Monday, July 6, 2020

more elk than people

We moved up the trail at a blazing 1.5 miles per hour, trying to beat the night. Our late start--after six-and the dubious state of the route had slowed us to this pace. It was obvious that the trail had not been cleared in decades; huge downfall from the 1989 fires forced us to fling our bodies over or attempt to push a way around. In the wet meadows, the trail disappeared completely, and we floundered, finally spotting long-ago cut logs high on the hillside.

Back in the day, there used to be trail mileage markers on trees. This one made sense, but later we saw an 8 that was confusing.
This was a place I had never been, on the south side of the forest. Over here most of the lakes are really reservoirs, constructed in the early 1900s to serve as reserve for agriculture down in the valleys. Old construction debris still lies on the landscape. Despite that, the reservoirs are cool and deep.

We attained Clear Creek Reservoir at nine in the evening, far past when I like to be still hiking, and it was apparent that nobody had camped here in decades either. Finally wedging the tent in to the only space we found, we settled in for a night interrupted by the chorus of frogs.

This is a fresno, a shovel for moving rocks. There's lots of old equipment from the 1900s scattered around this lake.

The next day we planned an ambitious route: another downfall-choked climb to Melhorn Reservoir, then hiking up on the slopes of Sugarloaf Mountain and across the ridgeline, hoping to intersect with another ancient trail that led back down to Clear Creek. I had my doubts about this, but I wasn't solo, we had plenty of daylight and snacks, and it was country I hadn't seen before. After Melhorn, the traveling became easier and the views spectacular. Ridge walking is one of my favorites.

It was clear that the landscape had changed dramatically with the fires, and the forest is still recovering, thirty years later. Very few people come here, and on the Fourth of July weekend, we saw more elk than I had seen in years. While we were gone for two nights, a bear clawed the truck. This is wild country still, and it gives me hope, when the lakes on the other side get more and more crowded.

After twelve miles we started looking for a way down. We could see the reservoir far below us, but it was surrounded by cliffs. There was no sign of any trail. We carefully picked our way down the least fear-inducing slope, finally finding the old trail just as we gained the shores of the lake. It, too, was covered in downed trees. Soon these trails will vanish completely, but I can't say I am too sad about that. It's good to have some wildness left.

Camp guard dogs.

On the way out, we encountered our only person of the trip. A young guy, he was happily biking along, unaware that his day was about to change. We warned him about the hike-a-bike coming up, but he seemed unfazed and up for the challenge.

This is an unlikely place, not where I would have gone on my own. I probably won't be back--there are plenty of other places to go. But the thrill of discovering something new took the sting out of being stuck in one county for what feels like could be a long, long time.

We stumbled upon a small pond. You don't find things like this on the beaten path.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Live to hike another day

I breathed a sigh of relief. I had successfully, with a full backpack, crossed the raging Wallowa River on two skinny logs high above the water, each one barely the size of my foot. With renewed optimism that I could make it to the Lakes Basin, I marched to the next river crossing, only to stop short.

Deep, cold water swirled past. If I were to cross, I would have to swim. Upriver, the sketchy logs I usually counted on were underwater. It might be possible to cross on them--maybe. It was too much of a gamble. I had to retreat.

Of course, my alternate campsite, at Six Mile Meadow, was not terrible. I was the only one there, and the rock walls were reminiscent of a mini Yellowstone. The vast clouds of mosquitoes were the only downside. Later, two guys with several kids trailing along (well, the "kids" were were probably eighteen) appeared and built a fire. They told of an ambitious plan, to hike a loop that took in Glacier Pass and through the Lakes Basin back to this point. Good luck, buddy, I thought but did not say. The kids were from Texas. They had a lot of snow and water crossings ahead.

Six Mile Meadow
I had planned for two nights out, and the next morning I left my camp to see if I could day hike as far as Frazier Lake at least. The first few miles were basically flat, then climbing toward the water crossing below Frazier. I felt a sense of foreboding as I approached the river. This was the same river that had foiled me the day before, just higher up. Even in the best of times, this is a sketchy crossing, and it was clear today was not the day. Up higher, if a person were to scramble up the talus field, she could probably cross on a snow bridge. It's been known to be stable into July.

