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?"