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.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Running on Desire Paths

It was the kind of chilly, windy, rainy day when you just want to sit on the couch, but I knew I had to go for a run. Unable to face the uphill climb to the park, I drove to the campground.

There's something I love about running around a deserted campground, I don't know why. (In high school, I used to run around a cemetery, but signs soon went up: No Jogging. I guess someone got offended.)

Most campgrounds are flat, which is rare terrain around here, and most have a nature trail of some sort associated with them. I was able to stitch together a short run without seeing a soul save a man with an umbrella (what do you call someone with an umbrella? A tourist).

The other thing about campgrounds is that they have little paths going everywhere. None of these are sanctioned, and I really try to stay off them, because I have spent countless hours trying to reclaim them in other areas. These, however, are pretty hardened into place, and so sometimes I can't help following them to see where they go.

All of my career I've called these "social trails", or "unauthorized routes", but I recently heard a new term: desire path. I love this! They make me think a little more kindly of people who create them. Most of the desire paths around this campground just lead straight uphill and stop.

This desire path leads to an impassible stream. Well, not impassible, but too wet to cross.
I thought about desire paths in life, too. For most of my twenties, I followed desire paths instead of designated trails. It was wild and free, but now that I've done it, lived penniless in bunkhouses, I don't have much of a need to go back there. But there's still occasional straying to be done.

What I've learned is that you pick and choose your desire paths. Durable surfaces, where you won't cause erosion or heartbreak, either one. The thing about desire paths is that other people will see where you've been and try to follow. Pretty soon there's a full-fledged trail. Tread lightly, wanderers.
Here's a desire path leading down toward the lake.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Climbing Fergi

Rain in March. It really shouldn't be raining in March, but nothing about this winter has been normal. What this means is that cross country skiing is history but hiking is not optimal. Optimistically we ventured to a usual spring sure thing, Davis Creek north of town, and found ourselves floundering in deep snow. Nope, not going to happen.

You take what you can get, so we headed to Fergi, the local volunteer-run ski hill. Fergi possesses its own unique charm, with a T-bar and $7 lift tickets. Even with the weather so awful, when the lift isn't running, people determinedly skin up to get a workout.

Except for me. I snowshoe. Yes, I am the fool who snowshoes up the ski hill, just to snowshoe back down. Where the fun is in that, I'm not sure, but it is something to do outside when the options are very limited. I did try to ski down once with my cross country skis, but this was punctuated with screams of alarm and not likely to be repeated.

It's not a very long hike up. In a short amount of time I was at the Voodoo, the small hut at the top of one of the runs. The story is that the original building at this location was named after a Rolling Stones album, the Voodoo Lounge. At any rate, it's a cute little building, and I spent the night after I got married in it.
Once you reach the Voodoo, it's all down hill, which in snowshoes really isn't easy. I picked my way down praying a fall wasn't in my future. It takes me longer to go down than it does to go up. But eventually I arrived back at the base of the hill.

Fergi is usually the site of much revelry, but today nobody was around. Fat bikes have been ridden down it, and on one occasion a guy tried to take the T-bar with a kayak, in order to kayak the snow back down. Neither attempt, up or down, was very successful. I'm pretty sure I am the first and only snowshoer to hike the hill, though. It's good to be a record holder.

Still winter up here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

wild enough

I finally got out of town. It's been five months. I had a book reading on the west side, so I went a couple of days early and drove to the ocean. There's just something about listening to the waves that I had been missing. The coast has a peacefulness I needed. Sometimes I think I could just go and live in a remote cabin and never talk to people again. When I start feeling that way I know I need to go someplace wild. Or at least, semi-wild.

When I first pulled into Newport, it was an uncharacteristically sunny day. People were everywhere! Oh no, I thought. But despite all the people, I had to get out there.

 There were endless views in each direction. Time to go for a run!
Beach running is so easy. So flat! So sea level! No rocks, no bears, no mountain lions! You can look around without the possibility of a face plant. I ran toward the lighthouse, and then turned around to run in the other direction. 

The next day the weather returned to its normal self. Agate Beach was completely deserted, with torrents of rain and a biting wind. Driftwood had been tossed onto the sand. I still made myself go out, stalking the abandoned coast. Nobody else was out there, unlike the day before. This was more like it!  I am a fan of extreme weather--the years I lived in Florida with its endless sameness were hard to take.

