Friday, June 23, 2017

Time for PCT therapy: Chester to Burney

I've had it! It is time to be selfish. I've spent weeks now as the supportive partner and making sure everyone, pets and people, are all right with the move, and also hours in a house feeling a bit isolated from society (working from home is both a blessing and a curse). It is time for a break, and that almost always means the mountains.

It's time for a few days where all that matters are how far it is to the next water source or campsite, Where my job all day isn't to field conference calls and lead groups and tap away at management plans, but to hike. Just to hike, all day long.

I am going with my intrepid friend Jan to hike from Chester to Burney in Northern California. This will be somewhat of a leisure tour, as we have five days and only 88 miles to cover. The whole section is about 129 miles but Jan has to be somewhere and and what's wrong with 17 miles a day?

Unfortunately, we must lug bear canisters because they are required in Lassen National Park now. Hikers love to hate on these cans, and I am not an exception. While they make storing food at night much safer and worry-free, they make a gut bomb in your pack that is hard to pack around. Why can't you approve Ursacks, National Park Service?

We will also hike across the infamous Hat Creek Rim, well known for high temperatures and waterless miles (though there is a water tank now, partway across).

Typically at this time of year the trail is not crowded. But with the high snows and hazardous river crossings, thru-hikers in droves are skipping the Sierra and starting again in Chester. We may be with the herd. Moo.

We are not doing the climbout of Belden, the first part of the graph. Poison oak and heat, I will come back to it later.

Who hikes 88 miles as a break? I do. I can't wait to get back on trail. We start soon.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Walking around, looking at burnt trees (and a few lakes)

Back in the 00s, I fought a few fires in the Central Oregon region. I still recall using a damp gunnysack to beat out flames in brush and grass, the first and only time I was handed a "tool" like this. I knew this place was made for fire, but I never realized how widespread fires here have been since I moved here and started hiking.

There's not a lot to love about a burned forest, but it is interesting to see how it recovers (or not). We hiked up toward Booth Lake through a landscape burned by a massive fire in 2002 or 2003. The land is slowly recovering, but not very fast, since there were few trees left to provide a seed source.

The snowline is low this year, so we turned around at Booth Lake (about 4 miles) and headed back toward the other small lakes along the trail. Camping looked sparse due to the downed trees. One good thing about the fire, though, is that the mountains could be seen in the distance.

The Three Sisters Wilderness hasn't been spared either. We headed toward it on a dusty trail, with few trees left alive.

Because one of us was on a bike, we turned around at the wilderness boundary, but it looked like the Pole fire extended at least another two miles.

The sun is intense here, blazing through the blackened trees. There still is a forest, high and low, but you can't get to the high part until the snow melts. The lower part, near town, is a sandy flat of endless pines. There are endless places to run. I had been feeling pretty burned out on running until I got here.You mean I don't need to huff up endless hills first thing? Stumble over rocks at eleven minutes a mile? How novel.

One week down, fifteen to go, and I am feeling like I could like it here for the duration. I know which side streets to take to avoid the traffic on the main drag, I joined a fancy gym with a pool, and there are places to go where I don't see a soul on the trails. It's not home, but wistfully longing for what you can't have never makes anyone happy. A summer of new trails? OK, I can make that happen.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Stranger in a strange land

It turns out that I'm not good at moving anymore. I used to be. Back in the day, when I moved every six months for a period of ten years, I was the Queen of the Road. I missed every place I left, but I drove eagerly toward the new one, leaving everything behind with few regrets.

I am out of practice. The last time I moved was in 2009, and I was ready to leave Alaska, a place where I had seen heartbreak and too much rain. 2009--a lifetime ago. Now in a new town, I wake up with missing a place so much that it hurts. I didn't realize how much I depended on looking out to see Chief Joseph Mountain every morning, my barometer for the day. I didn't realize how much I depended on knowing that friends were right down the street. Moving, even if it's only for a few months, is hard.

What to do when I feel sad? Find a trail of course! There is an excellent trail system for running and mountain biking right in town, but those trails, at least the parts I walked, are pretty flat. This is a big change from where I lived, where every run started with a soul-destroying hill climb. Running those trails will be great. But when a girl wants elevation, she needs to look elsewhere. So we found a six mile route along Wychus Creek. It was listed as "difficult", which made me laugh, because there were only a few rocky climbs. But it was still a nice hike. It paralleled the Wild and Scenic River, with some swimming  holes, were it a bit warmer.

Then we decided to find the snowline. Turns out it was only a few miles from town.

Being in the alpine made me happy. It was cold up here, and snowing.

