Sunday, April 28, 2013

Off Balance

The physical therapist eyed me critically. "You're...crooked," he said. "One leg is 3/8 of an inch longer than the other. Your body has really been compressed as a result of trauma."

A year after my trail running fall, I had suspected as much, but a $200 doctor visit had yielded only this: "Maybe don't run so much." I had to fight to be referred to PT, and now everything made sense. The band of pain when standing, low in my back. An ache when I ran, deep in the muscle. And this: just an indescribable feeling of imbalance, as if the way I walked through the world was no longer right.

There's also other types of imbalance, the kind that can be cured by spending a night on the high trail. This trail winds like a belt around the middle of Hells Canyon, passing through sweet benches that soar over empty space and abandoned pieces of homesteads. It is remote and wind-swept and peppered with flowers. We saw one pack string in twenty-four hours, even though it is gloriously spring in the canyon, seventy degrees as we lay on our thermarests taking in the view.

That's Idaho over there with all the snow. It's about 7 miles away.

our tents with only the mesh, the better to see the full moon.
This is the third time that I've climbed up and over Freezeout Saddle and I have to say I am ready to hike somewhere else, but the canyon doesn't let you in easily. You have to want to go there enough to trudge slowly upwards, plunge downwards on rocks like marbles, and do it all over again the next day.

Shadows fall as evening approaches.

Some elk came over to say hi.

Happiness. The green bag is my Z Packs 20 degree quilt/bag: I kept thinking of the song In the Pines: (we shiver when the cold wind blows) because I froze all night! I think it got to about 35 degrees or so. I obviously need some fine tuning with my "sleep system".
My physical imbalance seems to be cured, although the PT warned me that my body had gotten used to working with the way it was, and it might take some time for it to adjust. The other imbalance? It's temporarily cured; a weekend outside does it for a little while. but not for long.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

In which we hike far. Maybe.

Trail off of the Appalachian Trail. Credit: ChinMusic's trail journal on trail

I've kind of felt like I belong on the Chunky Gal trail lately. Too much work, not enough time outside. It all builds up to becoming a Cranky McCrankerson. A lunch time run or an hour in the gym just doesn't cut it. So when the Freak of Nature was up for a hike of epic proportions, I agreed. When you haven't done anything long in a while, you start to doubt your fitness and ability. My long hike is coming up in three months, and a few runs wouldn't do it. You need time on your feet. Hours of time on your feet, with a pack.

Choices were slim. Snow was still falling in the mountains. It would be the lowlands again, this time to complete the loop, the distance of which we had no idea. I forgot the GPS, which in retrospect might have been a good decision. It's freeing to not know exactly where you are, how high you have climbed, and how far you have gone. At least I think so.
Up on Starvation Ridge. We certainly weren't starving. This time, I brought plenty of food.

Dropping in, committed to the day.

Hard to see in this picture, but a trail zigzags down the open slope here from Miller Ridge into Swamp Creek. There used  to be a telegraph line that went to the old Chico Ranger Station, accessible only by foot and horse. Back in the days of real work!

This log crossing was a little sketch.

Lovely little springtime creeks.

Canyon topography to keep things interesting.
At about the ten mile mark, we came upon the confluence of Swamp and Davis Creeks. It was a lovely grassy flat, perfect for camping, but we had miles to go and pressed on. Shortly before that, a random guy on a trail bike buzzed past us. You could tell he was surprised to see us, but he had no time to react. We didn't either. This was the only person we saw in eight hours.

That's the thing about all day endeavors, whether it's running or hiking or climbing. Sooner or later you have to face yourself in the silence between conversations. It can be the most honest time there is.

We slogged up the final slope to the car, having covered fifteen or eighteen or fourteen miles and climbed either three thousand or two thousand or five thousand feet. It didn't matter. I get that it matters to some people. It used to matter to me. Now I measure my outings in different, more ephemeral ways.

