Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Canoeing Culbertson Lake, CA a well earned silence...

Canoeists in California don’t generally have access to the sort of trips that those in the upper Midwest do. We have no “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, no Algonquin or Boundary Waters or Quetico, and save for the Lower Colorado no long lazy rivers through deep wilderness. I’ve long held a desire for a multi-day trip that would take me through a number of lakes but that’s pretty tough to find. Most lakes in California are either man-made water storage reservoirs in the foothills around urban areas or in the low Sierras or man-made reservoirs for power generation in the high Sierras. The latter has provided a for a few of my trips in the past ( Hell Hole & Iron Canyon ) but given the terrain that they reside in most do not allow one to paddle a lake, hoist your canoe onto your shoulders and hike a reasonable distance to the next lake and repeat. 

But there are a few exceptions if you look really high into the Sierras. In areas where glacial forces long ago carved divots out of the landscape that now hold runoff from winter snows. I’ve found a few chains of these glacial lakes that I wanted to check out and when some unexpected time off presented itself last year I jumped at the chance for a few days away from the Valley, email, cellphones and noise.

The ultimate destination was Culbertson Lake which sits at about 6500’ in the Sierras. It’s about 8mi north of I-80 as the crow flies, but closer to 20 by road….the last 5+ unpaved. The lake is accessible without a 4x4. I made it in/out in my little diesel Jetta Wagon, but I’d definitely recommend something with more ground clearance. I managed to buggar a sensor on my exhaust system clanging over the rocks. 

Culbertson is accessed only one of two ways. You can hike in about 7mi by dirt road, or there is a longer singletrack trail route that is roughly ½-again that distance or you can, as I did, portage and paddle your way through the chain of lakes downslope of Culbertson. 

I parked my car for the weekend at Lower Lindsey Lake. There is an “Iron Ranger” there to pay for a campsite at Lower Lindsey but no indication as to whether you need to pay if you are merely parking there to access the back country. I decided to play it safe and pay for two nights. Once parked & paid, I unloaded the canoe and set off up the trail to Middle Lindsey Lake. This portage is on a fire road. It’s a bit rocky in places and loose in others so use care when carrying your canoe. The hike isn’t particularly long but it does begin at ~6200’ and the day I did it, temperatures were in the mid-90’s. I made two trips. The first with the canoe (50lbs) and then I returned to the car for my pack (80lbs) and tackle box. 

Once I arrived at Middle Lindsey Lake I loaded the canoe and made a slow trip around the lake while looking for the spot where I’d pull out for the next leg. This is a pretty small little lake and it sits at ~6400’. At some point in the past PG&E built a small dam at the West end which roughly doubled the surface area of the lake to roughly 1,700’x1,000’ but only increased its depth by maybe 8’. It’s very shallow and very warm and as such lacks the oxygen level to support trout. I did see some small bullhead in the shallows though. While paddling around Middle Lindsey I also spotted a sizeable female Black Bear and her cub on the Southern bank. More on that later…

I’d researched this trip a bit and found a description of the route that made finding the portage landings easier. It seems that it has been quite some time since anyone has made this trip though and the growth around the landings was difficult to find if you don’t know which major landmarks to look for.

The next leg of the portage, from Middle Lindsey to Upper Lindsey is rather short but you climb, descend, then climb again through some pretty rough and steep terrain. Upper Lindsey sits at 6500’, just 100’ higher than the middle lake but the up-down-up portage means your carrying canoe & pack 2-3x that figure. This portage wasn’t very clear and it took me a bit of time to find the route. Again, two trips, but this time I took the pack first as it’s far easier to scout out a route if your head isn’t inside a 16’ canoe. 

The bank where I spotted the female Black Bear and her cub


Upper Lindsey is a quite small glacial tarn. It’s only about 500’x300’ but there are some great looking spots to camp around it’s banks. It’s a brief paddle across to the last portage up and over the ridge to Culbertson Lake. This landing was very difficult to find due to the brush growth along the bank. Eventually I found a gap that I was able to ram the canoe into and part the brush enough to me to pull the canoe out. I spent a bit of time with my knife cutting back the brush a bit, but by now that work is probably erased. If I do this trip again I’ll definitely bring a pair of pruning shears and clear out a proper landing. 

