Sunday, April 29, 2012

Gunning for you

Sacajawea, we have a date. This is our year. I've wanted to climb you for three years now, and every time something has gotten in the way. A late snow year, the mountains full to the brim through July. Contractors to chase through Hells Canyon.

I've seen you every time I hike up Hurricane Creek, but you like to play hard to get. To reach you I have to cross the creek, and you know what it's like, high water, boulders rolling around like bowling balls, a steady roar. So much snow compressed into one little place. I know how to cross rivers but this one requires patience. It's possible to cross in early morning but by mid afternoon I can be stranded on the other side as the snow up high melts. 

Once the river is crossed it is a steep hike up a trail that is not on any maps, one people have made by scrambling and crawling their way up into Thorpe Creek basin. I camped there once with three dogs, close enough to touch you, but it was late fall, an unsteady time of year where snow can blanket you overnight. Even then there is no official route, no trail, just a write-up in a guidebook that relies on things that never change. And we all know things can change. Just getting up close to you today, across the creek, required me to climb over two avalanches. Who knows what has happened on the other side of the river.

Enough with the excuses though. I climbed your sister, the Matterhorn, two years ago before the bridge failed, requiring a sketchy traverse across the Wallowa River, balancing like a stork on a fallen tree. I could have then gone cross country, touching the sky, to where you stand, but the wind was so strong that day that all it inspired was a hasty retreat. I looked across at you though, seeing a small herd of mountain goats dotting your red cinder flank. Maybe that's the way to go, up from Ice Lake and across. A long way, not any easier than the first choice.

But rest easy. I don't climb to conquer. I've been so close to the edge a few times that I have no problem turning back. I don't want to peak bag or write my name on a register. I don't climb for metaphor or glory. I just want to see the world from a different angle. 

Summer's coming and all of us are making our plans. The freakishly warm weather of last week inspired us to dream them up early when we know we have a good two months at least before the high country is open. Still, it will be here soon, that manic scramble to fit it all in before the snow shuts us out. But you're on the short list, Sacajawea. I'll be there soon.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Poison Ivy and me: a brief history of a long relationship

It's a toxic relationship, I know it. The problem is, in the long stretches while we are apart I forget. I forget the burn on my skin, so deep that it feels like it goes to the bone. I forget the restless sleep. I only remember the places I want to go, the deep canyon folds where there is hidden water and shade. In the forgetting time, it seems worth it.

 I've had poison ivy all over the country in one form or another. In Florida there were entire trees (poisonwood) dripping with oils. There were also dense mats of ivy that we had to push through in our quest to survey burn units. In California we were digging fireline in the Sierras by headlamp, throwing what looked like dead sticks off our line. Unfortunately, they weren't dead sticks. Some of the crew swallowed the smoke and had to be carted off to the hospital. When we were cutting dead trees, festooned with ivy, Juls and I coated our skin with slimy yellow liquid that was supposed to help. It never really did.

 I enjoyed seven years of ivy free existence in Alaska, long enough to think that maybe I was over it, that ivy and I could carry on an amicable truce. In all my climbs in and out of the canyon, it seems to stay below the 2500 foot mark, and so that seemed contained. There was plenty of country for us both. Or so it seemed. There's a fine window of time in the canyon when it is possible to walk, not swim through the ivy crowding the ancient trails. In the spring the ivy is at its juiciest and I believe most volatile. I seem to attract its touch without even trying. Perhaps even the air movement as I pass by causes it to activate.

 I've heard of all sorts of cures. Drink the milk of goats that have eaten poison ivy. Roll in it and you will become immune. Coat yourself with Technu. Just like getting over a broken heart, the only thing that really works with P.I. is time. Time with itching that makes you want to scream. Plastering your body with a baking soda paste. Vowing to never ever go into the canyon again, or to stay high above the river.

