The High Sierra Diaries of Alexander Eells: Part 1 – Sonora Backcountry 1898

Scan 1

Alexander Eells with John Muir and Muir’s daughters Wanda and Helen. Photo probably taken in Paradise Valley, above Kings Canyon, in July, 1902. Wanda and Helen would have been about 20 and 16 at the time. Eells later tried to bring his wife and young daughters to the high country, but his in-laws thought the idea was outrageous and strenuously objected.

Born March 18, 1862 in Dayton Ohio, Alec Eells grew up in Santa Barbara, California. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1886 and from Hastings College of Law in 1888.

By June of 1898, he was 36 years old, married, had a busy San Francisco law practice, and a first child on the way. He had visited popular Sierra attractions, like Yosemite Valley, but apparently had not yet ventured into the backcountry.

Some friends invited him along on a three week hike through the mountains east of Sonora. He accepted.

In the years that followed, he returned to the Sierra again and again, became active in the Sierra Club (he’d been a member since 1888), and participated in their annual outings. He recorded these trips in the diaries he kept for most of his adult life

Diagnosed with cancer in early 1911, he spent the final months of his life wandering the high country alone. He died on October 12, 1911, at the age of 49.

My father, who was his grandson, had read some of the diaries. He often remarked to me that they were worth reading, but I was nearly 49 myself before I finally pulled one of the deteriorating volumes off the shelf. I was glad I did.

While this first trip lacks the famous (and infamous) personalities, and better-known locations, of the later trips, it was here that Alec began his backcountry explorations. I imagine those with a taste for Sierra history, especially those with an interest in the region between Hetch Hetchy and the Stanislaus River, will find it interesting.

There are even quite a few photos (faded and yellowing, yes, but photos nonetheless). They turned up in an old family photo album with a note saying they were taken by Alec’s traveling companion, Jim Hitchinson.

So here, lightly edited for readability, are Alec Eells’ notes on his 1898 trip to the Sonora high country:


Saturday June 4 1898

Am ready to start on the 8:30 train for Stockton with a camping party consisting of Lincoln and Jim Hitchinson, W. R. Dempster, Charles Noble and myself to tramp about in the Sierras north and northeast of Sonora. Yesterday I paid $2.50 to Holbrook, Merrill & Stetson for a folding oven. 65 cents for tins. Also paid $1 for leather for boxes and for cartridges. Also gave Lincoln $5 towards other expenses and $5.50 to buy ticket to Jamestown.

Have bought pair long lace and top boots from Chalbough, Galcher & Co. for $6. Also various sundries. Am taking with me $25.

We are to get burros at Sonora. Expect to stay 3 weeks.

Yesterday ordered telephone put in house for one year, i.e. to June 1st 1899.

Sunday June 26 1898

Got home yesterday a.m. at 6:30 from my tramping trip. Came on the Stockton boat, leaving Stockton at 6 p.m. Friday night. After breakfast went to bed and slept nearly all morning. In afternoon worked in the yard awhile and read up papers and periodicals. Took a bath in evening and went to bed about nine. Slept until 7 this a.m.

Worked in yard this morning. This afternoon spent reading. At 4, went to Hitchinson’s house and got back my blankets, etc. Found that the cost of the trip, including all fares and incidentals was almost exactly $30 apiece. This includes share of boxes, utensils and other outfit which is still on hand for future use. Jim has measured up distances and found that we traveled about 190 miles as a party, exclusive of side trips and hunting and fishing, etc. tramps.

As the trip to Red Peak was 14 miles and that to the peaks above the Walker River over 5 miles, I presume I tramped altogether not far from 250 miles. I have stood it much better than I expected to, considering my weak ankle.

Another time I should take two pairs of heavy shoes already broken in with soles ½ inch thick (or 3/8 at least) and thickly studded with broad headed nails. The leather should be oil tanned. My boots knocked the nails out very soon and then wore out.

I slept in a felt “Kenwood Sleeping Bag” loaned me by Lincoln, which was in a canvass cover; and between the bag and the cover I put a light pair of blankets folded so that all came over me. It was not very satisfactory as the blankets were continuously getting out of place and wrinkled so as not to cover me. The eider down bags which the Hitchinsons carried were preferable. But I think a still better arrangement would be to take first a rubber blanket (we had four with us, which we found almost indispensable) for a ground sheet and on it place an eider down quilt, next a pair of light blankets, and then a second eider down quilt – finally cover the whole with water proof canvas, taking a piece large enough to tuck under the quilts all around. Then fasten the whole together at the edges by buckskin thongs so arranged as to be easily untied. This bag would accommodate two, could be easily taken apart and cleaned, could be adapted to different kinds of weather, and would pack more economically than single bags. Two can keep warmer in one bag with much less weight than in separate bags.

