Wednesday, December 29, 2010

a wilderness year

I am ripping this idea off shamelessly from another blog (sorry Jill!) but I loved the idea of looking back at the year in photos. Here are some of my favorites, not for their quality (I'm a point and shooter) but for the memories they bring back. It was an incredible year.

The view from Ivan Carper Pass. This was a late August day hike of 17 miles. I met a man who for his sixtieth birthday was climbing that peak in the distance--Eagle Cap.
Kayaking on Wallowa Lake.
The beautiful Cale near Cook Creek in the Hells Canyon backcountry.
Everyone goes to the Lakes Basin, because well--you can see why.However on this mid-July trip the hordes had not yet arrived. We had it mostly to ourselves.

Red fish in a blue green stream. These are kokanee near Wallowa Lake.

Amy and I slogged ten miles on snowshoes on this day!

Echo Lake in mid-July. A truly horrible climb plus a wade in the snow, but so beautiful!

Here's my very favorite lake, Hobo. See how it's perched like a little teacup? Love it.  I reached this after overshooting Lookout Mountain and had to downclimb.

This was the year I finally climbed the Matterhorn! Here is a view on the way up. That's beautiful Ice Lake below.
On Traverse Ridge, a ridge-walking day with Frances Lake in the background.

I can't wait to see what next year brings!

ps.I have new followers! I love followers~ Thanks! I look forward to hearing from you and finding out what you like to read about.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

wilderness meltdown!

Well, this is really embarrassing but I must confess: the Wilderness Princess made an appearance yesterday.

You may know the type. She (actually it can be a he) whines about being cold, or wet, or hot, or tired. She wants someone to do the hard stuff for her. She is unable to deal.  She's, well, a princess.

 WPs are annoying at best.  And usually I am not one. But something happened yesterday. It could have been the awful ski conditions. The extremely steep slope I was attempting to navigate. Falling over a dog as I tried to stop on same slope. Worry about bashing knees.  It was the perfect storm. The WP emerged.

What followed was a highly inappropriate tantrum complete with a few choice words. I may or may not have said, "I hate this." I may or may not have said, "I hate myself."

See, at the root of my WP is someone who wants to be good at all outdoor adventures. She wants to be a fast hiker, good skier, fearless runner of rapids. She wants to be the best. When faced with adversity, she crumbles. She's not mad at others--only herself for not measuring up.

To his credit Jerry said, "It's tough when the frustration builds up." He did not, like a previous boyfriend, suggest that I do not have grace under pressure. He knows that I do; he has taken the time to know my stories, the person I have been before we met. He knows I led fire crews into dangerous situations. He knows I have paddled in twelve foot seas. In those situations the WP had darn well better not show up, and she didn't. In a way, having her show up when he is around is the ultimate compliment--because I feel safe enough to let down the guard I have carried all my adult life. And, after seeing the WP he still wants to marry me. Amazing!

Personally I don't want the WP to make more appearances. Instead I would like to learn my limits and be able to accept that I have them. To know that I don't have to excell at everything. That  I can turn back if the trail gets hard, as long as I have tried my hardest up until then.

It's not easy though. Most of my life has been spent doing really hard jobs. Fighting fire. Clearing trail. And even though they were the most fun I ever had, I had to maintain a vigilance. Who was going to get me across a raging river when I was a wilderness ranger? Nobody but me. Was I going to give up the chainsaw when we were snagging because I was "tired"? I don't think so. In Alaska I had to be prepared to shoot a brown bear at all times. In other places there were talus slopes, lightning, flash floods.

So asking for help or saying I can't do something seems like weakness. I keep on, until I can no longer keep on. The WP shows up.

She's not the shiniest star in my repertoire. But I kind of understand her. She's had to tag alongside her twin, the Wilderness Storm Trooper, the one who has had to keep it together through the loss of friends and the collapse of a marriage.

Neither one is self-sustaining. For the future, I look for a balance. I seek a middle ground.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ski. Write. Ski.

My skis are under there somewhere.

I slog through untracked snow. Wind and sun have conspired to make it a dense, heavy snowpack, almost as if I am skiing through a cake made with whole wheat. I can't even see my skis,  buried in the snow. I am pushing along a small avalanche as I attempt to glide through the douglas fir forest. I breathe hard. I take off layers. This is a lot of work.

Skiing's been like this all winter so far. For every good, gliding day there are five death marches where I establish a track, only to return to find it blown in. I do not even fear the Trail of Terror and the Hill of Death because I slide down both without much speed.

Writing's been like that too. I sit at my desk feeling nauseous, scrolling over paragraphs that I suddenly hate. What is this drivel? It takes hours to form a passable sentence. For every five days of this, there might be one where words spill out like water, no effort from me at all.

My novel sits blinking implacably up at me. Like a frog, I think uncharitably. A big, fat, stupid frog! It thinks it's done. At 128  pages, it can't be, but I wring myself dry trying to continue. My memoir is closer, but I have been wrestling this same beast for several years. Is it good enough to sail bravely into the world? I cannot judge.

So why do I do these two hard things? Skiing. Writing. I could wait for someone else to make a track in the woods and follow behind. I could decide that after years of rejection letters, a few published pieces, and lots of drafts, that I have done enough. But I don't.
I wonder how long it would take Callie to write a novel.

Something drives me. I think it is the memory of the good days, the perfect days, when my skis fly. When my words sing. I never know when I turn on my computer or when I clump away from the parking lot which kind of day it is going to be. It takes a few steps to really know.  I wait. I hope. I dream.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ghosts on the trail

The four of us--Chris, Dina, Amy and me--slogged through slimy mud that filled our boots. We sloshed through knee-deep water. We were hiking the Florida Trail, a footpath that winds through swamp and prairie. Someday it will run through the whole state. This time, we were only on a weekend adventure--seven miles in.

We were in our twenties and maybe because of that we did everything the hard way. We loaded up our packs with too much stuff. We brought potatoes. Potatoes. We built an enormous fire. We were loud. It was fun.

Chris was larger than life, a bearded, jovial character who regaled us with tales of his thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. He documented our progress with a video camera. Looking at a star bandanna, trying to match it to the constellations above, he backed up and fell into a gator hole--a small pond of murky water where alligators go when the swamp dries up. We heard a loud splash and Chris appeared, dripping. We laughed and laughed.

I never saw Chris after that hike, but once you go on a wilderness trip together I think there is some kind of an invisible bond that stretches between people. There are things that only you and your companions remember, a kind of shared memory. Places where the trail was hard and you almost turned back. Small secrets like slender orchids hiding in the grass. Once in a while I used to trot out the video footage to others who had not been there, but they didn't get it. They didn't know the feel of cold swamp water, the search for elusive trail markers. They weren't there. The pieces of the whole did not add up for them the way it did for me.

You never really forget the places you hike, and the companions are part of that place. I will never forget that one night in the swamp, the four of us tied together by our epic slog. I can close my eyes and still see our grassy campsite and Amy trying to hang our food bags in a cypress.  I can see Dina and her long black hair. I can hear Chris' booming laugh.

I am haunted by the hikes I remember and the ghosts on the trail.

Amy sent me a message last night. Chris is being sent to hospice. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor a few years back, but at last report he was hanging in there. Obviously this is the last mile for Chris.

Even though we know we will all go out some day, we retain the illusion that we can pick the path. We can run, we can hike, we can avoid all the things we are supposed to avoid. But in the end it is just random. You can be as big and bright as Chris was--how many people do you remember so well after twenty years? Hundreds have passed through my life and he is still burned into my memory.

