Monday, June 21, 2021

Time warp

As we drive into the town where I was the most lonely, I texted my friend a picture of the high school mascot sign. 

"Why, Mary, why?" he texted back. We both were there at the same time, suffering through life in a conservative town, where summers were scorching, winters freezing, and the dating pool shallow. To endure it, I used to escape to anywhere: north to backpack, west to visit friends, south to camp. I never, ever stayed home.

But my friends were riding a brutal bike race, and we were there to support them. We weren't a lot of support, basically watching them start, and then meeting them at one point to offer up Oreos and dried mangos. The race is remote and difficult, and it took them hours to complete. There was a 12 hour cut-off time. "Do you think I could do the 120 in twelve hours?" I asked J as we drove up in search of a trail to hike. He had done this race before, so he knew how hard it was, and how bad of a bike rider I am.

"Nope," he said.

"The 60?"


"The 30?"


Since bike racing isn't on my list of ambitions, every other competitor was safe.  

My friend T and I gathered up five dogs and went for a pleasant walk by the creek. We had a much better day than our suffering friends, whom we caught up with at the base of a big hill. They laughed as some of the 120 racers sped by-these people seemed like a separate species, especially as it was nearing 100 degrees. The race had drawn all kinds--the extreme athletes and the cruisers.

The next morning I went for a run past my old house. I almost didn't recognize it--had it really been so close to the neighbors'? And I had no memory of the neighbors. I must have known them, but was I gone so much that I never really did? 

I ran up into Garland Acres, most likely much slower than I used to run in 2002. Though there are new houses, the town basically looks the same. Businesses have somehow hung on, and there is still the strange lack of movement from the residents. I think of the time I lived here as the Lost Years, but they taught me resilience, independence and strength. 

As we drove through town on the way home, I noticed some changes. Yes, the Central Pastime bar was still there. The Thai restaurant where you'd better not show up hungry and also bring a deck of cards to pass the time. But there was a day spa, something that would have horrified the locals two decades ago. A couple of brewpubs. But there was also a I stand with the Hammonds sign (refer to the Bundy occupation if you are unaware) and the $39 a night motel. Some things never change.

Dear younger me, I thought. Hang in there, but don't run on so much pavement, your knees won't like you later. Don't date that firefighter, he will only move away and cause you heartbreak. Maybe stay home once in a while? Or not. Trust me on this, you will leave this place, and then you might come back, just for a visit. It will seem like twenty years went by in a blink. 

Monday, June 14, 2021

sleepless on sleepy ridge is still stealing my posts. Should I be flattered that a bot thinks they are interesting enough to steal? Well, if they steal it, I will say it: the real site is and buy my books while you are at it.

 We pored over the Hells Canyon map. Where to go? An unknown group of trails spiraled out from the Hat Point road, all on ridges. You never know what you are going to get from Hells Canyon--typically trails have vanished, swallowed by tall grass and time. You end up guessing, and finding pieces of them. But we were game to try.

I gutsily drove to Warnock Corral, to be greeted with a "4WD road" sign. If the road I had been driving wasn't classified as a 4WD, there was no way I was going further. We ventured out onto the Western Rim National Recreation Trail, which hugs the rim of Hells Canyon. Though this is an NRT, it gets way less funding than others, and is fairly obscure. The number of people who have hiked its entire length probably is less than 100.

Though it was tempting to stay on the rim, we decided to veer off toward Sleepy Ridge. In the distance, the rim looked treed, and we debated: we didn't want to deal with inevitable blowdown and no views. We could bail if we didn't like it, we determined. You should always have a backup plan in Hells Canyon.

Elk ran off in the distance as we traversed along singletrack that I could actually ride with a bike. On foot, though, we emerged into glorious ridgewalking. After about five miles we reached a spring, and a flat place to camp. You don't take water lightly in the canyon, so we decided to seize the spot and day hike from there.

