Friday, December 30, 2011

2012 outdoor goals

Let me emerge from remodeling to write a post about 2012 outdoor goals. (Actually, if I am honest, my husband has done most all of the remodeling. I just make decisions and write checks to pay for it. I did sand some tile, though.) We are fixing up my little cabin because the former owners did not like lighting or kitchens. (If you are reading this, former owners, I appreciate your small footprint, but my husband does not like cooking with a headlamp and I would like some counter space. Love the cabin though.)

But I digress. It's that time of year, right? I have already seen the Resolution People march resolutely into the gym. Unfortunately, they won't last, because it's better to exercise because you want to. That's why I like to say I am training for life, not for an event. It is great to know that you can kick it on a 16 mile hike without having to specifically train for it. So here goes, some outdoor (and one indoor) goal for 2012:

1. Hike the JMT. This is assuming that a) I get a permit; b) that everyone does not bail; c) I can figure out the complicated transportation logistics; and d) I can bear to drag myself away from my mountains during our short summer. But no worries! I have another plan in place. Plan B includes tracing out and doing some similar (but perhaps harder) long hike here, of at least 100 miles.

2. Finally make it to Deadman Lake, one of the few on the north side of the mountains that I haven't figured out how to get to. I won't be denied in 2012.

3. Run. I don't set goals for this because for so many years I defined my life by how fast and how far I ran. No more. But if all the stars align, do more long backcountry runs with my wonderful Nathan hydration pack.

4. Winter camp. I was all set to do this over the holidays but it...rained. I have spent many, many nights camping in that kind of weather. I want fluffy snow and a beautiful frozen lake, not slush and ice. Ugh!

5. DO MORE YOGA. Yoga on a sunny rock by a lake is the best.

6.  Speaking of lakes, jump into ten wilderness lakes. THAT is the best.

7. On a full moon, do one or all of the following: paddle Wallowa Lake. Sleep on top of Eagle Cap Peak. Ski. (obviously these are not on the same day)

8. Bike singletrack. Even if I have to walk down some of all of the hills. (The trails here are not for beginners)

9. Swim in tropical water. I know, I'm dreaming, but I can still include it.

10. And my indoor goal: Get the darn novel published. And, finish the firefighting memoir.

That's it! No marathons, no ultras, no freezing/scary/challenging races. I admire those who do those things and I love reading about them, but I have no trace of envy. For me, being outside is different. It's not that it doesn't include moments of exertion, fear, and the occasional desperate slog, because it does. But what I like is the spectrum, the long haul of it, each day its own mini-adventure, strung together without the worries of tapers and having to do a certain mileage. I like choosing to go hard or easy and making up my own challenges and doing them, all in obscurity and often alone.

The goals I list above are really attainable, even easy. It's kind of silly to even list them as goals, because anybody could do them. They're not hard. But the older I get, the more I see that life is made up of these small things, not the big ones. Sure, the big ones are great and all. I remember being close to tears as I finished my first marathon. But what I remember more clearly are the long, slow runs through the gloomy Alaska darkness that I took with Julie, Brian and Ken, all of us chatting away about something or another. I remember crossing a snowfield with other friends, bound for a wild and lonely campsite. I remember when, as an adult, I was finally able to swim across a pool. Those were all parts of a whole that add up to a life that isn't remarkable or special, but it is one that is mine and I love it.

Happy new year everyone.

Monday, December 26, 2011

a wilderness year

First, the stats:

Number of backpack trips: 16
Goal fulfilled: Backpacking from Moss Springs to Two Pan,  40 miles, 2 days
Longest backpacking day: 25 miles
Number of bears seen: 3
Number of day hikes: too many to count
Times hiked into Hells Canyon and back in a single day (+ - 5,000 feet or more each way): Afraid to count because it's just crazy
Longest run: 11 miles, on 9/11 (don't run long anymore due to past injuries, so pretty proud of this one)
Favorite trail run: Hurricane Creek trail to Slickrock and back
Lakes jumped into: ten at least
Goal not met: Didn't get to Deadman Lake, darn it.
Best day in the woods: all of them

I didn't run any 100ks, race a planet or finish the JMT like some of my bloggy friends. In fact I spent most of my year right here, in one single place. Somewhere the twenty-year-old me is horrified, but I found I kind of liked it. I also found that there are many more places to discover, even if you think you've been on that trail many times and have seen it all.

