Thursday, March 31, 2011

leader of the pack


J doesn't like to advertise that his dogs are in fact wolfdogs. There is so much fear and misinformation about these dogs, and right now in this county, the debate over wolves is escalating to a serious level.  And these dogs are a nebulous mix of other breeds and since two were rescue dogs, the actual percentage is unknown. We don't know where they came from or what they knew before this. We know some of it was not good. Sometimes they look at me with sweet, sad eyes and I wish they could say.

One way in which they differ from other dogs is that they are definitely a pack. Where one goes, the others follow. You can't just take one for a hike. You have to take all of them. Which limits the backpacking opportunities. They also don't like to be very far from J. He is their pack leader and he can only go a certain distance only known to them before they get anxious and need to chase after him.

I have learned a lot from these dogs. Mostly I have learned optimism. They wake up happy, whether they have to spend the day in the yard or get to go out and play. I've learned acceptance: they adopted me into their pack without reservation. Cale, the big white one, comes and checks on me when I am out in the woods by myself. Though I will never know, I like to think he is making sure I am all right.

I've learned to live with a little--okay, a lot--of dog hair over everything, because the reward is floppy dog rugs to lie my head on, to wrap my arms around and feel a beating heart. I've learned to adapt: if I want to hike in the canyon but there are rattlesnakes, I can go somewhere else and be just as glad.

It's a package deal, J and the dogs. He likes to joke that since he couldn't find a girlfriend who would stick, he kept getting dogs. He says that if something happened to me, he'd probably get another dog. He can't even look at the wolfdog rescue pages; it breaks his heart because he wants to save them all.

In a perfect world, breeders wouldn't try to create these breeds. It takes the right person to care for them. When these dogs howl, it is a beautiful sound, tinged with wilderness. You know that a different song runs through their heads than your average dog. I love them dearly.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

five year plan

Crikey! I had a photo essay all written and my photos don't show up on the post when I publish it. So until I figure it out you get a photo-less post all about me, me, me!

I was sitting in my cube at the cube farm, my stomach a clenched fist. I had been visited by one of the screamers, who wanted to know why I wasn't doing things differently. The budget had hit an all time low, and we didn't even have money to buy toilet paper for our campgrounds. I was assailed by various co-workers, all of whom fervently believed that their project should be my number one priority. My head pounded. My stomach churned.

Then it hit me. It does not have to be this way. No, I can't just up and move, my usual solution in times of distress. Witness a recent conversation:

Me: "Soooo. We're going to live here the rest of our lives, aren't we?"
J (deer in headlights look): Uhhh...

So. I fell in love with a homesteader. But, I thought, why not just get out early? Is it really worth the extra $1000, $2000,$3000 a year to grimly stick it out in full-time employment until age 62? How much is your free time worth? Thus, the five year plan, which is:

1. Work grimly for five more years. This is when I can receive a tiny annuity, heavily penalized.
2. Skip out a free woman.

In  the meantime I plan to sell the cabin in 2013 and put as much into retirement savings as possible. If I can pull this off, I will write full time, hike, ski, and live frugally. I'm very excited. Hold me to it, you guys. Make me leap.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

camping in the rain

This backpacking season is off to a slow start. There is only a small window between snow and ice in the canyon and virulent poison ivy, a multitude of ticks and oppressive heat. That window is March and April, two months of sun-drenched, rolling green hills and sandy river beaches. Soon that window will slam shut. So why am I not packing my backpack?

The word that dares not speak its name. But starts with an R.

I've spent many nights shivering under a tarp, many days plodding through sodden territory, days when water pockmarked the ocean as we kayaked, so much fog and rain that it felt like we were in a bowl of water. Rain is part of the experience, and as we used to say in Southeast Alaska, there is no such thing as bad weather, just inadequate gear. There, we did everything in the rain, because it basically hardly ever stopped.

Here's Annie in a survival suit and hard hat to ward off the rain, near Dry Pass.

A little bit of rain in the forecast doesn't deter me. I'm not that much of a wimp. It's the "rain, heavy at times" that I am no longer in love with. As a kayak ranger I camped grimly through gales, torrential rains and fog. I don't need to prove my toughness anymore.

