Monday, September 28, 2015

eclipsing the sky

The last lunar eclipse I saw was six months ago in San Diego. It was early morning, the day we were to begin our walk through the desert on the PCT. Flash and I were only hiking 110 miles but the rest were beginning their Canada bid. The sight of the moon disappearing seemed like an omen of something big. Now, the people who started on the same day as we did are finishing, congratulations!

It turns out I had a whole canyon to myself. This is one of my favorite places, so big and wild and empty.  I don't tell many people to go here, and the steep uphill hike weeds them out anyway.

I saw J coming down from Sky Lake as I was going up. She was solo too. Which got me thinking. There's been a rash of books/accomplishments about long distance hiking, written by women who are using the trail to heal from something. Me? I just like to hike. I don't expect the trail to do anything for me.

Sky Lake--the perfect place to watch an eclipse
I couldn't resist day hiking up on the pass. Nobody in sight.

In the past, I believe I've been too personal on this blog, which resulted in people who don't know me making assumptions that really did not mirror who I am. I've backed off from sharing too much, but I can say with confidence that the wilderness, while a healing place, is not where I go to fix myself. It's where I go to be disconnected, to hear absolute quiet, to be away from people staring at screens, and to get a good workout. Wilderness lets you take a good long look at yourself and see what needs to be fixed--but it can't fix you.

I crawled in my tent after gnawing on a bagel. The eclipse, over pale mountains, was outstanding. I couldn't get good pictures with my point and shoot, but that's not really the point. I don't need to post it somewhere to remember.



Thursday, September 24, 2015

Misadventures at Jewett Lake

I double-timed it up the trail, scattering day hikers in my wake. I was meeting T at Jewett Lake, and I was sure she was there already. With a four day work week, she was able to get out on Friday, and was hiking through instead of out and back. I had aimed for a four day work week, but work obligations changed all that. So here I was, trying to make the most of twenty-four hours in the woods.

Jewett Lake is off trail, and can be a little tricky to find. You ascend a gully and then bank right to another one, then cross a Sound of Music type plateau before dropping in. I've been there a few times, though, so I arrived in record time, plopping down next to T and pulling out my food bag.

My heart sank. What the...? I had forgotten to pack lunch! I had packed a few snacks and dinner, but in my haste to go I had omitted an important item--calories! Wanting to go light, I had not brought a stove, opting for a dinner of tortillas, tuna, cheese, peppers and spinach. I also had: four Oreos, one granola bar, a 100 calorie pack of Goldfish crackers, and a Twix. (I know, not ideal nutrition. Typically I pack better, but in my defense I was in California all week and didn't have time to shop. Thus, the left over fire lunch raid)

I had just had a fruit and veggie smoothie for breakfast and hadn't eaten on the trail. While this wasn't a desperate situation, I knew I'd be hungry. Thoughtfully, I munched on the granola bar and crackers. At least I would be hungry in a beautiful setting.


T had her own difficulties, having run out of stove fuel the day before. I told her about the cold soak method of rehydrating food, and she went off to try it. (It actually works.) After our "dinner", we found ourselves shivering in a cold breeze. Fall was definitely here. I so wish we could have endless alpine summer, but we never do.

We wandered across the lake basin and onto a plateau where I had never been. But finally at seven we had to call it due to cold. We crawled in our respective tents, whipped by wind. The intermittent howl made it hard to sleep. Should we have dropped lower than 8,000 feet? Probably.

Looking down at Aneroid Lake
 The next morning, breakfastless, we stumbled across the plateau. As we descended the gully, I realized that something just did not seem right. This gully was steeper and rockier and was taking way too long. We were in the wrong gully!

Luckily, T has the admirable quality of not getting mad or flustered when things aren't going well. "Here's a game trail," she said. We abandoned the gully and began walking sideslope. "Should we just go downhill?" she asked. I paused. "I just don't know where we are right now," I said, eyeing the slopes around us. Would we have to go back up? I knew it wasn't a desperate situation, but I really didn't want to go back up.

"Look!" T said, She pointed. There was the main trail! How could it be? Then I realized: we had come down a forbidding gully I had often seen on my way to the right turn-off. I had often wondered if it was passable. Now I knew: it was. Sort of.

Hangry, cold, misplaced and sleep-deprived: was it worth it? Of course it was. How could I have passed up this view?


