There are places up above 9,000 feet elevation in the Central Sierra that are covered in snow six months or more some years.
That means soils, grasses, flowers, insects, birds and critters at these higher elevations are in a hurry to thrive and grow in the warmest months, before the grip of winter returns and the landscape goes dormant again for six more months.
Even though it’s August, this year’s late spring storms brought so much April and May snow to the Central Sierra there are still places like this just opening up to their spring and summer, high in the Emigrant Wilderness, south of Highway 108 in the Stanislaus National Forest.
Another way to think of this is that, even though it’s full-on summer in the Mother Lode foothills with daytime highs in the 90s and 100s, it’s still springtime up above 9,000 feet in the Central Sierra, with highs 30 to 40 degrees cooler.
One place to watch winter finally melt away and see this super-slow summer emerge is at Blue Canyon Lake, around 10,030 feet elevation in Tuolumne County.
I went up there more than six weeks ago in late June with a friend, and we found sturdy snow bridges still covering Deadman Creek. More snow covered the path we followed, from about 9,000 feet all the way to the ice-covered lake at 10,035 feet. The northeast end of the lake, its outlet, was just beginning to melt, and it was covered with what looked like turquoise slush. No water was visible.
Two other friends joined me on a walk up to Blue Canyon Lake on Sunday this week. We started walking about 9:15 a.m. The sturdy snow bridges over Deadman Creek were long gone. We found lush meadows of knee-deep green grasses, white and purple lupine, wooly mule ears with yellow blooms, pink columbine, and bright red Indian paintbrush.
We also came across a lot of purple-headed flowering herbs called pennyroyal or monardella, tiny blue blossoms called hounds tongue, blue flax and pink rock fringe, later identified from photos by Jennie Haas, a Stanislaus National Forest botanist.
Higher up we came across small carpets of white, pink and purple phlox, tiny blooms growing out of recently-exposed rocks, close to snow patches still unmelted. Up on a rock pile at Blue Canyon Lake, we found isolated red clusters of wild buckwheat.
We saw plenty of slow-moving, fuzz-backed bees in the wildflowers. We saw a lot of red and black ants in places. We saw high-altitude dragon flies flitting in the meadows and short-flight grasshoppers that chirped as they leaped to and fro near patches of snow. We saw a few tiny birds foraging in the new grasses and brush.
The main surprise we found was Blue Canyon Lake itself was no longer covered in ice and snow. The surface of the water was turquoise and aqua-green with a couple of melting chunks of ice floating near the north edge. The southeast edge was still rimmed with ice and snow. It was sunny, breezy and cool in the 60s and 70s, nearly warm enough to swim.
I emptied my pockets, walked down to the icy edge, stepped into the frigid water and somersaulted in. The shock was so intense that in my mind’s eye I was a tiny X-ray skeleton being electrocuted by freezing cold lightning bolts. I found my footing and walked out of the water and hollered. Then I put on a hooded windbreaker over my wet clothes and started moving around to stay warm.
My friends waded knee-deep 10 yards or so to a small islet of grass fringed with purple and yellow wildflowers. They passed on the opportunity to go all the way into the water and get soaked from head to toe.
We lunched on cheese and salami, avocado and almonds, and admired snow fields still clinging to sloping ridges and peaks reaching above 11,000 feet that ring three-quarters of the lake. Two of us walked part way around the west side of the lake.
We spent about an hour altogether at the lake. It was about 1:15 p.m. when we started walking downhill. We crossed several hundred yards of snow that still covered the trail below the lake. We came across more wildflowers and, in the midday sunshine, they looked even more colorful than they had earlier in the day when we walked up to the lake. We made it back to our vehicle before 3 p.m.
By that time my clothes were nearly dry. We drove down to Dardanelle and stopped for popsicles at their temporary store. By 5 p.m. we were back in Sonora, where it still felt like blazing heat in the 90s. The ice-cold turquoise waters of Blue Canyon Lake were a vivid, distant memory high in the Central Sierra, to be savored until next time.
Reporter’s note: Before I began working for newspapers in the early 1990s, I spent seven years with VisionQuest and Outward Bound as a paid, certified wilderness instructor and emergency medical technician accountable for groups of felony offender teens, court-ordered children and adult Cuban refugees. I am in my late 50s and anyone who walks OK on their own can keep up with me anywhere.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.