Saturday, October 27, 2012

Attitude Adjustment

Living at the base of the mountains, I have seen snow in August and in May. But somehow I had convinced myself there was still time, weeks and weeks of yellow larches, leaves in golden piles, a few more runs up to the alpine. Time ran out this week, snow spiraling lazily down from a serious sky. Winter, all of a sudden, was here.

Winter in October, too early it seemed. In this corner of Oregon, brushing up against Idaho and Washington, winter is an erratic force. The only constant is that it lasts and lasts. In between, it can ice up, freeze, blizzard. It is no place for the timid. Slide off a road here and it could be days before you are found. That's why we drive with all the survival gear: sleeping bags, food, water, shovels, chains, sand bags.

It didn't matter that I wasn't ready, hadn't recovered from the long spell of summer. It was coming anyway. For the first time, I wondered if I was cut out for winter. I split large rounds of wood. Put all the backpacking gear away. Brought out running tights, hats, mittens, ice creepers. But I wasn't happy about it.

Winter would be different if I lived in a snowbound village where there was no need to drive, and where you could ski from your house into the big woods. Here, that is sometimes possible, but not always. Snow flirts with the town, sometimes making us hike for it, other times risk the white-knuckle mountain road to 6,000 feet. It's not an easy season for me to love.

I've lived in two places with one season: South Florida with its perpetual summer, and Southeast Alaska with its own particular brand of endless fall. It always felt a little out of balance. Something was missing.

Today we slogged through half a foot of new snow, scouting. There is something about the warmth you feel when exercising in winter that isn't replicated any other time: the tingle as blood comes back to your Reynaud-afflicted fingers, the slow delicious heat that makes you shed layers when it is below freezing. I like that.

I just need to look at winter differently, not as if it is stealing summer from me. There's more time to bake bread, to finish the fire memoir, to visit the long-neglected gym. To decide if I am going to do part of the Washington PCT, and if so, which parts (Sections J, K, and L are too long when combined, so how to split them). Figure out if the Alaska novel is still worth shopping around. Ice skate, a lot. Ski. Snowshoe. Winter camp, this time more successfully (a closed cell foam pad and a dog would be helpful).  Do yoga, not just say I am doing it.

Another benefit of winter? A chance to rock the down skirt!
Summer will always be my first love and this one was a wild romance. Thirty nghts spent backpacking, more than 500 miles hiked. It's hard to let go. But winter, I'm giving you a chance here. Let's do this.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Bear in the Woods

Something happened in my former town that I can't stop thinking about. It is not my story to tell; I don't live there anymore. You can read more details here. Basically there is this: a man is dead, perhaps waiting it out for rescue in a remote cove by a fire on the beach, signs of a struggle, a trail to a cache of his partially eaten remains, a sow and cubs aggressively defending it.

This was my fear every time I went to sleep in my tent somewhere in the Alaska wilderness, which was just about every week in summer due to my job as a kayak ranger. I would lie there, cold rain pattering on the slim nylon walls, cold steel of a rifle beside me, headlamp and pepper spray close at hand. It was a fear I never really got over, even after seeing hundreds of bears in the seven years that I lived there. They walked right by the tent, past us on the trails, and up the streams. Sometimes we saw them swimming. I hung around bear hunting guides and their clients, even though I wasn't fond of that type of "harvest", just to learn more about bears and their habits.

In all that time only two bears acted strangely. Once a bear stalked between us and our kayaks, causing us to crouch in the woods waiting him out. The other time a sow with cubs charged us, growling, standing up, circling, our mauling almost a certainty except that we had five people in our group, enough to give her pause.

Here in a tamer place, there are no grizzlies. Black bears are rare sights. People fret over wolves and mountain lions. I don't really think about them. It has always been bears that haunted my dreams.

What we fear is a strangely personal thing. I have a friend who is deathly afraid of thunderstorms. Another, of heights. I can argue all day long that it is only low cloud cover, only exposure, but they are not convinced. I am the same way with bears. After seven years I achieved a certain level of comfort: I ran the trails alone, day hiked alone, but could never camp alone, not once.

Nobody will ever know what happened on that beach. I want to believe that a mistake was made, something preventable, but I know that sometimes in the wilderness things just strike back. If we want safety the answer isn't just to shoot all the wolves. It's to stay home.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Volcano Dreams

"I can't believe we flew all the way to Hawaii to hike," J muttered. (He was kidding. I think.)

I gazed up at the undulating, rough lava flank of Mauna Loa. "We can turn back if it gets too awful," I promised. We both knew it would have to get pretty awful for us to turn around.

The lava fields of Mauna Loa.

