Monday, May 31, 2010

tough enough for hells canyon

There's something about finding a landscape that can cause you to either feel tough or insignificant. There are so few places like that these days: most have been hacked out, cleared, paved, smoothed over. It's not easy to find somewhere that can make you feel tough, because you can survive what it throws at you, or, alternatively, weak and small because of your dependence on its graciousness.

Hells Canyon is such a place. This weekend we picked a trail off an old map, a trail that does not show up in any guidebook. It was a toss of the dice. It could turn out well or fail spectacularly.

Here's the thing about Hells Canyon: the trails are disappearing like ghosts. Most of them were sheep trails, used by indomitable people not afraid of a little adversity. Now hikers stick to the easier paths, and rosebushes and blackberry are choking the creek crossings, the trails flat out vanishing in the grasslands. There's something sad about that, a toughness also vanishing from our lives.

There was a lot not to like about this hike. We lost the trail. Poison ivy draped malevolently in a thick carpet at Cook Creek, where we camped, forcing us to wear rain gear to push on through. Rattlesnakes hissed. Ticks fell like rain from the head-high brush. Even this early in the season, water was scarce and we had to drop a a thousand feet to find a campsite. Even the site was hard-won, a marginal squat beneath a hackberry. We moved at a paltry 1.7 miles per hour most of the time.

But on the flipside, we were the only people for miles. The country stretched out wild and lonesome. A coyote howled as we passed by its den. The seas of grass were popping with wild roses, ninebark blossoms, lupine and pale pink phlox.

Tough or insignificant? Maybe it doesn't matter. I only know that in our lives we need a little bit of both.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

the zen of ticks

It's tick season. I am told they go away, but right now they are creepy-crawling on the bushes, stalking through the grass, flinging themselves at us as we push our way down the overgrown trail. Yesterday we were scouting the North Fork of the Imnaha and had to go around a lot of fallen trees (we cut out as many as we could, but big winds and an old burn bring them down in droves). Connelly bashed through the manzanita exclaiming, "I'm in the tick zone!" And he was: we picked a dozen or more off ourselves.

It's hard to like ticks. They are secretive creatures, hitching a ride without warning, then found hours later casually strolling up an arm. Earlier this season John was bit by one; weeks later he came down with Colorado tick fever. They're not as straightforward as mosquitoes or as blatant as snakes. They're like kamikazes; suicide bombers, leaping off from the safety of the forest for the unknown.

The only other creature I have encountered in the outdoors that compares to ticks are the dreaded chiggers. For months in Florida I went around smelling like laundry because I had been told that bleach repels them. Until you have been nailed by these lovely things, you have not known true insanity. Think poison ivy on steroids.

Well, as a fellow traveler once said in a remote mountain hut in New Zealand, with the rain pouring down and the Germans stealing the best bunks, "Complain, complain, complain! What did you think this was going to be, paradise?"

It's paradise really, just with a few speed bumps and blemishes to make you appreciate the indoors once in a while. I can be patient. I can do tick checks. I can wait them out. Namaste.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

old trails, old friends

I sometimes remember places I have hiked by the people I was with. I have moved so many times in my footloose, glorious life, that some trails and some people have faded into memory while others are sharp and bright still.

There's the Tranquil Bluff trail on Mackinac which will always bring back one special person to me besides the memory of the crunchy leaves that covered its surface like a patterned carpet. There's the Abel Tasman Track in New Zealand, where three of us coastal neophytes were caught unawares by the tide. Fishhook Creek, the trail I hiked with Deb so many times and the trail I ran the morning of my wedding. And the Thimbleberry Trail, where I walked with Carolyn the day my marriage was ending.

I've left all these trails, and all these friends, behind. Some of them still hike the same trails, but who knows if I will ever cross over the pass in Deadman Canyon with Kim and Cindy again? Will I ever camp by Lucky Chance with the other Cindy and the gang, watching a bear come into our camp?

Sometimes my heart feels full when I think of how far I have come and how long it would be to go back. And then I realize that there is no going back. I have tried to keep the trails of the past and the friends of the past as part of me, but some have slipped away. You have to want it badly enough, to thumb through the old pictures and to keep up your end of the telephone line. To hop on a plane with your backpack and your hope that people remember you.

