Monday, April 21, 2014

Hells Canyon Rim2River2Rim (Almost)

As I slogged up the endless switchbacks to Freezeout Saddle, I wondered why a Hells Canyon RTR isn't more popular, like the Grand Canyon's. Obviously doing an RTRTR would be challenging as you have a major roadblock, the Snake River, with no handy bridges. You would have to rely on a passing jet boat, perhaps waving beer as an incentive for them to stop (but mostly, they have their own).

You don't usually encounter a "Cow Jam" on the way to the Grand Canyon Rim.
But seriously. From the trailhead it's 22 miles round trip if you believe the signs, and 24 if you don't. The scenery is desolate, stark, and powerful. Though Hells does not have the layer cake rock that the Grand does, it has many more secrets. All of the times that I have dropped below the rim, I have only seen a handful of people, and often not a soul.

As was the case this time. I left a chatty band of day hikers on the saddle and descended into the heart of the canyon. The steep climb just to get to the first rim might weed out the less serious, as would the lack of trail maintenance and no friendly rangers waiting with water and encouragement. You really are truly alone here.

At 8.5 miles if you believe the signs, and 9.5 if you don't, I passed my potential camp for the night. A serene grove of ponderosas perched above the creek, it had always seemed like a perfect place to camp. From there a person unencumbered by a backpack could tag the river and return.

Today, however, was not that day. A vicious wind whipped through the pines, and I have seen enough ponderosa carnage to know that fire-weakened trees like these can suddenly fall, crushing anything in their path. I elected to go on, thinking that surely I would find a campsite between here and the river, or at the river if all else failed.

Soon it became apparent that it was the river or bust. The canyon narrowed to a sliver of its former self. I struggled through downed trees and brush. Every step was a challenge of prickly bushes and hurty trees. And I hadn't even reached the famed Poison Ivy Forest. I was down to less than an inch of water and didn't feel like fighting to the creek to get more. It was time to admit defeat.

See the trail? Me either.

I could see the Idaho side and knew I was less than a mile from the river. It's always so hard to turn around, and as I trudged back up the steep "trail", I second-guessed my decision. It's hard to let go of a goal, especially if there isn't someone else along to confirm that you made the right choice. Maybe if one of my partners in crime had been along, that person could have convinced me to put on rain gear and press on. Or maybe that person would have mutinied long ago. There are so few people who go below the rim; it's hard to say.

In the end what I miss most about living an isolated place are "my people." I'm starting to kind of want to see a few people on these trails. I like standing with our packs on exchanging information about what's ahead and behind, where the next water is, what the ivy situation might be. I miss the same enthusiasm for adventure and wanting to go past the next bend. I want to find people willing to try a silly RTR but also willing to give it up if it becomes too stupid. If I ever move away from here, this will be why.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

I fought the tent, and the tent won

There I was.

Eureka Creek shack.

In a little slice of heaven, a sandy beach next to the Snake River. There were other backpackers, but they were nestled near the Imnaha River confluence, illegally building a campfire. It's been a sort of cold spring, but at lower elevations it's nearly summer already. Flowers were popping out everywhere, along with the lovely poison ivy. Eureka Bar was, to sum it up, the perfect place to be.

See the sticks with berries? Poison ivy, my friends. Did you know that it can look like this? Beware.

Until I decided to set up the tent. This is the fourth time I have set it up, and I thought I had it down. I smugly grabbed the stakes and went to work. 

A good pitch in the front yard.

Wind +non-freestanding tent + sand=no bueno. The stakes pulled out, the wind blew, the trekking poles fell. I finally got wise and put heavy rocks on the stakes, which helped some. Though abominably pitched, the tent was upright, so I decided to go for a stroll up Eureka Creek.

The tent, just biding its time. But look at the backdrop.

A couple hours of sidestepping poison ivy later, I returned to the beach. My heart sank. There was a collapsed tent. What the..? A friend from town had unexpectedly appeared and I tried to retain a sense of calm. It wouldn't do to see a princess meltdown in the middle of nowhere, not in front of someone who had ridden his bike all 58 miles to get here. (I drove. And hiked six miles to the beach. I know, lame.) 

