Sunday, October 15, 2017

coming home

I drove home into an early winter. Usually the Wallowas get a fine dusting of snow, like giants spilling flour, by this time. I've even been chased out of the mountains on Labor Day by a half a foot dump. But this much snow, this early, is not typical, at least not in the recent decades. Two guys I passed on the trail today said they had run into a foot of snow before the old cabin on Falls Creek, and that is just deeply weird.

But today, at least, my first day back home, was one of those fall days that can break your heart. Heartbreaking because you know they can't last and they are just about perfect, a slight bite to the air, piles of bright leaves, warm sun on your shoulders and an open trail. I'm trying more and more often to live by the philosophy of "don't be sad that it's over, smile because it happened" and so I took on an easy trail, but one of the most beautiful.  I wanted to be grateful for the fall day, not gnash my teeth over the coming winter.

Only a few frosty cars at the trailhead, so some brave souls were camping in the twenty degree temperatures. Good for them. For me this is the time of year for day hikes. It only takes about an hour to reach Slick Rock Falls, the best I could do today when the chores had piled up in my absence (Note: if you rent a cabin to a bachelor, their idea of a good cleaning just might not be yours).

I hiked along at what my friend Gary calls a "friendly pace". It is always surprising to me to see day hikers with headphones, because my mind always is busily thinking about something. On my latest PCT hike it took me about five miles to add up all of the segments I have done and figure out what I have left (788 miles). I thought about each section and what it was like, and of the ones I have left to do. I think of plotlines for my novel. There is more to think about than there are miles.

The light wasn't great for pictures, but you get the idea.
 For example. Here in Deadman Meadow, I thought about climbing Sacajawea, the snowy peak pictured above. I thought about my friends who got married here. I remembered when I came and camped right here, on my 50 night backpacking quest. So much to think about.
All too soon I had reached my destination, Slick Rock Falls. This is where an avalanche often tumbles down from above. In the summer, you can climb up a ways and sit in some chilly, deep pools. This is also the route to the often dreamed about Deadman Lake. I could go further, I thought, keep going until the snow stopped me. But maybe this was good enough.

It's good to be home. Just like a person, this place has its challenges. I will deeply miss swimming, and the easy, flat trail system that actually made me want to go running. It was easy in Sisters, with convenient amenities, whatever you wanted close at hand. It would have been easy to stay and we almost did. But in the end, this feels more like home, so we came back. The future is still uncertain, but I'm ready to see what is next. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Know when to fold 'em*

All week long I dreamed of Camp Lake. In the guidebook pictures, it looked just like my kind of place--windswept, barren, stark and lovely. Access to it has been closed most of the ephemeral summer we managed to get, due to a fire that really wasn't all that close. Busting a fire closure isn't really my thing, so I waited, hoping for a break that finally came this weekend. The road to the trailhead was open!

The forecast wasn't all that great for backpacking. This time of year, you are flirting with disaster when staying out overnight at high elevations. I really wanted to camp because the hike was seven miles long plus there were other lakes up higher to explore. While a fourteen mile day hike was well within my range, having the chance to wander around the basin really could only happen with more time. In the end, the thirty mph wind gusts forced me to reconsider. (and that is a good thing).

Ruby and I left at dawn, which now means seven, armed with treats, warm clothes, a SPOT beacon, map, too much water, and an emergency blanket. There were only two cars at the trailhead, one belonging to a hunter whom I caught on as we trudged through the first dismal four miles of burnt trees. The other group would mysteriously never appear.

Ice on the creek crossings made for some ballet-like leaps as I attempted to keep my boots dry. I normally hike in trail running shoes, but some instinct had told me to wear boots. I was glad I had as I ascended the switchbacks after the turn-off to Demaris Lake (4.5 miles). The trail became completely snow-covered, with only a few footprints to point the way.

Lakes. But not Camp Lake.
My luck ran out at a cliff. Several sets of footprints had merrily begun traversing what I could tell from the map was the wrong way. I could see where the group had milled around and given up. Punching through a foot of snow, I decided to traverse the ridge and drop down into a valley. I could, I thought, follow my prints back.

I ascended a hill and found the wooden No Fires sign that seems to mark most lakes in these parts. Hallelujah for route-finding skills, I was on the right track. However, I was completely alone in what felt like winter. No trace of the trail remained. To the south, the Three Sisters loomed, implacable and indifferent.
So much snow.
I found what I thought could be the trail, winding mid-ridge, but a tentative step revealed solid ice with a thin snow crust. The snow bulged out over the cliff, making it impossible to kick in steps successfully. A fall wouldn't be automatic death, but it wouldn't be all that fun. I stopped and pondered my options.

I knew I was within a quarter mile of the lake. I could even see the basin where I was sure it lurked. Perhaps a less prudent person would have kept going. Years of being in the wilderness, and of carrying people out of the same wilderness, have taught me that it's important to follow your instinct. It was, I knew, time to turn around. Even though I was so close. Even though it would probably all work out. Even though I would never be back, and this was my only chance. Even though.

