Sunday, January 14, 2018

Chasing a Fat Bike

January 2018, from the head of the lake
Last year at this time, we were skiing across this lake.
January 2017, from the foot of the lake
Sadly, we are in a somewhat different situation this year. I count on winter as a time to do less running and hiking and, instead, more skiing and snowshoeing. They are different activities that work different muscles, something you have to think about as you pile on decades of athletic endeavors. 

Unfortunately, there's no such break this year. The trails aren't snowy, but they are rivers of ice. Not just "I can wear microspikes and be OK" ice, but thick, slippery, "I might fall and break something" ice. Desperate to avoid the treadmill, I have been trying to run creatively. Endless loops around the campground, with the state park workers looking on in bemusement, crunching through snow on the moraine....none of it is fast. I'm glad I don't care about my time anymore. I'm just glad I can still run.

Another day I decided to "chase the fat bike." It's a good incentive to keep going up the hills, because sometimes I can keep up and even pass the bike. Sometimes I can't.  The bike can smoke me on the downhills, but sometimes on the flats I stand a chance. It all comes down to footing. On this occasion, the snowmobile club had groomed the canal road, and the conditions were outstanding.

There was just the crunch of my shoes on the corduroy as I climbed the hills. There were also occasional stops as I ran into a friend skate skiing and several friends snowshoeing. Those caused delays in my quest, but I usually managed to catch up. It was one of those times when I remembered why I like to run--the stars aligned for a pain free, lighter than air run.

Eventually I turned around and went down to the ski area to do a shuttle for the fat bike. With the sun beating on the deck, it felt like summer. Which is both scary and wrong, but in the moment, I appreciated it greatly.

I believe this one of the first descents of the ski area on fat bike.

People keep saying the snow will come, but they also say that there is greenup in the canyon. It is way too warm for January. This could mean a smoky summer for us. In seasons past, February and March have been the snowiest months of all. We will wait for snow. In the meantime, I'll incorporate chasing a fat bike as part of my training regimen.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Whatever melts your butter

I read the email from the Park Service with interest. What?! Since we had less hikers than I had paid for, I now have a Grand Canyon hiker credit, that must be used by December 26, 2018. Yippee!

Immediately I started thinking. For GC backcountry permits, you can start applying four months in advance of your hike. Woe be to the fool who waits a longer time than that. The permits go fast. They are now working on May. Since nobody with an ounce of sanity really should be hiking in the inner canyon, especially the Tonto, in the summer months, that leaves October, November and December.

Hmm, I thought. Clear Creek? The Gems? Then: whoa there, partner! You just got back from a trip! What's the matter with you? Then I's Adventure Mania. This happens when I get back from one trip and am not quite ready to give in to the inevitable of real life. I want to always be on vacation!

The only way to prevent adventure mania when you really can't give in to it is to do smaller, local trips. They aren't as fulfilling, because at the end of the day you come home to chores and work. But it's better than nothing. I have never been one to not go on a trip, even if it's expensive, even if it means time off work, even if. Who knows how much longer we all have on this revolving sphere? You need to do what "melts your butter," as my former fire management officer would say (another saying is "whatever blows up your skirt"). For me, there are many reasons to stay home, but I know that won't make me a very happy person.

With that in mind, we ventured down to the Imnaha for a day hike. The hike is one I have done many times but it never fails to impress. The two rivers--the Snake and the Imnaha--flow together as they have done for centuries. It is a magical place.

The sweet 12 year old. He has recovered from his cancer surgery well!
Even the drive down to the trailhead, as slow and awful as it is (it takes an hour to drive 11 miles) was worth it.

Passing over a new landslide in this dynamic environment, we easily trekked the four mostly level miles to the confluence. We should have brought a tent, we agreed, since the temperature was in the forties--sort of unheard of this time of year.

Reluctantly we had to head back immediately, since the forecast called for rain. On these clay roads, if it rains, you can be stuck for days until it dries out. Since we didn't have any snacks, that didn't seem like a good idea.

The next day we geared up for the unknown. Up at Salt Creek, the snow might be OK or it might not (spoiler alert: it wasn't). "Why can't we be people who like to sit on the couch, watch TV, and eat chips?" I groused as I packed in snowshoe, ski, and hiking paraphrenalia. "Well, we like eating chips," J said. (Truth be told: some of these winter nights I have thought a TV might be nice. But I always talk myself out of it)

The snow was a miserable crust. Skiing was out of the question. I struggled with snowshoes, sinking in with each step; not sinking in to powder, but through a crunchy crust that required a slow motion pace. After an hour and a half, I gave up. Adventure isn't always fun. I'm never sorry I went outside though. It "melts my butter".

