Sunday, October 15, 2017

coming home

I drove home into an early winter. Usually the Wallowas get a fine dusting of snow, like giants spilling flour, by this time. I've even been chased out of the mountains on Labor Day by a half a foot dump. But this much snow, this early, is not typical, at least not in the recent decades. Two guys I passed on the trail today said they had run into a foot of snow before the old cabin on Falls Creek, and that is just deeply weird.

But today, at least, my first day back home, was one of those fall days that can break your heart. Heartbreaking because you know they can't last and they are just about perfect, a slight bite to the air, piles of bright leaves, warm sun on your shoulders and an open trail. I'm trying more and more often to live by the philosophy of "don't be sad that it's over, smile because it happened" and so I took on an easy trail, but one of the most beautiful.  I wanted to be grateful for the fall day, not gnash my teeth over the coming winter.

Only a few frosty cars at the trailhead, so some brave souls were camping in the twenty degree temperatures. Good for them. For me this is the time of year for day hikes. It only takes about an hour to reach Slick Rock Falls, the best I could do today when the chores had piled up in my absence (Note: if you rent a cabin to a bachelor, their idea of a good cleaning just might not be yours).

I hiked along at what my friend Gary calls a "friendly pace". It is always surprising to me to see day hikers with headphones, because my mind always is busily thinking about something. On my latest PCT hike it took me about five miles to add up all of the segments I have done and figure out what I have left (788 miles). I thought about each section and what it was like, and of the ones I have left to do. I think of plotlines for my novel. There is more to think about than there are miles.

The light wasn't great for pictures, but you get the idea.
 For example. Here in Deadman Meadow, I thought about climbing Sacajawea, the snowy peak pictured above. I thought about my friends who got married here. I remembered when I came and camped right here, on my 50 night backpacking quest. So much to think about.
All too soon I had reached my destination, Slick Rock Falls. This is where an avalanche often tumbles down from above. In the summer, you can climb up a ways and sit in some chilly, deep pools. This is also the route to the often dreamed about Deadman Lake. I could go further, I thought, keep going until the snow stopped me. But maybe this was good enough.

It's good to be home. Just like a person, this place has its challenges. I will deeply miss swimming, and the easy, flat trail system that actually made me want to go running. It was easy in Sisters, with convenient amenities, whatever you wanted close at hand. It would have been easy to stay and we almost did. But in the end, this feels more like home, so we came back. The future is still uncertain, but I'm ready to see what is next. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Know when to fold 'em*

All week long I dreamed of Camp Lake. In the guidebook pictures, it looked just like my kind of place--windswept, barren, stark and lovely. Access to it has been closed most of the ephemeral summer we managed to get, due to a fire that really wasn't all that close. Busting a fire closure isn't really my thing, so I waited, hoping for a break that finally came this weekend. The road to the trailhead was open!

The forecast wasn't all that great for backpacking. This time of year, you are flirting with disaster when staying out overnight at high elevations. I really wanted to camp because the hike was seven miles long plus there were other lakes up higher to explore. While a fourteen mile day hike was well within my range, having the chance to wander around the basin really could only happen with more time. In the end, the thirty mph wind gusts forced me to reconsider. (and that is a good thing).

Ruby and I left at dawn, which now means seven, armed with treats, warm clothes, a SPOT beacon, map, too much water, and an emergency blanket. There were only two cars at the trailhead, one belonging to a hunter whom I caught on as we trudged through the first dismal four miles of burnt trees. The other group would mysteriously never appear.

Ice on the creek crossings made for some ballet-like leaps as I attempted to keep my boots dry. I normally hike in trail running shoes, but some instinct had told me to wear boots. I was glad I had as I ascended the switchbacks after the turn-off to Demaris Lake (4.5 miles). The trail became completely snow-covered, with only a few footprints to point the way.

Lakes. But not Camp Lake.
My luck ran out at a cliff. Several sets of footprints had merrily begun traversing what I could tell from the map was the wrong way. I could see where the group had milled around and given up. Punching through a foot of snow, I decided to traverse the ridge and drop down into a valley. I could, I thought, follow my prints back.

