A phone call came from Jack Thomson one day in 1984.
Yes, that Jack Thomson – the Hall of Fame high school baseball coach with over 600 victories coaching (and teaching) at Manteca and Sierra high schools.
Jack wanted to know if I would join him and our friends Greg Burge and Tim Forbes on a backpacking trip to Kibbie Lake, a then 30-mile roundtrip hike in the Northern Yosemite Wilderness.
From that trip, Jack and I did not know or realize what would follow: An annual pilgrimage into the Sierra Nevada wilderness.
Since, the annual trip has quickly evolved to form a close group of current and former Manteca educators.
While Burge and Forbes never returned after that initial trip, the evolution of the annual trip has included what Jack and I call “charter members:” Former Manteca High teacher and now Sierra High counselor Paul Bennett, current Sierra High principal Steve Clark, and retired Manteca High teacher and counselor Scott Eckerle. The five of us have planned annual trips since 1985.
In the late 1980s, the annual trip was christened, “Cannonball.”
The name comes from a combination of sources: 1) an epic “cannonball” dive by Bennett from a 30-foot cliff at a granite wall dead-end at Kibbie Lake; and, 2) the infamous Bill Murray/Chevy Chase “Caddyshack” seen in Carl’s caddyshack.
Over time, other Manteca educators have joined on multiple annual trips.
They include Sierra High teacher Richard Boyd, SJ County counselor Mike Rosendin, Sierra High teacher Jeff Williams, retired Sierra High counselor Steve Howe, Sierra High teacher Kaj Busch, and Manteca High teacher Ron Inderbitzin.
Even other educators and coaches have been on trips such as Sierra High’s Nic Hobby, former MUSD and current county board member Vern Gebhardt, retired Manteca and Sierra teacher/coach Todd Vick, MUSD counselor Larry Machado, former Manteca High coach Gerald Capps, and retired Manteca High teacher/coach Art Mathis.
The annual Cannonball trip is usually calendared around the time a new school year begins. It is followed with great debate on where the next hike should be scheduled.
Since the invention of email, friendly barbs are freely exchanged. Scientists believe this annual ritual has helped break up the long school year.
Research findings are preliminary.
Not all can attend the annual “death march,” as some in the group would label the multi-day hikes into the unforgiving Sierra Nevada (and Cascades) wilderness.
There have been no easy trips, but the group has evolved from carrying too much weight (i.e., lawn chairs, canned goods, etc.) to moving toward ultralight status with backpacks.
There have been years when mules have carried some of the gear. However, this methodology generally sparked heated discussions of who is lazy and who is a purist. (Full disclosure: I am a purist.)
The necessities are left behind. In most cases, the exterior pressures and controversies are left behind, too.
Highlights of each trip are the nightly campfires.
“Great times,” said Clark.
Not all campfire discussions have been pleasant.
Over the years there have been heated exchanges regarding politics and lifestyles. However, we believe we have solved nearly all the world’s problems while sitting around the campfire.
“The passionate conversations and laughter around the campfire were important highlights for me,” said Eckerle. “I am very thankful that Cannonball was a part of my adulthood. Without this group of guys, I would have never explored the Sierras so extensively.”
Over the years members of the group have been confronted with life’s realities such as marital divorces, marital separations, job separations and changes, and sadly and tragically the loss of our own children.
Throughout the years, however, the bond remains strong and unbroken.
Thomson, who unknowingly started the annual tradition, chimed in.
“Cannonball has always been a time to share quality time with quality friends,” said Thomson. “(It is a time) to experience and appreciate the outdoors with my friends.”
While there have some memorable episodes over the years, there has been just one injury – a broken toe Bennett sustained while bathing in Fremont Lake.
At Lake Vernon, one hiker to remain nameless was awakened from a nap only to see a black bear return its gaze just inches away. That hiker never returned on another Cannonball trip.
Bears have been frequent visitors, in fact.
One year we returned to camp at Kibbie Lake after a day hike to see our equipment destroyed by a frustrated hungry bear. The bear then left a “thank you” sample of dung in the middle of camp.
In times of hiking fatigue, we have mistaken marmots for mountain lions.
Unknowingly until after the fact, Thomson once stepped over a six-foot long rattlesnake at Lake Vernon. (Thomson does not like snakes.) Those of us on that trip quickly checked the insides of our respective tents, then zipped them tightly!
In the early 1990s, to be “bear free,” we camped on a lake island only to be told by a passing ranger, “Bears can swim.”
Williams recalls a few highlights over the years on annual trips.
“The death march into Benson Lake out of Twin Lakes (Bridgeport),” said Williams when asked about his most powerful memories on Cannonball trips. “Soaking our feet in Benson Lake and watching the Golden Trout swimming by our feet. Oh, and hiking into Arndt Lake and finding why they call it Arndt Lake – there ‘arndt’ any fish in the lake!”
Over the years a second generation of Cannonball members have joined.
Eckerle’s son, Tyson, was one of the first next generation members. My son, Jeffery, has been on a trip. Thomson’s sons John and Travis have experienced the hikes, too.
“My most special memories regarding Cannonball was having the next generation joining us and being welcomed and included by the group,” said Scott Eckerle. “(My son) Tyson’s first Cannonball was about 20 years ago and he still joins us. Cannonball provided this priceless gift for me.”
The youngest second-generation hiker is Clark’s son, Josh, who was barely out of diapers when his father introduced him to the group.
Unfortunately for father Clark, however, he was required to carry additional weight for Josh. Items such as candy, the largest summer sausage ever made by Hickory Farms, what seemed like a six-man tent, etc., were added to Steve Clark’s pack to assure Josh was taken care of.
“My most memorable experience was Josh Clark catching a bat when he was fly fishing at Heather Lake,” added Thomson. “He was fly casting a mosquito and a brown bat took it out of midair and was hooked. Josh walked back to camp with a bat on the end of his fishing line.”
Next month, Cannonball 2018 – the 33rd edition – returns to the wilderness. The core hikers generally remain the same, while others occasionally return for another memorable experience.
“Cannonball feels like being a part of a team,” said Scott Eckerle. “We pushed each other and, in doing so, we learned more about ourselves. I learned that I am not as young as I used to be and that is OK because, ‘I have nothing to prove.’”