Sunday, February 27, 2011

In the Alive of Winter photo essay

I slog up the moraine, my snowshoes biting deep into the powder snow. Generations ago a glacier churned its way out of the mountains, carving out the bowl of Wallowa Lake and leaving this high lonesome plateau in its wake.

 It's about five degrees above zero and the snow is a carpet of diamonds winking in the sun.
The trees are heavy with unshed snow.
The deep canyons, grooves in the bedrock left from the glacier's passage, are shrouded in clouds. Back there, frozen lakes dream under the weight of the ice.

The lake is sandwiched between two moraines running north and south. They stretch the lake between them, remnants of the rock and soil picked up and bulldozed by the glacier as it travelled slowly through the landscape. You can see the history of how it moved, a moment frozen in time.

 I should turn back but the moraine beckons me forward.
 I stop and take stock of my surroundings. Nothing moves but the wind. The world is a heavy cloak of snow.
 The lake is a narrow ribbon. Blue water, white snow. The contrast is almost too much to take in.
 The water flows out to the Wallowa River, which flows to the Grande Ronde, which in turn flows into the Snake River, which flows into the Columbia, which ends up in the sea. Here, I am seeing the beginning of a journey.
I wonder for a time how I ended up here, from high desert to coastal rainforest, from southern swamp to Rocky Mountain. What bends in my life, like bends of a river, conspired to bring me here after years of wandering? Each eddy, each backwater, added up to me standing here, right now, on the back of what was carried here by a glacier. Forces stronger than I can imagine shaped this place. I am growing to see its story.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Heating with Wood

This is my storybook cabin.

I love, love, love this cabin. I could easily be a hermit.

See the pile of wood to the left? That is woodpile #3, the Big Guns. See,with Storybook Cabin comes very real Wood Heating.  The cabin has a wood stove and no other real heat source. I do have a couple of insufficient "wall heaters" that increase Pacific Power's cash flow, and some great ceramic heaters, but I don't have these on when I'm not home, for fear of being mentioned in the Police Blotter: "The fire appeared to have started from a space heater." So, my main source is wood. And when all is well, this is how it looks:

When all is not well, you have this:

Yes that is a down jacket and a frozen smile.

 I've heated with wood before. In Alaska it was a struggle because wood had to dry out for a year to really burn. Rain forest, remember? And unless you stumbled upon someone clearing a lot, gathering wood meant heading out in a boat to get some. Soon I gave up and resorted to the monitor stove.

Here, wood gathering is a recreational activity.Everyone keeps their sources close to the vest. When asked, they refuse to meet your eyes and mutter vaguely that they are cutting somewhere off the 39 road but that there isn't much left. Better go elsewhere, they advise.

So you cruise along on  a weekend that would be perfect for backpacking, darn it, to fill up a pickup and a trailer. Because others have been more diligent and not put it off until September, the easy pickings are gone. You have to scramble up hills, drop trees in the brush and throw rounds onto the road.  I help a lot by picking blueberries marking the rounds the right length (cause you don’t want them too big) and hauling them all over the place. Road, truck, out of truck to woodpile. It’s a lot of fun. It's also a lot of work, but a strange thing begins to occur: Wood Lust. No matter how much you get, you think you need more.  More, More, More! Until you run out of places to stack it.

The bad thing about heating with wood is that sometimes you are caught unprepared and have to dash out in the middle of the night in a robe to get more. It's freezing so you take a piece from any old place,which later causes the pile to become unbalanced and fall on your boyfriend when he is trying to be helpful and fetch you some. This does not help your relationship. Not that I have ever, ever done this.

 I'm almost done with Woodpile #1 which was easy splitting. Woodpile #2 is a bit farther away and tougher rounds, and then there’s #3, with really big rounds. It’s definitely a challenge to keep up with Storybook’s wood needs. But the truth is, despite the in-house down jacket wearing as the fire heats up, the constant fear of Lack of Kindling, and the woodpile trudging, there’s something I love about heating with wood. I love the radiant heat that comes with a good fire. I love the Caveman TV aspect of staring at the flames. I love the simple equation, fuel, oxygen, heat.

the cats like lying in front of it too.

