Sunday, November 18, 2018

Solitude in the Grand Canyon

I had walked sixteen miles, losing five thousand feet and then gaining a thousand right back. It would be dark soon. It was time to stop.

I had tried to stop earlier, in Sumner Wash, on a picture-perfect ledge below a couple of rare water-filled potholes. But when I set up my tent, the wind bent the poles and pushed the fabric to the ground. I had pressed on, hoping for a windless spot. Now it was time for a Desperation Camp.

I've had a few of these Desperation Camps, a last minute scramble to beat time or weather, sometimes spent holding a tent pole in despair, other times sleeping sideways in the only halfway decent flattish spot around. This one, among the sagebrush and cactus in the Clear Creek use area of the Grand Canyon, hardly qualified as desperate in the end. Parked below Zoraster Temple, looking across the great expanse of the Tonto platform, with the kind of stars you only see in a place where there is complete darkness--even with a little wind, this was not a true Desperation Camp.

Could be a lot worse

I was back in the Grand Canyon, because I can't seem to stay away. I asked about ten people to go along, but they all were constrained by obligation or time, so I was doing this one solo. I had never been to Clear Creek, which is an easy climb from Phantom Ranch, and so I had chosen this area for two days. During those two days, I didn't see a single person. In the Grand Canyon! Unbelievable.

Clear Creek trail
The next morning I descended a slippery scree trail to the creek, which was a little slice of paradise. Campsites were nestled in the sand below high rock walls. It was only ten in the morning, and I contemplated tagging it and heading back to a dry camp closer to the Ranch. It's hard to turn off the voice that says I should constantly be moving, but I managed to do it. I sat on a sandy beach by the creek. I explored a little downstream. I wrote a little. The hours passed quickly.

The most delightful campsite. The large rockpile, obviously meant to block the wind, gave me pause, but it was calm and warm here.

Total solitude in the GC.
With a sigh I packed up to head for the controlled chaos that was Bright Angel Campground. It's hard to avoid a stay here if you go to Clear Creek--it's nine miles back from the creek, and usually you won't want to start hiking out of the canyon at that point, though it is certainly doable. I snagged a campsite by the creek and trooped off to Boat Beach, one of my most favorite places in the universe.

I can work with this. And look, new fancy boxes to replace those ammo cans that people could never figure out how to open and would bang them around all night long.
Nobody is at Boat Beach!
The problem with Bright Angel, and its cousin farther up the trail, Indian Garden, is that the NPS likes to concentrate its campers. This means a parade of people traipsing by your campsite to get to the bathroom. It can mean people who sit around their picnic table with bright lights and loud voices. This time, most seemed beaten down from the descent and few even ventured to the cantina when it opened to us peasants at eight.

The cottonwoods are just starting to turn. Campground on the right.
The last night, I climbed to the Tonto platform and reluctantly stayed at Indian Garden. The Corridor is getting much too crowded for my liking, but IG serves a purpose. From there, you can wander along the Tonto trail to the west, places where most people never go. And the true beauty of IG is that you can leave well before sunrise, travel for an hour by headlamp, the only person on the trail. Then you can watch as daylight slowly comes to the canyon.
People staring into the canyon at Plateau Point
The stark lonesome of the Tonto
Whenever I climb out of the Canyon--and this has been my tenth trip below the rim--I debate about going back. I've done a lot of the trails, and the ones left are the scary steep or are waterless for 30 miles. Really, there are other places to go. But in the end, I leave making plans to return. It's just that magical.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Rookie Mistakes on Trail

I ran along the unexpectedly snowy trail, Ruby in tow. I love this brief time of year before the trails get too deep to run, but when nobody is on them. The trails become mine again, not shared with a plethora of tourists.

Lately I've been suffering some random pains when I run, but today was the stuff of dreams. I didn't stumble, nothing hurt, and the last light was showing on Sacajawea. I've been running since I was fourteen, and while I don't run as often or as far and certainly not as fast as when seven minute miles constituted training runs, there are still days like this, and I am grateful.

