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On the hunt for cold springs in the eastern Sierra

By Dup Crosson, Development Director

Roadtripping the California desert at the peak of summer would not normally be a priority for me. Though I’ve come a long ways from my first desert encounter – descending into Utah on I-70 and immediately making an inventory of my water rations – the heat, dust, and lack of rivers (and sometimes even trees) never fails to remind me how far I am from my native lands of Maine. But with a global pandemic in full swing, all that accrued vacation time was begging for something bigger than dodging masked family units on the crowded urban trails nearby. Let us not speak of the canned trip to Alaska that pre-COVID, was to be my big summer exploration this year.

The eastern Sierra Nevada has a distinct appeal apart from its western foothills. It is dramatic in its topography, hydrology, and cultures, and draws a hard line biologically between the rest of California’s Floristic Province. Recreationally, it’s a playground. Many a fellow dirtbag chase the powder at Mammoth and soak in the hot springs spread along the expansive Owens River Valley. This being August, and this author being a ski virgin, I instead, as usual, set my sights on cold water.

Being not raised by wolves but by a river, I am naturally led to water. Packrafting is my default outdoor activity these days, but having already paddled the only navigable river in the region on my way in (the Truckee), I was faced with modest aquatic goals for the remainder of the trip. But what about all these springs noted on my maps?

Based on my initial forays in swimming the upper Owens River, I had low expectations for publicly-accessible swimming spots to be found, let alone running. I pictured once-paradisical oases now choked dry by a far-off water district for some archaic gain. One day, I had been circling Crowley Lake and wondering what the downstream gorge had looked like before humans had had their ways with it. Feeling defeated, I returned again to my replenishing mobile altar of a map spread out on the hood of my vehicle. The nearest point of interest was labeled Layton Springs. Sure.

A mere 10 minute drive down some access roads led me to the spot I had imagined in my head – but this was no mirage. It was a bonafide cold water spring, gushing from a dent amongst the creosote and sagebrush flats, replete with cascading pools and a few locals who knew of this pastoral singularity. As one can expect from paradise, the water was crystal clear, perfectly tempered, and full of happy, tiny fish. My day had both begun and was immediately over, and I settled in for a glorious afternoon of doing Damn Near Nothing on the edge of Who Knows.

After that, I was inspired. I had found a practical desert activity in these 90-degree days (and I momentarily wished I was a bit further south so I could couple it with my favorite nighttime desert activity, UV scorpion hunting).  With wildfires now raging across the state and cancelling my backpacking plans, I found myself with even more time on my hands to uncover some treasures in Inyo National Forest that spread out in all directions.

Down every access road I went that hinted at another haven. The squiggly blue lines on my maps became my grounding beacons, lending a purpose to my wandering and making me feel like I earned every new revelation.

Deep sand threatened to bury my rig on the way to Watterson Troughs, but instead led me to my campsite for the night. I scavenged to no avail for my first rattlesnake.

Coming up on Antelope Spring in the golden hour felt monumental, but the spring itself was bone dry (perhaps made a tiny bit drier by the laughs from a passing SUV, which I imagined was filled with locals who knew better).

Though Buzztail Spring was so choked with willows as to grant only the smallest creature entry, it filled my canteen and gave me an excuse to see the John Muir Wilderness for the first time.

With endless potential springs ahead, I dove deeper into the Owens River Valley, crisscrossing its oxbowed namesake and dodging the wildfire smoke that now came, seemingly, from all directions. I was thankful I had seen this valley in clear conditions before; I knew I was not getting the full picture this trip. Or maybe it wasn’t that my optics were any worse – they were just operating within a different paradigm. It’s never a bad thing to be reminded to focus on what’s in front of you instead of what’s across the valley, even when you know how good that twilight view is from across the valley.

The search for Yellowtail Spring found me in the Volcanic Tablelands closing in on the Nevada border, where it’s easy to feel like the only person in the world. That is, until you land on the front gate of a private McMansion who presumably holds the key to the kingdom; a once-public swimming hole now loked away in the private sector. Though there is no substitute for the relief of cold water on a torturously hot day, finding yourself within a few minutes of the Red Canyon Petroglyph site is a pretty neat compromise.

Near the southern terminus of my explorations, I spent a morning carefully avoiding “crushing the brush” for what I hoped would be a cool relief at Coldwater Spring in the White Mountains. From the road, all the conditions were there for success. By now, those conditions had changed from simply finding cold water for immediate physical relief. They now also included the potential for spotting a new bird or lizard, identifying the myriad aromas, reveling in the silence, brainstorming a new song, or any number of untold qualities you can only have in the back of beyond. Like most trips into these places, every side trip was affirming my love of discovery and need for spontaneity – and realizing just how far out we sometimes need to go to get out of our routines.

Coldwater Spring ended up being dry, but the Belding’s ground squirrels greatly entertained me (it appeared I was just as interesting to them) and the views were all my own. As I scrambled up to the rusted infrastructure, from what possibly once was something like a refuge for people or a pack, I almost felt a different type of relief. Maybe this place, once it wasn’t providing humans with what they needed, was abandoned, and left to its own devices again. Relief for the landscape – not provided by it.

As an advocate for wilderness that is “untrammeled by man” I know that these places, inherently, don’t need us. They have been here before us and will probably be here after us. And that’s precisely what scares some people away from them. I personally love that power they hold, and the lessons they contain. And just because they may have a longer stake in the game than we do, we are not devoid of responsibility to them.

So many people tend to relate to the planet only in anthropomorphic ways – even the idea of nature as therapy, to which I’ve long prescribed, is rooted in, as John Fowles says, “…our need to use it in some way, to derive some personal yield.” It might not be intuitive in our current culture to experience nature without an end goal, but if you spend enough time in the wild places, it becomes much clearer.

In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, she argues the basis of our world lies in reciprocity. Throughout my trip I was struggling thinking of what I could ever give the land that was equal to what it gives me, before realizing the idea is spiritual and not material. Silly human. So I sung to the creeks that filled my canteen and danced for the Jeffrey pines that smelled like butterscotch.

I drove out of the valley feeling a rare feeling after a trip – like I had checked off all the things on my checklist for once (there’s that “personal yield” theme again). I would soon have to adapt again out of my newest routine – the one of the sagebrush and creosote. I thought of their purple and yellow flowers that had immersed my senses for a few weeks and realized that yet again, Kimmerer had anticipated even this. In musing on the aster and goldenrod that often pair up together in great swaths, she wonders why they choose to grow together rather than singularly. Purple and yellow, you see, are a reciprocal pair in the color spectrum, “which aster and goldenrod knew well before we did.” This energetic quality could help explain why pollinators are attracted to them – and maybe why we’re so attracted to the desert, even when most searches for cold springs turn up empty.