This week it's back to wrestling the same alligators, in which I try to bridge the gap between the life I want and the one I have. It's not a big gap;  it could require only a small leap of faith. With enough long hikes, I will figure out how to get there.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

wilderness confessions

I think we all need a silly post right about now. So here you go. Wilderness Confessions, Volume I.

1. Once at the end of a harrowing wilderness ranger trip, where I hiked many miles, cleaned up much trash, and answered endless questions ("How heavy is your pack? Aren't you afraid out here?") I was on my last half mile to the pickup. I saw two floppy hats approaching. I knew what it would mean! Hours of talking! I hid in the woods so I wouldn't have to talk to them.

2. I'm tired of reading about women helpless in the outdoors. No offense, there are some great writers out there who overcame some hurdles. But there are women out there who never got addicted to anything, didn't have a horrible childhood, and didn't need a man to move to Alaska. Let's hear more about them!

3. My friend and I almost started a forest fire in the Sierras years ago. It was windy. We were lucky. Enough said.

4. I told some people a cross country hike was easy without taking into consideration that I was a) younger than them and b) I  had been doing it all summer. They glared when they saw me again. Oops!

5. I once told my co-worker, Jim, that we had farther to run than we really did to see if I could beat him in the daily run. (We all did this on the firefighting crew to demoralize the others)

6. I was part of a plot to smuggle an alligator into a pickup once (nobody was harmed). Other plots included staging a crime scene, writing fake love letters to our crew boss from someone named Barbie, and mousetraps in Jack's slippers. Oh and painting our co-worker Gary's toenails pink while he slept on the couch.

7. I once broke up with somebody because he liked to sit on the couch all day instead of go outside. Also, I had bigger shoulders and could do more pull-ups. I broke up with someone else because he lived illegally on Forest Service land, bathing in the creeks. There just did not seem to be much hope for a sustainable future. Especially in winter.

8.  My various wilderness nicknames have been: Target, Darted Monkey, Wilderness Witch, Panther Babe and Marcher.

9. I wish I could still run marathons.

10.  I was supposed to burn down all the illegal cabins I found in the Alaska wilderness, but there was one, a secret and wonderful treehouse that I turned around and walked away from and never told a soul. I don't regret it.

Add to the list!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

In the lowlands

Oh I’ve been in the lowlands too long
Oh, I know, I know that I should go
And I’ve been in the lowlands too long  (Gillian Welch)

In many of the eleven other states where I have lived, I wished to be able to easily untangle myself from the same ecosystem, stretching out for miles and needing expensive plane rides or long road trips to change into something else. Happily, I now live in a strange little corner of the world where if you get a hankering for something different, it's not too far away. 

In a snowy April, the lowland trails are always a good place to go. They melt out before the mountains, and are one of the few places that are a slow rollercoaster instead of a straight shot to the sky. The cows barge in soon and it becomes a place that only those who love them should go, but for a brief moment between that (sad for the riparian area) event and winter, Davis and Swamp Creek trails rule.

The two creeks are separated by a ridge that I am in love with, Starvation Ridge. I don't know what it is about high, open ridges, but I love them with a passion. A person can make an excellent, long, long hike (or run) by connecting the two in a big loop, but they will have to cross both creeks, which are pretty high right now.

Davis Creek

I can't believe I neglected to take a picture of the creek. This photo is from The creek runs through woods and occasional sweet meadow openings. Because I'm like that, I kept commenting on perfect camp sites.

We weren't there to camp, though, but to hike, and hike we did.

We had our sites on getting to the Swamp and Davis confluence, but at 5.5 miles and facing a climb out without headlamps, we admitted defeat.

I think these are wild onions?

There's Starvation Ridge again. Love.

This simple eleven mile hike, with perhaps a thousand foot elevation gain and loss, gave me a Hiking Hangover the next day. Don't know what that is? It's when you think that the terrain and pace are so easy that you neglect to drink and eat enough. Dehydration and lack of calories conspire to make you feel like you went on a bender the night before. "Eleven miles?" J asked. "Don't you have to hike farther than that every day on your PCT hike?"