The burros we got were fairly good, but the rigging and saddles were miserable rag-tag and bob-tail stuff. Shall not patronize Mr. Frank Hall again if we can avoid it.

Menu of small articles:

Large silk handkerchief (to lie over head at night), copper rivets, mosquito netting, carbolic salve, court plaster, Pondo East. Rubber Plaster, comb & glass, maps, sapolic or sand soap, wax matches, nails, screws, needle & thread, spool wire, 2 pair gloves, tooth brush, candles, pencil, cord, big pocket knife (saw blade), scissors, tools in handle, towel & soap, toilet paper, shoe strings, watch, blue glasses, whiskey, buckskin thongs, acomite pills, ginger, safety pins.

Following are my notes made on the trip:

Saturday, June 4

Started on 9 am boat, second class. Had to express our boxes because they contained provisions, which the railroad company refuses to take as baggage. Arrived at Lathrop about noon and at Stockton shortly afterward. It was uncomfortably warm.

From Jamestown to Sonora we had to stage it. The stage took the boxes as baggage. Arrived at Sonora a little past six and stopped at the Hotel Victoria, where we found Chet Turner, who was on a mining trip.

After dinner went to hunt up Frank Hall, the man who was to furnish the burros, but without success. I went up to interview Pat Kelly and Lincoln interviewed Shine – livery stable men. They could supply us, but not immediately.

In evening met Easton, who is on his way to meet his wife at Jamestown. She is to stay with him at his camp for a time. He went with us to hunt up Hall at a moonlight picnic, but we couldn’t find him. Went to bed about 11, rather disgusted. We had a good meal at the Victoria and good accommodations and are pleased with it in every way.

New Sonora1

The topo maps used in this post all date to the early to mid-1890’s and are likely the maps that would have been available to Alec Eells and his companions.

Sunday, June 5

Got up early and had a special breakfast. After it, Noble and I went to Frank Hall’s house. Found he had but two burros who had been used for packing and wanted us to take a fractious untrained brute for a third. We refused, and he sent for another trained animal, losing another hour or more in getting him.

His saddles were miserable old pieces of chicken coop and the fittings old rotten pieces of belting with cracked straps and ropes from a junk shop. We had to pay him $12 for each burro and $3 for each rig, $45 in all. We could have gotten good ash saddles new in San Francisco at Haskell’s store for $5 each.

Finally got started about 11:30. Lunched about 4 miles out (on the reservoir road). Camped about 5 pm near the top of the ridge about 10 miles out, as nearly as we could estimate it, on the bank of a little stream. Cooked our own dinner and slept out for first time. We thought the place was that marked on the contour map as “De-Langway’s.” We took down bars and went into a little meadow where feed, water and wood were plentiful.

Phoenix Reservoir1

Monday June 6

Got up at 4:30 and got our own breakfast. Started at 7:30. Reached Sugar Pine about 9:30. Reached Easton’s Camp at Lyon’s Flat (Hale’s Mill) about 11:30. Found Easton having a discussion with a constable. All went with him and took a bath in the river (South Fork of the Stanislaus). Afterwards took lunch with Mr. & Mrs. Easton at his camp near Hale’s Mill. After lunch, all but myself went to look at the dam Easton is building. I didn’t go because my ankle felt sore. We got started again about 3:30.

Reached Genness’ about 6. Found no one at the house, so we put our burros into a field and camped in some trees nearby. After we had struck camp, two young fellows leading a scrawny mule appeared and camped just across the stream from us.

One of our burros – the one we call Baldy – because of his white face – seems lame. We think he has hurt his foot on a rock. The other of Hall’s burros is black and has a slit nose – we call him Schlitz. The burro Hall sent for is of the gentler sex, and we call her Jennie.


Tuesday June 7

Got up about 4. Started about 6. The two fellows with the mule joined us at once. They are on their way to Bodie, which they expect to reach in four days. They call each other Harry and Al.

About 11:30 arrived at Parson’s (generally called Strawberry), which is also on the South Fork of the Stanislaus, but some miles above Easton’s camp. Here we had a bath again and got a good lunch at the house, cooked by the proprietor’s wife – and wrote letters home.