When our hiking companions are taken from us, we are left to be the memory keepers. We're the only ones left who remember the paths we took and the things that happened along the way. We trot out the old video. We hope not to forget.

 Hike on, Chris. I hope this one will be easy walking.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Ugh. The Gym.

I really hate going to the gym.

This isn't me. But this is how I feel about the gym.

I hate going there because I would much rather get my exercise outside. I spend too many hours in a day in artificial light and breathing who-knows-what from air that circulates endlessly.  I don't even like thinking of my daily activity as exercise. I like thinking of it as fun. Adventure. Destination.

But the gym isn't fun. At all. It defeats my whole purpose which is not to exercise to look good but to get somewhere, on a trail or on skis.  It feels like work, which swimming in the lake, trail running and snowshoeing don't. An hour at the gym feels like a lifetime when the same time outside goes by in a flash. I also unscientifically think that I get in way better shape actually doing the things outdoors that I would be pretending to do in the gym. If you spend all your time in the gym, you're just getting good at doing the stuff at the gym, just like if you only run, when you start swimming it does not really carry over.

However, there are days when I capitulate, like today. Weather Evilness struck. It inexplicably is raining at 6,000 feet. Oh the horror. The snow is like mashed potatoes. The roads are an icy snarl. It is so foggy I can't even spy on Cute Neighbor. Clearly the time has come to throw in the towel.


This isn't me either. I lift much, much, much heavier weights than this. I think.

Friday, December 10, 2010

channel markers

Here I am as a "Fort Wench", circa 1985.

This is who I used to be.

I think about my distant past sometimes. It recedes from me more each day, similar to how the shoreline faded into memory as I drove the skiff away, a fat wake of foamy salt water marking my path. Out in the islands, the mainland was just a whisper, somewhere I used to live. On the road or on the sea, it was easier to forget places I had been, to always look forward to the next one, to figure out who I would be there.

In Neva Strait there were triangle-shaped markers and buoys to show the correct course, a slalom ride through rocks and shallow patches. Stray off those and you could be high and dry or your prop gouged by submerged boulders. There was etiquette too: red right returning, I chanted to myself, steering the boat to the right as I came back to town. I passed seiners heavy with salmon, gleaming white trophy boats with helicopters on the back, and sailboats full of adventurers. In the straits, it was a lot like driving on a highway.

Traveling out from Sitka, we had our landmarks too. There was the flank of Kruzof with the wind-pounded Sea Lion Cove, where the surfers went. There were the Scraggy Islands with their inaccessible golden patch of beach. There too the flamingos someone tossed up in a tree as a joke. The charts could be vague, the rocks uncharted, but we almost always knew where we were.

Not so for my erratic wandering around the planet. I have not had any markers or signs; I have just picked what felt right. Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. Each place I went was like starting over, like learning to walk. In Nevada, they knew about rappeling and how to jumar out of caves. In Florida, they could weave sun hats out of palmetto and cut out the heart of a cabbage palm for eating. In Alaska, they knew how to start fires in the rain and how to collect herring eggs during spawn. I never stayed long enough to learn how to do any of these things very well.

1989 after fire season with the other women on the crew. Acid washed jeans and a perm, oh my!

Someday I want to go back, even though I’ve read enough to know you can’t go back and have it be the same. But then, I don’t want it to be the same. I want to walk the trails of Mackinac to see if there is any trace of the puffy-haired girl I was there, who took a canoe with Karla and Jimmy across the shipping lanes to Round Island and rode on the back of a snowmobile on the ice. I want to visit the Elwha Dam when they finally tear it down, remembering the day I decided to run twenty-two miles up a trail just to see if I could. I want to see if John-Be-Free still visits the caves in the Grey Cliffs and if Bill still flies a J-3 Cub over the desert looking for gold.

In Alaska we took small boats everywhere. We watched our GPS and our charts, and sometimes the old timers told us stories that made up the landscape for them. The island where a couple shipwrecked in winter and only the woman was found, her mind gone. The constricted bay where two kayakers flipped, their bodies turning to ice. Places where they cheated death. Hot springs. Huge cedar trees. Alder tunnels made by bears. As they told these stories, they became ours too. We pointed them out to the new people, trying to sound like natives.

The point of all this is, what I am trying to say here, is that when you move a lot, instead of staying put, you have this twisting map of places you have been. I want to follow it back sometimes, to see where I came from and how each place changed me.

But just like weaving through a maze of islands, it is easy to get lost in this kind of thinking. Maybe it is better to commit each marker to memory and move your ship forward. Sometimes the water won’t let you go back in a little boat. Instead you surge forward with the flood tide.

The only thing I can come up with is to write it all down, to keep it close to my heart. Even if I went back, it wouldn’t be the same. People I knew have moved on, married, changed. I like to think of each place the way it was, dazzling and new. I like to keep moving forward with the tide.

shooting practice, 2006

Sunday, December 5, 2010

why I no longer race

Look! I'm a skijorer! That is my new Omni-Heat jacket I got from Columbia to field test cause they read my blog. More on the jacket later (it rocks). Hey! Hot Springs! I want to field test a hot tub!
I've been thinking a lot about why I don't race anymore (thanks Jill for the inspiration). It's easy to toss off a flippant "Hello! Knee surgery, 2007!" or "Hello, stretched PCL from a fall on green slime, 2008!" And it's true that after both of these events, and my last marathon, my knee swollen like a spongy, past-its-prime grapefruit, I made a choice: Hike at 80 or qualify for Boston. It was an easy decision. Mostly.

But there are other reasons. Racing was a phase of my life for about twenty years, maybe more. There were numerous five and ten kilometer races, one speedy half marathon I am still proud of, and two marathons. I never branched out to any other kind of racing, which may have made things different.

I liked racing because it gave me a structure. It was like building a house. The first tentative steps, the foundation, was already there, but I had to build on it with speedwork and long runs. I remember running six  miles at the beginning of my ramp-up for Napa, thinking, how will I ever be able to run twenty-six miles? But I liked the way my body responded. I liked how I could surpass what I had ever thought possible. I liked how I could look up what I was supposed to do that day, and seeing that it was a sixteen mile run, think only sixteen!  I liked gutting it out in horizontal rain with Julie, Brian and Ken, driving back along our route to pick up our Gatorade stash. I liked making it through the first creaky, horrible miles to a calm, mediative state, where I just flowed along, my mind nearly blank. I liked waking with a purpose. I was in training!

Then on a fire assignment at the Black Cat helibase just outside of Missoula, my knee shifted and locked. A floating piece of cartilage had lodged itself into the joint. It took three months post surgery before I could take my first tentative running steps.

When I did I found things had shifted in me too. I was so grateful just to be able to hike and run again, to be mostly free of pain, that I started noticing things around me. I had to: my pace was a full minute slower as I retrained my body not to favor the stronger side. The restless movement of the ocean as I ran through Totem Park in Sitka. The chuckling of water from the sky, the trees, the alder. I had noticed these things before of course, but only as a secondary thought. My primary thoughts were always: This sucks. Why am I running so slowly? I'll never break four hours at this pace. Or: I feel pretty good today. But three more hours? Should I eat another powerbar bite thing? Where did we leave the next Gatorade? How come Ken always passes me on this hill?

I abandoned pavement completely and ran only on trails. I had to slow down or faceplant. I ran only as far as I wanted to. A lot of days I didn't run, but kayaked, swam or hiked.

