Monday, January 14, 2019

Chasing Spring

News flash: it's not spring. And I don't really want it to be, not yet. There's plenty of skiing and snowshoeing left to be done. It's only January! Let's not wish time away. But sometimes, a person who has been in cold temperatures since November wants to feel a touch of warmth. So, naturally, you go to the canyon.

Oh, Hells Canyon. So alluring, so inhospitable. We drove into the sun, where the temperatures were forty degrees, a heat wave. T had struck out cross country from the Hells Canyon NRA sign, off the lower Imnaha Road, several times before, and she proposed a quick warm-up hike to the Imnaha River from there. Sure, I thought, how hard can it be?
This was the easy part of the route.
As I should have known, when you ask that question, it always is harder than you think. Ill-advisedly wearing my trail running shoes, I picked my way cautiously down a steep chute, following my more sure-footed (and hiking booted) friend. A lot of it required the technical butt-slide maneuver, and I talked myself through the scree sections. Rocks tumbled with abandon, taking me with them. Some inadvertent hand placement on cactus occurred, and much skidding, but we finally emerged on a small, frosty beach.

"I think we came down a different way before," T said. No doubt! "You know, there are easier ways to get to the river," I said, notably driving to it. But there's something grand in knowing you are standing in a place where few have. 

On the way out, we began by climbing the gatekeeper cliffs above the river, but soon fear drove us from those heights--the scrambles were too death-defying. Instead we contoured around and found a deer path that took us back up to the road. Much easier! However, our "quick warm-up hike" had taken a big chunk of our day, leaving us only enough time to explore a powerline road for a couple of miles. 

Still, it's good to be flexible in the outdoors. We stripped down to one layer, unfathomable in January. That's why I love the canyon. I always emerge a little beaten up, but the canyon slowly unfolds its secrets for those who try hard enough.

This was our route out. See the river down there?

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Temporary Retirement Chronicles

We arrived at the parking lot to find a huge amount of no snow--and no people. Where was everybody? The snow was perfect! Then I remembered--it's Monday!

This is a parking lot.
Though it's no fun being told that your job and salary are on hold for a higher purpose, this furlough has been eye-opening for me. I have never had this much time off at once. Even as a seasonal worker, I didn't collect unemployment like most of my peers. Instead, I moved across the country to get a winter seasonal job. I've never cashed an unemployment check--mostly because I felt an obligation to work if work was to be had. (There's almost always work.) My co-workers would return with glorious tales of skiing in Peru, hiking in Australia (Wait. I did take the winter of 1988 off to go hike in Australia. I didn't get unemployment though.).

So even though there are financial worries from not getting a paycheck, I get it now. The far off galaxy called retirement is going to be great! I just need to get myself there in one piece.

Which might not be as easy as it sounds. L and I went skiing again, and it was only partway up the climb that she casually mentioned that we would be returning via the downhill ski area. "I don't think I can do that," I sniveled. Going down a run on cross country skis? "You can," she assured me. As it turns out, no, no I couldn't. After terrified snowplowing, rocketing down the slope at great risk to the dogs ahead of me, and finally giving up and carrying my skis down a ways, that is one I can check off the list of Never Again. (L hasn't called me to go skiing again. I wonder why.)

There's the Seven Devils, over in Idaho
Another day I snowshoed up to the backcountry ski hut with some skiers. As the only snowshoer, I was able to keep up with the skiers on the ascent, but the descent was something else entirely. I left earlier than they did, taking the more exposed summer trail. Fifty mile an hour winds threatened to knock me over and had erased our earlier tracks. I staggered down the trail, thinking how this would not be the idea of fun to most.
Skiers getting ready to take on the Hill of Death.
The snow has been so deep that if you only ski on weekends, you can't keep up with making the track (we are at 93% of normal for snow). I headed up the Devils View trail hot on the heels of a snowshoer. I came upon him at the top, giving up and turning around. I was on my own, pushing snow with my skis.

There's skis under there somewhere.
So while I would rather not be dipping into my savings to pay the mortgage, I get why some of my fearless friends have decided to play now, maybe work later. It's strange to step out of the accepted routine--work, work, work--for just a little bit. I have kept myself on a work routine, sort of, by working my second job--writing my next book and promoting the older ones. But freedom, my friends? It's intoxicating.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Skiing to the Floor

I'm not a NYE resolution believer. I don't need a 52 hike challenge, or any other goal, to get me outdoors. In fact, the last time I made up a challenge (to sleep outside for 50 nights, having hiked to get to that place) it became more of a chore to complete than something fun. Getting exercise for me is more of a necessity; I don't need to have it as a goal. (That being said, I do hope to finish the PCT this year.)

So I started 2019 just as I began 2018, spending the day outside. Last year I was finishing a hike in the Grand Canyon. I didn't go this year, but my friends reported hiking out a day early--travesty! The snow is so good here that all of us are thrown into a sort of winter mania. I've been snowshoeing and skiing so much, with friends I never get to go with because I am always working, that I feel really tired and in need of rest. It is a good problem to have.

