Friday, March 29, 2013

After three hundred miles, we'll either love or hate each other

Big news, outdoors peeps! I now have a PCT hiking buddy and I believe (crossfingerscrossfingers) that the hike can be expanded to start at Snoqualmie Pass in Section J, adding another 74 miles and the gorgeous Alpine Lakes Wilderness. This makes a grand total of......282 miles. Or so. Start date is August 10, and we hope to finish in about 21 days in Canada. My longest backpack trip yet, it beats the JMT by two days. And about fifty miles! That means we need to hustle our buns, but I know we can do it. No, it's not fastpacking, but I'm not a fan of that anyway. What I love about backpacking is that singular moment when you wake and step outside of the tent and see where you really are. The moments when you stop on the trail just to look and imagine and stare. The foot soaks, the afternoon swims. Lying on sun-warmed rocks. I don't have anything to prove anymore.

Good outdoors partners don't complain about small tents.

For over twenty years I fought fires on twenty-person crews. Because we were only skilled amateurs, we were cobbled together from different parks and forests, often not knowing each other until we met up at the airport. Sometimes a crew would gel, like the 1989 Cottonwood Creek fire, where we gave each other fire nicknames (Mine was Target, for a tree that fell nearby) and spent the weeks spiked out far from civilization. Other times a crew would completely fracture, like the dismal SO Cal experience near Cabazon, where lazy young men sat down complaining they were tired. Once on an Alaska crew, I met another Alaska crew at the airport. The second crew raved about how close they had become. I was currently hiding from my crew because I could not stand them.

Good outdoors partners know that yoga is important in the backcountry. 

The right outdoors partner makes the trip. I spent weeks in a kayak with C, who cheerfully shrugged off the torrential rain that blasted our heads and the gloves-and-hat wearing June nights under a tarp. On another trip, my co-worker alienated everyone until in exasperation the crew leader paid for a thousand dollar floatplane freedom flight for him. I've witnessed meltdowns and freak-outs and people who screamed because we lifted the pot to see if the rice was done. Then there were the ones who stayed cool under pressure, who slid the bullet into the magazine when the bear surprised us on the trail (we didn't have to shoot, thankfully) and the enablers who allowed me to go see what was around the bend.
I don't know how you could have a bad outdoors partner in a place like this.

Good outdoors partners like B. don't care if it's not sunny

A good outdoors partner knows when to chill by the plant press.

So you just never know when you sign up for something. The wilderness can bring out both the good and bad in everyone. We all have our moments when we are freezing, tired, or just crankypants in general. The trail doesn't care, and our partners somehow put up with us. I apologize in advance to my PCT buddy for any tantrums that may occur.

Other than that, I've been throwing pieces of gear in the air and reveling in how light they are. I'll post some reviews soon. Hike on.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

surviving "sprinter"

Last week we were riding our mountain bikes in shorts. This week we were skiing. The temperatures dropped from 60 to 15. This happens every year, but every year I forget.

For several weeks at this latitude, we are in between winter and spring, the weather unable to make up its mind. It's "Sprinter"--huge puffy clouds rolling in over the Zumwalt prairie, micro snow showers, bursts of sun. It can make a person a little crazy. Make up your mind already! It's pretty safe to say that we don't experience a normal spring like a lot of places. Instead it often leaps from winter right to summer--in late June.

There is still a lot of snow in the mountains that needs to melt before we can hike there.

Today the lake was trying to break up. It groaned and creaked and boomed, so loudly I could hear it from the top of the moraine.

It's often hard to find outdoorsy things to do in Sprinter. The trails are either an icy cascade, still snow-covered, or a deep mud. Bicycling is often an all out sprint to home as appendages threaten to freeze. Skiing can be a toss-up, happy crust cruising or mired in mashed potatoes. It takes patience and determination to make it through Sprinter.

But make it we will, because we aren't going to throw in the towel and move to warmer climates.

Sprinter has its own unique beauty that is easy to overlook when you are desperately seeking summer or mourning winter. The mountains have never looked more beautiful, shrouded in snow but touched with the slanting sunlight you can only get far north.