Genness - Parsons1

It is still rather uncomfortably warm. Started on again about 3:30 by way of a “cut-off” trail back of the house. Camped about 5 at Cow Creek, a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus. “Harry” and “Al” left us at strawberry and went on ahead. The whole country has been denuded of herbage by the sheep, but we found a little meadow fenced in, where our animals got a good feed.

It looked like rain, so we put up the tent. I had symptoms of a bad cold. Took a hot toddy and went to bed early in the tent. Noble also slept in the tent, but the rest stayed outside.

Cow Creek1

Wednesday June 8

Had a good sleep last night and feel much better this a.m., though a sniffle and a sore throat trouble me. Got up at 4:30. Started at 7. A fellow with a winded horse and a mule joined us on the road. Shortly after starting met “Harry” on the back track. His mule had gotten loose during the night and had started for home. He had come from Cascade Creek without waiting for breakfast. Passed “Al” at Cascade Creek. Stopped at Mill Creek about 11:30 for lunch. Jim, who had fallen behind, came up with some mutton – having killed a stray sheep on the road.

Started again about 3:15. Meantime, “Harry” & “Al” had passed with their mule, which Harry had caught below Strawberry. We caught up with them and also with the lone man who had traveled part way with us in the morning, just as we were ascending the grade leading to the remarkable road along the east bank of the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus. It is in many places sustained by a high stone wall built up for long stretches along the precipitous side of the canyon. It is high above the floor of the canyon and the granite cliffs make scenery much like that of the Yosemite. We could find no place to camp until almost dark.

About 7 we finished the precipice and came to where the road led over less steep slopes. Camped on one of these and picketed the burros on a swampy flat nearby. Our three fellow travelers arrived shortly afterward – having stopped to kill a stray lamb – and camped near us. Had a rousing campfire and discussed whether to take Clark’s Fork or try Jack Main’s Canyon.

Eureka Valley1

Thursday June 9

Got up at 4:30. Noble and I slept in tent again last night and I had an all night’s sleep for the first time. Feel very well this morning, but still have a sniffle and a running nose. My ankle troubles me some and the boots make the tendons over my heels sore.

Mono Rd. near Eureka Valley

Approaching Eureka Valley on the Mono Rd. (today’s Hwy. 108).

Reached flats just below Eureka Valley about 9. Said good-bye to “Harry” and “Al,” as we thought to cross the stream and camp. Spent an hour or more reconnoitering. Finally decided to move on. Arrived at Eureka Valley (Douglas’s) and found our three fellow travelers in full possession of the houses and barns, and engaged in baking bread in the stove in the kitchen of the main house. We camped on the bank of the stream beyond a meadow south-east of the house.

Dempster and Lincoln tried fishing, but did not catch anything. Found Baldy’s saddle broken, the front horns being split – and twisted almost off the side boards. I found some good seasoned pine at the house and spent all afternoon in mending the saddle. It rained for about an hour in the afternoon. Harry’s shoes being about worn out, I gave him my old black ones, and he and Al left about 3 p.m., but the lone man stayed. Sat around campfire until late.

Friday June 10

Got up at 4:30. At 6:30, Jim, Noble, and myself left for an exploring expedition on the trail leading northward, expecting to get to some point where we could look over into the Clark Fork country.

The trail commences at the left, or west, end of a granite ledge back of the Douglas’s house, and goes up a little gully to a clump of pines, thence it zig-zags upward, until up near the top of the cliff, when it runs to the east and pursues a somewhat level course to the mouth of the canyon up which it turns northwardly. We went to a low place just beneath Red Peak and looked down upon the plateau below and a lake, or rather marsh with a pond in it, where there must have been great numbers of frogs, judging from the croaking we heard.

Relief Pk. from above Eureka Valley

Looking south toward Relief Peak, while climbing out of Eureka Valley

We then turned to the left (west) and climbed the highest point of Red Peak, which we reached about 11:30. Here we ate some sardines, hard tack, and chocolate, which we had brought along for lunch.

Relief Pk. from Red Peak

Stormy view to the south from the summit of Red Peak

As we were eating, a thunderstorm gathered and broke. During a lull, we took some observations and made some rough sketches of the panorama around. It was magnificent. Noble, who has been to the Rigi, says it is finer than that. The storm getting pretty loud again and sending down hailstones and rain, we were compelled to make a hasty retreat. Got back to camp a little before three. The peak is 9,951 ft. Our camp is 6,076 ft.

We did not like the looks of the Clark’s Fork and shall probably go up Kennedy’s Canyon into Walker River, around Grizzly Peak, and home by Jack Main’s Canyon.