 But of course I can't stay away. Just like all the other times, the lure of the canyon will bring me back. The water trickles down the wrinkled folds and old growth ivy grows head high. I won't try to push through this. I know my limits, in relationships and with ivy. But I will tiptoe through the most dangerous places of all, the ones where just a few plants encourages me to keep going. I'll turn back when it gets really bad, I tell myself. Sometimes I do.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

going below

The people who live in Imnaha, a few thousand feet below us, call where we live "up top." As in, "I have to go up top today." And it does feel sometimes as if we are perched on a high shelf, subject to the winds that rake across the crest of the Wallowas. The Nez Perce wouldn't have ever lived up top in winter. They knew better. In mid-summer the canyon bakes, the creeks slow to a trickle, but this time of year is the time to go, to drop all the things you should be doing. It's fifty miles to the trailhead but you gain at least a month in time. This is a restless place, ruled by snowmelt and Idaho Power, and the beach I camped on last year was nearly gone. I camped instead on a sweet bench above the river.
How can I describe the wonderfulness of sitting in the sand, a warm breeze blowing, a book to read, and the endless shadows and folds of the canyon to watch?
I also took the opportunity to test some of the gear I will be taking on the JMT. First, I just need to say that a bear canister is a huge pain in the butt. Vertical, horizontal, in the sleeping bag compartment or out, it just sits there like a big room taker upper. However, it is kind of nice not to do the bear bag hanging dance. And it does make a nifty stool. The tent is somewhat coffin-like but that is what you get with a UL one person. I think it will work out fine. What will not work out fine is pack weight. I took heavier gear this time but less stuff and my pack was 25 pounds. I must keep JMT weight under 35, so now I am in full ounce obsession mode. There's a fine line between Go Light, Freeze at Night and being overloaded. Sadly, I have a job to pay for all this gear, so I had to go back up top. But the peacefulness of the canyon still lingers. I hope it lasts for awhile this time.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Outdoor Partner Lottery

Sometimes I wonder. I wonder why people think "should of" is proper grammar. I wonder if cows get cold. I wonder why fuel is fifty cents cheaper a gallon in Montana than here. But mostly I wonder why people who love the outdoors marry others that don't.

Because of my checkered past, I've worked at many jobs that mostly men will do. (I once had a supervisor admit, "we weren't sure about hiring a woman for this job, but we decided to give it a try." True story). At our lunch breaks, when sharpening tools, or when we were lying in our sleeping bags under the stars, these men would sigh wistfully and say, "I wish my wife would {camp, hike, kayak}.

Now I am very aware that I was only getting one side of the story. There could be a myriad of reasons. Enough people said it, though, that I still wonder. However, I even made this mistake in my first marriage, an unwitting victim of the Bait and Switch method of dating. When you are the only one who loves something, you live in a lonely place.

In my long history of dating, I ran into Competitive Outdoor Boyfriend, the one who dashes up the trail and waits impatiently, rolling eyes skyward. I also encountered Whiny Boyfriend, who claimed an allergy to sunscreen as an excuse to turn back. And let's not forget Danger Ranger, who loved to take us into situations involving not life-threatening events, but enough discomfort that it wasn't really fun. Those men probably now have wives who don't want to {camp, hike, kayak}with them for those reasons.

I never wanted to be a "Lichen Couple," the kind who do everything together. Not that there's anything wrong with that! There isn't. But I love stories. I love coming back with them and I love hearing them. I think it's good to have your own  passions but intersect sometimes, like a Venn diagram. I'm a terrible mountain biker and a non-existent downhill skier but I like to hear about what it was like on that trail or mountain face. It also forces me to find my own companions to do things with, and that's always good, because you get someone new and interesting without any relationship baggage. Also, it gives me girlfriend time.

In the Outdoors Partner Lottery, I've been lucky this time. I have someone who doesn't want to run with me and doesn't always want to backpack either. But he supports my addiction and understands my obsession. Recently I fretted in the coffee shop as snow fell, working myself into a frenzy. "It's snowing the trail will be icy I can't stand the gym I should run should I ski whatshouldIdo?"

He scanned the notices pinned to the board. "Maybe you should join the Chess Club."

I laughed. A lot. And got over myself.

I'd love to know your experiences with the Outdoor Partner Lottery! Leave me a comment.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Weekend at Glacier

As I was riding an old cruiser bike in Glacier National Park this weekend, I thought about my relationship with the national parks. The answer is, it's complicated. I worked for the Park Service for years in underpaid and underappreciated jobs like fee collector at the entrance booth, visitor center staff, and taker of tourists on nature walks. Mostly this meant I was screamed at by those whose vacation was not going well and/or asked repeatedly where the bathrooms were.

But I loved the parks themselves, mainly because in the evenings and mornings they belonged to us, the footloose summer seasonal workers who lived in grimy bunkhouses tucked safely away down a "Service Road, Employees Only." I saw the park in all its moods--right at sunrise, before everyone else awoke and the day began; during immense early snowfalls when everyone else stayed home; and in the evenings after everyone else retreated to their campgrounds or Rvs or motels outside the park. As seasonals we knew secrets the visitors could never know. Where the backcountry caves were. A hidden grove of Sequoia trees. The best campsites.