Avalanches thunder down the sides of Mount Joseph. Snow blows, a white flag, off the summits. There's a tease of warmth in the air. It's time to be in the moment instead of wishing it away.

Do you have Sprinter? What do you do to survive it?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What makes you bounce off the walls?

Recently a Facebook friend lamented the loss of youthful enthusiasm as she watched an intern get supremely excited about being accepted into a good graduate school. Which got me thinking. In our own lives, we have to have something, even one thing, that makes us bounce off the walls. That gets us so excited that we can't stand ourselves. What's yours?

There have been times in my life when I have lost touch with the one thing. Times when even the mountains were not enough; times when I wondered if I was on the right path. Those were times when I dusted myself off and changed my life. Changing things that are not working is never an easy thing--it's like crossing a river with a strong current. There are plenty of times when you feel like you are going to be swept off your feet and carried downstream. Times when you want to bolt back to the familiar. But in the end it was always worth  it.

So what's making me bounce off the walls lately?

  • My PCT section hike! I've become a spreadsheet-creating, ounce-destroying machine! I've dropped my base weight from 22 to 14 pounds by eliminating the unnecessary and replacing the heavy. Of course, I could get down to ten pounds and truly enter the rarefied air of the ultralight if I were to sleep under a bandanna or drop $500 on a cuben fiber tent. Not happening! But I am so ready to hit the trail! There is something so seductive about a long hike that draws you back in after you have done one. It's a combination of the trail family you meet and the time it takes to completely let go of everything but the trail. 
  • My writing! This year has been a frenzy of words, with three long manuscripts, all in different genres and subjects, completed and hitting the road, looking for a home. Even if they never get published, I found that I have reached an equilibrium of sorts. Each one had to be written. One was a love story to a place I will never quite get out of my blood. The other, a quest for understanding a place and people. The third, a recollection of a time in my life that was intensely spectacular and terrifying at the same time. I'm starting on a new novel, which is always an uphill climb. I know it will be at least a year commitment, maybe more. It is completely different than the others, a step into the unknown.
  • My husband. Well, I have to say this, don't I? I am so not a sappy person. I don't swamp Facebook with those corny posters. I don't believe in soul mates or things happening for a reason. I am way too scientific for that. I am just really, really lucky that I believed a man who lied and moved with him to a little town in the middle of nowhere, and when the man who lied left, I somehow stumbled on this man who is fine with my adventurous soul. 
Okay! It's a rainy Wednesday, an easy day to count your disillusion instead of your blessings. Tell me, what things are you bouncing off the walls about today?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

a normal day

Occasionally I stumble upon outdoors blogs where the authors seem to live in a dream world. No job to tether them, but enough money to freely wander. I open up a post: "Guess what! We're in Thailand!" These are people who obviously have it figured out (I wish they would share how).

Alas. Most of us struggle along, saving up for our next trip and waiting for the glorious weekend. Take me, for example. When I started this blog I was a wilderness kayak ranger in Alaska, with plenty to write about each day. I also had shallow roots and a man who was noncommittal as the tide. Things have changed.

So you probably won't be seeing "Hey! I'm in Iceland!" anytime soon. In fact, I decided to write up what an average day looks like. Because really, don't most of us only write about our adventures? It can leave an impression that isn't really true. For all the hours I spend outdoors there are many more that I spend doing this....

0500. Wake in inky blackness (darn time change). The cabin is cold; its sole source of heat beyond a small portable oil heater is wood. Fire has gone out. Once again was too lazy to bring kindling inside. Stumble outside in robe. Hope neighbors don't notice. Husband is up at other cabin taking care of injured dog. Don't hate me because I have two houses. The combined square footage is less than your one house, I am quite sure.

0530. Get out of robe. Working at home lends itself to lazy dressing, but I decided long ago I would mostly forgo the yoga pants and unbrushed hair for a professional appearance. It kind of helps...

0600. Turn on computer. Wait interminably for it to boot. Take deep breath. Where am I working today? I work on recreation and wilderness projects around the country. If it is Alaska today, I close my eyes and remember the musky fish and sea smell, the dense evergreens, the slide of rain off of my face. If it's the southwest, I feel the bake of the sun in the high desert. It's a cheap form of travel.

