Monday, October 20, 2014

I think I was in Albuquerque

At least, that's what my travel documents say. I mostly saw the inside of conference rooms. Work travel, when you don't have a car with you, can be challenging. I feel uneasy without a stockpile of food nearby, and I always make sure there's a hotel gym, if I can't run outside. You don't really want to run outside in downtown ABQ, by the way, unless you enjoy panhandlers and overall sketchiness.

So these things happened:

1. A lady in the gift store told me her life story as I tried to edge away with my chocolate, ranging from weight problems to a career change. She was nice but she was standing between me and my chocolate!

2. I discovered the interesting machine that is a Spin bike. Three of us spun along to nowhere, accompanied by Ebola TV. (Spin bikes are kind of fun actually. I like standing up).

3. I saw a man in a kilt, another one whose fashion accessory was a bandanna tied around his head, and various very, very short skirts on millennials. Not entirely conference attire, but to each his own.


5.  Two different people said I looked like someone they knew, and two others thought I was my sister. (I get people saying I look like someone they know a lot. Do you? It's weird. It has happened all my life).

6. I SIGNED MY BOOK CONTRACT!!!!!!!!! Yes, I am getting a novel published by a REAL PUBLISHER. (more on this later). Psst:  published writers! I need to put your names down for copies to be sent to you! If you don't like it, you don't have to review it or blurb it, I just need names now, before November 1! Message me and I will....will...send you cookies!

7. I found out that my ex's long term girlfriend has MY SAME LAST NAME. Which is not common. And kind of creepy.

8. I got lost in the hotel twice and had to follow a creepy labyrinth out to the lobby. Seriously. Who locks all the stair doors so you can't climb the stairs?

9. As I was giving my presentation, a marathon was being held on the street below. I snuck some glances at the people running. I don't pay to run, but it was inspiring to see the different shapes and sizes struggling along out there. Also, lots of cheering which I pretended was for my presentation.

10. I won a Deuter day pack at the silent auction for $70! Score!

What are some things that happened in your world this week? Please comment! I love comments!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Just me (and a few gutpiles)

It's fall now, no denying it, and the backpackers have disappeared. Where are they? Probably at home, doing other stuff. After all, it gets dark way early now. It snows, sometimes. You have to totally abandon the ultra light idea and go heavyweight, with down booties, a real tent, snow stakes.

Which reminds me! Guess what, guys! If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know that I am a habitual gear forgetter. But I haven't forgotten anything in a long time. Until my Elkhorn Crest trip, where I forgot my spork. "Darn," I groaned, looking around for a stick to carve. But then my eyes lit REI snow stake! Guess what, it's perfect! Kind of like a big chopstick! So the uses I have identified for this item now are: emergency eating utensil, cat hole digging implement, vampire killer, and, I guess, staking your tent.

Digression alert! But back to the empty woods. They're not quite empty. This week I hiked to Ice Lake, a place that gets hammered in summer. Sitting by the lake, I mused: I'm all alone here. Then two shots rang out from the basin below. All alone except for a gutpile, actually.

Ice Lake
 The hunters here don't camp much. They silently appear from the bushes in camo when I least expect them. They regard me curiously. "Going for a day hike?" one asked as I hiked uphill with a pack of hugeness, full of four liters of water for a dry camp. If that's my day pack, I thought to myself, I'd hate to see my overnight one. But they're all very nice, and don't seem to shoot wildly, unlike other states I've hiked in (I'm looking at you, Idaho). You know, if people make the effort to hike, I have to appreciate that, even if they are out there for other reasons than I am.

The animals have vanished too. It's like they know. And there's just a different feeling out there now. You can't swim in the lakes anymore unless you like hypothermia. You have to hike in pants. And  you know, you just know, that snow is around the corner.

The skiers are running around all wild-eyed, even though they know that a full snow cover won't be possible for months. Us backpackers don't get a lot of sympathy, because the skiers have suffered through an impossibly warm and dry summer that came pretty early.

I'm still hoping to get a couple more nights out before winter sets in (I'm up to #44). I'll snuggle in my zero bag, with snow stake in hand, a good book to read, and hours to go before daylight. It's hibernation camping, and it's all right.
This thing is awesome. Really.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Men in the woods

The pudgy hunters trudged up the slope, looking winded. "Looking for deer?" my hiking partner called. "The four-legged kind," the leader of the pack responded with a wink.

