Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Idaho side of the Snake

I hurried along the rocky trail, trying to beat the sunset and failing. I'm not a big fan of night hiking. Some people love it, but it's kind of scary to do solo. The light from my headlamp revealed a long, flat bench far below. Kirkwood Ranch at last! Safe from mountain lions!

It had been years since I had backpacked on the Snake River National Recreation Trail in Hells Canyon, high time for a return. I had been stalking the weather, waiting for the perfect window, because to get there you must drive high on a winding road that could be treacherous if snowy. Luckily, the perfect time arrived.

It's about a five hour drive from my house to Pittsburg Landing, plenty of time to think about life choices, and when I arrived I knew I would have to beat feet to get there in daylight. The six miles only took two hours to complete, but it was dark, and I set up my tent in an empty campground, accompanied only by a herd of deer. Lights beamed out from the historic ranch house, occupied by caretakers who stay there a month at a time as volunteers. (That would be fun to do.)

Spring views along the trail
My next day's destination was to day hike to Pine Bar, a place almost mystical in that it has actual pine trees and a sandy beach by the river. It would be a 16 mile round trip, well within possibility.

The trail meandered upriver, climbing to Suicide Point (which I renamed Life is Good Point) and wandering over wide open fields which were once grazed and irrigated. History is everywhere in the canyon; you can see it in remnants of old plows slumbering in the tall grass and old buildings near the creeks.

These people were smart. They built their cabin into the side of the hill and used stone. There are still two bedframes inside this cabin.
"If the day temperature and the night temperature together equal one hundred, the new grass will be growing," Joe had told me. It was, he said, an old rancher's saying. It was just about there, though the canyon hasn't exploded into spring yet. The flowers were just barely starting, and there was frost at Kirkwood each night.

The loveliness of Pine Bar.
I sat for a long time at Pine Bar before making the trek back. Some Canadians drifted over to my campsite, moaning about the lack of shade. Just wait another month, Canadians!  It'll be much hotter! They and one other backpacking woman were the only people I would see in three days. We sat around and talked about gear. I recognized a kindred soul when one of them started listing off how many tents he had.

At Life is Good Point
If you are not pressed for time, the trail is about 30 miles long and ends, mostly, at Granite Creek. It is an out and back unless you plan ahead and have a jet boat drop you off so you can hike back to Pittsburg. Someday, I thought, someday I will do that. Someday I will have unlimited time. But for now I seize the day when I can.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Skating on a (Possibly) Frozen Lake

The lake froze! The lake froze! This is a big deal!

Okay,  maybe not for you. But since I don't live next to an ocean (and I miss that every day), Wallowa Lake is the next best thing. It's my swimming pool in summer (kind of a cold one), my view when I run along the moraine, and a good place to just hang out at any time. I've lived here for eleven winters, and the lake has frozen four times in its entirety.

Some years we get an icebox in December and the surface stays frozen for months. In the best winter of all for ice, 2017, we skied and skated on the lake most days. Most winters, it's disappointingly cold but not enough to make the ice.

I had given up on this year. It's been really snowy but not that cold (when I say that, the temperatures have been in the single digits, but not below zero, which is what the lake seems to need). Until one day when I was driving by after a run and I noticed something odd. No open water! This was in March, which is exceedingly strange. I raced home to get my skates.

One thing you should know is that I am a terrible ice skater. I was better in Alaska, where our lovely Swan Lake reliably froze and I was able to skate often. (My friend L got fed up with trying and left her skates on the ice with a note saying they were free.)  I honestly don't know why I keep doing something that I am so bad at, but there's something about gliding over glass, knowing that you are above three hundred or more feet of water...I don't know. It's spellbinding, really.

There wasn't anyone at the lake when I returned with my skates, and I wasn't quite sure how completely frozen the lake was. Something my friend R always said flashed through my head: "If you die in a stupid way, I'm not coming to your funeral." Okay then.

I inched out onto the ice and put on my skates. Some slush greeted me, and I knew this was from the snow skiff melting, but it was still worth avoiding that area. I made my way to a clear patch. And it wasn't pretty, but I was skating on a frozen lake. Though I was still terrible at it, I couldn't help but think that this was the culmination of a pretty perfect winter. I am actually sad to see it go.

Friday, March 8, 2019

How to run happily in winter*

*Are you serious? A better title from me would be: how to run sullenly in winter while postholing through deep snow while the dog disappears somewhere, or how to skitter along on microspikes on sheer ice where a fall would be catastrophic. Or even, how to run on a treadmill without. anything to look at except people going in and out of the bank across the street from the gym.

So no tips here. The reality is that where I live, winter running is rarely enjoyable. I tend to ski a lot more and run less. But since I can't seem to give running up entirely, I've learned to endure.

What makes it worth it are the times when everything aligns. If I hear that the snowmobile club has groomed the canal road, I race out there. It's a grueling climb to the good part, but definitely worth it.