I ascended a hill and found the wooden No Fires sign that seems to mark most lakes in these parts. Hallelujah for route-finding skills, I was on the right track. However, I was completely alone in what felt like winter. No trace of the trail remained. To the south, the Three Sisters loomed, implacable and indifferent.
So much snow.
I found what I thought could be the trail, winding mid-ridge, but a tentative step revealed solid ice with a thin snow crust. The snow bulged out over the cliff, making it impossible to kick in steps successfully. A fall wouldn't be automatic death, but it wouldn't be all that fun. I stopped and pondered my options.

I knew I was within a quarter mile of the lake. I could even see the basin where I was sure it lurked. Perhaps a less prudent person would have kept going. Years of being in the wilderness, and of carrying people out of the same wilderness, have taught me that it's important to follow your instinct. It was, I knew, time to turn around. Even though I was so close. Even though it would probably all work out. Even though I would never be back, and this was my only chance. Even though.

I looked at Ruby. Ecstatic, she was rolling around in the snow. She raced at full speed around and around in the snow. She didn't care that this trip was a bust. In fact, to her, it wasn't. So what if we didn't make our destination? I resolved to be more like Ruby.

Yes, that is a dog rolling in snow.
I left Camp Lake to winter. Sometimes, you just have to know when to quit.

Winter is here.
* If there's a Kenny Rogers song now in your head, I apologize.
Dog out of focus, but happy.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

take my breath away

I'm the one around town wearing sandals because I sent most of my winter things home. In my defense, it was one hundred degrees at the time. A sudden winter has caught me off guard. All summer, I never even toted a jacket because honestly? It never cooled off.

A healthy snowfall in the high country has put out the fires but not the closures, so I skirt around them, seeing what I can. Golden Lake had been on my list for a long time. The guidebook ominously warned that it was difficult, citing the .7 miles of cross country travel that were involved. Not one to be intimidated, I gathered all the weird remnants of warm clothes I had left, grabbed the puppy and headed out (Cale is unhappily recovering, banned from hikes for now).

As per usual, the first five miles were through a burnt forest. If you didn't know what was ahead, you might give up, but suddenly you break out into a huge meadow with views of the mountains. Most people stop here, and on the way out, I saw three sets of puffy jacketed backpackers, bound for this location. I have to admit I was envious. This was their view for the evening.

The snow line began as I climbed up from the meadow, and I regarded my running shoes with dismay. I had sent my hiking boots home, and these shoes were reaching the end of their useful life. Dark clouds swirled over the peaks, a reminder of an uncertain weather forecast. A prudent hiker might consider ten miles enough and turn around, but I knew this was my last chance to see the lake before I left town for good. Soon the snow patches became solid snow. With this, I was sure that the user path to the lake would be covered and unrecognizable. This might, I told the puppy, be the end of the road.

Following the landmarks on the map, I came to a single set of tracks in the snow, heading east. Hmm, I thought. This looked like the place where you could leave the trail and reach the lake. Should we try it? Yes, we should. Keeping a close eye on the way back in case the tracks melted out, we advanced cautiously around a meadow and through trees until we reached the lake.

We were completely alone in a beautiful place. Sometimes, nature takes my breath away, and this was one of those times.

This was a place that was hard to leave, but as I watched, the clouds began to thicken. We retraced our steps to the relative safety of the trail.

But not before a swim...Ruby, not me. Brr!

My feet were wet and I was hungry, having only nibbled on a few pretzels. We had six and three quarter miles left to travel, mostly through uninspiring burnt forest. The cold was creeping in. It was time to move. We probably only spent five minutes at Golden Lake, not nearly enough. But in a world that seems too sad to live in sometimes, those breathless moments are what keep me going.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The bike shuttle chronicles

First, thanks for all the sweet comments about Cale. It turns out it is a malignant sarcoma, and while this type doesn't spread quickly, they are difficult to remove completely and can return within a short period of time. But we have to try. He still runs and plays and eats; he isn't ready to give up yet. Surgery is set soon.

This summer, since most hiking has been shut down by fire, has been more about the bicycle. Due to a system of trails that start just outside my door, I have honed my skills until I can shred the gnar ride on them without white-knuckling. The trails themselves have been interesting microcosms of human life. There are three types of residents there--the homeless, gutting it out in Walmart tents; the residents, who put up elaborate tarps and tents and motor homes and drive out to work every day, unable to afford the exorbitant rent ($2000 a month? Seriously). Then there are the tourists, but there aren't many of those in the piney woods. 

