Thursday, December 27, 2012

Backcountry Subs

Even with lists, it is still possible to forget things. You run out the door, forgetting that your Leatherman is in your firefighting pack, not your day pack. At the last minute, your friend insists that everyone can fit in her car, and you leave your trekking poles in yours by mistake. When you pursue several different activities, you can't have four or five of everything and something is always in a different location.

Never fear, there are usually always substitutions that you can improvise. By trial and error, I have learned that a forgotten item need not sink a backcountry trip.

So, you forgot your...

Hat? And it's a wind-blasted day, with snow whipping around your ears? No worries! Try this. Most of us carry extra layers. Wind one around your head like so.

Not pretty, but it works!

Camp stove? No need to munch forlornly on freeze-dried noodles. If you are in a place where it is safe and legal to build a campfire, do the following: 1. Look for beer drinkers. Barring that, look in fire rings. 2. Gather a discarded beer can. 3. Rinse it out. 4. Pour in fresh water. Voila, a boiling pot of water! Note: This may sound too unhygenic for you. Not recommended if so. If desperate, proceed.

Tent poles? You can always sleep outside of your tent. However, if you are in the bottom of Hells Canyon and your co-worker has just informed you of scorpions and skunks in the area, you may wish to try this. If your tent has considerable mesh, collect some camp items such as water jugs or other things you can stack. Lay out the tent as if you were going to set it up. Slither in like a snake. Prop the items along the sides to make an impromptu bivy and keep the mesh off your face. Note: In another tent pole dilemma, if a tent pole breaks in a windstorm, use the tape from your first aid kit to splint it.

Rain fly? If no rain, no problem. However isn't it always the case? Find a dense patch of trees. If you have the right kind of tent, try this. Set it up, then flip it over so that the water resistant bottom is on top. Take extra p-cord or the tent cords and secure to the tree limbs so it is kind of a hanging shelter. Crawl carefully in. Does not work for heavier campers.

Boots? This could be a deal breaker unless, like me, you carry camp/water crossing shoes you can hike in. I always do because if I get terrible blisters, I know that I can at least finish my hike. I have backpacked 12 miles in sandals and it can work with good  quality ones.

Spoon? Take out your Leatherman and carve one out of a stick.

Hairbrush? Yes, some of us like to look pretty. And avoid dreadlocks. A spork or a fork works great for brushing hair!

Sleeping bag? This really happened, on a kayak trip in Alaska. The rain poured down. The float plane flew away. We unpacked hastily. There was that sinking feeling. Well, this can be miserable. It can be a deal breaker. Unless you have warm clothes to bundle in. On the JMT one of my hiking companions' bag got soaked. Some of us gave her our down puffys to sleep in. (I didn't. My bag was damp too. Sorry Suz.) She survived, but wasn't too happy. Word of advice: Don't roll up in a tarp. Condensation.

Sleeping Pad: Layer all your warm clothes underneath your bag. Don't sleep on a rock outcrop. Look for pine needles or grass. Heat up a water bottle if you can. It is amazing how much a layer between you and the ground is needed.

Pants? (Don't ask) Stuck in a Florida swamp with poison ivy and just shorts? Have a sweatshirt or long sleeve? Stick your feet in the arms and pull it up and tie it around your waist! Yes, you will look deranged. But you will be scratch and ivy free!

It is up to you to weigh the consequences of a lost item versus the chance of you becoming a liability. Some people feel more comfortable than others winging it. When in doubt, head back to the trailhead.

Any other bizarre subs out there? How have you managed to cope without a missing item?

Friday, December 21, 2012


When the wind stops, two and a half days later, the silence feels strange. I have grown so used to the persistent howl as it slams into the cabin after raking across the mountains. This time the wind topped out at ninety miles an hour. Pieces of the neighbor's roof flew across the yard. Up and down the street I could see people retrieving garbage cans. Cars were blown off the roads. The wind scoured the snow, replacing it with a solid sheen of ice. All of us huddle in our houses. In a storm like this, this truly does feel like the end of the world.