Ha, ha.
We had left for Hawaii the day that B. killed himself. I needed something like this hike to take my mind out of the groove it seemed stuck in. It's difficult to explain. I sometimes think of friends as being like circles spiraling inward. Your closest friends are on the inner circles, and others spin around on outer ones. Friends can move in and out of these circles like phases of the sun, and B. was on an outer circle, kept there by the chronic travel demanded by his job and something else, something under his skin, maybe the very thing that caused him to pull the trigger. Still, in the weeks before he died, he was reaching out to people in the only way he knew how, and none of us recognized it. There would be plenty of time in the winter, I always thought. I felt like I let him down; I knew what it was like to be alone and sad in a small town. I played it over and over in my head like a record on an old turntable.

So this trip seemed frivilous, but it turned out to be something I needed: to scramble over tricky lava in dripping heat, to snorkel for hours during an inshore swell that made the sea feel like a muscle. There was no lounging in hammocks for us. Of course, there wouldn't have been anyway.

A beach you have to work to get to.

The most perfect beach ever. You have to hike to it.

The best part of the trip was at dark, staring into the glow of the new lava lake, a vent opened up on the volcano in 2008. It looked like a distant fire from a mile away. We could hear the thunder of rocks splitting in the heat as the lava rose to its greatest height recorded so far. It was primal and raw, creation and destruction.  Life beginning, life ending.
This is what the lava lake looks like (the Park wouldn't let us this close so I took this from

Sunday, October 14, 2012

when it isn't enough

There are some things I will never understand.

One thing I know to be true is: sometimes wilderness isn't enough. Sometimes the place you live, the friends you have, life just isn't enough.

So you stop going to work. One day, without leaving a note, you decide that you have had enough. You take a shotgun, or a rifle. For you, it's over.

It's not over for everyone else.

What I don't get is this: there are so many people who are praying for just one more day. People with cancer, or  other terrible diseases. People dying pointlessly overseas in a war we can't win. People snatched off the street while running by crazed meth addicts. 

But what I try to understand is this: sometimes the pain is too much. You aren't thinking that it is a beautiful, sun-washed October day. You aren't thinking about the rest of us who used to run into you on a ski slope, a running trail, the rest of us who will wonder if there is anything else we could have done. I remember an email you sent me a week or so ago, and you said you hadn't been running much, that you needed to, and wondering if I would go along. I knew you were much faster than me, and so I made a joke of it. I said, maybe if you had already run ten miles first. Now I wish I had agreed to go, even if I would have puffed along in humiliation, maybe even had to walk. I wish I had gone by your house. I know what it's like to feel alone.

The mountains don't care about us. The rivers are indifferent. We come and go with the seasons. The only thing we have is people like us, the ones who overlook our crazy and take us along on an adventure. We never forget those people.

Wherever you are now, I won't forget you. I will remember when I walked by you with my cross country skis and you talked about how beautiful I looked (because we all need to hear that sometimes). I will remember seeing you running towards the lake, and wishing I could run that fast. How life might be perfect if I could be that good at something.

I won't think that anymore.

It is a sad day.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Hunt for Royal Purple

It was one of those moments. Crawling under leaning trees, over downed ones, poked and prodded and scraped by brush, when you think: Darn! I really should have worn pants!

There are few things so intriguing to me as those that are hidden. A far-off cirque that might hold a lake; a waterfall reportedly off the trail; walking passage in a cave. In this case, it was a ghost trail, the kind that once appeared on a map, but no longer does. Along with that there was a reported mine and cabin, seen by someone years ago.

There was a map, sometime, somewhere; we can't remember. We don't have it anymore. It showed a trail along Royal Purple Creek, but we can't recall how far it went or where. My neighbor emerged to say he had once been to the cabin. It had all the elements I needed: mystery, intrigue, route-finding. I headed out on a fresh fall day to explore.

I forgot my camera battery. But see behind that cabin in the distance? That's where you start.

It was one of those days that are charged with possibility. It hardly took any time to cover the distance between what was known and what wasn't. I stepped off the trail and into the woods.

To find an old trail, you have to spend some time. You have to ponder the landscape. You are looking for old cut logs, a depression, rocks piled up in a certain way. It took some time before I saw it.

It was obvious nobody had been on this trail in years. Decades. Trees lay like matchsticks across it. Brush had grown into an nearly impenetrable wall. But I could see traces of what used to be as I pushed my way through. Each time I thought about turning back, I looked ahead and was drawn in.

Finally the way ahead was too choked up to continue without the appropriate clothing. I turned to go back and there was the cabin. Trees had fallen on the roof, but it still stood. Once a small log structure, it had been added on with plywood to make a bigger building. Artifacts lay about:: five gallon red Kraft shortening cans, ladles and pottery hanging from hooks, a wood stove, tools. It almost, except for the leaves and debris inside, looked like the occupants weren't far away.

Some people think that wilderness should be just that. In the bad old days when the Park Service acquired property, they burned down every existing house on it. I can see the point, but I love finding traces of pioneer or Native American history. I like thinking about people who lived here before me and what their lives were like out here. They surely saw the wilderness in a different way. It wasn't a place to go for fun. It was their home.

