Sunday, November 22, 2015

Backcountry Skating

The dogs tested the ice for us.
 When I lived in Alaska, we often loaded up our day packs with skates and hiked up to backcountry lakes. Because it rarely snowed in the lower elevations, we could trudge easily to our target, which was usually snow-free and frozen in a perfect sheet. Wind is the enemy of smooth ice, and there were times when an entire lake had frozen just perfectly, smoother than if a Zamboni had passed over it.

The lakes where I live now are mostly a day-long slog through avalanche terrain, and the snow falls quickly, forming deep, unskateable blankets. Our only option often is the city ice rink, which takes about thirty seconds to cross and is dominated by kids with hockey pucks. It was closed most of last winter due to the thawing of the sun. It's a good option, but I am more about the woods than the town.

Yesterday as we were snowshoeing past a small pond called Papoose Lake, we noticed it was frozen, with only a skim of snow on its surface. Around here you must seize the day, so today we brought our skates, a thermos of cocoa, and the hope that it would all work out.

Our own private lake.
Skating on a frozen lake that makes you feel like you've gotten away with something. Sometimes you can look far down through the layers of clear ice and see strands of aquatic vegetation, rocks, the bottom. There are times when the expansion and contraction of frozen water sounds like thunder, rolling across the lake. The lake is alive in the way a city rink never can be.

The air temperature was in the teens, but it's the kind of winter day when you can find a patch of sun and feel completely, blissfully warm. Reluctantly we left the lake to its own devices. Pretty soon it will be covered in deeper snow.

The snow had diamonds in it.
Not a bad view.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Going to the Bar

This is a "beach" in Southeast Alaska. Not a bar. No, I don't really get it either.
Hiking to the bar.
I see Idaho!
I never really was into going to the bars--the ones where you drink. It was all pretty boring and sedentary. If I could dance, it was all right, but an entire evening centering around the consumption of alcohol seemed weird. I'd rather save my calories for chocolate, and there was always some guy without his shirt who really should have left it on. Now that I'm older, I am even more adverse to bars.

But there is one bar I like visiting. When I lived in Alaska, we called them beaches--the decidedly un-beachy, rocky sides of the land that touched the ocean. If a fisherman left his wife at home, he would say he left her "on the beach." On rivers, these areas are called bars.

The Snake River is full of bars--Salmon Bar, Dug Bar, Pine Bar. And Eureka Bar, which is a last chance left-over fall spot, the one you go to when everything else is shut down by snow. I kind of love Eureka Bar, even with the poison ivy dance to get there.
This is poison ivy in winter. Do not touch.
The only other people on the trail were the steelhead fishermen, mostly solo and standing in the Imnaha River. None of them were backpackers. I had Eureka Bar all to myself.

I love this picture.
This time of year, it gets dark at five. That is a long time in a tent. It can be luxurious, though. Just you and a sleeping bag, and a book to read. You don't have to do anything but that. Some people can't handle it, but I like it. I normally feel like I *should* be doing something in real life, and it's hard to relax. (It helps to bring a bigger tent).

The confluence. If you look closely you will see a jet boat on the river.

 There's something about sleeping next to a river that makes all your worries seem insignificant. I recommend you try it.
An after dinner stroll (dinner was at 4!)

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Running at Fields Springs

I crested the summit of the Rattlesnake and began to drive down. It's a twenty-five mile an hour (or less) highway that curves its way down to the Grande Ronde and back up, semi-terrifying at the best of times, and the main route to the airport, the eye doctor, and other amenities I don't have in my town, 95 miles away. Usually I am just ready to get it over with and get home. This time, I decided to turn in to the little state park and go for a run.

The Rattlesnake. Picture taken from

I don't really like to stop when I drive somewhere, because after spending all of my twenties in a seasonal migration across the country, mostly driving it alone, California to South Florida and back again every six months, I have come to dislike driving intensely. I like to just get the driving over with. But a run was on the agenda, and I had heard there were trails in the park, so why not?

I carried my stuff to the bathroom and changed. The map was a little baffling and some parents with a little child asked me which trail they should go on. I couldn't give good advice. I decided to just follow one trail and see where it ended up.

I don't write about running very much because there isn't that much to say. I've been running since I was 14 and that is a very long time. My running has evolved from slow runs in high school in the woods, to fast competitive races, to marathons, back to slow runs in the woods. I like it that way. Maybe it's because my professional life is full of high expectations and deadlines and time crunches, but I don't want my time off to feel that way too.