Here are some of my favorite places in 2011.
I did a lot of hiking on what I call the "hot ridges"..mostly waterless expanses of sweeping grassy outcrops that go on forever. This one is Cougar Ridge, where we hustled due to a threatening sky.
This was nearing the end of a 19 mile day as I hiked back over Hawkins Pass, surely one of the most magnificent passes in the Wallowas.

In spring Sweyn, John and I hiked from Cherry Creek down to Salmon Bar and back, following a disappearing trail by dead reckoning. Dropping through the elevation zones, we arrived at summer on the Snake River, and climbed back to late winter on top.

Kent, Jon, Rick and I spent two magical evenings over the pass from Copper Creek in an uncrowded lake basin catching fish for a mercury study.

The end of the earth. Love this place.

Ken and Clare showed me a new lake. It was just over the hill from a lake I had visited several times. Just goes to show, you never know.
My favorite new discovery. Frazier Meadows, where I'd love to build a cabin and live forever.

This was late fall and bittersweet, because it was one of my last backpack trips. The lovely middle fork of the Imnaha.

Too busy in August, Mirror Lake was all mine in July.

I can't wait for 2012!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

solstice skiing

When I lived in Alaska, the local radio station (love you, Raven Radio) would announce the minutes of daylight we were losing each day. After December 21, we would be gaining minutes, and all of us looked forward to that. Light is not as scarce or precious here in Oregon, but I still breathe a sigh of relief on the solstice, because someday summer will be back.

But not yet, so the best thing to do is go skiing. Classic, old-school Nordic skiing. Can there be any better exercise than that? Many times I attempt the white knuckle drive to Salt Creek Summit to find hard ice or deep, deep snow. Each of those has its challenges. Often I have to walk down the Hill of Death instead of incurring yard-sale face-planting in the trees. Sometimes breaking trail is so arduous that it takes hours to go a few miles. But today is perfect: a skim of fresh over packed, my skis gliding as if I am skating instead of on two (free from my former boss) skinny boards. The woods are blue-shadowed and quiet. The only sound is my breath and the slide of skis on snow.

An icy wind burns the tips of my ears where they poke out from my wool hat. It is probably about fifteen degrees, with the wind making it colder. The breeze tosses handfuls of snow across my tracks, burying them. I am the only one out here, the rest of the unlucky souls at work.

As I ski I think of all the Decembers and solstices before this one. A few stand out. There was the party at a friend's yurt where we all scribbled on pieces of paper the things we wanted to let go (I can't even remember what I wrote). There was the time a group of us skied into a backcountry cabin, pulling sleds. It was well below zero and later, in the hot springs, steam obscured our faces and our skin glowed with residual heat. All those friends have scattered now. Then there were many years where I was on a fireline, the Florida years when snow was just a memory. There was the New Zealand December of only a backpack and no plan, and many Decembers on a little island. There were the two Decembers of relentless marathon training, and the one where I had to learn to walk again after knee surgery. There was the December that my marriage fell apart, and the one when I knew I would be all right, that winters come and go and things always get better.

I lose the blue diamonds and ski blind for awhile, not really worried, but with that undercurrent that can run through your head in the wilderness: Hmm, not really sure where I am. Didn't bring a pack. Warm clothes on? check. Somebody knows where I am? check. Plenty of daylight? check. Eventually I stumble upon my tracks, a lot farther downslope than I have expected. It's time to develop the winter eyes again, the ones that can pick out subtle changes in a white landscape. Time to fine tune the sense of direction, not really needed in summer.

I've come into this winter a reluctant participant. Our summer was so short, with snow in June and the backcountry melting out only late in August. It couldn't be winter already. I had to swim all summer in a wetsuit! We were owed some more summer! But surely as the minutes were lost to darkness, here it came, ready or not. And I wasn't. I grumbled, I complained, I tried to run the icy trails in my IceJoggers. I rode my bike, freezing my feet. Maybe if I ignored winter, it would go away. Denial could only work for so long.

I arrive back at the parking lot in a clatter of skis on ice. My fresh tracks stretch behind me. The sun slants at an ominous angle, soon to dip below Redmont Peak. Snow flurries dance from passing clouds. It's undeniably winter. Though summer is always my first love, I can work with this. Winter and I can become buddies, mend our fences, and get along. It's solstice. Summer is on its way. Happy solstice, everyone!

