Monday, October 24, 2016

On not giving up

After being gone on a work trip all week, I optimistically headed for Bonny Lakes, only to find snow. Tons of snow. Enough snow that I decided to turn around. How can there be so much snow in October? I was REALLY MAD at myself for turning around (feels like being a wimp) but later learned that there was 2.5 feet of snow at 7,800 feet, which was where I was headed. So it turns out I made the right decision after all.
Ruby discovered snow for the first time and she wasn't quite sure what to do with it.
On Saturday I armed myself with a saw and loppers and went off to join a trail crew work party. If you hike or run trails, please help maintain them! I don't know if everyone knows that the funding for trail maintenance for federal agencies has gone down every year. I see a lot of people complaining and not enough lopping!
Sunday it was time for a fun hike in the lowlands. T and I mapped out an ambitious plan: descend 800 feet into Davis Creek, climb an unknown but high number of feet to Starvation Ridge, descend a ginormous amount of feet into Swamp Creek and then head back! It's not climbing Everest, but I have to admit that as we took a break on Starvation Ridge I peered down into Swamp Creek and secretly hoped she would say this was enough. She didn't, though, and I knew if she was up for it, I was too.

It's my experience that the older you get, the easier it can be to throw in the towel. Sometimes the thought of lifting one more weight is discouraging. And what people don't tell you is that there are random pains that come and go. These mean more now than they did when I was twenty and just shrugged them off.

When you don't do something for awhile, getting back to it can be even harder. As I lugged the Stihl down the trail on the work day, I wondered: how did I ever cut down trees all day long on the fire crew? Even running, which I used to love above all else, can feel like a chore. Haven't I done this enough? When do I get to quit? But as we slogged up from Swamp Creek, I knew that if I gave in to the siren call of the couch, I would regret it. I think it's like anything else: after decades of activity, my body needs it for everything to work right. It might not be climbing Everest, but it's still something.

We saw a pop up hunting camp at the trailhead when we returned. A bunch of older guys were puzzling over a framework of poles that would eventually hold their tent. "There's no way they will walk down in there," I guessed. "Probably road hunting," T agreed.

But maybe I'm wrong. I've seen all sorts of unlikely characters push on well past what I thought their limits to be. I remember back in the day when the fire crew guys were reluctant to give up the saw, or when Trail Crew Dan was shocked I could keep up with him hiking. Something kept me going then. Something keeps me going now.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Prudent Mariners

When I lived in Alaska and perused the Coast Pilot, a huge handbook to all the bays for boaters, I would laugh when it would occasionally prissily state that the "prudent mariner" would avoid a certain area. Sometimes we were prudent mariners. Sometimes we were not.

Every so often, ferocious winds rake this place. When this happens there is no sleep to be had. In the morning, you can spot other citizens of the county walking through their yards, picking up souvenirs from other houses and realizing what has blown away. This storm also brought snow. There's a foot up by the high lakes now. Unfortunately it is an early start to winter. I was hoping to have a few more weeks of hiking.

A huge storm? We need a Hiking Pilot to consult. Probably a prudent person would stay indoors, build a fire and read books. But...we have a puppy. A tired puppy is a good puppy. We decided to hike up to Murray Gap. This hike starts up an awful road at an  obscure pullout. You wouldn't even know how to find it unless someone showed you. You climb steeply, second guessing your desire to go there. But once you turn the final corner, there is this:

Murray Gap is where the climb to Ruby Peak summit begins. Today was not the day to go up there. The wind was howling. A prudent person would have turned around, but we had heard there was a waterfall to be found. We didn't know where it was exactly and we wandered through the woods, telling ourselves we should turn around. But we found it. This whole basin, Silver Creek basin, is a wild and mysterious place.
Ruby in snow below Ruby Peak.

Finally we had to admit defeat. We didn't have a lot of survival gear and the snow was getting thicker. It was time to go. And time to retrofit our packs with winter gear. We should have known, but it is still a surprise. A prudent person would retreat and declare hiking season over. For now, we decided to be prudent.

As we descended, the storm turned to rain. J had to admit that Carhartts were probably not the best hiking attire. I looked back at the gap, now shrouded in snow. Prudent though we were, a part of me wanted to be back up there.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

the way we change

It's been my experience that as most people grow older they become more set in their ways. I've hiked with people who firmly state their preferences, from food to men to climate, with no intention of bending any of them. Which is fine; one of the few perks of getting older is to know what you want and not waste time on things that you don't like or appreciate. But for me, I think it's good to leave a little room for change. I was recently thinking of all the ways I have evolved in the seven years since leaving Alaska:

1) I didn't like dogs.

I LOVE her.

2) I didn't ride bikes

I was missing out on a great activity.