Perfect groomed corduroy.
In winter I also allow myself to slow down. I don't worry about pace, just total time. I even let myself take pictures (the old me would be horrified by this).

The lake is trying to freeze!  I can't complain about this running backdrop.
This year for some unexplained reason the state park decided to plow some little paths, which makes for interesting short loops. I also love running through the deserted campground.

Cute little paths!

They plow the camping parking spots, but I don't think anyone would happily camp here.

The other little park I run in has largely been off limits except for skis, and so have the trails. The snowshoe army just has not been able to keep up.  Sometimes this winter I have headed out optimistically only to flounder in deep snow. Honestly it isn't worth the slow pace--I could walk just a as fast--so I beat it out to the road. The roads are icy and treacherous, but at least they are plowed. On one sad occasion, I went to a road I thought I could run only to find it icy beyond belief. I then went to the state park. A big nope. Onward to the campground. I felt slightly ridiculous, hunting all over the county for a place to run.
The views are nice,  though.
I know a couple of people whose only activity is running, and I feel sorry for them this time of year. I can say that as a person who used to be that way. Branching out to skiing and snowshoeing has allowed me a lot more fun in winter.  But I'll never give up running completely. There's always those perfect moments on trail, crunchy snow underfoot, mountains overhead.

Friday, March 1, 2019


I know I keep talking about this, but we are buried! I've never seen so much snow in our little village. And it's not stopping. Even the dedicated skiers are starting to grumble, except for a couple who say they want to be able to ski through June. No, please no.

Things that make Februburied stick out from all the past Februarys:

I've never skied so many days in a winter!

 We have gone on trails that I would never ski in less snowy times. The dogs peer plaintively over the snow-blown paths. They are dwarfed by the mounds of snow.

Running has been tough. The trails can't get beaten down enough, so it's either the treadmill or the icy pavement. Neither seems like a good idea, so I just keep skiing.

We headed up the Hurricane Creek trail, where nobody had been. Usually, people are convinced they can drive there, and try it. They end up stuck, and walking to our house to get help. Nobody has even tried it this year, which left the trail for us. But spooked by potential avalanches, we didn't stay too long.

Ruby demonstrating the paths she must stick to.
Alas, my faithful skinny skis are at the end of life. They have barely any scales left. They were free, so I can't argue too much with the need to go shopping. They lasted me ten years, and who knows how long they were used before that.

Also, I am out of firewood, a situation that has not happened ever. I had to do the Firewood Buy of Shame. It still seems like I should be burly enough to cut my own wood, but we estimated wrong this year.

One thing doesn't change. I am still a dork. Witness in the picture below.

I didn't realize I had two pairs of sunglasses until I saw this picture. I ran into a friend and skied a ways with him and he SAID NOTHING.  He probably wondered what that was all about.

Currently, we are at 125% of normal for our snowpack. I am worrying about my June PCT hike in the Sierra at this point, but it is too soon to tell for sure. And the snow keeps coming. Wherever you are, I hope you are enjoying the winter as much as I am.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Going in to Elk Lake the hard way

Was it cheating to have the snowcat take our overnight gear and food in to Elk Lake, if we skied in the eleven miles?  Having nothing to prove by skiing in burdened down with that stuff, we decided it wasn't. I've done the sled ski before, and if I didn't have to, I wasn't going to.  Free of our food and clothing, we set off on the closed road with only day packs.

We lucked out with the weather. The mountains were out, and we could take breaks in the warm sun.
In summer, you can drive to this resort. Or you can hike near it on the PCT, and take a steep side trail down if you want a $5 shower. But in winter, your options are snowmobile, fat bike, or skis. Of course, there is the snowcat option. You can ride in with them if you want to pay.

We didn't, though, so we set out on our cross-country skis, accompanied by a horde of snowmobiles. Turns out, this is a popular snowmobile route, and it can be annoying to share the trail with them. But once we accepted that we were going to see them, we could settle down and enjoy the ski in.

After a few hours we arrived at our cabin. There's a range of places to stay, from luxurious houses to camping cabins, with heat but no water. Ours was smothered in snow and the porch was boarded up with plywood. It appears that this part of Oregon is having a banner snow year.

Once I was at Elk Lake, I didn't want to leave. Couldn't I just stay there all winter? Maybe I could just go get my laptop and an air card and work there. It was so peaceful. In fact, it sort of felt like a snow cave:

My bedroom window "view"
We spent the next day skiing around the lake and exploring the nearby campgrounds. A layover day was highly worth it.

The campground is full all right...of snow.

Nobody's going to be using this outhouse for a while.
 Unfortunately, we couldn't stay in this paradise forever. It was time to go. We had come down 1500 feet in elevation and now had to climb out. The resort had ominously noted this, saying, "are you sure you want to ski out?" Yes, we were sure.

The ski out was much more brutal, with temperatures in the teens. My goal: to beat the snowcat. I succeeded. Then I faced a long drive home, fueled by the anxiety of a winter storm which closed the interstate after I passed through. But even with that, it was well worth the trip. I've been pretty much holed up at home most of the winter, and we've been pretty isolated, with the highways often closed. It was good to have a small escape.