It's the perfect times we remember, but it's the not so perfect ones we laugh about years later. I'll never pack a food bag or pass the gully again without thinking, remember that time....

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Life in a "Crowded" Place

The past two weekends I spent in the Lakes Basin. Much maligned as being too crowded, in fact if you know where to go, it's a lovely slice of heaven. And even if there are people, so what? They are out there enjoying the wilderness, not doing a whole host of awful things that they could be doing. I've changed my views on seeing people in the mountains drastically. When I was a wilderness ranger, I wanted to see nobody. (Probably because I spent my days cleaning up after the less enlightened. There's only so much tin foil you can pick out of a fire pit before you jump the shark.)
Now I am mostly good with seeing people, especially the two dads with their kids. Love it. Yes, there were people perched everywhere, but we found a campsite up on the rocks. Yes, I heard five women approaching, all of whom looked like they could not take another step. I heard one say, "We're just going to have to squeeze in on the rocks." Gah! But they squeezed in next to someone else. Not going to lie, I was glad. But the whole wilderness belongs to everyone. I remembered a night when we were freezing and wet in the  North Cascades, and the couple we had been leapfrogging peered down at our bedraggled selves from a spacious ledge. "This site's pretty small!" they proclaimed, clearly lying. I don't want to be like that.

How much is that doggy in the tent?
And yes, there was the loud group of several who had blatantly pitched enormous tents, lawn chairs, solar showers, and a portable toilet less than 100 feet from the lake, in disregard of the setback rule. Not cool, but there are always a few like that.
View from our campsite.


Despite all the people, the Lakes Basin is a peaceful place. You get the feeling it has seen many bad campers, and good ones, over the years, and still it endures. Crowded? Maybe by Wallowa Mountains standards. I counted five other camps within sound of ours. But everyone was happy and smiling. Who wouldn't want that?

I used to be much more of a purist, but over the decades I have seen that the average age of wilderness visitors is about 40-50 (this is different on thru-trails and perhaps in Colorado with fourteeners). Who will be left once those people are gone? Go out and bring your kids!

Big news: I am holding a copy of my novel! It is slated to be released in November but can be pre-ordered. The salesmanship pitches are saved for my author website, but just in case you want to know more, you can go here:
http://maryemerick.com/

It's a dream come true.





Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Trail Crew Dan

Yesterday one of my trail crew buddies from the distant past took a different trail,left the world a smaller and less vibrant place.

I'll always remember him as Trail Crew Dan, although he moved on from our trail days to do other things. I'll never forget sprinting after him, laden down with the cross cut saw and a shovel, determined to stay on his heels. After a creek crossing he turned to me in amazement. "I didn't think you'd be able to keep up with me," he said. I also remember days of playing Hearts, and  his admonishment, "No table talking!" when one of us let slip a remark about our cards.

I had a trail crush on Dan, like I did with all the trail crew guys, but it wasn't a I-want-to-date him kind of crush. It was more a mixture of admiring and respect, because like all the others Dan seemed more alive than most of the rest of the world. He wore a hat that could have been characterized as cowboy, but it worked. He wasn't afraid to talk philosophy on a fireline. Nothing fazed Dan,

Except, melanoma. I wonder when it began; maybe all those high elevation days as we swung pulaskis and shoveled out waterbars with little regard for sunscreen? Dan was an outdoors kind of guy. We never really thought about it much, that the sun we loved could also kill us. But there are other causes too, some genetic, some strange uneasy environmental cause we don't know much about, or just random bad luck.

I didn't keep up with Dan after I left those mountains, but I heard about him, that he married and had kids. I remember when he and his wife first met, saw her hiking in to meet him on the crew. To me, who only had an occasional, ephemeral boyfriend, it seemed like he had taken some giant adult step away from us.

As he has now. I heard about his death in  an airport, impossibly loud, impossibly crowded, and I blinked away the tears. How could our strong, invincible crew be broken? I know it's unrealistic to think that it won't; but Dan, how could  it be Dan, who owned an organic farm? It just isn't fair, like it wasn't with Ken, two years ago, who skied the tall peaks better than any of us ever could. Why not the bad people in the world, the ones who maybe deserved it?

It's not my loss. I wasn't there to see Dan all the years after our time in the mountains. He didn't come to our occasional reunions. But it's still a punch to the heart, because we all shared something wild and real, twenty-somethings doing work we thought of as important and big. Those people were my family, a tribe who understood seasonal work and migration and aching muscles.