This is the other side of the mountain, the downside of the excitement of seeing new territory every six months, every few years. The thrill of a new guidebook, the joy of meeting someone who loves to hike as much as you do.

I am not sure how to reconcile this, not really. Never move again? Probably not an option. I believe we only live once, and I want to squeeze every drop of it by seeing as much as I possibly can. The lesson, I suppose, is to fully appreciate the trails and the friends you have for the short time you have them. People come and go; trails endure; new people discover them. The cycle continues.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Confessions of a crankypants

I can tell the signs. I’m irritated with everything. I stomp around under a dark cloud, fuming. Too many hours logged at a computer, too many minutes suffering on the elliptical trainer.

It’s time to get out.

I’ve been chained to a desk, the result of a promotion and snowy weather up high. We can’t really get anywhere yet, and while it is lush and green in the canyon, access is hampered, available only at far-flung trailheads down teeth-clenching roads. All of this inside time is taking its toll. I’m itchy and prickly both, a wilderness addict needing a fix.

So I left the office early on Friday and rushed to my old standby, the Chief Joseph trail. Once again I decide to face my nemesis, the BC Ford. I avoided it a week ago by taking a climbers trail that bypassed it, but today I want to see what is going on at the ford.

It started to snow as I headed to the trailhead. Real snow, serious snow. It’s May 21. I paused for a moment to wonder about that. I’ve lived here nine months and it has snowed during seven of them. Another thing I didn’t expect.

The trailhead in snow.
As I headed to the trail, I saw a man with hiking poles walking up the road. Danger! I was too much of a crankypants to have a conversation at this point. So I poured on some speed and lost him.

There was big water at the bridge.

Mollified by the quiet, broken only by the sound of water and light falling snow, I pushed onward, already feeling tension melt away. There is something about being surrounded by natural things: rivers, mountains, forest. I don’t know how people can stand to be without it.
I could hear BC Ford rumbling and knew this wasn’t a crossing day.

I can’t explain why I need the wilderness. It isn't for some spiritual awakening.It isn't because I am a hermit, live-off-the-land type. I like running water. I like my cats. I wouldn't want to live in a tent year-round.

There's just something about stepping into a world that is busily recreating itself every day without any help from me. The river flows; the mountain slowly crumbles. I'm just a piece of the whole.

A crankypants no more.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Adventures in Walmart

Today I had to go to LaGrande so I figured I would go on a terrifying adventure: the aisles of Walmart. I haven't been in one for years, but they haven't changed. Do they ever? This one is a "super Walmart" which means you could basically live in it forever and survive.

I was overwhelmed by Walmart. There's so much plastic stuff. Who buys it? I wandered around for awhile, but I could think of nothing I needed. That's right, in a store that pretty much has everything, I DIDN'T NEED ANYTHING. I felt pretty good about that.

Walmart is perhaps the anti-wilderness. You don't need to be self-reliant. You can pick up any number of gadgets to make your life more comfortable. You pretty much can flow through the store without making any kind of decision except which plastic toothpaste holder to buy. I have to admit, Walmart makes me depressed.

I have to laugh at myself, though, because if I were plopped down in an REI store, I would feel differently. Each sleeping bag, stove, or tent sends me wondering about where I could use it. Is this one slightly lighter, will this one burn better? My backpacking gear to me is just as necessary as the Walmart shopper's gadget is to them. I can't pretend to be better.

When I moved here I shed myself of truckloads of stuff. I'm not really sure how I acquired it; after all, I've moved often, so have purged often. Stuff kind of creeps into your life somehow. I've got it down to a minimalist lifestyle now. Before I buy something, I think to myself if I really need it. I think back the house I lived in when I was married: packed to the gills. There were boxes my husband had carted around for years, unopened. It felt good to shed that life, and that stuff.

I scurried out of Walmart. I doubt I will be back for some time.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

a river hike, with rattlesnake

Today a friend and I hiked in Devils Gulch, near the town of Imnaha. It's a difficult time of year, with snow lingering in the high country and rivers uncrossable. So most of us head to the Imnaha country. A few months from now it will be stifling hot in the canyons, but now it is warm and lush, with everything green and vibrant.

