Saturday, May 28, 2011

Trail Sense

"Either you have it or you don't," John said. We stood on a grassy knoll, searching for remnants of trail tread. Far, far below the muddy Snake River rolled, chewing away at the banks. An abandoned line shack, a relic of the sheep herding days, sat among the whispering grass.

He was talking about trail sense, the ability to read the landscape like a map and figure out where a trail should pass through. The ability to find old sections of trail and where to build new ones so they flow through, not fight, the country.

In Hells Canyon many of the trails are no longer used. They were built from the high places, down through the benches and eventually to the Snake. Heat that presses like the palm of a hand, breathtaking elevation change, the disappearance of the grazing allotments and the growing unwillingness of people to get out and exercise have all conspired to hide these trails. Built on open slopes, the bunchgrass has grown in--"Haired in" as John called it--and it is anybody's guess of the actual trail location. The maps are often wrong. It takes trail sense to find them.

We combed through a vast, open country. What I love about the canyon is how big the landscape is and how small it makes me feel. There is something I like about being humbled by sky. All of your problems and heartaches seem insignificant. Standing there I realize the bare bones of importance--clean water to drink, clean air to breathe, big swatches of country wild enough to hold all of us.

John has trail sense. He spent several minutes searching the tall grass and found ancient switchbacks. We dropped steeply to Salmon Bar, going from winter to summer in a few hours.

I'm not sure about my own trail sense. I am more likely to be seduced by a game trail or an interesting feature on the landscape. I have been momentarily lost in the canyon, confused by its many wrinkles. Instead of looking back the way I  have come, I look forward, wanting to know what lies ahead.

What I do know is this: Loving Hells Canyon is like loving a difficult but fascinating man. Exasperating, perplexing, and strangely wonderful. It hides its secrets--its old trails, its line shacks, its precious water--and it takes patience and trail sense to find them all. I hope I never find everything.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

I went backpacking. In my sandals.

Over the years, I've forgotten many things on a backpack trip.  Tent stakes, necessitating emergency rocks and sticks. Mosquito repellent in the Everglades. Tent poles, forcing an improvised bivy sack. The fact that the tent I was bringing had a missing pole. A book, on a solo 5 day wilderness ranger hitch. Even a sleeping bag on a rainy, cold kayak trip that I shudder to remember. But I've never forgotten boots.

In all fairness, I'm not completely clueless. I had thought I was going to drive in my truck, so I put on my Merrell, at least ten year old, sandals for the drive, and thought I would just put on boots when I got to the trailhead. However, all five of us fit in Tami's truck, so I merrily threw my pack in and thought nothing of it.

Until we pulled into the small parking lot. A horrible feeling began to well through my body. My boots! Where were my boots?

Back at the truck, an hour and a half away, of course!

This trip had been planned a long time. I was going with four wonderful women who, unbeknownst to me, were hiking in tent decorations, a huge box of wine, and gifts. It was a bachelorette backpack! I couldn't back out. And I didn't want to: it was sunny and beautiful, several thousand feet and many miles removed from the dreary, cold spring we are having "up top."

Okay! So I would hike in sandals! After all, people are doing the barefoot thing, I would be right in style.

Note to self: If you do decide to attempt this again, wear socks. On the way in, my toes slipped and slid and became mud-covered. I got a lovely rub mark too. And came uncomfortably close to many poison ivy plants with my little feet. We hiked 12 miles total, next to the river. Merrell, your sandals rock!

But believe it or not, it can be done! It was a fabulous hike.(On the way out I wore socks. Much better).

Saturday, May 21, 2011

the trails are opening up!

I have waited six long months for my favorite trail to be free of snow. I took a scouting hike on it yesterday

The water in Hurricane Creek is so clear it doesn't look real.

Somewhere up there is the mysterious Deadman Lake. I'm heading there in August.

Sacajawea, this is the year I climb you.

Another great trail view of the mountains ahead.

The trail disappears into this massive slide about three miles up. It's going to take awhile for this to melt.
I am beginning to be touched with a bit of summer mania. It is so short here-three months if we are lucky-and there is so much to be done. Climb Eagle Cap and Sac. Find Hawk and Deadman Lakes. Camp in Copper Creek. Then there's all the swimming, trail running, kayaking, a trip to Banff, the Oregon coast......!

This is one of those times that I really wish I was lucky enough to not have to work!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Oh. The Horror.

The canyon has left me with a little gift.
Yes, the dreaded PI. I have escaped its clutches since my Florida swamp days, when Juls and I suffered through numerous bouts of it acquired during surveys of burn units and snagging. Back then we used to lather up with Technu, a viciously yellow fluid that was supposed to work. Sometimes it did. I recently read on the internet that Technu is very, very bad for your skin. We used to just about bathe in it. Oops.

I've also had poison oak, courtesy of a fire in California where we heedlessly grabbed dead-looking sticks. That warranted a trip to the hospital.

The worst of all was poisonwood, an entire tree so toxic that it kills its own leaves. All of us on the fire crew got it working in the Keys. Here it is:

Stay far, far away from this one.
That was so horrific that all of us sat miserably in the trailer provided for us by Everglades National Park, our arms pink from calamine lotion. Mike made up a song called "Calamine Jim" in honor of one of our workmates, based on the song "Big John." It started out, "Every morning at the trailer we'd see him arrive.." and the chorus was, of course, "Calamine Jim. Calamine Jim."

