Friday, September 21, 2018

Swimming outside the lines

I step into Mill Lake, expecting to feel the cold bite of glacial water. But I've forgotten: I'm not in an alpine lake. I'm in southern Michigan, on a small inland body of water. I

I swim and I swim. I swim across the lake, aiming for the white lawn chairs of the Chicago people's house across from our cottage. I turn and aim back toward the float plane on the other side. Unlike where I live, I can stay in the water.

It's like that here, a gentler side to life that I've forgotten. It seems easy here, a September without nights of frost or hint of snow, a season where I usually have to carry a puffy jacket wherever I go. Not here. Life feels easy here, without an edge.

Of course I'm wrong. Winter is coming and lake swimming won't be possible. I'll be gone by then. But for now I swim farther than I ever have, outside of a pool confines.  This is why travel is good. You step out of your bubble.
Plus, you do things you never thought you could. Like swim farther than you ever have.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Hiking to the sky

The stars aligned this summer. Unlike the rest of the West, we remained smoke-free. No big fires loomed over us. Thunderstorms were minimal. Day after bright sunny day dawned. While too many of them were spent at work, there were still endless possibilities on weekends. It was also the perfect mix of solo and togetherness. I had worried a little when a long term hiking partner had broken up with me--was there something deeply wrong with me? But I quickly found a group of great friends to hike with.  Sometimes you have to let things go and not know the answers why.

I've hiked the trail to Legore Lake a few times in the past nine years. Each time I wonder why I do it. It gains 4,500 feet in four miles, and they aren't any easy four miles. They consist of a) steep, eroded pebbles; b) a steep boulder field; and c) an uneasy scramble up a talus slope. I wouldn't have done it at all unless a friend was going too. So upward I slogged, hoping for a good outcome.

This trail is one that the tourists generally don't attempt. T and I catalog our many falls along it. "I'm on an every other year cycle," she confided. "Enough time to forget the pain but remember the joy." There's something wise in that somewhere.

I started out before the 30 year olds, certain they would catch up to me, but they didn't. We encountered each other at 9,000 feet, a few dark clouds whipping by, too cold to swim. We were overlooking the highest lake in Oregon. When I first arrived, a bighorn sheep and baby were drinking from the outlet stream. The answer to crowded trails is to find harder ones.

There's something both marvelous and ominous about being at such a high elevation. You are acutely aware of how close you are to the sky. You feel the breath being exchanged between the canyon below and the lake above: cold air sinking, warm air rising. It doesn't feel like a place you are meant to stay long.

So I didn't, heading back to the hardest part of the route: the descent. The 30 year olds didn't have trekking poles, to my deep amazement. But then, when I was 30, I didn't use them either. I slipped and slid down the goat trail and through the boulder field. Even Ruby whined a time or two there.

Before too long, though, we were hurtling downhill, bound for saner elevations. I'll be back--maybe in another couple of years.

I'm sad summer is ending; it's been so perfect. I can't say there is anything different I would have done with this one. I did just about everything I wanted to do. I guess that's a good way to end it.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

when your town gets discovered

Granted, it was Labor Day weekend. But we shook our heads in disbelief as we were forced to park a quarter mile away from the trailhead. I am not considered a local after only nine years here, but I feel safe in saying I have never seen so many cars at the trailheads as this summer.

It's a balance I struggle to find. On one hand, I love that people are enjoying the wilderness. But. There are areas I have to avoid now if I want to be alone, trails I have to give up on for a lot of the summer. And the people who are coming from urban areas, while mostly nice, occasionally expect things we are not used to doing. A group snarled at us for not having our dogs on leashes, even though our dogs were sitting calmly next to us. Trail runners expect us to leap out of the way for them, even if we are the ones going uphill and they are coming down. My favorite campsites are often taken. It's hard to adapt to all of this. Plus, where is everyone pooping? (I admit to a certain obsession about this).

Clear water of the Lostine River
"Maybe we should pick a different weekend for our camping trip," L said as we hiked toward Blue Hole. This camp-out had been happening for thirty years. But the campground, once our sole property, was crowded with others. We couldn't even stop at the Blue Hole, a deep swimming hole, because it was packed with people, llamas, and goats.

On a day hike to another lake, it was the first time I had been glad to be leaving rather than staying. An endless tide of backpackers rolled by. Two guys flagged us down looking for fuel, and were visibly upset when we said they would have plenty of company.  There were more people than campsites.

