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.