We hiked about four miles up the canyon until the rosebushes got too prickly, headed uphill and off trail to munch a snack next to an intriguing rock butte. We pulled off a few enterprising ticks but it was mostly a nice stroll, punctuated by the silver notes of a canyon wren.

We were about two miles from the trailhead when Dana stopped. "What's that noise?" she asked. It has been many years since I heard a rattlesnake, but there it was, only a few feet away, coiled and plenty mad. The dog, Chloe, had already passed by the snake and looked back at us, wondering if she should come back. Luckily she knows what "stay" means, and we were able to encourage the very mad snake off the path with the help of some well-placed sticks.

We noticed though that Chloe was favoring one leg; she couldn't even put weight on it. Her toe was bleeding freely. Though we couldn't tell, the circumstantial evidence: snake, dog, wound--seemed to indicate she had been bitten. We hustled on out of there with a three-legged dog. I didn't know if rattlesnake bites were fatal for dogs but it was apparent this was not a very happy dog.

It ends well--Chloe survived. If it weren't for her, though, I think one of us would have been bitten instead. The snake blended in really well. It was a reminder that things aren't always benign, even if warm breezes and a trail lead you to think so.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

the wolves are here

The wolves are back in Wallowa County and people are panicking. The reactions range from fear that one will swoop in and eat people, to outrage, to conspiracy theories that the government placed them here to drive the ranchers out of business.

It always disturbs me that people will say they don't like wolves because of some value system they expect wolves to somehow have. "They kill for the sake of killing!" "They don't even eat all they kill!" News flash. Wolves are ANIMALS. They don't live by some Biblical or moral code. They just are.

Some genius wrote a letter to the paper saying that he went for a long horseback ride in the wilderness and didn't see a single deer! The reason, of course? Wolves! I wonder if this person ever drives the farm roads here. This is where the deer are--in the hundreds, drawn in by crops and fresh green grass. Why stay up in the wilderness and forage for a living?

I realize that the ranchers have investments, and they fear losing their sheep or cattle. It's hard for a wolf to ignore a tasty, dumb snack. But other states have done it. There are options other than killing every wolf there is, because it might kill a cow. That sends us off into the same playing god realm that I hope we are done with: deciding which animals are "good" and which are "bad".

The wolves are back. I hope we can learn to live with them.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

it's time...

I've been here nine months and I'm ready to give up my Alaska license plates. It's funny but this is something I have been putting off forever. It seemed like my last tie to Alaska, a final admitting that I have softened and moved south. But as I get to know my new valley and my new mountains, I am becoming a part of them in a way I never did in Alaska.

Alaska resists closeness in many ways. In Southeast, you need a boat to really get to know it. You can't ever close your eyes, turn your back. There's a constant vigilance being in a place that can easily kill you. It's the most beautiful place I've ever lived in, that is true. But it is beauty you have to work for, to wait out the drizzle and the gales until you can coax the sun to show up. I admit it--I don't want my sun to be extraordinary. I want to depend on it a little.

Part of my hestitation in relinquishing my plates, as shallow as it may sound, is that people Outside think of it as a place that requires superwomen. (Sarah Palin perpetuated this myth with her caribou shootin' tales, when she actually lives in an unlovely town with its own Walmart). In truth, unless you live in the far remote interior, you have grocery stores. You have cars. You have internet and cell phones. It's not really all that different when you are in your house. Anyone can live there.

I liked saying I lived in Alaska though. You reflect an aura of wildness that people respect. It's a lot less boring than if you say you live in Oregon. What does someone say to that? Oh. It's green there. See?

I will always miss Alaska a little bit. I miss the sharp fishy smell of the air. I miss the moody ocean. I miss having bears wander through town. But I live in the Wallowa Valley now. This is my future. I've been flirting with this valley for months now, and I am falling in love.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The winter of my content

When I moved here in August, the people who lived here rhapsodized about this place. Warm summer days. Cool, crisp nights. Stars. Peace. Then their eyes would clear and their faces sober up. "But the winters are long," they all said, to a person.

Well, they were right. It is. Long. It started snowing in early October. As I write this, we are in the midst of a full-on snowstorm. Yesterday we walked up the East Fork on top of old, crusty snow. Today,there is a new foot.