The trail contoured across the ridge, where it disappeared. We had been expecting this, so we weren't fazed. But a mystery revealed itself. My map showed no trail continuing on Sleepy Ridge, while the USGS map did. Which was right? Deciding not to flounder, we headed for Jakey Ridge, crossing Medicine Creek and climbing up. This trail was less used, with numerous blowdowns that we had to push our way through. Short on daylight, we conceded defeat and returned to our camp for a satisfying twelve miles of effort. Twelve miles is pretty good for the Canyon, even if we were on the rim and not in the depths.

I happily crawled into my new Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 tent. This is the best tent ever. I am too impatient to mess with trekking pole tents, and what if I want to take my poles for a day hike from camp? I don't really want to collapse my tent while I am gone. I want something easy and quick to set up. This tent is amazingly light and roomy and while fitting in two people could be a challenge, a furry dog is easily accommodated. I love my tent so, so much. (However, now I have at least two other tents I should probably offload.)

In the distance I heard a disquieting sound. Wind! Another thing about Hells Canyon are the strange local winds. An unpredicted gale buffeted us all night, flap flap flap. I thought uneasily about the trees above us, but it was too late to move. There's something terrifying about wind that sets me on edge. The night was long and unpleasant.

 It got light at 4 am, and we blearily crawled from our tents, sleepless. "Good thing we weren't on Windy Ridge," I said, pointing out the aptly named ridge running parallel to ours. My tent had withstood the wind, so there was that. 

Facing a day of chores, I reluctantly packed up to go. There's a lot more exploring that can be done in this place. Hopefully without wind next time. Oh, and we didn't see a soul. There's something to be said for living here.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Snakes or Snow

 This is the summer of my discontent, when obligations keep me close to home. Nobody reads a blog to hear whining, so I will stop there, but after a Covid summer where we were so slammed with tourists that we couldn't go to the places we loved, and now this one, it's enough to drive an adventurous soul around the bend. How many summers do I have left? Hopefully many, but you never know.

So when I had half a day and part of the next one to bolt, I cast about for options. While the valley is dry (and, disturbingly, we have a 2000 acre fire June!) the mountains are pretty snowbound. I didn't relish the idea of postholing through soft snow again. But where could I go? Snakes or snowere the options: Hells Canyon or the wilderness. 

Because a condition of my escape was that I had to bring a dog, I couldn't choose snakes. There's a dog vaccine for snakes, but I hadn't gotten one for them, and I didn't want to get bitten by one either. Plus, the poison ivy is in full swing. The canyon window has closed shut with a definitive bang.

Snow it was. "You can definitely get up the North Fork of Big Sheep," J said. Why I chose to believe someone who hasn't been in the mountains for months (because of his ruptured Achilles) I don't know. Perhaps I chose to believe. As such I wore trail runners, telling myself that if I found snow, I would turn around.

I remembered the North Fork as being a beautiful basin lying under the McCully ridge, and I excitedly trotted up the trail. I had to park well before the trailhead, which should have told me something about the conditions, but I convinced myself that the trail was west facing and so would be melted out. The first mile went fine, and Ruby and I began to tackle the climb into Big Sheep.

Almost immediately the trail disappeared under snow. My heart sank. But then, how bad could it be? (Asking this question nearly always leads to my downfall eventually. But still I ask.) I decided to forge onward, opening my Gaia app when I needed to. Mostly I try to navigate by knowledge; having worked on trails for a long time, I can usually feel where they should be. But when a trail dives into deep woods and snow is over six feet, it becomes more of a challenge. Nervousness began to creep in. I knew I wasn't lost, but not seeing a trail is always disconcerting.

And the snow wasn't the firm, easy kind. My feet sank deep into the snow, and I fell a few times. Still, I pressed on, gaining two thousand feet. I couldn't give up now. Surely the basin would be melted out., I thought, though I was starting to have my doubts.