I like relying on the forest to keep me warm. I feel more connected somehow to the outdoors. If it’s cold outside, I know it. If it’s warmer, I know that too. There's less of a distinction there. It's like living outside, but better.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

night flying

The thing about skiing in the dark is this: you have to believe. You have to trust your body's instinctual memory, trust your balance, trust that you know how to fly.

Skiing in the dark is like night flying. The light dims to a smoky blue, then fades. In the time before the moon rises to hang in the sky, all you see are faint outlines: the silhouettes of trees, the curve of the road, but most of it is by feel. You hear the differences in the snow as your skis pass through; the crusty places where the sun has lingered, soft powder where it hasn't. Every little thing is magnified: the swish of skis, the chuckle of the river, your breath.

I don't remember when I stopped trusting in the night. Years ago our small initial attack crew prepared to leave an escaped campfire as darkness fell. We had been at it all day, snuffing out the embers that sprawled lazily in a patchwork of glowing orange. Our work was not quite done, but our sleeping bags and food were back at the Pavement Puppy, our low rider white Ford, three miles away. As Jack and I started to turn on our headlamps, Young Mike stopped us. "Let's hike out in the dark," he said. "Our feet know how to do this."

Skeptical, we followed, the flat pane of the lake we rounded turning opaque as the first stars pricked the night. It felt strange to hike by night, and foreign, but soon I discovered Mike was right. My feet figured it out, navigating easily on the rocky trail with a confidence I never had in daylight, when I was focused on avoiding obstacles. We flew down the trail much faster than ever before.

Years later I have lost some of the trust I used to have. Trust in balance, trust that all will turn out fine. It wasn't just skiing. Maybe it was when Roger died on a fiery mountain and I realized: we won't always make it out alive.Maybe it was the long rehab back from knee surgery and the unsettling knowledge that youth and marathons are now limited. I can't say for sure when things turned from a careless belief that I would never be lost, never lose someone important, never be afraid.

 Sometimes now I focus on what could go wrong: what if it's icy under this snow? What if a tree is submerged under this snow and I face plant? What if, what if, all the unseen dangers that lurk beneath. I have grown used to seeing the upcoming hazards and worrying about them. There's a stream to cross. There's a big hill to go down with skinny skis I can't quite control. What to do, how to control the uncontrollable.

Here's the only pic I got of the recent eclipse.
But in the end it is just night skiing, on a snowy road. Jerry is up ahead, skijoring with his dogs. He has his headlamp on.

In the dark, I give myself up to it, trust, believe. My skis find the track somebody has broken a few hours before. I learn the road the way I never do in daylight, feel the curves, loosen the tug of  awareness, and just fly.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

ski walking

I wander through the snow looking for a blue diamond. Somewhere far below the surface are my skis, though I have lost sight of them as soon as I turned off the backcountry skier path and onto unmarked terrain. The snow, a powdery soft blanket, is up to my knees. The hillside booms as the snow settles--a classic avalanche warning, but I am safe down in the trees.

Life in a mountain town changes when it snows. For a long time we have been in the throes of a disturbing spring, way too soon for the skiers, who have turned sullen at every degree rise in temperature. They curse the sun, mope around the pub, comfort themselves with pints of Total Domination IPA. The hikers try to push the season, but the trails are off limits, washed down with a glossy layer of ice impervious to microspikes and yaktraks alike.

And then it snowed. The skiers are enlivened. They suddenly fall ill with a mysterious flu that forces them to miss work. Trucks and Subarus rumble out of town, headed for the mountains.

Today I am ski walking, pushing my skis through untracked snow. I don't glide at all. It is breaking trail at its finest, plowing snow like a boat wake. The world is a hushed bowl of white, the only sound my breath. I push my poles deep into bottomless powder. For a moment I am lost in foggy white, the trail shrouded in snow. This is a watchout situation, I think. One hour until dark, no headlamp, no pack. But then I turn and see it, a blue diamond, and I remember: the trail winds its way downhill here.

My skis are under here, but I'm not sure where.

The Hill of Death, which I normally rocket down on a wing and a prayer, hoping to somehow get lucky and make the sharp turn, is slow today. My skis barely move. I am walking, swimming in slow motion.