I have to say that this has been a difficult time lately. People are so mean to each other now. There's a lot of superiority about lifestyles and how much better they are. Not knowing if we have to move (we still don't) has been hard. What helps is to get out, to realize that nature endures. This beach will be here long after I'm gone.

It rained so much that day that big rivers ran across the beach. The waves were huge. It was wild enough. I had my fix of the coast and could head back to my landlocked little mountain town. It'll be backpacking season soon. I can hang on until then.

Running on the beach, yes or no?
Are you a beach person?

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Need for Speed (Not)

I've never been drawn to high speed activities (running and hiking aside, but those are different). My skydiving career ended prematurely on the third training jump when things went spectacularly wrong (we all lived). I was never one of those kids that wanted to ski fast or jump off high things. I liked the meditative pace of canoeing instead.

Cross country skiing as I grew up with it consisted of gliding serenely through deep woods, occasionally facing small hills, but nothing too extreme. I moved to Florida for a time, where skiing was referred to as "snow skiing" (which is just wrong) and then to Southeast Alaska, where snow rarely stuck to the town level and we went out in kayaks instead (I also had to drive motorboats for work, and didn't like driving fast either).

Where I live now, either you hole up and hate winter, or you adapt. Since I love cross country skiing, I adapted. But I'm not sure you can really term this "cross country". It's more "climb big hills and ski down them with Nordic gear." There's rarely anything flat about it.

"Enjoy the speed!" J yells as I pause at the top of the Hill of Death. I used to sidestep down the hill, and now I mostly ski it, which is a victory of sorts. However, my passage is a blur of fear, occasional giggles, and muttering a mantra of "oh no, oh no, too fast, help." I wish I could be a person who enjoys speed, but I doubt it will ever change at this point.

This is what cross country skiing should look like! Sadly, too brief of a flat interlude. BTW this is March, not December.
Sometimes conditions align. This past weekend, enough snow dumped to make the dreaded climb and subsequent plunge down from RY Timber lands joyful. Fast enough to glide, not fast enough to face plant. I arrived back to the ski area feeling confident. Maybe I was better, I thought, as I negotiated the last (mostly flat) approach. Maybe....

Thump! A small hill appeared from nowhere and my skis slid crazily down the strange concrete-like mix of snow. I thought I had survived until the last minute, when I plowed to a stop face first. Yep folks, still not ready for speed.

Pretty obvious what happened here.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Pushing a Sofa Uphill

We pushed through a strange mosaic of snow. You never quite knew what you would get. Sticky as melted butter, an icy crust, or fluffiness. It all depended on the sun: where it had been, where it could reach. It was hard to get a good ski going with this inconsistency. That was March skiing for you.

As I skied, a familiar feeling crept over me. I was redlining, on a ski that should be somewhat easy. "You should go ahead," I snarled, stepping aside. When this happens, akin to pushing a sofa uphill, I am inclined to blame a lack of physical fitness or sheer laziness. I get mad and try harder. But this time I paused. I remembered what some friends are going through lately and it has made me think. Though I try to deny it, I do have an incurable, lifetime auto immune disease. 

Why am I writing about hypothyrodism on an outdoor blog? Because we all have our challenges. I tend to discount mine, and truthfully I'm lucky. I haven't had to change my medication in ten years. I breezily tell people it's no big deal. Most of the time I feel pretty good. But, puffing along in the wake of a speedy skier, I had to admit that it has affected my adventures.

There's that feeling that my eyes are just going to close on their own. The endless calorie counting no matter how much exercise I get. The times when my mind knows it can still do a seven minute mile, but my body says differently. Never waking up feeling refreshed. And days when the sofa is pretty hard to push. I realized that I've ignored all these because I didn't want to admit weakness. Better to ski harder, hike faster. Better to get mad.

But you can't ski mad. It just doesn't work. After awhile you just feel ridiculous. That's the benefit of being outdoors. There's really very little that mountains and snow can't fix, at least in terms of mood. I can tell when I haven't gotten enough, and that's been especially true lately. The changeable nature of March around here means that you stare anxiously at the sky. The forecast calls for 80% rain! But it's sunny? Do you dare go for it? You can try, like I did the other day, and discover to your joy that the park trails have been stomped down enough to run. Or you can drive up to the cross country ski parking area only to find a mean ice crust.

