Sunday, January 29, 2012

avalanche hunting

Already people are worried about the canyon. When the canyon burns, only the weather can put it out. Because generations of people have fiddled with the canyon, fires in it are not natural. They sweep across the cheat and thistle with a ferocity that is unstoppable. This year, because we are not having winter, the grass is tall. This grass will cure, dry out, and become flammable fuel. All we will need is lightning.

Of course our winter could turn around. We still have the typically snowy months of February and March to catch us up. But so far we have had snow followed by rain followed by ice. I can't remember the last time I ran without ice grippers. The mountains are dangerous, avalanches waiting to happen.

But because we are adventurous souls, we have to check it out, so a steady stream of people have hiked up to look at the latest big slide. It came off the ledges above Hurricane Creek and thundered almost to the river.  Before I moved here, I used to think that the flats were good places to camp in winter. Now I know: just because you are on the flats does not mean that you are safe.

Big avalanche on Hurricane Creek.

I ventured up to my favorite running turn-around, Slick Rock Creek, but as I hiked (the snow was a little too deep for running) I was aware of what lay above me, like a big creature ready to pounce. The slopes are loaded. It is only a matter of time.

See the roller balls on the slopes? Red flags.

There is snow up high, and yesterday the skiing was a particular form of fabulousness that I love, crust cruising. It is spring skiing in January, and you can go anywhere, gliding over the surface without punching through. It is not the kind of skiing I should be doing in early winter. As I write this, the temperature outside is 45 degrees.

When I used to fight fire, we celebrated winters like these, thinking that a fat fire season would pad our bank accounts, bring us lots of interesting travel to smoky mountains, and provide that rush of aliveness that we craved. Now it just makes me uneasy. Sure, maybe I can get into the high lakes early. I can cross streams with impunity. But it doesn't feel right.

Today as I ran on the treadmill (a respite from the ice grippers) I watched an OPB show on television to ease the boredom. It was about a dry summer in Southeast Alaska, the summer the salmon almost didn't come back due to the lack of water in the streams. If the salmon don't come back, the bears don't eat. If the bears don't eat, dragging fish carcasses up into the trees, the trees feeding on the nitrogen from the fish, the entire dance of interdependence stops.

I remember that summer well. It was my last summer in Alaska and each unusual sun-drenched day was a jewel. We camped without tarps. We stripped down to our last layer and paddled, sweating, through the bays. It was both glorious and frightening. We knew, even as we cursed the rain, that we needed it.

I'm sure the snow will come, and we will forget that we were ever without it. I'll wish for open trails in July and curse our short, fleeting summer. Until then, we are stuck in spring.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Curious Attraction of Chlorine

In the last place I lived, we were rich in pools. There was the one redolent of excess chlorine which made our eyes burn and our noses run, but it was often deserted and peaceful. Then there was the blissful saltwater pool, often full of aqua-joggers and so busy that I had to circle swim, desperately flailing the water in an effort to stay ahead. There was a regular group of us who gathered a few times a week to swim the tank, moaning our indoors activity but waiting for that sweet spot when our bodies floated perfectly, suspended ten feet above the bottom, a perfect alignment of body and water.

Where I live now there are two choices: the lake or the short hotel pool, which charges $5 per person per hour, and you have to call ahead to make sure you aren't displacing guests or a kid party. The lake is free, but the warmest it ever gets is about sixty degrees in August. Last year it never warmed up and we swam in wetsuits all summer, an ungainly herd of seals. Right now, with snow kissing the water? Forget it.

I like swimming, even though in the old town everyone passed me in the lanes, old, fat, young alike. (All except the 90 year old couple and the lady with a broken leg, but seriously. Can I really count them?) Learning to swim as an adult has left me with bad habits and a lack of technique, but there are times when it all works. My arms slice through the water, elbows high, my feet barely rippling the surface. It is at those moments that I can glimpse what life is like for a fish, my body just a sliver, a knife. It is like flying, only underwater.

So today I journeyed with a pal to the hotel pool. It was suspiciously cloudy and the rude donning of swimsuits was not too pleasant after being covered up safely all winter. We only had one pair of goggles between us so we shared turns using a kickboard and doing laps, only about five strokes to a length. I used to swim a mile and a half at a time, but here there was no way to guess our distance. A random hotel guest wandered through, staring.  Swimming, we remembered, was hard when you don't do it much. It makes you limp as a noodle, a feeling I have found unique to this form of exercise.

