I could buy some chicken noodle soup.

I was looking in the direction of where my friend said it was, figuring I'd be the first one to see the smoke coming from the chimney. Imagine my great shock when we hiked up to the little saddle of Inspiration Point and he said, "We're here."

"We're where?" I exclaimed.

"Inspiration Point. This is where it was. And the old tavern is actually down where the camp is now." His use of tense seemed more accurate now, and after a few questions, I realized to my chagrin that I would be having no soup or chocolate that afternoon.

My feet were completely wet, and cold, and only moving around kept me feeling somewhat comfortable. It seemed a little easier hiking that quarter mile down to the old tavern site. There was a lot of snow, but there was much more left of the old site back then than you will find today. It was a wonderful and mysterious place with the stone walkways, and walls, and little trails. Only the cold kept me from exploring even more, though I returned many times to the tavern site in the years that followed.

On that day, we struggled to make a small fire, using up our matches. We had a tiny fire, which we fed pine needles, and we managed to get it bigger but we didn't get any warmer. I think that all the fire we generated was merely steaming off the water in the wood, and we felt very little heat. My buddy had some dried soup which we tried to cook, and I recall having a "lunch" of lukewarm "soup" with crunchy needles. But I was cold and hungry and even crunchy not-hot soup was better than nothing.

Occasionally a wind would pass through the area and we'd hear the loud wind in the treetops and lots of icicles and snow would drop from the trees. It was very much a Christmas scene. After a while of not-getting warm by the not-warm fire, we kicked some snow over it, and ran most of the way back down to the city.

On a more recent visit to Echo Mountain in January about 10 years ago, I was hiking around with my hiking class from Pasadena City College. It had been a drizzly and cold day, and after we explored the ruins, we went over by the large fireplace area to have our lunch. We were surprised that a man in a t-shirt was sitting nearby, and he'd cleaned out the fireplace for his shelter. We started talking, and we were admiring all the arrowheads he'd just made from the bits of glass he'd collected from around Echo Mountain.

It turned out that he was very skilled in wilderness survival, and he made some sort of a bet with a friend about whether or not he could spend 10 days in these mountains with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. That was apparently his second day there. He knew about some edible plants, though there wasn't much to collect. He had the tools for making fire with a bow and drill, and he'd made a quickie bow and some arrows, and had nearly finished making a batch of arrowheads.

He said he was going to catch squirrels to eat, and maybe other animals. We were all mighty impressed and asked him lots of questions. I gave him my magnesium fire starter, and then we departed. I told him I wanted to hear how he did in those 10 days, and gave him my address and phone number. I never did hear from him again, though I assume that if things got really tough, all he had to do was walk a few miles down to the city. It was winter, and some snow had actually fallen close to Echo Mountain, so it would have been a cold 10 days.

You never know what you will encounter in these local mountains. There is so much history, flora, and fauna to study, and the diverse visitors here ensure that your hikes will always have a bit of the unexpected.

Since 1974, Nyerges has been conducting field trips to teach how to identify edible wild plants, and learn about the survival skills of the past. He is the author of Enter the Forest and Guide to Wild Foods, which contain information about the ways of the Gabrielinos in the past. Both books are available in the Echo Mtn. Echoe’s Mountain Marketplace. For a schedule of his classes, contact him at School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or on-line at www.self-reliance.net.

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Last modified: February 12, 1999

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Copyright 1999