Craig Wisner

East Fork Solo, 7/16-7/17

I’m fortunate to have the type of relationship in which my wife can say “I think you should get out of here for the night” and nobody means ill and nobody is offended.  I have my days in which I need a break, as does she, often wanting to simply have a night at home on the couch with the kids watching movies- something I’m notoriously bad at, usually getting restless within the first half hour.

So when those words are spoken, I have no trouble finding a place to go.

My bag was packed within minutes, I raided my leftover backpacking food stash, and was out the door with dog in under thirty minutes.  I headed for my old stand-by, the East Fork of the San Gabriel River.

It’s a love-hate relationship, though primarily love.   Long ago, while he was alive, my father taught me to fish on this river, though I didn’t know its name then.  The river has been there for me as a refuge for decades, a quick place to go to escape, swim, fish, be alone, or hoot and holler with friends.  My children both had their first backpacking trips with me here.  However, with proximity to a city as vast and chaotic as Los Angeles comes issues.  I suppose sadness would be a more appropriate word than hate; sadness at seeing how such an amazing, hospitable place can be so thoroughly overrun and disrespected.  Massive crowds, trash, shantytown-like encampments of literally scores of people along its banks during the summer, complete with teenagers shampooing their hair in the river and dirty diapers and beer cans left behind.  Yes, I paint a pretty ugly picture.

Yet all one has to do is be willing to turn a blind eye and walk a little further than everyone else…and the river’s beauty is there for the taking.  Lazy beaches in the shade, plentiful water, and mild temperatures- backpacking at its easiest.  I’ve had some of my best nights in the woods here, alone or gathered with friends and food and drink, all under the exact same stars that shine down on the Sierra, though much closer to home.

Plentiful and mild in every season, I cannot help but imagine how good the life must have been that was created by the people that originally walked these canyons.  I can feel them, see them when I hike.  Stumbling upon large plateaus shaded by oaks above the river, I can see the women grinding acorns and men going about their chores, children leaving bare footprints in the mud along the banks.  Bighorn sheep, deer, trout, bear, all manner of smaller game, this would have been a good place to be.

I didn’t know how far I’d walk on this trip, reaching the trail at around 1PM and having to be home by around noon the next day.  So the plan was to simply walk until it felt right.  That’s part of the beauty of local areas like this.  The logistics are so easy, access so immediate, that there is little sense of urgency in planning- or sticking to- an itinerary for a trip like this.  When you know you can be back in a few days, expectations are put at ease, and you’re left to simply follow your feelings.

At about 5 to 6 miles in the narrows are reached, and most all human traffic ends.  Walls get steeper, the river deepens, and the trail disappears.  Passing the Iron Fork junction, I decided I’d continue at least to the junction with the Fish Fork.  It had been a while since I’d been up this far and my route finding skills were seriously lacking.  My pace slowed, crossing the river, crossing back, climbing hills, trying to find the path of least resistance, seeming only to find the hard way.  So it goes.  Bushwhacking through fallen trees, yucca, stinging nettle, and poison oak becomes the routine in the more lush seasons.  My dog quickly learned, the hard way, of course, how to identify yucca alifolia (Spanish Bayonet) on this trip, pausing pathetically for a lift any time it got thick.  We had a close call with an angry rattler, but came out unscathed.  I don’t believe I’ve ever picked up a dog by the scruff that fast. In addition to smashing my foot in a river crossing, I later fell into a nice thicket of nettle, leaving my leg burning for the remainder of the night.  Dog was an absolute trooper, at only 8 months old she kept up amazingly well, only requiring help at deeper crossings.  At 12 pounds, she’s easily swept away in the current (which is how I learned she could swim a few months ago), but her small size makes her great at climbing and negotiating thick vegetation.

Feeling a bit battered and watching dog’s motivation falter, I decided to hang it up for the day at the Fish Fork junction, somewhere around 10-12 miles in.  I had hoped to do a bit more mileage, but as rugged and choked as this canyon becomes, we’d had enough for the day.  An old camp exists here, outfitted with a well-crafted fire ring and  stone benches and tables improvised from the surrounding rock slabs.  Night falling, a small fire lit, I cooked tea and dinner and fed the pup, became lost in the fire and my thoughts until well past 10PM with her sleeping in my windshirt beside me.  I slept out, forest illuminated by the full moon, and I could not help but lay awake and stare at the canopy.  A strange thing it is, to be laying in a dark forest completely alone at night; I guess I can see why most think us crazy for it.  I was crawled upon by a fair share of long legged spiders and other insects, feeling like some sort of Saint Francis with his creatures.   In fairness, it did take me a few years of going solo before all the irrational fears, illusions, and demons in the dark went away.