It's never easy to give up something that you love, that has been a part of your life since you were a teenager. I don't miss the limited trophies I acquired. I don't need any more finisher medals. But I have to work harder though at pushing myself past a boundary. I no longer have racing as the primary force to help me do this. So I make up challenges for myself. I'll do a 17 mile day hike. I'll ski the big hills on Hurricane Creek. It's a race with myself, but on my own terms.

I used to cringe when someone referred to me as a jogger. Nooooo! I was a runner. I felt sorry for those on the other side, who had given up racing and now just ran for fun. It didn't seem serious. It seemed old.

Getting past some of these used-to-bes takes some digging in. I'm a marathon runner. I'm a firefighter. I live in Alaska. Each of these statements made people think of  me in a certain way. I think we all define ourselves at different points in our lives and when one of those supporting beams is gone, we have to hunt to find another meaning.  I'm still working on that one.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Shred the Gnar

A disclaimer: I don't really shred the gnar. In fact, I don't shred the gnar at all.  Or do anything with the gnar. I just like the phrase. It makes me laugh. In case you haven't figured it out, it's skiing steep--gnarly--terrain. Which I don't do.

Instead I cross country ski. When I lived in Alaska I had "sun anxiety"--if the sun unexpectedly came out, a sort of manic behavior arose. It's sunny! What should I do? It might never come out again! Well here I have the same reaction to soft fluffy snow. I sit grumpily in my office--okay, cubicle--staring at the black screen of my computer with the message "Windows could not start because the following file is corrupted: Windows/config/system 32." A message that surely cannot lead to anything good, since the Can't Help You Desk hasn't called me back after insincerely promising to "elevate it to Level 2." And I think, why can't I just go skiing?

So I do. Here are some photos from my skis and other winter adventures.

This is the Redmont nordic ski hut. Look at my cute bed partner. (Sierra)
It's winter!
White dogs love winter.

It was about -5 on this day. The creek settles in for a long winter.

The tourists are long gone.

Shred the gnar!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

And I'm thankful for..

Continuing with this week's theme, along with the big picture stuff of being born in a place and time where I can sit in a warm house with enough food and chocolate milk, typing a self-absorbed blog while the majority of the earth's citizens are uncertain of any kind of stability, here are some slightly silly things I am thankful for. WARNING: Composed by a person who has spent two days wrestling a manuscript into submission; my brain hurts.

1. Dr. Keller. He fixed my knee back in 2007 and I can still run, hike and ski. You rock, Dr. K.

2. Chase's leather pants. Chase is probably 20 years younger than I am;  I have no designs on him (that would be creepy and somewhat disturbing) but I love it when he breaks out the leather pants. On just one simple level, it's nice to see a man whose fashion sense does not include Carharts and a ball cap. The rest of the men around here wear this simple uniform and while I appreciate an outdoorsy look, what's wrong with a little glamour now and then?

3. My two marathon finisher medals. I'll never run another one again--even Dr.K can't fix a stretched PCL--but I have them hanging in my cabin as a reminder that if I decide to do something, I can absolutely, one hundred percent do it. I could choose to look at them as a reminder of a time when I was a faster runner, better hiker, younger--but instead I choose to think of them as steps on a ladder that got me to where I am now. That my slow trail runs still matter just as much as a sub-four finish. That I don't need to define myself by how many minutes it takes me to run a mile.

4. Second chances. Third chances. Four--well, you get the idea. That you can screw up royally but that someone or something can come along and poof! You are the happiest you have ever been. It takes you to get there though--to be the one to dig in the paddle in the twelve foot ocean swells, to figure out how to get un-lost; to navigate away from a relationship that isn't working. Nobody's going to do it for you. In the words of a Dove chocolate wrapper that I love: "Love many, trust few, always paddle your own canoe." There have been times when I let someone take over the paddling. Never a good idea.

5. Older hotties. Okay, I am going to write a post on this sometime, but here's a preview. I love that there are "older" women out there who are still getting after it. They backcountry ski, they run marathons (I ran next to the record holder of her age group for a few paces in Napa. She was 80. She went on to finish in 4:30.); they give me hope that there are no boundaries. Rock on, ladies.

Monday, November 22, 2010

a wilderness christmas list

Oh yes, and bring summer back. I miss it!

Dear Santa,

Besides the world peace, bring all the troops home, feed the hungry, here are some selfish wilderness wishes.

1. I want to make it to Deadman Lake next year. I only know of one person who has. Plenty of people have been above it, tiptoeing along the ridge from Legore Lake. I know you climb up from Slickrock, a name that gives me pause. And I hope it won't be like the ill-named Lake of the Fallen Moon in the Sierras, a place I hiked in a death march to go see, only to behold a muddy pond.

2. I want to see a wolf. I don't want to see a wolf when a) I am trail running; b) I'm camped alone; or c) when I am anywhere alone. But I do want to see one. I've seen one once when I was a) trail running; b) alone. That was nice, but a bit scary. Company, please.

3. I want to hike the John Muir Trail. I've said I was going to do it. I have friends who claim they will hike segments and that they absolutely can hike 15 miles a day. What's stopping me? Trail contracts. Darn my sense of responsibility. Maybe this year everyone can happily manage on their own without asking me to a) flag a trail; b) pay them; and c) resolve a dispute between them and hunters who have always camped there and why are the contractors out there anyway so late and hey! We have to do something about all the cougars and wolves.

4. I want to finish the darn memoir so I can move on to writing about something other than trying to find a home. I'm even boring myself by now. Someone publish it and put us all out of our misery. Please!

5. I want to see the ocean again. It's been over a year since I stepped off the ferry in Bellingham, turning my back on the sea. When I think of Alaska,  I don't miss the rain. I don't miss the isolation. But I do miss the ocean. I want to breathe it in, listen to the waves, stare at it for a good long while.

Santa, I've been pretty good. I confess: I scurried away from weirdos on the trail, not helping them a) find Bear Lake and b) letting them believe their maps were wrong because it was easier than arguing. I've said bad words when I found garbage in a fire pit. I misjudged the guy carrying two duffel bags as a weirdo until he explained that when backpacking, he felt his arms didn't get enough of a workout (okay, I still think that's weird). But I've helped a lot of people find the right trails. I picked up a lot of litter. I cleared some trails. Come on over, I have cookies for you. (Hmm, maybe I ate them).

Your friend,


What wildernessy things do you wish for?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Three days in Hells Canyon photo essay

Whenever I spend time in Hells Canyon it makes me wonder. It has so many hidden secrets. Like this place, Jim Creek Ranch. Who lived in this little tucked away place? What were their lives like? I know one thing: at night, you see no lights at all. None. Just stars.
Love, love, love this photo. It captures the lonely human history and the rugged world they lived in.

We hiked to the Cache Creek Pasture to check on the grass for the horses. There were flowers! And green grass!
This is looking across into where the ranch house sits. It's tucked into the canyon walls.

We scrambled down a steep trail, then fought our way through poison ivy to reach this hot springs. It is the only hot springs on the Oregon side. It used to be a lot bigger, but the potential is there!

Here's Tate the dog right before we found the 6 point dead elk. We think a hunter shot it and lost it in the canyon.