When I reach the path where the backcountry skiers have skinned along, I can glide, but barely. I ski all the way to the bottom of the slope and to the Canal Road, normally a journey undertaken with a shaky snowplow and fear of falling. It was not fast today. In contrast it was a long slow slog. But as I trek up to the pickup I am smiling. Winter is back. Why else would you live in a mountain town in February?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

the hills are alive, with the sound of..chainsaws?

Last week at work I was visited by two men who are enroute to plead their case with a Congressman. They want the Wilderness Act amended, or in some other way force us to agree to the temporary use of chainsaws to log out the wilderness trails. If they got this pushed through, they say, they would "help" us, a chainsaw army of citizens! Of course, the option to use a crosscut saw is always out there for them, but in this they are not interested. This Chainsaw Rebellion makes me a little nervous.

There are those who belong to the "You don't hear it, it didn't happen" school of thought. Sort of the wilderness version of don't ask, don't tell. Just do it when the visitors aren't around! End result? The trails get cleared faster. Instant gratification! Nobody has to sweat on the hard end of a misery whip. Who cares if only a few old men know how to sharpen one anymore? Open trails! No waiting!

I can't help but think of the men who wrote the Wilderness Act, all men of a certain age who had come to adulthood before helicopters, before saws, a much different world. All around them they saw places they had played in as children disappearing, woods cut over, the constant drone of mechanization taking over those lovely dark, secret places. They believed in not just the physical wilderness but the spirit of it. A snapshot of the world that was, before it got bulldozed, hacked at, tilled over, smothered under layers of human made sound. It is that spirit that is hard to explain to people like my visitors. A touch feely Barry Manilow-esque rant does nothing for them. They want access. My continued clinging to what many believe is an obsolete, back-breaking, outdated way of doing things does not make sense. We have become so used to replacing things, making our lives less difficult. Who wants to work hard when you don't have to?

I for one need places that are hard to reach. Places that are scary. Places where your cell phone doesn't work. Places where you have to ford streams in sandals, holding your breath from cold and current. Places where god forbid you actually have to work at it a little. Climb over a tree or two, confront the result of winter storms, get a little irritated, figure things out.  Places you return from thinking that you have accomplished something. We aren't doing people any favors by making things easy in wilderness. Our lives are easy enough. That's why we have to go to the gym.

No excuses! My partner on the misery whip is 70 years old.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I hike alone

(Sung to the tune of "I drink alone"by George Thorogood)

I hike alone
Yeah, with nobody else
I hike alone
Yeah with nobody else
You know when I hike alone,
I prefer to be by myself

The other day I got invited hiking
But I went alone instead
Just me and my pal Green Backpack
and my wool hat on my head
and we hiked alone...

I crack myself up sometimes. But seriously. The same trail can be very different whether you hike alone or in a group. In a group, you give up some things. Independence. Your own pace. The freedom to flop in a meadow and stare. You have to hang around the car freezing as Mr. Methodical stretches, adjusts his pack, or debates over clothing. You have to shoulder the uneasy burden of watching out for slower companions, or in turn, to your chagrin, become a slower companion as you bound after a Freak of Nature. Sometimes, though, the stars align and you light upon the perfect trail soulmate, someone who floats along on your wavelength. You share chocolate. You gasp at the same views. You both jump into the lake.

Hiking alone sometimes is the way to go, though, and I choose it often. It is a meditative experience, a time to write a chapter in my head, a time to think through things, to come up with plans. Something knotted unravels,a long golden strand of random thoughts that flows through my mind. I think about everything, all those things I never have time for during a normal day. With my feet, I figure things out. I have mended broken hearts, hiking alone. I have made big leaps of faith in the future. With every solitary footstep on the trail, with each mile unwinding in my own, perfect pace, I have begun to listen to my inner voice, the one I hid for so long, the one I didn't trust.

I have a friend who is turning forty. Forty! She weeps. It seems impossible, horrible, her life over. What I want to tell her is this: Go for a long hike. Hike for days if you can. Ford streams. Cross fallen logs. Sit in the golden hour when the pale pink blush of sky kisses the tallest peak you can see. Go alone.  Let the silence knit into your skin like an invisible sweater. When you come back, forty won't seem so insurmountable.