Sunday, December 18, 2011


As a twenty-seven year old wilderness ranger, I was amazed when Valerie joined our seasonal crew. Admittedly she was in incredible shape: she surpassed us all on the firefighter "step test", as inaccurate and male-biased as it was. Her legs in Forest Service shorts were muscled and strong. But she was....forty-one.

I couldn't imagine being that old. How could she even strap on a seventy pound pack and hike the huge miles that we were doing? Now I know better, because I know I could still do it. But back then, getting old seemed like a death sentence. Sometimes I thought that I could beat it by running farther, hiking faster, moving across the country and back again. And it seemed like there was just so much time. Years and years, during which I would gain wisdom but not wrinkles, my life falling into place like a freshly opened map.

As I stare another birthday in the face, I am both grateful and sad. Of course I'm glad I'm still around when some of my friends aren't. But sometimes I really miss being young. There was so much room to make mistakes and rebound from them. The stakes weren't as high, because there was so much time left. No money? I can always fight fire for a season and earn some. No men? One would always come along. Nobody wants to publish my book? Plenty of time for that! No job? I'll clean toilets at a campground, no problem!  Marathons? Sure, I've got great knees!

So far there hasn't been any wilderness adventure that I have had to give up because of age, except for pavement marathons, which are no good for anyone's knees. I hope there never is, but I have noticed that the ranks are getting thinner around me. It's sad that people my age, which really isn't that old, have decided to give in to the couch. Luckily I live in a mountain town where seventy-year-olds still backcountry ski. Many of my friends are older than I am, and they take on amazing feats of wilderness endurance. It gives me hope. Many of them have their own challenges, but they still get out there.

Maybe it's not the body that changes but the desire. Unlike when I was younger, I have no desire to pay to run a race. I will, though, go out and cover that distance on my own. I've turned more inward: it's more about the solo experience or the one with a shortlist of friends, not the spectacle that I like now. I used to love the crowds, the aid stations, the cameraderie. Now I like it when I pass nobody on the trails or on the road. I don't even keep a training log anymore, but I remember everything.

Valerie only lasted one season, and we hardly ever saw her. Most likely she was over our immaturity, our bunkhouse parties, our firmly held belief that we would never grow old. You just wait, she probably thought. If I had to bet, though, I'd say she's still out on the trails somewhere. A little slower, perhaps. Older, definitely. But still out there.
Patterson Peak, 1995.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

a letter to sixteen year old me

Dear me,

I know you think your life is over because M. dumped you for G. and he dedicated your song to her at the roller rink. But trust me on this: he is not the last boy you will love. In fact, you won't find the one you are meant to be with when you are 20. Or even 30. It will take years and years, and finally when you have nearly given up, there he will be. It will be so worth it, because you will appreciate love more than if you had it for the taking early on in your life. And even though you will be alone so many years and spend so many breakups sobbing on a series of kitchen floors, you also will met a series of fascinating, odd, unsuitable men who weren't quite right, but who will take you all sorts of places and teach you all sorts of things: how to fly fish, how to walk in the steep mountains, how to fix your own brakes. You don't want to miss out on that. And BTW, Air Supply? Luckily, your musical tastes will change. P.S. You dodged a bullet. M. gets fat.

Cherish your independence. I don't know where you found it, but keep it. In the years to come you will fight fires, drive across the country alone numerous times, hike off-trail, rappel into caves, skydive, and backpack solo. There are few women who will do some of these things. Don't wait around for a man to come along. That's not your style.

Lose the self-criticism. Your New Years resolution is to "Walk Better." I know it's hard to be sixteen, but rest assured: soon, very soon, you will find a place where you feel beautiful. In the wilderness, you can forget your hairbrush (and use a fork instead) and it will be the one place where you feel completely comfortable. It's coming, just wait for it. High school does not last forever. And it's true, you will never need to know chemistry.

But speaking of that, do you have to think you are going to major in English with an emphasis in creative writing? I realize you love writing. But think about it. You love being outside. Take a biology class, would you?

Don't run so much. You will be obsessed with it for years, and your knees will take a beating. You will run marathons and half marathons and countless 5 and 10Ks.  On second thought, keep running. There's no other feeling like it. You will run in the coastal rainforest, in the baked-hard desert, in the swamp, you will run everywhere. Enjoy it while you are young and fast and can run a sub-21 5K. Your times will slow as you get older, believe me. You won't like it, but you will learn to love running for its own sake, not for a PR or a medal. But stay off the pavement!