This is the view looking out from the ranch house. Not a bad front yard!
Steep, rocky draws, buttes and springs.
And here is the Snake River, two miles below. The mailboat used to drop mail for the ranch here and they would ride down to get it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

why I don't skydive anymore

The thing I loved about skydiving wasn't the freefall. Hurtling towards the earth at a blistering speed, the air rushing past my face, was exhilarating to be sure. But what I loved most was the moment after I pulled the ripcord. The impact jerked me up for a second, then the chute blossomed overhead like a flower. Those moments floating along, the drop in elevation ticking slowly by on the altimeter, were the most peaceful I have ever known. After the sound and fury of freefall, all noise ceased to a dreamlike quiet. It was the closest to being a bird that I will ever be.

How I got started skydiving was like this:  my roommate, Jen, and I lived in a trailer in the swamp. By day we started fires, big ones that raced across the prairie grass, creating their own weather.Thunder growled out of a clear blue sky. Rain sprinkled our blue hard hats. We flew in helicopters, dropping fiery ignition devices from them. By night we sat planning the rest of our lives, looking at a big map. The future seemed uncertain, too big to bite off all at once. So we decided to skydive.

How it worked was this: we went to a school. Each time we jumped, we had to become more independent, performing certain tasks and being rated on how well we did them. For example, the first jump was a gimmee. All you did was jump out attached to an instructor, do the arched back thing, and that was it. The next time you pulled your own ripcord. And so on. You recorded each jump in a taskbook. After enough jumps, you were deemed done. You could then buy your own chute, pack it, and jump on any plane that was going. That was what we aspired to.

We had both worked our way up to our first solo. How that worked was this: You jumped out on your own, wearing a one-way radio in your cargo pocket. An instructor jumped out too, but he pulled his cord lower, so that he fell faster and landed before us, and so could watch us, telling us what to do. "Pull on your left riser" and so on.

I drew the long straw so left Jen back at the airport waiting for a later flight. The other two students and I huddled wide-eyed as the plane labored to thirteen thousand feet. The rest of the jumpers were professionals and they jumped first.  They too would pull lower; reach the ground sooner.

I don't remember stepping out on the plane's wing and jumping. I don't remember checking my altimeter and pulling my cord at five thousand feet. What I do remember is floating along in the Florida sky, a small speck in the scheme of things, completely alone.

It didn't take long for me to realize something had gone terribly wrong. The terrain was unfamilar, the green square of the airport nowhere to be seen. Far below I saw two parachutes floating along, the experienced divers, and I tugged on my riser to follow them. Quickly they vanished, though. The altimeter and I kept dropping in elevation. I flew over four lane highways, power lines, houses.

Our instructor obviously could not see us. The radio crackled. "Avoid all obstacles!" he yelled. "Avoid all obstacles!"I almost laughed. All around were obstacles.

There was something strangely peaceful in watching my boots fall closer to the ground, watching the network of roads and canals loom closer. There was something calming in knowing there was nothing I could do but try to steer for an open place. I know I was afraid, but I don't remember the knife edge of panic. It was, instead, like dreaming.

In the end I landed almost gently in a farmer's field about a quarter mile away from the airport. One of the students landed in a canal and had to cut away his parachute so he didn't drown. When we slogged back to the airport, we discovered what had happened: "The pilot let you off too far downwind," the instructor shrugged, his eyes shifting away.

Even though Jen's flight was perfect, the instructor standing right beneath her calling instructions, we both gave it up after that day. I don't know about her, but I felt as though I had the ultimate skydive. Lost in a big sky, with so many ways it could have ended, feels like a good way to go out. But I will never regret that feeling of floating free under my own chute. Now when I see eagles working the thermals, I think: I know how that feels. I know, and I don't forget.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Quest for Home, Chapter One Million

My seductress is back in town.

She’s been gone a good long time. Long enough for me almost to forget her, the way she whispers in my ear, tempting as dark, deep chocolate. Remember? She asks. Remember how it was, back then?

Of course I do. Who can forget lovers long gone? You remember the good things: the way life blazed like wildfire, the sun so much brighter, the sky so much more blue, your heart in a wild rollercoaster. You remember how it felt to take a big leap, the way your breath pounded in your ears, the craziness of not knowing what would happen when you hit the water. But longing for it, that moment when you plunge deep below the surface and see what’s there. You don’t remember the times you lay in a crumpled ball on the kitchen floor, unable to move, loneliness sinking into your skin.

In my search for home, I have left the seductress behind. She is the pull of the road, the bead of white hot possibility that drew me from place to place, my belongings stuffed in my car, ten states, twenty years. She is the dream that I followed, my mission to never have a settled life, to stay young forever, to have everything an adventure, a blood-thumping chase. Chase a fire across a prairie in the Everglades. Paddle a kayak in twelve foot seas. Hike under an enormous sky.

I have written here before about her. I didn’t think she’d show up again, hanging around. This time there is a job in another, bigger town, a job I could bite into like an apple. One more challenging and inspiring than this one. A chance to relive that infatuation of something new, so much more interesting than the same routine.

Once I hiked to a cabin in the Pioneer Mountains. Someone had painted a saying on the roof: “Wherever you go, there you are.” I know it’s true for people too. Wherever you go, you are the same person when you get there. I know now that traveling to a new place won’t make me into someone younger, more beautiful, better at sports. I can’t erase the fourteen year old in knee socks, hiding in left field, convinced she is uncoordinated and slow. But for years I believed I could. Move to Alaska, become one of those tough women who could fillet a fish, drive a boat, shoot a big gun. Move to the Everglades, drive a swamp buggy, put out a wildfire, walk in swamps with alligators. I am not only all these women, but the fourteen year old too.

So I look my seductress in the eye. I’m staying, I tell her. She pouts a little and stomps away. I know she’ll be back though. She always is.

Some people are seduced by money, others by fame. Some love whitewater rivers, or travel to exotic places. Who is your seductress?

Friday, November 5, 2010

sometimes you can't find the lake

I awoke with a sense of purpose. It was supposed to be an unheard of 63 degrees. Take that, La Nina high-fiving skiers!  I was supposed to put in three more hours at work. I wanted to write my three pages in my cumbersome novel. I had dogs to feed, a house to clean. But 63 degrees! Hastily I threw gear in a pack.

My goal was Maxwell Lake, a sparkling gem only four miles up the trail from the Lostine Canyon. An eight mile hike, perfect. I'd bomb up there, lounge on a rock for an hour, and run back down. No problem!

The Lostine Canyon is about eleven miles long, a corridor that leads into the heart of wild mountains. This time of year the larches look like spots of sunshine among the evergreen coated hills. Snow blanketed the higher peaks. I could taste winter coming in, but the breath of the canyon was warm. It drew me in.

The trail was littered with downfall and crunchy yellow needles. It was obvious nobody had been this way in weeks. I pushed my unwilling legs, tired from a week of running and hiking.

The snow began at about 6800 feet. It was a sloppy snow, the kind that drifts into your boots and you punch through the crust to knee depth. Elk tracks punctured the smooth surface. It was quiet. Then I came to a meadow and the trail vanished.

I’ve hiked this trail a few times before, but not in this much snow. I wandered around for awhile, trying to get my bearings. Nothing matched my August memories. Still stuck in summer, I hadn’t brought gaiters. Or snowshoes. Or a GPS. There was no sign of the lake anywhere. I floundered, my feet getting wetter. The sky filled with dark-browed clouds. I had to be within five minutes of the stupid lake, but I couldn’t find it. Finally I gave up.