But a few laps and there it was, that moment, slipping through the curtain of breath and water. Though I much prefer the outdoors and a brisk mountain lake, I will take what I can get. I will take this weightlessness, the cessation of worrying about anything but stroke, breath and what is in between.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

nice try, Alaska

The day I left Alaska, it started to snow. I could hear it rustling against the walls of my cottage like someone trying to get in. Out in Sitka Sound, the ocean was whipped to a frenzy, white spray foaming on the rolling back of the steep waves. "We can leave because it's not quite a gale," one of the flight attendants said. But the plane had overflown Juneau already and in truth, leaving Alaska is never quite as easy as it may seem.

It didn't take long for Sitka to start weaving a spell. I heard myself start saying things like, "Let's all meet up at Baranof Warm Springs next winter!" and, "Yes, I'd love to kayak with you next summer in Whale Bay." Like before, the island became the whole world, the mountains the only mountains that matter. That is what happens when you live on an island. You have to make an effort to leave, get on a boat, buy a plane ticket. It is hard to see beyond its boundaries. To counteract this, if you want to (and there are some who don't want to) you have to step off once in awhile. "Island fever," we used to call it, or "getting off the rock." You could tell when someone had stayed too long. On the other side of this island, people would sometimes run into the woods as we motored into shore. They melted into the trees, leaving no sign. Other times they would wave frantically, talking a mile a minute, reluctant for us to leave.

On my birthday, Carolyn and I hiked up to a frozen lake. The day was perfect, cloudless and still, the snow piled deep where wind had pushed it, the lake a drowsy blanket. Though a landslide had piled up massive trees on the far side of the lake, it was easy to believe that nothing really had changed here in my absence, that I could slide right back into living here, as easy as that.

Ths is kind of hard to see, but a skin of ice formed over the waterfall. Water was running underneath it. It was cool! Trust me.

As the plane left the runway, buffetted by wind, the island was quickly shrouded in clouds and snow. At the next stop on the milk run we sat for hours in the plane while the runway was cleared, ice was removed from the wings and the auxiliary power was repaired. "I hope we don't get stuck here," my seatmate whispered. We looked out the windows into the grey sea and blowing snow. When I lived here, getting stranded happened all the time. I was stuck in towns, in remote campsites, and in drafty cabins. Once we could hear the floatplane droning overhead, unable to land on our lake. "Have a nice evening," the pilot finally told us over the radio and my companions and I stared at each other. We had only planned to be out for the day. We shrugged, built a fire, and harvested a bright orange fungi called Chicken of the Woods (which would probably have tasted better with butter). People talked about walking out to salt water where a boat could retrieve us, but we knew that there were slippery cliffs, bears, and devils club between us and the shoreline. Going a mile could take all day. Better to stay put.

When we took off for Seattle, I was a little bit disappointed. As much as I wanted to go home, there's something about Alaska that I can't quite shake. It's the one that got away, like the person you knew you couldn't live with but that made you sparkle. I don't belong there anymore; after two days of running my knees ached from the moisture in the air. The isolation and the same ecotype would drive me crazy. But still. But still. We all have those places, don't we?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

more sweet than bitter

Cold. Bitter cold. That is my first impression as I return to Southeast Alaska, two and a half years since I left. Of course, ten degrees above zero is considered balmy up north, but for the archipelago this is the deep freeze. Typically kissed by the Kuroshio current (literally translated as the Black Stream) which keeps the temperatures moderate, this long stretch of clear and cold days is unusual.

When you return to a place you basically fled because your life wasn't working, you find out who your true friends are. They will drop everything to hike through a frozen world with you even though this kind of cold, mixed with an ocean wind and the punch of humidity that makes it feel even colder, can be dangerous if you don't bring the right gear (which I didn't). They will come and pick you up and transport you to their cabin overlooking the ocean and you will talk about marathons you ran with them, about those miserable 22 mile training days when the rain was horizontal and bone-chilling but you went on anyway, all the way out to the end of the only highway in town, fourteen miles in all, out and back, out and back.

Laura and I crunch along in our microspikes, the cold settling into our bones. My fingers cramp inside of their inadequate gloves. But we press on, across the Cross Trail and up Indian River. In the harbor, a layer of fresh water has frozen like plates on top of the salt. I have only seen this once before, years ago, when I was determined to escape the island for a few hours. Then, I beat at the ice with my paddle, forcing my way through to open water. Only one other paddler was out there that day, braving the bitter cold. We paddled close, exchanged a smile. People who live here are tough like that. But today, nobody is on the water. The boats are frozen to the dock, only a few brave souls in open skiffs running between islands.

Who comes to Sitka in January? The same person who goes for a run at nine degrees, the warmest it will get all day. I bundle up and run in the park beneath the big spruce trees. Ghosts dog my footsteps, all the rollercoaster life I lived here coming back to chase me down, but I can outrun anything today, my breath a frozen halo, sea level running effortless after years in the mountains. The friends I have here warm my heart, they bring me in from the cold. They have seen me at some of the worst of times and they had my back then. They still do.

