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.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Dear MetLife

Dear MetLife,

Why, oh why do you persist in ignoring me? Where are my payment coupons? My options for paying electronically? Instead you cash my checks without a word. You file away the notes I write you for loan #2620059988 (or something like that. How would I know?). Am I just a number to you as well?

You see, MetLife, buying a house again was a big deal for me. I've always been a mobile sort, a tent dweller. One foot in the next place. Buying a house was sort of an eddy, a surrender to the sedentary. Besides, remember my last house? That all ended in recrimination, in dividing up our two matching sleeping bags, separating out what each had brought on this sinking ship, and an equally sinking realization that during the marriage, we had kept our things labelled "mine" and "yours." That a dream we had was irrevocably lost?

So buying a house again was huge, MetLife! It was a leap of faith. It was the hope that even having a mortgage and a backpack were compatible. That I could be tethered but still free to fly.

Know what I mean, MetLife? I love this cabin, I really love it. It is exactly the place I always wanted to live in: the honey-colored logs, the skylights, the sunroom. No more stifling rancher houses! This one wraps its arms around you. Yes, the neighbor watches my lawn closely. Mike across the street has a noisy five am truck. The yard needs some grass reduction.

Now don't think I'm not grateful. You picked up this loan when nobody else would, simply because it was a "unique property." I like to think we understand each other, that we don't go for the boring. That we take risks.

Right now my backpack rests by the front door, waiting to be unpacked and packed again. It's working out, MetLife. I don't think about moving on, not too much anyway. The current is not carrying me away like it usually does.

Be a pal, MetLife. Drop me a line. Let me know my pay-off date. My interest paid to date. A welcome-to-the mortgage card. Anything! I'll be waiting.

Friday, September 3, 2010

the secret lives of botanists

If you have to be stuck out somewhere, let's hope a botanist is your companion. A few years ago Brad and I were irrevocably stuck at White Sulphur hot springs (and that is something else. If you have to be stuck out, pick a hot springs. Nobody will feel sorry for you, but it beats perching under a sagging tarp on a rock somewhere). Unlike other stuck-out companions, who paced and snarled and made impulsive plans to hike to saltwater without a map, Brad just shrugged and accepted the situation. He cheerfully carried gear back and forth between our cabin (yes, we actually had a cabin. It raised being stuck out to an art form) and the small lake where Hans the pilot was going to land. He consented to highly incriminating photos of him floating in the hot springs, absorbed in a Cosmo magazine that had been left behind by other campers.

I can't ever remember the names of plants, though I have worked with botanists often. I trailed after Brad as he bounded through the alpine. "Hey Brad, there's some of those fuzzy dudes over here," I yelled. When Kitty was diligently looking through her hand lens, I was more interested in jumping in a small alpine tarn. I amused Jerry by referring to a plant as a "five-o-clock". I don't really care what plants are called. I just like seeing them. But botanists care. Kitty once hauled a huge plant press down from a lake where she was stuck, miles and miles of scrambling over trailless terrain, when she could have cached it for future float plane retrieval. Brad endured gut-clenching plane rides to get to interesting habitat. And Jerry carries five pound plant books in his backpack, when the rest of us try to go light.

You have to love them in all their slightly geeky coolness. Botanists, soil scientists, anyone who actually gets down on knees and observes minutiae that the rest of us unthinkingly plod over. I am such a generalist, such a big-picture wilderness specialist, that the little pieces and parts that make up the whole often go by unnoticed.

In the company of botanists, I have learned that carrying an umbrella is actually not a dorky thing. It is perfect for cooking under in a light drizzle, for a quick nature's call, or to shade the sun when you are peering at plants. I have learned that one night of camping on grouse-whortleberry removes 50% of the vegetation. (Don't do it). I've experienced the heart-thumping thrill of helping find a plant that just may be a whole new species. I've found a new population of an endemic species on a ridge previously unknown. I've grown to appreciate tall white socks as protection from the elements.

Botanists--who knew? Hug one today.