Jennie Lakes Wilderness
I was all by my lonesome for the week. And I’m never alone! I travel for work rather regularly but for Alli to leave, leaving me home alone is a rarity. I don't/didn't know what to do with myself. I watched TV and drank a few beers one night, went out for sushi another (Alli’s not a fish eater) and knew I’d lose my mind if I didn’t get out of town. So, Saturday morning I was up at 6:00, loaded an ultra-lite bag and hit the road for the Jennie Lakes Wilderness.
It must’ve been my fifth time heading up the 99 through the San Joaquin valley, an ocean of agriculture that supplies every grocery store coast to coast and beyond, and I was frankly sick of the drive. Dozing off I stopped for a Red Bull and a couple packets of salt and pepper. As mentioned, Alli doesn’t eat fish so I typically catch and release in the mountains. This weekend, after reading several anecdotes of quality fishing at Jennie Lake, I put Wild Rainbow on my menu for the night. I packed a side of wild rice salad and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, which I read paired particularly well with Rainbow Trout. With lime and mini bottle of olive oil I was traveling light and the packets of salt and pepper completed the recipe. All that was left to acquire was the trout.
By 11:00 I had pulled through the King’s Canyon gates and was on my way to the Big Meadow Trailhead, which departs King’s Canyon and, from the west, enters the Jennie Lakes Wilderness, a range of thick forests, moderate mountains and stunning lakes. There are no quotas and one self registers at the trailhead. As I’ve mentioned before, in California, where permitting is a competition of vigilance and planning, a quota free zone is a blessing for spur of the moment adventures. Having a national park nearby is also a perfect decoy to draw visitors away from less advertised zones.
Flying solo for a single night with a clear Doppler for the weekend, I was able to pack super light: no dinner, no tent, no pad, no stove. No wife, but the weight saved on my back was offset by a heavy heart. It was just me and my daypack: sleeping bag, hammock, jacket, camp shoes, camera, trail mix, rice and wine, with a tripod and rod lashed on outside.
At the trailhead, my dinner plans seemed dashed with 'Fire Restriction' signs posted everywhere. On a stack of laminated papers posted to the trailhead board however was a list of exempt areas, including Jennie Lake so I still had hopes to fill my belly with grilled wild fish.
The trail never dazzles the way some do, but passes through pristine wilderness and gives one the sense of being away from it all from the outset. Where a hike along Glacier Point wows visitors, proclaiming they’re undoubtedly in the heart of Yosemite, the trail to Jennie Lake has an anonymity to it that just makes you feel “out there”. Growing up in New England around many forest trails of this nature, it was a welcomed feeling. I may have been homesick for Alli but right at home in these woods.
Moving quickly along the moderate trail I passed a few parties but overall it was empty. I ran into a group from LA and we hiked together for a bit sharing a chat about life in LA and our adventures beyond it. When they stopped for a photo op I was off on my own again for the homestretch to the lake.
After about two hours on trail I arrived. Jennie Lake is a large Cheshire cat face-shaped lake at the foot of an unnamed granite peak with a face of smooth slab and broken boulders. Flanking the peak are thin woods of Ponderosa and fir trees. Already at the lake were a handful of Forest Service rangers and I was actually hoping to see them to ask about fire restrictions. Unfortunately, my fears were confirmed, too dry for fire, and trail mix slid into position of entrée on the evening’s menu.
I found a nice camp back from the shore and slung my hammock between two trees. Immediately, I looked up and noticed that while both trees were alive and well, one was dressed in bleach white widow-maker branches, ready to crack and crash with a breath of wind. I quickly sought out two new trees, both clean as masts and called it home. I strung up a lure, uncorked my wine and walked along the shoreline to fish.
Almost immediately I could see large, beautiful rainbows meandering through the crystal clear shallows. It was a hot day and at only 9,000, the lake water was quite warm so while fish were apparent, they weren’t biting in the shallows. I walked to the opposite end of the lake where the bottom drops off into deep blue and fished there for a time. Still nothing.
A day earlier I’d read stories of strikes-every-cast and never-been-here-and-caught-fewer-than-20. So far I was writing a counter narrative. They weren’t having any of what I was serving and by the afternoon it appeared the fire ban was a moot point. A nice thing about Jennie Lake is all the fish in it are wild. Stocked lakes and ponds are a great time, catching dumb, juvenile trout cast after cast but hatchery trout tend to sully the gene pool of pristine wild fish. Wild trout are tack sharp, learning from generations of wisdom and taste superiorly better. This group was among the most cunning I’ve found. I’d routinely toss the lure near a rise, watch it approach, follow, inspect and dismiss it.
By evening, the temperature had dropped to the low sixties and I’d returned to my shore near camp where trout were in a frenzy of appetite, rising one after another, pulling insects from the surface. I was skunked and finally put my rod down in exchange for the bottle of wine and drank it down while the water seemed to boil around me. In thirty minutes, as dusk ceded to dark and the water calmed on a breathless night, I finished the wine, took some snaps of the unnamed peak’s reflection across the lake and turned in.
I hadn’t camped without a tent in years and chose the stillest night of the summer to do so. It was a hell of a treat. Lying in my hammock under the stars and calm I crashed out instantly and didn’t wake again until 8:00, an eleven-hour snooze.
Up and at ‘em, I laced up my shoes to scramble up the unnamed peak, 600’ above the lake. Twenty yards outside of camp I smashed my head into the jagged knuckle of a broken tree limb, slicing open my brow. It was a deep wound and I cursed my carelessness walking back to camp. With a palm painted in blood, I assumed I’d have to make haste out of the woods back to the car. Luckily, despite being fairly deep, the cut stopped bleeding almost immediately after blotting and cleaning it up and ended up losing no more blood than the initial spill. Within ten minutes I was back on track toward the mountain. While nothing major, the climb was one of the finest Class 3 scrambles I’ve ever had. Beautiful friction slabs, long finger cracks and staircases of boulders led to a sharp precipice overlooking the lake and surrounding wilderness.
Descending toward the opposite side of the lake I approached, I happened upon the four rangers I’d met the day before. They’d camped up on the summit overlooking the lake. They had a hell of a site but their reasoning was obvious: surveillance. I hate cops, period. I usually don’t include park or FS rangers in this category because I feel strongly about enforcing wilderness rules but in this case, being spied on all night to ensure no one lights up a campfire was an off-putting revelation. Establish rules and enforce them but please don’t chaperone my wilderness experience. We’re subjected to speed traps and data collection the majority of our lives and go into the woods to avoid it for a moment.
Back at camp I collected my things and took the rod out for one last go. Five casts later I hooked a gorgeous foot long Rainbow. Picking him up I felt his girth and remarked he’d be a tasty dinner but wished him well and was thankful I spared him and his ilk in exchange for trail mix and vino.
Finally satisfied, I packed up the rod and moved out. On the hike back to the car I thought about returning here with Alli and even with a family, whenever that may happen, if we ever happen to be ready for such a thing. The camping, the fishing, the hiking, Jennie Lake makes a perfect basecamp for an extended stay. There are so many ways to stay busy and have fun. The lake is shallow and warm, the fish are big and tricky, and the hiking is a sublime intro to Class 3 scrambling. I hoped to share it all with Alli soon and (in a good many years) with what family we’ve yet to create.