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.

Monday, May 15, 2017

They call me the breeze ( a packing story in memes)

I stared at my outdoor gear totes. How can you know what you'll need for four months? Clothes are easy. It's summer (allegedly. It is snowing currently). Shoes? Just a pair to run in and a couple to hike in. But outdoor gear! How to choose? I threw three tents into a pile. What? It makes sense! The PCT tent that folds up as small as a water bottle. The two person deluxe. And my overnight fave.

Over the last eight years I have mostly lost my gypsy nature. I used to be up for any kind of move. I was like the breeze, always moving on. I've lost that person, and it's time to find her again. I am moving about six hours south, for 4 months, a job thing. Just like I never thought I would do, I am following a man (but it's okay, I am married to him). The alternative is to stay here and take care of the two houses we own. Oh Honey. No.

It's surprising how deeply rooted I've become and how hard it is to prepare for this. How did I ever move every six months, for years? At the same time, I've become kind of comfortable. Time to shake things up.

And the stuff! How did I acquire so much stuff? I'm cleaning out the house so some short-term renters can move in. What are all these electronic chargers and what do they charge? What is this unidentifiable gadget? How did I end up with four nail clippers? And on what planet did I ever think these shoes were stylish?

Weeding out your life is actually a good exercise. Minus furniture, I have discovered that my belongings all fit in a small shed. I've taken stock of everything I have and decided if it's worth keeping. I still hang on stubbornly to a few things. Doesn't everyone need two camp stoves? And five sleeping bags is totally reasonable.

The pets are the issue. I've never wanted to be a person who would not go on vacations because of their pets. But it definitely becomes a consideration when embarking on a temporary move. Some of them don't get along, which raises the complexity of the whole thing.

It's hard to think about missing a summer here.This is about perfect--enough tourists to make sure we have some nice restaurants and a bookstore, but not so many you feel road rage trying to get home. People in the mountains, but less than other places. On the bright side, this is a way to try out a new place without a commitment. I have new trails to explore, a pool (!), lakes to kayak on. The town is full of athletes, which can be good and can be bad. I'll have to get over being passed by other runners, which never happens here. But I might be able to find some kindred souls, which can sometimes be lacking in my small town.

I have three weeks to cull the herd, so to speak. The thrift store won't know what hit it. And I know once I get there, it will be an adventure. Welcome back, wanderer.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Pacific Crest Trail, Section C, Cabazon to Cajon Pass, Days 5-7:Strange Encounters

Triscuit and I hiked through the ominously gathering heat in a deep river canyon. Far below us, enticing, inaccessible beaches lined the shores of dark water--Deep Creek. I wanted nothing more than to jump in, but steep canyon walls guarded the creek, making it only a shimmering mirage. We had seen very few people in the last eight miles, and it felt like we were the only people alive.

Lovely Willow Creek
Then we rounded a corner to discover a scene of utter weirdness. In the middle of nowhere, there were tents. There was music. There was a slackline across the river. There were people hollering. There were...naked men?

This was Deep Creek hot springs, probably once a sweet destination, but now the site of a fatal ameobic disease if you submerge your head (though we saw plenty of people doing this) and a high fecal coliform count. I had to admire the tenacity of these people who had actually hiked in a couple of miles from a road to visit, but the scene was way out of place and uncomfortable. We quickly moved on.

Inaccessible Deep Creek beach

As we hiked, the heat became intense, and as a giant, strange dam holding back zero water came into place, we staggered to some cottonwood trees. A woman roared up on an ATV. "Ladies. A hundred yards from here I have beer, soda and kale salad."

Kale salad? It was a strange thing to have while hiking, but I would take it. As we sat by the Mojave River, the trail angel peppered us with offers. I'll drive you to Silverwood! I'll bring you hot dogs! It's too hot to hike the burned area! Take my phone number! Are you sure you don't want to go to Silverwood? I'll go get more food! We can get pizza! Have more salad!