Freshly groomed Canal road-good for fast skiing

One day L and I skied out her back door and way up to the sky, breaking trail as we went. On the way, she talked about a place called the Floor, where someone had begun work on a cabin far, far up a road in the woods. They got as far as the floor and never came back.

Beautiful deep snow
To a writer this is intriguing. Nobody seemed to know the story, why someone would choose such an isolated spot, a place nearly impossible to get to in winter, supremely quiet and remote, off the grid, a place to hole up. I had to get to the Floor!

"It's pretty far up there," L said. We stared at the deep snow around us. It was hard work pushing through, and it would be quite the snowplow on our skinny skis to get back down. I was prepared to turn around in disappointment, but we pushed on. And then there we were, at the Floor. If only it could talk.

Since it had been built, trees had grown up, blocking much of the view of the valley. But still. I imagined someone discovering this place, picturing their cabin. It would be a retreat; nobody would ever bother you up there.

Where were those people today and what became of their dream?  Most locals I asked know where the Floor is, but all they know was that it was built twenty to thirty years ago and the owners never returned. "There's other foundations up there too," Joe says, remnants of dreams.

Fascinating. I wish I knew what happened.
The Floor

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Non Essential.***

So, I am non-essential as determined by the federal government, and I have been on furlough for the past week. It was supposed to be my paid vacation time, but paid time off is an obligation to the government, so since the "discretionary" agencies have no budget, I am on furlough, not vacation. Following so far?

It seems like the average American doesn't care much about a partial shutdown. Most national parks are still open and so are the forests. I've seen people giddy with the realization they don't need to pay an entrance fee. Right now the only people working in my agency are law enforcement, firefighters (if it's fire season there) and the few that are contractor representatives. Which makes me wonder.: if most of us, the toilet cleaners, the trail builders, the planners, the water testers, are not essential, maybe the parks and forests should revert back to wilderness, with no services.  


But I am essential in the cosmic sense. That's all that really matters.

Anyway. I haven't had this many days off in a row when I haven't been on a hike. And what I have discovered is what those who are able to avoid work have known for years: Time! So much time! I've been able to snowshoe and ski with friends who have no work limitations, when usually I have to beg off with a sigh if it's during the work week. I also realize: I would be in such great shape if I had this much time, all the time!

And we have been blessed by soft, fluffy powder snow! The kind that your snowshoes sink in deep, the kind that forgives your clumsy skiing. The dog is getting spoiled too by all this activity. No more lying sullenly in the house while I work. It's play time all the time!

This makes me realize why some less fearful friends retired early, with the opinion that the future is not guaranteed. I get it! But I still can't quite make the leap. There's been too much time invested, and so little to go. I do dream, though.

***Speaking as a private individual. These opinions are not expressed for my agency, or on official work time, or in my professional capacity.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Confessions of a Terrified Cross-Country Skier

I desperately snowplowed down the steep slope. Oh no! Obstacle! Obstacle! A fallen tree loomed ahead. For Pete's sake, what was so easy about cross country skiing?

Dang! An obstacle on a hill. Trust me, this may not look like a hill. But it is.
Despite this being a dismal winter in the valley, I was gratified to find plenty of snow up high. Accompanied by my friend T and a little yipper named Molly, I ventured out to the trails to see if I remembered how to ski. Turns out, I do, sort of.
She's little, and she tends to yap a lot, but she's cute. Not a great photo because she wouldn't stay still.
The next day I went out solo to check conditions on the Canal Road. This is a summer road that is only open to oversnow vehicles in the winter.  As you may surmise, it parallels a canal. You can travel ten miles one way, but I didn't have time for that. Darkness began to fall and it was time to retreat. Conditions were fine, once I avoided the tire tracks (the memo about driving on the road in winter must have been lost to some). The dogs were pretty happy about the two hour ski. So was I.

The third day I had a couple of hours to spare between work obligations. I returned to the Canal Road, but took the skier trail down through the forest. This is a route I can only undertake when there is plenty of soft snow to slow me down--it's quite the elevation drop. Today there was just enough snow for it to work. I only had to sidestep down two very steep hills, and never sunk to the low of hiking with skis.

I always feel like I'm starting over each winter. I have to accept that I will never be graceful on skis. Therefore, my confessions:
 1. I cried once on the Hill of Death (not to be confused with the Hill of Terror)
2. I may have had a meltdown on my birthday one year on a "most difficult" route. Thus the new saying by J: "it's not your birthday if there's not a meltdown".
3. I have uttered "oh no, oh no, oh no," more than once.
4. I have walked quite a few hills.
5. I once fell over a dog when I couldn't stop in time.
6. I'm always grateful when I get back to the car with all limbs intact.
7. I am secretly glad when it is a slog rather than extremely fast downhill.
8. I'll ski up the Hill of Terror to avoid skiing down it on the Summit Divide loop.
9. My attempt at skijoring ended in disaster when the dogs ran too fast for me.
10. I once fell over when standing still on cross country skis talking to a friend.

I'll keep at it, though. Maybe this will be the winter when the Hill of Terror gets downgraded to the Hill of Mild Fear. (The Hill of Death will never change, though. Miracles are not going to happen.)