But out we went, because we had said we would clear the Nordic trails at 6,000 feet. The parking lot was a wind-blasted landscape of ice and blowing snow. I wore long underwear, two wool layers, a down coat and a shell as I skied tentatively along the alternating deep and icy layers of snow. I believe that if you use trails for any purpose you should spend at least one day volunteering to clear them. Unfortunately the budgets of the agencies responsible are stretched too thin to make up the difference. Too many people rush along not knowing what it takes to keep them clear. Everyone should learn.

The dogs looked cute but weren't much help.

The trees were buried deep in wind-driven snow and we had to shovel them out with our mittens until the saw could reach them. As we worked I thought about how many trails I've cleared over the years, and how the trees keep falling, weakened by wind and old age and fire. If I really thought about it, how small our effort was, it would be easy to give up. But in the end, it feels good to make headway against the wind.

I've read that the constant blowing of wind on the prairies literally drove some pioneers crazy. And there is something about wind that gets on your last nerve. But I've always liked extreme weather. I couldn't live in an unchanging paradise, although Hawaii sounded pretty good the last few days.

I have ice grippers, but this street in front of my cabin seemed a little daunting in 60 mph winds.

I couldn't really get great pictures of our lake in the storm. This doesn't do it justice. Spray was blowing off the tops of the waves and waves were crashing onto the beach.  Most of the time this is a placid lake, so it was pretty exciting. People were driving up to take pictures. Yes, the fun  never ends in this town.
For now the winds are quiet. A light snow is starting to fall. Maybe it will cover the ice and the trees will stay upright, until next time.

Monday, December 17, 2012

mountain bender

Sometimes it seems like there isn't any hope left in the world. Those are the times when only a mountain bender will work. Over the years, the mountains have healed my heart in so many ways. 

As the sun finally reached six thousand feet, the light moved like a ghost through the trees. The world was that ethereal blue color only found in deep winter.

Sparkles in snow are snowflakes reflecting the sun. 

I am tired, limp, boneless.  Who  knew a few hours of cross country skiing (without groomed trails) can make you so tired? I feel like I've run a marathon.

I ski along breaking trail. My skis sink deep into bottomless powder. But there is a hidden base far below. Just like there is strength and hope and courage in every one of us.

I will never have children, so I will never know the pain of losing one. I have lost other things, and I know that the sorrow never really goes away. It lurks deep in your soul. It can come back at strange moments. It lingers there in your heart.

This time of year, mountain benders are short. No long seamless days of sunshine. The sun ducks quickly for cover. The snow begins. It is time to drive back down the white knuckle mountain road. Back to reality. 

But the mountains are there. They are open and free to everyone when you need them.

See you out there.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Winter looks good on you

Then it began to snow. And snow. And snow. Skiers jumped up and down and yelled unintelligible things. The report is that even the old(er) timers have never seen so much snow in the high country this early. They are already doing turns up there. For our strange juxtaposition of Hells Canyon, dry desert range and mountains,any snow is celebrated.

I immediately launched into a cross country skiing frenzy. This is the closest I get to perfection, because it is a exercise that demands everything you have. I love the long unmitigated slogginess of it because I am more into the endurance than the rush. Fighting fire for twenty years gave me enough rush. Now I am all about the long distance.

Later I walked to the post office. Snow fell heavily, decorating my hair. One of the postal workers said, "You look like Frosty the Snowman." *Really dude? Isn't Frosty kind of plump?* The other one said, "It looks good on you."

 Aww thanks Mr. Post Man.

I'm still suffering some sleeplessness, sinusy type headaches and a general yearning for chocolate. My running is slow on the ice. I am living in the past as I finish my fire memoir. (Hey--anyone know a publisher?) But today--sun shines brightly on the peaks that loom over us. It's 22 degrees. Winter is bringing my sparkle back.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Pushing Through It

We pushed through willows and downed trees and meandered our way through a stark landscape.

The Devils Gulch trail is on Nature Conservancy land and there are a lot of forbidden activities. No dogs. No mountain bikes. No campfires. No camping.

No camping? What's wrong with these people? But all prejudice aside, this is a good place to climb off the trail towards a random outcrop and take in the scenery. At lower elevation, perhaps 2000 feet, this place doesn't get softened by snow. It takes some hard looking to recognize the beauty in a winter-hardened landscape, but it is there.