The "beach" I carved out of the brush on Upper Lindsey Lake

Once I wrangled myself, my gear and the canoe through the brush and onto the bank I set off over the ridge to Culbertson. This is the shortest of the three portages but by no means easy. A number of large downed trees cross the trail which makes carrying the canoe by yourself interesting to say the least. The climb up onto the ridge isn’t particularly steep, but the route does wind in/out of a few tight trees. Once the ridgeline is gained it’s a short, but quite steep descent down to the bank of Culbertson lake at ~6500’. I strongly recommend carrying your pack first to scout out a good route through the trees and down to the bank and keep in mind, the steep descent down to the lake on the way in is a steep climb on your way out.

The beginning of the portage to Culbertson, once you get in the woods ahead it gets tough

I loaded the canoe again for the last time that day and set off for the peninsula that juts out into the middle of the lake. My thinking being that the extra exposure to the wind might reduce the mosquitoes. And it did…until the wind died. All told it took me roughly 5hrs to paddle/portage my way into Culbertson. It was hot & hard work, but as you’ll see in the photos below, it was well worth it. 

I set up my camp on the peninsula, had a bite to eat and then hopped back in the canoe to explore the lake a bit while doing some fishing. Tradition on my solo canoe trips dictates that there is an inverse relationship between the researched quality of the fishing in a given lake and my ability to take advantage of it. That tradition held out on this trip as well. It is said that Culbertson is home to a healthy population of Brown and Rainbow Trout. While I did catch one of each on my trip my performance as an angler by no means lived up to the reports….as usual. 


As the sun began to set I made my way back to my camp, prepared my dinner ( Backpackers Pantry  Jerk Chicken & Rice…my favorite!), put my food bag up a tree and found a suitable log on which to sit and watch the stars come out to play.
I’ll do a post in the future on the proper way to hang a food bag because as it turned out, hanging my food bag was a good idea. For the second time in my last three solo trips I had a bear visit to my camp in the middle of the night. I don’t know if it was the same female and cub I’d seen earlier in the day but a pair walked within 10’ of my tent in the night and spent a good bit of time under my suspended food bag trying to get at it. I never heard them though and they didn’t mess with me in the tent at all. 

The next morning was gorgeous. I had a little breakfast and hopped in the canoe for some more fishing…..or more accurately, beating the surface of a lake into a froth, drowning worms and otherwise not catching fish. Oh well, as they say, the worst day of fishing is better than the best day of working right?

By 11am the wind kicked up and I headed back to camp. Walking into my camp I was met by good sized Mule Deer buck (4x5) that had been feeding near my tent. Unfortunately, my camera was in my tent not my pocket. Hopefully I’ll see him or one of his cousins sometime around the end of October. I then had some lunch and found a nice spot in the shade to spend the afternoon reading. I’m not sure how long I’d been asleep in the shade with my book in my lap when I was startled awake by the sound of an American Bald Eagle and an Osprey engaged in a heated debate over the fishing rights to the part of the lake in front of my camp. Apparently the Eagle came out on top as a pair returned later that afternoon and each made off with a small Rainbow Trout…..while mocking me.


I took a quick swim in the lake before sunset and settled down on my favorite log for dinner ( Mountain House Lasagna ). Due to the drought in CA fire danger in the Sierras was exceptionally high. I figured that discretion was the better part of valor and decided against a campfire on this trip. The bonus was that without the firelight, the stars were even brighter.  The view went spectacularly well with the flask of Manhattans that I’d brought along. So slightly buzzed…ok, drunk, and with the sound of nothing ringing in my ears I crawled back in the tent for the last night.
In the morning I packed up and reversed the paddle-portage-paddle routine. The return trip was a fair bit quicker as I didn’t have to spend any time finding my way and it was blessedly mostly downhill. 

I have a few other multi-lake trips identified that I’d like to try this summer but with the minimal snowpack this year the lake levels may be too low.

1 comment:

  1. Haha....In 2011, I did this exact same trip only with a kayak. It was one of the few times I wished I had a machete :) Doing with a canoe, without a cart?? You sir are an animal.

    My rig at the gate (The cart was a former baby bike trailer)

    You dont have to pay parking if you are not camping at lower lindsay. I've been going to this area for years without paying for parking.

    You are really fortunate to see bears. I've never seen one even after 20+ over night trips in this area.