3) I said I would never get married


4) I was fiercely devoted to running as my main activity, with kayaking a close second

I've discovered how much I love long distance hiking. It gives me way more than running ever did.
5)My house had to be neat at all times
No pictures of this. I will spare you. I spend more time outside than cleaning.

6)I said I "couldn't" work at a desk all day
Turns out, you can do a lot of things you think you "can't" do if it will get you closer to a goal.

7) I said I wouldn't "settle down"
You can find adventure anywhere. You don't have to have a passport full of stamps and be on the road all the time. It's all in your attitude.

The trail to the top of this mountain is only ten minutes from home.
I'm curious to see what the next seven years brings. I can safely say that I won't telemark ski, do a cleanse, or write a romance novel. But otherwise? I'm open to possibilities.

Have you changed in the past few years? Done a sport you said you would never do? Stopped doing one you loved?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Does Not Share Well With Others

 It was an unsettled fall day, with a light rain falling, but the forecast promised better. I decided to strike out for Ice Lake, a place I have been often, but one that never fails. Unfortunately, this lake has been discovered. A steady, but relatively easy climb, if you bust a move you can make it in less than three hours. It used to be that in October, I had it all to myself, but we have all been noticing that there's been an explosion in people, not just in summer but in spring and fall.

I saw mountain goats on this mountain.
I tagged the lake but couldn't stay long. A brutal wind swept off the mountains. Across the outlet three backpackers huddled in down jackets, looking miserable. Without taking a break, I headed down. 

Backpackers loomed into view. Not just a few of them but...36, in several groups. They all looked to be in their twenties. I wasn't sure how I felt about all these people. On one hand, wilderness needs younger supporters. It's a fairly even statistic across the country that the largest age group to visit wilderness is the 50-59 year olds. So it's good to see younger people away from their phones and in the woods.

But couldn't they spread out a little?

Perhaps I have an unhealthy obsession with pooping, but I cringe to think of all these people wandering this high elevation lake with toilet paper in hand. Most of the lakeshore where you can camp has become one big campsite. You aren't supposed to have campfires here, but people invariably do. The chipmunks know they will find food, and every time I've been here I've found microtrash, the small droppings people always forget. A tent stake here, duct tape there. 

I've spent most of my career picking up after campers. It's a discouraging and unfun task. I like to think things have improved since the 90s, when I would routinely carry out discarded boots, cans, and grills. Lots and lots of grills. It does sometimes seem like people are bringing less stuff with them, which means less stuff left behind. I can hope, anyway.

This has always been a sort of secret corner of the world and it's been nice to think of it this way, never changing. The quality of life is why I put up with a sub par grocery store, the long drive to the airport, and paying way too much for everything. I really hope these mountains stay wild.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Borrowed Time

There's a saying up here in the northwest: After October first, you are hiking on borrowed time. And it certainly feels like it as T and I drop our backpacks at Mirror Lake. Immediately we put on all of our layers. A chilly wind rakes our camp, but in this exposed basin, there isn't any shelter to be found.

It can snow anytime, and the forecast called for a 30% chance. Three years ago, these lakes were already frozen. It seems so soon. There are so many places I didn't get to this year. As we hastily set up our tents, fighting the wind, I calculate: I've spent 32 nights out this year. Not bad, not as many as I would have liked.

There are a few other hardy souls in the basin, but not many. Inexplicably, several of them hike right through our camp to see what's over here even though there are several unoccupied sites they could have gone through. They are all from Portland. Not to generalize, but city folk seem a bit less shy about galloping through camps instead of skirting around.

We hike up to Upper Lake, just to stay warm and postpone getting in our tents. But by six we concede defeat. It is just too cold to stay out.

It's nice to have an evening with nothing to do but read and doze, even if I never really do get warm. In the morning, T and I agree: our feet were blocks of ice all night long. We have been in denial, because just a day ago it was eighty degrees. Last night it dropped to the low 20s. We don't have our winter gear with us. We have our down jackets, mittens, hats, and the usual survival gear, but not the gear for deep winter. It's time for that, if we go out again.

We climb Ivan Carper Pass and head down the rocky, slow-going path to the trailhead, finishing up a seventeen mile loop. On the second day, we see nobody until we nearly reach the end: a hunter, sitting quietly in the woods with his rifle. Backpacking season is over, but it's been a good run. I hiked 450 miles of the PCT and many more miles in these mountains. My shoes are worn out. I have a weird pain in the top of my foot. I was unusually annoyed by the rocky sections where our pace slowed to less than two miles an hour. "Maybe it's time for a break," T suggests. She is probably right.
Ivan Carper Pass
For about eight months of the year, this basin is inaccessible. That's what saves it, because the rest of the year it gets swamped by the illegal fire building, non TP burying crowd. It could use a break, too.