A man who has just come up from Sonora gave us an Examiner containing an account of Lieut. Hobson’s exploit in sinking the Merrimac across the entrance to Santiago harbor. (This was rank propaganda. The Examiner was owned by Hearst who had played a major role in instigating the Spanish American War in order to sell papers. The sinking of the Merrimac was, in reality, a complete disaster, as they failed to block the harbor and all on board were taken prisoner by the Spanish).

We sent postals by him to be mailed at Bridgeport. After reading the paper, Noble and I took baths in the river, but it was too cold to afford much pleasure.

Red Peak1

Saturday June 11

Got up at 4:30. Started at 6:30 for Kennedy Lake. Found Baker’s Station entirely deserted and so badly dilapidated as to be uninhabitable. Turned off from the road here and after crossing the river came to Kennedy’s house. Here we met a man in charge of some cattle. Jim and I, who were in advance, did not see anyone else. The others were accosted by the owner, A.T. Kennedy, who positively forbade them to go farther. They found him an obstinate old crank, but finally succeeded, by a little adroitness, in convincing him that we meant no harm to him or his, whereupon he “came off his perch” and became quite friendly and proposed to have the party stay overnight at his place and he would go with us to the lake tomorrow. He claims to own the whole canyon.

Kennedy Meadows?

Kennedy Meadows: Is that old man Kennedy himself?

Meanwhile, Jim and I had gone on up the canyon to the great rock over or behind which the trail to Relief Valley passes and, perceiving our mistake, I had stopped with the burros whilst Jim climbed the east cliff looking for the trail. Before he returned, the others came along, escorted by old man Kennedy, who had by this time warmed up so much that he invited us to his soda spring on the west bank of the canyon nearly opposite where I had stopped. Found them much like at Rubicon.

Upper Kennedy Meadows

Upper Kennedy Meadows

He put us on the right trail, which turns abruptly to the left (east) at his second bars, and climbs in zig-zag style, first over, and then in behind, a great ledge of granite, seemingly the cliff of Kennedy Canyon. It proceeds upward after that for a tedious distance to an altitude of ____, and does not descend again until within _____ of the lake, where it comes down abruptly to the floor of the canyon. Noble killed a large rattlesnake soon after coming down.

View toward Kennedy Pass

Back on the right trail. Looking up Canyon toward Kennedy Lake and Pass

We heard numbers of grouse, and I saw one. As no sheep had been through the canyon, it was much greener and pleasanter than anything we had seen previously. We reached the house near the lake about 2 o’clock, but found it so uncomfortable in appearance that we determined to push on to the head of the lake. This was more of a task than we had anticipated and took us almost an hour and a half.

Almost tired out, we camped in a bleak spot amongst a few juniper trees at the head of the swamp beyond the lake. We find it a cold, windy, desolate place and are much disappointed, not to say disgusted. The neighborhood of the house might be fairly good as a camping place, were it not for the 500 or more cattle who came bawling and stamping around us, anxious to be fed salt.

Had a big dinner, including a stew made with some wild onions found in swampy places all about here, and which we enjoyed very much. Kennedy pointed them out to us. They do not look much like the cultivated onion, but smell and taste just like them.

My feet have been troubling me, principally because of my boots chafing the tendon above the heel. Hereafter I shall always bring moccasins or “sneakers” to wear in camp. Dempster lends me his occasionally.

Kennedy Lake1

Sunday June 12

Got up at 4. Started about 6:30 for Walker River. The trail leads up the left bank of the left of the two streams entering the lake. Reached the summit about 9:30. In beginning the descent, had to cross several short stretches of snow and had an exciting time doing so. Jennie got stuck and we had to take off her pack and slide it along out of the snow.

Kennedy Pass

Kennedy Pass. Alec Eells is on the right.

Round Kennedy Pass

Jenny founders in the snow at Kennedy Pass

Reached foot of canyon about 11:30. Instead of crossing the river and proceeding westward, as indicated on the map, we simply turned to the southward around the base of the mountain and close to the edge of a swampy meadow, and so came to the river about where we think the trail ought to cross it in returning as shown on the map.

Had light lunch in camp at tamarack grove. The scenery around here is beautiful. Many peaks are visible all around. Lincoln tried fishing, but without success. A passing sheep herder informed us that there are falls about a quarter of a mile below here and that the fish cannot get up them. We noticed that by nightfall the river had risen 6” or more and had become riled with sand and gravel.

We lay around camp all p.m. Later took bath, but on account of my cold I contented myself with a splash. Also washed socks, handkerchief, and underclothes, and made change of underclothes. My face is so badly burned as to be painful.