"Yes," I sniveled. But then I realized that a handful of crackers and cheese and a few snacks cadged from  my more prepared hiking partner were not enough for five hours of sustained effort, as easy as it may have seemed. Because my body does not seem to warn me in advance of a bonk, I need to be more prepared. It is a lesson I relearn every year. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


In Alaska, my life was bounded by water. Stuck on an island surrounded by miles of sea, water of some sort was a constant. Tide, rain, river. It rained so much that rain ceased to be a topic of conversation. It just was, an accompaniment to the hours. It was unremarkable. You could see it in newcomers, the way they swathed themselves in waterproof jackets and pants for running, the umbrellas they carried. The longer all of us lived there, the less rain gear we wore. We kept our boot dryers in the living room. We were mildly panicked and energized by the rare appearance of sun. We thought, secretly, that we were tough.

Four years out from the rain forest, I found myself whining when one of my friends asked me if I wanted to hike. "It's supposed to rain," I bitched. Then I paused. Had I become a fair weather adventurer? Had I somehow lost my toughness?

True to form, I decided I wouldn't give in. Despite the gloomy forecast, I prepared to charge up the Hurricane Creek trail. I couldn't become one of those people who sits inside if the weather isn't great! Could I? No. Off I went.

The meadow was lovely and wild.

The waterfall is tiny; there must still be ice above. In summer we sit up there in the pools. Not for awhile!

Looking up canyon  to the wilderness beyond
Sheets of ragged clouds swept over the mountains. Curtains of rain and snow moved in and out in a slow dance. I crawled under trees swept down from big winds. This is a trail I have run and hiked countless times. It never ceases to amaze me.

The rain brought memories, both bitter and sweet. Do you ever outrun your past? I don't think so.

On the way back I ran into four other hikers, the only others out there. They had waited out the rain; a weak sun struggled to appear. They had, I thought, missed out.

ps. Hey Bloggy Peeps! I love reading hiking/adventure blogs. Do you have one? Post it in the comments. Other people will see it and read also! You are welcome. It's good to have readers out there.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Back in the canyon

It was March 31 and Hells Canyon was simmering, hovering close to eighty degrees. I
I barreled through last year's vegetation near Saddle Creek, praying none of it was dormant poison ivy. Scratches blossomed on my legs from blackberry thorns. I had hoped to reach the Snake River, but in an unusual burst of common sense, had turned around two miles shy, realizing that I had already gained and lost several thousand feet in elevation and it was a long way back to my camp on the grassy knoll.

The canyon, as always, is deceiving. Just a little farther, you think, and soon you realize you have a long way to get back. You have to work for everything here, but that is what keeps it wild.

There are three rules in the canyon and it is easy to forget all of them over the winter:

1. Wear pants.
2. You will always run out of water.
3. "Just eleven miles" takes way more time than you think it should.

The upper canyon is still healing from a wildfire several years ago.

At about seven miles you start to get back into scattered ponderosa pine. The snowy canyon rim ahead is Idaho, across the Snake River.

My camp was located on the Grassy Knoll at about 4500'.  I didn't see anyone for the whole trip.

In the canyon, you have to fill up your water bottles when you can. As summer marches on, many of the small streams will dry up, leaving you a bit desperate. I got a chance to use my new Sawyer Squeeze water filter. It is the little black item on top of the bag. All you do is collect water in the bag and attach the filter, then squeeze the bag, The other end of the filter is attached to a clean water container. It works well, except the bag can be hard to fill up in low water. Most people have graduated to another small water bottle instead.

Happiness is a running skirt and a T-shirt in March.

A half moon hung in the sky the next morning as I packed up for the slog back over the saddle. It was a quick trip, barely twenty-four hours, but much needed. As I write this the snow level threatens to descend to 4,500 feet, the height of my campsite. As the canyon flirts with summer, that is how it goes.