Friday, February 15, 2019

My friends don't want to go back to the Grand Canyon.

I emailed my Grand Canyon friends in a flurry of optimism. "I have a big hiker credit, let's go to the Gems!" For those who aren't aware, the Gems are a series of canyons along the lesser-trod part of the Tonto Plateau, named after, well, gems--Slate, Turquoise, Ruby. Few people travel there, because access is difficult, involving a rough road that is impassible in wet weather to the South Bass trailhead, and then traversing, as the NPS direly warns, "30 waterless miles." (There MAY be water, but since reports are few and trickles scarce, it's best to be prepared). Another way you can go is to get down the Hermit or Boucher trails and go part way in and come back out. Neither is a great option, because you can't see much of it once you've spent the time getting down the Hermit, and in the first option you really want someone to shuttle you to South Bass rather than take that road twice. Complicated!

My Grand Canyon friends are the ones whom I met on a winter trip in the canyon, and we've been there several times since. This is really the only time I see them, and we get each other. Sometimes, one of us wants to walk alone, and that is okay. Other times, we walk together. It is a good partnership.

A few of the original "family". Some did not stick, and went on to do other things. This was in December!

The responses came back. "I can't go then." "I want to go somewhere else." And, "I like the canyon, but there's a lot of other places to see."

I get it, I do. There are so many places in the world to go. I don't know why I don't feel as enthused as they do about it. There are definitely places I want to see, but I can't get too excited about overseas travel, and in summer I get to see a lot of places through work and personal travel. I don't feel compelled to go everywhere. Is that bad? When I worked for the Park Service, I wanted to work at a new place every six months. I could hardly wait to explore some other park. Now, I feel sort of "meh" about undertaking lots of travel. I'm not sure why. Maybe the logistics and planning for my multi-year PCT hikes takes too much out of me and I don't want to deal with shuttles, airplanes, and other things you must deal with in travel.

Freezing at Plateau Point, but in good company

Also, there's just something about the Canyon. It's my place. I can't describe why.  I just feel at peace there. It is getting harder to like in places--the corridor trails are just too packed anymore for me to like them. But if you try hard enough, you can find isolated pockets. You can stare at the river, at the geologic layers of time, and feel absorbed into the silence and the march of time. At least I can.

So, I have other potential canyon goers on deck, since my canyon family no longer wants to go.  It's sad! But we all move on.

is there a place you keep going back to and can't seem to quit (besides where you live)?

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Conquering the Hill of Impossibility

 I sat in the pub, watching the snow pile up. We were well on our way to a foot and a half from one storm. A couple looked outside and groaned. "We were having a good day until THIS started," they said. Why you would live in a snowy place if you hate it, I wondered.

The rest of us were busy making plans. I had one goal in mind: to ski down Hays Maze in cross country gear! As you may recall, I failed miserably a few weeks ago, resorting to walking with skis.  Though I am not really a "goal" person, I was determined for redemption.

"Just take the T bar up," J said. Though it was a Monday, it was a mandatory powder day (the lift runs, and people chip in for the diesel). I stared in horror at the T bar. I had seen people fall off it at a high speed, and others grab and miss. One hard thing in a day was enough. I hadn't brought skins, and the long way around to the top would take until dark.

The snocat hove into view and our eyes lit up. We would bum a ride to the top. Luckily Willie was in the mood for company, so I hopped in for a unique, plodding ride to the top. Being in the cat reminded me of driving swamp buggies back in the day. We swayed and tipped our way to the top, but Willie said we wouldn't tip all the way over. I chose to believe.

At the top, two skiers appeared, having skinned their way up. I felt lazy as I put on my skis, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do. I stared down the easiest run on the ski hill. It looked pretty hard to me, but if I stayed off the groomed part, I thought I could make it. And I did, only falling three times into soft, fluffy snow.

Though skiing down the Hill of Impossibility had been conquered, I don't think I'll become a downhill skier anytime soon. Lifts and skinning up just to ski down aren't what I like. Instead I enjoy the meditative slog through flocked trees. Yes, I am strange.

 I have felt a twinge of guilt this week for only skiing. I haven't darkened the gym door in a while. I haven't done a pullup. Crunches, what are those? And I only ran once. But it's hard to waste this good snow.  The trails are deep and silent. I don't know where everyone else is, but they are missing out.

As I type this, another storm is blowing in, with dire warnings of impossible driving and major snowfall. Much of the west is getting hammered, and the PCT in the Sierra in June, my last trip, is up for question.

If it snows enough, I may tackle the Hill of Possibility again. Or, I may just go back to my slogging ski trails.

 Either way, winter is just getting started.  We stared with anticipation at the lake while on a mid-day ski. It is trying to freeze over. This has only happened twice in the ten years I've lived here. There's always hope that it can happen again.

So what should I do today? Run? Go to the gym? Nope. It's a ski day today.