I reasoned with myself as I hurried down the switchbacks. It’s okay to turn around. Better that than wandering in circles, trying to find a lake that obviously was covered in snow. I knew this, but it’s hard to give up on summer, to lean into the big winter that is coming, the long stretches of white that drift in the backcountry. When I lived in Florida I longed for winter to break the pattern of flat blue days and oppressive humidity that hung over us until the thunderstorms punched through the jet stream. And in Alaska we were more likely to get rain, a sodden curtain blanketing out the mountains, ice filming over the trails.

So, winter. The backcountry is closing in on itself, hiding the lakes. It’s time to ski again, to build fires in the woodstove, to work on the neglected novel. I miss the summer, though, like a lover that has gone away. I was greedy with it, drunk with the green meadows, the satisfying icy dip into the lakes, the white shale of the passes, setting up a tent in the perfect spot.

I reached the truck, peeling off my wet boots. I looked up at the mountains. Somewhere far above, under a foot of snow, Maxwell Lake slept. Sometimes you don’t find the lake. But you keep trying. Next time, you will.

Here is Maxwell Lake in summer. In winter, who knows?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

the same three questions

Did you ever realize that most of the time people ask you the same three questions?

It's been true for me. And there is a definite pattern to them depending on where they were asked.

As a wilderness ranger in the White Clouds:
"How heavy is that pack?'
"Are you ALONE out here?"
"Aren't you afraid of (fill  in the blank: bears, mountain lions, people)?"

In a lonely, windswept cow town I won't name, but is in Eastern Oregon and starts with B:
"What does your husband do?" (I was single)
"Do you have kids?"
"Do you hunt?"

Working for the National Park Service in Nevada, Washington, California, Wisconsin, et al:
"What countries are you traveling to this winter?"
"What other parks have you worked in?"
"Wanna go (fill in the blank: caving, hiking, to the hot springs)?"

As a firefighter in the Everglades:
"Were you in Yellowstone in '88?"
"How many years you been fightin' fire?"
"Aren't you afraid of (fill in the blank: snakes, alligators, panthers)?"

In Alaska:
"What kind of gun do you carry?"
"Do you have a boat?"
"Are you married?"

And here in Wallowa County:
"Do you ski?"
"How do you like it here?"
"Have you been to (fill in the blank: the canyon, the river, Don's barn dance) yet?"

What about you? What are YOUR three questions? How do they define where you live?
On the beach in the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness. "Is it flat enough to camp here?" "Any bear sign?" "Any more trail mix left?"

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The writing retreat chronicles, part 2

Whenever you get a group of women in a house together, there will be a few givens.

Someone won't eat wheat.
Someone won't eat carbs.
Someone won't eat after a certain time of day.
And nobody will admit to eating sugar.

Fall on the Imnaha is a sweet time, when the apples fall slowly from the trees, the leaves fall  in a golden halo and the days blend into each other in a timeless flow. Every day I walked or ran up the Freezeout road, past the empty houses of the part-timers, past the pelton wheel that no longer runs, beyond the place where the road washed out in the spring snows. The house dreams by the river, across a wild swinging bridge and nestled below the canyon walls. On the first day it rained and snow frosted the canyon rims far above.

Every day each of us padded into the kitchen to make our tea, or our cereal, or our steel cut oats, and padded back to our chosen places to write. I wrote in my room at a tray table, looking out over the river. In the evenings we all stirred, stoked the fire, and read what we had written that day. At first it was difficult to let go of the tug of home, hard to plunge into pages we had not seen in months. But after a day or two the dams burst and we wrote.

A week of no internet, no cell phones. Anything could have happened in the real world. We were in a cocoon, a lazily spun web where time stretched and expanded. Driving back "up top" I was propelled back into the world of work, terrorists in Yemen and chores. My heart stayed on the Imnaha.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

the writing retreat chronicles

My friend Ken likes to tease me about my packing anxiety. What I do is, I throw a bunch of stuff into a suitcase. Then I paw through the suitcase removing items and replacing them with others. Sometimes I even replace suitcases. I fret over what I have and don't have. Should I bring warmer clothes? Rain gear? For the love of god, which shoes???

I am currently packing for a writer retreat on the Imnaha. I've never been to one before. I've rented cabins by myself, but never shared a house with other writers. I'm used to my own lackadasical writing schedule: Get up. Run. Shower. Eat cereal. Talk to self while typing maniaically. Go for a walk. Write write write. Eat. In many disturbing ways I am finding myself to be a creature of habit. How will five women share one bathroom? Where will we all write? And the most fear-inducing of all, what if nothing I write will be any good?

I confess: I really do not plan to work at a desk for 15 more years. Not that I harbor any grandiose dreams of being able to write full time. I've heard the depressing statistics: something like 5% of authors can. (Darn it, why didn't I come up with the Twighlight series?) But to be able to write half-time, with a job on the side-now that is attainable. Maybe. If I have the nerve.

With every leap of faith--marriage, a steep hike, quitting your job--is the very real possibility of failure. Your marriage can crash and burn. Your knees can go out. You can realize that you aren't a very good writer after all.

I haven't regretted any of the wilderness trips I've taken, even with the charging bear, the mountain lion in my camp, the long slogs with seventy pounds. The marriage--well, let's call that a draw. I want to summon up that courage with writing too.

Just as soon as I repack.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Until we run out of road

 I loved the seasonal life. Until I didn't.

As a seasonal, I had ready-made friends. Because we all worked at the national park and lived there too, there was none of that uneasy, awkward getting to know you stage. We all liked to hike. We loved hot springs. We were up for anything that involved being outside: canoeing down the Shark River, laying our sleeping bags out to watch meteor showers, going for long trail runs. We talked about what kayaks to buy, where to spend our winters, and things we had seen on our last hitch. We all agreed fervently on one thing: we would never, ever work in an office.

Because we all saw them when we trooped in, sweaty and covered in dirt to fill out our timesheets. There they were, the office people, tapping away at computers. We felt sorry for them, these ancient drones who sat pasty-faced under the florescents, surrounded by stacks of papers. We didn't know what they actually did all day, but we were pretty sure we wouldn't like it.

The seasonal life was a good one. It taught me how to say goodbye. It taught me how to hang on to the gossamer thread of friendships separated by mountain ranges. It taught me what kind of love was worth returning for and which wasn't. It taught me how to drive cross country solo in an iffy car in snowstorms. It taught me that I could learn to do something new: run a swamp buggy, crawl into a cave, fight fire.

There comes a time when the seasonal life loses its luster, when you start worrying about the lack of health insurance and retirement benefits, when you get tired of saying goodbye, when you want to have a bed and a room of your own. That is when you start making bargains, when the desk looms.

I have a co-worker who is getting ready to pull the plug. Thirty-three years with the outfit, and she is done. I sit at my desk and wonder. Due to the arbitrary rules of the government, I am unable to buy back any of the seven years I worked as a seasonal after 1989. In order to receive my full, not-so-hefty retirement, I would have to work another fifteen years or so. If I had stayed in full-time firefighting, I would have only four. But I didn't, choosing instead to work in the wilderness.

Fifteen more years. As much as some parts of my job are wonderful (paid backpacking!) any job that requires you to give up forty hours of your life a week seems like too much. This probably seems like self-indulgent whining to the generation before me, which grimly put in its time because that is what you did. You didn't sit all self-absorbed at a computer, wondering what you wanted to be when you grew up.