The pets are all adjusting, though Puffin the cat doesn't like it much. He misses being outdoors, and keeps trying to find his way home. Turns out what they tell you about cats trying to go back to to the old house is true. As much as he loves us, he loves the place more. I get it, Puff, I do.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Surviving the WCT

I toed the line (a piece of flagging) feeling the way I used to in my racing days: a combination of tummy upset and wanting to throw up. The other recruits, all laden with the same forty-five pound vest that I was unhappily wearing, looked, and probably were, about twenty years old. I noticed that just putting the cumbersome vest on caused me to gasp for breath and I regretted the 14 mile day hike I had done a couple of days before. I had climbed a few thousand feet to snowline on one trail, hiked down, and climbed another trail to snowline. Maybe I should have tapered?

Here I was, doing the work capacity test for firefighting once again. I first got a "red card" in 1986, when it was still the mile and a half run. You had to complete it in eleven minutes, forty-five seconds, which at the time seemed laughably slow, but now would represent more of a challenge. After the run came the step test, where you inexplicably stepped up and down on a box, accompanied by a metronome, for five minutes (I think) and then  your pulse was taken to see how quickly it returned to a level that was measured on a scale. If your heart had too many beats, you failed.

Now we walk for three miles with forty-five pounds and have forty-five minutes to complete it. Which sounds easy, but for littler, shorter people it's not easy. I realized as we started out on our first half mile lap that while I have been hiking fast a lot, I haven't been hiking fast with a lot of weight. If I carry a forty-five pound pack these days, it can only be in winter when I need extra snow gear. Usually my pack for a week tops about 25 pounds.

This is not the vest I had. Look! Weight on the hips. A revolutionary idea!
When the first guys passed me, I knew this wasn't going to be my day. I just didn't feel great. Usually I am in the lead and after the first bit, I generally feel unstoppable. Not today. I knew this was going to be a ride on the struggle bus.

I wondered why I was taking the test anyway. When most people think of firefighters, they think of people swinging tools on the fireline. I am still qualified to do that, but haven't in awhile. I usually work at the helibase, directing the helicopters. It's not all that glamorous, but it's still a part of a world I really used to love. It's not my world anymore, but I like to visit it now and then.

This is the vest I was wearing. Look comfortable? Think again. It is still a vast improvement over the forerunners, which hung past my waist and caused terrible gouges in my skin.

The weight sat heavily on my shoulders. The vests are an improvement over the days we loaded up ancient backpacks with sand, but your shoulders still take the brunt (there are allegedly "women specific vests, and vests in the shape of a V that are supposed to be more forgiving, but we don't have those). A couple more guys passed me.

I was still doing OK, though, with miles in the high thirteens. Then it happened. Three girls who had been back a ways started a slow run shuffle (you aren't supposed to run, but some people get away with a flat-footed jog) and passed me right in the last eighth of a mile. I snarled to myself. I hated this in races and I guess I still hate it now, people who let you set the pace the whole way and then sprint past you at the very end.

I refused to run after them, and ended up finishing in 41 minutes. I stomped back to my car, remembering the days of 36, 38, 39. It really doesn't matter--you pass whether you finish in 31 minutes (which a guy questionably did one year that the course went behind some buildings, we suspected him of running) or 45 minutes. It's stupid to care, but I do. The WCT brought back my racing days, when I was young and fast and could win races, or at least place. That also is a world I don't live in anymore, and don't really want to visit.

So I have a red card, again, year 31. I don't know if I will go on any fires or in what capacity. It's hard to fit them in, two weeks in a summer that's short enough already. This is probably my last WCT, and I am coming around to being OK with it. There are plenty of other worlds to visit.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Summer in a weekend

When I lived in the rainforest, there were, on average, 84 days of sunshine. I began to believe, like most of the inhabitants, that this was better. That the constant mist, fog, or downright downpour was worth living there. I forgot about the sun. Who needed it, anyway?

But in the end, the sun won out. Now, eight years since I sailed away on a ferry, I still don't take sunshine for granted. Staying inside isn't an option. I also knew I had to roll 120 days of summer here into one weekend, since we are moving soon.  I was up for the challenge.

First off was a trail run on the end of Thursday. Though I had to dodge snowbanks and slosh through mud, the run restored my faith in humanity and my thought of myself as a runner. If all runs could be like that, I would run every day! Why is it that hiking can almost always be the same but running varies from easy to impossible?

Then it was time to kayak.

I had the lake to myself. This will soon change.
I have to admit that I'm a little frightened by the fear-mongering about crowds in Central Oregon. I hope it isn't as bad as people make it out to be.

The flower strewn hillsides of Chico.
When you move to a new town by yourself  later in life, friendships can be tenuous. Most people have a circle of friends and it can be hard to break in, especially in a place with less than two thousand people, where there are no outdoors clubs to get you started. For the first few years I asked more than was asked. For my hike into Davis Creek, I asked P, whom I had only hiked with once. To my surprise, she started talking about how she liked to do double-digit day hikes and would be interested in backpacking. Score!

Once again, we didn't see a soul except a trio silhouetted on Starvation Ridge, high above us.

