Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lost Souls

It's a bit puzzling why I keep running into lost people in the wilderness. I would understand it in Hells Canyon--there, the trails are overgrown to non-existent, disappearing in the bunchgrass, diving into head-high poison ivy. But in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, where there is a trail crew all summer, where hundreds of feet pulverize the tread into powdery dirt? Mysterious.

I should clarify. These people do not know they are lost. No, they firmly believe they know exactly where they are, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The map must be wrong! Somehow they hike a mile and a half in ten minutes! The lake is over there, not here!

Last weekend the pistol packing mamas we encountered were sure they were bound for Mirror Lake. They were not one, but two drainages off. They had merrily ridden past three trail junctions without, apparently, checking a map. On this same trip we met the man who insisted that the map showed the trail in the wrong place, and that we were in a different drainage entirely.

Are we becoming a nation of illiterate non-map readers? Why do people plod on insistently when everything in the landscape does not match their map? Our signs leave something to be desired, but then again, does wilderness really need signs? Isn't it supposed to be a place to test your wits and your skill? How hard is it to stop at a junction to figure things out?

I worry about these people. How long would it have taken the Boy Scout packer to realze he was ferrying supplies up the wrong trail? Would the two women at Laverty Lakes thought all their lives that they had camped at Chimney? Do these people ever admit they might be wrong? Does any doubt ever creep in for them?

Maybe I'm being too harsh. If someone thinks they are at Sky Lake, but are at a wild, nameless pond, does it really matter? If someone takes the wrong fork and has to climb over a snowy pass to reach their intended destination, isn't that all right? Maybe we need no names, no intended destination. Maybe we need to throw away the guidebooks and the maps and all become utterly, gloriously lost. Without even trying to say where we think we are.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Used to be, I would never, ever come out of the backcountry early. Once in high winds my tent pole snapped and I grimly fixed it with adhesive tape from my first aid kit. I've run out of food. A mountain lion once prowled my camp. On a particularly wet and cold trip, I forgot my sleeping bag. But I refused to admit defeat, to slink back to the car.

On Friday, Dana and I headed out to a place neither of us had been--the mysterious and fabled Copper Creek canyon. Our plan was solid: camp at Sky Lake, the next day, hike with a daypack over the pass to Swamp and Steamboat. The weather looked cold but possible: only a twenty percent chance of rain, with a possibility of snow Saturday night. No accumulation was mentioned.

We hiked steadily under heavy packs and in shorts. After five miles we arrived at an exquisite alpine valley. Peaks pierced the calm sky. A lazy river wandered through fields of heather. Large white boulders lay scattered picturesquely about. Onto this scene appeared a couple who had camped there the night before. "The map is wrong!" he proclaimed. He declared that he had been to Sky Lake and it was on the other side of the trail, and a steep talus scramble. There was, he intoned, no place to camp there.

On the basis of this, Dana and I decided to camp in the valley and day hike a little. As we climbed out of the valley and into another small pocket cirque, it became apparent that the man was mistaken. We located Sky Lake easily, in the right place on the map, and went for a short, chilly swim.

Returning to our camp, we noticed a certain chill to the air and donned our down jackets. It was a clear and starry night. The next day we prepared for our day hike. As we did, something opaque and white began to fall from the sky. No worries--it was just supposed to be a dusting, right? We laughed as the snow began to accumulate on our packs and ourselves, but made a valiant effort to continue our hike.

The top of the pass is a moonscape-a barren land of basalt in strange, choppy shapes. Here it was snowing a little harder. The clouds swept in and out. We dropped down a thousand feet to Swamp Lake, nestled in an enclosed valley, and held a hasty conference. Steamboat was only a mile and a half away.

Dana pointed out that if snow started to accumulate it would be hard to find the trail back over the pass. We shivered as we ate our cheese and gorp. The snow fell in a thick curtain. Setting a speedy pace, clad in fleece, rain pants and jackets, we headed back up.

Snow blanketed the trail and was starting to pile up in earnest. Two hours later we reached our campsite. Our tents sagged with snow. We looked at each other. It was one o'clock. We could ride it out in our bags for the next sixteen hours, or we could hike out. Give up. Bail.

We bailed, our tired feet stumbling down the trail. Everyone else was bailing too, including the pistol packing mamas who had claimed another campsite in our valley. It was a mass exodus of campers fleeing the August snow. And it was all right.

This morning I looked up at the mountains, frosted with at least six inches of new snow. It was beautiful to see from below.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The blog that took over the universe

It's all a fiendish plot. You are seduced to this blog, innocently clicking on it in hopes of reading about some wilderness adventures. But...horrors...it won't go away! You click and click but nothing! It stubbornly stays on your screen. You must resort to..dum dum dum..Task Manager!!

Seriously, readers, is this happening to you? Please post. You can post anonymously if you want. It might be too big of a picture...too many pictures..or a government conspiracy to take over your brain. Let me know please!