Perhaps that's why I did something dumb. I didn't realize it until I was halfway done, not all that far into the trail, but far enough. No other cars were at the trailhead. The sun was setting, and an intense cold was settling in. I hadn't brought any survival gear. I had my phone tucked away in a pocket for pictures, but there's no service. I had on only tights, a long-sleeved shirt and a light jacket, OK for running but not if something happened.

I've never been one to not think about consequences. As a wilderness ranger, I carried enough people out on stretchers to know that a misstep can be fatal. My day pack back then was so large that people thought it was an overnight pack (to be fair, our radios were enormous things and we had to be prepared to help others out with extra gear). And lately there have been more instances of mishaps on trails that become cautionary tales.

I picked my way carefully through the rocks under a darkening sky. From now on, even on a short trail run, I need to bring survival items. I do this on every hike, but running has always seemed safer for some reason, because I don't go far and don't stay long. There are several long distance runners here who map out 40 miles or more in these mountains. I see them, many with nothing more than a water bottle and a rain jacket. It's not really a good idea. (I won't even go into my neighbor who runs a dirt road, but in the dark with a headlamp in a place where mountain lions have been spotted.)

Ruby and I successfully reached the trailhead and drove home to a glowering husband. "I didn't even know where you were! It was dark!" Oops. Note to self: leave a note too.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Pushing the Side Hustle

Okay people,
I don't push my books on this site because I don't think that is what you come here for (if interested, visit here. But just in case you are in the market for an outdoors book or two, I am selling them for a reduced price. $15 includes shipping, a screaming deal and a way to benefit a writer rather than a big store (although, please visit independent bookstores).

I have two books out:

The Geography of Water, a novel set in the remote and rainy world of Southeast Alaska. It includes landscape as backdrop, character and obstacle--living in isolation and how that shapes personality. Plus some hiking! $14 shipped (only a couple available). Or you can help out a neat bookstore and buy here: Bookloft

Fire in the Heart, a memoir about fighting wildfires as the second generation of women to do so (late 1980s/early 1990s), and how land is shaped by fire and vice versa. $15 shipped media mail.


Ha ha. Anyway, if you love to read, or if you know someone who does, and want a book for a cheaper price than you can get anywhere, email me at maryellenemerick DOT com. Only while supplies last.

BACK TO REGULAR PROGRAMMING! By the way, thanks for the recommendations on indoor hobbies. I definitely will consider them all. The harmonica was genius. Prepare to be annoyed, neighbors!

Do you have a side hustle? Post it in the comments so we all can support it. Jill, I'm looking at you (and everyone else). I want to discover some new stuff!

Friday, November 2, 2018

Seeking Indoor Hobbies

"I'm going to the post office to pick up the shrimp" is a phrase I never thought I would utter. Neither did I think I would sit transfixed in front of an aquarium, watching fish swim around.

Through a set of circumstances, I became the keeper of an aquarium. And not just one. Smaller tanks have sprung up overnight, some with just plants, some with shrimp. This was never my idea. I'm supposed to be an outside person. I'm supposed to be getting rid of stuff. Living simply. But...

I haven't had TV since 2008, and I have to laugh at myself, perched in a chair in front of a tank. The shrimp are like little helicopters, zooming in for landings. Fascinating! Did you know shrimp come in a lot of colors? I didn't know that either. Also, there is a whole subculture of people who maintain tanks, and make Youtube videos about them. Some of them even have entire fish rooms. (They are mostly  younger white guys.)

Why am I telling you about fish tanks? Because I want to dwell on the importance of having a few indoor hobbies. But I'm an outdoors person! you may argue. However, I find that on the dreariest of dark days, I need something to do rather than eat brownies sit around inside wishing it were summer.  Also, I remember years ago in a small trailer in the middle of the Florida swamp, sidelined by a running injury, I paced and whined until my co-worker Mike got fed up.

"Don't you have ANY HOBBIES?" he asked in frustration. No, no I didn't. Mostly I just ran. Of course, I read books, but I don't think of reading as a hobby--it's more an essential element of life, like breathing. Was I getting boring, I asked myself? Should I take up knitting?

Well, no. I am not crafty. I realized this when I went through a brief jewelry and soap making phase. Let's just say the results were less than spectacular. For now, I have baking, writing, yoga when something hurts and I feel like I should, googling random pain symptoms on the internet, the occasional Amazon Prime movie, playing with the pets, and I guess I should count weightlifting and riding the bike trainer, since they are indoors. (I'm not sure those count as hobbies though.)

