Marmots and Ticks

Mineral King

28-May 2005: It quickly became apparent why some people put small wire fences around their vehicles while others left their hood open. There were marmots scurrying about looking to go underneath someone's vehicle and chew on the radiator hoses! My dad guarded the car as he was armed with a trekking pole. He was determined not to let the radiator-hose-eating marmots underneath the vehicle and possibly disable the car...

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It was 6am when we awoke, got our stuff together, loaded the car, and checked out of the John Muir Lodge in the Grant Grove section of Kings Canyon National Park. Even though it was Memorial Day Weekend, we planned on doing the Marble Falls hike down in the Sequoia National Park section, which would allow us to avoid most of the holiday crowd.

The General Sherman Tree After going through Sequoia National Park and making a brief stop at the General Sherman Tree, we eventually headed downhill on the curvaceous Generals Highway. It wasn't long before we arrived at the Hospital Rock car park. We weren't quite sure exactly where the trail started. This car park looked promising because it was big and busy, and I didn't envision there being a big car park near the Potwisha Campground as stated in the California Waterfalls book. So as we were getting prepared, we managed to engage in a conversation with a park ranger.

He was tall with a long beard, dark sunglasses, and some tattoos. He hardly struck me as the typical National Park employee type. But when we asked about Marble Falls, he mentioned it was quite a walk to the trailhead from here and there was another trailhead further down the road (thus confirming what was said in our waterfall book). He also warned us about ticks and rattlesnakes on the trail this time of year. The word "rattlesnake" freaked out my mom. But it didn't stop us from getting back into the parents' car and head towards the Potwisha Campground.

The large open car park area opposite Potwisha Campground After a brief moment back on the Generals Highway, we turned right into the real crowded Potwisha Campground. As we spent several minutes driving around the campsite, we didn't have much luck finding parking spots. It didn't seem terribly obvious to us where the trail was either. We finally gave up on trying to park in the campground, but across the highway, we saw a large clearing. Perhaps this was the car park for day use visitors. It was now 8:20am.

Contraptions by the Marble Fork Kaweah River near the Potwisha Campground Anyways, we were first in this car park and with our water bottles, trekking poles, sun block, deet, and laced up boots, we walked back into the campground. The well-hidden trail started between campsites 15 and 16. From there the trail followed the Marble Fork Kaweah River, which had a healthy flow. Some contraptions were built off to the side of the river, and we reckoned they were make-shift hydroelectric schemes to power the facilities at the campsite.

The continuation of the trail Pretty soon, we got past the manmade contraptions and then the trail seemed like it disappeared into the bush. At first we were worried that maybe this wasn't the trail, but upon backtracking, we saw a sign that pointed uphill (how did we miss this?). And so began the nearly 3 miles of hard uphill hiking.

The narrow trail flanked by wildflowers For what seemed like the first hour or so, the trail climbed in mostly shadow. A lot of the foliage actually protruded onto the narrow trail, and I could totally see how the park ranger's warning about ticks held true here as our legs would routinely brush up against the overgrowth. Fortunately for us, it wasn't too hot yet and we were getting the hardest hiking out of the way under these favorable conditions (at least as far as the shade was concerned).

Still in the shade Eventually at around 9am, we got high enough on the trail to leave the canyon's shadow behind. Almost instantly, we started feeling the heat of the day. Mom still kept her long sleeves so mosquitoes and ticks wouldn't get free shots at her arm. I knew it was going to be a hot day so I wasn't so careful with the skin exposure to the critters.

The canyon flanked our left side for the most part As the trail continued its relentless uphill ascent, we could totally see why this was a long and pretty difficult trail. The hot sun didn't make it any easier nor did the narrowness of the trail. But at least we did get to look to our left from time to time and look down into the canyon below.

One of the cascades on the Marble Fork Kaweah RiverAs we continued our climb, it wasn't until about 10am when we started to see parts of the Marble Fork Kaweah River way down the canyon. There were lots of whitewater and sometimes I wondered if the whole series of rapids and cascades could've been thought of as the Marble Falls.