I looked at Ruby. Ecstatic, she was rolling around in the snow. She raced at full speed around and around in the snow. She didn't care that this trip was a bust. In fact, to her, it wasn't. So what if we didn't make our destination? I resolved to be more like Ruby.

Yes, that is a dog rolling in snow.
I left Camp Lake to winter. Sometimes, you just have to know when to quit.

Winter is here.
* If there's a Kenny Rogers song now in your head, I apologize.
Dog out of focus, but happy.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

take my breath away

I'm the one around town wearing sandals because I sent most of my winter things home. In my defense, it was one hundred degrees at the time. A sudden winter has caught me off guard. All summer, I never even toted a jacket because honestly? It never cooled off.

A healthy snowfall in the high country has put out the fires but not the closures, so I skirt around them, seeing what I can. Golden Lake had been on my list for a long time. The guidebook ominously warned that it was difficult, citing the .7 miles of cross country travel that were involved. Not one to be intimidated, I gathered all the weird remnants of warm clothes I had left, grabbed the puppy and headed out (Cale is unhappily recovering, banned from hikes for now).

As per usual, the first five miles were through a burnt forest. If you didn't know what was ahead, you might give up, but suddenly you break out into a huge meadow with views of the mountains. Most people stop here, and on the way out, I saw three sets of puffy jacketed backpackers, bound for this location. I have to admit I was envious. This was their view for the evening.

The snow line began as I climbed up from the meadow, and I regarded my running shoes with dismay. I had sent my hiking boots home, and these shoes were reaching the end of their useful life. Dark clouds swirled over the peaks, a reminder of an uncertain weather forecast. A prudent hiker might consider ten miles enough and turn around, but I knew this was my last chance to see the lake before I left town for good. Soon the snow patches became solid snow. With this, I was sure that the user path to the lake would be covered and unrecognizable. This might, I told the puppy, be the end of the road.

Following the landmarks on the map, I came to a single set of tracks in the snow, heading east. Hmm, I thought. This looked like the place where you could leave the trail and reach the lake. Should we try it? Yes, we should. Keeping a close eye on the way back in case the tracks melted out, we advanced cautiously around a meadow and through trees until we reached the lake.

We were completely alone in a beautiful place. Sometimes, nature takes my breath away, and this was one of those times.

This was a place that was hard to leave, but as I watched, the clouds began to thicken. We retraced our steps to the relative safety of the trail.

But not before a swim...Ruby, not me. Brr!

My feet were wet and I was hungry, having only nibbled on a few pretzels. We had six and three quarter miles left to travel, mostly through uninspiring burnt forest. The cold was creeping in. It was time to move. We probably only spent five minutes at Golden Lake, not nearly enough. But in a world that seems too sad to live in sometimes, those breathless moments are what keep me going.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The bike shuttle chronicles

First, thanks for all the sweet comments about Cale. It turns out it is a malignant sarcoma, and while this type doesn't spread quickly, they are difficult to remove completely and can return within a short period of time. But we have to try. He still runs and plays and eats; he isn't ready to give up yet. Surgery is set soon.

This summer, since most hiking has been shut down by fire, has been more about the bicycle. Due to a system of trails that start just outside my door, I have honed my skills until I can shred the gnar ride on them without white-knuckling. The trails themselves have been interesting microcosms of human life. There are three types of residents there--the homeless, gutting it out in Walmart tents; the residents, who put up elaborate tarps and tents and motor homes and drive out to work every day, unable to afford the exorbitant rent ($2000 a month? Seriously). Then there are the tourists, but there aren't many of those in the piney woods. 

I get used to seeing these camps. There are also the usual walkers and runners, some of whom I now recognize. The weirdest sighting happened yesterday as I rode happily along. Up ahead was...what? Oh. A man walking a pack of goats! He clapped his hands and walked off the trail, the goats following. Life on the speed of a bicycle doesn't allow for chitchat, so I continued on in a state of wonder.

But most often I have been charged with bike shuttling. It goes something like this: 

"Why don't you drop me off at X" (X being some forsaken high clearance washboarded road) "and then you can go to the other end and walk up toward me" (on some boring, dusty path)!

Being a bike shuttler is always risky. The bikers are vague about how long it's going to take them. Three hours? Five? Sometimes even the pickup place is in question. The older dog can't go as far so is miserably consigned to traveling with me, much to his discontent (and howling). It takes patience to be a bike shuttler, that and something to read while waiting.

I'm not good enough to ride those trails in question, and I want to be a Team Player, so I do the shuttle. Sometimes, it pays off, as was the case for the McKenzie River Trail. There's no way I could ride the lava parts (I was witness to a lot of hike a bike on these sections) but there are plenty of access points and scenic spots to hike to while waiting. First there was a waterfall loop and next up, ta strange and beautiful pool. Sometimes being a support person pays off.