Honestly, you don't have to work every month of your life. You will never take unemployment, even when you are stuck washing dishes. You will pass up some interesting turns in the road because of this. A man with ice blue eyes will offer you your own cabin, accessed across the Salmon River by a cable bridge. You will hesitate, not because of the man, but because of the chance to live winter-deep, writing by a wood stove, skiing out your back door. I know what you will do, but you don't, not yet.

Yes, you will get out of this town. In fact, you will travel for years and years, trying to find a place you can call home. Even when you think you have found it, there will still be times when you think: New Zealand. Bali? Costa Rica. Stanley, Idaho. You're just one of those restless people. Live with it.

That perm? Lose it.

Sunscreen. Stop that "lying out" with Tanning Oil. Sun-In will not turn your hair blonde either. Wrinkles are not pretty.

Take care, sixteen year old me. Your life ahead is full of excitement, tragedy, rivers, mountains. Go out and live it.

Love, Me

Please share! What would you say to your sixteen year old self?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

facing the gear shed

I'm willing to bet most of you have one too...a closet, a garage, or a shed stuffed with outdoor gear, one third of which you used to use, one third of which you never use and one third that you actually do use. Because I live in the House of No Closets, my outdoor gear lives in a small shed along with the lawnmower and paint. I admit it: over time and due to last minute trips (the contractor calls and needs help finding a trail, like tomorrow) the shed has become a black hole from which you may never emerge.

It was fairly warm yesterday and I finally felt ready to tackle the Shed of Despair. Let me say this: I did a huge purge before I moved here so I really don't have that much stuff. But it had become a miasma of seething gear that needed to be dealt with.

I approached with trepidation. There were numerous milk crates that I had (ahem) liberated years and decades ago from XXX business on Mackinac Island, full of mysterious rope, parts of first aid kits, sporks and the like. There were Rubbermaid containers of the same. It was a big, huge mess.

Once I started sorting, though, it became enjoyable. Here was a linear history of gear development! Here were the older thermarests, first generation, fluffy and heavy, and in another historical layer, the incredibly lightweight NeoAir. Tents in various mutations from an early North Face lightweight prototype to a two pound Big Agnes. Running fanny packs from the bulky back sloshers to the Nathan one I love without reservation. It was a gear archeological dig!

I found incredible gems. My silk sleeping bag liner, long since thought lost. A pair of sweet pink flip flops. A UDig it and a candle lantern that I had resentfully thought that the ex harbored. A collapsible bucket. It was like shopping without spending money.

Now my shed is a thing of beauty. All the backpacking items, in one Rubbermaid. Minus the thermarests, in their own box, and the tents, in theirs. Stuff tossed that I no longer use or cannot identify. The one item I wavered over was my first adult tent. A North Face tadpole, all mesh. I bought this tent about 1990 and it accompanied me on many Sierra trips. I hauled it out three years ago without setting it up, only to arrive at the lake to find it was missing (broken?) its front pole. Disaster. My boyfriend at the time sighed. This was only another omission in a long line of camping disasters, including forgetting a camping stove. We broke up soon after. Coincedence?

I threw the tent in the garbage but later fished it out. It's still a good tent. I can maybe get a pole from North Face. I couldn't bear the thought of it going into the landfill.

I'm ready for another season. We'll see how long this organization lasts. For now I love creeping up to the shed and flinging open the door to gaze fondly on the clear floor and the stacked Rubbermaids. Order is a wonderful thing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I heart sleeping bags

Errata: My husband would like everyone to know that on the hikes he picks, we are *NOT* lost. (The one hike where we were unsure of our location was "my hike," he tells me.) He also thinks it sounded like he takes me into dangerous situations. So here is a clarification. He feels much more comfortable than I do in many places, but he is also quick to beat a retreat if I want to. (Is that better, sweetie? Love you.)

But now the real reason for the post: I am in love! It loves to cuddle, and it's soft and fluffy and warm, also a pleasing shade of orange. It has a water resistant shell. It's my new -20 sleeping bag! It's a Mountain Hardwear Wraith SL. It is usually very, very expensive but I found a screaming deal at Oregon Mountain Community. Yeah! Now I have no excuses. Winter camping I will go! I am really looking forward to being toasty since I sleep so cold. I have a minor case of Reynauds, and if my feet and hands get cold enough they turn white and take forever to warm up.

