Monday, June 29, 2015

Death at Lake Ella

In the seven years I lived in Southeast Alaska, I flew in floatplanes probably a hundred times. I flew to lakes, burdened with rifle, an inflatable raft, and camping gear. I flew to backcountry cabins and to fires. Sometimes we flirted with the minimums, flying just under the cloud ceiling. Once a pilot asked us where we thought we were. Other times we could barely see. When the plane couldn't land and get us, we were stuck out in the wilderness for days. 

I never got scared when we flew. I flew with plenty of white-knucklers who did, though. We were supposed to say when we didn't feel comfortable, when we wanted to turn back, but none of us ever did. On one flight, we all wore our hard hats because our heads kept bumping the ceiling.

I knew planes fell from the sky. I spent days searching for one of them, and we never found anything. The earth or sea had swallowed a DeHavilland Beaver up completely. This was eleven years ago, and nobody has found any trace. I think of the five people sometimes and wonder where they are, and if they will ever go home.

Last week, nine people died on a flightseeing excursion in Misty Fiords National Monument. They were on an Alaskan cruise and had opted to take this trip. People die in Alaska all the time but I was amazed to learn that I knew one of the tourists on board.

Margie was someone I had worked with on a project in Nevada, and I wouldn't say we were friends. We were commiserators in arms, often discussing the challenges of our program. I only met her in person a couple of times, and we talked on the phone a few more. Last year she decided to retire. Then she and her husband boarded a floatplane last week and their lives ended at Lake Ella.

We all go sometime, and maybe to be with the person you love the most, in a wild and beautiful place, is better than lingering in a hospital. We don't really get to choose, although some people do by their lifestyles. What I've learned from this is: don't wait. Not for me, ten more years at a computer; I'll take the considerable penalty and retire from this job in six years. If I could go sooner, I would. You have to take every day and have something great from it. Even if it's just one minute outside in the sun. One walk. One kiss. 



And to lighten the mood: I just spent three days in a vortex! Coming soon, the near escape...

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Unhealthy Obsessions

This looks just like a picture I took, but I had to take this from Wikipedia because all my phone pictures are rotated. Not sure why.


I ran along the Kal Haven trail in Southern Michigan, fuming. I had just been told that I had an unhealthy obsession with fitness and food, and that "bodies change. Embrace your new ass!" The speaker was a long distance friend, one who can be a gem because you never have to check your words and you always know what she is thinking. That can be a gift, especially with women, who tend to hint and get feelings hurt. The flipside is that with friends like these, you get to hear exactly what they think.

Where I'm visiting right now, daily exercise isn't a priority for everyone. I am probably the eccentric relative who years later, it will be recalled, swam halfway around the lake, took numerous walks, and ran on the Kal-Haven trail. At home, I am surrounded by a unique community where seventy year olds shred it on the slopes and people are always talking about their next run or day hike. So it's always an awakening to come to a different place and see that most people don't live that way. It's not wrong, it's just that for me, if I don't exercise six days a week, my body doesn't feel right. 

Obsession? Maybe. I tend to think people call it that when they know they could be doing more, but don't want to. I certainly don't exercise as much as some people I know. I don't run ultras, race across the continent on a bike, or even run marathons anymore. And as far as your body changing as you get older and you should accept it? Nope. Not happening. To me that is not an excuse. If things start to hurt or fail, I can see how that could slow a person down. But because I'm old, I should gain weight? No.

However, it didn't take long for the magical Kal-Haven to make my world right again. This trail is FLAT.It goes from Kalamazoo to Grand Haven, all 34 miles of it, and while I was only running a small part of it (see? so not obsessed), I had forgotten what it was like to run a completely flat trail. And at sea level! So easy! 

I wondered what kind of person I would be if I had met my husband years ago and he was still living here. I wouldn't be a long distance hiker, because those opportunities just don't exist here. Nearly every morning I swam across the lake and back. Would I be a swimmer instead? Would I have kept running marathons? For now it's just dipping into a world that I did not choose.

