Sunday, August 29, 2010

Applefest at Ravenswood Historic Site in Livermore

The Strawberry Parfait, Scarlet Surprise and Porter's Perfection all have one thing in common. These antique apple varieties were popular in the second half of the 19th century and have practically disappeared of the commercial circuit. Last month, Ranger Amy Wolitzer of Ravenswood Historic Site in Livermore planted more of these antique apple trees in the orchard in front of the house. When you go, look at the tiny trees with the name tag still attached. They will be producing apples in 3 to 4 years. "For the Ravenswood trees, we selected varieties that were popular in the Victorian era, when the Ravenswood estate was in its heyday," wrote Ranger Amy in Valley Wilds, September 2008.

On the last Saturday of August, the real stars of the Applefest event were a dozen mature apple trees with fruit-laden branches. As Ranger Amy instructed kids to pluck juicy apples off these trees, none of the youngsters cared that these apples were not the usual Gala or Fuji or that they might have worms inside.

Harvesting and tasting them was only the start of a fun-filled Victorian afternoon and getting first to the trees was the name of the game.

Built in 1891, Ravenswood was a country estate for Chrisopher A Buckley Sr., a San Francisco politician. In those days, country houses were often surrounded by extensive lands. In Buckley's case, the land was planted in orchards and vineyards, fitting choices for a Mediterranean climate that allowed palm trees and sycamores to thrive.

There are still vineyards in front of the house and if you walk to the end of the garden, you'll see the walls of Buckley's winery still standing without a roof. In fact, wine may well be the only industry that bridges the gap between Victorian Livermore and Livermore today. Just check out the  Livermore Valley Wineries to get the idea. Olive orchards would also - but fruit orchards have all but disappeared. Thanks to Ravenswood, families can still experience a flavor of Victorian life - and orchards - in Livermore.

The idea behind Applefest is simple: get kids to participate in harvest time at the end of the summer, make them taste rare apples and play old-fashioned games. The amazing part is that the event is free. From my estimates, roughly 80-100 people attended, making it a low key affair with a warm feel, in a small town kind of way.

Ranger Amy kicked off the afternoon in period costume with a few words on antique apples and asked for helpers to carry all the equipment needed to taste apples: apple slicer, cutting board, pail with water (to rinse the apples), cloth (to wipe them dry), stool (to be used as table), and knife (to remove the wormy parts).

Though kids were shy at first, they got bold as more hands were raised than there were helpers positions. Fortunately, Ranger Amy knows how to engage everybody and every child present got to participate at his or her level (which I thought was great). Those who did not have an assigned "helper" commitment got to pick apples off the trees.

The first tree was covered in the delicious Pink Pearl, an apple varietial I tasted for the first time two years ago at the Mendicino county fair in Boonville (read the Frog Mom story). It's a real treat, both tart and sweet with a tangy finish and a crunchy texture fit for the best picnics. It is now my favorite apple and I worship Berkeley Bowl for carrying it in season.

After harvesting apples and tasting 8 or so varieties, we all headed to the front of the house where kids made apple cider with an old-fashioned wooden press. What a line to press your own cider! Clearly, video games are so yesterday. Who needs electronics when you can make something with your hands?

Next to the apple press was an apple peeler and corer, a great device that looks like a torture instrument. It clamps onto the table and you skewer the apple on three spikes that hold it firmly in place. As you turn the wooden handle, it peels the skin and produces a thin ribbon of apple that's cored and ready to eat. We have one at the Haas-Lilienthal House Museum but it's broken so I'd never seen one in action. My daughters loved it.

After having tasted or eaten a dozen apples, the kids were ready to burn off energy with Victorian games. Throwing rice sacks through a wooden target got wildly pretty popular, as did the metal hoops and sticks and potato sack races.

However bobbing apples was where it was at. I was blown away by a tween girl bobbing apples like a pro. Apparently she had practiced the previous week and had it down to a science, diving head first into the bucket all the way to her neck, pinning the apple to the bottom and biting hard in the flesh to get it out between her teeth. Wow!

That's when I noticed a ranger riding a high wheel bicycle. "Is it difficult to ride?" I asked him from far. "It's a lot easier to get on it than to get off it!" he replied, continuing to circle the orchard. Yup, I can see how it would be tricky to get off that bike. No brakes. It was called a widow-maker - for a good reason.