Help me out here. There's got to be some indoor hobbies that don't require any talent. Something to do over a long winter. I can't look at shrimp all night! OR CAN I?

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Splitting wood in the rain is just about as much fun as you can imagine

I gripped the maul and eyed the round balefully. Usually splitting wood comes pretty easily to me; I've had lots of practice. But these rounds had been sitting in the fall rain for some time, and were spongy and unyielding. No need to lift weights today, I thought.

To top it off, a torrential rain beat down on my head. And it was my own fault.

I had split a few rounds here and there during the summer, but on sunny, warm weekends, who wanted to do chores? Not me. Putting it off until nearly November meant that the snow was soon to fall (in fact, some was forecasted the following week). I had no choice.

People sometimes look at my many hiking adventures and express admiration that I can get out so much with a full-time job. What they don't see is that I make choices, and one of them can be neglecting chores. I choose not to have a spotless house, for example. And I end up doing the needed chores at times that aren't quite optimum. Unlike my neighbors T&T, I don't have nicely sorted by size pieces of wood stacked and ready to go by the end of the summer. In fact, I can be sometimes found chopping kindling at dawn during a snowstorm. Sorry, late sleeping neighbors!

Humblebrag, I split all of the wood in this photo.

So this weekend wasn't one of beautiful trail runs or hikes. Instead it was..chores. On Saturday I joined a work party to do maintenance at the backcountry ski hut. It wasn't really my idea of a good time to chop MORE wood, and I'm not even a backcountry skier, but the company was good, and we heard wolves howling in close proximity, so that was cool.

I feel like if you use the trails or the amenities, you should give back to them. If you can't physically do trail work, you can donate money to trail maintenance organizations. I've heard people say that our taxes should pay for clear trails. Well, they should. But they don't. I won't go into the tiny budgets for trails that agencies get.

So to sum it  up, into every life a few chores must fall. And I'd write more, but the wood is calling.

Happy hut maintainers

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The last trip to the lake (for now)

Well, as it turns out, hiking 17, 27, 12, 28 and 26 miles in a row when you haven't been doing that on the regular makes you pretty tired for a few days afterward. I took two full days off from exercise, feeling a little slothful, but reminding myself that I had essentially backpacked a marathon three days in one week.

But the warm October weather drew me out. When my friend R suggested a hike, I selfishly suggested a flatter one. We hiked ten miles on the Hurricane Creek trail, which is not epic. I tend to avoid it in the summer, because it is where everybody goes. Close to town, relatively flat, and beautiful, what's not to love? But in October, the people are fewer. You can even go for a trail run without passing a horde of people. You can let your dogs run free without disapproving looks (there's no leash law here,  but some people don't like dogs).

The larches have turned the color of sunlight. Golden aspen leaves litter the trail. It was easy walking. We paused at the five mile turn around, eyeing the sign to Echo Lake. Only another three miles! So tempting. But I knew that it wasn't in the cards. Darkness falls early this time of year. And the trail is steep and rocky, not something I was up for. Next time, we agreed, knowing it would be many months before we would be back.

I decided to go for a longer hike this weekend, the 16 mile round trip to Ice Lake and back. As I started to hike, I wasn't really feeling it. My legs felt like they weighed a million pounds, and I huffed and puffed up inclines that I usually spring up.

I'd just go until the snowline, I thought. I had been told there was a foot of snow up high. But when I got to the snowline, I couldn't stop. It turned out it only took me about ten minutes longer than it usually does to get to the lake. And it was worth it.

The winters are so long here. It's mid-October, and I won't be seeing Ice Lake again until at least the end of May. It's not a place to venture in winter--the threat of avalanches is too high. I felt a little sad, saying so long to the lake for several months.

But, I was happy I had pushed through the malaise. I'm never sure if it's just laziness or something else that makes it hard some days. Erring on the side of laziness, I typically force myself to push through.

A few intrepid backpackers were heading in as I headed down. Since all the campsites were covered in snow, it looked like a cold night for them. But just like me, they were seizing probably the last warm weekend (I'm not so sure about hiking in jeans in the snow though. Please don't do this).