A place is never as good or as bad as you remember it. I've lived enough places to stay away from the egocentric view that there is only one good place. Just like good people, they are everywhere. But sometimes I think at heart I'll always be a little bit of an Alaska girl.

(You can buy this bumpersticker  HERE.)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

"a woman would have to be nuts to run alone"

There are conflicting stories about what happened to Sherry Arnold, the teacher from Sidney, Montana, after she stepped out the door for an early morning run on January 7th. Hit by a car whose occupants panicked, abducted, something else? What isn't disputed is that she won't ever go for a run again. Neither will Amy Bechtel, vanished in similar circumstances near Lander over a decade ago, that mystery never solved.

I've been following Sherry's story, and the comments on the news stories are disturbing. Women need to be armed, they need to use common sense, they need to find running buddies (oh wait, they say "jogging"--how patronizing) they shouldn't go out at all. As a woman who likes running, hiking, and biking solo, I know there are risks, and I hate that half the population should have to fear the other half. There's something wrong with that, and yet there's something deep and ingrained that most women can feel inside, an instinctual fear that men will never know. There is a dark shadow that I fight to ignore as I run, a looking over my shoulder that I try to erase.

I have run the back roads and trails all of my life, in the national forests and parks that I worked in as a ranger.  I've mostly run solo, because I like the silence of just my breath and the sound of my shoes. I like adjusting my pace when I want to, or even pushing my bike up a hill when I can't ride it, or slowing to a survival shuffle when I need to.  The wilderness and back roads feel safe to me, welcoming. I like the clarity that being solo brings me. It is a respite, a meditation, just me and my workout.

I have run with others, but the older I get, the more my running has been solo. Hiking is a mixed bag, depending on whether I want to push it or share the experience. And I'm not really accomplished enough on the bike to keep up with real riders. What I am trying to say here is that good workout buddies are hard to find, and I am angry that I should be expected to find one every time I step out the door. If I run alone, do I get what I deserve? If a mountain lion comes down from the cliff, if a random weirdo decides it's a good day to commit a crime, is it my fault?

I am not going to turn the trails I run on to places of fear. I am not going to safely stay on treadmills. I may carry pepper spray now and again, but I am not going to give in. There are enough boundaries that we have to stay inside. This won't be one of mine.

RIP Sherry.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

New Running Shoes!

When I used to run a lot, it was a once-a-three month event: the arrival of a fresh pair of shoes. I always felt faster in a new pair of shoes. Those shoes carried me through swamps in the Everglades, across desert mesas, up mountains, and in the dense rainforest. They leaped over rocks, scaled cliffs, and crossed streams. They lined up at the start of 5Ks, 10Ks, and beyond. Sooner or later they broke down, to be relegated to more mundane tasks like wood hauling, bike riding, and walks.

But now that I've become a cross training advocate, I don't go through the running shoes like I used to. Plus I have an uneasy feeling that I should be using my barefoot shoes more. So it's been a good two years since I got new shoes. In that time, my brand (Mizuno) has gone through two new generations.

Here are my pretty new shoes:

Yes, they are RED!

I don't feel sad that I'm not a marathon runner anymore. I don't miss the days at the track doing speedwork. I like doing something different every day and I think it's better for my body. But getting new running shoes always reminds me of those days when running felt easy. There were ten mile runs that went along the Red Cedar River, through the woodlot and out onto the farm roads. There were 22 mile trail runs in the hushed corridors of the Elwha, on the Olympic Peninsula. There were the runs where a pilot named Bill buzzed me in his SuperCub, opening the window and screaming down to me that if  wanted a ride, come down to the dirt airstrip. There were the times I saw panther tracks (Florida), bears (Alaska, the Sierras) and a wolf (Idaho). I had names for some of my routes: The Dreaded Pictograph Loop. The Playground Route. The Hunt Club Run. There were my running companions, who made me faster or just shared the miles: Juls, Roger, Jen, Ken, Brian, Julie, to name some. On my feet I explored the boundaries of each new world. It was how I combatted loneliness, anger, and sorrow. Running gave me confidence, purpose and hope.

It still does, but I share the love now with other things. My first run in my new shoes was only three miles, a short snowy jaunt through the park. In the old days that would have just been a warm-up. But there was yoga to attend, a trip to pack for, and a man to kiss hello. Balance in all things.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

"wreck yourself on the weekends"

Among the funny, insightful and interesting comments to my last post about the travails of working 9-5 (or, in my case, 6-4:30), Titanium wrote what is now my new philosophy, wreck yourself on the weekends. I hope you don't mind, Titanium, but I am stealing it.

