Saturday, July 18, 2015

Swimming on the edge of the world

I stand at the edge of the lake and look through all my belongings. Wetsuit, check. Neoprene swim cap, check. Neoprene socks, check. Goggles, check. Watch, fins, check check. I'm ready to go. We step into water that recently came from snow.

"Let's swim to the Jett's dock," T says, treading water. I look ahead--it's the farthest I have ever swam in this lake. It's cold, and I need to be sure I can make it back. But I am up for the challenge.

We have no pool here, so we are die hards, a small band of cold water swimmers. We exchange messages and phone calls: "When are you going to swim?" and reports: "Choppy today!" or, "I swam to the green house and back!" It's a loose group, a Swim Your Own Swim group, since we are all different. M swims with her face out of the water because she is afraid of fish (but she is in the water, so props); T is such a fast swimmer that I need to wear fins to keep within shouting distance.

I look way, way down to the bottom of the lake. The water is so clear that it appears to be close enough to touch the rocks and sand below me, but I know it is not. It feels like I am suspended between water and earth, like I am in a different world; that is the impossibility of swimming. I didn't learn how until about ten years ago when a running injury forced me to find something else to do, and it still seems like magic.

This is way better than pool swimming, the endless back and forth of a Sea World tank. The season is short and sweet and you'd better get out there when it's on.

I have not escaped mishaps however. Swimming back from past the Jett dock, I collided with something wet and furry. A yellow Lab blinked back at me. Where had it come from, and where was it going? It was another lake mystery.

There are also ambitious stand up paddlers to avoid, and the random water skier, so we hug the shores and the no wake zones. We stagger out of the lake like drunks, the cold water affecting our balance in our inner ears. You don't realize how much energy is expended during swimming because it feels easy, until you are done, your body a limp noodle on the beach.

 I race home to take a hot shower to warm up. Swimming in cold water feels different than running, or biking, or hiking. There's a glow through my whole body. I hope swim season lasts a long time this year.

In other news: Monkey Bars and Flash hit the trail on the 20th. I'll be back August 2 with trail reports! Get outdoors, everybody!

This is my pool. The snow is gone now though.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

All the Jellybeans,, or: it must be PCT time again

I dragged the Costco container of Jelly Bellys out from where I had hidden them from my husband. (Ha. Ha). My resupply boxes, without their customary tortillas and hummus, looked frighteningly small. Only this much food for 4 days? More jellybeans! More jellybeans!

Yes, it is panic packing once again. On the 20th. Flash and I embark on our next Pacific Crest Trail section hike, from I-80 (Donner Pass) to Tuolumne Meadows. In order to complete the 215 miles by our deadline, we must hike 18 mile days for eleven days. Which, for us, should not be hard, but it always sounds impossible before the hike begins. In reality we usually end up with more miles than that, but this time there are lakes! And it will be warm (maybe. It was snowing on Carson Pass a week ago).

I'm doing a drastic change in food for this section. Because we rarely have sit down lunches when we hike together, but eat on the move, I've ditched the food that needs preppinig and opted instead for Babybel cheese, jerky, trail mix and dried fruit, plus of course, jellybeans. It's a challenge to balance the need to eat healthily with the kind of fuel that will propel you up mountains for hours at a time. Hike ten miles a day? You can get away with kale. Eighteen to twenty-five? Not so much. I still recall flagging at the eighteen mile mark once last spring while Flash, fueled by jellybeans, marched along strongly.

As far as other gear, we aren't sharing a tent this time. It worked on our last section, but we realized that we have different camp styles. Unless it's raining or there are hordes of mosquitoes, I like to flop onto a rock and contemplate the scenery for a few minutes, while Flash likes to get the tent set up and organized right away. Hiking with partners is all about compromise and learning what works well for everyone. When we roll into Yosemite this year, we will have hiked over six hundred miles together. And I will have hiked a bit over a thousand miles of the PCT!

Logistically, this has been a really challenging section to plan. We have to fly with our backpacks, which posed many interesting discussions. Do we a. mail ourselves a box to the starting point, and then one to the ending point with extra clothes, because, other airline passengers? or b. check our backpacks and hope for the best, or c. do a hybrid strategy? In the end, Flash is confident she can separate her gear into two carryons and is checking her trekking poles (because, weapons?) and I am going to swath my pack in one of those big plastic airline bags and pray to the TSA gods that it all works out. We are both mailing ourselves a bag to the end. If all else fails, there is an REI in Reno.