 So while I have an incurable autoimmune disease, and it can affect what I do, I'll just keep pushing that sofa. Some days it's not even a recliner, and others it feels like a full-on sectional. Fortunately, I am usually able to push through it and find some other plane where it's easy. I intend to keep doing that.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

jumping the fence

Yesterday Ruby jumped the fence. She was off for a wild runabout, reappearing later without remorse. She was so excited when she returned that she could  barely breathe. She raced about in a state of delight (At least she came back). I'm sure she wanted to tell me all about her adventure, but also how much she missed me and wanted to come back. Oh, Ruby. That is a dilemma us fence jumpers have to live with all of our lives.

Good thing she's cute.

Obviously she can't be doing that. There's so much snow that it's easy for her to get out. We'll have to shovel.  But this started me thinking about fence jumping in general. Breaking out. Doing the unexpected, even if you "should" be doing something else. We did this on Friday. I worked longer days so Friday afternoon was free. Sort of.

I had deadlines. I should have been at work. But winter decided to reappear. The snow was the best I have ever seen it. It looked like December. Because of all the fluffiness, I was able to ski down slopes that I usually have to timidly walk down. It was not to be missed. Well worth jumping a fence or two.
I skied the next two days in a row. Snow like this comes only a few days in a lifetime. I dragged some friends on a windswept traverse one day, and the other day we sped silently through the woods, successfully navigating the Hill of Death with no falls. This winter is the one that never seems to end.

What makes some dogs fence jumpers? I don't know. The lure of the unknown must finally overcome safety and home. I get it, Ruby. I was a fence jumper when I was younger too.

Now I just ski. But there's freedom in that. With snow like this, I can go wherever I want. Sick of winter perhaps, the others have abandoned the trails. I haven't skied a groomed trail in years. Instead I hunt for passage through trees. Sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not.

Apparently, it's been a hard winter. At least that's what people are saying. It doesn't seem that way to me. We had a brief February thaw and people appeared in shorts. They took studded tires off. They were fooled. You don't turn your back on winter here. We have two months at least to go.

The thing about fence jumping is that sometimes you can't find your way back. That's why Ruby has to learn to stay home. That's why I don't pack up and go hike the Pacific Crest Trail in its entirety, in one season. Or go sequester myself in a waterless cabin and write novels for a year. Other people don't subscribe to this. "YOLO!" they exclaim. They all have tales of people who died too soon, reminders that life is short.

It is short. As we skied today, the blue diamonds we followed were put up by a man who left us way too soon. If he had known, would he have jumped the fence? Was there something he passed up, thinking he would have time later? It's impossible to say. The only thing I can think of is this: jump a few fences, don't miss the adventures that would break your heart not to miss. But come home to the people who stay behind, waiting for you.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Going back again

I've now lived in one place longer than anywhere I ever have as an adult (7.5 years). The rest of my life, from age 18 to just  a few years ago, consisted of floating across the country, trying a place out, and moving on. I lived in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, New Mexico, Washington, Michigan, California, Idaho,  Nevada, Oregon (twice), and Alaska. They were all pretty good (Well, Pennsylvania wasn't that great) but I felt like I wanted to see what else was out there.

I've gone back to some of those places and big surprise, it wasn't the same. Good, but not the same. Being a visitor is a lot different than being part of the fabric of a place.

I  spent a lot of time at the Bowery Guard Station when I was a wilderness ranger.
The Sierra! My home for two summers

Florida, still beautiful,  but (except for this beach) so crowded! So much more pavement! It was sad.

Idaho, also still beautiful! But probably too much of a winter for me anymore.

I found out last week that I'm going back to Alaska for work. Not moving, just for a week. Going back to a place I've lived, I've figured out, is always kind of strange. The friends have moved on. The rain is much more annoying than it ever was. The tourists, so many! Even the scenery has changed, wildfires changing the landscape, new trophy homes dotting the hillside. Nothing ever stays the same, and I haven't either. Talking on a conference call with my old co-worker, AM, about my project was weird. We used to be teammates on the ranger boat, toting guns in the field. I'm not that same person anymore.

a "Fort Wench" in Michigan
I could be sad about this, and think about all the years that have gone by, never to be reclaimed. More years are in the past now than will be in the future (at least I hope so. Who wants to be that old?) But instead the overwhelming feeling I have looking back is gratefulness that I lived in such spectacular places. Even though friends who wisely stayed in one place and got permanent jobs at 21 can retire way, way sooner than I ever can, I wouldn't trade with them, most days. I have made all the right choices, I think.