I came to my turning point, near the town of Bloomingdale, and headed back. As always the act of running made me feel better. Obsessed? Maybe. But I'll take it. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The last place

Sometimes, I think, I should move away. I imagine what it would be like with a real lap pool instead of a glacial lake where we have to don wetsuits, gloves and booties in July. An airport where we don't have to spend two, sometimes four extra days to get to a destination. A grocery store beyond Safeway. More hiking soulmates, the kind who know and stay on that edge between pushing yourself and impossibility. I really, really want more of those.

And yet...

There are days like today. I arrived in a cloud of dust at the Tenderfoot trail head, bound to see how far I could get. There were two cars at the trail head. Two cars, I fumed. Then I had to laugh. I am spoiled. What would it be like to have parking lots completely filled, two hundred people on the trail? Anywhere else, an easy hike like this would be overflowing.

I mean, look:



Where else can you hike to a place like this in four miles and only see four people? (Don't tell anybody!)

I pushed  on to the pass. There was one snow field to cross, and some would have found it sketchy. You fall, you roll a long way. Determination carried me over. Dollar Lake, about a quarter mile off trail, was wonderfully quiet (though scarily low for this early).


I am starting on my seventh year of living in the same town. After this year it will be the longest I have lived anywhere since I was 17. I used to hate the idea of being stuck somewhere.  Wouldn't it be boring? Wouldn't I be boring? Wasn't the point to carpe the diem?

And yet. I am less and less concerned with big goals, with proving anything, with career aspirations. At my mid-year review, my supervisor asked me what my next step was. "Um," I floundered. I know the right answer is a higher grade level, more responsibility, but all I could think was: more desk time, less flexibility, a bigger city. It sounded like a jail sentence. I know that is what people are supposed to want, but I don't. In fact I'd be happy going back to being a wilderness ranger, if I could. That won't pay the bills, though.

I glissaded down the snowfield enroute to the trailhead. For years I moved every six months, then every few years, always thinking I was going to a better place than the one I left. I was good at leaving, good at goodbye. But after six years, I may have found the place I am not going to leave. The last place. It's a good feeling.









Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Sierra Time Warp

As I drove into Sequoia National Park, years and years fell away. I was twenty-six again, decades of possibility ahead, living in a small cabin in the big trees and planting trees for a living. In the long summer evenings, I sat on the Ready Room porch with young men who fought fire. In my mind, nothing could slow us down and we would never grow old.

But here we were all these years later. I met my friends, the ones who never left, for a 12 mile hike. Caught in an afternoon thunderstorm pattern, the Sierra is nevertheless desperately dry, and we found only a sprinkle of snow at Pear Lake, 9200 feet. As we hiked we remembered, and things I had forgotten came flooding back. How had it been so long ago? And why is it that the friends you make in your twenties seem to be the most true?

Marble Falls, in the foothills. I hiked through poison oak and didn't get it! There's hope. people.

Granite climbing at Pear Lake. 
I ventured over to where my cabin used to stand. Here was where I impressed the tree climbing crew with my prowess in splitting firewood. Here was where I met the firefighter who would go on to smoke jump and later, break my heart, but also who opened my eyes to fighting fire in Florida, a rich chapter in my life. My cabin is gone now, replaced by the "John Muir Lodge." Tourists swirled everywhere, and to escape them I drove down to Cedar Grove and hiked 13 miles before noon. The backcountry was strangely empty, a contrast to the tourist roadside stops.
Mist Falls was very misty!

After that I went to where the hotshot crew used to live, where my friend still works as a cook. It's different there too, only a handful of the crew living on site, where all 20 used to stay. They all have families now, when it used to be footloose guys following fire across the country.

My friends debated as to whether this was a foxtail or a western white pine. I just thought it was cool.

 I was only in the Sierra for two summers, but don't you always remember the places where your life changed its trajectory? This was one of those places for me. Seeing my friends, I also saw the path not taken.

9200 feet and barely any snow.
I almost expected to see the girl I was in the mirror. Instead there I was, an older woman now. That's how powerful a time warp these places can be. I think sometimes about the alternate paths I could have taken. I know there is no such thing as parallel lives, but sometimes I imagine other versions of me out there living in them. One of these would surely be in the Sierra.


