Our first practice hike of the season is at Briones Regional Park, a favorite destination. The plan is to meet in the school parking lot at 8:00 am sharp to weigh our packs and discuss the route. Typically, most of the hikers are late. One forgets his lunch and we wait for his father to make a trip to Subway. Then another realizes that he left his walking sticks in his mother’s car. Another call and more waiting. In the meantime we weigh the packs and, for several Scouts, add weights to bring their loads up to the required minimum. (Scouts start with small packs and build up their endurance.) We leave an hour late. Not a great start, but better than last year!
The crew arrives at the Vaca Creek Trailhead about 30 minutes later. Within minutes we are out of the vehicles, boots on our feet, packs on our back, juices flowing, and anxious to hit the trail. Everyone comes together for a map discussion and then our first hike ritual. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is recited with vigor. “Half a league, Half a league, Half a league onward. All in the Valley of Death rode the 600.” It is undeniably the best backpacking poem ever written.
The Navigator and Point are in front, Sweep is in the back and our rag-tag group forms into something resembling a line of hikers. From here on until the end of the 50 miler, we will use trail names and keep the pact: What happens on the trail stays on the trial, mostly referring to the dirty jokes and bad hygiene. Balogna, Maximus, A Boy named Sue, Dork, DaMoose, Sunshine, and the adults take the first steps of their first practice hike – the beginning of what will eventually be 150 miles of Troop backpacking this season.
The day is already hot and getting hotter. There are very few trees in Briones, just lots of rolling green hills, scattered campsites, day hikers, frogs, cows, turkey vultures, lagoons, and the occasional bald eagle flying around. (Wee-Ta-Chi might be the best Troop campsite in Northern California!) The hills are not high (Briones Peak is only 1483 feet) but the views are sometimes impressivee: Mt. Diablo, Sacramento River and the Delta, and Mt. Tamalpais are all visible from the ridgeline trails.
The morning passes without incident and we manage to cover six miles with no blisters, no equipment problems, and no bad attitudes. Things are looking good. We stop near the Bear Creek staging area to munch on warm sandwiches and empty our water bottles. The boys tease Sunshine because his mom obviously prepared his lunch, complete with cut fruit and small portions of all his favorites. Balogna pulls out some maps and schools the group on map reading and compass alignment. Nalgene bottles get refilled (or not) and we force ourselves back onto the trail for the last four miles, which we know from the map will be mostly uphill and without shade. Manly stuff.
The afternoon is long and some of the Scouts start to slow down. Hikers, in better shape or with longer legs, consistently build up the distance between them and those at the back. We come together at every trail junction and separate as soon as we start moving again. Good backpackers are revealing themselves and so are those who are not as strong. This is one reason practice hikes are so important.
After a few arguments over trail selection at the end of the day, we get back to the parking area in the late afternoon. We pull out the cooler filled with cold Diet A&W root beer – the perfect refreshment after a good day on the trail – and sit down to reflect on the hike. We contemplate our sore muscles, sweaty shirts, and the long backpacking season ahead. Eventually , I turn on my cell phone and check for messages from parents who have gone a whole day without talking to their sons. Time to load the cars and head back.
There are many ways to get to Briones and many trailheads. Driving directions from Walnut Creek to Vaca Creek Trailhead: Take the Pleasant Hill Road Exit off Hwy 24 and follow the signs to Mt. Diablo Blvd (past Acalanes High School). Turn left at Relieze Valley Rd and stay left at Alhambra Valley Road. Pass the big sign that says Briones and turn left at Briones Road (it’s a very small road) and follow it to the top. Park your vehicle on the road near the staging area. There are usually maps by the trailhead. (There is another trailhead at the Briones sign you pass on Alhambra Valley road, but they charge for entering the Park.)