I get used to seeing these camps. There are also the usual walkers and runners, some of whom I now recognize. The weirdest sighting happened yesterday as I rode happily along. Up ahead was...what? Oh. A man walking a pack of goats! He clapped his hands and walked off the trail, the goats following. Life on the speed of a bicycle doesn't allow for chitchat, so I continued on in a state of wonder.

But most often I have been charged with bike shuttling. It goes something like this: 

"Why don't you drop me off at X" (X being some forsaken high clearance washboarded road) "and then you can go to the other end and walk up toward me" (on some boring, dusty path)!

Being a bike shuttler is always risky. The bikers are vague about how long it's going to take them. Three hours? Five? Sometimes even the pickup place is in question. The older dog can't go as far so is miserably consigned to traveling with me, much to his discontent (and howling). It takes patience to be a bike shuttler, that and something to read while waiting.

I'm not good enough to ride those trails in question, and I want to be a Team Player, so I do the shuttle. Sometimes, it pays off, as was the case for the McKenzie River Trail. There's no way I could ride the lava parts (I was witness to a lot of hike a bike on these sections) but there are plenty of access points and scenic spots to hike to while waiting. First there was a waterfall loop and next up, ta strange and beautiful pool. Sometimes being a support person pays off.

Tamolitch Pool! The river goes underground upstream and comes out here! A strange and lovely spot that we shared with about 20 of our closest friends (Not. But there are a lot of other people on this trail segment)

Sahalie Falls! We saw a lot of high school trail runners here. It would be a great trail to run.
While bike shuttling isn't my favorite thing to do, it makes others happy, which is something the world doesn't see enough of these days. Plus, since I am unable to hike the last 50 miles of the Central Oregon PCT, I just know that all this shuttling will pay off next summer, when the fires are out and I need a ride to the incredibly far away, incredibly pot-holed Olallie Lake. Heh heh heh.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Guarded Prognosis

I wasn't really a dog person before I met Cale. He is my favorite of all the dogs I have known. A big fluffy teddy bear, he has the sweetest temperament and personality. He is content to lie behind the couch snoozing or run around in the field.

He suddenly has developed a huge tumor on his leg; it seemed to grow overnight. The vet looked grim, saying that its sudden growth didn't look good. The tests will be back next week. It's the kind of thing where you steel yourself for the worst.

But aren't our whole lives full of guarded prognosis? Every time we step outdoors, our safe return home is sort of a miracle. We are so fragile and the world is so hard. I've never been able to understand the people who smugly say that everything happens for a reason. You just have to look around you to know that isn't true. Nature does have some kind of order but it also is a marvelous chaos. Who would want to live in a world where the strings are pulled for you? Better to fling yourself out there, take fantastic leaps, love with all you have without fear, stop thinking about what could happen.

Easy to say, of course, but harder when you have loved an animal and know they won't be with you much longer. My husband always says it is harder to leave the pets when he goes away than it is to leave me, because the pets don't know. It's the same way when something goes wrong. The pets don't understand. They watch you wrap their leg with vet wrap, trusting that you will make it all better. But you can't, sometimes.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Pacific Crest Trail, Castella to Burney: a different forest every day

My expectations for California's section O were not high. I had read other trip reports and a few terrifying things stood out. Poison oak. Bears. Downed trees. All in all, it didn't sound that great. 

But I had to drive right by on the way to a work trip, and this was an isolated section that would fill in a PCT gap. How could I resist? I couldn't. With some trepidation (and with the added weight of bear spray), I headed southbound from Castella, bound for Burney Falls.

I came upon this detour, but people had written "not that bad" and "Nah, do it anyway", so I didn't take it. It wasn't that bad. Do it anyway.

Because most thru-hikers should be past this point by now if they have a prayer of making it to Canada or Mexico, the trail was mostly empty. The few views showed a wide expanse of trackless forest. In four days, I passed through old growth trees, savannas, oak groves, pine forests, and wide rivers. Ranging from two thousand feet to nearly seven, this felt like a whole world compressed into eighty-two miles.