Our rain-soaked camp on one of the Myriad Islands. Feet wet the first day=feet wet the whole time. We had  a tarp just for our gear and tarps over our tents.
At the same time, I don't want to become so soft that any inclement weather makes me stay home. It's a fine line between misery and acceptance of the fact that it is NOT always sunny in Philadelphia. Or the mountains. Or the ocean.

Even an overcast day can be hauntingly beautiful.
It's about developing a level of tolerance, a line in the sand. Last year during the Amazing Snow Dump of August, we bailed early from the mountains. Other times I've stuck it out, enjoying the moody interchange of clouds and sun. It's about my new philosophy: do what I want, not what I think I should do. There are no wrong answers in the outdoors. The only wrong thing is not to get out there. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

dolce far niente

When I was training for my marathons, life was pretty simple. Everything revolved around the schedule. Horizontal rain, forty degrees, gale winds? Time for an eighteen miler! Nice, rare sunny day and Laura was out in her kayak? Too bad, this was the day slotted for a pace run. In the Alaska darkness I treadmilled around the track, intent on my speedwork.

Now that I am only training for life, things are a bit more disorganized. It's hard not to wake up and roll into a ball of anxiety: mustexercisetodaywhat?Hikerunskipilatesyoga? Oh crap haven't been to the gym in ages! I only ran once this week! It was MUCH easier when I was a mono-exerciser.The choice was: Run.

Because there are no benchmarks, such as the first time you run for two hours and survive, I find myself second guessing my choices. Is a walk enough? Maybe I should run another mile. This ski, is it raising my heart rate enough?

Which of course defeats the purpose and makes it a lot like work. One of the reasons I don't run marathons or race at all is to be free of training tyranny. To be able to do what I feel like. But the opposite side of that freedom is obsession. Without race times to measure myself against, how do I know if I am staying in shape? Must do more!

I need to get better at dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing. Well, not nothing. That's not me. But in listening to my body, which is an old hand at this. Maybe it wants to stroll. And that's okay, as long as I make up for it another day.

With that in mind, I headed out on the Chief Joseph Trail. I knew I couldn't cross the waterfall, so that would keep me from mindlessly  pressing onward. It felt strange at first. There had been some slowshoers on it and it was nice and packed down. I should be running! I berated myself. But the trees were iced over with frosting, the trail a soft hush, the river a distant murmur. Dolce far niente. I took pictures.I tried to silence the voice in my head, the Coach that likes to drive me onward.

Dolce far niente. I trudged at a walker's pace. Far below the lake shimmered in the pale sun. Tracks skittered across fresh snow. In a second, the mountains changed their minds: a curtain of snow dropped past the sun, snow sugared my hair. Winter was back.

Dolce far niente. The waterfall was a silver braid, disappearing under a mound of snow and ice. I tentatively stepped out onto a rock. It was slick and dangerous. I stared longingly at the trail on the other side of the crossing. If I made it I could hike for hours up the flanks of the mountain, get a really good workout in.

My boots slipped on the rocks. I could probably do it, I thought, scamper across and be fine. But maybe this was enough. Every day did not have to be gulped down, measured by a certain amount of miles. This, I could savor.

Dolce far niente. I turned back. And it was sweet.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Riding on the back of the Snake

I pulled rank today and invited myself along on a jet boat trip up Hells Canyon to look at a trail that is sluffing off into the river. I was in dire need of a day outside, away from the Budget of Despair, the NEPA document of Ambiguity and the Outfitter Permits of Monotony. It was a drizzly day but I snapped so many photos that John called me a tourist. The stats:

160 river miles: Clarkston to Kirkwood
Wildlife: Bald eagles, deer, bighorn sheep (lots), elk, otters
Backpackers: one bunch
Boats: Two
Person who was improbably from the last small town in Alaska where I lived: One

It was a grey and drizzly day so no spectacular photos, but our spirits were undampened as we headed upriver.
I was unreasonably fascinated by a small enclave of private homes upcanyon. Only access is by jetboat or helicopter.
We took a side trip up the Salmon River to the first rapid.
The lovely rolling Snake.

We stopped to admire some pictographs at Buffalo Eddy.

Many creeks (and large rivers like the Salmon) flow into the Snake. Here's Cherry Creek.

another view of the little and not-so-little private houses. There was a hot springs near these. Yes, I was jealous.

We stopped to assess trail damage above Kirkwood.

The river wild.