Pk. 108061

Monday June 13

Lay abed until 6 this a.m., when we were aroused by the appearance of a young sheepherder who said he was on his way to the pass to see if the snow has melted sufficiently to permit of his sheep passing over.

About 9:30 started out to climb the bluffs above camp. We passed from one high point to another and another, until we had climbed all the highest peaks in the neighborhood. It was very steep and difficult work, the highest being 10,806 ft. (This peak is known today as Mola Mountain. They also likely climbed Kennedy Peak and various subsidiary summits in the area)

Tower Peak from above Walker River

Climbing into the mountains to the west of the Walker River

The first one we reached was just above camp and gave us a magnificent view of the valley of the West Walker River and the granite knobs on the opposite side of the river from camp with a number of small lake interspersed among them. Up the canyon the knobs were so plentiful and close together as to make one think of a nest of ostrich eggs. Numbers of imposing peaks lay off in the distance, the largest being Tower Peak, which we determined to climb. Behind us we could look down on the canyon down which we came yesterday morning.

Tower Pk. from peak W of Walker River

View of Tower Peak from Mola Mountain or another nearby summit

When we reached a sharp pinnacle beyond, we were again on the crest of the Sierras and could look directly down on the pass through which we had floundered yesterday morning in the snow. From the highest peak we could look down on the Tuolumne side again –saw Emigrant Meadow and Emigrant Lake very plainly, and the head of Cherry and other canyons, and the pass leading over to Jack Main’s Canyon. Grizzly Peak loomed up in the midst of the scene, but looked comparatively small.

Looking down on Kennedy Pass

Looking down on Kennedy Pass from somewhere near the summit of Kennedy Peak

We also climbed out on a high peak-like rock overlooking the pass by which we expect to make our way back over the summit. The pass was directly below us – between us and Grizzly Peak. We were not pleased with the prospect, as it seemed to be pretty deeply covered with snow – we could not make out any clear way. We thought it looked as if the best passage was to the left of the peak, but decided to go to the right because of the map’s showing that the trail lay that way.

View toward Grizzly Peak

The snowy road ahead

We watched the clouds gather about Tower Peak and a storm break there, but it did not reach us. On the way home we had quite an exciting slide for several hundred yards down the steep side of a mountain covered with snow. I wore the varnish off the butt of my rifle using it as a guide stick.

In the afternoon, Dempster and I crossed the river to explore the lakes we had seen opposite camp. I got across on Jennie after much persuasion and comical performance as she jumped up the bank. Dempster tried to ride Schlitz, but was bucked off several times, much to the amusement of the rest, who appeared with the Kodak and took several snap shots of the proceedings. He finally had to wade.

We walked a long distance, visiting several of the smaller lakes, which turned out to be mere ponds. Not a sign of a fish in them. By the time we got to the large lake it was nearly dark and we were tired. Recrossed the river on a log. Got home after dark very tired.

Cold, threatening evening. Very windy. Better camping place up canyon a few hundred yards where there is a meadow.

Tuesday June 14

Got up at 4 and had breakfast. I went up the stream and found a log bridge on which I crossed and got Jennie. At 6 we started up the river. Took the canyon to the right under the jutting rock which we were on yesterday. At 9 got well up into the difficult part and stopped and had chocolate, etc.

From this point, in order to avoid banks of soft snow, we had to go sidling along the sides of the cliffs half way up – over shingle and broken rock and across steep gulches. It was very tedious and difficult work and exceedingly hard on footwear. Finally, we discovered, by accident, that the snow would bear us up. After that we progressed much more rapidly and easily – it’s a great pity we didn’t find it out sooner.

At noon reached a point just across from the foot of Grizzly Peak at an elevation of 9,800 ft. and stopped on a ledge in the shelter of some rocks for lunch. We expect to take the low pass or valley directly in front of us and southward, instead of following the trail westward into Emigrant Meadows.

Near Grizzly Peak

Approaching Grizzly Peak

After lunch, we crossed over into the canyon and then crossed the stream running down it, thus coming to the slope of Grizzly Peak. Followed southward around the slopes of Grizzly until we came to edge of cliffs overlooking an apparently deep canyon between us and the head of the Cherry Canyon. This obliged us to turn up onto the side of Grizzly at an elevation of 10,000 ft. Worked along it southeasterly to a low place on the ridge running southeast and finally eastwardly, at an elevation of probably more than 10,000 ft., crossing a canyon and up on a ridge east of the peak.