Har, Har, Har.

Standing a little too close to her to "point out our route", he said, "You two are the best looking things we've seen out here!"


As soon as it would not be considered rude, we hiked on. I thought: a lonely hunter, thinking he is funnier and more handsome than he really is. Harmless. Happens every day.

Hours later I sat with my hiking partner at camp. We were the only ones at this "seldom visited" (according to our slightly inaccurate guidebook) lake. The hunters were far from my mind when she expressed a concern that they might show up. We had told them where we were going, after all. "They could never make it here, and they would have to use headlamps," I said, but I wondered. This isn't the first time I've noticed a fear of people in the woods from other companions that I don't share.

Two years ago a friendly man gave my friends and me directions to a "hidden cabin". I was ahead of my hiking buddies and they saw him walking out of the trail but no sign of me (he was already on his way out when I hiked in, but they didn't know that). "We thought you were murdered!" they joked (I think), but I was left with the impression that they thought hiking in alone was a bad choice. In other conversations I've had with friends, they seem way more worried about men in the woods than I do.

In the real world, I'm not always a trusting person. I've been burned often enough to know that many people operate in their own self-interest. The world is all about them, and you are only a moon circling their planet. I do not linger in places where wilderness and civilization meet. But in wilderness? I have the perhaps bad habit of thinking that all people are good. As if being outside in the trees somehow paints everyone with a magic brush, covering up all of their flaws and potential deviousness.

I would hate to start thinking otherwise. The wilderness is one place where I can let my guard down, at least with people. We stand on the trails, sharing maps and information about the route to come. Sometimes we meet as kindred souls and camp together for many nights. People have given me camp fuel, a stove, and cookies. They've shown me really, really cool lakes and routes I never would have tried otherwise. Other times we become friendly for life, such as a chance encounter on Mount Thielsen with another climber. I don't want to scurry through the woods the way I think I sometimes scurry through life, looking out for intruders.

I've been through enough that I won't ever adopt the Pollyanna, Facebook poster mentality of "everyone's so wonderful". I know differently. I still hide my camp when I'm alone, and I don't usually tell other people where I plan to go. I don't pack a gun on a hike with four other friends like some women do, but I do carry bear spray (much more effective and less life-changing). But I will always be more afraid of bears than of people in the wilderness. Do murderers backpack? Probably. But the chances are slim. I want to believe otherwise, and so I do.

I think I sometimes have this at night instead:


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Thru-hiking the Elkhorn Crest National Recreation Trail

There are more mountain goats than people on the Elkhorn Crest Trail. We hiked in glorious solitude at 8,000 feet, only encountering a few lonely deer hunters and a phone from which you could apparently call God (no answer, alas).

For some reason summer returned this weekend, and we caged a shuttle from only a slightly put out friend to Marble Pass (near Baker City, Oregon). From here the trail rollercoasters along for 23 miles and ends at the Anthony Lakes ski area. We started late on day one, so only hiked four miles to the junction with Twin Lakes, which we reached by a steep mile long trail. There's only one water source along the entire Crest Trail, so most hikers drop off the top to camp at the lakes along the way.

The next day we hiked about 13 miles, taking a side trip to camp at Summit Lake, once again the only people in the entire place. Along the way we passed more goats, more lonely hunters, and big views from saddles and passes.

Summit Lake, surrounded by new trees as well as silver snags from a 1990s fire.
I finally have met my match with early rising, when before six the next day I peeked out from my tent to see my companion's headlamp in motion. We quickly hiked the last twelve miles, passing above beautiful Lost Lake and through a gap in the rocks called Nip and Tuck Pass. In total we hiked 28 miles, most of it completely alone. 

Cracker Creek, the only water source on the crest.

Lost Lake
Above Lost Lake we fantasized about calling in sick and staying out one more day. But as all thru hikers know, the trail ends one day and you go back to "real" life. Our trail was 23 miles, not 2,660, but we still felt like we had accomplished something as we stuffed our faces with pepperoni and crackers on the drive home.