These bikes were so fast (faster than horses) and popular at the turn of the 20th century that young men got together in bicycle clubs to buy one of those and show off in front of the ladies. They were the venture capitalists of their times!

A few moments later, the ranger invited people to try the bike by themselves, explaining how you need to literally jump on the saddle once your feet are on the lower wheel. Even the kids got to try, with some help.

Before we left, we visited the 1891 cottage where I fell in love with this child-size wheelbarrow in the bedroom. When you go, ask if the docent can play that incredible music box with the side handlebar to wind it up and the perforated metal discs to play the songs. It has a lovely sound.

Though it's not even September yet, I'm now looking forward to the apple season and also looking for a good illustrated book on Johnny Appleseed so I can tell the story to my girls. Apple Hill festival, I'm ready!

Practical details about Ravenswood Historic Site
2647 Arroyo Rd in Livermore
  • Free public tours are given by costumed docents on the second and fourth Sundays of each month (except the fourth Sunday in December), from noon to 4 p.m.
  • Two annual community events are held at Ravenswood: the Old-Fashioned Ice Cream Social on the second Sunday in August and the Victorian Yuletide on the second Sunday in December.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mountain Winery Summer Series: Rufus and Martha Wainwright

During the first song-set of his concert at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, Rufus Wainwright requested that spectactors do not applaud until he had left the stage, his departure being part of the piece too. "All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu" was an hour-long tribute to his recently deceased mother on a backdrop of eye close-up visuals by artist Douglas Gordon. Weird visuals, these giant eyelids opening and closing slowly. the music was appropriately dark and broody. Rufus' voice expressed grief and emotion, the piano's keys seemed like his fingers' natural extensions.

Resisting the urge to clap, spectactors sat silent. Not a whisper was heard. Only the loud chirping away of crickets violated the singer-songwriter's wish. As I got up to find the restrooms, I paused to listen. A coyote was howling in the night. What kind of concert theater offers that kind of experience?

The Mountain Winery has got itself a sweet deal above the Silicon Valley. Sweeping views, attached vineyards, state of the art amphitheater and sound system. Even seats are comfortable.

The Summer Series has attracted music legends such as BB King, Ray Charles, Billy Idol, Diana Ross (the oldies) but also the newer generation with The Crowded House, Natalie Merchant and Rufus Wainwright. In September Sheryl Crow will perform there and the only Northern California stop of A Prairie Home Companion's Summer Love Tour is tonight at - you guessed it - the Mountain Winery. How do they attract such big names?

It's still a puzzle to me because the ticket prices are not outrageous but I understand why people keep coming back despite slashing reviews on Yelp. Amongst the major complaints: the $20 parking charge, overpriced wine in plastic tumblers, bad food, the bottleneck exit of the parking lot and a nutty 10.30 pm lights-off policy that resulted in BB King being cut off in the middle of a song. 

None of those were terribly inspiring so my husband and I just had dinner before and met in Saratoga at a parking lot so we could avoid paying double parking fees.

Once you get over the sheer capitalism of it all, I'll say that it's pretty rare to listen to a world-class performer at an open air venue with views of the Silicon Valley. Add to that a tumbler of wine or beer under clear skies. At night the valley's a freakin' light show and looking down on Palo Alto through the shadows of the trees is downright magical. It's a bit like being on a window seat on a plane minus the bumpy ride.

The Romanesque winery building offers an old world feel while oversize Paul Masson wooden barrels flank the arched walls of the amphitheater and give it a rustic chic touch. Obviously the lighting system has been handed to serious professional hands as the venue looks straight out of a decorating magazine at night.

VIPs and donors get special privileges such as private patios, stage-side terraces and comfy couches for al fresco dining. You and I can spend top $ at the Grill/Bar, Chateau deck, Winery Bar or Marketplace Bistro - or dine before. 

In fact, the whole food and drink offering has been very well thought out with top-to-bottom branding. In addition to the four dining venues, people just walk around between Mountain Winery food and drink stalls peppering the grounds.

Business partnerships improve the basic wine offering. Coke is well-represented with its sodas and Dasani water bottles sold at $4 (while there are drinking fountains by the restrooms with better quality tap water) and Sierra Nevada and Blue Moon have big sign boards and a brewery-style bar for the non-wine drinking crowd. Once you have your tumbler in hand, you can head to your seat and drink while enjoying the concert. Each seat is equipped with a cupholder. That's the life.

