Sunday, July 15, 2018

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, California Section M, Sierra City to Belden: The worst six miles on the PCT (and a whole lot of good ones)

Waking early in Sierra City, we resigned ourselves to a late start on the big climb back into the mountains. Rushing the store the minute it opened, we found a disorganized mess in the resupply area. Boxes were piled everywhere, with no accountability. Staring at the unappetizing Kind bars I had optimistically packed, I wondered if somebody else's box had better stuff.

But of course, the store accepts the boxes for free, so there was not much to complain about. We struck out on the road walk back to the trailhead. California tourists zipped merrily by, not caring about our uphill slog. Gaining the trailhead at the alpine start of 1000, we steeled ourselves for the hot climb ahead. However, it proved to be gently graded and tree-lined, much less worse than we thought. A rocky section that traversed along ridgelines slowed us down, and I watched the thru-hikers with envy. After three months of walking, they danced along the rough terrain, unlike us graceless section hikers.

Though this section of the PCT passes close to many lakes, it teased us by staying just out of reach. We could look, but it wasn't worth the steep and long descents to reach them. Plus, many of the lakes in this lake management basin were off limits to camping. We weren't sure why. They looked deserted and appealing.

However, after eleven miles a lake opportunity presented itself, a camping spot we couldn't pass up. It was early in the day, but seize the lakes when you can. We went for a swim and enjoyed the view.

The next couple of days stayed high on ridgelines, providing great views. Until they didn't, and we dove way down into the Middle Fork of the Feather River. I had planned this trip so that we could swim in its mythical deep holes, but after 23 miles we couldn't take it any further, so we camped on an old road instead. Sadly, I looked at the river as we descended into the canyon and again as we took on the seven mile climb out--again, a well-graded and forested climb.


Sierra Buttes, with haze from a distant fire
Our camp that night was not great--a dustbowl shared by many other hikers. PCT camping etiquette is not the same as regular backpacking. In normal life, if you see someone camped at a site, no matter how sweet, you move on, letting them have privacy. In PCT life, someone bounds into your site and commences setting up, often only feet from you. It's hard to understand, but after you've walked multiple 25 mile days, you sort of get it. Hunting for a campsite at those times seems almost beyond capability. Plus, an astonishing number of thru-hikers have never backpacked a day in their lives before taking on the PCT. I am not a fan of the crowded camping experience, but I have learned to expect it. If we wanted to camp away from others, Flash and I learned, we had to make our own sites.

We had heard about the descent into Belden for years. Billed as a torturous, steep ordeal, complete with resplendent poison oak, I had been worrying about it for quite a while. I'd much rather climb a mountain than climb down one. But as we approached the canyon, I relaxed. So far it had been great. How bad could it be?

With those famous last words, I soon regretted my optimism. Short, steep pitches, endless switchbacks, and dense heat greeted us. We could see the river, and some associated techno music, but never seemed to get there. Poison oak grew merrily along the edges, discouraging any stops. Sunk in misery, my feet hurting, I trudged around yet another switchback. Then I screeched to a halt.

A striped object lay in the trail. A rattle filled the air. A rattlesnake!

We stood in the trail, nobody willing to concede. Whenever I advanced toward the snake, it lifted its head and rattled. The slopes were too steep and brushy to go around. I threw a few rocks, but soon ran out. Would I be stuck on this trail forever?

Finally the snake slithered off the trail and Flash and I scampered across. Several more switchbacks and we were inexplicably walking through...a rave.

What is a rave, you ask? Drunk people, techno music, river floaty toys, and tents crammed together in a small space. Feeling like strangers in  a strange land, we dubiously walked past to the tranquility of a trail angel's house. Asking only a donation, she allows four people at a time to stay at her little cottage, and with the rules of no alcohol, smoking or drugs, eliminates 90% of PCT hikers. We shared our cottage with a German hiker named Salty.
The "town" caretaker
Having hiked 31 and 26 mile days, Salty retreated to his room, vowing not to start the climb out of Belden until 9. We were pretty sure this was a mistake. The climb out was reputed to be difficult, almost 5000 feet with just as much poison oak. We resolved to start by 6, even though the vortex of a quiet cottage, showers, and loaner clothes to wear proved difficult to escape. (Later, having spotted us in our long, homemade-looking dresses, another hiker said he thought a cult was in town. Flash and I preferred to refer to ourselves as sister wives).

We had hiked about 130 miles in a short amount of time, and once again I wondered why I opted for this. Flash revealed that she was done with PCT style  hiking and was ready to go back to regular backpacking. I sort of thought I was too--once I finished the PCT.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, California Section N, I-80 to Sierra City: Walking through a flower garden

As Flash and I set our feet onto the first of 177 miles of the last section I have to complete in Northern California, I had several goals: to have fun. To erase the memory of my last section, where I felt like I could have made better decisions and gone on to finish it even if I had had to stitch together a series of day hikes. And to hike only about 17 miles a day. Two of those goals were met.