Fifteen more years. There has to be something else out there, some way to live in a place you love, and really experience that place instead of trying to carve out time between meetings and conference calls. To live like a seasonal again but without worrying about your dental bill. I hope I find it.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Socks and the City

I've just returned from a sprint visit to Washington DC for the National Wilderness Awards. I try to like DC, I do, because I hate to think that I am settling into a superior narrow-mindedness, one of those people who proclaim incessantly about how great their chosen town is and how they could never, ever live anywhere else. So there's this: I had some outstanding meals. The Mall is pretty cool. And I like the energy. There are lots of runners. And bikers. And walkers. I also learned a few things from my trip, so read on.

1. It is entirely possible to get lost in a building. In my case, the Agriculture behemoth, which has wings up the wazoo, a basement,a secret tunnel to the Whitten Building, a post office a supply store, cafeterias, lots of mysterious "Door Blocked From This Side" rooms, and no exits. I clomped along in my business attire feeling panicked and ridiculous, before I finally saw freedom.

2. Apparently, pants tucked into jeans are popular. I remember this trend when it came around the first time. I'm not sure it looks that great this time either.

3. DC women must have a high pain tolerance. There they were in spike heels, tip-tapping down the pavement. After a day of blisters I committed the ultimate faux pas: socks and tennis shoes with a skirt.

4. If you go in a federal building, you must show your ID a billion times, and the security guards aren't kidding around. Some spectators came for the ceremony who were not on the guest list, and the guards summoned me to vouch for them. I appeared ID-less, since I was ALREADY in the building and had passed through a dozen times pushing carts and carrying stuff. Nope. I couldn't vouch for them without an ID. Also, in the Ag building, you must show an ID just to get OUT of the cafeteria.

5. I must look like I have explosive residue on my hands, because at the airport the TSA guy made a beeline for me with his wand. However I wasn't selected to go into the xray undressing chamber, although they made a pilot do it.

6. A $221/night hotel room in DC looks pretty much like an $80/night one in Idaho. But, the robe was a nice touch.

7. Wow, all men don't wear Carharts!

8. I don't care how great a health club is, $15 for a day pass is so much that you feel obligated to stay in there a long time.

9. The sunset from the restaurant on the top floor of the Hotel Washington is pretty spectacular.

10. Whenever I walk by the White House, I feel sorry for the Obama kids. Such a great lawn and they can't even play on it. I also am seized with the desire to do something inappropriate when I walk by there, so have to hurry past just in case.

I am posting a picture of me with the Deputy Chief, the Chief and the Wilderness Director, mostly for the entertainment value. Not sure how this happened but we all look like escapees from a mental institution. This picture makes me giggle.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Nail my shoes to the kitchen floor

There's a song I've heard Nancy Griffith sing called "Can't help but wonder where I'm bound." Ive always thought this song is about me. I've been a wanderer all my life, always looking for the next mountain, past the bend in the trail, something bright and shiny and new to fill me up.

As I stuffed my belongings into a pickup outside of another bunkhouse, I used to wonder how people could stay in the same town all their lives. Didn't they get bored? Weren't they slowly suffocating under the oppressive weight of the smallness of their lives? As I pulled away from each place I lived, studiously ignoring the prickly feeling behind my eyes and trying not to look back at the stayers-on waving wildly, I convinced myself that this was good. Moving kept me young! There were so many places to see, why stay in one? I'd find new friends, new mountains, new love that was just as good.

The hazard of being a rambler is that you pull an invisible veneer over yourself. You don't belong here, you aren't planning to stay. You don't want to fall in love with the place or the people. You are just there to suck up all the sweetness, to climb the peaks and swim in the lakes. You breeze through the lives of the locals, sometimes causing heartbreak. After, you blow up photographs and put them on your wall. "Yeah, I lived in Alaska," you say. "It was beautiful but." Depending on the audience, it could be the rainy climate, the sheer dreariness of all the dripping spruce and overcast sky. It could be the omnipresent bears, lurking in the shadows. The isolation. It could be anything.

Now that I've decided to stay put, I am finding my life weaving into this place, stubborn threads that won't be so easy to unravel. It isn't always easy, letting go of the rambler. I think about it sometimes, find myself searching the job announcements with the old heart-pounding feeling I used to have.

This weekend Jerry and I hiked up to Thorpe Creek Basin, a wild and mountain-ringed cirque at the base of Sacajawea. Larches blazed like fire on the canyon walls. Mountain goats ghosted along the sheer cinder walls of Chief Joseph peak. I had never been there before and had pushed for this hike, even though it was a tough eleven miles, the trail snaking uphill with a relentless bite.

To get to where we crossed Hurricane Creek, we had to hike two miles of the main trail, a familiar path I run and walk often. I sighed from boredom as the miles ticked off, itching to see new country. There was the wilderness sign. Deadman Meadow. I had seen it all before.

Jerry walked along peacefully. "I never get tired of hiking the same trail," he said. "There's always something new to see."

I knew he was right. I knew I had a lot to learn about staying in one place. I don't want to discard lives anymore, flinging one aside when it gets difficult. I don't want to be a chameleon--a camo wearing, rifle-shooting, boat-driving woman for a few years in one place, a pensive, long distance runner in another. I want to gather up all the parts of me into one whole person.

I walked through Thorpe Creek wide-eyed, snapping pictures in the questionable light. I looked up at Sac's face and thought about climbing it. I searched the canyon walls for tiny Deadman Lake, rumored to be a hidden jewel. I peered up at Chief Joseph and schemed on attaining the ridge.

Then we dropped with aching knees down to Hurricane Creek, to the known and familiar. I braced myself for a dull walk out. But maybe I am learning something. Unlike before, I felt like the trail was wrapping its arms around me, welcoming me home.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

the memory road

This past week, I drove the winding road that hugs the curves of the Lochsa River, nearly to the Montana border. It's been a long time since I spent so much time in a car. Years, really. Living on an island with fourteen miles of road does that to you. I have much more kayak hours logged in than road miles. Since I've been back in "America", I have nestled down into my mountain valley, barely leaving the county in twelve months. I'm a far cry from the girl who drove barefoot across the country every six months, chasing summer from California to the Everglades, unable to commit to a person or a place.

On a long road trip, with nothing to do but search through fuzzy radio stations and keep the wheels on a narrow strip of pavement, my thoughts turn to what was, and what is now. It was, unbelievably, twenty years ago that I first came west to live, my belongings stuffed in a yellow Chevette with an iffy timing belt and a Smokey Bear sticker on the back. Back then each new national park or forest job was a chance to reinvent myself. I became a firefighter when I worked in Olympic National Park. A cave guide in Great Basin. A wilderness ranger in Idaho. As the snow dusted the peaks and I was "terminated" for the season, I drove east reluctantly, watching the country turn tame.

Last week on Highway 12, I pulled over at a campground where my life changed last year. The man who had come from Alaska to be with me had decided to go back. The pull of Baranof Island was too much for him; I could not compete. The campground was empty then and my heart was too. A lot of water had passed down the Lochsa since then.

Everything changes; the mountains I see now have been shaped by fire and flood, by loggers and time. In Alaska wild windstorms toppled the Sitka spruce and avalanches scoured Mount Bassie. Often Carolyn and I would kayak to a beach only to find it changed, no longer a good camping option. In the rearview mirror, I can tell I have changed too.

You think about things like this on road trips. Memories burn their way into your consciousness, things long forgotten. The time Jack and I huddled in a shared space blanket while lightning bracketed us just shy of Red Ridge. Chimneying above a deep pit in a cave in the Grey Cliffs. Watching smokejumpers fly through a smoky sky. All of these things make up the woman I am now, a dizzying patchwork of mountains, rivers, stars.