She was sweet, but it was too much after a week of near solitude. We escaped, walking through an eerie burnt landscape. Fire doesn't bother me much, and it was interesting to see the bones of the land laid bare, even though we were walking in an oven. Arriving at our campsite, with a welcome seasonal stream still flowing, I encountered a southbound hiker who looked...oddly familiar. It was Pebble, whom I had met briefly on the steep climb up from Seiad Valley in Northern California last summer! What were the chances? Life is strange.

Silverwood Lake. Looks nice, but...

The next day we wound by Silverwood Lake, which was sadly trashed. The water was silty and garbage lined the sandy beaches. My hopes for a swim were dashed on this, the hottest day yet, over ninety degrees. We sat, homeless looking, in a picnic area with two other hikers. One of them would later write in her trail journal that she had met two others "about her age." Judging by a few things she said, I deduced her to be in her 60s. Did I really look sixty out here? The desert does strange things to you though. When I returned home, my skin felt like rough parchment. It takes a week for the desert varnish to leave, and a boatload of lotion.

Not the best picture of me, but I wanted to show you my hiking setup. Long sleeve shirt and a hat were necessities. Everyone thought I was a thru-hiker so I guess I looked the part.
Our last night on the trail was only six miles from the interstate but after 18 miles we called it quits by a small trickling stream. Hiding in the shade, I felt the same old dilemma. I wanted to be home with the ones I loved, but the trail has a pull I can't deny. I wanted to keep going.

The last six miles were truly magical.

Early morning walking
Triscuit and I sat, homeless looking, at the hotel where the shuttle would pick us up and deliver us back to Palm Springs. A van hove into view, the driver waving at us enthusiastically. It was....our lonely trail angel from the Mojave dam! For a moment we thought she had been tracking us. How else to explain how, thirty miles later, she would suddenly appear at exactly the same moment that we were sitting at this random hotel? After she drove away T and I burst into hysterical laughter. This strange encounter was the perfect ending to a long, strange trip.

the last campsite

Friday, May 5, 2017

Pacific Crest Trail, Section C, Cabazon to Cajon Pass: Against the Wind, Days 1-4

the mysterious whitewater area
Triscuit and I stood under a harsh Southern California sun. Wind, the equivalent of a blowdryer aimed at the face, whipped around us. Where was the trail? We could see the trail angel house we had stopped at the year before, but the angels had retired and this was clearly off limits. Taking a wild guess, we scrambled up a prickly hillside to find it: the PCT. We were back.
Uphill, always uphill

Triscuit views the trail ahead

Mt, San Jacinto, still snowy

Our goal: Cajon Pass, 132 miles away. Six days? Seven? Since we had started at three in the afternoon, we could only hope to reach Whitewater Preserve, an oasis in this parched landscape of cactus, creosote, and ceanothus. Trudging uphill, burdened by the entire food supply we had planned on taking (no resupply), we made it eight miles: a gurgling river and green grass, populated by a sea of thru hiker tents. Frogs in the desert, how was this possible?

out of the oasis

But this wasn't true desert. Over the next few days, we gradually ascended to nearly 9,000 feet. Our camp on Day 2, after an all day 18 mile grind uphill, though admittedly through a fascinating river landscape, was the result of a rookie mistake on my part. Arriving at the so-called "creekside camp" on my map, I was dismayed to note that it was only a wide spot in the trail, already festooned with tents. At lunchtime we had shared a sitting log with several other hikers and those were sure to follow. While others can sleep with tents right next to them, I am not one of those. I found a small sandy beach by the river and dropped down to it with delight. When Triscuit appeared after a rough day, she was too tired to argue.

During the night, the Santa Ana winds rose to a crescendo. I lay awake as a gritty substance blew in through the exposed mesh of the tent. Sand--I was being buried alive in the sand! After a sleepless night and a morning of panic when I dropped a contact lens on the beach and, amazingly, found it--we marched on twenty more miles, to find a forest of pine trees.

Was this really Southern California, I marveled, as I hurtled myself down switchbacks, near hypothermia? The scenery resembled the Sierra, with a deep forest and huge sand-shaped boulders. Who knew this existed?  The landscape was almost impossible to capture via camera, but it was composed of stark and strange beauty. We walked through burned areas, the bones of the land revealed by wildfire.