For what it's worth, I can get in and out of it just fine. But maybe I'm part of the plot...BWAAAAHAAAAHAAAAAA.....!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hiking the Mountain's Back

Sometimes you just have to get off trail. You have to claw and push and shove and routefind to get to a high point, a place to breathe, away from others. So this weekend the goal was to reach the ridge that separates Silver Creek and the Lostine, and to traverse as far as we could before finding a way to descend.

We started off on a mysterious, abandoned packer trail that soon began to drop too far into the valley. The number one rule for alpine travel is to never lose elevation! So we abandoned it and headed up. Soon we came upon evidence of an old silver mine, which led me to muse about what life was like back then, hardscrabble digging in this often harsh landscape.

With a little whimpering on my part due to the Grape-Nut-like footing, we quickly gained a high point. The views were astonishing: the whole Lostine valley flung out before us on one side, Silver Creek Basin on the other. Being at this elevation revealed all the little secrets the mountains hold: hidden lakes and cirques, silver waterfalls.

The other truth about alpine travel, especially ridgeline travel, is that it lures you onward. We scrambled into a natural mountain throne and then onto a sandy, flat spot where the rocks were round and polished, old, old river rocks from a long-distant past before a brutal uplift brought the riverbed to the top of a mountain.

Looking ahead we spotted a pocket meadow far below. To reach it, we had to climb far to where snow still lingered, a fabulous mountain shoulder where we could look into the Frances Lake basin. The urge to walk in this direction, to see if we could reach the lake, was overpowering, but this is what separates me from my twenty year old self. Water was low and we had been walking for hours. We turned our backs and carefully picked our way down, saving Frances for another day.

Walking a mountain's back is different than trail walking in a forest. It feels more connected to the earth, every little bump and knob of its spine a thing to be climbed over, negotiated. You feel its contours under your feet. You feel like you can hear it breathe.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Eat, Hike, Love

It’s been a year since I moved to back to the northwest. When I left, eight years ago, I couldn’t get out of the state fast enough. My return has been very different. Alaska will always be imprinted on my heart, but in many ways this has been my own year of living fully (although without a trip to Italy or a fling with a foreigner).
EAT: I miss pulling a silver salmon out of the ocean and eating it that day, but something else has won my heart: produce! Giant, juicy Imnaha peaches that taste like the sun. Nectarines sweeter than candy. Butter lettuce out of someone’s garden. The farmer’s markets, brimming with ears of corn, tomatoes, and kale. I’ve never eaten better.

HIKE: For seven years I dreamed of lying on a flat slab of rock next to an alpine lake. Of wearing shorts. Of backpacking without devils club and uneasy grizzlies. Here the mountains float in the sky like clouds. Bountiful sunshine touches each one and spills down to my tent. The flowers are an abundant carpet. I hike for miles. I jump in lakes. I look at stars. I had forgotten what the Milky Way looks like. I gasped the first time I saw it again.

LOVE: I moved down here with someone who promised to stay. Months later, after painful back and forth, he left. I never wanted to move somewhere alone again. But here I was. Alone. It took some time to realize: His leaving was the best thing that could have happened. All I can tell you is this: Never stay with someone who wants to turn you into someone completely different. Even if you think this is your last chance at happiness. Even if you think it is almost good enough, if only you could change a little bit. Even if. Even if.

All of my adult life I have looked forward. Even in the places I loved, I was always thinking ahead. Wondering where to move next. For an entire year I have not done this. I think I have found my forever place.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The eighteen mile challenge

Many years ago, I worked for a man named Smitty. Smitty was fond of 100 mile day hikes. He would get dropped off near dawn with a fannypack at a trailhead in Olympic National Park, and for twenty-four hours he would jog the downhills and the flats and walk the uphills. He once invited me to go along, but I never did.

Though I'm not a 100 mile disciple, I am not above manufacturing my own private challenges. This weekend I decided to do an epic hike that would go up one canyon, over a pass, and down another.

Eighteen miles might not seem that far for Smitty. But it would be all walking, no running, and gaining and losing many thousands of feet in elevation. There were river crossings, a chance of thunderstorms and slow-moving tourists to contend with. Right away I knew I would do this alone. I didn't want to worry about a slower partner, or try to scramble after someone faster. And it would be perfectly safe--this is one of the most popular backpacking routes. You can't throw a rock and not hit a hiker. Not that I ever would, of course. Though I have thought about it, when I see them building campfires in meadows. Or found "toilet paper flowers."

My first milestone was Minam Lake. Back in the twenties this once-small lake was dammed to provide irrigation far below to the thirsty ranches of the Lostine. It's been so long ago that it does not detract too much. Here at Minam was where the climb to Ivan Carper Pass began. Here was my last chance to bail and call it good.

But it was early and I had covered the 6.6 miles in a little more than two hours and I felt strong. The trail up the pass leads through chalky white cliffs, bubbling streams and fields of heather. From above I could see Minam and Blue Lakes on the west side and the many lakes of the Lakes Basin to the east. The wind howled, the clouds scuttled across the sky. I began a slow descent.