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Town Characters

"Hey True Believer!" a man yelled as he entered the gym. I didn't really know him--he often was there and once commented on the heftiness of the dumbbells I was curling, but apparently now I had a "gym name". Are those similar to trail names?

I think it's true that every town has their characters. In small towns of a thousand people or less, they are just more obvious. For better or worse, you can't escape the people you don't want to see, and if you do want to see someone, all you have to do is ask: "Hey, have you seen Peter lately?" or, better yet, go to the moraine, that's where he will be, because other people have told you so.

This town has its share of interesting people. When I first moved here, I was cornered in the Safeway by a large man who without preamble told me that I needed to move in with him up the Lostine Canyon. (Later, friends told me, "Well, he DOES have really nice property up there.") In the same Safeway the other day, a woman behind me in line gave me her opinion of Caitlyn Jenner, unprompted: "I think being with the Kardashians made  him crazy. He would be normal if it weren't for them." Unable to escape, I silently willed the cashier to hurry while trying to politely disagree without causing a fist fight.

There's the mysterious man I call (secretly) Blackwater, because he apparently is independently wealthy and once mentioned he had worked in the Middle East, but reveals little of his background. There's the gypsy who hasn't had a job in ten years but travels all over the world. How does he do it? I don't know, but it isn't something you ask.

You can't really be nosy in a small town. You have to let the years slowly let you know about people. After all, you have to live with them in a small space. You might need them someday. It is easy to inadvertently offend--a woman I knew and liked abruptly unfriended me on Facebook and won't talk to me again after I posted that I heard wolves howling. "Anyone who is a wolf lover, unfriend me now," she posted. Who knew?

At work I can time my day by when a) Big Guy with Tiny Dog walks by (about 0900); Slow Walking Lady with Jack Russell strolls by (1000), Cowboy Hat Man with grocery bag (about noon) and Tony running in homemade moccasins (anytime between 1100-1200). Apparently I look out the window a lot! But there's always the occasional surprise, like someone riding a horse down the street. The small town characters are like that, a little dash of spice in an ordinary day.

I'm not a character, but after a few years in a town you get a reputation that sticks. The first two questions people ask me when they see me are these:

  • "Where have you been hiking?"
  • "How's the writing going?"
Now that I think about it, maybe I am a version of a small town character. I'm the outdoor obsessed writer, always off on a trail somewhere. I'm sure people think that's a little strange, as well as the fact that my husband and I have two houses and don't do every little thing together. That's okay though. It's better than being boring.

Do you have small town characters?
What two questions do people always ask you?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

On a mission

We don't have much of a spring here. It snows and is freezing and you are never without your puffy jacket and then boom! Seventy degrees. I often feel like I've missed a few weeks somewhere. Shouldn't there be a transition?

Unfortunately there is no good source of information to find out what's open, if you can cross the rivers yet, if the snowfields hide the trails. The Forest Service, bless their heart, just doesn't do a good job of posting information. Ask a local and a blank stare will ensue; most of them aren't avid hikers. There's a lot more lawn mowing going on here on weekends than there is backpacking. There are a few long distance trail runners, which if you saw these trails, you know it's a lot of fast walking with running intermixed. You can ask them, if you can catch them. But it's usually up to me to do my own scouting.

I knew that the hike to Ice Lake could be treacherous, buried in snow. I've had to turn back well below the last waterfall, foiled by waist deep snow. But I had a rare Friday off (from working many many hours) so I decided to try it. It's a 16 mile round trip, so I set off early, encountering a foursome of backpackers who optimistically declared they were going to Mirror Lake. Oh you poor things, I wanted to say. Mirror was surely shrouded deep in snow. But let them discover on their own--I think people have been way too reliant on being fed information these days. These trails, you cannot Google.

I climbed up the switchbacks feeling good. Birds chirped and long green grass was growing in profusion in last year's fire area. This time of year is just so full of possibility. The whole summer stretches out, seeming endless. It's easy to make grandiose plans thinking there is way more time available than there is.

