Thursday, June 27, 2013

What I'm Carrying for 3 Weeks

Here you have it, pretty much the gear I will have with me for 282 miles. A few more items will be included, notably maps, a little more first aid and toiletries, and probably a different stove and pot system, depending on how we decide to share, and of course FOOD, but this is basically it. 

Does this seem like a lot?

See all the stuff sacks? A true UL backpacker would recoil  in horror, as you can have a smaller and lighter pack by letting things roam free in your pack. Personally, though, I hate having to dump out a pack in the rain--and it's always raining when you have to do this--to find something. Much better to know that your green stuff sack has the blister items and that dry socks are in the orange bag. 

You can spend hours combing the internet looking at gear lists and become very insecure about your own kit, but in the end you have to carry it. After all, I survived the nineties with my seventy pound load. I trust my tent and my air mattress even though most UL backpackers have switched to the shelters which use trekking poles and sleep on Ridgerests. I carry a Kindle for nighttime reading even though most true lightweight hikers would not. Hike Your Own Hike, as they say.

It seems like forever since I have been out in the woods, so I'm heading out on Friday with Pack #2 to test how it carries the load. It's been raining for a week which could translate to snow in the high country. Speaking of which, the PCT is still covered in snow, but people continue to think it is a stroll:

It's important to find the balance between too much stuff and not enough. Here's to hoping I've found it.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Men I Left Behind, Part Two

Well, since we seem to be caught in a spin cycle of rain and wind, unusual weather for here, you don't get a What I Did This Weekend post. I don't camp in the rain if I can help it anymore, and before you judge, a few words: Southeast Alaska. Rain Forest. Kayak Ranger job. I've camped in the rain more than most people ever will. Since the rain has put a damper (ha. Ha.) on my outdoor activities, and since my two year wedding anniversary is coming up, I thought I would ponder something a little different.

I just read a post my friend Katey wrote about the three Ps--partner, position and place. I'm stealing her thought because I am sure she won't mind. I've had the places all right, and if you count breathing in wildfire smoke, paddling in big swells off the Alaskan coast, and slinging a misery whip through a million dead trees as perfect and good (and I do) I've had the positions. But mostly because of my relentless traveling, I never really had the partner. Until now.

Mostly, the guys I met were the kind who wanted to tame. Claiming they wanted someone independent at the beginning, they changed their tune to a more traditional one as time wore on. I knew from the very start of my dating life that I never wanted the mindset of someone to "complete me". I'm complete already. I didn't want to be half of a whole. For me, it works best when there are two individuals, perfectly capable of navigating the world on their own, who choose to be together, support the other, cheer them on, but have their own really full and interesting lives too. That can mean that you go away to hike 300 miles of the PCT if that is what you want to do, and it is not a threat or an abandonment to the other person, who misses you but can handle life just fine when you are gone. (The other person may, theoretically, then plan a three week skiing trip in the Wrangell Mountains in the spring.)

Okay, I take that back. I used to think that I wanted one of those stick like glue partners for my outdoors activities. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, standing alone yet again on the edge of a big river, if I found someone who would be my constant companion in the things I liked to do, always and forever? But that dream didn't last for long. I like the occasional intersection of adventures, but not the always together part. I have my girlfriends, and sometimes just myself, for that. I learn so much from being separate at those times.

The last person I dated before meeting my husband wanted someone just like him, joined at the hip. At times I felt I was suffocating. Reading through a now infamous list of qualities he wanted in a person (qualities I did not possess) I felt a dawning sense of horror. He was describing himself! I know enough about myself to know that marrying someone just like myself would be a very, very bad idea. I read in a book by Gabrielle Reece (which I don't recommend reading unless you want to read banal advice by a celebrity about how to live your life. Sample: men leave for younger women because the wives stop paying attention to the husband) a very good description of the way my husband is: San Diego. Seventy five degrees and sunny. Whereas I? Am sometimes rainy. Sometimes sunny. Sometimes thunderstorms are in the forecast! See what I mean? Two of me? No. No.