There's something about late season snow that can make you feel a little desperate. You've put away the skis and the snowshoes. You have dared to order a new backpack. Right now it feels like we are on our own isolated planet, our valley cut off from the rest of the world.

But I don't have to go anywhere. Our plans for measuring a trail can be changed. Like the bears, we'll hunker in, dreaming of spring.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Go light, freeze at night

This phrase was used to describe a superhuman friend of ours, who could rattle off the miles across Baranof Island in one day. Most people take three. I am somewhat obsessed with gear weight, though, as it can make the difference between a brutal slog and a pleasant hike. I shudder to think of my wilderness ranger days when I routinely carried 70 pounds. Thank goodness lighter gear has come along.

I have an abnormal fear of being cold though which leads me to make tough decisions. Food or fleece? On my last trip this is what I wore in my sleeping bag: down booties. Long underwear. Yoga pants. T-shirt. Long underwear top. Vest. Hat.

Then there's reading material, very important when tent companions have fallen asleep or when solo. I used to stuff several books in a pack for a long trip, but now I carefully pack a Kindle. I'm sold on them!

I used to carry a frame for my Thermarest but I lost it crossing a creek so now I rough it, sitting on boulders. Here are some things I don't bring: a hairbrush (a fork works well). Deodorant. An I-pod. And things that I do: a Leatherman. Cheese. Chocolate.

You can learn a lot about people from what they bring and what they leave behind. A friend once brought little cards wih sayings on them to entertain us. An intern showed up with a leather-bound Bible and an enormous pillow. Some people pack carefully, lining their bag with plastic, a place for everything. Others just throw it all in and hope for the best.

I love packing for a trip, picking out the spork, the snacks, and the gear. I own three backpacks, all pressed into service for different outings. Four tents. Four thermarests/Big Agnes. I love my gear with the enthusiasm some women reserve for purses or shoes.

These days I aim for less than thirty pounds. I don't always succeed, but my 70 pound days are over for sure. Go light, be happy at night.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

What I learned about horses

This week I had the opportunity to go on a three day trail work/show-me trip in Hells Canyon. We took horses. I haven't been on a horse for years. I'm used to backpacking, where you are in control of your destiny and every piece of gear is carefully evaluated for its heft and usefulness. Your destination is determined by how far you can walk in a day.

Things are very different in the horsey world. Read on to discover the five rules of horse camping, according to me.

1. It's hard to access your gear. The day began cozily enough with a light rain as we arrived at the Freezeout trailhead. Fine, I put on my rain gear. However as we ground up the switchbacks and came down the other side, a stiff wind blew rain into our faces. On a horse you can only keep so much with you. We had two saddlebags in which I stuffed snacks and water. You can tie a jacket on the back of the saddle. Unless you wear a day pack, which is hard to get at, you don't have many other options for storage, unlike backpacking, where you can stop, pull out a hat, or stuff unwanted layers in.

2. You can bring a lot more stuff. Our camp was downright luxurious compared to my normal sites. We had: a folding table, a full kitchen with real plates, wash basins for dishes and a whole host of tools for trail work. A far cry from my wilderness ranger days of being burdened with a shovel and a pulaski.

3. You can't be selfish. Backpacking, if you arrive at camp tired and in the snow, you can set up your tent, dive in, eat M&Ms, and read happily. Not so with horses! In the sleet, we set up their electric fence, divested them of their packs, fed them pellets. In the morning they had to be brushed and loaded. There's no such thing as an alpine start.

4. You can't zone out. I like to mediate on things as I hike. In fact, a former boyfriend was critical of this tendency, claiming that he worried about our relationship because I didn't talk as we hiked (whatever). I use this time to plan out my novel, ponder my future, or mindlessly stare. On a horse, I was constantly aware of my surroundings. Watch that drop-off! Step up, horse. Lean forward while going uphill. Oh, he's scared of that backpacker.

5. You aren't as tired when you arrive. This was helpful when we came upon large trees to saw out. You can definitely go farther on a horse than you can walking. On the other hand, I like the feeling of having worked for my destination.

I don't think I'll quit hiking and buy a horse just yet, but it was an interesting way to travel.