Monday, October 12, 2015

forty miles, two days

Back in the day, when I worked at park service visitor centers, people would always come up to ask if something was "worth it." "Is it worth it to hike to the bristlecone pines? Is it worth it to take the tour?" I never knew how to answer them. Of course it's worth it, I wanted to say, but they would look at their watches and say they only had one day to see the entire park. They had to make this day count!

I only worked 35 hours this past week and it was amazing how much time I had to do real things.
Resolutely I closed my email and grabbed my backpack. These days I keep it in a packed state so I can just go. My goal was to get over the other side of the Wallowas, that fabled southern side I rarely visit because it is a day's hike over the passes to get there. (Or a long drive, but who wants to drive three hours to backpack?) The downside of this approach is that, well, it's a long approach. You trudge up, then down, then over a pass, then way, way down into the East Eagle drainage, then you search for awhile for the turnoff to Hidden Lake, which is indeed hidden. After you puzzle for quite some time, give up and just head to the creek and find the remnants of a trail, then you trudge uphill for most of the 2000 feet you have just lost until you reach the lake.

I threw down my pack in the growing dusk. It had taken me seven hours to go perhaps 17 miles. The lake felt like a wild, unknown place, despite the fire rings scattered on its shore. Five elk ran out and into the lake, splashing and drinking. A group of ducks flew over, their wings a loud buzz in the silent woods. It was worth the effort.

The next day I picked my way down from the lake and up another pass to get to familiar country. Two guys were  heading up the pass and had missed the turnoff to Hidden Lake. I told them the landmarks as best I could. They also told me a dog had gone missing on Eagle Cap the day before. Had it fallen, been cliffed out, grabbed by a mountain lion? I tend to feel very comfortable in these mountains. It was a good reminder of what can happen.

Horton Pass
On the pass

Upper Lake

I continued through the lakes basin, encountering a few people in shorts. Shorts! In October! It was a strange time warp. I had been planning to camp out another night but before I knew it I had walked into the Hurricane Creek drainage, only a few miles from home. Might as well keep walking. At the trailhead, my car was not there. It turns out that when you tell someone you won't be out until the next morning, they believe you. No matter, it was only a three mile road walk. When you have already walked twenty miles, what's three more?
The Matterhorn
My computer glared at me from its room. I knew all sorts of work waited, and I would have to work extra to make up for playing hooky. But it was worth it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The highest lake in Oregon

Legore Lake is one of those places you only go when you've forgotten how truly awful the trail was to get there. Gaining four thousand feet in as many miles, it climbs straight up. There's a boulder field to negotiate. But that's not the hard part. What makes this trail a challenge are the eroded pebbles that lurk, just waiting to slip you up. On the way out, I fell three times. T fell once, but she slid off the trail and had to self arrest. That's what it's like getting to the highest lake in Oregon.

This picture doesn't really show the true terror and pitch of the trail, but it does show the Pebbles of Doom.
But you know, it's there, so you have to go. Right?
The trail was used by a miner. This is the remains of one of his cabins. A beautiful view but an arduous approach! People were tougher back then.

You have to commit to the boulder field. Yes, you are going  way up there. The first time I ever hiked up here I encountered two runners. Running this trail? Ha ha ha. No.

And follow a goat trail above the basin:

And finally you are there. A bighorn sheep stood at one of the highest points above the lake, looking down. I liked to think that it was reflectively gazing at the beautiful lake, but it was probably thinking, why are people at my lake?

The lake was super low, a result of both the drought and the fact that huge helicopters dipped out of it for weeks. Kind of sad to see. But the sun was warm, nobody else was around, and another trip on the trail had been survived without serious injury. I won't go back for a few years. Maybe.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Going off trail in Big Sheep country

I used to do a lot of off trail hiking. In the Florida swamp, we often climbed trees to figure out where we were, since it was pancake flat and everything looked the same. In Alaska, we carried aerial photos to find our way in a place with no trails. (If you have ever navigated by aerial photo, you get it. It's not easy!) And as a wilderness ranger I went off trail all the time, following drainages and climbing over saddles to get to hidden lakes. I got pretty good at the off trail stuff.

But one thing I'm just not good at is getting through dense downfall. Some people, like J, are graceful at climbing over downed trees and navigating through snarled thickets. I trailed along in his wake on an exploratory adventure, feeling like an elephant crashing through the woods.

His idea of a good time is finding a long-gone ghost trail on an ancient map and trying to follow it. I had some misgivings, based on past adventures, but in the end I put pants in my day pack (because sometimes, you just have to wear them when the brush gets thick) and hoped for the best. We were heading up the South Fork of Big Sheep, where a trail once went into the basin. For the first two miles we could find the trail pretty well, but after that it vanished in a wet meadow. An elk bugled somewhere near us. There was nobody in sight.

I felt a little grumpy, always a sign I need food. After eating, my enthusiasm came back. We decided to climb to the top of the ridge and see if there was a way to descend to the Tenderfoot Trail. I've only been on Mount Nebo once, and if there is a wild heart to this wilderness, this place is it. Rarely traveled, it is a place of magic.