Tent, you are not going to get the better of me, I declared. Fiddling with the pitch was when disaster struck. The trekking poles fell, tearing small holes in the mesh. I was heartbroken. I had dropped a lot of money on this cuben fiber tent, and I had ruined it already.

Let it be known, though, that I am pretty hard on gear. Two of my other tents have tears in them, not from destructive use, but from just that--use. I use my gear, a lot. Holes? Okay, I could patch those. I glanced enviously at my friend with his waterproof sleeping bag cover. It was a nice night and I could sleep under the stars too.

But once you give a tent the upper hand, you never regain it. The tent was going to go up, like it or not. I was on a mission! I had to show the tent who was boss! Stake out the back. Stake out the front. Put up trekking poles. It's an awful lot of work to be ultralight.

In the end, the tent meekly submitted, though I am sure it's plotting future resistance. I'm ordering sand anchors and a "Bug Mesh Patch Kit". Also, rubber tips for my poles. I have an uneasy feeling that the tent in fact has won this round. It's in its lightweight stuff sack, snickering away.
Eureka Bar is awesome.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Work Travel Diaries: Reno

It's a mixed bag, traveling for work. Sometimes I get super lucky, like the time last July when I stayed in a cute little cabin on White Pass, only steps away from the Pacific Crest Trail. Then there are the other times. Like this week.

Reno. I dislike negativity but I have to work hard to sum up much enthusiasm for the place. We stayed in a casino, full of blinking slot machines and the haze of cigarette smoke. Women who had inexplicably forgotten their pants strolled around. People who looked hours away from bypass surgery lined up for the buffet. When my co-worker tried to go for an outside run, she had to quickly sprint from a crime scene. The office we held our meetings in was located in an industrial zone where the only place to walk for lunch was a batting cage place. (People pay to hit balls in a cage. Who knew?)

Work travel for me is challenging. I don't eat the same and I can't exercise the same. Fortunately, the casino redeemed itself by having a lap pool, and I soon fell into the routine of swimming, which I hadn't been able to do since September. (No pool in town) Swimming without a wetsuit and actually being warm was a novel experience. The woman who opened up the pool in the morning greeted me with, "Hi, Cuteness!" A man with flippers asked me if I was training for the Olympics. What's not to like about that?

I have to take a step back and think about what city folk would think if transplanted suddenly to my town. I can hear it now:

"Seriously. I hear cows."
"Yikes! Those are wolves howling outside the door!"
"Was there a Carhartt sale or something that these people couldn't pass up?"
"The headline in the local paper is 'Good Hay Crop'?"

We all have our place, and mine seems to have narrowed with age.  I've never really been a city person, but I couldn't really tolerate it now. I like unlocked doors and neighbors who come over when you're setting up a tent in the rain to see just what the heck you're doing. I like walking down the street after dark without worrying about sketchy people. I like being able to go to the grocery store after a workout and not getting weird looks.

The way I survive work travel is making sure I know where my next yogurt is coming from. Where I can get some exercise. Trying to appreciate the city I am  in--sometimes failing miserably. And being glad I can drive for the required two hours from the airport, over Rattlesnake Grade, and pull into a small town where I don't know everyone, but I'm getting pretty close.

Do you travel for work? Is it fun or an exercise in survival? 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The heart of the slog

As I slogged upwards, my snowshoes sinking deep into over a foot of new, unconsolidated snow, I felt an uncharacteristic tiredness. A longing to be on the couch, eating Juanita's tortilla chips. Anything, as long as it did not involve a slog with a backpack. My run the day before ranked way up there in the realm of awfulness, and this was not going well either.

"Why do we do this?" I whined.
J, on skis, beamed. "Because it's fun."

I was reminded of my marathon training days, when my running partners and I embarked on a 22 mile run, starting from Whale Park to the fish hatchery gate, then doubling back past the park and all the way to the other end of the road at Starrigavan. The first four miles were always awful, something we had to slog past until it became, if not effortless, something we were meant to do, could always do, for hours and hours.