The people were a hardy, friendly bunch, far different than last year. We came upon a hiker huddled in a crevice to escape the ceaseless wind. When asked for his trail name, he said sheepishly, "Spooner.", alluding to the fact that some girls had given it to him on another trail. Other hikers weren't as circumspect about prior hiking experience: one man found a way to insert the fact that he had "hiked the AT" twice in a two minute conversation. (He was also carrying a bear canister, hundreds of miles before it was required, claiming he might as well get used to it. Okay, Bear Can Boy.)

Pine trees!

With our dedication to mileage, we outdistanced the hiker bubble we were in and reached a new one, with hikers who had started several weeks ago. At campsites the trail seemed crowded but during the day we mostly walked alone. Alone, but with the wind, a constant companion.

On Day 4, we hit a camping jackpot. It had been 21 miles of descent from the freezing pines into the swelter of the lowlands, and we knew we were coming into a restricted camping area. We had to stop somewhere, and we spied it, a small flat area near some boulders, with a view of trackless mountains. Nobody camped near us, not any of the people we had given our own trail names to and never saw again--the Australians (we had mistook their accents for Aussies), International Girl, Creeper, Tat--nobody was in sight. The wind even stopped breathing.

We were holding our own. Looking at the maps, it looked like an easy, though hot, cruise ahead. Little did we know things were about to get weird. Very, very weird...

To be continued...

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

On the trail again (PCT)

Last April, Triscuit and I sat in the dubious shade of a dumpster and pondered our life choices. We had just staggered through three miles of deep sand, accompanied by a forty-five mile headwind. It was hot, topping ninety degrees. At a blessed trail angel house, we drank Gatorade and fended off stoned waifs who inexplicably tried to hug us. Never again, I thought. I work so hard for my vacation time, why was I in this mindless desert?

But still. There's something to having a goal, even if it is just completing the entire Pacific Crest Trail in sections. I've done 1500 miles; the trail is 2,650 miles give or take. Even as we sat there, true "hiker trash", I knew I would be back.

And so it came to be. On Tuesday we embark on another section, from I-10 near Cabazon to I-15 at Cajon Pass. It promises to be much elevation change, and some weirdness (Deep Creek hot springs, where locals like to ingest substances and soak naked. We may not be clear of the stoned waifs yet). Wind farms are a distinct possibility. Why do we do this, when there are possibly more close to home, scenic places to hike? For me, it's all about the trail community; while the stoners do exist, there are still some real, genuine people (take Shortcut, the Frenchman I camped with last summer. We still email each other) and true soulmates can exist (solemates? Ha). Then again, it's about the dream: Footprints from Mexico to Canada. How amazing is that?

I have: nine pounds of food for seven days. The usual camping gear. Something new, a "rain skirt" instead of pants (the forecast shows no rain); and a new drinking system where I have a tube connected right to a Smartwater bottle instead of a bladder (I love bladders, but on a long trail, it's a PITA to keep unpacking to take it out and fill it and know how much water you have. For shorter hikes, it's still my preference). I am contemplating going the no camp shoes route--there aren't really stream crossings, and for a week, I can go without sandals.

So here we go. 127 miles give or take! I'll report back soon.
This pavement is actually a short walk on the previous section. Not sure why it was chosen to represent Section C.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Dragging Friends on Adventures:the scary road edition

I try to include disclaimers, I really do. I told my friends: This is a narrow, steep, road, with exposure. As we inched along toward the trailhead on the dirt one-lane road, shrieks filling the cab and threats to walk, I felt worried. These same friends were exposed to a freezing, steep hike they weren't expecting a few months back even though I clearly said, it's only two miles, but pretty much uphill the whole way. When we had arrived at our destination, the looks on their faces showed that it had not been described as promised. Foolishly, they had agreed to come with me again. I was sure they were regretting it. This is why I like to go alone sometimes, but I like these friends and it was going to be spring in the canyon. We've been shut out of spring this year (as I write this, it is snowing) so this was a window I couldn't ignore.