The calm before the storm

We aren't at the level of a Sawtooths, or Bend, or Rocky Mountains National Park. And having lived in a place where massive cruise ships disgorged thousands each day, I admit I may be a bit spoiled by insisting it's busy here. The week after Labor Day, I climbed to a lake devoid of any people. For the most part my 19 mile loop was empty. But for me and others in town, there's a growing uneasiness about all the publicity we have had lately. As it is, you can't find a house with a few acres for less than half a million dollars now. A house I looked at in 2009 that was listed for $289,000 is now listed for almost 500. If you want to rent, you need to haunt the real estate offices for months, ending up paying over a thousand a month for an apartment. Things are definitely changing.

On the plus side, it's a long, long drive to an airport. The winters chase people out. We don't have a movie theater or a pool, and if you want night life, you'd better be prepared to end it by nine at night, when the streets roll up. It's still quiet, even in town. Maybe the thrill will be gone soon, people off to discover new spots.

In the end, I guess I'd rather live in a place people want to come to, not one they can't wait to leave (been there). I just wish it wasn't so concentrated in about a two month span. So if you come here, please don't snarl at the locals. And dig a good cathole.

The only person at Blue Lake!

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Oregon section F (partial); to Santiam Pass, Day 2-2.25

Part of the trouble of camping near water is the inevitable condensation that occurs. As I stuffed a damp bag into my pack, I glanced over at the two thru-hikers who had cowboy camped within steps of the river. They had to be totally soaked. Bad life choices, I thought.

As is typical, I left camp before anyone else was even awake. I don't know how this happens, but it's impossible to me to sleep in, ever. Might as well get moving!

The trail meandered through a restricted camping area, where you need special permits. One of these was Shale "Lake", which in better times probably is really a lake. Now it's a stagnant puddle. Glad I hadn't made the effort to get a permit for that place, I continued on, spotting several intriguing lakes far below. A dog barked from the depths of the canyon, although I couldn't see any tents. A mystery.

The cool air that had blown out the smoke made for good hiking, but not for good lingering at breaks.  A few thru-hikers passed going north, bundled in hats and looking miserable. At almost 20 miles,  I turned the corner to encounter a tall man with an unusual belt--one I recognized.

"Um, are you a smokejumper?" I asked.

He looked puzzled. "Well, I was one. How did you know?"

"Your belt." Yep Yep was wearing an airlock belt buckle, one that smokejumpers use from old gear. We hiked along together for a little while, talking about the old days of firefighting. We hadn't overlapped--he had jumped in the 1970s and mid 1980s--but we knew a few common names. The trail is a strange and magical place, where you meet people you never would otherwise.

As the trail wound up over Three Fingered Jack, YepYep decided to go on ahead while I sat in the sun. At that point there were only seven miles to the trailhead. It seemed foolish to stop and camp; it was only 3:30. But then I found a perfect spot; it was foolish not to stop. With 21 miles done for the day, why not?

I've never had a lot of patience with people who say they get bored in camp; these are the same people who have to be doing something every minute and can't just be still. There is so much to do in camp. You can watch mountain goats:

You can read a book. You can look at your maps. You can explore your small stretch of real estate. I never get bored in camp. But I am pretty self-entertaining, a skill that I fear is being lost, even by me sometimes. So, it's always good to get practice in doing nothing.

The next morning I woke in a cloud. Stuffing a wet tent in the mesh pocket of my backpack, I threw on rain gear that I hadn't worn in months and headed down the trail. It felt like nobody else was out there in the fog, until I saw my good friend A headed in my direction.

Foggy morning on the PCT

She had come to provide me with a sign of celebration--almost finishing the Oregon section of the PCT.
The pesky Ashland to Crater Lake section remains. It seems to either be mosquito hell, on fire, or choked in smoke. Someday it will be mine. For now, a minor 350 miles remains on my PCT journey.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Oregon Section F (partial): Olallie Lake to Santiam Pass, Day 1

Trail angel Uberducky stopped the truck where the pavement ended, just as he had declared he would. It was still an eight mile hike to the PCT trailhead, but he didn't want to negotiate the potholed gravel. Reluctantly I embarked on the road walk. Road walks are the worst, because they don't count. I added up mileage in my head. If I had to walk all the way, this would increase this small section's mileage to 53. Still doable in two days, but not easy.