Whenever Dan and I faced each other on either end of a misery whip, I knew it would be hard. He was so much stronger than I was, and when there is that imbalance, one person is tempted to push hard  towards the  other, less strong partner. I had been there before, with strong guys determined to prove something. Instead what you want to do is let them pull the saw toward them, but give a slight push as well. It's a delicate balance, a sweet dance, to make the cross cut saw sing. Dan and I could do it. Dan had the patience. Dan had all the time in the world.

Hike on, Dan. I'd be your partner on a misery whip anytime.




Sunday, September 13, 2015

Hiking the PCT, Northern Sierra, Days 11-11.5: The End of the Trail

Matterhorn Creek to Tuolumne Cascades, 15.5 miles
TC to Tuolumne Meadows, 5 miles

Miller Lake, one of my favorite lakes on trail.
We trundled along the creek to find a benign looking group of Sierra Clubbers packing up their camp. A good steep climb awaited us, but I noticed these were getting easier. Was my body finally getting used to them? At the top a delightful surprise: the serene Miller Lake, devoid of any people and warm enough for a swim off the sandy beach at 9 am. Two northbounders had warned us of another big climb ahead but we never found it, only a rollercoaster walk leading to a flat meadow. I didn't know how to do flat, I told Flash. With such a short day, we reached the Glen Aulin waterfall and backpacker camp area in no time. There's also a High Sierra camp here, with showers and meals and an overall glamping vibe. The clean guests eyed us with caution, as well they should, since it had been eleven days since our last shower.

Falls!
We had thought about staying in the backpacker campsite, but it didn't appeal. For our last night, we wanted more solitude and quiet. Above the falls we found the perfect spot, perched near a lovely cascade. Having so much time at camp was a luxury. We soaked our feet. I fiddled with my tent zipper, which decided to quit completely.




The next day I walked slightly ahead of Flash, absorbing and thinking about our trip. The scenery was beautiful in a way that made me never want to leave, and I was proud that we had done such a difficult hike, two hundred and fifteen miles in eleven days over some epic terrain. At the same time, I felt like perhaps the big section hikes might be coming to an end. Not the section hikes themselves, but just because we could hike 20 mile days, we did not have to. Or at least, not every day.



The most confusing part of the whole hike was figuring out TM, just like I remembered from our JMT hike. Arriving at the store in a cold rain, we realized we had missed the early bus to Mammoth Lakes, and there would't be another one for over six hours. Sitting in the rain did not sound like a good time. In a burst of inspiration, Flash retrieved some cardboard from the store and made a sign. We were going to hitchhike!


(Sorry Mom.) A guy ran up to us with a larger pre-made sign, Hikers to Mammoth. "Take this one!" he said. Apparently, hitching is common. I hadn't hitched since my 1988 trip to New Zealand, where everyone was doing it, so I stood nervously along the road. But as it turns out, people pick you up in a national park. We had two delightful rides, one from a lady about our age and the other from an Australian guy driving around the country. Thanks guys!

Dumped off at our hotel and into sudden civilization, I could barely absorb the fact that our hike was done. It had gone by so fast. All of the brutal climbs, the sweet lakes, the ridgewalking...all done. In fact, I was now done with the Sierra portion of the PCT. I had now hiked over a thousand miles of the PCT. A thousand miles!


Thursday, September 10, 2015

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Northern Sierra, Day 10: The not so dreaded Benson Pass

Kerrick Creek to Matterhorn Creek, 16.65 miles

The whole hike, it seemed, we had been hearing about Benson Pass. It dominated the elevation profile, a behemoth of mystical proportions. Today was the day!

We rose from our creekside camp and immediately began a rocky ascent, because, Yosemite! Both Flash and I admitted we were tired from the day before, and so kicked it into granny gear. We knew we were facing more steep climbs and descents as the trail dropped in and out of huge canyons. A lot of the PCT is built to a 5% grade because it was originally intended for equestrian use. This section did not get the memo.
 At the top of the first climb, we passed several delicious little lakes, and stopped for second breakfast. While we were basking in the sun, a mule train went by, and didn't even notice us.
 We saw two women trail crew workers at the bottom of one deep canyon, chipping away at rocks to make better tread. Impressive! Always say thank you to trail crew! It always makes them smile.

