2122-4: Yuba River

High Sierra Summer Wildflowers

Obi Kaufmann wandered, alone, in the summer High Sierra forest for days. He slept on the ground and drank water from glacier-fed creeks. He wasn’t always exactly sure where he was, but that was fine with him. He was home.

“This is the forest that I grew up in,” says Obi. “This is my favorite place on the planet.”
Obi was scouting for the perfect mountain meadow along the north fork of the Yuba River to harvest wildflowers for a new Backpacker’s Cologne and Cabin Spray. After four days of hiking along Cedar-shaded trails and lonely Forest Service roads, Obi found the spots he was looking for.

He hiked down until he had enough phone reception to call Juniper Ridge’s Oakland workshop with the good news: The first Yuba River harvest was officially on.

The next day, Josh, Tom, Jessica, Laura, Hall, and Tanya all came up from Oakland in the Field Lab Van, joined by writers from Esquire and Anthology magazines. Leslie and Pablo drove the Juniper Ridge truck to harvest the Cedar trimmings that would eventually be distilled with the wildflowers to create an aromatic snapshot of summer in the Sierras.

The wildflower crew set up camp on Forest Service lands, and, after a crash course on the four flowers they were looking for, they fanned out through the meadows. Even though they were working at 7,000 feet, and snow still covered the peaks around them, everyone quickly stripped down to shorts and t-shirts. “After a few miles of hiking, you get downright hot,” says Obi.

Thankfully the dozens of tiny mountain lakes scattered across the mountains provided a great way to cool off. During one of their many swimming breaks, the harvesters had an unexpected visitor. “We were sitting on the edge of a lake,” says Obi, “and Josh goes ‘Hey is that a bald eagle?’ It flew right overhead. That was the first time I’d ever seen a bald eagle that far north. Everyone reached for their camera, but we were all too slow.”

In the late afternoons, the crew returned to camp for some wildcrafting. Hall and Tom lead the alcohol tincturing and enfleurage (where fresh-picked wildflowers are folded into fat to draw out their fragrance) while Josh and Obi experimented with a new set-up that allowed them to steam-distill directly over the campfire.

“We made a whole concoction in the campfire still,” said Obi. “Wildflowers, bark, moss, pine cones…Eventually you hit on a combination that captures the essence of the whole place on that day. It’s beautiful.”

He hiked down until he had enough phone reception to call Juniper Ridge's Oakland workshop with the good news: The first Yuba River harvest was officially on.

One afternoon, the whole group headed down the Forest Service roads to help Leslie and Pablo cut and load the Cedar trimmings. The trip provided a great excuse to visit Juniper Ridge’s favorite Sierra bar and burger joint: Burgee Dave’s at the Mayo. Happily high on cheeseburgers and cold beer, everyone headed back to camp, where the Pyrex Erlenmeyer Flasks and distillation tubing were put away, and flasks of a less scientific nature emerged. “Nights just devolved into hilariously bad campfire songs, whiskey, and ghost stories” said Obi. “Part of why we do this is because it’s so much fun to be with friends in the mountains.”

By 9 PM, though, most harvest crew had reluctantly dragged themselves off to bed, visions of the dawn wake-up call playing in their heads. “We have a pot of coffee going by 6:30 AM,” says Obi. “At that altitude, the sun comes in bright.”