Squaw Valley creek, which hasn't been renamed on PCT maps but is called "Politically Correct Creek" on some Forest Service maps. I wonder how that slipped by the Washington Office.
There was poison oak. There were more bear tracks than I've ever seen (but no sightings). There were a few downed trees. But of the nearly five hundred miles I've hiked on the PCT this year, this was my favorite. It is also the scene of my longest day--27 miles, all uphill (northbounders have it much better). The next day I struggled to reach 20, so it all evens out. 

The best campsite ever, overlooking mountains and Shasta.
A few stragglers lined the trail, people without a prayer, but cheerful nonetheless. A Swiss guy was taking his time, stopping for hours at the creek to cook lunch. A writer earnestly told me how she had been doing thirty mile days in Washington State (which seems a little hard to believe given the terrain) but had to slow down due to smoke. Another man who mistakenly called me "sweetheart" (ugh) mansplained about the trail, but redeemed himself by saying, "I'm just so happy to be out here." And another Oregon escapee, who said he just had to get out of the smoke. All of us on one ribbon of trail, people who would never camp together in the real world. The trail brings us together. I love that. Seven hundred and eighty-eight miles to go (this math problem occupied many, many miles as I hiked).

Miles and miles of forest.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Stuff people say on trail

Guys! I found smoke free air in Northern California! I had to come down here for work so's this trail called the PCT, you may have heard of it? I managed to wrangle four days to hike another section! I'll post about that when I get home. The TL;DR version is: Low expectations=exceeded!

In the meantime, please enjoy the Stuff People Said on Trail. What are some less enlightened, or just odd, things people have said to you?

"I only filter water in lakes and ponds, not in creeks."

"Sweetheart, EVERY creek will have campsites."

"How come you picked up my hat and carried it with you when you found it? You're supposed to leave stuff on the trail in case people come back for it." ( wouldn't even HAVE your hat if I hadn't carried it until I found you).

"There aren't any bears up here. Bears only come up high to hibernate." (I've never seen so many bear tracks on a trail!)

"You didn't hike to Ashland this year. My house is right on the trail and I would have seen you." (Okay, that is just slightly creepy)

A strange sight: a man with a backpack, plus two full bear canisters. "I wear these strapped in front."

"I didn't see any poison oak on the trail." !!!!

"I've hiked the whole trail but I don't remember this part."

"My food is in ziplock bags in my pack, so I'm not worried about bears."

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Adventuring in the smoke

Dear people of Portland.

I get that there's a fire twenty miles from you and that it is raining ash in your neighborhood. I understand that it is burning in a place that you consider your playground and you are devastated. But in case you haven't noticed, this is what has been going on in rural towns every summer. No, it's not scary and apocalyptic until your house has been under evacuation order or you can see actual flames.

Sorry, everyone else. I find it interesting that until smoke and fire affects a metro area, it largely goes unnoticed by the majority of the population. And frankly, somewhat annoying. But that's enough of that! Living in the forest, you know that you are going to be faced with fire someday.

I am lucky; I don't have asthma or any other known health problems. I definitely sucked in enough smoke when I worked directly on the line as a firefighter, so who knows what is lurking there, hopefully nothing. Most people in town have decamped to the gym, but summer is short. If I can stand it, I am going to get out there.

So I did. With trepidation I drove the awful, washboarded road to the Canyon Creek Meadows trail. I had wanted to hike this short trail for a long time, but had been scared away by reports of hundreds of people on it. And since it was one of the few trails still open, I thought it would be packed. To my surprise there was only one vehicle in the parking lot. I happily hiked through a thin layer of smoke towards Three Fingered Jack. I guess it takes smoke to find solitude on this trail. That, and an excessive heat warning. It was supposed to be about 100 degrees. But if it was that or the gym, I'd take the trail.

If you stay on the main loop, this trail is only five miles, hardly worth the drive, but wait! You can go further. An unmaintained trail winds its way through some delightful meadows and eventually scrambles up on the shoulder of the mountain. We all have our difficulties and one of mine is descending slippery talus. I avoid this if at all possible. But the promise of a little lake drew me onward. It was worth it.