I chose what felt like the main trail, up toward Puffer Butte. Puff I did, because it took a rapid rise i in elevation. Despite this, I was entranced. I had almost forgotten there were trails without rocks, trails with soft needles to run on, trails without barbed wire fences to crawl under, trails where you can run a normal speed. Breaking out into the open, I had such a great view I had to stop and take pictures.

"Is  this trail a loop trail?" I asked a couple of people who were up there, but they didn't know either. I descended down through the forest until I got to a closed road. Supposedly there was a way back to the start from here, but what the heck, I would run back up to the butte. So I did. It was just as pretty going the other way.

I arrived back at the car feeling like I had gotten away with something. My run was done and I hadn't even had to pick my way through talus fields or snowdrifts. I'll be back, Fields Springs. There are many more Rattlesnake trips in my future.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Meanwhile, outside

  "I could never live as isolated again as you do," my co-worker says. I try not to laugh. Where I live is as far from being isolated as I can imagine. There's always something going on.

Every work day, from six in the morning until about four thirty, I sit happily typing at a laptop near a window facing the street. (I do get up and walk around. And go exercise. But still, there is a lot of sitting. Or standing). In the five years I've done this, I have had lots of time to observe what goes on outside. My street is a easy way to get to the little state park trails and to the lake. So I see people on their way to places.

First, about dawn, there is Intrepid Bike Rider, who perseveres through most of the winter. He always rides the same route--to the head of the lake and back. I feel that thirty degrees and below is just too cold to ride my bike, but he doesn't.

Next, there's Dog Walker Lady, who slowly, slowly walks past. Though her pace is glacial, she is out there on days that make me afraid, those sheets of ice days. The office workers stream by on their wellness half hour, bound for the park. There are occasional runners, not many, enough that I know them by gait. Once in awhile, a horse and rider clops by.

Sometimes the regulars disappear and I only hear of their fate later. The guy with Parkinsons, who rode his bike up and down the street several times, ended up passing on. I don't know why Slow Jogger Lady no longer uses my street--is she no longer in town? The old guy who used to creep up and down the street for hours--vanished. The guy in a cowboy hat and boots who used to stride to the grocery store and back every day--gone too. I can only imagine what has become of them.

I notice what happens on my street and so do my neighbors. They report to me if they see a strange car in my driveway. I text them when I am gone on a fire assignment to see if they can close my windows against rain. The kid across the street brings me a comic he has drawn and I send him home with homemade cookies. The other teleworker and I keep each other informed of solicitors: "there's a guy selling meat out of a van coming your way!" "Beware, Jehovah's witnesses enroute!"

Isolated? I don't think so. I know isolated, I have been there. Islands accessible by air and boat, a town of fifty souls on the loneliest highway. I just have to look out my window to know that this isn't it.

What's the most isolated place you've ever lived? Did you like it?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Into the wind

Rain rain gear? I debated as I hurried toward the Ice Lake junction. The forecast was truly awful, or great if you enjoy fifty-mile-an-hour winds and 70% chance of rain and snow. But it was my day off, and I wasn't going to waste it sitting at home. 

A steady sprinkle burst from the threatening clouds overhead. It's always hard to know the tipping point between donning rain gear and not. Too soon, and it's a steambath. Too late, and it's hypothermia time. I decided to stick it out, which was the right choice. The blustery wind acted as a blow dryer set on the cold temperature, keeping me fairly dry.

I clumped along in hiking boots, worn because I anticipated snowdrifts. In fact, I wasn't even sure I would be able to make it to the lake, seeing as the last few days had called for over a foot of snow. I had forgotten how heavy boots can be, and I tried to pick up the pace to compensate.

A soggy but lovely trail!
I caught two guys on the switchbacks. I knew I would, because the sound of music had wafted from external speakers on one of their packs for awhile. (Please, please do not do this.)"Are you climbing the Matterhorn?" they chirped. Lugging backpacks festooned with crampons and ice axes, they obviously planned on it. (Although it was a bit too early for that mountaineering gear, I decided not to tell them.)

"Just a day hike to the lake," I said. I always am unsure about whether to dash people's dreams. It was obviously way too windy to climb the Matterhorn. They had never been here before, and they would have to figure it out for themselves. "It's pretty windy," I said diplomatically before speeding on. 

As I made the final push to the lake, the full brunt of the wind caught me. The situation was brutal. If I had carried a tent, I would have turned right around and marched back out of there. Whitecaps boiled the surface of the lake. It was not a place to linger.