Grizzly Pass

“Grizzly Pass”

From this point we could see over to where we had been at lunch time, and concluded that we would have done better to have come directly across on the east side of the peak instead of going clear around it by the west slope, as we had done. From this point we had a trying descent to the low place, which is the pass to Jack Main’s Canyon. We had a difficult time getting the burros through the snow.

Each man tried a different course. I reached it first, quite a way ahead of the rest. Hitched Jennie and turned back to look for the others. All got together again about 4. The descent into the canyon was easily accomplished. The trail comes down on the west side of the canyon, just north of some peculiarly colored pinkish cliffs. Trees extend up from the bottom of the canyon into the pass.

The canyon seems to turn to the east here and Jack Main’s Lake (Dorothy Lake) lies off to the east of where we came down. Found ground very wet everywhere from melting snow. Camped somewhat after 5 on the westerly side of the creek just above a large side canyon coming in from the east. Are very much pleased, except that everything seems wet.

Grizzly Peak1

Wednesday June 15

Slept soundly last night and all got up late. I was first and made a batch of bread for breakfast. After breakfast, Jim and I went to the lake, which we found about a mile eastward of the pass down which we had come yesterday. I expected to fish, but found the waters absolutely devoid of fish. It is a great pity, for the lake – or rather lakes – is a fine place for trout and beautifully situated. (As I noted before, a sheepherder told us that we had struck the Walker about a mile above some falls which formed a barrier to the progress of fish. The same thing is the reason for the barrenness of these waters. The cascades above Lake Vernon are not passable by fish).

Near Jack Main's Lake

Near Jack Main’s (Dorothy) Lake

On our way back found two places where the canyon turns where the stream goes through subterranean tunnels for distances of about 200 ft. at a stretch. The phenomenon seems to be occasioned by a ledge of limestone very beautifully crystallized. I broke off a specimen, which had the structure of rock candy. It was white with a beautiful shell pink tint through it. Part of it crumbled in my pocket, just like rock candy.

We had all planned to climb Tower Peak tomorrow. At lunch, Lincoln suggested that we all do up our bedding and take it along and get as far on the way as possible before night. All agreed, but when I came to examine my boots, I found so many nails knocked out and the sole so badly worn through that I concluded that if I went I should have to walk home barefooted. So I gave up the expedition entirely. The rest started about 4 p.m. I took a hunting walk down the canyon, attended to the animals, cooked my supper, and went to bed about 8 feeling pretty lonesome and disgusted with my footwear.

Thursday June 16

Woke very early this morning, but did not get up until 5:30. After cooking and eating my lonesome breakfast, I took the rifle and started across the river, intending to walk up the side of the canyon and look down it. Ended by climbing to the top of the cliff and up a peak about a mile below camp. Had a fine view, but a very tiresome tramp. Wore Jim’s extra pair of shoes. Got back about 11.

Then spent about an hour hunting for some wild onions, which I had noticed on my way out, at the confluence of the two creeks near the mouth of the tributary canyon opposite our camp. It seems to be the only patch of them anywhere about. Finally, after walking five or six times the necessary distance I succeeded in finding them, but they were very small and I got but few of them, and came back to camp at 12 thoroughly tired.

The snows are melting rapidly and the whole canyon reminds one of Oregon, rather than California. The bottom is almost one great peat bog and the side are everywhere sparkling and babbling with rivulets and dashing brooks. One can scarcely go 25 yards without crossing some kind of stream.

In the afternoon worked again on my boots and mended my belt. Cooked up a batch of bread and some dried fruit and made a stew with the wild onions and granulated potato. Our graham flour is exhausted. We have still some whole wheat and some white, but the graham is the most satisfactory for bread. We brought along some evaporated onions which are no good at all. The granulated potato, however, is quite serviceable. Our folding oven does not bake well on the bottom. I find a trifle over one quart of flour is about the proper quantity to mix for it. It is hardly large enough for five. My hands and face got badly burned in crossing the snow and today my nose is quite painful.

I am astonished and disappointed at the entire absence of fish and game. I presume it is rather early for game at this altitude. There is one great compensation, i.e. the sheep have not gotten in yet and everything is fresh and green. It is time for supper and there is no sign of the boys as yet.

There is a perfect swarm of mosquitoes around during the daytime. Fortunately, they disappear at night.

Friday June 17

I made up a big campfire last night, which burned until midnight, but the boys did not come. Got up at 5 this morning. It is a warm day and makes me feel lazy. The boys came in about 10 a.m. looking and acting as if they were completely worn out. They say that they found the way up the side canyon steep, but fairly easy. They slept Wednesday night on top of the ridge in a cold, bleak spot. Thursday, they reached the top of Tower Peak about 11 and stayed there two hours. They descended to Tilden Lake that afternoon and camped there. They came home over the ridge, but think it would have been easier to return the way they went.