I fought my way back to the trail. Two people were having lunch on a bench. The apparition of someone appearing from the brush, leaves in her hair, scratches on her legs and arms, was too much for them to let go.  I told them about the cabin and the man perked up. "Maybe I'll go look for it," he said.

Can you imagine using this much shortening?
The mystery isn't completely solved. There's a mine around there somewhere. And where does the trail go? I'll be back. With pants.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Crazy. Beautiful.

Beautiful Sky Lake

I've never been one to have fitness goals to stay motivated (I guess unless you count running marathons: To Not Die. To Finish. To Break Four Hours). I don't keep a spreadsheet of miles hiked or run or biked. I don't need those things; after typing at a computer for ten hours it's just natural to want to get outside and do something. But earlier this year I realized that I was close to a milestone: thirty nights spent backpacking for the year. That's not car camping. It doesn't count the days you pack up and hike out. No, it's the actual night, in a tent, that you backpacked to get to. (I'm not counting the suffocating two mile walk down the blacktop to the Yosemite Backpackers Campground, dodging unsteady bicyclists either. Though we did walk with our packs to get there. Hmm).

So anyway, thirty nights doesn't sound like a lot, but when you have a job and the season is basically three months, that's kind of a lot. I liked the round number of it. A month of my life in the wilderness.

On the pass

I have to stop here to address something. I feel as though lately this blog has become a mono blog. Backpack, backpack, backpack. I was thinking about this as I hiked upward through the alpine valley of Copper Creek. Because walking with a heavy pack isn't really what it's about. Because going out to camp when the low, in town, four thousand feet below Sky Lake, is only supposed to be 24 degrees, wouldn't be most people's cup of tea. Because a lot of it is exhausting, sweaty and hard.

Last year and the year before, we had to cross a snow slide. This is what is left this year, in a really dry summer. This snow never melts.

I realized as I finally reached Sky Lake, a place that does indeed look like a small fabric of the sky, that backpacking evens me out. In my real life, I'm kind of a worrier (I know, shocking). It's hard not to worry about things like owing more on my house than I can sell it for, that as a federal worker I have a big target on my back if the Republicans get elected, sequestration (look it up), and a host of other stupid things that I really can't do anything about anyway. When I'm out in the wilderness, a lot of that melts away. It doesn't seem important anymore. Maybe that's why I do it.

My  husband laughs at these sunglasses. I call them my "movie star sunglasses". They're big.

This Copper Creek country is wild and remote and crazy beautiful. There are lakes that are nameless and untouched. Valleys and ridges and passes that just beg to be explored. As usual, I didn't give myself enough days and found myself trying to cram it all in in twenty-four hours. I slogged up a trail that is no longer on the map when I should have just stayed in camp after the arduous hike in. The creeks were iced over, some solid. The lake was rimmed with ice. I had to retreat after a chilly night.

Two nameless lakes. Not even sure if you can safely get there.

I took a side trail to this miner's cabin. What an ideal spot.

The floor is the granite slab. It's the perfect size for me! The bed is the perfect length. Maybe I should move in.

Love this alpine valley. Note the ice.

I am standing on solid ice.

At first as I hiked downward I was disappointed. Why hadn't I budgeted one more day? But then I knew: the best thing of all is the knowing that there is still more to discover. I'll be back to the lake torn from the sky.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

the way it feels at 10,000 feet

I always forget how hard this trail is. Climbing 4,000 feet in four miles, it snakes its way up a mountain. It is eroded and harsh, little scree pebbles underfoot, no slacking off allowed. Once I saw two guys running this trail. How they did it is a mystery. It is an effort just to hike.

There's something about being at 10,000 feet that you just can't get at sea level. It's both a feeling and a truth. Gone is the security of rescue, the serenity of warm temperatures and easy breathing. Even in summer, there is still a hint of uncertainty this high. Things could turn in a minute. You have to be more careful, more self-reliant.

People once stayed near here, trying to pull copper from this mountain. There are adits and the remains of a makeshift cabin farther down, but you know they ranged all over this country. Though it's not legal in wilderness, I've often thought about finding a place to stay out a year. I'd pick a place like this, high and lonesome. I'd stack in the firewood and a whole mess of books. I'd pack up rice and beans and skis and snowshoes. I'd bring a dog or two, for warmth.

Of course in the end, I always head down to a lower elevation. You have to be social and responsible, at least that is what everyone expects. I suspect the reality of snow piling up and sub-zero temperatures would not be as romantic as it sounds. Still, I have a twinge of envy as I pass the old cabin ruins. Their lives were tougher than we are bred to be these days. Most of us couldn't hack it. But I bet they had moments at 10,000 feet when they knew how lucky they really were.