The potential snowbridge is on the left of this picture, about halfway up. You can see how far you'd have to scramble to get there.
I thought about it. I could see snow covering the trail on the other side. I knew it was still a mile to the lake, and that mile was likely snow-covered. I thought about how beautiful the lake probably was, and how few would ever see it that way. In the end, I chose to turn around.
Pretty--but a big nope for crossing right now.
Of all of my hiking mantras, Live to Hike Another Day is the hardest one, that line in the sand difficult to draw. I always want to go on, see what's next, and to admit defeat is a hard thing to do. When I was younger I would have gone for it, but I'm perhaps wiser now. As I write this, two individual hikers are lost in Mount Rainier National Park. Some hikers have disturbing pictures of one of them glissading down a snow slope. I always carry a beacon, and enough gear to stay out overnight, but that doesn't help if you are caught under a snow bridge or swept away by water.

I returned to my camp to see the boys packing up their wet gear (though meadows are nice, I generally avoid them for the condensation factor). I headed in the opposite direction, back towards the trailhead. Maybe others would have crossed the river, but I was good with my choice.
See Ruby not caring if we can't get to the lake. Be like Ruby.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

adventures in backpacking, night #12

I was determined to get to Ice Lake. In the summer, this lake becomes a sacrifice zone; at only 8 miles, it is recommended over and over by well-meaning front desk people. And there is a lot to like. Though you do gain 3000 feet, there are switchbacks, and it can (and is) done as a long day hike often. Alas, because of the people, I have had to write this lake off in July and August. But surely in a high snow year, I could have it to myself in June. Optimistically, I set off.

I had asked a friend to join me, but she couldn't make it. And anyone else, I wasn't sure if they would be up for it. My trips tend to be spontaneous and full of doubt. Maybe we can make it to this lake, maybe we can't. Some people don't like that uncertainty. This was supposed to be an eight mile day, which is pretty short, but it ended up being twice that.

A pair of tents dotted the basin two miles below the lake, with nobody in sight. As I headed up the final switchbacks, snow appeared. A lot of snow. Like late May snow in mid-June. Soon I was uneasily navigating huge mounds of rounded snow, several feet covering the trail. A boot track led through it, but it was slippery and a fall would not be fun. I pressed on, the lake in my sights.

Ice Lake!

There it was, still mostly frozen. I knew there would be snow at the campsites, but this more than I imagined. A small patch of bare ground showed near the outlet. I hesitated. It was only one in the afternoon, and sitting for hours surrounded by snow didn't seem like a good time. Usually when I get to my destination that early, I set up my camp and wander around exploring. But the snow was too deep. It was time to retreat.

On the way down, two separate groups of people slogged upward, packs bristling with gear. Backpackers, so soon! Just a few years ago people stayed away for at least another month. I wasn't ready for them. But that didn't matter because here they were. I felt relieved I had decided to descend a thousand feet. All the tents would be crowded into the one small bare space.

I gained the basin and pickily searched for a campsite. The two women already camped there had taken the best spot, but I eventually found one, perched below a waterfall. Ruby and I explored up the the headwall, a place I had never gone because I'm usually in too much of a hurry.

I had a realization as I sat lazily against a rock, reading my book. Usually I am fortunate enough to escape in the spring and fall to places not so frozen. It makes the extreme short summer worth living here for. This year I haven't had the opportunity, and it makes me a little anxious to see how fast time is going. I need to be out in it as much as I can.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Be here now

I sulked. I had planned a backpacking trip and the weather had thwarted it. The forecast was for thirty mile an hour winds. If you have never camped in that windspeed, let me enlighten you on the fun that it is. First, your tent poles bend completely over with each gust. You can hear the wind coming and all you can do is brace against it. You fear your poles will snap. Even if you could sleep, the desperate flapping of the tent fabric prevents this. Finally you collapse your tent around you to prevent damage, but then you are encased in a coffin of mesh and nylon just waiting to be airborne. No thanks!

However, the wind never materialized. "Be here now," my friend said. He was right. I had to appreciate what I could do. Day hiking, though not my favorite, was the way to go. Even that has been fraught with risk. The mountains didn't get the memo that it was June, with feet of fresh snow dumping on them this week. I slogged up the Falls Creek trail to the water crossing, noting the new snow up high. It will be a long time before the high country is accessible.
The lake is up there...above the snow.
The same day, Search and Rescue had to go out to assist a 74 year old hiker who needed help due to snow. Details were scarce, except that they had to spend the night. Someone, it seemed, had been caught unaware by the weather.