One of my friends declared that landing a military plane on an aircraft carrier was easier than the drive. That was hard to believe, but since I've never landed on an aircraft carrier, I had to take his word for it. Backing up for two oncoming trucks in the most narrow place around was probably the last straw. I sighed. Once again, an adventure miscalculation.

not my picture. You think I was taking pictures? Source
I have a very shallow adventure buddy pool, and in a way it's like speed dating (though thankfully I never had to do this in real life). Someone wants to go with you and it's mostly cross your fingers and hope for the best. Along the way, I learn their issues through trial and error (lightning phobia, horse phobia, dislike of bugs, dislike of dogs) and they learn mine (sunrise chatterbox, exercise obsession). We work it out.

After a harrowing two hours we finally arrived at the trailhead. Fortunately, the hike was worth it, because it always is. My friends agreed with this assessment: 4.5 miles one way,  mostly flat! There's something about a confluence that calms everyone, though one friend was heard to say this was a once in a lifetime trip.

The Snake River at last!
I don't know if these friends will accompany me again, but I'll keep trying. I'll just cross them off the list of narrow, exposed roads, like I've crossed others off long slogs (and they have undoubtedly crossed me off steep skiing excursions). Different friends for different adventures!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Alaska is a tug to the heart

The sound of the ocean. Eagles with their crescendo calls. Friends, who never age because of the absence of sun. The familiar edge as I hiked along the trails, wondering if a bear lurked in the forest. And a siege of memories that I thought I had forgotten, opened like a wound.

 Many of us have places like these, places we fled when times got tough, or when we wanted to restart our lives. Southeast Alaska will always be that place for me. It was the scene of great joy and great heartbreak. I've managed to put all that away into a box but, going back to work on a project there, it all came springing out.

It's not bad to have these places in our lives. It's better, I think, than a flatline through life, a contentment that never gets shaken. Though my life is good now, I always think, what if I had stayed?

Because the light lingers from five in the morning to past eight at night, I was able to hike far past where I could down south, and I visited some of the old trails. Familiar, yet not, it was strange and yet wonderful to revisit the paths I used to run or hike daily. My former kayaking partner, Helga, and I crunched along the Cross Trail, walking through the place where a landslide took three peoples' lives, a half-finished house sitting mutely among the devastation. A reminder that things don't stay the same. In the time I have been gone, people have left, people have split up, people have had babies. Life doesn't stay in pause just because you are gone.

Fishing boat and Mount Edgecumbe
 As I flew away, back to the life I've chosen, I looked down on Baranof Island and could name all the bays. There was where we pushed the boat through a sheet of ice in April. There was where Kitty and I spent one glorious patrol, nobody else in sight. I was surprised how much I remembered.
Nearing the edge of Baranof Island, Cape Ommaney in the distance
My friend said, "I bet this feels small to you now," and in a way she was right. I like the idea of living unfettered in a big landscape, able to drive to the next town, the next river, the next mountain, instead of hemmed in by sea and tough mountains. I have choices now that I didn't then. It is always a tradeoff.

Still, I will never be quite able to forget this place. I don't think I could live here again. Even though I was here during a few days of unusual sunshine, I know there are times when it rains thirty days in a row. I am a sunshine person now. Backpacking here was hard, a combination of desire and fortitude, armed with pepper spray and aerial photos. In many ways I have it much easier. I have probably  lost that Alaska toughness.

And there's this: I've lived there and in the Florida swamp, in the Great Basin and in the southwest. All of those places have left their mark. I'm glad I did it all. Even when it hurts a little to leave.

I recognized Lake Diana immediately as the plane flew toward the lower 48. I camped here for several days, looking for rare plants.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Talking with strangers on trails

I climbed out of the Grand Canyon, super annoyed. I don't know why, but sometimes people unaware of trail etiquette really bug me. Obviously if someone is puffing their way upward, you don't barge toward them when you are going downhill in a game of chicken. (There are exceptions. Hiking in Sedona last week there were some people who were obviously having a hard time picking their way downhill. We stopped to let them by.) I also don't like people right on my heels, or when you pass someone and they slow down, necessitating a game of leapfrog.