I can see a downside to the amphitheater being such an open space though. Martha Wainwright - a very talented singer - was doing the first part of the show. Sadly for her, she was singing in front of a half-empty (at best) amphitheater. People were still trickling in, getting the lay of the land, buying their drinks, and many were watching the singer from the balconies that surround the stage. That's the lot of first parts, I know, but it must still be disheartening for a performer that the audience is so scattered
As Rufus Wainwright was closing his show, we literally jumped from our seats to rush to our car, so nervous we were about getting stuck in the parking lot. Just our luck, Martha was coming back on stage to sing with her brother. We paused on the access ramp, half-regretted our move and left.

As I mentioned, the Mountain Winery is located in Saratoga. If you don't live at the foot of the hills in one of the McMansions, you've got a good bit of driving to do to get back home. For people like us living near San Francisco, it's an hour's drive away. Too bad it ain't closer - but then it would be in the fog.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Great Sierra Mine: A Ghost Town in Yosemite's High Country

In 1859, George W. "Doc" Chase, a wayward dentist from Mariposa, arrived from the diggins in the Eastern Sierras, looking for a rich vein of silver. Making his way at high altitude, he followed a rugged trail along the high ridges of the Yosemite's high country, admired the icy silver waters of Ellery Lake, and scrambled his way up a crest near the western end of Tioga Lake.

There, he pulled his pick and shovel from his rucksack and worked at it, finding a promising lode. The next year he returned, dug some more and scratched a message in a tin can with the finest results of his excavations. He left it under a rock. That was as much as Chase did to stake his claim to The Sheepherder. His life went on and the can got all rusty.

For more than a decade, the tin can lay at the foot of Gaylor Peak where it had been placed and forgotten. In 1874, a young sheepherder going by the name of William Brusky stumbled about Chase's flattened can, his pick and his shovel. He unearthed a promising vein of silver. Word got around.

The Tioga Pass mining fever was born and that's how Tioga Pass, the eastern entrance to the Yosemite National Park, got its name from a mine. The Tioga Mine was a full-flown mining town, complete with an assay office, blacksmith shop, storehouse, boarding houses, workshops and cabins.

Though we did not push to the Tioga Mine, last week we took a trip back in time by hiking up to Gaylor Lakes from Tioga Pass and going to the remains of the Great Sierra Mine.

The trail starts right at the Tioga Pass at the elevation of 9,800', next to the rangers' kiosk. No sooner had we parked at the tiny lot that we realized our backpack full of food for the day was back at the Tuolumne Meadows campground! I drove fast and came back with our lunch and snacks, glad that a bear hadn't found it before me. The hike could start.

Having walked this path five years ago, we knew that the hardest part would be to get our girls over the hill. Gaylor Lakes trail starts with a steep 600' elevation gain over half a mile and from the ridge, is a breeze down to the lower lake where we planned to have lunch.

Lower Gaylor Lake is a stunning sierra lake, stretching along the plateau like a never-ending pool whose southern edge drops in the valley with  alpine peaks in the distance. It is simply gorgeous and the clear waters are a call to swim. However our goal was much higher that day so I waited. 

Refueled, we followed the lake's edges to walk up the feeder creek to its snowmelt source, Upper Gaylor Lake. Mosquitoes were few and far between at the windy top but very hungry closer to the bottom so we hastened our pace to reach the second lake.

Two families were picknicking at the lake - an unthinkable crowd by High Sierras standards - so rather than stopping for a break we just went on. We could already see the stone cabin that marks the ridge and the first of a few scattered buildings of the great Sierra Mine.

Finally we reached the top just below 11,000' and enjoyed the views before going "mine-hunting." The walls of the ridge cabin still stand pretty tall, showing the fireplace without any doubt but the wood and stone roof has collapsed, leaving a hazardous timber chaos inside the walls.

Our girls had fun waving at us from the window opening that still has a wooden frame but the novelty quickly wore off and we went away to explore the mountainsides.

Interestingly the trail we followed is called at Gaylor Lakes Trail but it goes all the way up to the mine at the place that seems to be called Tioga Hill. After the mine, no more trail. It's easy to get lost in this highly mineral world where to the non-geologist, rocks mostly look like rocks.