It became immediately apparent that we were in the forefront of "the herd", the bubble of northbound hikers intent on making it to Canada. Any time I catch myself thinking I am a somewhat fast hiker, all I need to do is drop myself into a group of people who have been hiking for three months straight. Tanned and dirty individuals blew past us without pausing.

Plenty of water!
While most said hello, it was clear that the majority were suffering from the "northern california blues." This is a common syndrome seen in thru-hikers who realize that after three months they aren't even halfway, and that they aren't even out of their first state yet (California is 1700 miles long).

We,  however, suffered no such phenomenon.

The views on this section (38.5 miles) were stunning. We wove through fields of flowers and gazed out at expansive scenery.  We had hit it just right for no mosquitoes and hordes of wildflowers.We easily covered fifteen miles, stopping beside a seasonal creek. To add to our delight, all the "seasonal" creeks were running, meaning we rarely had to hike with more than a liter and a half of water at all times.

The scenery the next day was raised the bar even more. Both Flash and I are early risers, and we get ready about the same time. So we enjoyed the magic hours between five and ten, hiking in the relative cool of the day.

A spring after my own heart.
As we hiked, we realized that if we beat feet, we could make it to Sierra City that evening in order to retrieve our food resupply boxes from the store. This seemed entirely possible even if  it meant a  23.5 mile day. Our goal was to beat the heat on the large climb out of Sierra City. The trail seemed promising, until it didn't.

Nice trail gave way to annoying rocks, but on we raced. We had until eight, our maps promised us. Until we didn't. Reaching the road, we limped along the pavement until a kind couple stopped for us and gave us a ride into "town" (which mainly consisted of a few buildings). Demoralized to learn that the store closed at five, we collapsed at the only free place to camp, on what had been promised to be the "church lawn." A church it was, but lawn was only a suggestion, as it was hard-packed, slanted dirt strangely festooned with broken glass.

Resigning myself to the fate of being closely surrounded by other tents, I sat and brushed my hair. An Australian hiker commented, "it's nice to see a lady brushing her hair."

"There's some things I can't give up," I replied, to which he said, "There's some things you shouldn't give up."

While comments like this on what "ladies" are doing are sort of wrong on many levels, it was still sort of charming, and much better than the American male twenty somethings, who mainly ignored us. We weren't young enough to be their girlfriends yet we weren't their moms. This being true, they didn't know how to address us. I've noticed this phenomenon in younger men on trail: they seem to lack the social skills that previous generations had. Perhaps this has always been the case when confronted with middle-aged women who don't fit the usual mold.

 An injured hiker limped around insisting she could hike out the next day. Others, like us, awaited the store opening, at the horrible hour of nine. It would be hot on our climb out. We had seen other hikers struggling back on the road from town, unable to obtain a hitch. All we could do was wait for the morning and what it would bring.

Friday, June 29, 2018

On the PCT again (and panic packing)

I'm heading out this weekend to close the gap on a PCT section in Northern California. It's hard to believe, but after this one is done, I will have less than 500 miles left of the PCT to complete. That means I have hiked 2000 miles.

Flash and I haven't hiked together since the Great Yosemite Slog of 2015, and I'm looking forward to it. It's a true partnership--the hiking we did in the northern part of Washington stands out as one of my favorite times on the PCT. We get each other--even if we can get annoyed with each other at times, we accept our differences. That is the definition of a true friend!

My pack weighs in at 20.5 pounds without water for the first three day stretch, which is pretty good, even with a few luxuries such as camp shoes and a Kindle (I've pretty much gotten out of the habit of camp shoes, but decided since I am now wearing custom insoles that my feet may need a break. Plus, swimming!)

We are both panic packing. This occurs when you take out or throw in items based on your fears. Do I really need a wool hat in the summer? Rain pants or rain skirt? What if my feet hurt? Should I bring extra insoles? Do I  have enough food? Do I have too much food...and so on.

I should be done about the 11th and this blog will probably go dark until then, unless we pass through a town. I'll be back with many stories to tell.

This graph below from The Trek shows the difference in base weight between section and thru hikers on the Appalachian Trail. (Base weight is everything in your pack including the pack except food and water. My base weight is about 12-14 pounds depending on if I take luxury items or what season it is). You can see that thru hikers often have much lower weights. That's because they are out there for months and jettison anything extraneous. They also tend to take it close to the bone. Some are just one storm away from disaster.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Ice Lake is Enough

I heard a commotion at the Ice Lake junction. Suddenly Ruby burst into view, running for her life. Behind her was an angry deer. A dog chased by a deer! It was an unusual start to a perfect weekend.