My whole family done give up on me

And it makes me feel oh so bad
The only one who will hang out with me
Is my dear old Thermarest pad
And we hike alone, yeah
With nobody else
Yeah, you know when I hike alone
I prefer to be by myself

Sunday, February 6, 2011

loving aluco

I sit on the porch, waiting. It could go either way, but today is a good day: Aluco steps toward me and lightly touches me with his black nose. Slowly I extend my hand and pet him gently. Any suddden movement will cause him to bolt. He seems to like the petting, but won't put up with it for too long. He backs away, watching me intently.

His history is unknown, but it is obvious that he is a large part timber wolf. He has a sweeping tail, long legs and coarse brown fur shot through with gold. When Jerry first rescued him from a shelter, he had to be drugged to be put in the pickup. He was moved around in his pen with a long stick of some sort. Even now he hates it when I ski behind him; my poles spook him.

Jerry spent hours with him, sleeping on the porch at night for months, taking him on walks. But Aluco will never be the same kind of dog as the others, who freely tolerate me using them as a pillow and who flop onto the bed. Aluco keeps a distance, wary, afraid.

The dog reminds me of myself before I moved here. He is torn between wanting love but fearing it. He hovers around the outskirts, watching but unable to commit to being inside, to being hugged, to being loved. He only approaches when something inside of his brain tells him it is safe, but he is always alert for any sign of danger.

I was the same way. I was an independent soul, used to going it alone. The thought of letting someone in terrified me; it was a risk I was unwilling to take. Just like Aluco, I had built my wall stone by stone, by each person who vanished citing "It's not you, it's me. Wait--it really is you."  A couple of men I cared about beat feet either mentally or physically, leaving me confused. It was better, I thought, to keep a distance.

So I see myself  in Aluco, part wolf, part dog, two sides at odds with each other. Like him, I have come a long way. A sapphire ring glints on my finger, a symbol of something I would never even have considered a year ago. But like the dog, I know that ultimately I rely on myself. I will never be one of the women who thinks a man completes them. I complete myself, thank you very much.

There are times when I really wish Aluco was a different kind of dog. I really want to lay my head on his side and listen to him breathe. I want to know he loves me. I want him to know how much I love him. It makes me sad that he won't know the comfort and safety the other dogs do, lying sprawled by the fire, tails thumping. But on the other hand, maybe Aluco likes it that way. He likes the little spark of wildness that comes with his heritage. He likes being the one to choose when he can be touched.

Of course I will never know, and what I am learning is to take Aluco for who he is, a complex, mysterious and beautiful being who runs along behind me in the woods, a foot in two worlds.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ghosts on the trail, part 2

Last night Amy called with the news that Chris was gone. I wrote about him in my December post, Ghosts on the Trail. I am sad beyond reason, since I hardly knew Chris at all. We only went on one backpack trip, and that was years ago. But we were bound by an invisible tie, the tie of all hikers. Once you have set your boots on a trail with someone else, it binds you in a way that is different. Unique. Undescribable, really, unless you are a hiker and know what I am talking about.

On this hike on the Florida Trail, Chris had enough personality for all of us. He brimmed over with enthusiasm. He marveled at the night sky, at the ankle-deep water on the trail, and at our inability to pack light (Did I mention we brought potatoes? Potatoes for backpacking!).

He will never have to experience what the rest of us will: the gradual decline we fight against, the creaky knees, the packs that get heavier the older we get. He will always be young to me, the big guy with the bandana around his head, bounding down the trail, looking for the elusive markers. Still, it isn't fair that a brain tumor robbed him of the chance to hike more trails, to leave more friends in his wake.

The mark of a person is the ghost they leave behind. Even years after that hike, I remember Chris with a clarity that is unusual. I have forgotten so many people, but never the ones I hiked with, never Chris. In the end, something will always stop our hike. It doesn't matter what it is. In the end, if I can leave behind a handful of memories for those who hike on, like a scattering of jewels on a mountain, I will believe I did okay.

Hike on, Chris. I'll see you on the other side.