So the familiar itch brings back memories of those times. I've tried a few remedies so far. Baking soda toothpaste is the hands-down winner. But you can bet next time I will be carting the Technu.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

don't turn your back on the canyon

We staggered out of the canyon, having underestimated it yet again.

The main thing you can't forget about Hells Canyon is that you can't count on anything there. Can't count on there being water in the draws, can't count on the weather forecast being accurate, can't expect "just an eight mile backpack" to be easy.

What you can count on is this: a view so big that you can't describe it. You can't say how it makes you feel to look at the folds in the landscape falling steeply down to the Snake River,  rugged and wild and lonesome. Low scraps of fog haunting the buttes. The thirsty feeling both from draining your water dry but also the desire to keep going, to keep walking as long as you can to see where you end up. The canyon's like that.

Cale is ready to go. Finding good water for the dogs was a problem.

Our campsite above Eureka Creek. This is about a mile and a half above the Snake River. The Megamid was for cooking and for the dogs. They appreciated it because it rained all night.

We went exploring down Eureka Creek, finding an old cabin and foundations, also pit houses.

There's wolves in the canyon.

It was eighty degrees as we climbed into the canyon and about forty and hailing on top.

The fog in the canyon

The dogs were pretty tired after sixteen miles and four thousand feet elevation loss and gain

Know what this is? Stay far away.

The dramatic clouds right before a huge thunderstorm.

First light in the canyon.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

how to ride a mountain bike in a dress

For decades, I had a dark, shameful secret. A few observant people guessed. A few, very few people were told, when I could be sure they would not judge. I lived in fear of people finding out, almost as if I had committed a crime once and was living a secret life.

 My secret was, I never learned to ride a bike.

No point in going into the reasons. Just suffice to say that I eventually started believing that riding a bike just wasn't possible for me. It was something for other people. Once in awhile I could almost know what it would be like,almost like flying, I thought as Ed McGreevy gave me a ride on his handlebars on Mackinac Island years and years ago. But there was something wrong with me, I told myself. And I thought it was true.

When I moved here to this valley I began to question everything that I had previously thought was true. Maybe I could quit the road and live in one place forever. Maybe I could find love that lasted. Maybe I could publish a book. And maybe, just maybe I could ride a bike.

After all, I had taught myself to swim a few years ago, gutting it out in the pool hour after hour.  I had decided to learn and I had, despite the embarrassment of being passed in the lap lanes by just about everyone as I floundered through the water.

In the end it took about a week to teach myself how to ride. I refused to give up. I rode under cover of darkness. I slunk along farm roads. I still remember the moment, a little over a year ago, when I started to pedal.

I also started to cry. Because here was something I had wanted for so long but I had thought was not possible for me. Finally I could let my secret go. I could be like everyone else. And finally I got it. I understood what it was all about. It was a whole new world, one most people learn at 8, but what's a few decades?

This winter I rode my bike to work just about every day. Only two of us made it through the sleet and ice and snow while everyone else drove. I've ridden in heels, dresses and everything in between.

 I love it.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Writing like a fiend

I've been writing like a fiend, trying to revise my memoir of my traveling ranger days. This can be distressing because it means butt firmly planted to desk chair, something relatively hard for me to do. I did take a small break and ventured onto the lake:

But mostly I've been writing. Just for fun I compiled a list of thoughts that have been going through my head all day today and yesterday.

1. Look at those cute swimsuits at Athleta! Shouldn't be surfing. Get back to work.
2. Yum, chocolate almonds. I've almost eaten the whole bag. Won't be able to fit in cute swimsuits.
3. Oh, the cute neighbor is going somewhere! Where's he going?
4. I wonder what my friends are posting on Facebook.
5. This book blows. I'm hopelessly stuck.
6. Is that the Yard Nazi mowing?
7. Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.
8. I could really use a nap.
9. My house needs vacuuming in a big way.
10. Maybe I should try to cut my own bangs.
11. I really shouldn't have tried to cut my own bangs.
12. I feel kind of sick from all the almonds.
13. How will the ex feel about this chapter? Do I really care? No.
14. Maybe I should quit my job and be a seasonal in the Park Service again. It was really fun.
15. Hey, this book isn't all that bad. I'm a genius!

Here's enough news to keep me going: the anthology that my latest essay is in has come out. Check it out here:

Writing and wilderness don't always coexist very well. One is a sedentary pursuit, mostly spent in the head. The other takes me away from the house for hours but soothes my 40-hour-have-to-work soul. How to combine the two without cheating one? I haven't figured that out yet.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

the call of the canyon

I'm finished with winter. Like a lover I no longer need, I'm ready for winter to beat it. It persists, though, salt-shaker snow as recently as yesterday. The mountains are clouded over, unreachable. The wind bites through my coat. Like I said, I am finished.

Fortunately, I do not have to stay crushed in winter's icy grip. Here there is a choice: descend to the canyon and I did, to find where summer had gone. It's been around all along, down at the Snake River.

I don't know why the canyon has such a seductive hold on me. By any account, there are only a few weeks when it does not bake in the sun. It is a harsh place, full of rattlesnakes and ticks and waist-high poison ivy. The old sheep trails are being overtaken by non-native blackberry, making passage impossible.

But there's something about the place I like. It knows what toughness is all about. It can keep you on that edge--watching your step on the high rims, searching for hidden seeps in a dry ravine. I kind of miss that razor's edge I grew accustomed to in Alaska. Here it is again. It keeps me on my toes.