1200. Time to exercise. What to do today? Quickly assess the situation. Wind, snow, ice? Run in the park? Ride the bike? Power hike? Run it is. I layer up and race outside to make the most of my hour. Think about work as I run. Try not to think about work. Think about weekend instead. Is it going to be warm enough to backpack? Wonder. Worry about mysterious hip pain. Run some more. Go home and shower.

1300-1630. Work, occasionally interrupted by Jehovah's witnesses, a man selling "Meat" from a vehicle (really), Fed Ex (Gear!), a phone call telling me I've won a trip to Bermuda, fire management in the wood stove, persistent pets wanting attention, and having to reboot computer.

1630. Done! Wait interminably for computer to shut down. Pretty soon there will be hours of daylight, enough to go on a short adventure. I live for those days. Now there is only time to attend to the typical: obsess over gear for PCT section hike, check on husband and dog, split wood, work on new novel, yoga. Okay, I'm kidding about yoga. I need to start doing yoga again. 

Get up. Repeat. 

I've said this before, but after twenty something years spent serving the recreating public, most of whom could care less, my heart is finding it harder each day. It's not that I don't think my job is valuable and that I am not grateful I have one, because I do. It's a growing feeling that life is super short combined with a glimpse into a black future, jobless, without health insurance or retirement. How to balance those two things? If you have figured it out, let me know.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Notes from the edge

I've always been drawn to precipices. Saddles, divides, ridges, passes. Places where weather changes and water separates. Places where choices must be made: travel into new, unfamiliar country or turn back to the known? Maybe this is why I traveled so much; the difference between the humid Florida glades and the sunny Sierra was like dropping off a cliff every six months that I moved between the two. There's just something about that line that separates two very different places that entices me every time.

Looking back the way we came.

The hike up to Freezeout Saddle, where the canyon breaks begin, the division between the Imnaha River and the Snake, could be characterized as a slog. But it ranks low on the sloggy scale because of the endless switchbacks you grind through instead of a straight shot to the sky. It gives you room to breathe and take it all in. The elevation gain is modest too, just under 2,000 feet in three miles. Throw in a few snowbanks to posthole through and you ramp up the effort level a little, but there was nobody but us in sight and a big bowl beneath us. Completely worth it.

The other side of the pass. The flat area is where the bench trail begins.  Nine miles away is the Snake River.

As always I wanted to keep going, to descend into the folds of the canyon and stay for the night, for weeks, months. There's something about canyons that do that.

Indigo, the wonder dog.

It's a good thing I sometimes bring friends with me because it keeps me from committing foolish acts like dropping another two thousand feet to the bench trail just to "see what it's like" with only a puffy jacket and a handful of crackers. In the end we turned around, but I wasn't sad. I'll be back in a couple of weeks, and the pass isn't going anywhere.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Gear is Arriving!

This past week we have had a summer tease. Temperatures have been an incredible sixty-three degrees, warm enough to truly believe that winter is over. It's not, though--it's supposed to snow again Sunday. It wouldn't be the real mountains without this hesitation between seasons. All of this reminds me that soon I will be backpacking in the mountains!

The exciting  news is that some of the lightweight gear I ordered has been making its way to the post office. Yes, 200 miles is not even a tenth of the PCT, but it still represents a significant hike no matter how you look at it. There are times when I wish I were doing the whole thing, but then I come back to my senses. As much as I like hiking long and far, I don't want it to be my sole reason for being for five months.

A big box of food from PackitGourmet arrived, blissfully lightweight sustenance that I hope will keep my 8 day without resupply food bag at less than ten pounds. I used to labor over a camp stove, lovingly chopping vegetables, while my wilderness ranger supervisor chowed down in minutes from a plastic bag. "I just like to eat and be done so I can explore," he stated. I've adopted that mindset too. In the best of times, I'm not a foodie, so why start on the trail? From the JMT I know that the "hiker hunger" won't really set in for a week or so, just in time to hit the Stehekin bakery....