Saturday, December 15, 2018

(almost) the end of the PCT

J stared in amazement as I tapped on the keyboard. "How can you even make a flight reservation for MAY?" he asked, horrified. He is from the Wing It school of adventure. He doesn't even start packing until the day he leaves, something that horrifies me. In contrast, I start building a pile of gear at least a week in advance. Then I revisit it, taking stuff out, adding stuff in. Invariably the forecast will change, leading to panic packing the night before. I am guessing this approach isn't much better.

Getting ready for Washington PCT, circa 2013.
I'm working on my last two PCT section planning. It is amazingly complicated when you are hiking between two 200 mile points. For one, the most efficient way to do it is buy two one way tickets, one to one town and the second from another. You have to calculate how many miles you will hike in order to meet the departing flight, hoping that a trail angel will appear to take you past some miles you already hiked. You have to mail a box of clean clothes to the last town so that you don't offend your fellow plane passengers. You have to figure out where you will resupply and when you might get there (I tend to go 100 miles between resupplies). For the last section, in the Southern Sierra, you roll the dice on a lower snow year and hope it will be accessible in June.
I don't think I bring this much stuff anymore. For one,  I have ditched the sleeping bag stuff sack and now pack the bag loosely in the bottom of the pack.
I've downloaded maps and studied them. I won't go as far as some infamous former Sierra trail partners who made spreadsheets of where camp would be every night. Going solo gives me a lot more freedom. But still, there are some parameters. I have to hike 20 miles a day, pretty much. I need to figure out where the big water carries are and to bring enough capacity to deal with those. I need to invite some trail friends to Horseshoe meadow to PAR-TAY at the very end ("party" being a relative term and probably consisting of cookies and maybe a toast). I must start planning now!

PCT completion medal. They put your "trail name" on the back. Can't wait to get one of these!

It's good to have something to do right now. A promising winter has given way to a glum not enough snow/too much ice situation. Adventures have been limited. The treadmill even made an appearance. My neighbor appeared from two weeks in Hawaii and looked depressed, like he wanted to go right back. That didn't sound all that bad, actually.

Monkey Bars and Flash, finishing Washington! 
It'll change. It always does. We just need to wait it out. In the meantime, I'll plan. May will come pretty fast.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Kayaking Black Creek Wild and Scenic River, Mississippi

Things I learned last week:

1. There's a website called
2. If you have to get workout clothes because your suitcase is lost and you NEED to exercise, a 24 hour Walmart in Hattiesburg, Mississippi may not be the best place to go.
3. You are never too old to be creepily checked out by scary looking dudes in Walmart.
4. If you hear a large amount of air coming out of a tire at 4 in the morning at the airport, and you are one hundred miles from home, and your flight leaves in an hour, there is nothing you can do but go inside the airport.
5. Les Schwab tire shop is awesome.
6. Mississippians are the nicest people on the planet.
7. Southern accents are very appealing.
7. Missisippians are also some of the most unhealthy. Y'all, you need to move a little more.
8. Maybe because if you order seasonal vegetables, you will get onions and zucchini drenched in oil even though you have asked for steamed.
8. It is entirely possible to sprint through the Houston airport and get to a connecting flight in 20 minutes.
9. Even in a really built up area, you can usually find something pretty.

Such was the case with Black Creek. We hauled our sit-on-top kayaks to the river at Cypress Landing (one of several access points). Only twenty-one miles of the river are designated Wild and Scenic, and we only had time to float six miles. There were rumors of alligators and cottonmouths, but it seemed too cold for that. Nobody floats the river in December, except us, so it was quiet except for our conversation and the sound of our paddles. The water was tinged a deep brown from tannic acid.

You didn't even really have to paddle. The current moved along at a brisk two miles an hour, and you could float along, just using the paddle to avoid some of the trees and sandbars blocking the creek. The vegetation along the streambank bent over like a canopy, making it seem completely isolated from the rest of the world.

At one sandbar we got out and hiked some of the Black Creek national recreation trail. Stretching 41 miles and often touching the river, the trail looks wild and abandoned. Without a lot of topography to make a difference, it looks to be a fairly easy stroll and a super easy thru hike to add to the resume.

Black Creek National Recreation Trail. It doesn't look very used.
The breadth of the sandbars varies with water flow, and we were floating through at a lower level. The "lunch sandbar" was so wide and warm that I wished we had brought a tent (a common theme of mine). Warm sand in December: it was like a dream, considering that at home, it was well below zero.
sandbar happiness with the river behind me
On this stretch, three pipelines run beneath the river, from one side to the other, a reminder that humans have messed with just about every inch of the planet. Except for those and a bridge, we saw no development until, three hours later, we reached Fairley Bridge landing, our takeout point. 

It was hardly a strenuous outing. "The rednecks put in tubes and float down," one of the forest employees told me. It sounded kind of fun in the summer, except for the aforementioned alligators. In the summer, they explained, you would never want to hike the trail, though. Too many bugs, and way too hot. On the river, you would spend most of your time swimming, not paddling.

I'm not into a place where the summer is off limits for outdoor fun. But paddling in December? That I could get behind. I'm already scheming a return to backpack the trail.
The lunch sandbar.