Trees have long disappeared and grasses are the only plants that grow at this altitude. Wildflowers enjoy their four months without snow at their fullest, coloring the rocky soils with vibrant patches of yellows, blues and pinks.
In the middle of all this, we saw a plump shape scamper away from a rock pile nearby. Yellow-bellied marmot! I grabbed my camera and chased the rambunctious rodent that kept escaping my best efforts. Finally I came to a boulder and looked down. The marmot was right below me, half brewing its next move. I was glad when I was able to shoot this close-up portrait.

Coming back to my family, I saw my husband pull back my girls by their pants. They found a mine shaft and were obviously standing too close to the edge. All vertical, these mine shafts were probably entered with a rope system and blown by dynamite.

They are now boarded up but the holes remain, transforming this ridge in a mining Swiss cheese. In the hour we stayed up there I counted four different shafts and we didn't go very far.

As we were about to turn around, my husband remembered we hiked to a third lake five years ago. Our eldest protested but she didn't have much choice so we moved on, now fraying our way on rocky slopes as we went.
Looking at the USGS map for the Tioga Pass Quadrant, I learned the name of that third lake or rather, I learned the name of the two peaks that tower above the snow lakes that melt in the summer. Prospects is marked twice on my map, referring once again to the mining history of the area.

At that point the girls had earned their ice cream back at the Tuolumne meadows store and I wanted to swim so we turned around and walked back. I stripped down to my swimsuit at the base of Upper Gaylor Lake and crossed it with a brisk breast stroke. It's an easy quarter miler whose main challenge lies as the cold water (high 40s?) and the thin air that you get at 10,600'. Next time I won't forget my swimming goggles - I'm not used to covering more than a few yards in breast stroke anymore.

This swimming episode concluded a beautiful hike and we hung out by the edge of the lake, now crowded only by us, until the ice cream call was unberable.

Now, if you want to discover more ghost towns in Northern California, check out Ghost Town Explorers, a well-documented website with photos of remote and not-so-remote ghost towns and a special Eastern Sierras page. And to learn more about the history of Yosemite's high country, check out Gene Rose's book "Yosemite's Tioga Country", a must-have for Yosemite lovers. I pulled out my historical information from that book, recommended by a ranger on our last visit.

Details of the hike: 4.5-5 miles. Elev. gain: 1,200'. Map: see below.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Point Bonita Lighthouse: Memories from a bygone era

Excerpts from the Journal of the Light-house Station at Point Bonita
June 26, 1891: The Ship Palestine struck the bar and sunk alll hands saved coal laden.
April 17, 1906: Whitewashed signal building outside.
April 18, 1906: Terrible earthquake occurred at 5.13am. doing considerable damage to the coasts, quarter. [...] The chimneys were shaken to pieces. [...]
December 26, 1908: The two small children sick with chicken pox. Fog.
April 3, 1926: Scouring brass in tower. Cloudy. Light wind SE.

Though I had a difficult time deciphering the longhand writing on the reprint of the actual logs at the Marin Headlands Visitor Center, these tidbits provided a fascinating dive into the lighthouse's history. Whitewashing, scouring, rescuing shipwrecked boats, living a normal family life.

When you visit it nowadays, the 1855 Point Bonita Lighthouse is a lonely white structure at the end of a suspension bridge with a vertiginous drop in the tormented ocean below and gorgeous views on the gate the lighthouse is keeping: the Golden Gate. Perched like an eagle's nest, it commands 360 vistas of the treacherous waters entering the San Francisco Bay. Treacherous they were back in the days. Hazardous is a better word. During the Gold Rush years, more than 300 ships ran aground.

The daily log of the lighthouse keeper is a fair indication of how foggy the area was but walk inside the light house and you will find a map of major sunken ships hanging on the walls. With your finger you will be able to pinpoint vessels that lost their bearings in the San Franciscan fog and the shifting sand bars. Too bad the original lighthouse was 300 feet above water level, right in the fog layer! Fortunately, it was moved downwards (where it stands today) and a warning signal perfected. Over the years, the fog horn was successively a cannon wearning, a fog bell, a steam siren and an electric fog horn.

Today, this 30-seconds interval fog horn works with a laser beam that switches on based on humidity or dirt particles in the air. This results in the interesting paradox that you can hear the fog horn on an otherwise clear day if the air humidity or the dirt particles index are high. I wonder if this works the same with particles from wood fires burning in fireplaces in the winter. Intriguing.