The Lakes Basin, while crowded, is the jeweled heart of the Wallowas. I stopped for a quick snack at Mirror Lake and encountered Walt. It was his sixty-fourth birthday and he was going to climb Eagle Cap Peak and sleep up there under the meteor showers. "Will you be up here when you are sixty-four?" he asked. I allowed that I probably would be.

I headed down the East Fork, passing through the lush meadows of the Lostine River. The river flows lazily and emerald green, so beautiful it almost hurts the eyes. Finally I found a backpacker free swimming hole for a brief dip.

The eighteen mile challenge was a success. It's not 100. It's not a race. It doesn't make any difference to anyone but me that I did it. And that's fine with me.

Friday, August 6, 2010

the junket, part 2

Day one. I head out on the west fork wallowa trail. I've hiked and run the first several miles so often that I walk in a dream state. I pass two parties the entire ten miles. It is a blissful sunny day.

I check out the outfitter camp at seven mile, take notes, and move on. The water crossing is high. I have to put on sandals and pole my way across. This last quarter mile is breathtaking: high white walls, tumbling waterfalls, a profusion of flowers.

Frazier Lake lies sparkling in the sun, deserted save for two men, a chatty older one who says I am the best looking person he's seen all day (but the only one) and his bored-looking middle-aged son. I spin the ranger spiel, but they seem like low-impact campers, so I hunt for a site myself, finally settling on one hidden back by the outlet stream.

I walk around the lake collecting micro-trash. Several more campers arrive, plopping down in a row next to the lake. My usual swim is thwarted so I hike up to a small tarn still half-covered in snow and dart in to the icy water.

Some Boy Scouts appear and ask if this is Frazier Lake. I head back to my camp but soon decide to take an evening stroll up to Upper Frazier, where I have never been. The water crossings are high and scary but I talk myself through them. Committed, I reach the lake, a small bowl of blue nestled below Hawkins Pass. It's beautiful, but two campers are huddled miserably in their rain gear due to mosquitoes.

Heading down, I take a cross country route to avoid the water crossings and congratulate myself on still having route-finding skills. At the lake, some Scouts are swimming, others fishing. A few campfires blossom despite the heat.

I run out of reading material and drift off to sleep.

I'm on the trail at six, a delightful time to hike. It is still cool and nobody else is stirring. I don't see any people until the Ice Lake junction, where I encounter a man and two kids. They carry only one small pack but claim to be bound for Ice Lake, a sixteen mile day hike. In shorts and tennies. I wish them luck and move on.

Near the trailhead I come upon a pack string and ask where they are headed. "Aneroid Lake!" the packer booms. Oops--they're on the wrong trail! I redirect them and they sheepishly turn around. At the trailhead more Boy Scouts are gearing up, grimly toting heavy loads.

A line of shiny cars bakes in the sun. I'm back, just in time for a staff meeting. My junket is over, for now.

Monday, August 2, 2010

the junket,part one

Back in Alaska, the fisheries folks would see us loading up our kayaks, packing our stuff in dry bags and toting our rifles down to the float dock. They would poke their heads out of their cubicles and ask where we were off to.

"Gonna paddle from Red Bluff to Gut Bay."

"Gonna kayak the Myriad Islands."

"Gonna go to White Sulphur hot springs."

"Oh, a JUNKET," they would sneer. Never mind that they commandeered the Ranger Boat for ten days of "creel surveys" (read: fly fishing) or that our "junkets" consisted of compiling huge loads of abandoned tarps, half-burnt cans, and other junk left behind; that we shivered in the rain and battled high seas; that we sweated while tearing down trespass cabins and spent hours placating outfitters upset about life's minor inconveniences. A junket it was!

All work trips involve some form of pleasure, whether it is floating on a sun-baked sea or leaping furtively into a mountain lake. You can perch on an immense granite boulder watching the moon peek over the mountain's shoulder. There are moments out in the big wild when you truly feel blessed to be there.

Let's hear it for junkets. They are needed when things get too much: when a random filmmaker, totally ignoring the fact that we say we need three weeks to process a film permit, shows up the day he wants to film. When someone wants access to a site and they want it now. When you have been working in a barn with several frustrated co-workers, one toilet, no fax, spotty internet and no printer; when you realize it is three in the afternoon and you haven't budged to exercise, visit the afore-mentioned toilet, or eat.

I am off for a junket tomorrow, to inspect an outfitter site. Necessary? Maybe not. Maybe I should labor seriously on my environmental analyses, prepare my list of lost items for the attorneys, and choke on dust from the vehicles rolling by. But summer is passing by in a blur. Winter will be here soon, and junkets are severely limited.

Here's my challenge to you. One day this week, blow off responsibility. Chuck the chores! Do something to make your soul sing. Let others call it a junket. You know the real truth.