It's been a really busy year of travel for me. Between work and family visits I have flown at least once every month since October and sometimes twice. I am currently on the road, thus no pictures. i get back the 15th and leave again the 18th. It'll be good to get on the trail and leave all this other stuff behind.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

This is not my "Wild" Moment

I struggled up the user-created trail. Gaining 1500 feet in about a mile, it was more for efficiency than comfort. The Eagle Cap Wilderness was in the grip of an unprecedented heat wave: at nearly 8000 feet, the temperature had to be ninety degrees. I had worked my way into a major bonk, reduced to counting out 100 steps and stopping to breathe. Perhaps it was the steady 11 mile incline, perhaps the heat, perhaps not enough food, maybe a combination of all three. Finally I staggered upon Razz Lake, a lovely and high place not frequented by the many hikers who come into the Lakes Basin.

Razz Lake and swimming launch pad

This lake is just about perfect. It has all the elements: soaring mountain views, no crowds, and best of all, large rock slabs on which to sun and swim off. I wasn't even bothered when two backpackers tromped by me to set up camp. They were quiet and far away.

Sitting on my rock, I wondered what they thought. On my hike up, I had encountered several solo hikers. All men. What's up with that, single ladies? I still feel like an anomaly out here. Last month while I waited to board the North Manitou ferry, I heard a know it all loudly discussing his trip with two captive backpackers. "I saw a woman hiking alone," I heard him say. "She said she was with her son but maybe she was just saying that. I asked her if this was her Wild moment." (I saw that woman; she was with her son).

Even though I kind of like the book Wild, once I got past realizing it isn't a "hiking" book, and I think Cheryl was pretty brave to hike the trail in 1995, before all the things that make it softer today, I really don't like the idea that if a woman is hiking alone, she must either a) have read Wild and been inspired by it: 2) has something to prove and/or figure out; or 3) is any different than a man hiking solo. Do not ask anyone if this is their Wild moment. Just. don't.

Anyway, I had plentiful solo hours to wander up to the next tiny lake, read a book, swim, and enjoy the solitude. Did I mention this was the Fourth of July? The thought of sitting in a crowd watching fireworks filled me with horror. The mountains are pretty enough without fireworks. Can we just stop with the fireworks? I know, GASP. I realize people are into the fireworks, the barbecues, the music. I'm just not. I feel like we've gotten away from what independence means. To me, it isn't a party. It's the ultimate independence--the wilderness, which no other country has in the same way. It's being able to hike solo without fear.

Little unnamed lake above Razz Lake
I'm not going to lie, the bonk put fear into my soul. I thought, how am I going to hike 215 miles on the PCT if a puny 11 mile hike has me so tired?  But it turns out, it was just an aberration. The next day I hiked all eleven miles before 9 am (granted, downhill). Still no solo ladies, but they're out there somewhere. Aren't you, wilderness women?
Early sun on Eagle Cap Peak.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The North Manitou Island Vortex

I arrived at the North Manitou Island ferry to a scene of chaos. Boy Scouts, people dragging coolers, so many people. What had I gotten myself into? Back at home, it had seemed so simple. I was going to be in Michigan, and I had two free days. North Manitou Island is part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a mostly wilderness island where, I had read, you can backpack and find solitude.

Solitude? I was not so sure. However, it was entertaining to see what other people had brought. Ridge Rests still in plastic! Five ditty bags hanging off a backpack! Five Nalgenes clipped to a backpack! Duffel bags clipped to a backpack! Clearly, this crowd didn't get out much. The exception was a man toting a cuben fiber backpack. He stood aloof from the crowd, not inviting conversation. I was curious: who in Michigan backpacked enough to spring for a cuben fiber pack?

We shuffled onto the boat like cattle, and I was glad to see that the majority of the crowd was to be dropped off at South Manitou, a non-wilderness island with assigned campsites. However, several groups disembarked with me for the ranger orientation talk at the North Manitou dock. I'd better outpace them, I thought.

True to form, Cuben Fiber Guy bolted down the trail as soon as the talk was over. I would never see him for the entire weekend, even though I covered all the trails on the island. Where did he go? He wasn't telling.