The view from the River trail. Oregon on river left, Idaho right.

Looking upriver into the unknown.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

these little earthquakes

Of course, what's happening in Japan is tragic. But what I don't understand is why people feel so surprised and betrayed when the earth moves.

Maybe if you live in a city, you don’t see it, but the evidence of violence is all around us. This is a restless planet, crisscrossed with fault lines. The tectonic plates shift uneasily beneath us. Hulks of ancient and not-so ancient volcanoes loom over us. The lakes basin I walk through, the product of an immense hunk of ice. Wind, wave, earth, nothing is stable. The more astonishing thing is that it does not happen more often.

It’s the same with the little earthquakes of our lives. Sometimes, without warning, fractures appear, cracks in a relationship, a family, a friendship. This is the unmapped terrain of the heart, a place where we sail bravely, expecting people to be perfect, a relationship to be smooth as glass. Until it isn’t and we feel the same sting of betrayal.

Mount Mazama ash, deposited hundreds of miles away on a trail I hiked yesterday.

As I fumble toward commitment to a place and a person, it’s inevitable that fissures and shocks can occur. Like the people I shared a meeting with in an earthquake, it’s not always clear how to react. Stay inside under a desk, hoping it will go away? Run outdoors and look up to the debris falling? Patch it together and keep going?

Hells Canyon, carved out by a persistent river.

There’s no bitter story here, no sudden revelations. It’s just that the two recent earthquakes have caused me to think about this. I have a marriage in the books that was eroded more like slow rain and river than by a sudden eruption. Now, embarking on another one, I wonder how we will weather our own storms. Can anyone really be prepared for an earthquake?

The answer of course is in how you respond. I think of Roger, making the doomed decision to let another firefighter share his shelter during a firestorm, one that neither man survived. My friends, battling cancer in the trenches right now, their fates uncertain. The ones who did not make it but passed on with grace. All our brave, fragile ships out there searching for calm water.

Peace to those in Japan and Christchurch.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Men I Left Behind... the title of an essay I wrote that will appear in the anthology Permanent Vacation (Bonafide Books) that comes out in May! Though I have had several essays published before, I am seriously excited about this one. The anthology is about living and working in national parks, something I did for years and years and still get nostalgic about sometimes. There was something fresh and exhilarating about moving every six months, most often headed into the unknown, to a new park, a new state where I had never been. I couldn't wait to explore the mountains and the rivers of my adopted place. It turned out not to be just parks, either, but national forests and refuges too.

Doing so however meant leaving people behind, friends I camped and hiked with and good and no-good men too. Leaving was always a toss-up: was I making the right decision? Was I leaving behind the one, the only man who would ever get it? (No.) Would I ever come back to this trail, this view? (Sometimes.) Would I look back, years and years later, and never regret every single step along the way? (Yes!)

I can't reproduce the essay here (you will have to buy the book!) but I can reminisce on a few characters, male and female, who made driving away not so easy.

TP  Man, the first one I left behind, an island dweller, a bicycle rider, a poet but a man of few words. Sitting with him on  a bluff overlooking a big blue lake, watching the sun drop soundlessly into the indigo, someone unseen coming out and playing a flute: Best. Date. Ever.

The Sawtooth Valley Gang, a rowdy bunch of trail beasts and wilderness rangers, who were my first adult family. We were like long lost brothers and sisters, sleeping in bags watching meteor showers, soaking in hot springs in frosty October, howling at the moon.

Cute smokejumpers one and two, it never worked out for us, but I loved your energy, your shaggy-haired enthusiasm and your grace. Keep one foot in the black, guys.

Jack T, Cindy and I trailed you like puppies while you showed us how to determine a hazard tree. You were like a substitute grandpa, but cooler, because you knew how to climb trees. You called us Hank and Sam because you didn't want to slip up in front of your wife, who would be insanely jealous knowing you worked with two long-haired twenty-somethings. Cindy told me you died of lung cancer, but I don't really believe it. I can still see you pondering a tree up Mineral King way.

And then there's Alaska, beautiful, moody Alaska, not a person but a place, but just as memorable and with just as much personality. I left you for the sun, but I can't lie, I miss paddling out in Sitka Sound, rafts of otters tagging along, the sharp-edged mountains etched against a forbidding sky.