Lately I've felt like I've been pushing a sofa uphill whenever I run or hike. This has made my outdoor adventures more of a challenge. All I want to do is sit around and eat Trader Joe's dark chocolate peanut butter cups. But in the interest of pushing through to the other side, I gathered my willpower.

"A lot of people are feeling this way at this time of year," my friend said when I mentioned this. "You have to push on through." It's good to have friends that don't enable. This kind of tough love works.

We stared doubtfully at the random rock outcrop we had selected as our turn-around point. Suddenly the ridge we were climbing seemed much steeper than it had from the river. But even though the outcrop wasn't even at the top of the canyon, it took on a mythical importance. We really, really wanted to get there.

There wasn't much to see up there that we couldn't have seen a few hundred feet below. Small birds moved like smoke through the trees. Elk grazed on the slope nearby. There was only the breath of the wind and a winter storm lurking on the horizon.

There are many shades of brown to canyon country in winter and it takes spending some serious time there to appreciate it. I'll always be a fan of brilliant green or sparkling snow, but part of living here is learning all the different moods of the canyons. All are beautiful and mysterious.

In the end our puffys and hats were no match for the chilly wind, proving that December can always be an iffy time to be this far from a road. We scrambled back down to the trail after spending only a few seconds at the elevation we had worked to attain.

I've run on this trail but in the intervening storms neglect has taken over. It is no longer so easy to push through. We do, though, crawling under logs and battering through thorny bushes. I know that if I keep going, I can push through anything.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Winter is when we rest our running bones, our hiking feet.  Skiing is perhaps the best exercise there is and it is time for something different. We all pray for snow and wake to rain. It has been a mixed bag in this transition time. December, and I wear shorts as I run. We are steeped in rain, the sky winter-dark as we open the gate in the morning, an uncanny relationship to Southeast Alaska. If I close my eyes I am back under a tarp on a nameless island, kayaks tied to trees, the beach shrinking with the tide.

But I'm snuggled up against a mountain range instead, and we have been battered by wind, ceaseless howling  of up to eighty miles an hour, scaring the animals and setting our nerves on edge. What can you do in this weather? The trails are dangerous, trees falling with muffled thumps. We wake up to detritus from the neighbors: garbage cans, pieces of roof.

When we hear the rumor of snow up high, it galvanizes us. We scramble to find our skis, put aside since May. We leave 4,000 feet in a driving rain. It does not look promising.

The mountain road is lashed by wind and rain. Rocks, some as big as cats, have tumbled down from the slopes above. We pass Target Springs and Headache Springs. Still no snow.

Finally at six thousand feet we reach snowline. This is as far from powder as you can get, not our usual snow. A warm storm sweeping in from California has ensured that the snow is the consistency of mashed potatoes. The meadows are awash in standing water. We stand, looking. We are not the only fools up here. An overly optimistic crew has toted snowmobiles up here and cranks them up. It will be slush riding for them.

Slush is better than nothing but the higher we get, the better the snow is. I'm reminded once again how the subtle gain of elevation can change everything. When I worked in the Florida swamp, mere inches determined what grew. The hardwood hammocks, bristling with oaks and gumbo limbo trees, were retreats that the small animals retreated to during the summer high water. Often we found their bones there; trapped by water, they died there.

Here we watch the snowline dip and rise on Chief Joseph Mountain, trees frosted just above us while we sit in the rain. Here it takes forever for winter to arrive and forever for it to leave. In between we have this elevational dance. Like I used to listen for tide reports, here I look for snowline reports. Five thousand feet, four thousand..where it falls makes a difference.

Our ski is short, perhaps a little over an hour. It is already thirty-seven degrees and later it will ice up, making skiing dangerous. You take what you can get around here. We climb on our skis, taking turns breaking trail. There is a hint of a glide, a promise of things to come.

We sometimes talk about moving to Canada, or someplace with more consistent snow. It sounds good when we are in this transition zone, waiting for the snow to move down. Someplace with longer summers and better snow? Does such a place exist? For now we'll  keep driving higher in elevation.