A little smoky, but nice lake!
Not wanting to go home so soon, I extended my hike by taking a left to Wasco Lake, which is mostly surrounded by a forest burnt in 2003, and climbing up to the fire closure at Minto Pass.

Since the first day was so successful, I decided to take on Tam MacArthur Rim on Day 2. It seemed a bit more smoky as I drove toward the trailhead. But here I was, committed, so I began the climb. One thing I have noticed about the smoke is that I feel more tired. I can't spring up the hills like I usually can. Otherwise, it didn't seem to hamper the hike all that much.

This is a new sign for me...
The views were pretty muted and after I had walked the ridge for an hour and a half I thought that it was probably best to retreat. I met a friend on the way up. "I need to get in a hill," she said, looking doubtfully at the smoke cloud. It had gotten a lot worse in the last three hours. I wished her well and beat feet.

Since then we have had one reprieve, when we saw actual sky for the first time in weeks. Today, though, it is the worst it has been in a long time. Today is not a day for heroics. Today is a day for the gym. Even adventurous souls need to know when to call it.
Not too bad? I can sort of see the mountains?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

why you should spend twenty-four hours outside

Sometimes it's easy to talk myself out of an overnight backpacking trip. All of the work, for just twenty-four hours? Wouldn't it just be easier to day hike instead? Who wants to drive anyway? It hardly seems worth it.

But I'm always glad when I do it. Staying out overnight forces me to slow down, unlike day hikes, where I march in, tag the lake, and march back out, only to discover the same home chores and schedule awaiting me. I read books. I swim. The only things I have to do are filter water and set up the tent. There's no internet (I don't get why people want cell service from their tent. Why? Don't you go out there to get away from all that?) and no dishes to do (still going stoveless!)

Santiam Lake was only five miles from the trailhead, a two hour hike mostly through forest.   I stretched it out by stopping at Duffy Lake to let the dog swim. She has recently taken up swimming and it is really cute to watch. Duffy's shoreline burned in 2003, but it is still a peaceful place, and nobody was around. Briefly I contemplated camping here, but it was early, so I headed on a sandy and slightly inclined trail to Santiam Lake.

A little smoke, but not bad.
Maybe the eternal fires of Oregon have scared people away, but I was able to find an enormous campsite all to myself, with a hazy view of Three Fingered Jack. Though I am used to walking all day, getting to camp early had its charm. Ruby and I swam, read a book (well, I did),  and explored the lake perimeter. She was on high alert all day, and only reluctantly came into the tent. To sleep on my feet, which wasn't the most comfortable. She is a true wilderness dog.

The morning dawned unbelievably beautiful, with a tendril of smoke over the mountain. I had hoped to read in my tent before getting up, but Ruby was having none of that. It was time to get going! So we headed out to the trailhead. Even though it was only 24 hours, it was enough to push the reset button. I highly recommend it.

The next day, I wasn't quite so fortunate with my day hike. I climbed up a steep trail to the site of a former fire lookout in the Pyramids, only to have my view completely smoked in. I hear this is a spectacular view on any other day.

This fire lookout must have felt a little cramped for its occupant.
Since then smoke has settled in thickly and more closures have occurred, making just about everywhere off limits. I'm glad I was able to get out. For the first time ever, I look forward to rain.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Trapped by fire, but open to possibilities

Of course, not really trapped, not like the people across the road who had to evacuate. But trapped because almost all the trails are closed and the air quality is listed as "hazardous." As such, the choices are to drive 50 miles over the pass for cleaner air or to venture out on the one trail system near the house which is still open, taking chances on future lung problems. The gym is packed, people I haven't seen all summer in there taking up room on the machines.

This summer, largely, needs a do-over, but you do what you can. The dogs and I haunt the only trail system that remains open near town. I get to know this trail really well. Right now, cone collectors are out there, gathering pine cones into large bundles (for wreaths?). People have been camping out there all summer in open defiance of the 14 day camping rule. I get to know their camps and which ones to avoid. I wonder what they do all day out there in the piney woods. There's no water, and it is dusty and hot. My feet acquire a patina of brown that requires scrubbing to remove. But I kind of love these trails. I can run right to them on another trail connector. They're easy and flat. No staring at my shoes to prevent face plants. I will miss them when I leave in another month.