After an hour of struggle I gained the basin. A solid white surface greeted me. Setting up the tent on snow would be okay, but then I would be stuck there; my feet were wet and it wasn't worth the exploration to keep postholing around. I would have to melt snow for water, which is tedious at best. I realized the phenomenon: I was tied to an outcome.

I had dreamed of sitting in sun-warmed grass, reading a book, a stream an easy stroll away. This was not the place. I would have to retreat. I should have picked snakes, I grumbled. At least I could hike a long ways without wet feet or postholing. 

The dog bounded down the mountain, always picking the trail even though it was snow-covered. Here's a tip: when you have lost the trail, follow the dog. They know where it is. She didn't care that we were retreating, that we didn't camp in the basin. Be more like the dog, I told myself.

It's hard not to be tied to outcomes when you have very little adventure time. I fumed as we backtracked, the snow already getting icy and treacherous. This trail had very little camping opportunities, and I wasn't in the mood to day hike. I spend enough time at home as it is; I wanted to be out under the sky.

My mood improved as I came to the creek. Here I was, once again a short distance from the car. But it was warm, there was water nearby to wade in, and even a bridge to stretch on. It wasn't the outcome I had wanted, but it was the outcome I got. It was a lesson I need to keep learning, and we didn't get bitten by snakes, always a bonus. I guess I'll always choose snow.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Misadventures in water

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In my new book, The Last Layer of the Ocean, I describe my uneasy relationship with water. I had always considered myself a land person until I moved to Alaska. There, I was confronted with water: the ocean was a living thing, influencing everything we did. I grew to understand water and to love it. 

Still, I have never felt completely confident in water. I like open water swimming, but I still like to wear fins, and I hug the shore. During a spate of strangely warm days, I convinced myself that swimming season was here. My neighbor's son looked askance when I told him I was going to Kinney Lake to swim. "It's going to be so cold," he warned.

I had touched the water the other day; it felt warm. Brimming with confidence, I drove to the lake to find a bevy of fishermen. Nobody was swimming, but nobody ever did here but me. The fishermen stared as I donned a swimming cap and fins. I had forgotten my wetsuit, but how cold could it be? I launched myself into the water. 

With the first stroke I knew this was a mistake. The water was shockingly cold. I made it a few feet before giving up. The fishermen stared as I crawled shamefully away. At my car, I pondered. I had an old pair of running shoes. I decided to run a few miles in my wet clothes to salvage the day. The fishermen stared as I ran off. 

Ruby thinks the water is just fine.

Okay, so swimming was out. Paddleboarding would have to do. I'm late to the paddleboarding game, because I was always fearful of falling in. I've been surprised to find that it's easier than I thought. My friend Marathon Chick and I paddled serenely across Wallowa Lake. The water is so deep and clear that we could see the bottom--and, unfortunately, the corpse of a deer. It must have fallen through the ice last winter.

We are going to have a few really hot days before the more normal temperatures set in. Do I dare return to the scene of the crime to try to swim again? Will the fishermen once again have something to stare at? Stay tuned...

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Goldilocks in the backcountry

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There were many things I knew. One was that there would be snow, but not how much. Another was that I had limited time and had to make the most of it. Finally, I knew that I needed to be outdoors for the might. My day hikes were not cutting it. 

Ruby and I hiked hopefully up the West Fork of the Wallowa, aiming for Six Mile Meadow. Imaginatively named or not, this was only six miles from the trailhead and I was expecting to be able to get there. It was May, after all, it was time to get on with it. 

The trail was strangely deserted for a freakishly warm seventy degree day. Where were the tourists? Of course, one should never look a gift horse in the mouth, so I hurried past the Ice Lake junction at three miles and headed into the unknown. I was trudging a bit, though my pack weighed only 19 pounds. My thyroid levels have been all over the place and my doctor inexplicably had lowered my dose down to a level where I felt terrible before. "But I feel great," I protested. "Most hyperthyroid people do," she responded. I didn't want future health problems, so I glumly agreed to go with the lower dose. I wasn't sure if I was feeling the effects or just lazy, but it had taken me an hour to go the three miles.

