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SEMI-SECRET

Shaky legs, biting bugs

Retracing a favorite route, a father and son trudge their way to natural bliss.

October 28, 2003|Will James | Times Staff Writer

When your grown son, who is half your age, invites you to hike the same mountains where you hefted him and his pack many years ago, see it as payback.

It's youth saying to age, "Thanks, Pop. Now let me carry your pack over the big hill."

Hadn't I covered these same 13 rugged miles in one exhilarating day? And at journey's end, trail-tired and chin-stubby, hadn't I shucked pack and boots and all else to enjoy a cleansing soak in the natural hot springs awaiting me at the sunset hour? Yes, natural hot springs, 102 degrees and up, no sulfur, surrounded by high mountains, plush meadows and streams full of fish, with nothing to do but watch the spiders hang their webs from columbine to tiger lily at their dinner hour, and then wait for the bats to swoop out and vacuum the bugs.

Now I find that the years have brought big changes to the landscape and my recollections of it -- and to my prowess. From the trailhead it is downhill along a tapering granite ridge that meets up with a small creek. You emerge onto a rock face leading to the first day's campsite. Hot sunshine pours down on burned-out stubble, scratchy brush and stumps where a forest used to be. A fire has made a sweltering desert of my long-cherished recollections of a forest canopy with cool, refreshing, fern-laden, meandering paths.

And downhill? Well, if you like doing lots of deep knee-bends with 50 pounds on your back, it's OK. First to go are the feet, traitorous devils. Then the legs begin quivering. Close to the campsite, I sit down and wait for Scott to go ahead and then hike back to pick up my pack. Finally, it's dinnertime. Advil and off to sleep. The next day we hike into Fish Valley, where we camp, and the next morning we begin the steady uphill trudge to the Iva Bell meadows, where, at long last, Scott points out the first hot pool.

There are wildflowers everywhere, red and yellow and blue and lavender. Someone has added rocks and logs to one of the dams. We sink into the water. The bottom is clean granite sand. The hot water bubbles up from below.

Another pool, beside a large granite rock, is just as I remembered. Its hot water pours from a fissure in the granite above the pool, creating a small waterfall.

One pool, which I call the "Sunset Pool," lets you float on the edge of a cliff overlooking the vast valley. With your toes wiggling at the cusp of the pool, you gaze through the rising steam at the sunset and mountains and clouds.

Nature communicates in so many ways: the colors of the flowers, the healing warmth of the water on sore muscles, and the whine and bite of the bugs. Out come the jungle juice and long pants. Even with careful applications, the bugs get through.

The biting flies are the worst. They are unfazed by our repellents. Some are green with large red eyes the color of blood. They bite and greedily gorge.

We spend four days in these meadows, soaking mornings and evenings -- and in the middle of the night, under the stars. We hike along streams to fish and explore. We nap under trees.

Best of all, we spend the time together. We talk about everything. I realize what a good thing it has been to teach my young son how to hike into the woods.

As Scott and I soak, I see an old bearded man moving through the meadow. I can tell, by the perfect sweat bands on his blue T-shirt, that he has just shucked a frameless pack. I know too, what he's after. He limps to the first pool and, thinking himself unobserved, raises his hands to the heavens in what I take to be a grateful prayer: "Thank you, God, it's still here after all these years." To which I append a small note to the same address: " ... and that we're still here to enjoy it!"

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

ON COURSE

Steep trek to the pools

The Iva Bell (Fish Creek) Hot Springs are 13 miles into the backcountry from the Red's Meadows resort behind Mammoth Mountain. During the summer, a shuttle bus runs from Mammoth several times a day to Red's from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Wilderness permits are required for overnight hiking into the backcountry, but not for day hikes. Check the U.S. Forest Service Web site at www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo/recreation/wild or call (760) 873-2400 for details on trail quotas, permits, regulations and fees.

Where: Red's Meadows trailhead to Iva Bell (Fish Creek) Hot Springs. From Mammoth Mountain ski resort, take the shuttle bus to the trailhead at Red's. Follow the signs to Iva Bell (Fish Creek) Hot Springs.

Difficulty: There are lots of elevation gains and losses at an average of 7,200 feet. Be prepared for lots of switchbacks with little shade. There's a new bridge at Island Crossing (over Fish Creek). Iva Bell is a draining uphill pull from there.

Tips: Bring a good water filter and be sure to carry lots of water. Check the trail signs carefully. Hikers have been known to scratch out the Iva Bell name in a futile attempt to keep the place a secret.

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