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fortuitous encounter in the night

After two days in the desert we returned to the Sierra Nevada, spending a weekend camping with our friend Cam in Kings Canyon.

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Initially, we had planned on pitching our tents in Sequoia National Park and had also arranged to go rafting on the Kaweah River. The rafting reservations fell through several days before we got there. The Kaweah has two sections – the upper portion of the river is mostly class IV and V rapids; the bottom portion only has class IIIs. For the second year in a row, California had had an unseasonably mild winter and there was not enough snowmelt to run the upper section of the river when we rounded the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada in mid-May.

By the time we arrived at our campsite we were glad that our rafting plans had fallen through. Unlike Yosemite and June Lake, Sequoia National Park does not take campsite reservations during the summer months. Campsites were on a first-come first-served basis, and arriving late at night after a full day of driving from Death Valley the pickings were slim. Because cell phone coverage is scant inside Sequoia National Park, we had asked Cam to leave a message with the park ranger if he were to arrive first. We were happy this plan worked until we heard the contents of the message. All of the campsites in Sequoia were full so Cam had chosen a campsite in adjacent Kings Canyon, 45 miles – or 1 hour and 45 minutes of driving – away.

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Night was falling as we left the ranger station and made our way to Grant Grove in Kings Canyon on a road so windy that the speed limit changed from 30 miles per hour to 10 every few seconds. On top of it all, there was roadwork and our car had sprung a leak in one of its tires. Somehow we arrived at the campsite around 9:30pm, but that was only half the trouble.

Based on our previous camping experiences in the Sierra Nevada, we thought it would be easy to rendezvous with Cam. There had been a campsite host at every other campsite, and Yosemite had even had park rangers. Not so in Kings Canyon. There were several haphazardly organized campsites in Grant Grove and they had self-service registration. All but one were closed, which at least made it easier to figure out the general area where Cam intended for us to spend the night, but it consisted of about 200 individual sites that covered a lot of ground in the woods.

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We looped around the first twenty sites, peering vainly into the darkness in the hopes of finding Cam’s  vintage Volvo station wagon. There seemed to be little order to how the sites were organized and there were no facilities to be seen at first. At last we found the self-registration kiosk and by a good stroke of fortune ran into our friend there. Even this remote site was mostly full by the time he had arrived, and it took him a good deal of circling to find and claim two adjacent camping sites. He just happened to return to the registration kiosk at the exact moment we arrived there.

We hadn’t seen Cam in more than a year – since he had visited us in Nairobi last February – but despite our urge to chat and catch up, it was too late and way too cold for conversation. Leaving the oppressive heat of Death Valley, we had dressed in the lightest clothing we owned. At altitude in the Sierra Nevada, even our warmest layers were not enough. We hastily put up our tent, had a late meal, and climbed into our sleeping bags, saving the catching up for the rest of the weekend.

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