Soon after the junction I ran into snow. It wasn't unstoppable snow, but quickly I became aware that my lightweight hiking boots, a concession to the potential snow, were becoming soaked. Still, I thought I could handle that. What's wet feet for one night? The snow then started becoming deeper and more pervasive. However, I was only half a mile from my goal. Nothing could stop me now.

Until something did. Very fresh mountain lion tracks dotted the snow. Ruby looked anxious. I knew that I hiked in mountain lion country all the time. I saw tracks all the time. But this felt different. It felt like the lion was right here. If you hike with a dog, you are hiking that dog's hike. I didn't want to worry about Ruby puttering around the meadow and being pounced on. I stood in the snow and weighed my options. I had to turn around.

All was not lost. I would descend and then climb again to the basin below Ice Lake. I was pretty sure I could make that. It would mean adding on another five miles to the day, but it was nice out, I had escaped from reality, so why not?

A day hiker hove into view, the only person I would see. He was smartly carrying bear spray; if I had been carrying it, I would have pushed on. "There's going to be too much snow up there," he said when learning of my plans. He went on to Six Mile Meadow, his only concession to safety removing one earbud.

The hike up the endless switchbacks went swiftly and I gained the basin. There was no hope of going further. Snow shrouded the trail. I stood uncertainly in the one campsite. Snowbanks covered most of it and just to get water would be a flounder through knee deep snow. Retreat would need to happen, once again.

This was okay, though. I had always wondered about a sandy site on the river far below, and this would be the opportunity to camp there. I thought dreamily of sitting in the sun next to the water, reading a book. I hardly ever get to read anymore. Once we reached the river I bushwhacked to the site. There it was, just as I had imagined but--the river was raging. There was no way to safely climb down and get water, and I didn't want the dog to get swept away. This site wouldn't work either. 

I stomped across the bridge to inspect some campsites on the other side. The same river issue existed, not surprisingly. There was one last option, besides hiking out. I had directed a trail crew to a campsite near the trail junction many years ago. Over time, other hikers had used it. Set in small gravel, it was close to the trail, but nobody would be coming by now. I set my pack down and sat for a while, something I often do to get the feel of a campsite. 

It was slightly ridiculous to have hiked 15 miles to end up camping only three miles from the trailhead. If I wanted, I could hike out now, and sleep in a bed and eat something other than crackers, since my chicken mole dinner proved to be way too spicy. But what fun was that? We would stay.

That night something large crashed by. Bear? Elk? I wouldn't know, because I wasn't in the mood to find out. It turned out to be a peaceful night otherwise, in a campsite I would never have ordinarily picked. Turning around turned out to be okay.


Sunday, May 16, 2021

Road Walking isn't Always Terrible

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If you have ever been on any long distance hike, you know the horror of road walking. Hikers hate it. Some "yellow blaze" (get rides to the other end) and others endure them, but nobody really likes them. On the PCT, I had my share of road walking, including a blistering 100 degree slog to the town of Seaid Valley, a hypothermic trudge on an endangered frog closure, and still another through the town of Agua Dulce. I have decided not to hike the CDT based on the amount of road walking. No thanks! Road walks are boring, hard on the feet, and sometimes dangerous, if on the side of a highway. 

But there is one exception! Road walks can be great if it is a closed (due to snow) Forest Service road and the views are outstanding. I was feeling cooped up and miserable, but the mountains were still covered in snow. The canyon window was closing due to snakes waking up. Where to go? I pondered. It was bear hunting season, so I didn't want to go to Grizzly Ridge or thereabouts. Then I perked up, What about the Hat Point road?

This road leaves steeply out of Imnaha and ends 22 miles later at a fire tower. A number of trails leave off the road, but are only hikeable in summer. There's a couple of scary single lane sections, but for the most part it is eminently driveable.