And where am I going? I don't know. I used to love the uncertainty of an unplanned life, but now, not so much.

Without going into it too much and risking ire over politics, the job situation as dictated by the current administration means we have to leave our lovely mountain town for a few years. I can't even think about it or it will break my heart. So instead I think about new trails to explore. You are never really trapped, it seems.

With that in mind I find a lake that looks to be out of the fire closure. It's only a five mile hike, putting it into day hike territory, but I really want to camp. What to do after only a five mile day? I have fallen into the PCT trap of walking all day. Will I get too restless?

But still. Being in a rut makes for a boring person. I'll give it a try. I'll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Cascade Locks to Olallie Lake: the wrong way

It was sometime on my second day, the day of the push to Timberline Lodge, when I became aware of a simple fact: hiking southbound on this section was way harder than going north. A simple look at the elevation profile would have revealed this, but I hike a lot with others who study these profiles and can rattle off ominous predictions of the day ahead: "we have a thousand foot climb at the end of the day!" I always kind of laugh at this, because what are we going to do, sit on the trail and cry? No, we are going to take what the trail gives us.

However, at this point, climbing up from the Sandy River, I did feel like sitting in the trail and crying. The hike up from Cascade Locks had been steep enough the night before. I had raced the sunset, finally setting up my tent in the creepy, stick-crunching woods as darkness fell. Then there was more climbing as the trail left the Gorge completely, heading for Timberline Lodge (the word "timberline" might have been a clue).

But as I slogged upward, the coolness of the forest and the gradual opening of the alpine landscape made me forget the slow pace I was putting down. And there were so many northbound hikers, farther along in their PCT quest than they should have been due to all the fire closures and skipping the Sierra. I wouldn't have wanted such an army at my heels, and it was fun to see them approach. Some just raced on past, but others stopped to say a few words. I met one man on a beautiful plateau above Indian Springs camp. He told me he had seen two stretchers being wheeled out from the falls area that I was headed toward (This turned out to be two 19 year old girls who had inexplicably fallen that day. Very sad). We talked about the two women who had drowned this year in Yosemite. Then we parted, never to meet again.

 One truth about this section: you don't need to bring sunscreen. This was the green tunnel, occasionally teasing me with glimpses of Mount Hood. It was pleasantly meditative to walk this way, the miles ticking under my feet. I added up big days: 21, 24, 24. Sometimes I feel like I am made for this, to just walk and walk and walk. If I had known about this trail in my twenties, I would have hiked it all in one summer.

As I walked along a forested ridge, an animal running toward me froze in the trail and wheeled around to run in the opposite direction. I loped along behind, trying to figure it out. I had initially thought it was a fox, but the tail and the face were wrong. Finally I figured it out: it was a young mountain lion! Mountain lions have their kittens anywhere from April to July, and this was a little one. I sat on a rock to let it get ahead, hoping that mom had also left the area.

Timothy Lake=paradise.
After magical and warm Timothy Lake, perfect for swimming, the forest changed to a dryer type, more and more pines showing up, only the Warm Springs river and a few iffy springs available for water collecting. The trail had obviously dipped onto the dry side of the Cascades.
As is always the case, as soon as I am fully immersed in the trail, hiking 24 mile days by 5:30, it is time to leave. Which is all right. I wasn't all that envious of the northbound hikers I saw. When I can only go out for a little bit, it's worth more to me. I don't get picky about where I go, and it doesn't get old. That's not to say I wouldn't love a full summer to hike. If you get this currently, be grateful!

With the completion of this section, I have walked all but 150 miles through Oregon. If the fires recede, I may be able to finish this year.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

playing with helicopters: a firefighting story

"When were you born?" I ask Justin. We sit and watch helicopters lift off from the cracked tarmac of the Prospect airport. In the distance a pyrocumulus cloud, courtesy of the Spruce fire, billows. The fire was 150 acres when I arrived a couple of days ago. Now it is pushing 5000 acres.