When I visited the lighthouse, I noticed for the first time a little rectangular section of concrete on the ground at the entrance of the suspension bridge. It looks like nothing, really. Now imagine that it was the house of the lighthouse keeper's assistant. Not much of a McMansion it seems. Barely enough space for more than a room, maybe two stories? I'll have to ask the rangers.

Well, these lucky fog dwellers had children, chickens, and a cat. How did they ensure that nobody pluged down the cliff? But of course, harnesses! Think the Victorian equivalent of the child leash, on every single creature on legs apart from adults. I was floored but then, looking at the drop, I understand their concerns.

Last item that caught my attention, the suspension bridge. I'm not going to re-write a treaty on suspension bridges but the docent who walked across with me (there's a 2-person limit) insisted we walk side-by-side.

Funny, I thought that you had to break the step when walking on suspension bridges. As we walked and our aligned steps made the bridge swing upwards and downwards, I was reminded of the disastrous collapse of the Angers Bridge in 1850 and the frequency of bridges. We were perfectly in phase with the bridge's frequency! Though I've been coming to Point Bonita for almost 8 years and I know the bridge to be perfectly safe, I was - for once - relieved to step on the other side on solid rock. Looking down at waves crashing on dark caves at sea level, I felt a shiver run across my shoulders.

As I was walking back, discussing with the docents at the end their shifts, I snapped this photo of the sea lions napping the day away on the rocks next to the old rescue station. They may have disappeared from Fisherman's Wharf, but I've always had good luck spotting the barking sea dogs here. When you go, look for them as you descend towards the rock tunnel.

So long Point Bonita, it's been nice to see you again. Now that I know that the bridge is going to be rebuilt and the parking lot moved further, I'm excited to see what's going to happen. I do hope the structure will preserve its historical appearance. It's all the charm of the lighthouse for me. Plus the journal, of course.

Note: Point Bonita Lighthouse is only open for visits Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays from 12.30 to 3.30pm. Any later and you'll find the gate of the tunnel closed. It would be a shame. The echo inside is a killer.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

If you go to the SFMOMA this summer

Go on a Tuesday evening between 6 and 8.45pm. Kids under 12 are free every day but adults are half-price only on Thursday evenings - and the SFMOMA's a lot less crowded. Plus, you can treat your kids to this "special" after-hours tour of the museum and get them dinner at the downstairs cafeteria where the vegan soup of the day is always a good choice.

After I found out that the SFMOMA opened late once a week, I decided to take my girls after camp to see the Calder to Warhol/Fisher Collection exhibition. My father had initially suggested it so it sounded like a plan. Fortunately, getting a street parking spot after 6pm on Howard was fairly easy so we just walked two blocks and in we were.

Special exhibitions are on the 4th floor. We walked inside the elevator and with four other people on board, every floor button was lit. As the doors opened on the second floor, we caught a glimpse of fluid gold movement. "Out we go!" I warned my troops as I pushed them out of the elevator. Immediately to our right was a giant curtain of gold beads hanging from the ceiling. Magical! "Untitled (Golden)" by Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres is the reason I love the SFMOMA. Playful, creative, fun. This is the antithesis of a stuffy museum. Kids can have fun too. Err, too much fun actually. My girls would have played in the curtain for hours if a guard hadn't told them to calm down.

On we went. To reinforce the idea that "we can't touch everything even if it's tempting," I got my digital camera out of my purse and told my girls they could each take a photo per room. Up to them what they wanted to capture. This was the best idea of the evening. Rather than running around, they paused for a sec and scanned the walls and space for anything catchy. Here a Franz Marc German expressionnist painting. There a giant blue metal ribbon called "Things to come" by Elizabeth Murray. They actually started using their eyes and their own judgment.

My oldest one even photographed the exit sign in the hallway. Yes, the exit sign. Just because. That's cool though. Kids don't have our preconceptions about art. If they like something then they don't feel the need to justify their choice and that's why the exit sign was as good a choice in my eyes as any other million dollar sculpture. I still remember the day I stood in front of a cleaning cart at the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art thinking it was a weird modern sculpture - it was all white and everything on it was white - until the cleaning person wheeled it away.