Except now. I decided I would drive as far as I could and walk as far as I wanted, finding a campsite perched on the rim. Under the guise of dog training, I took Spruce. We drove to the six mile mark, finding a large snowbank and some guys with a horse trailer who obviously weren't from here. They commenced to back down the road, while Spruce and I took off on foot. 

The many snowbanks made me regret my choice of trail runners, but the day was warm and the walking easy. We cruised along the road, finally deciding to turn around at mile 15 and make our way back to a campsite I had eyed for years. I rarely car camp, so I never stayed here, but I always admired its location. The only downside was no water, but there was a nearby snowbank for melting and life was good.

What I love about the canyon country are the wide open sunsets and sunrises, and this area didn't disappoint. Spruce bounded out of the tent at 5 in the morning and I followed suit. We retraced our steps back to the car. The entire trip had been a short 15 hours, but it had been just what I needed.

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Sunday, May 9, 2021

Following the Snake: four days on the Idaho side

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Where do you go when it's snowy everywhere? You head for the river. Spoiler alert, it can still be cold. But Flash and I were longing for a real trail, and last year our planned trip came right at the moment of a stay at home order. (Note, only a few of us actually followed that order.)

Iconic Hells Canyon shot.

We arrived at Pittsburg Landing in a snowstorm/rain which didn't bode well, but being hardy types, we soldiered on. Out goal the first day was a mere 5.5 miles, to the campsites at Kirkwood Ranch. These are civilized sites, with picnic tables and the cleanest bathrooms I've ever encountered. 

We gazed with dismay on a terrifying sight. There were at least 25 tents and twice that many people huddled against a bitter wind. Kirkwood was a big nope. Hoping the trail would provide, we kept going.

About a half mile later, a small beach appeared. A tent was set up on the far end of an adjoining beach, but we managed to find a small site that blocked the wind. We felt lucky to have found it.

The following morning we rallied early to take on the next section, a rocky climb up to Suicide Point, then a rolling hike across the benches of the canyon, remnants of old ranches rusting in the sun. Most people stop at Kirkwood; besides seeing a raft flotilla across the river, we were alone in a vast landscape.

Yard sale at camp 1. Photo by Flash.

The Sheep Creek ranch was deserted; a caretaker is in residence for much of the season and river trips stop there, but it was obvious that nobody had been there since last summer. The campsites were spectacular though, so we decided to stop for the day.  I wandered up the trail that eventually led to Hells Canyon rim, dreaming of other hikes, other days.

On trail. Photo by Flash.

Our objective the next day was a long day hike to Bernard Creek. It is possible to hike past that point, though you may encounter more poison ivy and some brushy conditions. With light packs, we made it to the cabin by mid-morning. It is in a lovely spot, with a creek and a fine back porch for a snack break. An interpretive panel told us about some of the history of this place. A woman lived here with her husband, and would walk to a spot along the river to meet another woman who lived on the other side. They would holler across the river, trying to have a conversation to combat loneliness. People were tougher back then. 

We arrived back at our campsite to a terrifying sight. A group of music-listening guys were setting up a huge camp near the ranch building. Any hope of a peaceful evening was dashed, so we decided to relocate downriver to one of my favorite campsites of all time. It included a brief but amazing river swim.

Kirkwood was deserted as we passed back through. Tempting as it was, we had long drives the next day, so we defaulted to a motel in Grangeville to break it up. There we ate the most expensive pizza in the universe and contemplated our life choices. I've hiked about 1000 miles with Flash, and after a year of isolation, it was reassuring to be back to normal, even if only for a few days. We had covered fifty miles, but had gone way back in time in the canyon. 

Note: So far I am leaving this blog as is, but some complications have arisen. Not only has content been stolen, but in June the "notify by email" feature is going away. Do you get those notices? I'm trying to gauge how disrupting this will be.