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

once again below the rim: Backpacking the Grand Canyon, Hermit Rapids to Bright Angel

I followed three men into the Grand Canyon. "When did I get to be old?" Camel asked, echoing my thoughts. "I bet you ran down this years ago," he added. He would have been right. Now I pick my way through the rolling pebbles and lean on my trekking poles as I descend the drops between the rocks. Still, I am doing this. I am back in the Canyon for the tenth time, and, unlike me, the experience never gets old.

Our itinerary isn't too ambitious: 42 miles in four nights, but as always, the canyon miles come harder than others. The trek from the Tonto trail junction down to Hermit Rapids is far rougher than I remember, and the beach itself has been invaded by willow, a far different story than when I was here last. We stumble into camp in time to see some Canadians take on the rapids. They have 18 days on the river, and as we settle into our camps, falling asleep to the roar of the water, it's hard not to wish we had longer, too.

Granite Rapids camp
We have hit a mysterious warm spell in the canyon, with no ice or snow to navigate at the trailhead, and although the evenings drop into the thirties, the daytime temperatures soar enough to allow for a hiking December. We hike back up the Hermit canyon to the Tonto trail, taking it across and back down to our next camp at Granite Rapids. There are few people on this section of trail, and we have the river mostly to ourselves. A shooting star blazes across a full-moon sky. How lucky we are, I think. 

My happy place: The Tonto trail
My trail companions are as mesmerized as I am. Blue Dot speaks of growing up in India, where people walk for a purpose. Just going for a hike like this is mostly unheard of. Even Camel and Good Stuff, who have been here before, recline in their folding chairs ("only a pound," they defend their choice of burden) and take in the interplay of water, rock and sand. 

On the third day, we slog back up the gravelly wash to the Tonto and ten miles east to Horn Creek. Only one party per night is allowed to camp there, and the silence is absolute. A small creek, said to be radioactive from a long-abandoned mine near the rim, trickles below our tents. Tempting fate, we drink from it anyway. This is not what we will die from, we tell ourselves.

As we reach Indian Garden campground on Day 4, the solitude and peacefulness is broken. Ninety people share the Bright Angel campground with us. Disregarding the warnings not to hike to the river and back in one day, hordes of day hikers, some in designer jeans, take it on. At first, I am tempted to veer off onto the East Tonto instead, but then I decide to embrace the experience. This is "glamping" at its finest: flush toilets and wine at the Phantom Ranch cantina. I lie on Boat Beach until the sun fades; it is nearly seventy degrees.

On the last day of the year we pack up and head out. Good Stuff has claimed that I will bolt for the rim, because I always do; I have said I won't, but in the end I can't resist. I come upon a man in jeans, who starts running when he sees me, reluctant to let me pass. Game on, buddy! I think, and he is forced to concede (sorry, you can hike faster than me and I will let you go, but running so a woman doesn't pass you isn't cool). I climb nine miles and five thousand feet in four hours; I want to know if I still can. Like all good trail companions, we have allowed each other the freedom on this hike to go solo for a few hours if we choose. I savor this. People who get it are hard to find.

I have thought that this, my tenth time in the canyon, might be enough. I am tired of the Corridor crowds, and I have beaten a path between Hermit and Indian Garden several times. What remains are the harder, more remote trails: Tanner, New Hance, South Bass. I am not great on the slippery downhill, and am not sure if I want to attempt these. But as I arrive on the rim, I know that I am probably not done with the canyon. Not yet.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

the antidote to parties

In case you haven't noticed, it's Christmas. What does that mean? Christmas parties! I've been roped into several of them, and while I like seeing my friends, I'd much rather talk with them during a ski, a hike, or anything other than the forced small talk of a party.  I want to be doing something, not just sitting around. Am I the only one whose heart sinks with a party invite, feeling grateful to be included, but sort of dreading it? I hope not.

Far better, for me, is the outdoors adventure. I feel like conversations are much more real there. I've thought it before: in the wilderness, I am the closest to the best person I can be.

The day before Christmas Eve, we went skiing on a trail that is usually off limits for me. Packed with steep dropoffs and climbs, it is less about gliding than survival. But sometimes, the stars align, as they did that day, with a deep dump of fresh powder, slowing me down enough that I could enjoy the ride. The temperature barely scraped into double digits, and the dogs swam through the snow, almost as deep as they were. It was perfect. On a day like that, you can talk about anything.

I thought about the people I have confided in over a camp stove, or between tents. The people I met who briefly shared my life, people whom I probably had almost zero in common besides the wilderness. People who have become lifelong friends because I swung a tool beside them on a trail, or because we shared an experience together that changed us forever. For example, Jack and me huddling in a lightning bracketed forest, sure our time was up. Steve and me burning out a safety zone as a fire rushed toward us. And the more benign: stars brushing the tops of aspen trees, sky stained pink from northern lights in an Idaho sky.