We headed for the hut, marveling at how much snow there still was, this late in March. Later, J dug a pit and showed me how dangerously unstable the snow was. We wore our avalanche beacons and carefully moved higher, leaving spaces between us and staying on the safer terrain.

There's a delicate balance in the slog. You don't want to redline it on a slog. We saw it last week in Hells Canyon, where an enthusiastic group of kids bounded out of the campsite at the same time we did. We stepped aside on the climb to let them pass, only to have them stop breathless on the first switchback. You don't run a marathon the same way as a 5K; you don't hike in deep snow the same way you do on bare ground. In a slog there is nothing to prove but longevity.

This was night #8 spent in the backcountry this year. It seems like a paltry number.  Does a hut count? Yes it does, especially if you carry your stuff on your back and have to shovel out the toilet.

In the end, it was worth it, as slogs usually are. At night there were no lights to be seen. We were way, way back there, surrounded by deep snow and dreaming trees. I didn't want to leave. Even for the couch and Juanita's tortilla chips.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Post-Trip Blues

Six am on Monday and my work phone is already ringing. I work with people who live in different time zones, and it's not their fault that I have established myself as an early bird. I curb my snarl and force myself to care about formatting a table.

Later I call Dan on work-related business. I have told one of his employees that years ago Dan and I were seasonal trail crew/wilderness rangers together, and that we suspected Dan of being inhuman because of how fast he hiked, showing no sign of weariness. The employee hesitates, disbelief in his voice. "Yeah, he sits behind a desk all day now," he says. When I talk with Dan I say, "Remember? We would have died if we thought we were going to sit at a computer back then."  I don't know about him, but I feel a pang for the girl I was.

Yep, folks, it's the post trip blues. I've had two great adventures, in two deep canyons, and while I know this is a first world problem, it is always hard to wrench myself from that to my working day. I try, though. I make a list in my head of all the fun things I've managed to fit in this week, or little gems that have shone out from the rainy dark. For example:

1. At the gym, a man watched me closely, while I tried to ignore him. Finally he said, "You're lifting those weights as if they were nothing!" And I felt a touch of pride. Then he said, "That weight's pretty good for..." and his voice trailed off. What had he meant to say? A girl? An old lady? Whatever. I chose to take it as a compliment.

2. I went on a great run in the park. In shorts. And a T-shirt. Without ice grippers. I can't stress enough the wonderfulness of these things. Don't you always feel faster when you run in shorts, without all the winter layers? Of course it is snowing again now, but you take what you can get.

3. I finished a chapter of my Alaska memoir and sent it to my writer's group. I have no idea where this memoir came from; it's just spilling out, not something I planned on writing at all. But there you go. It's nice to be freely writing again. I realize as I write it just how extraordinary my life has been, and that maybe it can be that way again.

4.  It's supposed to rain this weekend! Which on one hand, boo. On the other, yay, I can set up my new tent and see how it works out. I love, love sleeping in the rain in tents, especially when I know I don't have to get up and hike twenty miles the next day with everything wet. It's the big test before the Washington Cascades, so I am excited to see how it goes.

5. I opened the door this morning to let the cat in, and let not only the cat in but a mouse it was chasing. For some reason this makes me giggle, even though the mouse ran and hid and is in the house somewhere. What are the odds of this happening? I think of all the people who would freak out about this and am glad I'm not one of them.

Navigating the post trip blues can be difficult. More and more I know I am meant to be out in the woods, not at  a desk. Someday I will figure out how to make my life one long adventure again. Until then, I'll try to mine the work week for little things that shine.

Do you get post-trip blues or is it just me? How do you deal?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Backpacking Hells Canyon: Tragedy and Beauty

How can I describe the perfection that is the Snake River Trail on the Idaho side? It winds like an unfurling ribbon along the cliffs and sandy bars lining the river, framed by long grass and mountain mahogany and (just a tiny bit of) poison ivy. It trundles through the permanent creeks and passes by sweet little rock cabins and old plowing implements and pictographs. Love.