After a few minutes I pulled away from the campground on Highway 12. There was no oracle in the river, no voice in the mountains. Nothing to tell me that the path I was on was the right one. Each leap I have made has been without a net. Each time I could easily have taken a different road--stayed in Stanley to caretake a cabin and eke out a writing existence; married a blue-eyed man; fought one more fire instead of mostly giving it up. I had no way of knowing what could have happened.

As I drove, water and trees blurred to one thing, merged together. I headed on down the memory road.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

when it bites back

As I write this, a man has been missing in Hells Canyon for six days. He failed to make a rendezvous with his friends and apparently has just vanished.

Hells Canyon is a good place to disappear. It's remote, wild, lonely. The trails can be snarled with blackberry and poison ivy; they hug the cliffs that drop straight to a river you can't swim. It is a thirsty country, baked brown. This is a place where rattlesnakes curl up in writhing balls in hidden dens. Mountain lions and bears prowl the draws. It's one of those places that you respect. It can kill you in a second.

Helicopters have been flying infrared. Search dogs and horseback riders have been combing the canyons. Nothing has been found.

We are drawn to these places that can kill us for their beauty and their indifference. I listened to two backcountry skiers, friends of another who died in an avalanche a year ago. "That's big country," one said, speaking of the place where their friend died. "It can kill you and thrill you." The other one nodded. "That's its allure," he said.

We go to the snowy mountains. We go to the dry canyons. We go, despite the ones who have not come back. Despite the stories. Despite the searches that turn up nothing.

Tonight I hope for a lost hiker, that he has water and food and shelter, that he will be found, although as time goes by, it seems less likely. Hours earlier I looked over the rim, far down to the Snake. I heard a helicopter working the benches.

It was a hot day, and still. Nothing moved. If the canyon knows where Todd is, it revealed nothing.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"^%$* city liven"

Today we wandered through mountain hemlock, trying to solve a wilderness mystery. Someone had cut open an old road to a pocket meadow. We examined the chainsaw cuts (illegal in wilderness) and speculated. Hunters? The ditch company? The cowboys, seeking a clear path to get a herd out of the woods? There were few clues.

Before embarking on the teeth-loosening drive home, I stopped at a CXT, for the uninitiated, a allegedly "sweet smelling toilet." Someone had scratched a message on the wall, an ardent if misspelled anthem: "(Expletive deleted) city liven".

I'm not a fan of graffiti, of those who merrily shoot up signs, steal directional markers, and emblazon their shallow thoughts on every surface. But this one struck a chord. Who was this person? Someone desperate to get out of the box they lived in, one small deck above the pavement the only concession to nature? Someone whose life had changed by coming to this place, who vowed never to go back? Someone who packed up his things and moved?

Just like the road, it remains a mystery, but the sentiment I can understand. Do I feel like I miss out? Sometimes. I wish we had a pool in my small town. I'd like some really good bread. A hiking club, so that I could have a stable of backpacking partners. A girlfriend for my really sweet neighbor. Better movies. A diversity of opinion beyond "Wolves Good" and "Wolves Bad."

But I'd never give up country "liven". Leaving doors unlocked. Walking safely alone at night and on the trails. Deer in my yard. Mountain goats on the peak. A hundred sparkly lakes just a few miles away. Fundraising benefits for people who need the help. The fact that wolves are here at all, that people hear them howl up in the backcountry.

&^%% city liven!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Humbled by the Matterhorn

First off let me say that I am not a "summit person." I don't gaze longingly at peaks, wanting to bag them (I'm way more into lakes). You wouldn't find me on Mount Everest, stormbound and debating how many toes I would lose in order to reach the top (I'd be the one saying, "screw it, I'm going down to base camp!").

But there is the Matterhorn. It is either the second highest, or the highest, peak in the Wallowa Mountains. It is locked in an ongoing feud with Sacajawea, which is either the highest or second-highest. At 9,845 feet, the Matterhorn is pretty darn high, though, and it is way cooler because it is made of white limestone (the compressed skeletal remains of tiny marine animals, probably coral, deposited on the ocean floor many millions of years ago, according to my guidebook). If you pause to think of that, it's pretty amazing, considering the nearest ocean is several hundred miles away. There's no denying that the sheer white face, soaring above Ice Lake, is distinctive and makes you want to discover what is up there.

Ice Lake from about halfway up the "goat trail".

I threw my pack together and ascended the trail to Ice Lake in three hours (that's 8 miles and lots of elevation gain with a backpack! Go me!) and was feeling pretty puffy about doing that and also climbing the Matterhorn the same day. Of course, pride cometh..etc and I was passed by a line of trail runners, who were doing the same thing. Only running. And doing it all in one day, instead of staying over at the lake. Chastened, I continued my hike.

At the lake, I was crestfallen to find many campers. The delightful weather had brought them from Portland in droves. My friends Dana and Troy were just leaving and clued me in on a campsite on the end of the peninsula, sufficiently far enough away so that I wouldn't have to see the illicit activities of others (oversize groups, campfires). I threw up my tent and collapsed my pack with the essentials. Matterhorn, here I come.

Floppy hat and all. That white mountain in the very far distance is the Matterhorn.

There's a goat trail of sorts that leads to the top, and people have placed cairns haphazardly about. In their wanderings through the talus, several different trails have developed, and I hopefully followed several only to have them peter out on cliffs. The first part of the hike wound through a grassy slope, so steep that I, and the guy I was following, had to slog in slow motion. Step, breathe. Step, breathe. We passed some college kids. Then the route turned to talus and what rangers fondly call "DG"--decomposed granite (though in this case it's limestone. Same slippery little ball bearing rocks though). A harried looking couple approached, clinging to their hiking poles for dear life.

"I don't know about climbing down this!" I yelled over the rising wind.

The man screamed back something unintelligible. "What did you say?" I hollered."It's not that bad?"

He slid closer. "No, I said this is pretty nasty!"

Ugh. But I was committed. I had passed Fellow Slow-Moving Guy and my destination mentality had kicked in. The Matterhorn loomed above, a white monolith with a flat top. I picked a path and kicked steps to the top.

The Hurwal divide--a ridge separating two big drainages.

A sea of mountains spread from every direction. To the west I could see a little pocket lake and the Hurricane canyon. Sacajawea loomed to the north, mountain goats clinging to its cinder flank. The top was smooth, rounded white. Below, Ice Lake's surface was ruffled with whitecaps.

I wanted to sit there and drink it in, but the wind howled like a living thing. It was thirty, forty miles an hour, threatening to blow me off the top. Retreat seemed prudent, so I slid down to a lower elevation. Footsore and rumpled, I limped back to camp.

That night a nearly full moon washed over the top of the Matterhorn. The planet Jupiter kissed Sacajawea's shoulder. Up there, at almost ten thousand feet were the remains of the sea.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

go light, freeze at night

As a young wilderness ranger, I carried heavy loads. We would all stagger down to the barn to hang our full packs on the scale, bragging about how much they weighed. Later on in our hitches, burdened with detritus left by campers(grills, sneakers, plywood) our packs weighed so much we had to sit down, smokejumper style, just to get them on.

In all fairness, this wasn't just stupidity. Gear weighed so much back then, just fifteen years ago. An empty backpack could tip the scale at 6 pounds. Our sleeping bags were behemoths compared to today.

Now when backpackers of a certain age get together, our conversation is focused on weight. What kind of stove? Bag? Pad? How much does it weigh?