That is a fire in the distance.
"1996," Justin says. I roll my eyes. How is that even possible? I eye the lunch the caterers have given us at fire camp. The vegetarian lunch, usually a safe refuge from mystery meat contained in the regular ones, contains a hunk of lettuce. No bread, no cheese, just a hunk of lettuce.

On the radios we are listening to, voices rise in crescendo. A firefighter we have nicknamed "Old Yeller" screams to the helicopter. "You're one rotor width away from the drop!" We laugh, knowing he means rotor length, seeing as helicopter rotors are pretty narrow. On another radio, the Australian pilot is getting fed up, unable to reach his ground contact.

"Dude. You've got to talk to me," he finally snaps. On our air to ground channel, the Air Attack--the guy supervising the helicopter activity in an airplane--calls us. I answer. Obviously forgetting what he wanted, Air Attack says, "Hey. How's it going?"

We laugh. It's been a busy day at the helibase. I am here for a week, helping with helicopter dispatch. We do a little bit of everything--send them to missions, answer the panicked calls from the line wanting air support, help Air Attack sort out what to do, even talk to locals who drive up wanting to know what is going on. At the end of the day we add up the costs for air support. They inevitably come out to more than two years of my salary--for just one day. Fortunes are spent on helicopters. I wonder if the public realizes this.

We keep track of where helicopters are by writing on the windows.

We sleep in our cars in a long row. Kyle and I are the only people who drag ourselves out to run each morning, armed with headlamps. He shows me a trail that drops down to some waterfalls. I find that running every day, something I don't do at home, is indeed possible if I keep it to short distances. Where we are camped is too far to go for showers or even food. We make do. It is the Blanket Fire diet--no breakfast or dinner, just snack all day on the provided lunches. The pigs living at the house nearby are the lucky recipients of our cast-offs.

At the end of the week, I sign my papers promising the demob lady I will stop at the weed wash, and head home. Part of me wants to stay. Leave while it's still fun, I tell myself.

We sat and watched lightning strike this ridge and seconds later this big column of smoke appeared!
As I leave fire camp I realize that more and more of the people there are Justin's age, and most of my friends from back in my firefighting days are long retired. You can't really go back to the past, as much as you might want to. Those golden days won't ever come back again. But at least I lived them. That's something.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

"Never hike alone"

As I write this, three hikers are missing on the Pacific Crest Trail. One hasn't been heard from since April, which brings up fearful thoughts of snowy Fuller Ridge. The other never picked up her resupply package north of Yosemite and was last seen July 17th.  Last week another hiker was found submerged in a dangerous creek crossing. She didn't make it. The last disappeared in October and has never been found.

The chorus has begun again, saying that people should not hike alone. It's true that if the hiker who drowned had waited for others to help her cross, the outcome would have been very different. But we all know of friends who have died in the mountains, their companions by their side. The truth is that the wilderness is never going to be completely safe.

I've hiked a lot with other people lately, and I get it. It's nice to have someone else to consult when the trail disappears in snow or when you have to balance precariously on a log at a creek crossing. When you are on the struggle bus going up a hill (or in my case, downhill) it's good to have someone else to hear you whine. Decisions--where to camp, should we get water here, should we turn back; all of those are good to share.

And let's be honest--hiking while female brings its own dangers. I have been fortunate that I have only met a couple of sketchy people in the woods, but it's something that men will never really get.

I once knew a man who really wanted to go on a cruise, but he put it off, saying that he wouldn't go until he had a girlfriend to go with him. In the decades since, he has yet to acquire said girlfriend, so he has stayed home. I feel that way about hiking solo. If I wait for someone to go with, I won't go. Going is more important.

There are ways to stay safe. You have to be willing to turn around. You have to admit when something is too hard, or too dangerous. You have to pay attention to all of the little things that can add up to something that you can't come back from. And you have to know that, despite all this, something can go wrong. It can go wrong even if you have an army with you. That's just the way the wilderness works.

Trail sisters and brothers, I hope you are all found safe.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Elk Lake to Santiam Pass

Reaching the PCT from the Elk Lake cut-off trail, I caught up to a slow-moving man with what looked like a stuff sack strapped to his back. "I'm going slow because my knee hurts," he was quick to say. Whatever, dude, I don't care!

"Your pack looks pretty ultralight," I ventured, trying to lessen the apparent sting of a woman passing him.