The only problem is the lack of snow. The trails are a sheet of ice; even with grippers on you fall in an angry heap. This in-between time makes us all miserable. Too icy to bike ride, too icy to run, too icy to hike. The awfulness of the gym it is, and many of us are in the same boat. I went there today at 3, a time when I am typically the only one there, and can tune the TV to HGTV with impunity. Today the gym was packed with treadmill walkers and puffing weight-lifters. Ugh! I can think of few things worse athletically than running on a treadmill.

But back to sleeping bags. I think you can tell a lot about the type of person you are dealing with by the amount and types of bags they have. I have these:

1. Ancient REI bag I remember from my childhood, that rides in my truck as an emergency bag;
2. Go-Lite +20 that I use for summer camping, very light;
3. Marmot +20 that I use for work and is in fact a"work bag". Synthetic cause I used it in the rainforest.
4  LL Bean 0 bag that is plenty warm but does not stuff. Used for car camping.
5. Marmot +15 (I think) that I bought with husband #1 because it zipped together with his bag. Nice synthetic bag but I always feel kind of sad when I look at it. I know, get over it.
6. North Face Blue Kazoo, once the wilderness ranger standard, but in its old age has lost some insulating properties. Had since the nineties.

Holy carp, I have seven sleeping bags. I am the Imelda Marcos of sleeping bags. I belong in a support group!

Now it's your turn. How many bags do you have and what type? Don't make me the only sleeping bag hoarder out there.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

JMT dreams

Ever plan anything so big and complicated that you could not get your arms around it? It looks like my John Muir Trail hike might be coming together. This is both exciting and scary. The logistics of backpacking a 221 mile trail--the time off from work, the food, pick-up and drop-off, coordinating of differing paces and desires--it is all overwhelming and I can only imagine what someone hiking the whole PCT must feel like. Then there is the lottery: would it be better to hike in from Toulumne Meadows and have a better shot at getting a permit? Bear cannisters, resupply, gear, oh my!

I had at first envisioned hiking it solo, but you know what? I've spent miles and miles solo, starting as a wilderness ranger. I get enough solo time. As a writer, and now working at home, I always tread water just above the hermit level. I want company, someone to point out sights to, people to talk with at night at camp. Just like an old shampoo commercial, my friend told a friend who told a friend...and now there are potentially four of us women interested. I only know one of them but the trail bond is strong and I love how it weaves strangers together.

The two best things about planning this is a return to a place I once called home and...gear shopping! I spent two glorious seasons in the backcountry of Sequoia-Kings Canyon, roving for miles in alpine country and tablelands wild and remote. I fell in love with a firefighter, marked hazard trees with a lanky chain-smoker, and planted native seeds in places trampled by many feet. None of those things lasted--the romance burnt itself out in a firestorm, Jack died of lung cancer, and the trees did not survive the human onslaught--but I long to return as a much older woman to find remnants of my twenty-year-old self.

And gear: so much to think about! Megamid or bivy? What clothes will I despise least after wearing them for three weeks straight? Maps, I need maps! How can I overcome my notorious dislike for oatmeal? Jetboil or alcohol stove? A gearhead at heart, I love pondering these issues.

Outside, the snow flies. I pack up my spikes for a struggle up an icy trail at 24 degrees. I huddle by the wood stove, dreaming.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Days Without Wilderness

Ever since I've been back, it's been conference calls, the Can't-Help Desk, meetings meetings meetings. Don't get me wrong, I am grateful to have a job. But to live in a mountain town yet not be able to get to them is a special kind of torture. I need a date with a lake, a rendezvous with a river.

I don't know about you, but I am a caged animal without the wilderness. It starts with a new-wool itchiness under my skin. In the worst of times, I become a snarly creature. It is like going cold-turkey, this change from my summer fieldwork to the winter office routine. The 20 mile backpacking days are only a faint memory, almost as if I were someone else back then.

A trail run really isn't enough, or a ski, though they serve as band-aids. What I want is total immersion, days and nights on the trail. At the same time, I know winter is for writing (just nominated for a Pushcart Prize! Yay!), a return to yoga, dinners with the friends I have neglected. It is for breathing deep of cold, clear air, watching stars prick the sky, remodeling the cabin. It is all those things, and still..

Maybe I'll try winter camping.