What really mesmerized my girls at the SFMOMA was the two media installations on the 4th floor. On one side, the movie "Passage" by Iranian female artist Shirin Neshat. Set to a haunting music by Philip Glass, the 11-minute movie shows men in black walking a shrouded corpse from the beach to the desert. Women veiled in black form a circle in the desert and dig the ground with their hands, moving their bodies as in some sort of transe. Meanwhile a little girl, kneeling behind a rock next to the women's circle, builds an circular fort with rocks. At the end of the movie, the men arrive next to the women, the little girl gets up and a wall of fire goes off against the evening sky. Not Little Poney stuff, we all agree. And yet my little 5-year-old watched it three times. She insisted, kept coming back in the room, begged me to stay until the fire scene because it was so beautiful.

In the other room, a model theatre with drawings and animated black and white animated movie was rhythmed by the main arias of the opera The Magic Flute. Entitled "Preparing The Flute" by South African artist William Kentridge, the installation is like a miniature production of the opera in 21 minutes. Combining music sheets, shadow theater, masonic symbolism, and retro art, the installation transfixed my oldest daughter who insisted on seing it twice. She loves singing and I have to say, the musical extracts were worth just the 21 minutes, if the series of short films hadn't been so entertaining.

After I was finally able to tear them away from these rooms, we browsed the floor but it was getting late and they needed more action than the Calder mobiles. So we walked another flight of stairs to the 5th floor to access the Rooftop Garden. Garden is an ambitious word for an outdoors terrace with monumental sculptures but the space invites running around and there's a Blue Bottle Coffee Company Coffee Bar at the same level, offering dark aromatic brews to adults and fancy art-themed cakes to anybody with a sweet tooth. For a more subtantial approach to dinnertime, we headed down to the Caffe Museo and ordered the vegan soup of the day: leek, potatoes, and truffle oil.

That pretty much concluded our visit as it was getting dark outside. This after-hours visit had me rethink the SFMOMA and how my family could interact with it. I've always thought modern art museums were best reserved to solitary or girls night out visits to understand the obscure depth of the message. After tonight, I realize kids can definitely learn to love art just by being exposed to it. No need to explain abstract art yet.

Judging by the number of kids we met - maybe two dozen other kids 6 and under - I'm not the only parent who thinks that kids and modern art are compatible species. Some of the youngest visitors were barely wobbly on their legs but amongst the oversize rooms and installations, they didn't fuss. They didn't scream. I like to think they were happy and so was I.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Saddlebag Lake: Twenty Lakes Basin Hike

Right outside of the Yosemite National Park's Tioga Pass entrance is one of my favorite Eastern Sierra hikes. With easy access off highway 120 going down towards Mono Lake, Saddlebag Lake offers a scenic 5.5-mile loop in the Twenty Lakes Basin featuring vibrant wildflowers, high altitude lakes and a mineral world of stern granite beauty. Saddlebag Lake is also the entrance way to the Hoover Wilderness in the Inyo National Forest, an incredibly rugged area of alpine landscapes featuring deep canyons and peaks reaching for the sky.

I first hiked at the loop at Saddlebag Lake in 2002 and remembered a smooth succession of pristine lakes, some sky blue some silver grey, with anglers catching trouts in half of them. That was before kids and my husband and I added 3 miles to the hike by walking along the edges of Saddlebag Lake to the trailhead, a rather boring narrow trail. Last weekend I was camping with my father and my kids at Tuolumne Meadows, a proximity too tempting to resist. I decided to hike at Saddlebag Lake again but in the spirit of survival of the youngest (5) and the wisest (70), we took the water taxi.

The water taxi runs every half hour so we didn't have to wait too long after we got our tickets at the store but since we got a late start, it was already 12.45pm when we got to the other side.

Our return tickets indicated 3.45pm which in theory was OK for 5 miles with 500 feet elevation gain except... snow-covered trails, tricky creek/rock crossings and a temporary off-routing through Lundy Canyon converted the last two miles into a rabbit race.

Starting off at the trailhead (altitude 10,000 feet) was straightforward. We saw two people walking with fishing poles and simply followed them. No, in fact I remembered doing the loop clockwise and the trail follows the north-western tip of Saddlebag Lake so we followed the people anyway. At the wooden sign, you officially enter the Hoover Wilderness - gotta love these retro wooden signs.

Visual rewards came almost right away much to my dad's satisfaction. The first lake appeared on our left 10 minutes into our hike. Greenstone Lake, a lake whose blue waters reflected cloudless skies, filled the bottom of a glacial circus towered by North Peak at 12,000 feet. A+ for the "wow" factor.