I have to admit that there are times when I wish I had met my husband before I had kissed so many frogs and had my heart broken so many times. I will never get fifty years with him. At the same time, it was worth the wait. Happy anniversary to me! (Wait, Us! Ha ha.)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Help Me Pick A PCT Pack!

Okay, so this is a first world problem, but I find myself paralyzed with indecision  on which backpack to bring on my 282 mile section hike of the PCT  (starting in six weeks!). Granted, I've backpacked all my life, starting with a shapeless rucksack from REI that saw me through many desert and mountain adventures, a behemoth Gregory weighing 7 pounds empty, and many packs in between. But a good pack can make or break the adventure. My hiking companions on the JMT last summer struggled with nerve impingement and shoulder issues for nineteen days, having made the wrong choice.  Once we had to stop fairly early because of this (although perhaps they just were sick of me urging them to make more miles).

I don't want to look like this!

I have three choices. My goals are to be able to keep up a moderate pace unburdened by too much weight, be comfortable, and to be able to organize my gear so I don't have to dump out the whole pack to find something (most likely, we will be in rain a lot of the time).

Exhibit A, The Heavy Hauler.

It's a Deuter ACT 65 Lite, the heaviest of the bunch. 3 lbs, 14 oz. 3900 cubic inches.

Pros: Comfortable. Sleeping bag compartment and two top pockets to keep gear separate. Tested on JMT so I know it works. The old style of pack, made for backpacking in all situations.

Cons: May be overkill for this hike, since I'm not carrying a bear canister--kind of big and difficult to carry as a day pack should the occasion arise to do some wandering from camp. Heavier than the others by far. If full, the top part can hit annoyingly on my head, forcing it down and causing neck strain. No external pocket for wet gear.

Exhibit B,  the Ultralight Pack. 3100 cubic inches. 1 pound 7 oz.

This is a Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus Full Suspension.

Pros: So lightweight! Love the mesh outside pocket for wet gear. The time I've taken it out, with the same gear I will be taking minus extra food, toiletries and first aid, my entire load weighed 20 pounds. Has an inflatable sit pad that acts as a frame, which can be used as a pillow, sit pad at camp, etc. Good design, seems comfortable.

Cons: Largely untested on a long trip. Possible volume concerns with a week's worth of food. Unsure of comfort if going over 25 lbs. Probably will have stuff lashed to it, which isn't always a good thing. Sleeping bag in with rest of gear.

Exhibit C, the Medium Pack. Granite Gear Vapor Ki, 3600 cubic inches, 2 lbs 5 oz.

Pros: Moderately light; lighter than A.  Like the two side pockets for sorting gear. Have used it and know it works, though not on a long trip. Short and compact.

Cons:  Not as comfortable as A. Side pockets can be difficult to fill if the rest of the pack is full. Not sure about volume for seven days of food, but probably more volume than B. No external mesh pocket for wet gear. Sleeping bag in with rest of gear.

We will be hiking about 15 miles a day, sometimes more, and there really are very few bail-out points. I hope to have base weight (full pack without food and water) around 12 pounds, but it may be up to 15. On our longest leg without resupply, 100 miles, we will have about a week's worth of food.

The weight of the universe rests upon your answer! Vote now!

Monday, June 17, 2013


I was deep in snowy woods. The trail had disappeared some time ago. There was only the faint trickle of water and the stillness of a snowbound place.

Should I turn back? I thought, not for the first time, that life would be easier in a different place. In a bigger town, I might be able to find backpacking partners who crave the wilderness as much as I do, who are willing to thrash through fallen trees and posthole through snow, but aren't composed of such an epic cloth that they can't turn around if it all gets too crazy. What has happened to those people, I wondered. In my twenties they were everywhere.