My former co-worker AM in a survival suit, looking over Dry Pass.
Ever go back to a place you lived? Was it different?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Cabin Fever

It's inevitable. I can pretend to be as zen about staying in one place as much as I want, but the need for travel crops up about this time of year. It's not the dead of winter, but it's not spring either. You have to climb a little higher for snow, but the usual spring escapes are too snowy this year. Unbelievably, even the canyon is a dicey prospect, and I can usually backpack there in January.

I have to admit: it doesn't feel that great. I feel under-exercised, over-sugared, and a little boring. Here is where I need to say that there's no need to remind me of how good I have it. I am well aware of this. It's just that travel to mountains or desert or forest--I'm not picky--for more than a couple of hours feeds my soul. I have to come to feel like I need that time to recharge, and I'm only getting it in small doses. I feel like when doctors check you for things like Vitamin D, there should be an adventure level check too.

OK that's silly. But anyway. Cabin fever! I have to remind myself:  if I could hike and camp all the time, would I even appreciate it as much? I wondered about this as I slogged up a closed road, feet sinking deep in a stew of slush and ice, on yet another too-short excursion. Probably not. Each trip I manage to take feels like a delightful game of hooky, each moment precious. I'm not picky--each excursion is good, because I don't have unlimited choices.

I hiked up through rain, crossing that invisible line where it turned to snow (I love that magical line). The dog raced around, overcome with joy.
A rainy, sloppy day but great views!
I've had my dog for six months now and she keeps reminding me of a better way to live my life. Instead of looking forward to distant adventures, Ruby is excited every day. Hey! It's morning! Hi!!! What are we doing?! Food? Yay! Look, it's the labs from down the road, I need to whine at them! Run in the rain on a slippery road? Sure! Nothing going on? Ok, I'll chew on this toy and nap. Or snuggle with the cat:

I know people aren't dogs. We need to go to work, and pay the bills, and worry about stuff. But it's a good reminder to me to live in the moment. I can pace and look at maps all I want, but that won't make summer come any faster or get me freedom from work (seven years and 350 days!) any sooner. I'll make it through cabin fever just fine.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Embracing the Dry, or, Hunting up an Elusive Grand Canyon Permit

"Dammit," I snarled. Once again, there was an unwelcome email from the Grand Canyon Backcountry office, informing me that my permit request was denied. It cheerfully went on to remind me that I should have applied three months ago, and that late March was one of the most popular months to hike. It warned ominously that there could be a slim possibility of getting a walk-in permit, but that it could take up to three days of haunting the Backcountry office to secure one.

Dear Park Service, why must you have such an archaic system? You still have to use a fax, for Pete's sake. You have no idea of what use areas have vacancies, save for the corridor campgrounds, and only new hikers really want those. Your request could be denied for one campsite in the middle of your trip; you never really know. The poor rangers take up to three weeks to process the request, and by the time they write you back, other places have filled up. You can't do it over the phone, either. 

This graph from nps.gov is depressing. Probably better not to look at it. 
The NPS has a pretty tight lock on numbers too. For most use areas, some of which are really big, they only allow two parties per night. So even if there are two groups of one person each, that's it (I guess that's why the canyon is so much cleaner than other places though). 

I've been sending in requests since January, and finally I resorted to a shameful email plea to the rangers. I may or may not have promised brownies. The ranger who responded said that there was an area with openings, so I faxed in that request, knowing that it could easily fill up before they got to it.

Success after ten requests! However, there was a mistake--the rangers had given me a 17 mile day instead of the more sane number of miles I had requested (while 17 miles on the PCT is a short day, the Grand Canyon not so much). The Backcountry office phone rings busy most of the time, but the hiking gods were with me and I got a real person, who talked me through some choices (if it is their mistake, they can change your permit on the phone). I ended up with an itinerary close to what I had asked for (in a perfect world I'd go to Hermit Rapids, but that was snatched up back in November, I'm guessing).
2015 camp in Monument, which had a small trickle of water at the time.
This means a dry camp for two nights, but I'm not afraid of dry camps. I used to be before I hiked the California desert of the PCT. I have to laugh when I recall one day in our John Muir Trail thru hike when we grew unaccountably nervous about six miles without water. Since then I've hiked many waterless miles, including one 32 mile stretch. Dry camping is totally manageable.Yes, you can't wash up, and yes, you will probably end up with too much water because you will be afraid that you don't have enough. The reward is usually a scenic camp lacking condensation, bugs, and too many other people. Dry camps are also better for wildlife, since they avoid water when people are camped there.