We had long been counseled to stop at Benson Lake and lounge on the "Riviera"--a long, sandy beach. But it was--gasp--off the PCT and in the end we chose to climb on to Smedberg Lake. Nobody was there, and we took an extended break soaking our feet. This was what I had hoped for, a mild sunny day, cool water, and solitude.
 It's time to unveil my PCT invention. We both used Sawyer Squeezes for water filtration--a bag and small filter combo. But the bags are hard to fill up completely if the water isn't running right into them. Thus, the half Gatorade bottle! It weighs nothing and is indestructible. I was inordinately pleased with myself for coming up with it.
Beautiful Smedberg!

 Finally we knew we had to pry ourselves from the lake vortex. There was one last 900 foot climb up to Benson Pass. Near the top of the pass it looked like the trail builders had just given up and put the trail straight over a sand dune.
Benson Pass!




Then it was down another steep descent, several thousand feet to Matterhorn Creek. "Don't go to the creek crossing," two separate backpackers warned us in tones of doom. "The Sierra Club is there. There's at least eleven people!"

Having had all available camping spaces taken by the Sierra Club two years before in Washington, forcing us to sleep on a trail bridge, we were gun shy and took the first campsite we came to. It had a sandy swimming hole and trees on which to hang our laundry, which was about all we could ask for in a site. It had been shy of 17 miles due to our extensive hanging out at Smedberg, but we only had about 21 miles to go. Twenty one miles and it just seemed like yesterday we had 215! I lay awake in amazement at what two feet can do.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Northern Sierra, Day 9: Yosemite is hard.

Cascade Creek to Kerrick Creek, 20.4 miles

Less than a mile from our camp, we came to this:
 Dorothy Pass was not what I had expected. It was a flat, tarn-studded place of wonder. It would have been an outstanding place to camp. I'm one of those people who searches out the perfect campsite, and I was a bit annoyed we hadn't gone just a little further to find this one. But who knew? The PCT is full of surprises.

Below us lay large, windswept Dorothy Lake, where we did our laundry* and moved on, for a longish descent through forest and meadow. Yosemite is going to be EASY, I thought. What had all the fuss been about? We even got to "spa"..i.e. swim in a slow-moving river.
However, even as we hiked gently downhill, I had to admit, I was tired to my bones. Looking back, it's easy to see that I had the classic symptoms of overtraining: I had hiked over a week of 20 mile days, with little sleep and not enough calories. (I ended up losing four pounds in 11 days. Unfortunately those pounds found me again later) At the time though, I felt disturbed that my body wasn't responding like I thought it should. I always ask more of myself than I do of others.
At Wilma (or Wilmer? the map and signs did not agree) Lake, Yosemite showed its true self. It was steep ascents up from deep, deep canyons, and mile an hour descents down rocky death defying slopes. We passed people in various stages of exhaustion and disbelief. Yosemite is hard.
But also beautiful. We passed a small lightning fire on one of the canyon sides, and a trail crew using a complicated method of cab;es to move rocks. At the top of that canyon we passed a man wincing in pain from plantar fascitis. The rest of his group had moved past him hours ago and was nonchalantly lounging at camp. "Oh, he'll be here by dark," they predicted. I felt bad for the abandoned man and was glad Flash and I mostly stuck together.

One last brutal climb and descent and we reached a wide, flowing river where we threw down our belongings for the night. Flash came running back from the creek with delight, hardly able to speak. She had found the holy grail of backpackers: a large, sunny swimming hole! Yosemite was hard, but it also was perfect.

*Whoa there partner! Laundry in this case means scrubbing dirty socks vigorously while your hands freeze. NO SOAP. Bad for fishies!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Northern Sierra, Day 8: We need a geologist!

Freezing Camp above Sonora Pass Road to Cascade Creek, 19 miles

We shivered our way down to the parking lot, excited for resupply day. We had gotten it mostly right, arriving with very little food left. That's the goal, people! Otherwise you are carrying too much. A new business called Sonora Pass Resupply will bring your box to the road, mail back any regretted items, and sells things that you might want (Chips! Cheese!) out of a truck. It's a great service and I hope the Forest Service continues to permit it. If you have used this service and liked it, write to the Stanislaus Forest and tell them so.

It was after nine when we left the parking lot, late for doing big miles, especially the climb we could see ahead of us. The steep, rocky ascent was alleviated by the beauty of the Emigrant Wilderness. I had read that Sonora Pass was where the geology of the area changes dramatically and this was easy to see.