The wilderness for me is almost all that matters, although that's not really true. There's family, and friends, and doing good in the world. But if there's no wilderness, for me there's no knowing anyone. Seeing how someone reacts to adversity or compromising tells you a lot. There was the former boyfriend who showed impatience when my Raynaud's afflicted fingers refused to work. And the other one who skied ahead of us in minus twenty temperatures, while a friend stayed back with me as I towed the sled with our gear. There was the woman who pitched a fit when I suggested we hike just a little farther rather than sitting in our tents at two pm in the rain. And the good ones: Flash, who talked me through a major bonk and lack of campsites after a long, downhill hike. Beekeeper, who stuck with it on a blazing hot, 22 mile day despite overheating.

I have not always shown bravery in the wilderness. I have whined, I have had meltdowns. It is a work in progress, always. But way more real than party talk.

Happy holidays, friends. I wish for you a perfect day, whether it's a hike through the forest, a ski in an icebox winter, or even a party. See you in the new year.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

the secrets of winter trails

In winter, the small enclave of houses near Wallowa Lake becomes nearly a ghost town. Most of the cabins are summer rentals, shut up tight. A few snow-shrouded cars hint at reclusive year-round residents. The gondola stopped running months ago. The shops are closed. You drive through, feeling as if you are the only person in the world.

The trails in summer are full of horses and hikers, a place to generally hurry through enroute to a high mountain lake. But in winter, you can have them all to yourself. I was looking for a trail a short drive from the house, and this one, only six miles from home, was perfect.
I could say I am fortunate to live so close to mountain trails, but it's not really a stroke of luck, not an accident of fate. I took additional science college classes at night for two years to supplement my BA in order to qualify for the job I now have. I lived in places that were not geographically desirable for years, lonely places, building up my resume. So while I know fortunate events in life have led me here, much of it was my doing.

I often wonder if dogs feel sorry for us as we plod along slowly on two feet. Ruby and I headed up the East Fork Wallowa trail, which in summer is a rock-studded slog until you reach the alpine shores of Aneroid Lake. The forest is unhealthy here, with little sunlight reaching through the thick mat of trees. It's not particularly lovely; you don't get views for at least three miles. But in winter, a thick coat of forgiving snow turns it somewhat magical.

I followed someone's Yak Traks toward the dam that feeds the small hydropower plant for the resort houses. That person had turned around and accessed the dam road to return to the trailhead, a steeper and shorter option that also avoids some avalanche paths. Because there has been little snow until now, the avy danger is low, although it won't be soon. Light snow has begun to cover the surface hoar, and hikers will have to beware the danger.

Ruby patiently waits for me to appear.
In a couple of miles, too soon, we arrived at the dam and little cabin. I've never seen anyone at this cabin, and I think it's for Fish and Game workers. If it were mine, I would be here all the time.

Is there anything better than a small cabin in falling snow?

The water backs up by the dam to create a small lake. It doesn't freeze because of the force of the river running into it.
Ruby didn't want to turn around. If it were up to her, we would walk forever. But there were things to do in town. Make bread, pack for a trip, send a copy of my book to Fresh Air (because you might as well aim high). As we headed down the trail, I encountered a solo female hiker, and then later, two women carrying snowshoes. That was it. There were no men in sight. The women knew the secrets of winter trails, too.

But, I don't want to turn around.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Going to the DMV means...

You know it hasn't been a stellar week if going to the DMV is the highlight. But wait, maybe it is. Because this is the first time I have lived in one place long enough to renew my driver's license!

As a seasonal worker, I kept the license from my home state for years, so I guess that could count. But it didn't, not really, because I was living in Nevada/Washington/New Mexico/Idaho/California; the venue changed with the seasons. Since then I've had licenses from three states, but I never stayed there long enough to have to renew. In fact, I never wanted to stay in one place that long. The horror! Wasn't  it better to keep on the move, seeing new places? I thought this way for years.

I recently went back to one of my favorite places for a book signing--the Sawtooth Mountains. I would have stayed here forever if there had been a long term job here.
Once, as I left yet another place, one of the maintenance guys said, "I hope you find what you're looking for." At the time, twenty-two and a long road ahead, I thought he was just envious. Stuck in a small town, a town he had always lived in, what could he know of the possibilities of the open road? Now, from the vantage of many more years lived, I realize I was looking for something, something intangible, something I'm still not sure I've found. But maybe I have found good enough.