"It's really heavy," he complained. "Seventeen pounds!"


"It doesn't have a waist belt," he hollered as, giving up, I sped past. Seriously?  As I hiked into the evening, negotiating a few snow patches, I thought about the pictures I had seen in the PCT coffee table book of 1970s travel. The men in there carried huge external frame packs, were usually shirtless, showing six-pack abs, and, bonus, had short denim cut-offs. How did we go from that to 17 pounds being heavy in only 40 years?

I soon had more to think about at my destination, Sisters Mirror Lake, which I renamed "Sisters Mosquito Lake". Donning my head net and rain gear, I hurried down to the lakeshore where I hoped to eat with some sanity. Instead, a man in a full net suit approached, wanting to know where I was headed the next day.

Sisters Mirror Lake. Beware of mansplainers, ladies!

"Oh, probably South Matthieu," I said, knowing that it was 21 miles and that I didn't have to hike that far, but I could if I wanted to. Skeeter Suit's face took on an expression I know well. I was about to be mansplained!

"I think that's a little too ambitious for you," he intoned. I sighed as he droned on about a nice lake eleven miles away and how much climbing there was ahead. Would he have said this to a male hiker? Nope. Ladies, how much longer are we going to have to put up with this kind of stuff?

The only thing Skeeter Suit was right about was the climbing. There was a lot of it, but it was through such alpine, mountain-studded country that I didn't mind. There was also enough snow that I had to consult the map on a frequent basis.

After one such location, a guy approached me southbound, a cute dog in tow. Inexplicably, he was carrying an oven mitt, which I just had to ask about.

"What's up with the oven mitt?" I asked. Looking embarrassed, the guy muttered something about it keeping his "paraphernalia" dry. Thinking about it, I did detect a certain fragrance. Whatever, dude!

Obsidian lined the trail in the Limited Entry Area. You have to enter a lottery to day hike here, unless you are hiking through on the PCT. No camping is allowed.

At about mile 18 I caught up with two women section hiking from Crater Lake to Highway 20 and hiked with them for a few miles. Go ladies! When they stopped for a break I reached a steep, snowy traverse. What to do? It looked like most people had glissaded straight down, but that looked like a one way trip to the emergency room. I saw what looked like a beaten track through the snow, straight across the traverse, and decided to try that. Too late, committed, I saw it was only one set of footprints, and they were shallow. Kicking in steps, I held my breath until I was safely across. Soon I was at my campsite, a lake nestled in a small bowl--21 miles, so there, Skeeter Suit. Best of all, the mosquitoes had inexplicably disappeared, perhaps courtesy of an evening frost.

South Matthieu Lake--a perfect place for a swim.

The traverse looks way, way less scary here. Picture a steep free fall.

For every good day on the trail, there is often one that is not so good, and the next day was it. I had planned on a shorter day, but as I trekked across Highway 242 and into an unending lava rock climb, I realized that the whole stretch to Santiam Pass was dry. No water, for 21 miles, unless I wanted to go off trail to get it. I only had capacity for 3.5 liters, which was enough for the hike but not to camp also. Besides, the camping was limited on this stretch, seeing as it was mostly lava or burnt trees. It looked like another 21 mile day was in my future.

Pretty volcanoes all in a row. And lava. So much lava.

It was hot, oppressively so, and the only relief were brief patches of unburnt forest. On one of those stretches I encountered a strange sight: Camo Santa and his 4 camo-clad elves. I just had to ask: "What's up with the camo?"

Looking annoyed, because probably many others had asked the question,  one of the elves explained that they were scouting for elk and were trying out the camo outfits to "see how they breathe." Whatever, dudes!

There were a few pretty, unburnt sections.

I stumbled on through a blazing forest, finally reaching Highway 20. In order to get to the rest of the trail and the parking lot, an intrepid hiker must sprint across several lanes of oncoming traffic. Forget the bears and mountain lions, this is the scariest part of the hike. Luckily, it's not eclipse weekend, so I made it across without incident and completely out of water.

TL; DR: Strange encounters, mansplaining, camo, camo, camo, alpine gorgeousness, lava, burned forest, 48 more miles of the PCT hiked!