My friend T and I hiked up to Ice Lake to spend the night. Unfortunately, this lake has been discovered. More and more people are making the trek up there, some just for the day. Nobody used to do 16 mile day hikes in these mountains, at least it was rare, but it is becoming more common. And the trail runners! Now don't get me wrong, I love a trail run as much as the next person, but who let the news out about this super rocky, steep trail? What I don't like about the trail runners are the ones who aren't local, who think that you should step aside for them just because they are running. Generally I try to do this even if I am  hiking uphill, but the grumpiness that ensues when the trail is narrow and the person has to walk a few steps! Please, people. The trail belongs to everyone.

These are only minor annoyances which quickly faded away as we arrived at the lake.  A strange fog lay over the mountains as we looked for a snow-free place to set up camp.

A friendly group of guys stood around one campsite (and were still standing around it in the same spots hours later). A hammock hanger occupied one piece of territory and a couple other groups filtered in. Despite that we were able to find our own choice piece of real estate.

The dogs didn't really mesh which left me thinking about hiking companions. I'm going through an adventure partner breakup right now, and it's for the best even if it's hard. You have to learn to let go when something isn't working. As far as the dogs, Ruby wanted to play and Molly didn't, and poor Ruby kept persisting, and getting rejected. Ruby finally reluctantly accepted that some dogs, like some people, just are looking for a different experience. I'm with you, Ruby: bring on the fun!

So it was nice to get out with a friend who doesn't ask for much but a beautiful lake and your stove to heat water with. We sat on a hillside watching the sun set. The night wasn't cold, everyone went to bed early, and I slept better than I have in a long time. So what if all hiking partnerships don't work out? There are others that do. The way to look at it is that sometimes, what you have is enough.
My all time favorite hiking companion!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Close Encounters of the Beary Kind

I have a confession.

I am unreasonably, irrationally afraid of BEARS. I managed to get this fear under control when I worked as a wilderness kayak ranger in Alaska. After all, we would sit eating our rice in our remote backcountry campsites, we would count the bears we saw strolling past our tents (seven at one time was the record).  Then myself and five companions were charged by a coastal grizzly in 2009, somehow escaping injury. The fear came back. Now that I live in a place where they are rarely seen, I'm more nervous than ever.

However, this nervousness is confined to the night, when I'm in a tent. For some reason, I don't get scared hiking. I realize this makes no sense.

Even though I'm afraid of bears, I still go out. This summer, if you can call this desperately rainy, cool weather as summer, I've been out a lot alone. The trails are deserted in direct contrast to prior seasons. People are going to warmer, dryer places. This has led to some long and beautiful hikes and runs in solitude.

Yesterday I headed up from the "green gate", a typical running and walking route that gets you up to the moraine quickly. It's a local favorite that gains only 800 feet to a beautiful plateau. Due to the record-setting rain, the grass was nearly higher than the dogs.

it's all fun and games until a bear crosses your path. I don't have any pictures of the bear.

I heard a stick break in the woods and thought it was Ruby, so I called her (I try to keep her in sight at all times). To my surprise, a large bear emerged from the woods and loped across the trail, just feet away.

When you're not used to seeing bears anymore, there is a second of disbelief before your mind can process what it is. The dogs were up the trail, between me and the bear, so I decided to go after them to make sure there weren't any bad outcomes. As I cautiously moved up the trail, I came upon a recently dead fawn, still warm. It was obvious the bear had been lurking near the carcass.

This is pretty dangerous, and it seemed prudent to withdraw.

Even though it was a nice day on the moraine. Sort of.

Typical views. So many clouds, so little sun.
I really don't know how to get over the fear of night time bears. I'll continue with immersion therapy and hope it somehow goes away. In the meantime, I guess I'll dig out the bear spray and start carrying it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

How to look good in the woods

JUST KIDDING! Whose blog do you think you're reading anyway? During the course of my outdoors life, I've heard things like this:

"Whoa, you look like a volcano blew up in your face." (Actually, I had been cleaning fire pits, so perhaps this one was justified.)
"Where have you BEEN?"
"You look like you've been out a long time."
"You look a little rough from your travels."

Side note: do random strangers say things like this to men? I also once had a man say, "Stylish!" as I hiked past. I was wearing a sun shirt and a hiking skirt. Apparently hiking skirts have not made it to the Grand Canyon yet.

"Stylish" on the PCT in 2015.
Here's my advice: Don't worry about what you look like in the woods. Worry instead about how your senses are being dulled in the "real world." Don't believe me? Go out for a week. Walk back toward the trailhead. Guarantee you will be able to smell the laundry soap on day hiker clothes.; it wafts well in advance of their approach. If only a week in the wilderness allows you to smell this, what is happening to you every day in civilization?