I went for a run a couple of days ago. My running has been cut way back as I work on the strengthening exercises that are supposed to help my knees and hopefully address the clunking I feel in one of them. But I needed to run. I'd just run a short distance, I thought. But I didn't feel like it, not very much. We have been encased in a thick, freezing fog that isn't much fun to be out in. You have to slip and slide through snow. I sighed and donned my spikes. It's actually better for me to run on flatter surfaces and we have few of those. The small park it would be.

At the last minute I decided to take my camera. I don't usually run with one, because you know, I run. But daylight was fading and I thought I could endure the monotony of retracing my steps over the same miles by taking some pictures. Haphazardly I aimed my point and shoot camera at some flocked trees. Days later when I looked at the pictures I saw that they captured what I didn't see: a strange and beautiful world of darkness and fog. I kind of like them.

I think this looks like a painting...

Getting pretty dark....
I couldn't stay long: I didn't have a headlamp and the last part of the run is on the road. As I headed down the last switchback, I passed Joe with his mutt, headed back in. Joe pushes the darkness, always, and I laughed to myself because I know that. There's all sorts of things you learn, living in one place for a long time. Like, just maybe, this is as good as it gets.

I don't regret my seasonal migrations, even as I see more settled friends be able to retire at a young age, even as I realize far-flung friends aren't really friends anymore, casualties of distance. Moving every six months for eleven years was the best gift of adventure. I wouldn't want to be in that life anymore, but I'm glad I had it. Those were my glory days, but I don't mean that everything is downhill from now on. Just different. 

By the way, I approached the DMV with fear and loathing. I recalled when I had to go in Alaska to get a new state license. It took forever, and the DMV lady was famous for her efficiency and lack of smiling (we used to try to get her to smile. It never worked). More than one person slunk away near tears after being chastised for not having the right forms. Here, though, I was in and out in about ten minutes, with a nice picture! I can live with that for the next several years.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

To the summit of Mount Howard

I was feeling a little discouraged. What was up with this patella, it didn't seem to be tracking. And after acupuncture, the IT band issue seemed to go away, but now I had a weird tendinitis thing near the ankle. Was my body just wanting to stop? I couldn't accept that.

To top things off, a dense fog had moved into the valley, keeping a lid on us and dropping temperatures to single digits. This was hard to take. However, the rumor was that if you drove above it, a springlike 50 degrees could be found, along with sun. It was time for a test--both of my fitness and of the rumored warmth.

I settled on one of the hardest winter slogs around here that still would allow me to get home at a reasonable hour. The hike up the backside of Mount Howard is no easy undertaking. While you do follow a closed road, the grades are terrifyingly steep, depositing you finally at 8,000 feet. As sprightly as your hiking pace may be, I guarantee it will be reduced to a slog before long.

Can you tell the typical wind direction?
A strange lack of snow allowed me to drive to the summer trailhead, reducing the trek by a couple of miles. I would take whatever advantage I could get. I was also delighted to find that the tram company had driven up the road recently in a snow cat, so the overall slogginess was reduced significantly. Was this cheating? No, I thought, as I sunk deep in interesting surface crystals (this is formed when water vapor from the snowpack moves to the surface. Very dangerous on slopes when it gets buried as far as avalanches are concerned). 
My attempt to capture surface hoar--not very successful, but trust me, it's like jagged pieces of glass.
Despite the snow cat advantage, my pace was reduced to a slow shuffle. I was down to one layer as I crept skyward. Animals had been having a big party; tracks crisscrossed the snow. I was, in fact, following very recent tracks of a large feline. I had yet to take my snowshoes off my pack, and so I comforted myself with the thought that the spikes could serve as a weapon, should I need one.

I could feel a bonk coming on as I approached the sunny switchbacks. The snow was soft here and difficult to navigate. I leaned desperately on my poles. Seriously, I thought. Why do I do these things?

It's always worth it on Mount Howard, though. At last I climbed to the tram building, closed for the season. In a few short months, thirty thousand people will arrive here via the gondola. But not today. Far below, the fog still choked the valley. Up here, it was a pleasant, warm day, though the lack of snow is a bit troubling. I should have brought a tent, I thought. It was that nice.

Fog in the valley below.

Good thing I carried these snowshoes for hours. Not sure what is going on with the braids.
I sat on a rock and munched a snack before reluctantly heading back. The trek downhill was much faster, and nothing hurt. Even the treacherous patella decided to behave. Gaining the parking lot, I surprised a cigarette smoking man, who wanted to know where I had been. "How far is it?" he wanted to know. When I told him, he abandoned the idea. I get it, buddy, I really do. But the slog? Worth it, every time.

Not much snow in those hills.