There were three main directions to go: north, towards a large freshwater lake that the ranger warned us against swimming in ("swimmer's itch"); straight across the island to the most popular beach, and south, towards some old homesteads. I chose south.

There are lots of these old, decaying houses. You can't go in them.
The trail was completely flat, and I couldn't help thinking how great it would be to come over and run a big loop. As far as hiking went, it wasn't all that interesting, because I was in the woods most of the time. Occasionally the trail would break out into old clearings and orchards. But when I got to where I thought I was going to camp--the Johnson Place--I couldn't find a legal site. All the sites on the bluff were marked "No Camping."

Turns out the Park Service has a 300 foot setback from water rule. Let me digress a minute here. I have worked in and managed several wildernesses, some with a setback rule and some without. In my opinion, setbacks cause way more impact than they intend to correct. What happens is that people are woefully unable to calculate distance. Thus several rings of campsites are created, as people make them and are ticketed and have to move back. When people finally find a legal site, if the terrain even permits it, they naturally don't want to hang out in the viewless woods. Many little user created paths to the shorelines develop, and people do everything but sleep at the water's edge. Not worth it. I can see how a small setback might be appropriate, but 300 feet is kind of insane.

Unable to find a good site, I marched on, noting two women miserably swatting mosquitoes as they set up in the woods at a legal site. No way, I thought. I didn't intend to end up at the old Crescent dock but it took that long to find a legal campsite. It was worth the walk, even getting into camp at seven. But no worries, the days last forever here in the north country.

Lake Michigan!
There were five other groups camped there, but luckily everyone was quiet and not very close. The next day I crept past snoring tents to complete a long loop in the island's interior. Flat trails meant that I could hike 17 miles before 2 pm. And I only saw a handful of people. Where had everyone gone? I could only surmise that the vortex had swallowed them up.

Along the way I ducked into some old pastures and to the freshwater lake. There was plenty of poison ivy, striking fear into my heart. A botanist told me recently that cashews have the same compound as PI, and once she started eating them, she was immune to PI. I picked out the cashews in my trail mix and ate them frantically.
Old cars at Stormer Camp. There's a history of orchards, logging and other development here.
I hiked back to my camp to find everyone else had vanished. Where had they gone? I had the whole beach to myself. It was strange, a little lonely, but peaceful.
The sunsets on the west side were amazing!

The next morning, I hiked back to the boat. Group after group appeared. Where had they come from? I had not seen them all weekend. At the last minute Cuben Fiber Guy rushed up, having nearly missed the boat. Where had he been? It's all a big mystery. I chalk it up to the vortex, where the days last forever and you can vanish on a small island completely.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Death at Lake Ella

In the seven years I lived in Southeast Alaska, I flew in floatplanes probably a hundred times. I flew to lakes, burdened with rifle, an inflatable raft, and camping gear. I flew to backcountry cabins and to fires. Sometimes we flirted with the minimums, flying just under the cloud ceiling. Once a pilot asked us where we thought we were. Other times we could barely see. When the plane couldn't land and get us, we were stuck out in the wilderness for days. 

I never got scared when we flew. I flew with plenty of white-knucklers who did, though. We were supposed to say when we didn't feel comfortable, when we wanted to turn back, but none of us ever did. On one flight, we all wore our hard hats because our heads kept bumping the ceiling.

I knew planes fell from the sky. I spent days searching for one of them, and we never found anything. The earth or sea had swallowed a DeHavilland Beaver up completely. This was eleven years ago, and nobody has found any trace. I think of the five people sometimes and wonder where they are, and if they will ever go home.

Last week, nine people died on a flightseeing excursion in Misty Fiords National Monument. They were on an Alaskan cruise and had opted to take this trip. People die in Alaska all the time but I was amazed to learn that I knew one of the tourists on board.

Margie was someone I had worked with on a project in Nevada, and I wouldn't say we were friends. We were commiserators in arms, often discussing the challenges of our program. I only met her in person a couple of times, and we talked on the phone a few more. Last year she decided to retire. Then she and her husband boarded a floatplane last week and their lives ended at Lake Ella.

We all go sometime, and maybe to be with the person you love the most, in a wild and beautiful place, is better than lingering in a hospital. We don't really get to choose, although some people do by their lifestyles. What I've learned from this is: don't wait. Not for me, ten more years at a computer; I'll take the considerable penalty and retire from this job in six years. If I could go sooner, I would. You have to take every day and have something great from it. Even if it's just one minute outside in the sun. One walk. One kiss. 