Worry about how wilderness is vanishing in the world. How it's becoming no longer relevant to a whole generation. How attacks on it are shrinking our public lands.

As for me, I don't know what it is, but the minute I step on a trail I become a hot mess. Hair everywhere, scratches on my legs, dirty clothes. Do I care? Nope. I even found a hat that sums up my attitude.

In fact, I look remarkably similar on trail and off. Hmm...Above, the showered version...

After a week (100  miles) on trail
I found an article for women (of course) on how to look good while backpacking. Dry shampoo? Foundation? Um, nope. Ain't nobody got time for that! I have had hiking partners that will veer off trail for a shower. Me, I'd rather keep hiking and get a shower at the end. The contrast to ordinary life is what I crave. Why do the same things you do at home? Jumping in a lake (no soap!) is just as good.

So if you've somehow navigated here looking for wisdom on how to look put together while backpacking, sorry, this is not the place. My only advice is: Hats. Hats cover a multitude of sins. Clothes can be rinsed out, no need to carry a metric ton of them. Small gaiters are miracle workers in keeping your feet clean-ish. Sunscreen is the only "foundation" you need. One concession: I pack a tiny hairbrush, otherwise I'd end up with dreadlocks.

Guys, none of this probably matters to you. Looking like a mountain man is generally considered a good thing (I have seen guys who shave every day. Unclear on why).  However, baby wipes can be your friend (pack them out). 

There concludes my unhelpful advice on how to look good in the woods. Basically: I have no idea! How do some people sport white T-shirts that stay white? How do some people look like they stepped out of an REI catalog? For the love of everything holy, how do people manage to not sit in sap, get clawed by bushes, or face plant into poison ivy? You've got me. 
****Edit! As Jill pointed out, there are moments where hygiene must occur. Not only for your own sanity, but for your own health. Only you can decide when that is. But please! Do not do as some backpackers do and lather up and jump in the water. Yes even with biodegradable soap.

Friday, June 8, 2018

trick or treat in the mountains

I refreshed the weather forecast obsessively. 50% chance of thunderstorms. It could be all right at almost 9,000 feet or it could be frightening. This spring we have had an unprecedented amount of intense thunderstorms, and I didn't relish the thought of cowering in a small tent during one. The forecast for the following day looked even more grim--90% chance of snow, 2 to 4 inches possible. Oh and to make things even better, "maybe some thunder."

When I lived in Southeast Alaska, a 50% chance of rain was a "good day". Here, not so much. And, honestly, did I really have to be a badass all the time? I feel like since social media came along, people are taking more and more risks and/or doing more epic things just so they can post them. Maybe that's a cynical viewpoint, I don't know. Luckily, only a few people read this blog (Hi! Thanks!) and I don't feel like I need to impress anyone. If a storm comes along in the middle of a trip, that's one thing, but heading out into a certain one just seemed kind of...dumb.

At some point, dithering over a decision needs to stop. Glaring at my packed backpack, I downscaled to a day hike. Grumpily I hit the trail. Stomping up the 3,000 foot climb, I had an overwhelming sense of outdoors FOMO. What if the forecast was wrong? Did I give up a precious, rare Friday off when I could be staying overnight?

The trail was pretty wet and muddy
But eventually you have to let wrong decisions go. My spirits rose as I realized that, inexplicably, I was going to be able to make it to the lake without a lot of snow. A half day outside was better than no days outside, after all.

There are a few constants about this hike to Aneroid Lake. One is that there's few places to hang out at the shoreline, since there's a private inholding with cabins on most of the prime real estate. The typical campsites were shrouded in snow. I settled for some views obscured by trees before a chilly wind sent me heading back.

There are campsites under the snow
Looking around for a good photo view point, I found this. What is it?

Unfortunately, doing day hikes instead of camping means you have to leave before you are ready. See you soon, Aneroid Lake.

There is a point on this trail where I begin to be extremely annoyed by the rocky tread. Rocks stick up like teeth, requiring ballet-like moves in order to stay upright. Some people run this, though that doesn't seem like a good time at all.  I lurched down the trail, a day hiking Frankenstein, my pace considerably slowed. Still, the woods were an intense green, and the trail lacked the powdery dust it soon would become.                         

When I skidded to the parking lot, it was half full of cars. Where those people were was anyone's guess. I'm reluctant to give up my empty spring trails to the summer people, but that's how it goes when you live in a beautiful hiking paradise.

I headed home to eat all the food and to stare obsessively at the sky, which remained impassively clear. A beautiful sunset mockingly appeared.  At the pub, Tim talked about a time in August  of 1991 when it snowed 36 inches at their camp. Though this seemed like a bit of a tall tale, I knew the mountains had their tricks. Fortunately, there's enough treats to keep us going there.