We negotiated the talus, finding game trails to take us to the top. I learned long ago: follow the deer trails. They pick the easiest way to go.

"Foot prints!" J said in disgust as we descended toward the Tenderfoot trail. Still, we didn't see anyone until our last hour of hiking. A hunter lay out in a meadow, napping in the sun. I'm not fond of the out of county assault that begins in the fall, but it was nice to see someone appreciating the warmth of the October sun like we were.

We came to the parking lot to find several pickups, hunters for sure. Yet we had only seen one person all day. You can spread out here. That's one reason I like it.

I don't go off trail alone that much anymore, not because I'm not capable, but because it's better with someone else to help unravel the puzzle. I was remembering all of my off trail adventures when I noticed J racing down the road to the car. "There's BEER in the car!" he said. I didn't care about the beer, but there were chips in the car! I picked up my pace. It had been a good day.

Do you hike off trail?

Monday, September 28, 2015

eclipsing the sky

The last lunar eclipse I saw was six months ago in San Diego. It was early morning, the day we were to begin our walk through the desert on the PCT. Flash and I were only hiking 110 miles but the rest were beginning their Canada bid. The sight of the moon disappearing seemed like an omen of something big. Now, the people who started on the same day as we did are finishing, congratulations!

It turns out I had a whole canyon to myself. This is one of my favorite places, so big and wild and empty.  I don't tell many people to go here, and the steep uphill hike weeds them out anyway.

I saw J coming down from Sky Lake as I was going up. She was solo too. Which got me thinking. There's been a rash of books/accomplishments about long distance hiking, written by women who are using the trail to heal from something. Me? I just like to hike. I don't expect the trail to do anything for me.

Sky Lake--the perfect place to watch an eclipse
I couldn't resist day hiking up on the pass. Nobody in sight.

In the past, I believe I've been too personal on this blog, which resulted in people who don't know me making assumptions that really did not mirror who I am. I've backed off from sharing too much, but I can say with confidence that the wilderness, while a healing place, is not where I go to fix myself. It's where I go to be disconnected, to hear absolute quiet, to be away from people staring at screens, and to get a good workout. Wilderness lets you take a good long look at yourself and see what needs to be fixed--but it can't fix you.

I crawled in my tent after gnawing on a bagel. The eclipse, over pale mountains, was outstanding. I couldn't get good pictures with my point and shoot, but that's not really the point. I don't need to post it somewhere to remember.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Misadventures at Jewett Lake

I double-timed it up the trail, scattering day hikers in my wake. I was meeting T at Jewett Lake, and I was sure she was there already. With a four day work week, she was able to get out on Friday, and was hiking through instead of out and back. I had aimed for a four day work week, but work obligations changed all that. So here I was, trying to make the most of twenty-four hours in the woods.

Jewett Lake is off trail, and can be a little tricky to find. You ascend a gully and then bank right to another one, then cross a Sound of Music type plateau before dropping in. I've been there a few times, though, so I arrived in record time, plopping down next to T and pulling out my food bag.

My heart sank. What the...? I had forgotten to pack lunch! I had packed a few snacks and dinner, but in my haste to go I had omitted an important item--calories! Wanting to go light, I had not brought a stove, opting for a dinner of tortillas, tuna, cheese, peppers and spinach. I also had: four Oreos, one granola bar, a 100 calorie pack of Goldfish crackers, and a Twix. (I know, not ideal nutrition. Typically I pack better, but in my defense I was in California all week and didn't have time to shop. Thus, the left over fire lunch raid)

I had just had a fruit and veggie smoothie for breakfast and hadn't eaten on the trail. While this wasn't a desperate situation, I knew I'd be hungry. Thoughtfully, I munched on the granola bar and crackers. At least I would be hungry in a beautiful setting.

T had her own difficulties, having run out of stove fuel the day before. I told her about the cold soak method of rehydrating food, and she went off to try it. (It actually works.) After our "dinner", we found ourselves shivering in a cold breeze. Fall was definitely here. I so wish we could have endless alpine summer, but we never do.

We wandered across the lake basin and onto a plateau where I had never been. But finally at seven we had to call it due to cold. We crawled in our respective tents, whipped by wind. The intermittent howl made it hard to sleep. Should we have dropped lower than 8,000 feet? Probably.

Looking down at Aneroid Lake
 The next morning, breakfastless, we stumbled across the plateau. As we descended the gully, I realized that something just did not seem right. This gully was steeper and rockier and was taking way too long. We were in the wrong gully!

Luckily, T has the admirable quality of not getting mad or flustered when things aren't going well. "Here's a game trail," she said. We abandoned the gully and began walking sideslope. "Should we just go downhill?" she asked. I paused. "I just don't know where we are right now," I said, eyeing the slopes around us. Would we have to go back up? I knew it wasn't a desperate situation, but I really didn't want to go back up.

"Look!" T said, She pointed. There was the main trail! How could it be? Then I realized: we had come down a forbidding gully I had often seen on my way to the right turn-off. I had often wondered if it was passable. Now I knew: it was. Sort of.