As I turned around, A came running gracefully up in shorts. Shorts! "I thought that was you," he said. We discussed how hammered the trails are getting. There are trails that cut the switchbacks that are as wide and deep as the real trails. (Don't do this. The trail has switchbacks for a reason.) People are discovering these mountains, but not always doing the right thing. Cutting a trail might save them two minutes, but it erodes the whole mountainside. 

A ran on and I descended without my anticipated break at the lake. This turned a 16 mile hike into a non-stop five and a half hour march, but sometimes it just works out that way. I arrived back at the trailhead glad I had overcome inertia and "bad" weather. The forecast calls for high mountain snow and pretty soon it will be June, or later, before I can get to Ice Lake. I'll take all the chances I have left.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The last good day (sort of)

I gazed at the forecast in horror. "This is the last good day!" I exclaimed. "It's going to snow! I should backpack! No, I should kayak! No.." I stopped, recognizing the mounting hysteria that used to overcome all of us when we lived in the rain forest and received, unexpectedly, one sunny day out of 30 rainy ones. Time to take a big bite of a calm down sandwich! But...

"Well, I'd better go to the field," J said. "Considering that it's the last good day." Cursing the day I ever took an office job, I checked my workload. I could do it! Although the mountains were calling, it was time to get out on the water.

When I lived in Alaska, kayaking was an extension of myself. I paddled almost every day, most often with Laura, other times solo. Here, with only one lake to choose from, I've fallen out of the practice.

But you never really forget. I launched my boat into the lake under the watchful supervision of a couple of picnickers. This time of year, the lake is deserted. I can paddle right down the center without fear of being flattened by water-skiers. Gone are the swimmers, the fishermen, the party pontoons.  The summer houses are shuttered. It's just me.
Finally a use for the Xtra Tufs. I'm actually standing in the water in this picture.

A storm's a-coming.

Lovely cottonwoods at the far end of the lake.

I raced back to work after the circumnavigation. Did I miss anything? Nope! Sometimes you just have to get out on the last good day.

The geography of water.  Begin promotional pitch: Speaking of which, my book is on sale. If you like my writing, you may want to pick this one up. It's a novel set in Southeast Alaska. You can get it here. Or ask your local bookstore to order it. End promotional pitch.

What would YOU do on the last good day? (And I know there are plenty of good days to come, just not warm ones. For awhile)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Lost and Found in Maine

After two years in the Maine woods, Inchworm has been found.

In July of 2013, she vanished without a single clue, and there are many things that remain a mystery. Why was she a half mile off the trail? How did searchers not find her? Was she really found in her tent and sleeping bag, like some rumors have suggested?

It's possible we will never know what really happened. Did she follow a path she thought was the trail (haven't we all done this?), did she get hypothermia (we have all come close); did she have a medical problem once she realized she was lost? Was she trying to make her way to a different road due to weather or another problem? She was unlike traditional thru-hikers in that her husband would generally meet her every few days at a road with food or supplies. Many thru hikers (she was doing the trail in long sections) are pretty good at being on the trail, but not so great once they wander off of it.

In my decades of outdoor adventures, I've had the following experiences:

  • Stalked by a mountain lion at night
  • Charged by a coastal grizzly with cubs
  • Caught in 12 foot seas in a kayak 
  • Slid down a mountain, not on purpose (not the whole mountain)
  • Caught in a flash flood (luckily there was an escape route)
  • Run out of water in the desert
  • Almost stepped on a rattlesnake

And there's probably more. But I have never been lost. Turned around a little bit, yes. But never truly lost, to the point where panic sets in. If Inchworm really did get lost, and it's hard to believe that anything else could have happened (how else do you end up half a mile from a major trail?) then I can only imagine what thoughts went through her head. Why wasn't she able to find the trail again? Did she have a stroke or a heart attack? Will we ever know?

Here's the thing, though. Gerry was 66. She was doing it. Her death is a tragedy for sure. But she wasn't on the couch, 100 pounds overweight. She wasn't saying she was too old to do it, or too scared to go alone, or all the other reasons she could have given for not doing it. Yes, if she had stayed home or taken someone with her, she would probably still be alive. Maybe. Who really knows? There are little earthquakes all over the world every day. 

Keep doing it, you guys, Take a compass and a map, or a GPS, or a Spot Beacon. Don't get so caught up in ultralight that you don't have the equipment you need to survive. But keep doing whatever you dream.