My formula is typically to allow one liter per five miles of hiking, unless unusual circumstances prevail (really hot, really hard climbing). If you don't take a stove, and you don't drink coffee, you use much less water at camp. You will want one to two liters at camp depending on when you get there. I have passed up some nice dry camps because it was only one in the afternoon and it meant too much sitting and drinking up all the water I had. Generally I like to arrive at a dry camp about six or later, thus minimizing this. If I have two liters at camp, one for the evening and morning rituals, and the next to get me to water, I feel like I'm doing pretty well. If you leave camp in the morning, when it's still cool, this means you will drink less. 
A great dry camp in the Castle Crags (CA)
There are people who hike through the canyon in one day, but I'm not one of those people. Not because I couldn't, but because there is just something magical about spending at least one night below the rim. In the past four years, I've been back five times (If you really want a permit, December is pretty easy to get). 

So if you really want to go and you are lucky enough to be able to plan ahead, the best thing is to put your request in at the right time: four months ahead (if you want a permit in March, you can apply on November 1). Steer clear of the main camps. Trust me on this, unless you want a loud family waking you up at 4 am, eating breakfast loudly and preparing to hike to the rim. Embrace the dry camps! You might never go back.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


Though it is far too early for spring, our frozen lake has broken up. I am unreasonably sad about this. A strange rain event has brought awful frozen slush and the inability to get out of my driveway. The city plowed for awhile and gave up (I'm sure they didn't give up. But it kind of seems like it).

If you don't have a 4WD, you aren't getting to the gym!

By mistake, I invented a new sport. Rainshoeing! Rainshoeing happens when it's raining, but you can't stand to stay inside. You put on rain gear and bring your snowshoes, wandering around the county until you find a trail that isn't too icy. You slog through slush, crust, and finally get high enough that you reach the place where it is snowing. Sound fun? It actually is. In a weird way.

Nobody else was crazy enough to try it so I was free to imagine that I was setting all sorts of rainshoeing personal records. Fastest known time! Youngest woman! Oldest woman! The possibilities were endless.

I doubt rainshoeing is going to catch on, though. When I went to the little gym today, there were an unprecedented four other people in there, more than I have seen in months. Everyone looked a little despondent. Luckily, it began to snow, and possibly rainshoeing is a thing of the past.

It's probably like Snowshoe Ballet, which I once attempted, my companions watching dubiously, not inclined to participate (try it sometime, it's quite strenuous).  I'm probably the only person participating. But that's OK. That way I have all the records.

Ever invented a sport? 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Posing awkwardly on a frozen lake

all photos by Talia Jean Galvin--Talia Jean Photography (find out more here)
There are some people who look flawless all the time, even when in the backcountry. I still recall the day when, as a young seasonal wilderness ranger, I was booking it up a pass. Covered in ashes from digging trash out of fire pits, on day four of wearing the same uniform, and having forgotten a comb and substituting a fork, it was not my finest hour. A perky backpacker with perfect braids and, unbelievably, a white shirt, hove into view. Despite having been out for a few days herself, she looked like she had just stepped out of an REI catalog. Who are those people?
So when it came time to take my author photo for my newest book (out sometime this fall or early 2018..latest news here) naturally I knew that a studio portrait was not going to happen. I enlisted my photographer friend Talia Jean Galvin (of Talia Jean Photography) to go out to the frozen lake. And because I find taking pictures of myself silly, I had to do a few silly things:

Stare pensively...
Walk artfully away...
The obligatory leap

In all seriousness--the lake ice is now 8" thick!
The skiing has been incredible.

I know I keep banging on about winter, but I have never lived through one like this, except perhaps as a child, when we all know the snow was deeper. We are getting another 18" tonight. People's roofs are collapsing, which is sad, and those who hate winter are being driven over the edge. The skiers among us are beside themselves. There are a lot of "Bronec coughs*" going around, keeping people from work.