I was up by first light, ate two Mojo bars (my new favorite bar), packed camp, and hit the trail.  We came across at least 8 bighorn sheep climbing some cliffs, completely baffling my dog seeing such large animals at least 60 feet above us, and in typical bighorn style they remained to far to be photographed without telephoto gear.  Thankfully getting out proved much smoother and faster, as dog was exhausted by reaching the car; 20+ miles of rough terrain is a mighty fine effort for a little one.  Right on time, I was home by 11Am…the beauty of these local trips.  Score one more for the East Fork.

Swimming hole lunch break


Slow travelling.

There's always room in an SUL kit for the Mysterious Kupilka that arrived on my doorstep anonymously. Pictured here with some lapsang souchong.

SUL sleeping, Hobo King style! Upon arriving at camp, I was bothered by the dingy old Coleman bag someone left here for a few seasons. Bonus! Folded up inside it were some socks! Ewww...But wait...all I have is a tiny CCF pad and that bag looks cushy. Combined with a groundsheet, it made one of the best backcountry beds I've had. I say take what you can get. (Notice the socks left under the plastic)


On gear:

Based on recent talk on Backpacking Light about SUL/XUL backpacking, I kept this trip minimal on gear.  Hardly my first trip in this style, I had everything I needed, nothing I didn’t.  Nothing in my pack was unused except lip balm and first aid. I didn’t itemize any weights, but my pack total, not including food or water, was only 2.6 pounds.  I wore ~2.5 pounds of clothing/stuff, making the overall trip extremely light.  Due to the mild weather, nothing was really needed.  On the one hand, this makes the XUL target feel pretty arbitrary.  But on the other, it further drives home the point of packing for what one will encounter, rather than what one fears one will encounter; true necessities only.  I was never lacking in comfort or convenience despite carrying easily 1/4th of what a typical backpacker would carry on a trip like this.  Is XUL some sort of Holy Grail, imparting courage and prestige on the practitioner?  Hardly.  It’s just a means of keeping things simple and light by using weight as a limiting factor in gear selection.  By adding my poncho tarp, a down vest, and a pair of socks I could easily extend the comfort range into different weather conditions and still maintain a weight very close to 5 pounds , both worn and carried.  One thing I did like with this setup- it was very easy to run with my pack.  The biggest advantage of XUL/SUL so far: Weight was nearly imperceptible on my physical performance, even with food and water.


-OR Sunrunner hat (my favorite for sun)

-REI OXT Synthetic long sleeve (good for heat/sun protection and cold)

-running shorts w/sewn in brief (my favorite- swimming, sleeping, hiking, they do it all)

-New Balance Minimus Trail, no socks (love these shoes)


-lanyard w/ firesteel, whistle, and Photon microlight (this has been a standard item for many years)


-Homemade simple pack…~6 oz.

-GG Nighlite torso pad (works great as frame in pack)

-WM Summerlight in stuffsack

-painter’s cloth groundsheet (this one has lasted 12 trips so far!)

-Montbell Tachyon anorak and Dynamo wind pants (5.6 ounces for both in XL!!)

-Snowpeak 1400 cookpot w/bail (My favorite pot…blackened, battered, nice and big for sloppy cooking.  Bail a must for woodfire cooking.)

-Ti spork

-Aquafina 1.5 liter bottle

-ESEE Izula knife (Heavy and not really needed, but I like a sturdy fixed blade for doing bushcraft/carving.)

-Essentials in small bag:  ClO2 pills, lip balm, first aid, Dr. Bronners, tiny toothbrush, tinder, all less than 4 ounces.

-Mysterious Kupilka cup (no reason you can’t have a fun cup)



-Two small nesting plastic cups for dog food and water


~5 pounds for worn and packed.


One response

  1. Drew York

    Mr. Wisner,
    I stumbled onto your blog through BPL today, and was quite excited to find it, as I was one of your students a couple of years ago. Over the past weekend, I have my first experience backpacking at the east fork and had a quite good time. I have been trying to get out more often, and would love to chat with you when you had some free time. I am Drew York, and was in your class in 2009. To hear back from you would be great
    Really cool blog

    September 13, 2011 at 1:36 pm

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