Tower Pk. Bivy

Bivouac on the climb of Tower Peak

Final Approach to Tower Pk.

Approaching the Tower Peak summit

I baked some more bread and got up a hearty lunch for them and we rested until 3 pm, when we packed up and moved down the canyon some distance to a flat below Jack Main’s Mountain. Trail good, but wet and marshy. All the trees hereabout are tamaracks and a large proportion of them are dead. Saw no game of any kind.

Jack Main's Peak

“Jack Main’s Mountain” Probably Chittenden Peak

Tower Peak1

Saturday June 18

Got up early and made an early start down the canyon. It was a hard trip over rough granite ridges and across swampy meadows. At last we left the main canyon to go up the side of a ridge to the left of Little Lake. This was a bad mistake and got us into various difficulties. We passed over some of the roughest places I ever got into with animals. About 11 came to a “jumping off place,” and had to take the packs off the animals and work hard to get them down at all. We got so tired that when we came to the banks of a sluggish stream south of the ridge, we camped for lunch.

Bad Mistake

Rough going following the “bad mistake”

Meantime, Jim and I spent 1 ½ hours investigating the country, as the result of which we turned down the sluggish stream and came into a swampy meadow where there is an abandoned cabin. Thence followed the main stream again, going along a curious strip like an embankment between it and a lake that is perhaps Branigan’s Lake. Went past a succession of small lakes or ponds and came to the top of the cascades.

Jack Main off trail

The off-trail adventure continues

Cascades Jack Main

The cascades

Here we turned abruptly to the right up a narrow gorge or cleft in the rocky cliff, which is described by McClure. The trail was very steep and rough and we had some trouble in getting the burros to go up it. It brought us out onto the ridge down which we went until we came to the McGill Vernon trail, on which we turned to the left, again down into the canyon we had left, to reach Lake Vernon.

Lake Vernon

Approaching Lake Vernon

It was almost dark when we came to the first stream of dark-looking water. Here we would have stopped if the water had been good. But we went on through the dusk until we reached the lower end of Lake Vernon about 8:30. It was pitch dark. Camped in a boggy meadow amongst some cottonwoods. Did not tie the burros and after supper could not find them.

Lake Vernon1

Sunday June 19

I got up alone at 5 and started out to find the burros. After about 2 hours searching found them in the canyon beyond the first granite ridge. When I got back to camp, the others were just getting breakfast. Packed up immediately and went to the upper end of the lake to two cabins owned by McGill.

Found two camping parties there before us. One consisted of two young fellows, evidently stockmen, and the other of four rather substantial looking men from Oakdale. We liked these last very much. They had been fishing, evidently with very good success. We camped in the flat a short distance from them.

In the afternoon we all went fishing and succeeded in catching enough for a good meal. Lincoln went out with the rifle and shot a cock grouse as large as a good sized chicken, but we had so many fish we concluded to keep him until tomorrow. The boys say they found the entrails of a deer killed by someone within a day or two. In the afternoon I rigged up a fishing pole. This is a beautiful spot and there are plenty of game and fish – but the mosquitoes are troublesome.

Monday June 20

Got up early and went fishing. I went up to the cascades, fishing on the way, but had very bad luck. Caught only three. None of the rest of our party fared much better, however. But the party from Oakdale went to the lake and all caught large basketfuls. They used the small “brown hackle,” and a large “grey hackle” flies.

Above Lake Vernon

Cascades above Lake Vernon

Dempster and I spent some time chopping a big log back of the bars for grubs. We got plenty of grubs, but it was time and effort thrown away for the fish would not touch them. We caught a few with common angle worms. I tried my “excelsior spinner” in a large pool below the cascades and caught one fish with it. Then it got fast in the rocks and I lost it and a new six foot leader and some flies with it. In the evening I walked down to the lake and tried casting, but to no purpose. The mosquitoes worried me terribly. Came back very tired.

Tuesday June 21

Trail to Lake Eleanor

On the trail to Lake Eleanor

Got up early and made an early start. Reached Lake Eleanor about noon. Trail comes down just above a meadow beyond an old cabin on the south shore of the lake.

Lake Eleanor

View of Lake Eleanor

We stopped at the cabin for lunch. Soon after we stopped, a party of four boys from Sonora came up – two on foot and two in an old “dug-out” canoe.