Hangry, cold, misplaced and sleep-deprived: was it worth it? Of course it was. How could I have passed up this view?

It's the perfect times we remember, but it's the not so perfect ones we laugh about years later. I'll never pack a food bag or pass the gully again without thinking, remember that time....

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Life in a "Crowded" Place

The past two weekends I spent in the Lakes Basin. Much maligned as being too crowded, in fact if you know where to go, it's a lovely slice of heaven. And even if there are people, so what? They are out there enjoying the wilderness, not doing a whole host of awful things that they could be doing. I've changed my views on seeing people in the mountains drastically. When I was a wilderness ranger, I wanted to see nobody. (Probably because I spent my days cleaning up after the less enlightened. There's only so much tin foil you can pick out of a fire pit before you jump the shark.)
Now I am mostly good with seeing people, especially the two dads with their kids. Love it. Yes, there were people perched everywhere, but we found a campsite up on the rocks. Yes, I heard five women approaching, all of whom looked like they could not take another step. I heard one say, "We're just going to have to squeeze in on the rocks." Gah! But they squeezed in next to someone else. Not going to lie, I was glad. But the whole wilderness belongs to everyone. I remembered a night when we were freezing and wet in the  North Cascades, and the couple we had been leapfrogging peered down at our bedraggled selves from a spacious ledge. "This site's pretty small!" they proclaimed, clearly lying. I don't want to be like that.

How much is that doggy in the tent?
And yes, there was the loud group of several who had blatantly pitched enormous tents, lawn chairs, solar showers, and a portable toilet less than 100 feet from the lake, in disregard of the setback rule. Not cool, but there are always a few like that.
View from our campsite.

Despite all the people, the Lakes Basin is a peaceful place. You get the feeling it has seen many bad campers, and good ones, over the years, and still it endures. Crowded? Maybe by Wallowa Mountains standards. I counted five other camps within sound of ours. But everyone was happy and smiling. Who wouldn't want that?

I used to be much more of a purist, but over the decades I have seen that the average age of wilderness visitors is about 40-50 (this is different on thru-trails and perhaps in Colorado with fourteeners). Who will be left once those people are gone? Go out and bring your kids!

Big news: I am holding a copy of my novel! It is slated to be released in November but can be pre-ordered. The salesmanship pitches are saved for my author website, but just in case you want to know more, you can go here:

It's a dream come true.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Trail Crew Dan

Yesterday one of my trail crew buddies from the distant past took a different trail,left the world a smaller and less vibrant place.

I'll always remember him as Trail Crew Dan, although he moved on from our trail days to do other things. I'll never forget sprinting after him, laden down with the cross cut saw and a shovel, determined to stay on his heels. After a creek crossing he turned to me in amazement. "I didn't think you'd be able to keep up with me," he said. I also remember days of playing Hearts, and  his admonishment, "No table talking!" when one of us let slip a remark about our cards.

I had a trail crush on Dan, like I did with all the trail crew guys, but it wasn't a I-want-to-date him kind of crush. It was more a mixture of admiring and respect, because like all the others Dan seemed more alive than most of the rest of the world. He wore a hat that could have been characterized as cowboy, but it worked. He wasn't afraid to talk philosophy on a fireline. Nothing fazed Dan,

Except, melanoma. I wonder when it began; maybe all those high elevation days as we swung pulaskis and shoveled out waterbars with little regard for sunscreen? Dan was an outdoors kind of guy. We never really thought about it much, that the sun we loved could also kill us. But there are other causes too, some genetic, some strange uneasy environmental cause we don't know much about, or just random bad luck.

I didn't keep up with Dan after I left those mountains, but I heard about him, that he married and had kids. I remember when he and his wife first met, saw her hiking in to meet him on the crew. To me, who only had an occasional, ephemeral boyfriend, it seemed like he had taken some giant adult step away from us.

As he has now. I heard about his death in  an airport, impossibly loud, impossibly crowded, and I blinked away the tears. How could our strong, invincible crew be broken? I know it's unrealistic to think that it won't; but Dan, how could  it be Dan, who owned an organic farm? It just isn't fair, like it wasn't with Ken, two years ago, who skied the tall peaks better than any of us ever could. Why not the bad people in the world, the ones who maybe deserved it?

It's not my loss. I wasn't there to see Dan all the years after our time in the mountains. He didn't come to our occasional reunions. But it's still a punch to the heart, because we all shared something wild and real, twenty-somethings doing work we thought of as important and big. Those people were my family, a tribe who understood seasonal work and migration and aching muscles.

Whenever Dan and I faced each other on either end of a misery whip, I knew it would be hard. He was so much stronger than I was, and when there is that imbalance, one person is tempted to push hard  towards the  other, less strong partner. I had been there before, with strong guys determined to prove something. Instead what you want to do is let them pull the saw toward them, but give a slight push as well. It's a delicate balance, a sweet dance, to make the cross cut saw sing. Dan and I could do it. Dan had the patience. Dan had all the time in the world.

Hike on, Dan. I'd be your partner on a misery whip anytime.