After work hikes have been helping restore my sanity in a world that has gone crazy. Spruce and I hiked the climber's trail toward Mount Joseph, a trail that sees very few people. We could look down at the lake and its masses of people and be all alone. I am trying hard not to judge, but there are so many people traveling now like nothing is happening. For me, it is going to be a local summer. All of my work travel through the end of the year is most likely not going to happen. That is fine with me.

The puppy now weighs 55 pounds. 
This morning, the snow level lowered to the valley. We woke up with a sense of wonder and disbelief. Had we just dreamed the last few months? Was it really January, and we could start over? Sadly, that was not the case.

I have never been that great at Be Here Now. I've always wanted to see what was around the corner. It looks like this summer will be the time to get better at this.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Remote & Wild

I stared impatiently at the Microsoft Teams window. Come on, people, finish up! My life has become a series of video conferences, bringing with it a level of accountability I am not used to. Before everyone started working at home, and I was the only one, I could stroll the house during these calls. Because I often led them, I couldn't do things that other co-workers said they did: sweep the floor, for instance. (This kind of gives virtual workers a bad name, but trust me, if you spent ten hours a day on the phone, no exaggeration, you would want to move around some too.)

No more though! Everyone and their dog now wants a video meeting when a simple phone call would suffice, so I am planted in my office for hours at a time. Thanks to an East Coast meeting that started at six am, I was ready to bolt by three. The weather looked good and I was ready to put Operation Backpack During the Work Week into practice.

How does this work, you ask? You load up your pack the night before, and plan for a destination that is within a couple hours of the trailhead. You munch dinner on the way, or at least bring something simple. Not for you complicated traverses or anything that would mean you would miss work the next day. No lingering in the tent in the morning either, you have to be up and out by 5 in order to plow down the trail to the car, shower, and look presentable on camera when the work day begins.

This might sound impossibly awful, but the choice is either to do this or not to get out, and you know which one I pick. So as soon as the last "What are our next steps?" was heard I was out of there. I grabbed the dog and raced to the trailhead, intending to go someplace I hadn't been before.

This is a clear bending of the OBDTWW rules, because the key to those is to go someplace from where you know you can return quickly. But I was intrigued by the description of a wild and lovely basin just a thousand feet or so from a well-traveled trail. I had hiked past the ascent for years but never ventured there. Now was the time.

A few steps down the trail I came upon a potential show-stopper, a raging creek that normally is placid and easy to cross. Snowmelt and an avalanche had churned it into a frenzy, leaving only one unstable log, skinny and high above the water. That was a big nope. Down river, some tourists were throwing their shoes to the far bank and crossing barefoot. This approach is prone to many problems, so I waded through in my hiking shoes, uncomfortably noting that the water was above my knees. It would surely go down overnight, I thought.

Quickly outpacing the tourists, I gained the meadow in only 40 minutes. Now I would go cross-country. Once there was a social trail heading up the mountain, but a fire had removed most of it, and I wound up by guessing where I should go, wrapping around the incline at a slow pace. Regretting my packing choices, I plodded upwards, finally reaching a ridge that looked like it might be the right one. Peering over the side I saw it, the basin of my dreams.

Two silvery waterfalls cascaded down sheer gray cliffs. Old snow lay upon most of the basin. This was as far from the real world as I could get. Up higher, I knew, a fabled lake lay, but I also knew it would be foolhardly to try to scramble up there alone. I had been to the lake once from another route, the "easy way", which was death-defying. If that was the easy way, I wasn't equipped for the hard way. Instead, I turned my attention to finding a place to camp.

This was harder than it appeared. On the slope by the waterfall, rocks littered the short green grass. Below that, snow hung dubiously above, and the possibility of an avalanche looked real. I was relegated to the only potential place, a sandy wash that I scraped out as big as my tent. It was a desperation bivy, but it looked comfortable enough.

Ruby and I wandered the snowfield. noting that a river ran below us. Snowbridges are dangerous; it is possible to fall through and be pulled under subsequent snow, unable to get to the surface. But here, we could avoid the open spots. The snow was solid, at least for now. Spray from the waterfall coated our faces. This was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been.