There's lots more, but it isn't good to look back for too long. It prevents me from loving where I am now, this bright canvas, this place that I never want to see in  a rear view mirror. My wandering days were so rich, so abundant with people and places. Even though this life prevented me from holding down a regular job until my thirties, battered my knees, and sometimes made me cry, it turned me into the person I am now. Someone who has been everywhere and knows where she wants to be. Right here.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


I never, ever saw myself as the marrying kind. As a little girl I dreamed about the white puffy dress, but the actual groom's face was obscured and the marriage itself hazy. As I grew older I preferred to stay single: my friends seemed locked in, unable to leave for six months in Antarctica or even a backpacking trip without the support and approval of a spouse. When I started fighting fire, the thought of marriage retreated even farther into impossibility. Very few men seemed capable of having a wife dash into the house, grab her gear and be gone for three weeks, often far up on a mountain with nineteen other men.

And I was independent, I told myself. I wanted to move every six months. I wanted to be more like a river than a mountain. I wanted no dependents, no lingering guilt, no choices but the ones I made myself. I didn't want to need anyone.

Still, one day I stood on the banks of a whitewater river, aimlessly talking to a woman who was waiting for her husband to bring his boat down to the take-out. "I finally found my outdoor companion," she said. I wanted that too.; someone who loved the wilderness as much as I did but who also understood that I needed the freedom of going alone sometimes. Someone who had his own wilderness, so to speak. Our lives would intersect at the important places and spiral away too, always returning, a circle. Two people, not one. Two wholes, not two halves of a whole. That is the only way I could imagine it.

I am still learning that balance. It didn't work in my first, brief marriage, for a variety of reasons too sad to enumerate. Living in a small town alone makes you vulnerable to red-flag blindness; you can be so lonely that they can be waving high and you can escape them completely. My ex husband did not love or need wilderness or understand why place was more important than career ladder. Our trails never intersected.

In July I will marry again, to someone who loves mountains and snow and rivers. We'll hike up to the moraine above Hurricane Creek to a place where we can see Sacajawea's white crown. It will be simple. No puffy dress. A potluck and friends with guitars later. The way I should have done it the first time.

I never thought I would get married again, but here is the moment when I thought I might: I wanted to apply to a remote writing residency. It was surrounded by wilderness, seven months long, a day's drive from here, no communication except for a radio telephone. I enthused at length about all the writing I could do in this setting.

Most men might have done one of the following, since we had only been dating a couple of months.: 1) run for the hills; 2) blubber about how this would affect their lives.

But not J. His first response was this: "I will miss you terribly. But I will do whatever I can to help."

Readers, I'm going to marry him.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

pushing a sofa uphill

Ever have this feeling? Lately everything has felt extra hard. Instead of feeling like this:

I feel like this:

 Every run feels like I am pushing a sofa uphill. Skiing is marginally better. I force myself out there, but it just. Is. Not. Fun. And the writing? Horrible. I struggle with sentences, ponder paragraphs. Nothing is smooth, it is all a rough surface, a slog.

This could be attributed to the fact that it's March. March truly is a cruel month. Yesterday it was sixty degrees. Today it is snowing. This bipolar weather leaves me feeling unsettled and off my game. It leads to eating chocolate with abandon, throwing clothes around the room because nothing looks good, and a general feeling of dissatisfaction. Just pick a temperature and stick with it! March also seems to bring out the crazies, the exes that you just wish would disappear because they still do not get how they broke your heart and went whistling away, and the haunting desire to chuck it all and move to an island in Greece even though your government retirement would end up being about $300 a year.

I don't get why some days, the running/skiing/hiking/writing is effortless and others when it is so awful that you want to throw in the towel and go back to being a seasonal wilderness ranger because that was the best job ever, who cares if you have to live in a dingy bunkhouse with mice and eat Ramen Noodles! All I can do is push through it because I know it comes back.

I am going to try the following:

1. Cookies. I know! I know! But in moderation.
2. Buy something cute. I know! (See above)
3. Read my John Muir Trail guidebook and obsessively plan for a trip that's over a year away.
4. Plan a fall trip and figure out how to drag reluctant husband on it.
5. Speaking of, I'm getting married in four months and have not planned a thing.
6. Write something. Anything but the Novel of Despair.

So tell me. What do you do when this happens to you (and I sincerely hope I am not the only one)? What are your favorite cures?