Never seen this falls so big!
The moment of truth arrived as I hit the avalanche basin. Snow typically lingers in the trees above, but looking I saw none. My mind fizzed with excitement. I might really reach the lake.

In the last half mile, I trudged across several snowfields that could normally spell disaster--outsloped as they were, if the snow was icy or too soft, it could mean a painful slide or postholing hell. However, conditions were perfect. I kicked steps across and barely sunk in. And there it was, Ice Lake.


This is one of my favorite lakes, but in summer it's not a place to hang out too long. Because it's only eight miles from the trailhead, it's often crowded (to me more than one other camping party is crowded; but you can sometimes have 5 or more parties here. That's too many!). People trail run it. They climb the grey mountain (the Matterhorn). It's just too...easy. But this time of year? Yes!

As usual, day hiking leaves me with a little bit of dissatisfaction. I really want to stay, to sleep out and wake up in a pretty place. It means that both of my days off aren't wasted--because even though I know what this sounds like, just hanging around the house and doing chores on my day off? Not great. But I was on a scouting mission, so I had to go back down. I raced the storm down the switchbacks. Then it was time to eat all the food. Being a scout is a fine life. I wish I could do it full time.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Nature's Obstacle Course

Six Mile Meadow is in fact quite beautiful in spring.
 Randomly I ran into a friend at a party. "We're doing a John Muir Trail shakedown trip tomorrow," she said. "Want to come?"

I had my heart set on getting into Hells Canyon. The window is closing there--soon it will be too hot, abandoned to the rattlesnakes. The friends I had planned this trip with had bailed but I was going to go solo. Because let's face it, solo can be easier. It takes only 30 seconds to make a decision instead of a debate. You can go as far or as fast as you want to go. And besides they were going to Six Mile Meadow. I had been there many times. But on the other hand, friends! I changed my plans, hastily throwing out the warm weather gear and substituting a stove and wool hat.

Six Mile Meadow, as is expected, is six miles in, a fairly easy hike. I planned to meet the others there, since I had a goal in mind: Horseshoe Lake. I wanted to see how far I could get towards the lake, although I had no expectations of getting there. Last year at this time the lake was still encased in ice and the trail was buried in snow. I got to the meadow in just over two hours and wandered around looking for the perfect campsite. Then I grabbed my pack and headed over to the river.
Still a lot of snow in those hills.
The first obstacle, the multiple river crossings, went fine. There would be no wading--the river was high and deep. I crawled across a skinny log, looking ridiculous, because, safety first. As I headed up the trail, I found an obstacle course: 47 trees across the trail (yes, my trail crew days, I count them), forcing me to crawl under, over, and around. It was like an outdoors gym. A less determined person would have turned around. But I was determined.

\But where was the snow? It was nowhere to be found. I was amazed to break out onto the lake's shore.

The earliest the lake has been ice free? Locals say so.


You could camp here. If you have the patience to deal with the fallen trees.

Icy winds reminded me that it was still spring, summer a few weeks off. I sprinted down the trail to arrive at the meadow just as my friends showed up. We sat in the meadow in the sun eating Fritos (don't judge). That night the meadow frosted and our tents were thick with dew. The sun didn't clear the ridge early enough so we stuffed wet gear in our packs and set off to deal with the 25 fallen trees on this stretch of trail. We leapt across small streams, sloshed through mud, and crawled under fallen logs. Trails here will never be easy. Wilderness rules dictate that no chainsaws will be used. But Congress allocates less and less money every year. The three seasonal workers that the agency can afford to hire for 70 days each can't keep up. Maybe like in the canyon, these trails will disappear too. I wish more people who used trails would spend a weekend a year helping to clear them instead of complaining.

My friends and I peered up the Ice Lake trail, trying to judge the snow depth. "Maybe next weekend?" I ask. We talk about calling in sick today and going for it. "I have Fig Newtons," one of us says. In the end we are responsible and head down the trail. There are plenty more days to come, at least as far as we know.