It was also around this time that we met other hikers who had an earlier start than us. They told us we weren't much further and that they saw beautiful rainbows. Encouraged by this conversation, we said our good-byes and moved forward.

Marble Falls After the trail traversed more uphill and downhill stretches along with some scrambling parts where the trail was washed out, we eventually got towards the end of the trail, which was still in shadow.

Marble Falls and rainbow At this point, we could hear the thunderous waterfall and see a rainbow rising from its depths. We did a brief scramble out to a little clearing where we could see the small but powerful waterfall. I had heard about people going further than this official end of the trail, but a warning sign discouraged further progress. Besides, the river was raging and clearly we couldn't proceed without entering the water (not a very wise thing to do!).

Looking down over the top of Marble Falls with a rock made of marble on the lower left of its brink Something that we noticed around the falls were some bright white (almost crystalized) rocks. It was after a little pondering about this did I finally put two and two together...

Those rocks were made of marble! I guess that explained how the waterfall got its name.

It was 11am when we started heading back to the trailhead. Now that the sun was beating down on us and the shadows we enjoyed earlier in the day were gone, we were sure glad we were going mostly downhill. The leagues of folks we saw going the other way must be feeling the heat.

Mom enjoys the view as we left Marble Falls and headed back to the Potwisha CampgroundWe also enjoyed the views of the Marble Fork Canyon as it eventually joined the San Joaquin Valley. We didn't bother looking over our shoulders for these views on the way up, but it sure was a treat to fix our eyes on the views on the way down.

It was finally 12:30pm when dad, mom, and I returned to the car.

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So we headed over to the town of Three Rivers where the Mineral King Road left the Generals Highway (Hwy 198). We wasted no time taking this road, which in turn wasted no time becoming a somewhat narrow unpaved road.

Mineral King Road Like the Generals Highway, the Mineral King Road was curvaceous. The dirt road kept us from going anywhere near 30mph. Thus the drive went on like it had no end.

I could tell dad wasn't very used to driving these types of roads because he tended to go onto the opposite "lane" when he would turn corners or switchbacks. There was always that potential of a collision if someone was going the opposite way too fast for him to react.

Unnamed Falls on the way to Mineral KingBut anyways, we managed to get into an area called Silver City. Somewhere near here, we spotted a very large waterfall down in the canyon, but there were no pullouts or safe places to stop and enjoy it.

There were still some residual snow and wet areas. We were surprised at how busy the place felt considering the amount of effort it took to get here. Nonetheless, I could totally envision having a great time with friends and/or family in the cabins out here.

Black Wolf Falls seen from the road It was finally 3:15pm when we entered the Mineral King Valley. Greeting us as we approached the day use car park turnoff was Black Wolf Falls. The falls was flowing well, but parts of it was always obstructed no matter where we tried to see the falls so we couldn't convey its magnitude in our photographs.

A car with a wire fence around itAs dad parked the car, we had this foreboding sense that something was off kilter. We noticed cars with wire fences covering the undercarriage while we saw others leaving their hoods open. There were marmots scurrying all over the place and something didn't seem right about them.

It quickly became apparent why some people put small wire fences around their vehicles while others left their hood open. These marmots looked to go underneath someone's vehicle and chew on the radiator hoses! So these must be the infamous Mineral King Marmots I had read about!

Mom and I were about to go hiking in search of some of the waterfalls here, but my dad worried about the marmots enough not to join us. Instead, he guarded the car armed with a trekking pole. He was determined not to let the radiator-hose-eating marmots underneath the vehicle and possibly disable the car.

Mineral King Valley So mom and I started walking on the trail with nice views of the Mineral King Valley. There were tiny cascades on both sides of the valley, but as we continued on the trail we were on, apparently one of those cascades crossed the trail we were on.