Emigrant Wilderness and remote lake!
Reaching the high point, we gazed down at colorful tents spread out near an alpine lake. "After this hike, I'm going to just hike a few miles to a lake and hang out," I told Flash. PCT section hikes aren't for dawdlers, if you are trying to knock out a section in the limited time you have off from work. They are more about the miles. 


But even with that, there was still time to gaze around at the moonscape we walked through. A few northbounders passed, intent on a zero day at Lake Tahoe. Then Mike approached. Wearing a kilt and a big smile, he asked if we would be in a documentary. "We're just section hikers," we said, but he said that was all right. Look for Flash and me to star on You Tube! (No idea of the title).

Mike!
Rounding the ridge, I saw the strangest sight yet. There was a turquoise lake with a deep red cliff, far across the canyon. What had caused this? We pondered for miles. Where was a geologist when we needed one!

The best pictures
I could get.
Dropping off the pass, we took a strange old jeep road down to the forest. Creeks here were few and far between and hikers tended to bunch up at them. We met a man who had hiked the PCT in the 1970s and he told us how different it was now. Back then, he said, only 35% of the trail was complete, and there was a lot of road walking and cutting through farmer's fields. 



It would have been nice to stop there and talk some more, but there were miles to cover. We hiked on, meeting an actual geologist, Continental Drifter, who gave us a brief lecture on the area, which mostly went over my head. We told him to look out for the mysterious lake, and headed on. Ask for a geologist and you get one. The trail provides.

It looked like a fun group would be gathering at the first creek, and we agreed that we were sorry to miss it. At Cascade Creek, we were the only campers, and we chose a rocky ledge above the water to avoid the few mosquitoes down lower. Flash cowboy camped with her head net while I set up my tent. The zipper gave up the ghost so I stuffed my head net in the gap and hoped for the best.

Though each mile was starting to feel long, tomorrow we would enter Yosemite. It felt both too soon and too far. I had thought about Yosemite for days now, and here it was. Only three more days! This entire trip had been much more difficult than believed, but now I knew we were going to make it.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Northern Sierra, Day 6: Trail Magic!

Paradise Creek to Wolf Creek, 21 miles

We hiked into dramatically changing scenery. Craggy rock outcrops strewn with flowers and open meadows, very different than our previous days, had me feeling like we were coming into a big geological change.





We began to see more and more day hikers as we headed toward Ebbetts Pass. A couple of them looked confused when we asked them if they had seen Sherrod Lake. "We haven't seen any lakes," they claimed, but only a half mile later Flash and I arrived at the lakeshore.



Our next goal was Noble Lake, though a northbounder wrinkled his nose in disgust. "It's not very noble!" he exclaimed. "I wouldn't drink water from there!" We plodded up some switchbacks to arrive at the lake, which was nestled in alpine scenery. It looked pretty nice to me.

"We have cold water," a woman called to us. "And food. And beer." I paused, caught as always in the section hiker dilemma. Trail magic, Flash and I agreed, was generally for the thru hikers. As section hikers, we carried enough food and our hikes were limited to a few weeks. We generally weren't starved to skin and bone like the thrus, and we didn't really deserve trail magic. But we had to get water here anyway, so we descended to a campsite occupied by some backpackers and two trail angels with horses.

They belonged to the Back Country Horsemen, a truly awesome group that volunteers to do trail maintenance. For all that everyone complains about trail conditions, I don't take anyone seriously until they actually swing a tool. The two women had cold water! Apples! My resolve weakened and Flash and I were sucked in the trail magic vortex. They even took out our garbage! Thank you, trail angels!



The apple fueled a short but steep climb to the saddle, and Flash and I began a long descent to Asa Lake, where we made dinner and moved on for two more miles to Wolf Creek, where we at last decided to cowboy camp. For the uninitiated, cowboy camping is sleeping out without a tent, just you and your bag and the stars. It takes a little getting used to, but I always sleep the best this way. There's something about having no separation from the sky that is peaceful and calming. 

Despite this, I woke at three in the morning to heavy smoke. For a moment I thought I was back at fire camp in the nineties until I remembered it was 2014 and we were on the PCT. Where was the smoke coming from? We had been so lucky so far. Would a fire block our route? We had no information and nobody to ask. We had to hike on to find out.