I see a few smug posts from people in southern climes, talking about seventy degrees, but I am honestly not tempted. This is what winter should be like.

The point of this post? If you find yourself on a frozen lake with a photographer, do silly things. And enjoy winter. You never know when or if there will be a next one.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Getting Out

No matter how much you might love where you live, there are always times you must leave. In my case, it seems like in spring, people sit up and realize that holy wah, there's a ton of work we need done and it must be done immediately! This sets the travel machine in motion. This year, if all works out, I will be traveling to Alaska, probably Florida, possibly Arizona and please, oh please, Puerto Rico. In addition, I have associated book signings and my novel got nominated for an award. Plus, my annual PCT treks. The point being, sometimes I need to get out.

This isn't the hardest place I've had to get out of. That dubious honor goes to Baker, Nevada, a hamlet of 50 souls in the middle of the Great Basin. To reach an airport took at least four hours in either direction. Or perhaps it would be Sequoia National Park, the egress from which took nerves of steel as I drove down through the mountains and later the tarantula flats (you see a tarantula crossing the road and it gives you pause). Then again, it could have been living on an island in the middle of Lake Huron, where you had to park your car on the mainland, three tumultuous ferry riding miles away, then drive said car to catch a tiny commuter plane a couple hours south. 

So I guess in the scheme of things, having to drive two hours on a two lane in the middle of nowhere with the ominously named "Rattlesnake" section doesn't seem all that bad. You might ask why I don't head to Boise (four hours) or Portland (six) but this winter, the major interstates have been closed for days on end. Better to go with the Rattlesnake. By now, I know its curves well. This road is never closed (although sometimes it should be). Recently, all means of getting to my town were closed down except for..you guessed it, the Rattlesnake.

Getting out requires some planning. Most often, the flights are at five in the morning and returning at midnight, neither of which are conducive to the Rattlesnake. Often it requires an overnight hotel stay coming and going. You have to, I've found, really want to go. Unessential trips get weeded out pretty fast. You also pack extra stuff, just in case the flight does not go, or if a landslide or some other event slows you down. Often you end up with the least desirable flight, with thirty minutes of all out sprinting to the next connection.

Of course, driving instead of flying is always an option, but time is often not on my side. Tucked way over here in the corner of the state, it takes forever to drive anywhere. Often, it's easier just to stay.

But that's not good either. You need to bust a move to shake off the cobwebs of living in isolation (at least I do). See other places, do different things. Then come home.

Is it hard to travel out of where you live?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Splitting your own wood

Time: Summer 1991
Location: "Old Maintenance", Grant Grove, Sequoia National Park

I furtively lifted the maul. The hazard tree crew were lurking about somewhere, and I didn't want them to laugh at my attempt to split some rounds. I had been fortunate enough to score a cabin for my seasonal job, and it was only heated with wood. Since we lived at about 7,000 feet, it was either learn to split wood or freeze.

Since then, I have split a lot of wood. In this county, I have yet to find a woman who splits her own, though I am sure they exist. It would be easy to defer this task to a partner, but I feel like if I give up all the chores I don't want to do, because they're hard, I lose something in the process. And there's something satisfying about lugging an enormous round (or rolling it, because it's so big) to the chopping block and seeing it split in several pieces.

Wood, split by moi
I feel like every woman without health limitations should be able to a) split her own wood, b) deal with frozen pipes, and c) not freak out skiing alone below zero. At least, those are a few things that I won't give up doing myself. Last week I had all three of these situations. The bitter cold that allowed us to play on the lake also created some impressive scenery (the pipes thawed after I crawled under the house with a heater)

Hurricane creek, with puppy in the distance

Looking down at the frozen lake from the East Fork trail

The first fat bike on Wallowa Lake. Those are my ski tracks

Our winters here are long and I have to laugh when I hear people wishing for spring. That's at least two months away, folks, and most likely three this year. My cabin is small, and I usually go through about four cords a winter. I do sometimes get help. But most often, every piece I burn is split by me. I could probably get a different form of heat, but this way it ties me to the source. I can't just flick a switch. I have to wake up cold, trundle outside to get more wood, crumple up paper, and light a match. I like that.