Tamolitch Pool! The river goes underground upstream and comes out here! A strange and lovely spot that we shared with about 20 of our closest friends (Not. But there are a lot of other people on this trail segment)

Sahalie Falls! We saw a lot of high school trail runners here. It would be a great trail to run.
While bike shuttling isn't my favorite thing to do, it makes others happy, which is something the world doesn't see enough of these days. Plus, since I am unable to hike the last 50 miles of the Central Oregon PCT, I just know that all this shuttling will pay off next summer, when the fires are out and I need a ride to the incredibly far away, incredibly pot-holed Olallie Lake. Heh heh heh.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Guarded Prognosis

I wasn't really a dog person before I met Cale. He is my favorite of all the dogs I have known. A big fluffy teddy bear, he has the sweetest temperament and personality. He is content to lie behind the couch snoozing or run around in the field.

He suddenly has developed a huge tumor on his leg; it seemed to grow overnight. The vet looked grim, saying that its sudden growth didn't look good. The tests will be back next week. It's the kind of thing where you steel yourself for the worst.

But aren't our whole lives full of guarded prognosis? Every time we step outdoors, our safe return home is sort of a miracle. We are so fragile and the world is so hard. I've never been able to understand the people who smugly say that everything happens for a reason. You just have to look around you to know that isn't true. Nature does have some kind of order but it also is a marvelous chaos. Who would want to live in a world where the strings are pulled for you? Better to fling yourself out there, take fantastic leaps, love with all you have without fear, stop thinking about what could happen.

Easy to say, of course, but harder when you have loved an animal and know they won't be with you much longer. My husband always says it is harder to leave the pets when he goes away than it is to leave me, because the pets don't know. It's the same way when something goes wrong. The pets don't understand. They watch you wrap their leg with vet wrap, trusting that you will make it all better. But you can't, sometimes.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Pacific Crest Trail, Castella to Burney: a different forest every day

My expectations for California's section O were not high. I had read other trip reports and a few terrifying things stood out. Poison oak. Bears. Downed trees. All in all, it didn't sound that great. 

But I had to drive right by on the way to a work trip, and this was an isolated section that would fill in a PCT gap. How could I resist? I couldn't. With some trepidation (and with the added weight of bear spray), I headed southbound from Castella, bound for Burney Falls.

I came upon this detour, but people had written "not that bad" and "Nah, do it anyway", so I didn't take it. It wasn't that bad. Do it anyway.

Because most thru-hikers should be past this point by now if they have a prayer of making it to Canada or Mexico, the trail was mostly empty. The few views showed a wide expanse of trackless forest. In four days, I passed through old growth trees, savannas, oak groves, pine forests, and wide rivers. Ranging from two thousand feet to nearly seven, this felt like a whole world compressed into eighty-two miles.

Squaw Valley creek, which hasn't been renamed on PCT maps but is called "Politically Correct Creek" on some Forest Service maps. I wonder how that slipped by the Washington Office.
There was poison oak. There were more bear tracks than I've ever seen (but no sightings). There were a few downed trees. But of the nearly five hundred miles I've hiked on the PCT this year, this was my favorite. It is also the scene of my longest day--27 miles, all uphill (northbounders have it much better). The next day I struggled to reach 20, so it all evens out. 

The best campsite ever, overlooking mountains and Shasta.
A few stragglers lined the trail, people without a prayer, but cheerful nonetheless. A Swiss guy was taking his time, stopping for hours at the creek to cook lunch. A writer earnestly told me how she had been doing thirty mile days in Washington State (which seems a little hard to believe given the terrain) but had to slow down due to smoke. Another man who mistakenly called me "sweetheart" (ugh) mansplained about the trail, but redeemed himself by saying, "I'm just so happy to be out here." And another Oregon escapee, who said he just had to get out of the smoke. All of us on one ribbon of trail, people who would never camp together in the real world. The trail brings us together. I love that. Seven hundred and eighty-eight miles to go (this math problem occupied many, many miles as I hiked).

Miles and miles of forest.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Stuff people say on trail

Guys! I found smoke free air in Northern California! I had to come down here for work so's this trail called the PCT, you may have heard of it? I managed to wrangle four days to hike another section! I'll post about that when I get home. The TL;DR version is: Low expectations=exceeded!

In the meantime, please enjoy the Stuff People Said on Trail. What are some less enlightened, or just odd, things people have said to you?

"I only filter water in lakes and ponds, not in creeks."

"Sweetheart, EVERY creek will have campsites."

"How come you picked up my hat and carried it with you when you found it? You're supposed to leave stuff on the trail in case people come back for it." ( wouldn't even HAVE your hat if I hadn't carried it until I found you).

"There aren't any bears up here. Bears only come up high to hibernate." (I've never seen so many bear tracks on a trail!)

"You didn't hike to Ashland this year. My house is right on the trail and I would have seen you." (Okay, that is just slightly creepy)

A strange sight: a man with a backpack, plus two full bear canisters. "I wear these strapped in front."

"I didn't see any poison oak on the trail." !!!!

"I've hiked the whole trail but I don't remember this part."

"My food is in ziplock bags in my pack, so I'm not worried about bears."