I've also invested in another set of Merrell Siren Sports, this time the waterproof kind. I'm hoping this will help with wet vegetation. But it's going to be sunny the whole time, right?

The little Osprey pack is going to be either a pack attachment or a waist pack to hold camera, sunscreen, snacks--all the things I can grab while hiking without having to stop.

Next up in the mail is a very light backpack I am going to test out, and a sleeping quilt. Stop the madness! In the name of fairness, I am donating some older gear to make room for new gear. In a 1,000 square foot cabin with one closet, this keeps me from becoming a hoarder. And this, my friends, is why I work year round while some of my buddies do not. To afford new gear! What other reason is there to have a job?

Monday, March 11, 2013

the same old river

When I decided to try to stay in one place, the thing I most feared was the slow sinking into the ordinary. I'm not one to brag, to monopolize the conversation with old stories dredged from a murky past. Most people have no idea of my former lives. But still, when I would think over my day back then, it was satisfying to recall what I did: land in a Dehavilland Beaver floatplane on a lake the color of azure to camp for days in the trackless mountains. Kayak in twelve foot swells along the Chichagof coast where bears grazed the bering sea sedge like cows in the estuaries. Drive a swamp buggy through four feet of midnight black water, the red eyes of alligators like tiny starbursts.  Drop roped into the twilight zone of caves. March into the path of a distant fire.

Living in one place, what would those stories be? Traveling the same trails, beaten down by others. Left behind as others fought the fires, left for the season. The fear of this kept me traveling way past the time  I should have quit. Driving through whatever silent burg I lived in, exhausted, bug-bit, muscles aching, I would spy the cars of the stay-at-homes. How, I would think, can they stand it?

It's become a spring ritual for me. In the last four years I scour the weather forecast for a spot 18 miles NNE of Imnaha. It is where the Imnaha and Snake Rivers collide, bright sparkling water into brown, the wise old cliffs towering over head. It is where spring first touches this county. Once the forecast brushes sixty, I load up and head down a rattlesnake of a road, the kind of place where you clench your teeth and hope a horse trailer isn't coming the opposite way. I hike in on a path deeply familiar by now, following the gregarious Imnaha River as it falls to the Snake. I pick the same beach and camp there, sleeping to the sound of the river.

Only this year the canyon is different. Last fall it burned down to the bone, a lightning strike carrying fire from the ridge all the way to the river. The flames exposed its history; old can dumps from the stamp mill days, farm machinery, bighorn sheep trails. Without some of the brush, new camping sites emerged. The poison ivy was knocked into submission and the ticks were absent. The canyon appeared almost benign.

I found a new beach that had been only a small sliver the year before, now expanded to a perfect campsite. I hesitated. I always camped at the farther beach. But here this one was, a gift. Abandoning the trail, I made for it.

The night was an immense bowl of stars. The river sang its endless song. My life is different now and I would be lying if I said I didn't miss those days of high adventure sometimes. In many ways, life is easier when you can fill it with all-you-can-do non-stop activity. When you can move every couple of years, you can leave the things you don't like behind, like the possessions I carted to the thrift shops. You can shrug at the tears: "You knew I was like this when you met me," you can say.

I know now what I didn't before: there is something just as brave about staying.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Blogstockchen! (And a Question)

We sit at our computers, typing up our adventures, and press Publish, wondering if anyone will ever read our posts, or worse yet, even care. What did we do before blogs? Show slides, I guess. Write letters. Have pen pals. Say what you will about the electronic age and people glued to their devices, but I would never have gotten to know a wide range of adventurous people without the blogosphere. Their stories get me off the couch, inspire me to try new things, or just plain be entertained.

Allison tagged me in this game called Blogstockchen, and posted this question: What do you always take on a hike? The goal is for me then to tag three other bloggers. They tag others. Everyone reading can discover new and interesting blogs!

I had to laugh because I am famous for the things I have forgotten: tent poles, stove, rain fly for tent, hiking boots, two of the same kind of hiking boots...