Frozen Johns Lake

We rode our ancient bikes along the Going to the Sun road, amidst a crowd of serious bicyclists with fancy gear. I could have sped along twice as fast on my new bike, but who needed to? We had all day. The snow would stop us eventually.

We park the bikes in a snowbank and head up to Johns Lake. Nobody's going to steal these bikes, so we head up the icy trail. It's too early for grizzlies, we think optimistically, but we talk as we negotiate the left-over snow. The lake itself is in the grip of winter, recent ski tracks curving across it. Summer is months away, but I can feel it in the air, a promise, as we return to the road.

The frontcountry of the national parks always kind of bothers me, because it projects a sanitized Disneyesque quality. It's fairly predictable: the paved overlooks, the gift shops, a lodge or two. Most visitors never step off the pavement to the immense wilderness beyond. But if the frontcountry lures people out of their houses and off their couches, it's better than nothing.

Today I am mostly a pavement tourist anyway, due to time and snow. And that's okay. We grab our old bikes and cycle on. Later we ride on the bike path, just free of snowbanks. The campground isn't open yet, the park buses parked, the tourist cabins shut up. It's a park holding its breath. I realize this is just how I used to feel as a young seasonal worker in those off-times when the park was all mine. Pretty soon this park will be bursting at the seams. But not today. Today there's enough room to putter along on a cruiser bike, taking my time.

Friday, April 13, 2012

who we are in the wilderness

I truly think we are our best selves in the wilderness. Until we aren't. I've heard people screaming at each other and seen others pull a Whiny Princess (okay, that was me). But most of the time, after a few days, everything falls away except for wonder, confidence and truth. People say hello on the trails. They talk between campsites. They spread out maps and share food. They smile. Would this happen anywhere else?

Before I married my ex-husband, we skied with some other people into a backcountry guard station. We took turns dragging a sled behind us, and it was slow going in the deep snow. The darkness fell and so did the temperatures, well below zero. I was tethered to the sled when my future husband made a bolt for the cabin. My other friend slowed to match my excruciating pace. "Are you okay?" he asked. The other guy was long gone.

This should have told me something.

In contrast, my first date with my now husband was also a hike (hey, it's a good way to weed them out, ladies). We trudged up a steep slope enroute to a backcountry ski hut, laden with chainsaw, tarps and other heavy stuff. From the first we were a team. One of us could easily have shown off and charged the trail, leaving the other in the dust. But it didn't happen. On later hikes, we have searched dry-mouthed for water in desolate landscapes. huddled under a tarp during an intense thunderstorm, and run back down a steep trail to make sure the truck was locked (me) while the other hoofed the two backpacks farther up the trail (him). Like I said, better people in wilderness (Although, he's pretty awesome outside of the wilderness too).

In the wilderness I believe we become a temporary family. I've been united with strangers in pursuit of trail locations and in scaring away bears. I've learned secrets: where there are hidden lakes and goat trails that lead up mountains. We swap information and cookies. Then we hike out to the trailhead and disappear from each other's lives.

Monday, April 9, 2012

as good as it gets sometimes

Yesterday the local all-volunteer run ski hill had its annual bout of craziness called Fergi Fest. People skiied around in long skirts, wigs, and even a Superman costume. There were ski races and mountain golf (with tennis balls) and the main event, the lawn chair race, an event so improbable and dangerous it couldn't occur on any real ski hill.

Rocky (r) won the event. Tim, next to him, was second.

There was a potluck and a band. Just about all the outdoor types I know were there: the backcountry powder hounds, who rarely show up on groomers; the woman who runs faster than I can imagine anymore;  the guy who likes to show up via paraglider; the lake swimmers and wilderness hikers and triathletes. Just a bunch of people who love mountains and rivers and this tiny place at the end of the road.

The hardest part for some was getting their chair up the T Bar. Jerry shows how it's done.