A hill above Greenstone Lake was filled with another smaller lake and the juxtaposition of the two lakes with Saddlebag made the photo at the top of this posting.  Three lakes on three levels, that's heaven for me. A trickle of a brook turned the trailside into an inviting bird bath and my girls changed into swimsuits to refresh their feet. Why did mosquitoes materialize out of nowhere? Nasty little blood suckers. Suffice to say, we didn't stay long.

Ahead of us were the long and lean Wasco Lake (angler's hangout) and bigger Steelhead Lake into which a waterfall gushed, fed by snowmelt coming from glaciers above. We saw people sitting on the shores of the lake. They were just enjoying the scenery. Blinding white under the sky, big patches of compacted snow looking like wet sugar appeared far from from the trail; then next to the trail (snowball fights); then on the trail.

Between Steelhead Lake and Shamrock Lake, the trail also disappeared in a pond and had us take the rocky route instead. Adventure was calling, we were now using hands and feet! By then we were still on the trail, easy backcountry crossing but my map did not show the trail heading north-east to Shamrock Lake. Too bad. We simply followed a well-marked path and missed a short steep section that could have led us to the abandoned Hess Mine.

Getting to Shamrock Lake required crossing the creek on a log, which added spice to the new lake discovery.

However right after the crossing, the trail rose and rose and rose until we were treading piled rocks. More spice! One fall. Ouch.

What a sheer delight Shamrock Lake was, though. With many nooks and crannies, the water occasionally encircles tiny rock islands dotted with gnarled whitebark pines and spreads into rough coves with weird shapes. The view from above (now the trail was definitely higher) was one of the best high sierras views ever.

From then on, the trail was visible on and off because of snowy patches but cairns guided us (roughly) through rocky slabs, meadows and ponds. Lake Helen came as a surprise to us. I know, it shouldn't have, but my map, well my map was incomplete. My USGS topo map of the Tioga Pass Quadrangle dates back to 1995 and doesn't have all the current trails. Also, the hike bites over another map in the top right corner so Lake Helen, the northernmost lake, is outside of my map. Bad luck. It could have been a minor detail since there's only one trail anyway but then we came to the marker "To Lake Helen." Whatta? Since we didn't see any other trail, we just kept on but my confidence in the map had been shaken - not stirred, just shaken. That's when I goofed up.

At the end of Lake Helen, we climbed down a big boulder (sort of not so safe for the kids but I couldn't see another way down) to cross Mill Creek on two logs. A wooden sign indicated Lundy Canyon on the left, Saddlebag Lake on the right. What was I thinking? We turned left and started going down towards Lundy Canyon. I knew that this was a Saddlebag Lake loop but I nonetheless led everybody left.

Now, Lundy Canyon is not the piece-of-cake of canyons. It's not a canyon for the preschool set.
It's a big deep canyon whose metamorphic rock walls dive down three thousand feet to the floor of the valley where beavers frantically build dams on the creek underneath aspens. It's BIG! Clearly, I didn't remember that part rom the previous hike.

That's when my dad, a geologist, turned to me: "Are you sure we climbed down that much?" Aha moment. We got the compass out, check the map (and the missing corner where we were standing). "Everybody turn around!" The girls didn't like that. We turned back anyway. Now the clock was seriously ticking. We had 45 minutes to make it to the boat, roughly 2 miles to cover up a narrow gorge, around two more lakes, in and out of hills until Saddlebag Lake. We ran!

After the little one tripped, I carried her on my shoulders for a while. The older one tripped too but she's an experienced hiker so could progress without help. 

After each new crest we thought we'd be there for sure but we weren't. In hindsight, doing the hike counterclockwise would get this section out of the way early and reserve the better sights for a smooth ending.

When finally we saw the big blue expanse of Saddlebag Lake, I made sure the boat was still there and shouted "The boat's still here!" Totally pumped up, my two girls, my dad and I ran to the boat. Right after we hopped aboard they revved up the engines and left. In the nick of time!

As a reward for everybody's efforts, we drove back to the campground through the Tuolumne Meadows store and treated everybody to ice cream. They even had my favorite, Haagen Dasz dark chocolate in and out. What a hike! We all slept very well that night.
Note on maps: The loop has only two markers along the route so an up-to-date map (like this one, with more topo detail) will come in handy.