My answer would have been a lot different three years ago:

In Alaska, I always, always carried rain gear and pepper spray. Rain gear because, well, 110 inches of rain a year. Pepper spray for big bears. Always had to use one, thankfully never had to use the other, though there were a couple of close calls.

But now in the sunny West  it is:

 A camera. Always! Even for trail runs, because you never know. I have managed to destroy several cameras and finally settled on this Lumix one, because it doesn't have a retractable lens. The others all got sand or dirt caught in their lenses and stopped working. ps. Enjoy the view of my lovely bathroom!
 Blister stuff. I never ever carried this until after the JMT. My blisters were truly horrific there, and I still am not sure why. I still suffer PTSD from one day of hiking from Woods Creek to Rae Lakes. I had hiked in those boots all summer with a pack so it was mystifying. Now I always carry something, even if it is just a pad arrangement like above. I am trying out Ininji socks and will report back.

Dirty Girl Gaiters. (A little blurry). I can't say enough about this amazing product. On the JMT we would greet each other with, "I like your Dirty Girls"! Great colors, lightweight, and keep dirt out of your shoes.

There you have it, my three never-left-behind items.

I picked some amazing  outdoor bloggers to tag. Check out their blogs! Your turn, KarenDanni, and Jill!

And for everyone else, what three items do you always take?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Walking with skis

We had a goal in mind: the Owl-Haas loop on cross country skis. At ten miles and not groomed, it is up there in terms of difficulty, but we had high hopes, starting off early under spring-like skies. Unfortunately the snow was spring-like too. "Concrete mashed potatoes" was an apt description of the heavy, wet slush we forced our skis through. Joyful downhills were instead slow slogs. We were walking with skis.

Poor pole placement, but stylish down skirt. This was on the snowmobile trail, on the way back. The rest of the loop did not look like this.

But that was okay. The loop is a quiet spiral through the trees, deserted by everyone but us. We were down to two layers in the high elevation sun. We skied two miles in a slow effort, but we knew the loop was within our grasp.

The dog far ahead, still afloat.

Until we noticed the dog. Gamely she postholed far behind us, sinking in up to her face. Even walking in our ski tracks, she sunk in. Which made sense, because we were also sinking in several inches. With eight miles to go, it was obvious the dog would make it, but at a cost. The choice was inevitable--slog back the two miles to the car, put the dog in, and try again.

Dogs are like that. They keep you humble. On a trip in the southwest, my husband and I had a rule: if the bouldering was too hard for the dogs, it was too hard for us. Dogs will try their heart out and collapse; they don't keep a reserve. On another hike in Hells Canyon, Sierra walked her pads off, never once complaining.

It has been different, adjusting to life with dogs. With three of them, we can't often stay in hotels, unless we sneak one in, claiming to only have two (and we would never, ever do that. Ever.) Hiking with them, we either are pulled along at high speeds on leashes or we have to pick trails where people don't go. Lovers of people, the dogs bound toward unsuspecting hikers with enthusiasm. They aren't jumpers or barkers; they just pant happily around new people, but three large missiles can make others nervous.

This dog I had with me today wasn't mine; she's a floppy-eared sweetie who seems to have her share of difficulties on the trail, not the least of which was a rattlesnake bite a couple of years ago. We didn't want to risk any injuries, so we deposited her in the car and decided to head out on the loop the other way, in hopes of closing the gap.

With the passing warm hours the snow worsened until we were floundering at a snail's pace. "We could still do it," we both said, but we knew that trying to finish would mean racing the dark. It was already two pm with seven miles to go. Our pace had deteriorated to about two miles an hour and it was obvious that even our tracks out would not provide much of a glide. Sometimes I hate the voice of reason.

Lunchtime. "We've only gone two miles."

See how enticing this is?
So we turned around after two and a half more miles and slogged out, gaining hardly any glide in our old tracks. It was the right choice, but that didn't make it easy. At the car, the dog was happy to see us. It was a day of correct decisions; often the days aren't. We made plans to be back, with better snow and perhaps no dogs.

But then again, I like having dogs along. I love their enthusiasm. They don't hold back. They can teach us a lot about living in the moment.

Blurry, but here's my pack.