There was also Daypack Dude, whom I encountered at the Tip-off on the South Kaibab. He spotted me approaching from the East Tonto and made it his mission to keep ahead of me at all costs. Seriously, it's not a race. So, I wasn't overly thrilled about running into a big crowd as I topped the rim.

But then I saw a family emerging from a shuttle bus. They were your typical rim tourists, clad in fleece and improper shoes, without water. But the man, who had sprinted ahead, was returning to his family with a look of complete joy on his face. "IT'S THE CANYON!" he screamed. "WE CAN WALK IN THE CANYON!!!" (I guess he had thought you could only look at it.) How could you not love that enthusiasm?

There's something about being on trails  that makes me want to talk to other travelers. I don't normally do small talk in other circumstances. I spend nearly ten hours a day glued to a phone with strangers in my real job, so I don't feel like it on planes or buses or trains. (Though a guy did invite me to go to Mexico with him on my last plane trip. Hmm.)

Trails though. There's where I meet my tribe. I have met some true characters and had great conversations in passing on trails. I've met many a lifelong trail friends this way--Skeeter, Cherry Pie,  Buff, Camel and Short Cut. Where else would I have met a Frenchman in his 60s except on a trail?  There are others I will never see again but will never quite forget. There's something about backpacking that seems to revert people to their true selves. I've never found it anywhere else. It's not like I'm a different person, maybe just a better one, the one I was meant to be.

Do you talk to people on trails? Ever met a lifelong friend that way?

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Along the East Tonto: Grandview to South Kaibab in the Grand Canyon

Every trip deserves a caption. This one, a 27 mile hike across a rough and remote section of the Tonto trail, (plus a side trip to Phantom Ranch) can be summed up as It's beautiful when you aren't terrified.

There was plenty of terror. Much of the descent, specifically the first couple of miles from the Grandview trailhead, and most definitely the 1.5 mile drop into Cottonwood Canyon (which took me an hour) plus a couple of the Cremation descents, contained the trifecta of exposure, little rolling rocks, and steepness. In retrospect, the first two days (10 and 12 miles) were a lot to tackle. GC miles are like no other. All of you RTRTR runners who scoff at this, know that the East Tonto is nothing like the superhighway of the corridor trails. It even bears little resemblance to the West Tonto.

Distant storm on the north rim, from the descent.
In addition, reports of water availability were scarce, so I often carried six liters of water on those descents. In truth, recent rains had brought water to many drainages that are often dry. I could have gotten by with less, but you never want to end up with less than you need.

Water in the desert! Lonetree Canyon
There's also the delightful aspect of losing the trail, which can happen frequently, especially as you climb out of the east arm of Cremation. And there's the outsloped trail right on the edge of Grapevine Canyon, where a strong wind threatens to blow you into the depths as you think, this can't possibly be the way.

But. There is something to the stark beauty of the Tonto. I was alone most of the time, only intersecting with people on a few occasions. There was only the desert wind, the sound of canyon wrens, and my own thoughts. The few people I met were hardy desert adventurers, my tribe that I miss so much.

Not a soul but me and my thoughts.
Muddy Colorado

Heading toward Grapevine
I camped the last night in Cremation Canyon, the place where a marathon runner died in 2004, running the same route it took me three and a half days to hike. Cremation is also the place where Native Americans scattered the ashes of their dead. It is a solemn and spooky place. Unlike in July, when Margaret searched desperately for a way to the river, there were small potholes of water below the campsites. Enough to save your life.

I've been below the rim eight times if I am counting right. This trip was very different than the others. Though it's fairly easy if you take your time and prepare, it showed me the vast indifference the canyon has for all of us. In the other areas I've been, you are never too far from safety. On the East Tonto, you have to rely on yourself. It's a situation we all need to find ourselves in once in a while.
Cremation canyon

Where I camped: Grapevine (10 mi); Cremation (12 mi); last arm of Cremation (1 mile? then day hike to river and back). If I were to do it again I'd camp at Cottonwood (5.5 slow miles); Lonetree (about 11 miles) and Cremation, to break it up a little. Horseshoe Mesa is an interesting destination also, but I didn't have time to explore much on the dry mesa.