The Elkhorn Crest trail can be reached by many side trails. The drive up to Marble Pass is, in one word, awful. The better approach would be to drive up another route (from Phillips Reservoir). There's not a lot of info on this trail, but if you google it you will find some older trip reports. It's definitely worth the effort. Bring enough water capacity for three liters, maybe more in summer, although snow lingers for a long time up here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Fire and Snow on Sacajawea Peak

I paused, three quarters of the way up Sacajawea Peak, at nearly 10,000 feet the highest point in the Wallowa Mountains. The mountain's shoulder was exposed to the darkening sky. A skinny trail snaked upwards, talus-covered and slippery. As I watched, fog rolled in like cotton, and snow began to spit from the clouds. I thought of the hour and a half descent waiting.

Going up is easy for me. Going down is not. Scree is  my nemesis. I could climb uphill all day. But descending wrapped in fog on a faint trail? Ball-bearing rocks under my feet? It was time to call it.

I don't really care about ascending to high points. I've never aspired to mountain climb. I'd rather hike to a lake, or along a river. I had wanted to climb Sac mainly to scout out the best way to a hidden lake called Hawk, and to see if there was a better way to another one called Deadman. Sometimes you have to get high to see the pieces of the puzzle.

As I descended, smoke rose through the trees below me. I'm camping in a basin that's still on fire, I thought, and laughed, because that isn't dangerous to me, not the way it was burning, not dangerous in the way the peak was. Most people would choose the talus over the fire.

Loose stones rolled under my shoes, causing me to slip and fall. This is not fun, I thought. Just get down.

I came to Thorp Creek Basin to see what had happened after the wildfire. Turns out it is still burning, flames moving through green pockets. It'll burn until the big snow. There are places that have been totally nuked, dead trees burned black, a carpet of golden needles, and other places where the fire skipped and hopped around without much reason. In the end, it'll be good for the basin. It was crowded like pre-brac54es teeth. This fire cleared things out. There will be more open spaces, more room for little trees to grow.

Climbing the peak was just an afterthought, because it was cold and I had time on my hands before it got dark. It's fall now, and the lazy days of reading and lake swimming are gone. Instead, in fall, I explore.

The basin was deserted. Light snow covered the peak the next morning as I packed up and hurried through the dead trees, trusting they would remain standing. Two people were camped at the river, and they looked upward at the sky. They were going to try to attempt the summit, they said, but if it was too slippery with new snow, or too cloudy, they would turn back.

"There's flames just ahead of you," I said. "Don't freak out." And I headed down the trail. Maybe most people would care that they didn't make the summit, would be planning a return. If I go back, I might try it again. Or I might climb it the easier way, from Ice Lake. Either way, I'm not holding on to the idea.

It rained for the next two days. Fresh snow showed up. The summit days might be over, but I bet the fire is still burning.
Looking into the basin. You can see the burned areas and maybe some smoke.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

How to Stay Dry While Backpacking in the Rain

1. Stay home.

Heh, heh.

Just kidding! So this weekend looks shifty, with a 40% chance of showers. In Alaska, a 40% chance meant a nice day. Here--not so much. It could go either way. I refresh, click on the little patch of land where I want to go, and debate. Stay or go? In the end I will probably go, because SNOW is forecast by Monday. Snow! The horror!

Over the years I've tried, discarded, and tried again various ways of dealing with rain on backpacking trips. For day hikes, or long runs, or even kayak trips, this isn't an issue. But backpacking? It can ruin an entire trip if you get your essential stuff wet. Here are some tips I picked up along the way.

1. Trash compactor bag to line your backpack. The best thing ever. Yes, it means you can't pack as efficiently in all the corners, but it keeps everything amazingly dry.

2. Dry bag for your sleeping bag. Okay this might be overkill, but if you get your bag wet, you will at the least have a miserable night. I've had it happen, so I use either a compression sack lined with a regular trash bag or one of those super light dry sacks you can buy now--not the rubber ones you use for rafting. If you use a trash compactor bag you probably don't need this, but you pack your fears, and that's mine.

3. Pack rain covers--a mixed bag. I used to swear by these. Until I was in a big rainstorm on Muir Pass. The way most pack covers are constructed, they wrap around the bottom of your pack. And what happens? Water collects in the bottom and seeps into your bag! Some of them have drain holes, Not always reliable. I'm not a fan anymore, but sometimes you don't want the outside of your pack drenched. I use mine, but with #1 and #2, it helps. However, this summer I did find that water seeped through and wet the outside of my trash compactor bag. So beware with pack covers. Some people wear the poncho/pack cover contraption; I choose not to, because I don't always want to wear a poncho. Plus, wind gusts.