After I had walked two miles, a car pulled up. "Need a ride to the trail?" the people inside asked. Success and I hadn't even had to hitchhike! This trip was getting off to a good start.

This 45 mile section of the Mount Jefferson Wilderness was closed last year due to the Whitewater fire, and I seized the opportunity to hike it when I was in Bend for work. During the workweek, my co-workers and I stared glumly at the brown sky and checked the air quality index: unhealthy. Foolishly I ran in the mornings, passing other obsessed souls. This condition was prevalent last year, too. I feel like some areas of the West are basically becoming uninhabitable.

But by some miracle, by Friday the stars aligned. A brisk cold front swept the smoke away. I trotted along the trail feeling exuberant. There is just something about this ribbon of trail that does it for me. I am at the point where I am counting down the miles left instead of counting up. After this section, I would have only 350 left.

I passed numerous small lakes, taking a lunch break at a windswept View Lake. Waves of northbound thru-hikers passed, all smiles because of the improved air quality. With about six hundred miles to go, they are on the homeward stretch, but they also know they need to beat feet to get to Canada before the snow sets in.

Lunch spot

And it feels like fall. Though the lakes were beautiful, it was much too cold to swim. I climbed up over Peak Ridge and down into Jefferson Park, a place of such magnificence that it was hard to keep eyes on the rocky trail. There's a permit system here, though, to camp near the lakes. And I had only come 12 miles, so onward I had to go, though I hated to leave.

The intriguing Mount Jefferson

Glacial runoff.
Near Russell Creek, a notoriously dangerous crossing, I encountered both the rumors of a horse carcass and Scratch, a Oregon thru hiker who kindly waited to watch me tentatively cross on slippery rocks. I hate crossing on rocks or logs, but the alternative, a swirling mass of whitewater, didn't look safe at all. We then entered a completely burnt forest, casualty of the Whitewater fire. The fire had completely cooked this area, and former campsites were guarded by standing dead trees. Back in Jefferson Park I had asked a thru hiker if there was anywhere to camp outside of the burnt forest. He shrugged. "No trees fell on me," he said. After three months and change of camping every night, thrus are somewhat cavalier in their campsite choices.

The burnt forest went on forever, and the hours ticked on toward nightfall. I began to worry about finding a campsite. Night hiking is not my favorite. The trail wound down to a large stream crossing, and I was elated to find a ledge next to it. A private spot, the sound of a river, and it was still light enough to wash up. The perfect trifecta.

Scratch appeared and set up next to me, with several other hikers tucked into the bushes across the river. Thru hikers kept showing up and most continued on through the night, into the burnt forest. Not my idea of fun.

Eighteen miles plus two on the road walk. It had been a good first day. I couldn't wait to see what was coming up. I haven't hiked solo on the PCT for a while, and I was really enjoying the freedom.  With the exception of Flash and Beekeeper, two great hiking partners, I couldn't think of a better way to do this section. I was meeting more people and having more fun than in years. This was turning out to be a perfect hike.

Perfect campsite by Milk Creek with Scratch in the background. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Trail Legs

Approaching Maxwell Lake
Long distance hikers call it "getting your trail legs"--that moment when you can march along feeling invincible. In California. a hiker named Breezy sat with us on the PCT this year, and mused about it. "In the beginning, I used to see hikers on a switchback and know I could catch them," he said. "Now I can't catch anybody. We've all gotten so fast."

Though I don't feel slow, there have been times when I have definitely gotten my trail legs. All those times, it took at least ten days of hiking, every day, all day, to feel the change. Once was on the John Muir Trail, and I strode up Forrester Pass at a rapid clip, unstoppable. The other two times were also on the PCT, in two separate Washington sections. On one, we had just completed a 23 mile day and I felt like continuing on forever, not wanting to stop. The other time, Flash and I had resolutely stuck to our 16 mile days, until we didn't--we were getting to our planned campsites by two in the afternoon, and heading on, our new normal becoming over 20 miles.

It was the same way when I used to run long distances. "Let's do twelve miles and see how we do," B proposed one day to three of us. Twelve miles! It had been forever since I had run that far. It was daunting, and we shuffled through. By the end of marathon training, we were ecstatic at the thought of running "only" 16 miles. Things had clicked, and we floated along on our marathon legs.