I can't get as worked up about winter as I can about summer. People holler about skiing, but mostly you come home at night, days are short, lots more time inside. Still, I wouldn't want to go back to endless summer in the desert or swamp, places where you need air conditioning to survive.

I put away my backpacking gear. For the last time this year? I think about how if I had unlimited funds and time, I'd extend the season: Backpacking in New Zealand? L writes our Christmas group about a Death Valley trip. Maybe it's not over yet.

Are you a winter or a summer person? Is it hard to give up your summer hobbies when the season changes?

Blue Lake in the distance

Monday, September 26, 2016

what you bring to a potluck

I went to two potlucks last week. Sometimes I can look back on my life and think that they are measured in potlucks. As a seasonal park ranger, I lived sequestered in mountain compounds, with no TV/movie capability and years before the Internet came along. Potlucks were the main source of entertainment. We would all gather at weathered picnic tables, bearing our creations.

Potlucks were held for memorials, weddings, when people left the area, or just because. Later, when I moved to small communities in the middle of nowhere, potlucks continued. Once a friend arrived at a potluck and set her dish down only to note that she had arrived at the wrong potluck--hers was a little ways away down the lakeshore!

In a highly unscientific study, I maintain that you can tell a lot about a person by what they bring to a potluck. There's the person who does not plan ahead--the guy who shows up with a bag of chips. There's the foodie (I'm thinking of my friend The Freak of Nature) who always has something complex and delightful, needing ingredients not easily found. Two guys I know always bring the same dish--for decades--is there any correlation to the fact that they both like routine and are change resistant? And for the love of god, don't marry the guy who never brings anything to a potluck (Been there. Done that. Divorced it).

Over the years in this small town, some of the same people attend the same potlucks. You get to know what to expect from some. J always brings his "scalloped corn" dish, and people know he will bring it. They ask for it. Everyone knows that I will toggle between a dessert, usually cookies, and some kind of savory appetizer.

The conversation at potlucks is as varied as the food but over the years, it's tended to be focused on the outdoors. What hikes have you done lately? Where are you planning to go?

Potlucks have gotten more complicated with the advent of gluten free people (the ones who really suffer from gluten probably suffered in silence in the past). I'm reluctant to show up with bread or oatmeal cookies anymore. My new standby is a gluten free, vegan spicy ginger cookie.

I wouldn't call myself a picky eater, but potlucks for me can be a maze of future regrets. I generally stick to the salads. In Alaska, someone could be counted on to bring some form of salmon-smoked, baked, broiled, casseroled, always a good choice. The brownies that look so good might be, disappointingly, from a box. Dishes in a crockpot could contain dreaded jalapenos. You need to be cautious at potlucks.

Sometimes, though, like this week, you hit it just right. Steelhead, homemade bread, sweet potatoes, tabouli, salad, huckleberry cobbler. Two great potlucks in one week! It's an embarrassment of riches.

Do you go to potlucks? What is your signature dish?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Searching for Audrey Sutherland

I still remember hiking across a small island in the South Baranof Wilderness of southeast Alaska and finding a small hut made of driftwood. Someone had written its name on a piece of wood and tacked it up at the open door: "The Elves' Hut". As kayak rangers, one of our missions was to dismantle human-made structures like this, but the hut seemed to belong here, a charming, eccentric shelter decorated with shells and flotsam given from the sea.

This time there was a note, left by some paddlers to a woman named Audrey Sutherland. Sorry we missed you, it said. When I got back to town, I asked around about her. Turns out she was well known on the coast, migrating between Alaska and Hawaii like the whales. She always went solo, even as she grew older. Her motto was "Go simple, go solo, go now." As a younger woman, she wanted to explore the coast of Molokai, and so she swam it in jeans, towing her supplies. This was decades ago, long before social media and gear ambassadorships. She wrote books about her trips and a list of things that she thought all sixteen year olds should be able to do. One of them was:
  • Be happy and comfortable alone for ten days, ten miles from the nearest other person
In my seven years as a kayak ranger, I looked forward to finding Audrey. I wanted to meet a woman who did big things before women doing big things was common. As I paddled around the tip of unnamed islands, I wondered if I would see her in the distance. I wondered if I would stumble upon her camp. But if she was there, I missed her in the rain and fog.

I never got a chance to find Audrey. She died in her late 80s in 2015. If she met me, she would probably not approve. I live in a house. I mostly work at a desk. My adventures are pretty tame. I still think we would have lots to talk about. I still remember the bears passing behind my tent on a salmon stream in the old growth forest. I still remember pulling the kayak up on a beach so quiet I could hear the rain. And even though I don't stray too far from home these days, I still try to live by her motto: Go simple. Go solo. Go now.
Paddling North

Is there anyone who inspired you like Audrey has me? Did you ever meet this person?