4. Set up your tent under a tree and move it to the spot you want. I know, basic, right? But I struggled for years frantically setting up the tent with rain pouring in. If you carry a free-standing tent, you can pitch it under cover and then happily carry it to where the campsite is. If you feel like carrying the weight, pitching a tarp over your tent rules! You can get out, stretch luxuriously, and smugly change into your hiking clothes with a dry tent next to you. Be sure you know how to set up a tarp--it is a lost art. One tip: be the happy guy! Nobody likes a whiner!

5. Sleep with wet clothes under your sleeping pad. Strangely enough, this actually works. They might not dry all the way, but they do dry some, better than if you try to hang them in your tent (hello, smelly, drippy socks) or put them in your bag (dampness seeps into your bag).

6. Tents don't always have to be in their stuff sacks. When I pack up a wet tent, I stuff it in the mesh pocket outside of the backpack. If I didn't have a mesh pocket, I would strap it on the outside, to avoid getting everything else wet because...

7. I feel a yard sale coming on! The first chance you get, when the sun comes out, throw everything onto the (hopefully dry) bushes. I don't tend to hang around camp waiting for things to dry. I hike on and wait for that opportune moment. Getting stuff dry the next day before it rains again is essential. Try the trekking pole method of drying socks--stick the pole  in the ground and stick the socks on the poles. You can drape underwear over branches--just don't hike on and forget it!

8. Sleep socks/long underwear I keep in with my sleeping bag. That way I know I always have a dry set of clothes to change into.

9. Don't go too crazy on the dry stuff sacks--it makes your pack too hard to pack efficiently. But you do want your electronics (camera, phone if you carry one, GPS etc) to stay dry. You really don't need to invest in fancy pants bags. Ziplocks work fine. For your bear bag--you can line it with a garbage bag or use a dry sack like I do. Don't sleep with your food. Don't. Sleep. With. Your. Food. I know, I know, some of you ALWAYS sleep with it and no bear has gotten it. I worked in the Sierras prior to the bear canister rule. I remember the rocks stacked outside our tents as bears prowled outside. I remember the charges! Don't sleep with your food!

10. If all else fails, embrace the brutality. Your shoes are going to be wet. Your socks are going to be soaked. Keep your sleeping bag and your sleep clothes dry and you will be fine. There's a whole array of rain gear out there--don't be cheap. Someone may chime in and talk about umbrellas. People love their umbrellas. Hey--maybe I will take one this weekend.

Any other tips out there?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

paddler's box

Years ago, when I was a different person: We paddled through air thick enough to taste, the combined smell of kelp and salt mixing with low-lying fog until it was a musky soup. There were five of us in long fiberglass kayaks, following Eric the instructor on a compass bearing. Town had been swallowed by fog and we drifted in the wide sea.

a rare sunny day in Alaska
As we moved like ghosts, the only sound the dip of our paddles and the distant clang of the Eastern Channel buoy, Eric showed us the paddler's box. The box isn't a real one; it's an imaginary set of lines where you keep your body as you paddle. You can always tell who has learned this and who has not. In the paddler's box, you flow in an unceasing rhythm; no flailing arms. You are part of your boat.

There are some things you can't forget, and I have never forgotten the paddler's box. I miss the sea and the little islands, the otters and the whales, the limitless possibilities of escape from a rain-soaked island and all of my bad choices. Paddling in Alaska kept me sane. I don't need to escape now, but I still kayak, though it is limited now to the lake. It's better than nothing, I tell myself, as I launch on a pane of glass, unspoiled by later motorboats.

People don't stir that early here, except for the ranchers, who are off doing important rancher things, no time for self-indulgent exercise in a pink boat. It's nearly as good as the Gulf, not quite, but I will take it. I circumnavigate the whole lake, past the summer homes, past the invisible line where I swim when it is warmer. It takes about two hours, and I don't wear a dry suit, don't carry a beacon.

Eric shot himself on one of those fall days when the rain seems interminable and the waves kept us on the beach. Like all tragedies, it lacks definition, cannot be placed in a neat box. The rest of us kept kayaking, wondering, remembering his lessons.

It is a day far from the rainy isolation of Alaska as I round the shore for home. It's familiar, and I still struggle with the familiar=boring. I suspect I always will, though I've learned to appreciate learned surroundings more, the longer I stay here.