The lake is located just below that grey rock at the top of  the picture.
Hope springs eternal,  and on the last day I had off from work, I decided to see how far I could push the snowline. Several out of town backpackers had the same idea. Even after I told them that the trail was completely snow-covered and impossible to follow after it climbed out of the basin, they shrugged and pressed on. "We have microspikes," one couple declared. Good luck with that! I decided to turn around and live another day. I was fine with as far as I made it--five miles up the trail.

My weekend of summer was over, and I trudged back to the computer. I wonder though: if I had every day to choose from, would I appreciate it as much, or would I instead fidget over the massive snowpack keeping me at low elevation?  As much as I am glad to be out of the rain, living in it taught me to accept what was. During gales, you stayed on the beach. If it rained the whole five days of a kayak trip, you dealt with it. There was no waiting for the perfect time, the perfect weather, the perfect trail.

Happy summer, friends!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Once a runner

I'm not sure I can call myself a runner anymore.  I used to love running to the exclusion of all other activities. In fact, I would ponder invitations based on whether I would be able to run or not. Not being able to run was doom personified.

So what happened? Like most of my friends who started young (I started in my early teens), I kind of grew out of the competitive phase. I didn't see the point of paying to run, and didn't really care about personal records anymore. I wanted to run solo, not with a group of sweaty strangers.  Running became more about time free of electronics, even music, and turned exclusively to trails, because pavement just felt too harsh. Now, I find there are many other things I want to do with my limited free time, and running has been relegated to about two times a week.

So can I call myself a runner? I launched myself out of the house the other day. The cat followed, and I put him inside. He jumped back out the cat door. I distracted him with treats (he has me trained). I lumbered up the park trails, thanking my stars that I didn't carry a Garmin anymore. I know my pace is slow. I find it hard to care about this. I used to care, a lot.

Running was the first really hard thing I did. Back in the day, there weren't really training plans, nobody told you how to "fuel", we didn't have belts with GU, we ran uphill in the snow both ways, etc etc. But seriously, we mostly ran all out, all the time. As fast as we could, even in training. It taught me how to be tough. I don't know if I could have gone on to fight fire or work on a trail crew without this experience.

Now, everybody runs, but back when I started, it was still sort of unusual. People called it jogging. They wore sweatbands. Guys wore really short shorts.  I owned a Goretex suit of a shiny silver material that I wore in winter, a coat and pants. I probably looked like a Martian. But it was fun.

Do I miss the way it used to be? Sometimes. There were plenty of moments on a long run when the stars aligned and nothing could hold me back. I've run all over the country, mostly in the national parks where I worked. There were a plethora of trails, and unlike the ones here, these were soft and smooth, free of rocks. Those were the good times. I will always be grateful for them. And even though I run in one week what I used to in one day, I don't regret a thing. Running will always be something I do, even if it's slow, even if it's only a few times a month. It's changed, but it hasn't gone away.
After a record-setting race. Don't laugh! These outfits were the height of fashion!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Retreat from a high point

The trails are opening up!  It's been a long winter of the bike trainer and the gym. While it will be a couple of months before the high country melts out, the lower elevation trails are once again open for business. We are able to now trot along about six miles in before snow stops us.

Going to be awhile before anyone climbs Sacajawea.
The late spring means that the narrow Hells Canyon window is open a little longer than usual.  "I don't think I've ever climbed up Freezeout this late," I mused to T as we ascended the trail. Usually baking in the heat by now, it was downright pleasant this April...I mean, May. A 50% chance of thunderstorms was not about to deter us from our goal, Freezeout Saddle. Only about three miles, it can feel like a lot farther as you plod up endless switchbacks, climbing over two thousand feet. 

We had a bigger day than that planned. We hoped to hike along the ridge for a few miles, on a little-used trail that circles the canyon rim. I hadn't been on it in years and T never had. It would be a good, long hiking day.

Two backpackers lounged on the saddle, getting ready for the rocky descent into the canyon. I felt envious, as I always do when I day hike. It would have been a perfect night to camp.
This view doesn't really get old.
Or not. A clap of thunder from nearby sent us on high alert. A storm crouched just to the west, ready to descend. We were on the highest point around. Time to leave. The miles went a lot faster on the way down.


We gained the parking lot just as the storm unleashed. A bear hunter observed us.
"You girls got back just in time," he said. Disregarding the fact that in no known universe can I still be considered a girl, he was correct.

So it would be a short day, but you don't mess with thunderstorms around here. I recently talked with a lightning strike survivor, and his story pretty much convinced me that retreat was the better part of valor.  In these mountains, you have to know when to retreat. 

As we drove away, lightning pounded the hills. I thought of the backpackers and hoped they had made it to a low point. Though six miles is nowhere near an epic day, it felt fine. When I used to run more, I got caught up in the miles I recorded in my training log. Less than a certain number meant I had failed. I'm glad I've moved past that point.