Ruby gazes into the wild.
All too soon it was morning and we had to bolt. We plunged straight down the hillside, back to the main trail. The river had not gone down; instead it was even higher. I chose discretion instead of valor, butt-scooting across the log in a painful manner (Ruby gracefully walked across). And then I was back at the car, back at work, back in front of the video camera.

 "What are the next steps?" someone asked. I sighed, but not too audibly. Someone started to talk, but was on mute. Someone said, "I have to jump to the next call." Someone else was having trouble with their video. Despite all the downsides of pulling off a OBDTWW, it had been totally worth it. I started planning my next one.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

A trip to the middle of nowhere

Two weekends ago, my friend A asked me to go backpacking. I considered this. Technically, this would be social distancing--we could drive separately, we had our own tents, and we could hike six feet apart. It might be pushing the envelope a bit, but we have both been in the same tiny community for months, and it hardly was on the same scale as some of the large gatherings I have seen lately. So, we went.

We hiked up the Imnaha River into what I like t think of as the middle of nowhere. Rarely traveled except for the first few miles, this brings you into some truly wild country. And this spring is the greenest the old-timers have ever seen, bringing lush green vistas as we hiked.

The ticks weren't out, which was confusing. Maybe this is a low tick year?
This time of year I am never sure how far I can get, but after we set up our tents at the forks, a mere 6.5 miles up, we decided to day hike farther and see. It had been years since I had hiked this trail (the last time being a scary bear encounter that sent me hoofing it back to the trailhead). We crossed over an elaborate trail bridge of which I had no recollection. A trail crossed the river, and I gazed at it longingly--there is nothing I like better than to haunt these old ghost trails, to find a semblance of what they once were. But alas, the river was running high with snowmelt, and this would have to wait for another day.

We pressed on through some intermittent snowfields to a picturesque meadow with views of Red Mountain, and, in the distance, Hawkins Pass. Our turn-around spot was the trail junction to Boner Flat. Someone had stolen the sign long ago, but I remembered it as being obvious, Not so anymore--the cairn had tumbled and the trail was invisible. I gazed longingly up both trails, wishing we had more time. Alas, night was coming, so we retraced our steps for a decent 14 mile day.

Turn-around spot, but very hard to do.

Optimistically we had brought our 15 degree bags, and despite me dragging the dog into my tent, I still froze. Ruby's water was ice in the morning, reminding me it was still May, early for backpacking around these parts. Still, we packed up and were on trail by seven, and to the car by ten. We had seen only two other people the whole time.

I have unfinished business in the middle of nowhere. I still need to fill in a gap between Hawkins Pass and Boner Flat junction. It looks like this will be the summer for local mountains, and I'm OK with that. I've spent eight summers chasing the PCT, and it is time to stay home. Right now, the middle of nowhere seems like a good place to be.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Bob's Freedom Flight

When I moved in to this neighborhood, ten years ago, my neighbor Bob was always seen out in his yard. He mowed, he weed ate, he pruned trees, he painted. He would sometimes walk over with a disapproving look, stating that I had missed a spot in my own mowing. He would, to my chagrin, sneak over to spray my dandelions. Bob waged a never-ending war against dandelions, and my yard and my other neighbor, Mike's, were a cross for him to bear. Sometimes he invited us over, and showed us his leatherworking. Other times I brought him cookies or cake.

Slowly Bob became more forgetful, and developed COPD.  He doesn't really know us anymore.
These days he rarely ventures anywhere except in the companionship of his caretaker to get groceries. He is rarely in his yard, except to ride his beloved mower. This is one of his favorite things to do, and he loved mowing twice a week, whether the yard needed it or not. In a fit of generosity, he began to mow my yard. Attired in a button-down shirt, jeans, boots and a cowboy hat, he made his careful way up and down the yard. It was his one outing, although we were told that it took a lot out of him.

When I came home from backpacking this weekend, I heard the news. Bob had been mowing and had gone rogue. He started mowing other people's yards in the neighborhood, and then had ridden his mower several blocks to the drive-in restaurant to get a burger. This caused great concern to his caregiver and his grown children, who don't live here. As a result, Bob's mower keys were taken away. He could fall, I heard. It wasn't safe.

This made me really sad. Bob's car keys were taken away a couple of years ago, and now his favorite thing in the world to do is gone too. I know why this happened, but it still breaks my heart.

We aren't here for a long time. Get out while you can.