As a weekend warrior, it's hard to keep your trail legs. On a good work day, I might have an hour to exercise.  I throw myself out the door with abandon, trying to see how far I can run/bike/hike before I am called back to a conference call. So the weekends are it, and I make the most of them.

Lately I've attempted a few difficult hikes. I embarked on the trail to Maxwell Lake, which is only four miles one way, but includes a heart-sinking climb in the last mile. I may have whimpered as I slogged upward, the one hundred degree temperatures not helping much. On the way down, I passed some defeated hikers, the heat and the climb just too much.

The swimming was perfection.
Then I went to Echo Lake, not for the faint of heart either, gaining almost three thousand feet in the last three miles. This is so hard, I thought, didn't it use to be easier?

But of course it didn't. I had just forgotten the steep scree, the trail going straight to the sky. I reached the lake and threw myself in. As I left the lake the following morning, congratulating myself for making it without dying, I encountered a trail runner I knew. We were back on the main trail, and I wondered where she was going.

"Eagle Cap!" she proclaimed. Okay, that was just a 35 mile run. Feeling slightly less badass, I continued on. It's a good thing I am not very competitive. Just with myself.
Some people do this as a day hike. It's a long one, 16 miles. I decided to camp.

And in this, the fourth weekend of successful hiking, I went to Dollar Lake, a twelve mile round trip. This place is wide and empty, with sweeping, long vistas and few trees. It's not a place many people go.
Ruby races at full speed along Dollar Lake. She always has her trail legs.
As I hiked along, I realized the stars had aligned. Trail legs! My legs felt like they were on springs. I reached the first lake, Bonny, in less time than I ever have. Not that I was even trying. But still.
Bonny was looking a little swampy this late in the year, so I continued on, up and over the pass. I left the trail and went cross country to Dollar Lake. As always, the wide open country didn't disappoint either of us. We looked far into the distance, to all the places we couldn't reach, but maybe someday, we could.

I know my trail legs won't last--I don't have the time to hike all day, and there's no use in wishing I could. It's possible that because I can't, I enjoy it more than someone who could.
It's all right though--I know I can get them back. Give me a chunk of time, a few hard hikes, and they will return.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Swimming with Friends

I step hesitantly into Wallowa Lake. In a shortie wetsuit, swimsuit, neoprene booties, and a swim shirt, I am way overdressed among my friends. MB is unfazed in only her swimsuit and a ball cap. She swims with her head out of the water because she has a fear of fish. I have no such fear, but I do fear cold. This lake is deep, at its deepest 300 feet, and cold. It is a ribbon lake, formed by glaciers, and is still fed by snow melt. In winter, it sometimes freezes. The surface water warms up superficially, but about 140 feet below, it is nearly always 40 degrees. I can feel those pockets as MB and I stroke toward the dock that is our turnaround point.

Even in all my layers, I shiver. It has been a record-breaking summer, with temperatures scraping 100 degrees. Still, I can't stay in the water without my wetsuit, unlike the other swimmers in our loose posse. We dodge the kids and their inflatable toys, the stand-up paddlers, and the occasional water skier, and head for the no wake zone.

As I swim, I can look far, far to the bottom of the lake, farther than I could dive. "You look comfortable in the water," Kim says later, and I am glad to hear it, thinking of all the decades that passed before I learned how to swim. I am grateful to the Sitka salt water pool and the masters swim hour that allowed me to minimally learn enough strokes to get by.

There are so many things we tell ourselves and sometimes we believe them. For years I thought I had bad balance and couldn't ride a bike, ever. Now I do. I thought I couldn't be strong, and I was, working on a trail crew and fighting fires. I thought I couldn't be a swimmer, and here I am, out in a deep lake. What do you tell yourself that isn't true?

MB has perfected her modified dog paddle and she is a speedy thing. I have to work to keep up with her. We pass the summer homes, festooned with kayaks and canoes. Once a dog swam out from one of those, colliding with me in the water. Treading water, I point out the farthest I have ever gone: the buoy past the silver dock. We won't get there today. Commiserating over scheduled conference calls, we head back.

It is so warm that for once, I don't drive home with my heater on or jump immediately in a hot shower. The house bakes in the triple digits, but I feel cool for hours. Pretty soon our swimming will be curtailed as fall comes in. It's a short season, swimming with friends, but a sweet one. I won't think about the fact that there are only a couple of weeks left. I am trying to live in the moment, and this is one of them.