So the weekend arrived, finally. I awoke determined to use the most of a free day. Rogers Lake was in my sights, a hike that continues resolutely upward until you reach just shy of 7500 feet. There's something about the combination of the climb, the pushing through snow, and the elevation that makes this hike seem harder than it should be for its overall distance. I've tried to run it in the past and given up at mile 2. Basically, it boils down to a slog, winter or summer, but a slog that becomes worth it when you top out in the sunny meadows near the lake.

Looking back where I started. That's Wallowa Lake.

There was a skiff of snow over ice for the first two miles and I stopped to put on my microspikes, realizing that despite my gear addiction, nearly everything I had on was old. I wore soft shell pants from the early 2000s, an early synthetic shirt from 1992, a fleece vest circa 1997, and an ancient Patagonia fleece from the nineties. My mittens are down ones that my mom made me in I think junior high, but they are the best ones for cold weather I have tried. Sometimes old school is best.

Chained up, I continued onward through a mess of downed trees. This winter has brought little snow but plenty of wind, and I crawled under and over dozens of trees. Because I have often been on the hard end of a crosscut saw, I know exactly what it will take to clear these. I will no doubt feel compelled to go back and help clear out these behemoths. But not today.

In two hours I had crossed the snowy bridge over the East Fork and was nearing the flatter meadows, only an hour to go to the lake. Here, untouched snow with the consistency of small flakes shimmered in the sun. In the distance, Aneroid Peak loomed over the valley, a good someday goal, but not today. There was no wind, only a breathless calm, the sense of peace I always get in the wilderness. In winter, that peace is tinged with something else unnamed, a voice inside that is constantly checking in: Hands warm? Need another layer? Boots dry? This voice keeps me from wandering off in a daydream of sun and diamond snow, so I listen.

This is a lake. Really.

At the lake I could not tell the border between land and water, so I paused to gnaw on a Clif Bar. The water in my Camelbak had frozen in the first mile (I will learn this lesson someday) so I scooped up handfuls of snow to melt deliciously in my mouth. Skiers had passed this way a day or so ago, bound for the private cabins a half mile higher at Aneroid Lake. But few people venture this far for a day hike. The miles, too long, the daylight, too short.

This lake gets no glory, most people barely sparing it a glance on their way to its more glamorous sister. But I like this lake's unpretentiousness. I like how it sits half-hidden and you have to climb down to really see it. Because of the cold, I can't stay long. Maybe one day I will camp here. But not today.

Darkness fell as I drive up to my cabin. The fire is out. The floors need sweeping. My memoir sits balefully unwritten. If my husband wonders what there is to eat, there's cereal. I am wrecked and happy.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

revenge of the cubicle dwellers

In all my checkered employment history, I have never had a sedentary job. Of course, there have been extended periods of butt-sitting, mainly in winter, but each job had its share of hiking for dollars. (Or kayaking for dollars, as in the case of my Alaska years.) These outdoor moments kept me from feeling like an old office slug. While working for the Firm has its downsides (if I was tasked with catching up with a trail contractor, I couldn't just run up a peak instead) I mostly loved every minute of hiking, clearing trails, cleaning up after trashy people, and yes, even cleaning toilets.

All of this changed today, my first day of a new job. I'm working on some interesting projects across the country, and I get to work at home, finally shedding the dreaded "Cube Farm." True, I can listen to Pandora Radio with impunity. I can take my laptop outside when it's warm. I can eat lunch whenever I want and I don't have to share a bathroom (oh joy). It's pretty much the perfect setup.'s not fieldwork.

The sunlight slanted in through the windows, the temperature soaring to a freakish 50 degrees. The mountains beckoned. It took serious willpower to keep working away. It did at the old place too, but my fellow cubists kept me honest. There was always some meeting to attend or a discussion to have (although to be honest, all conversations did seem to end up being about William Shatner). In this new job, I have a grown-up.

"Going to the field" is the great divide in my Firm. It is what makes people labor at jobs well below their skill level into their fifties because they just can't face the awfulness of pushing a keyboard indoors. It is what holds some of us back, because the weirdness of working for a natural resource agency means that if you want more money, you have to go indoors. Sooner or later it's easy to forget just why you work there.

In my field going years, I paddled twelve foot seas in the Gulf of Alaska. I backpacked with a seventy pound load, off trail into some of the wildest country I have been fortunate to see. I've built bridges. I've set prairies on fire. I've gathered pungent cones from trees and planted new trees. I've cleared trails and slithered through caves. It has been a glorious run.

But every now and then a person needs a new chapter, a chance to change things up a little. The mountains aren't going anywhere. They'll wait for me.

If you work 9-5, or some version thereof, how do you deal with the reduced outdoor time?

First hike of 2012. NOT on a work day.