Hiking on the wrong trail deeper into Mineral King Valley Unfortunately, it looked like there used to be a bridge and the crossing was too fast-moving and deep to proceed without significant risk. So that meant we couldn't continue further and we turned back deciding instead to try to find a better way to see Black Wolf Falls. We didn't know at the time that we took the wrong trail deeper into Mineral King Valley anyways, and that the correct trail was on the other side of the watercourse on the opposite side of the valley...

Dad was still at the car, sitting on a rock with his eyes fixed on his vehicle and the scurrying marmots.

Mom and I walked on the road towards the conspicuous waterfall. However, it wasn't immediately obvious to us where we could get closer to the falls. We didn't feel like climbing so we ignored one of the trails that immediately went up switchbacks.

The base of Black Wolf Falls Finally, we just decided to scramble up some dry wash, but there were lots of rocks, dry branches, and bush that made progress slow. Eventually, we'd end up right in front of the falls. It looked like there was a cave near the falls, but there was no way we'd try to go up to it from where we were at. It wasn't exactly the greatest views of the falls and it was getting late in the day so mom and I headed back to the car where dad was still on guard. I noticed some soreness on my left thigh, but I had dismissed it as natural soreness from heavy usage during our hiking.

It was 4:45pm when we were on our way back towards Hwy 198. We still had quite a bit of a drive to get back onto the Hwy 99 where we had booked a motel in Tulare.

During the drive back, dad told us about how a pair of marmots went under the car. When he poked underneath the car, only one of them ran away. The other one was still underneath starting to chew and he immediately kept poking at it until it too ran away.

As we got further into the drive, dad and I noticed a trail of coolant left behind by someone else's vehicle. With our thoughts on marmots, we immediately thought some poor unfortunate soul was victimized by the furry creatures. We speculated how this trail was going to end. Would it end at a disabled car? Or, would it end at a repair shop in Three Rivers?

When we returned to the paved road, the coolant track disappeared without a trace - neither confirming nor denying our hunches.

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It was 7pm when we finally arrived our motel in Tulare. My thigh was still strangely tender and sore, but our hunger pangs from our day long excursion turned our thoughts to food. We settled for some mediocre Mexican food near the motel, where we talked about our day and gave Julie a call, who was back at home unable to make the trip.

Then, we checked into our room and started cleaning ourselves from the sweat, dirt, and deet accumulated during the day.

When it came my turn, I was merrily showering when the persistent soreness in my left thigh was on my thoughts again. My heart almost jumped out of my body when I looked down at my thigh... was a black round ball about the size of half the nail of a pinky with legs sticking up in the air and half way lodged through my skin!

I knew immediately it was a tick. And in my frantic state (as I had never been bitten by one before), I reached for it with my fingernails to pluck it out of my thigh. It took three tries before I managed to get its hard body out. The thought of what must be going on down there was sickening, to say the least.

When I was done showering, my thoughts immediately turned to the possibility of infection. In hindsight, I knew I did what I wasn't supposed to do - hastily yanking the tick off by the belly. If its head was still attached to my wound, I knew it could infect the area with potentially deadly bacteria that ticks have been known to carry (e.g. Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, etc.).

Mom and I went to the local convenience store to buy some tweezers and hydrogen peroxide. When we returned to our motel room, we dug into the wound looking for a head. We couldn't find the head but the thigh still felt sore and there was deep red irritations in the skin the size of a fingernail around the entry wound.

Unsure of whether I've been infected with Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or whatever else these little blokes carried, I uneasily slept. We still had some more touring to do tomorrow in the Sequoia National Forest...

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I took a sick leave day two days after the trip. My doctor prescribed me to a regimen of taking antibiotics for about two or three weeks. He didn't think I was infected with anything, but he gave them to me as a precaution.

After speaking with a coworker, who also used to be a national park ranger, he told me I should've tucked my pants into my boots because they can get underneath and work their way up to the meaty parts of your body - like the thigh. I'll keep that in mind when we have to do any sort of bushwhacking.

Anyways, it has been over 15 months since the tick incident and I don't think I've experienced any complications. I sure hope it stays that way...

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