Hiker left, Idaho. Hiker right, Oregon.
We hiked in on a Friday afternoon, covering only six easy miles to the campsite at Kirkwood Ranch. There are picnic tables and flush toilets (!) and a lovely old historic ranch house where caretakers live for a month at a time (when I retire, I am totally doing this). There's another mysterious old house about a mile up the gulch which we wandered around looking at, and a museum full of the bits and pieces of people's lives. Starting with the Nez Perce, people have lived in this canyon for hundreds of years. 

The "Carter Mansion"--so named by other canyon dwellers because of its cement foundation and fancy windows and woodwork. Once home to a moonshiner.

Love this little rock cabin! I want to move in.

I  loved that one of the adventure racers turned and came back to show another runner one of the pictographs we had showed her. That's my kind of adventure racer!

The next day we arose without a plan, which turned out to be a good thing. Our vaguely stated goal was to hike upriver as far as we could before turning around. What we didn't know is that an unsanctioned "adventure run" was taking place as well, so we had to annoyingly step aside multiple times for runners. In defense of them, they were all very nice, but if the event folks had followed the proper channels and advertised the run, we could have avoided being on the same very narrow trail with big drop-offs at the same time. That being said, this would be an incredible trail to run. You could get dropped off via jet boat 27 miles up at the trail's end and run back. If I liked to run long distances as much as I liked to hike, I would totally do it. (I'd do a shorter run though. Maybe. But it's hard not to stop with a tent and stay awhile).

My Skyscape X held up great in the wind! There's rain in the forecast and I can't wait to set it up in the yard and test it out. This is Kirkwood. Note the picnic table. Yet you can only reach this spot with a boat or on foot.

On our hike we learned that a tragedy had occurred the night before. A jet boat had sunk in a rapids upriver and one person was unaccounted for. We helped with the search, scanning the shore and hoping to see someone waving us down. Unfortunately that didn't happen. The river will give him up when it wants to.

The Chinook looking for survivors.

Boats were up and down the river. The rapids aren't something to mess with.
We went as far as Pine Bar, a magical place seven miles from Kirkwood, and reluctantly turned back for another night next to the riverbank. It's always good to leave wanting more, and we hiked out Sunday already plotting our next adventure. 

View from Suicide Point. We felt pretty happy, so didn't jump.

Risk and reward, so closely entwined.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Grand Canyon in Spring, Part II: Reasons to Believe

When you leave Monument Creek, if you can bear to leave, you climb high up what is called the Cathedral Stairs, up and over a small sway-backed saddle, until you look down, down into Hermit Creek. You can look back and see Granite Rapids, chocolate brown and far below, and Hermit Rapids just as far away. You can feel suspended in this place, the enormity of it, the whole canyon and the big sky. Being in the canyon gives you reasons to believe.
on the trail from Monument to Hermit

between Hermit and Boucher

To believe that life smooths out like the Colorado does after the rapids, to a placid brown ribbon flowing through the dark cliffs. To believe that you will figure it out, how to have the life you want, to make it through the long dark days of winter and the computer screen and wondering if you've really done enough with your life. Like I said, reasons to believe.

You don't see the campsite at Hermit Creek until you're almost upon it. You've walked across a broad bench and around the circular cut of the cliff and finally, there you are. The best thing about Hermit could easily be this pool, deep and cold and big enough to swim in. Or it could be a short walk upriver with a series of cascading waterfalls, where nobody seems to go. From here you can take an impulsive fourteen mile dayhike to the remote Boucher River, another deep chasm where you won't see anyone for hours. Or you can walk down to the rapids and hang out in sand as soft as pillows. It is, pretty much, paradise.

Gasp. A Selfie. At hermit rapids. One of my favorite places ever.

plunge pool at Hermit Creek
Boucher River drainage

But everything ends, right? So when you hear the crunch of feet heading to the composing toilet on your last morning, you sigh and get up, packing by headlamp, for the nine mile climb out. And it isn't too bad, steeper than you remember, with rockfall you have to climb over. There's a ranger at the two mile rest house, and day hikers near the top, and the next night's campers tap-tapping their way down, kind of late in the day in your opinion, and you get to the top and catch the free shuttle bus back to the village and the people around the rim are spending their eleven minutes allotted looking in and you know something they don't. And you also know this: you really just want to hang on to the feeling you had in the canyon when all you had to do was believe.