It's times like these when I realize the importance of a community. When I worked for the Park Service, we had them. True, they were artificially created due to circumstance, little compounds nestled in the sequoias, baking in the desert, or seething in the swampy air. What partly kept us seasonals coming back every year wasn't the low pay or the backbreaking work or even the landscape. It was immersion in a tribe of people who got it.They got our obsession with gear, the elevations we'd climbed, the thrilling glimpse of a bear. We would gather on dilapidated picnic tables after our hitches were done and just talk about where we had been and where we wanted to go. There was always someone willing to run that trail, journey to the Mexican border, or canoe at midnight.

In the "real world," this is harder to find. Kindred spirits are out there, but it takes some searching and time to find them. It's not the same as the carefree Peter Pan world I inhabited as a twenty year old, where my only concerns were where I would end up the next summer and if the Chevette would make it another year. I admit it, I miss the battle-scarred "employee housing", painted its ugly shade of brown, the creepy bunkhouses we lived in with their Smokey Bear posters on the walls, not for its beauty but for what it represented: a companionship and freedom long gone.

But if you do really have to grow up, this is as good as it gets. There are always things that could be better about a place. More bike trails. A pool besides the motel one where it takes four strokes to get across. Less entrenchment of beliefs. But for this one afternoon this place seemed pretty darn perfect.

I think I'll always be a grass is greener type of person. That's just how I am. I am drawn to the horizon, I want to see what's out there. It can be a tug of war. Instead of going to Fergi Fest, I almost went to the canyon. It's spring there, topping seventy degrees, that tiny slice of time between freeze and bake. It's been too long since I've slept in a tent.

In the end I chose community. The canyon will always be there. It's not always about wilderness, I am finding. It's also about who is waiting for you when you walk out.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Confessions of a JMT Bully

As a result of preparing for a 230 mile hike ( The John Muir Trail, the extra is due to our back-door permit obtaining tactics), I have been forced to confront a fact about myself that I am not particularly excited about. Yes, I am a JMT bully.

Yes, I admit it, I have been hounding my future hiking companions to make decisions already! It drives me nuts not to know how we are getting to the trail and how we are getting back from it, where our resupplies will be and how much time I need to ask for from work. Granted, it is four months away. But also granted, shuttles get full. Bosses schedule meetings. Even as I write this, it sounds ridiculous. Four months. A lifetime! Yep, I'm a JMT bully.

This experience has reminded me that there are two kinds of outdoor people: the ones who plan obsessively and the ones who show up on the day of, trusting all will go well. For a brief, regrettable time I dated one of the latter. While his go-with-the-flow tendencies smoothed out my rough edges, we spent a lot of time driving aimlessly through a foreign country without a place to sleep. We drove aimlessly a bunch more trying to figure out where to go, wasting a lot of time when we could have been hiking.

That's not to say that my approach is a lot better. Compulsive planners can be truly annoying. If you have everything nailed down, that eliminates the joy and surprise of taking a side trail, climbing an extra peak, or changing things mid-stream. We don't go into the woods to know what we are doing every minute of the day.

I like to think that I can embrace both worlds. Slowly my go-with-the-flow attitude has eroded over the years, due in part to moments of sheer terror and freezing and hunger due to not having planned enough. Running out of food on a backcountry patrol as a wilderness ranger. Bivvying in a rain-swept swamp. Pushing our tent back into the trees farther and farther as the tide grew closer and closer. But I can still find that seamless feeling as long as I have the bones of the trip figured out. You know. Important stuff. Like when we are starting. Like that I won't have to find myself hitchhiking down Highway 395.

The truth is, though, even obsessive planning can't eliminate every risk. You can still end up lost, mad, alone. For most of my twenties, I meandered through life, only planning for six months at a time. It was wild and glorious and lonely and terrifying. In the past three years my life has been much more circumscribed. I got married. I bought a house. I went to retirement training (can't plan much more than that). It has been sweet and suffocating and wonderful and terrifying.

Why I almost always prefer going solo is this: I can be my own neurotic self. I can over or underplan. I can eat cheese and tomatoes for dinner if I want. I can start hiking before six am. I can push myself through conditions where others would want to turn around, or I can bail out because it just isn't worth it on that day. Going on a trip--a really big trip--with people I don't really know is not easy. I tell myself it will be worth it because sometimes, alone, I want to share sunsets. I want someone else to have a memory so we can come back to it later, years later, when maybe such a long hike is out of the realm of possibility.

I've decided to stop my JMT bullying, though. It will be good for me to regain that carefree feeling of flying without a net for awhile. A little while. But come June, watch out.

What's your planning style? Do you like going it alone or do you prefer groups? Is there hope for a JMT bully?