And to lighten the mood: I just spent three days in a vortex! Coming soon, the near escape...

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Unhealthy Obsessions

This looks just like a picture I took, but I had to take this from Wikipedia because all my phone pictures are rotated. Not sure why.

I ran along the Kal Haven trail in Southern Michigan, fuming. I had just been told that I had an unhealthy obsession with fitness and food, and that "bodies change. Embrace your new ass!" The speaker was a long distance friend, one who can be a gem because you never have to check your words and you always know what she is thinking. That can be a gift, especially with women, who tend to hint and get feelings hurt. The flipside is that with friends like these, you get to hear exactly what they think.

Where I'm visiting right now, daily exercise isn't a priority for everyone. I am probably the eccentric relative who years later, it will be recalled, swam halfway around the lake, took numerous walks, and ran on the Kal-Haven trail. At home, I am surrounded by a unique community where seventy year olds shred it on the slopes and people are always talking about their next run or day hike. So it's always an awakening to come to a different place and see that most people don't live that way. It's not wrong, it's just that for me, if I don't exercise six days a week, my body doesn't feel right. 

Obsession? Maybe. I tend to think people call it that when they know they could be doing more, but don't want to. I certainly don't exercise as much as some people I know. I don't run ultras, race across the continent on a bike, or even run marathons anymore. And as far as your body changing as you get older and you should accept it? Nope. Not happening. To me that is not an excuse. If things start to hurt or fail, I can see how that could slow a person down. But because I'm old, I should gain weight? No.

However, it didn't take long for the magical Kal-Haven to make my world right again. This trail is FLAT.It goes from Kalamazoo to Grand Haven, all 34 miles of it, and while I was only running a small part of it (see? so not obsessed), I had forgotten what it was like to run a completely flat trail. And at sea level! So easy! 

I wondered what kind of person I would be if I had met my husband years ago and he was still living here. I wouldn't be a long distance hiker, because those opportunities just don't exist here. Nearly every morning I swam across the lake and back. Would I be a swimmer instead? Would I have kept running marathons? For now it's just dipping into a world that I did not choose.

I came to my turning point, near the town of Bloomingdale, and headed back. As always the act of running made me feel better. Obsessed? Maybe. But I'll take it. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The last place

Sometimes, I think, I should move away. I imagine what it would be like with a real lap pool instead of a glacial lake where we have to don wetsuits, gloves and booties in July. An airport where we don't have to spend two, sometimes four extra days to get to a destination. A grocery store beyond Safeway. More hiking soulmates, the kind who know and stay on that edge between pushing yourself and impossibility. I really, really want more of those.

And yet...

There are days like today. I arrived in a cloud of dust at the Tenderfoot trail head, bound to see how far I could get. There were two cars at the trail head. Two cars, I fumed. Then I had to laugh. I am spoiled. What would it be like to have parking lots completely filled, two hundred people on the trail? Anywhere else, an easy hike like this would be overflowing.

I mean, look:

Where else can you hike to a place like this in four miles and only see four people? (Don't tell anybody!)

I pushed  on to the pass. There was one snow field to cross, and some would have found it sketchy. You fall, you roll a long way. Determination carried me over. Dollar Lake, about a quarter mile off trail, was wonderfully quiet (though scarily low for this early).

I am starting on my seventh year of living in the same town. After this year it will be the longest I have lived anywhere since I was 17. I used to hate the idea of being stuck somewhere.  Wouldn't it be boring? Wouldn't I be boring? Wasn't the point to carpe the diem?

And yet. I am less and less concerned with big goals, with proving anything, with career aspirations. At my mid-year review, my supervisor asked me what my next step was. "Um," I floundered. I know the right answer is a higher grade level, more responsibility, but all I could think was: more desk time, less flexibility, a bigger city. It sounded like a jail sentence. I know that is what people are supposed to want, but I don't. In fact I'd be happy going back to being a wilderness ranger, if I could. That won't pay the bills, though.

I glissaded down the snowfield enroute to the trailhead. For years I moved every six months, then every few years, always thinking I was going to a better place than the one I left. I was good at leaving, good at goodbye. But after six years, I may have found the place I am not going to leave. The last place. It's a good feeling.