Camping at Sandy Flat Campground
November 7 – 8, 2015
Total distance: 2 miles

It was a crisp autumn morning when a group of us ventured into the Sierra Nevada mountains.  If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know that I have hiked with each of my children, sometimes two at a time.  This trip was the first time in 18 years all five of us were camping together.  The last time was 1997—at Sandy Flat Campground, coincidentally.

We're back! Julia, Joseph, Andrew, Michael, and Janet.
We’re back!  Julia, Joseph, Andrew, Michael, and Janet.

Accompanying me were Julia, Andrew and Sarah, his girlfriend.  Our group left home early in the morning with backpacks crammed in the bed of the truck.  As we rose in elevation, snow flanked the highway from a recent storm.

Top of the trail. Photo credit: James Hellesen

We parked the truck at the top of the trail, out of sight from the main road; then walked down the rugged, four-wheel drive forest service road, two miles to the campsite.  Andrew left first, rounded a corner and was gone.  I traipsed behind hoping to see a pallete of fall colors: russet reds, tawny yellows, golden browns.

Snow knee?
Snow knee.

It was too late for fall colors.  Instead there were dark brown trunks and branches intermixed with deep green conifer foliage.

California fungi growing on a tree.
California fungi growing on a tree.

Several minutes behind, Julia and Sarah brought up the rear.  Later Julia told me that neither of them knew the way.  I assumed that since she had been there many times, she would remember.  But in 1997, she was only five.

Julia with Ritchie, Dan's dog. September 1997
Julia with Ritchie, Dan’s dog. September 1997

The morning was cold.  Ice crystals called needle ice pushed up through the soil until the energy of the sun melted them.

Needle ice occurs when the soil is above 32 degrees and the air is below 32 degrees.
Needle ice.

Needle ice occurs when the soil is above 32 degrees and the air is below 32 degrees.

Needle ice. Photo credit: James Hellesen
Needle ice. Photo credit: James Hellesen

Meanwhile, the other group (Joseph and Michael, my nephew Dan and their friend James) had already arrived and were building a campfire.  The wood was wet, but it didn’t dampen their spirits.  We walked up to camp with smoke wafting through the trees and a pile of firewood stacked next to the pit.

Gathered around the fire.
Gathered around the fire.

That afternoon we sat on the dry, dun-colored grass by the river—meandering and green.

Enjoying the autumn sun.
A lazy afternoon next to a lazy river.

Gunshots from the nearby shooting range echoed through the woods interrupting the lethargy of autumn.  The boys fished while waiting their turn to shoot at the range.

Andrew and Joe

But the river seemed to be all fished out.

Dan, waiting for his turn at the range.

The girls and I wandered through Wolfeboro, the summer Boy Scout camp adjacent to our campsite.  We followed the river on the way to Upper Falls, just beyond the shooting range.  The noise of gun fire was ear piercing.

A reflection on the water. Stanislaus River.

Later, Sarah and I walked downriver scrambling over the rocks to Lower Falls.  This was a highlight of the weekend for me.

The walk to lower falls included some scrambling.
I’m embarrassed to say that after the jaunt to Lower Falls, my legs were sore for days.

The river was very low and cascaded slowly downward.


A variety of smooth rocks were exposed.

Lower Falls. The river was very low and seemed to be all fished out.
Lower Falls

It was clear to see that they had been shaped by water.

Stanislaus River
Stanislaus River

An interesting vein ran through the mass of granite slabs.

Wondering if this is a vein of quartz.
Wondering what this vein consisted of.

That evening the group gathered closely around the fire and reminisced about past trips.  Suddenly, Joe jumped out of his seat and yelled, “What the heck is that?” and pointed to the sky.  We looked and saw a strange green beam and white light.  All of us got up and walked into the darkness toward the unexplained light.

Julia and Joe
Julia and Joe

As the white light sailed silently across the sky, we reconvened by the fire.  “What could it have been?” we asked each other.  “A UFO?”  “A comet or meteor?”  “Aurora borealis off kilter?”  The strange lights inspired conversation about all types of eerie things that have happened in our lives—perfect campfire stories.

Andrew and Sarah
Andrew and Sarah

My husband was at home—over fifty miles away (as a crow flies).  He saw the green beam too from our backyard.

Chris stayed home with Pepper who is too old now for camping.  Photo credit: Jill Ballinger, July 2012

The mystery lights turned out to be an unarmed Trident missile test-fired by the U.S. Navy from a submarine off the coast of Southern California.

James and Janet
James and Janet

After the spooky conversation, some of us were ready for bed, but it was only 6:30.  When the stars finally twinkled like sparks from the fire, we headed into our tents.  A crescendo of snores could be heard all night, even though it was the coldest slumber that any of us had ever experienced while camping.

Most of the snoring came from this tent shared by Michael and Dan.
Most of the snoring came from this tent shared by Michael and Dan.

The next morning the sun rose without all of the bird chatter we normally hear in the forest.

A quiet morning. Photo credit: James Hellesen
A quiet morning. Photo credit: James Hellesen

Thin, gauzy clouds started to form and the whisper of a breeze could be heard through the trees.  We needed to be out before the predicted snowstorm came in.


While we packed, Michael laid a batch of homemade burritos on the fire to warm.  That plus the sausage he grilled for breakfast were much appreciated by everyone.

Breakfast burritos. Photo credit: James Hellesen
Bacon, egg, potato and cheese breakfast burritos. Photo credit: James Hellesen

By mid-morning we were ready to go.  In hindsight, I would have driven the truck directly to the campsite and had it stocked with all the comforts that a backpack cannot hold.  Especially since we ended up bringing it to camp anyway.

Heading out.
Leaving camp.

Even though it was freezing at nighttime, it was a blessing to be together sharing and creating mountain memories.  I hope we will do it again in November 2016.

The group. November 2015.
The group. November 2015.

15 thoughts on “Together

  1. What special memories for you all! My favorite scenery pictures were the needle ice ones and “reflections”! All the “people pictures” were great, of course, especially the one of Andrew and Sarah..what a cute couple!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank, Sheelah. That needle ice was something to see. It was the first time I’ve seen it there, but then, that could be because it was the coldest trip I recall.


      1. We didn’t actually see it, our son was in a cabin in our local mountains working on a film for school. He saw it, said it was really spooky and got some awesome photos of it. I can only imagine what your thoughts were at the time.


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