Maybe it's good that the trails close down in winter. I don't want to only have one hobby. Soon the snowshoes and skis will come out of hibernation. Even the ice skates could reappear. I'm planning my final PCT sections for this spring. It's time to let the mountains sleep.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Ashland to Crater Lake: Section Elusive completed!

I stood shivering at the intersection. The rain showed no signs of stopping. The trail from here on climbed two thousand feet, where it would likely be snowing. To my left, salvation in the form of Fish Lake Resort. To my right, the claim to be tough and continue.

 Oh the heck with it. I turned off to Fish Lake. Even though it was a holiday weekend, the weather was miserable. The dining room wasn't all that warm either, and the guy at the cash register didn't seem too excited about me spreading out dripping gear in there. But. There were two types of cabins available, the rustic one with cold running water and no heat, and the luxury one with heat. Of course I picked the one with heat, laying out all of my wet gear and watching it dry with satisfaction.

I love you, Fish Lake Resort, and you saved me. But, I had to turn on the oven to get it remotely warm in the cabin. About your heat...I think you need to turn it up.

I had been 90% sure I was going to quit. If it wasn't fun, why would I keep doing it? But when I texted my enabler, Beekeeper, for the weather, it looked like I had a window. Cold days, but clear. It was only 54 miles to the end. It looked possible.

The next morning dawned cold and clear. I headed out, meeting a few southbounders along the way. All of them were thru hikers who had had to skip this section because of smoke or because they had flipped up to Canada to make sure they stayed ahead of the snow. All of them agreed: the last two days had been awful.

There's lakes down there.

The trail climbed steeply to a high point where the wind whipped mercilessly. Below me I could see a myriad of lakes: the Sky Lakes Wilderness. Sadly, the PCT stays high on a waterless ridge, missing the lakes entirely. At 27 miles, I was ready to camp, but the wind precluded that possibility. Gritting my teeth, I ground out another two miles to an exposed but windless viewpoint. Diving into my tent, I shivered for hours under my sleeping bag until I finally warmed up. It was too late to be out here, I realized.

view from campsite
The next day I awoke to....rain. No! Looking at the map, I realized that if I pulled off another long day, 26 miles, I could make it to Crater Lake and be done, versus another night in a wet tent. I'm not usually one to cut a trip short, but I was over the cold weather and wet gear. It was time to call it.

The trail stayed mercifully flattish, coming through the Blanket Fire of 2017. I had been on this fire, though I had been stuck at the helibase and didn't comprehend the devastation. Hardly anything had come back in the intervening year. The misty rain continued as if it would never stop.

Spooky fire landscape
There is a Rim alternate trail that nearly every hiker takes. Why stay in the creepy woods when you can hike along the caldera? Unfortunately, the last mile I had to hike, reaching Rim Village, was straight up. I may have whimpered a bit as I crept upwards. After all, this was mile 26, after a 28 mile day yesterday. Turns out, maybe you should train a bit before you do that. And I don't mean just random trail running or occasional 16 mile hikes.

However, not even the chilly wind and rain could dampen my enthusiasm as I stood on the rim, surrounded by a few hardy tourists. I had done it, finished the Oregon portion of the PCT! In many ways, this was the most mentally challenging section so far, save the snowy bail-out in the Sierra Pelona last year. When I thought about it, safe and warm at my friends' house in Bend, I realized it was because of the trail being empty. There are some trails that I want to be empty, but part of what I like about the PCT is talking with other hikers, knowing they are experiencing the same conditions, knowing they are in love with the trail also. Hiking the PCT off season isn't for me; I like people too much (at least, this kind of people).

Plus, there's too much pushing daylight. It got dark at 6;45 and didn't get light again for twelve hours. I'm not a fan of night hiking--what's the point? I want to see where I am hiking, and there are too many potential predators out then. Twelve hours in a small tent is a long, long time.
Brief view.
It was with great satisfaction that I drove away from Section Elusive. It would have been easy to quit, and I almost had. Why I keep pursuing this PCT thing is sometimes beyond me. But now--with less than three hundred miles to go--I am going to see it through.