My latest lightweight discoveries include the following:

Backpack by Black Diamond, one of the KI series. It has long zips all the way down it--no more irritable grumbling and throwing everything out! Bonus.

Tent: Big Agnes Seedhouse 2, two pounds and change. Allegedly holds two people, but better with one. I also have a Go-lite single tent that is super light, but only good in calm conditions.

Bag: A Golite half-zip for summer; so light and fluffy! I throw it around just for the joy of it. I also recenty sprung for a winter bag, a 20 degree Western Mountaineering. Probably the best bags around. I bring a silk liner when it is really, really cold.

Pad: In summer, a Big Agnes inflatable. Perfect but lung-challenging to blow up. Sadly, not very insulated. Isabella, the recent Red's caretaker, turned me on to a new Thermarest NeoAir. 14 ounces, tiny, but blows up big, I hear. Taking it this weekend and will report back.

Stove: For an overnight solo, I don't bring one and gnaw on bagels instead. For longer trips, or with people, I have a Dragonfly. It works fine. The JetBoil crowd sings their praises, and I am tempted, but you can't recycle the cartridges, which is a big no-no for me.

Plates/etc: A lovely spork and some X something plates, the kind that fold down flat (they're made by Sea to Summit). They're a great invention!

Everything else is pretty normal stuff. So, any great lightweight gear you have discovered? Give it up!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

take me to the river

Around here, when you say you are "going to the river", everyone knows where that is. Although this is a valley of many rivers, there is only one River. It's the Snake, the border between Idaho and Oregon, the river that carved out Hells Canyon.

When you descend to the river, like we did last week, it's like crossing the border to a different country. There is such a thing as river time. You can make all the plans you want, to be back at the launch by two, to reach Temperance Creek by nine--but on the river time stretches, elongates. The air is thick as honey and the river flows, a sluggish muscle, until it doesn't. The rapids--Rush Creek, Wild Sheep, more--produce standing waves. Mike points out rocks that hide at lower river levels. Unlike the Southeast Alaska coast, here there is no handy Coast Pilot book, no NOAA charts. You have to learn the river the old-fashioned way.

It feels like nothing ever changes on the river, but it does. Years ago Idaho Power raised water levels from the dam and flooded away massive white sand beaches. Even further back, people lived on the benches and bars, eking out an existence. We hike to the "Cartier Mansion", once one of the fanciest dwellings on the river, the owner having used Mazama ash and deer hair to plug in chinks of his multiple room house. Now it is inhabited by pack rats.

We sleep at an old ranch, pears dropping off a tree some long-ago settler planted. Owls hoot softly back and forth. Here it is still summer. I know it will get colder, but it feels like this place is frozen in time.

You feel lazy on the river, watching the deceptive current. Jeff and I calculate where we would have to start from to swim across and reach the distant shore. Laziness and reason prevent us from trying it. But in the old days, people weren't lazy. The volunteer at Kirkwood tells us that her grandmother lived at Saddle Creek, and remembered stories of canning in 120 degree heat. At Temperance Creek we poke around the old farm implements and squat log buildings (Temperance Creek Ranch was named thus when a mule carrying the winter supply of whiskey rolled, losing the load. The ranchers were resigned to a season of temperance).

As usual, river time expands and we reach the landing at four. Driving back home would take nearly five hours. We want one more night of listening to the river flow. So we stay.

Monday, September 13, 2010

we interrupt this blog for a test of the emergency operating system


Okay I need help. See the big picture up there? How do I make it centered? I've tried resizing but it still goes off to the side. And how do I put captions with my photos? Experienced bloggers, please reply. Don't be shy!

We now return to your regularly scheduled programming. Read posts below. Comment with abandon!

Sunday, September 12, 2010


A bonk, if you have never heard the term, is when your body shuts down during activity. You feel like you are moving in slow motion, each step an inconceivable hurdle. You might need a snack, some water, a rest break. Any of these could cure the dreaded bonk.

How I know I am bonking is that I become irritable. (Hello, sister reading this, who might laugh and ask how is this different than any other time? Ha ha.) When I begin to bonk, I get mad at everything. Stupid rocks in the trail! Stupid people who won't step aside! Stupid switchbacks! Stupid $200 pack! Stupid, stupid, stupid!

This weekend I did a 20 mile loop in 2 days. The route involved ascending a pass, descending another, ascending one more and then a cross country hike to my overnight stop, Bear Lake. This first day took six hours. It started badly.

I looked in the trail register box using my secret Forest Service knowledge of how to open it (lift up on the handle). Nobody had signed out for Bear Lake! Happy dance! I was looking for some peace after a mega-social car camp over Labor Day and a subsequent group Horse Ranch experience (a post on this odd place will follow shortly). Happily I lifted my (too heavy) Osprey pack and plodded up the trail.

In less than a mile I came across a wild-eyed bushy-haired man. "Where are you going?" he demanded. In retrospect, he probably was freaked out from being lost, but I certainly wasn't going to advertise my location.

"Oh, past Chimney," I said vaguely.

He looked deflated. I noticed he had a gallon jug of water strapped to his pack. Huh? This ain't the desert, buddy! "I was trying to get to Bear Lake, but this trail is DESTROYED!" he said, indicating a game trail that led in the opposite direction of Bear Lake (which, by the way, was several drainages and ten miles away).

He looked at me hopefully. Crap! The last thing I wanted was this bozo at MY lake.

Reader, I admit: I did not pull out a map. I did not counsel him. Instead, I said: "I've never heard of anyone going to Bear Lake THAT way!" and wished him luck as I beat feet to put distance between us.

I was feeling a little guilty, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the view from Wilson Pass. A long sweep of ridge, a tiny lake nestled below, mountains marching off into infinity. Down I plunged, into Wilson Basin and up again, up close to the sky, topping out on a wide alpine meadow that just called out for the Sound of Music (I refrained).

Here the cross country travel began. I took out my GPS and headed up to Bear Lake. There it was, shimmering in afternoon sun, no bozos in sight. There were flat rock slabs to lie on, chilly water to swim in, and complete silence. The night was a bowl of stars.

The next day seemed easy. Hop over the ridge to Hobo Lake and I would be back on a trail, one I had traveled before. No problem! Except that I ascended too high and had to downclimb Lookout Mountain. Curses! It wasn't dangerous, just a rookie mistake that I should have avoided. It took a full two hours to reach Hobo, one of my favorite lakes.

Nobody was there. At Chimney either. Or Laverty. Or Brownie Basin. I felt a bit more guilty about Gallon Jug Man, because where was he? But soon I had more to think about.

Bonk! The last 3.8 miles were torture. I staggered onward. Everything hurt-my pack dug into my shoulders. My toes were cramped at the very end of my boots. This was shaping up to be a major bonk.

I tend to push onward long past when I should. This is one of the hazards of hiking alone. Over the years I have learned to recognize when I should stop, and so I did, eating handfuls of M&Ms and drinking water. The bonk gradually receded.

Cheerfully I hiked the last mile, passing two inbound backpackers, one with a duffel bag strapped to his pack (Huh?) and some day hikers. Still no sign of Gallon Jug Man, but I felt okay about it. I had a peaceful night at the lake, and he ended up--somewhere, but perhaps learned a valuable lesson about maps and accosting other hikers. I hope.

I'm quite certain more bonks will come. They are an occupational hazard when you push yourself. If you never bonk, you probably aren't trying very hard.