At Lake Eleanor

Lunch stop

We started on again about 2:30. Saw a few Indians on the way. Had to take off most of our clothes and wade across the river at the lower end of the lake. The water came about up to our hips.

Lake Eleanor scenery

Lake Eleanor scenery

Lake Eleanor outlet

Wading across the outlet

At about 7:15 we came to the Cherry River, where we had to wade again, though the water was only a little above our knees. Camped, and I made bread. Had supper by firelight at 9:30. Met a large drove of horses and mules on the way to pasturage. The stockmen are taking advantage of the absence of the soldiers.

Eleanor Lake1

Wednesday June 22

Got up before 4 am. Started about 6:30; level shady walk through forest of pines, firs and oaks. We missed the trail at the crossing of the Clavy (Tuolumne) River, turning down the river instead of up the ridge above Two-Mile Creek. We tried a cross cut, hoping to get on the right trail without going back to the crossing. The usual result followed –we got into brush, had a very hard time getting out, had a frightfully steep and tedious climb, and had to camp on the ridge, not having found the trail.

As soon as the animals were unpacked, about 6:30, I started out to hunt up the trail, and found it, but was overtaken by darkness. Tried to get back to camp by following the top of the ridge, but was misled by a spur running off to the westward. I soon saw my mistake and tried to find the main ridge again. Did so, but couldn’t follow it. Built a fire in a stump, made a bed of leaves, and was just about to lie down for the night (thinking that preferable to running the risk of getting off on another spur) when I heard the voices of Lincoln and Noble, who had come out on the main ridge to look for me.

Put my fire out as best I could and went back with them. Found I was but a little way from camp, but it being in a hollow and surrounded by trees, the voice did not penetrate to it and the campfire could only be seen a very short distance. We got back to camp in the darkness, about 10:30. Enjoyed my late supper very much.

Clavey River1

Thursday June 23

Got up at earliest dawn. Reached Lord’s about 8:30. As Dempster had a letter to him, we stopped a while – got a drink of fresh milk and talked. From Lord’s the trail became a fairly good wagon road, still leading though the forest. My left boot began to give way at the toe and let in dust. Stopped at the river and Dempster and I washed our feet – the others took a bath. I noticed that Dempster’s heel was badly inflamed. Reached Long Barn about 11 and stayed for dinner, which was at 12 – fairly good.



Dempster took a passing wagon for Confidence and intends to go the rest of the way to Sonora by stage on account of his lame foot. Went to sleep after dinner and did not get started again until about 2:30. Reached Confidence (on the Toll Road) about 5 and had supper there – a very poor meal. Started on again at 6. Camped on a slope near the spring at the foot of the grade at dusk.

New Confidence1

Friday June 24

Our beds were on too much of a slope last night for comfort and we did not sleep well. Got up about 3 a.m. Had a hasty breakfast and packed up for the last time. The road was very dusty and my boot was badly broken at the left toe, but we managed to reach Sonora about 8.

There we found the Oakdale party, who got in last night. They seem to have come across by a more direct trail than that by Lord’s. I imagine they took the trail down the Clavy – the one which we started on, but abandoned – they spoke of having seen our tracks up to that point.

Found Dempster at the hotel waiting for us. Jim and I took the burros back to Hall, but instead of returning our $45, he would give me only $20 – said he would keep the other $25 because of the sores on Jennie’s and Baldy’s withers.

Got breakfast at the Victoria at 9 and ate it with a great relish. Took stage (Kelly’s) for Jamestown at 10. It was extremely warm all the rest of the journey – slept a good deal in catnaps on the train. Reached Stockton about 4. Had a good dinner at a French restaurant. I took a stroll through the court house. At 6 took the “Walker” steamer for San Francisco.

It was moonlight and very pleasant to lie stretched out on the bare deck. In the cabins it was not so comfortable.

Saturday June 25

Reached San Francisco before six this a.m. Found it foggy and cool. Spent nearly all day sleeping and reading. Everything seems to be all right and I guess my vacation was very timely.

I will transcribe and post subsequent adventures in due time

5 Responses to The High Sierra Diaries of Alexander Eells: Part 1 – Sonora Backcountry 1898

  1. Heidi Hopkins says:

    Wow! What a treat, Keith!! Thank you so much.

  2. Janet Brennan says:

    Thank you for sharing this. What an accomplishment to make this available to all of us.

  3. Gayle Forster says:

    Great to have you share this history. Wonderful reading.

  4. savorygrace says:

    Hardy and hearty souls. Thanks Keith

  5. Adam Miller says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this!!

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