As I hesitated, a group of five day-hiking boys hove into view. They wore shorts and running shoes and carried fly rods, as if they weren't slipping and falling in deep snow. We stood and consulted a little bit. They were from Portland, and had the confidence of the never-been-lost. I would follow their tracks, I thought, and that way I could always follow them back out.

We struggled over fallen trees and pulled our legs out of deep snow holes, but when we reached the last big stream crossing, the boys optimistically headed in a direction I knew was wrong. Here the trail was easier to find, even appearing in small patches, so I stuck to it, climbing over great mounds of snow and toiling past the rocky cliffs.

The lake was shrouded in snow, its surface half frozen. A group of elk eyed me suspiciously before darting into the trees. Where am I going to camp, I thought. It seemed impossible, but so did going back, dragging myself back into the sorrow I had left behind. I walked over to the outlet and a beautiful little campsite appeared, surrounded by snowbanks. Here it is, I thought. Here it is.

The boys never appeared, perhaps giving up before reaching the lake, and I had it all to myself. Where are all the people, I wondered. It perhaps topped seventy degrees. Snow slowly melted. Time slowed down to a delicious crawl. Toward evening a river otter swam in circles in the thawing lake.

The day I hiked out, there was a celebration of Ken's life. People had taped pictures of him to poster boards, decades of different times in his life. I had never known him as a runner, or a basketball player, or younger than I am now. Just like nobody in this town will ever have known me as a runner, a firefighter, a wilderness ranger. I wouldn't change the way I've lived my life, but there is value in that kind of knowing. Sometimes I feel one-dimensional here, all of the things I have been up until I moved here unknown. At the same time, there is value too in having a blank slate: you can write whatever you want to, unmarred by previous mistakes.

Another work week looms and many days until I can get to the backcountry again. I don't know why this type of travel feeds me, but it does. Maybe it makes up for the travel of my past, the real travel where I threw everything in my Chevette and hauled butt away. I don't really want to do that anymore, despite my occasional gripes. I am bound to this place now, stronger than snow.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ken's Sunset

When my friend Roger died nineteen years ago in a wildfire, I dreamed about him for months. I woke up one morning feeling the weight of his palm on my head. This was a gesture he would never have done in real life: as firefighters we were taught to be tough and checked our emotions at the door. While we had a bond forged by helping each other make it the last half  mile of a run along a hard shell road and by watching each other's backs as we dragged drip torches through southern rough, we weren't huggy people. Still, I felt the warmth of his hand as I sat wondering.

Last night, on the last day of Ken's life on this planet, a sunset unrolled across the mountains that had us all believing he was telling us something. We are used to sunsets here, the sky a canvas we all watch. This one was different though. It was radiant and beautiful and I had to think that our friend was sending us a message from the other side, whatever that other side is. I like to think that it was this: I hear you, I see you, and I am okay.

Monday, June 10, 2013

what the river knows

If your heart hurts, go to a river. When you are on a river that is flowing faster than you can walk, the only thing that matters is getting through the next wave train without swimming. The only thing you can think about is which way to follow the current and standing waves and how to ferry across to the campsite at Deer Creek. After that a group of bighorn sheep will climb onto the rocks opposite from you and you will see how beautiful the world can be even while the extreme unfairness of it all is a tug you can never really forget.

Sheep on a rock

I haven't been on many river trips and, still in backpacking mode, I packed my little tent and a spork. My friends had a table, plush sleeping pads, and a kitchen. It's definitely a different way to travel. The shuttle alone took hours. It was reminiscent of sea kayaking trips where we had to practically draw a diagram in order to get the float planes, kayaks, gear and people to a remote bay. It can be frustrating, but is worth it once you throw off the lines and get started.

There's not a lot of talking on the river. The riffles make their own music and you are in your own little cocoon, occasionally checking to see where the raft is and which line you should take. I'm more comfortable on the ocean and in lakes than on rivers, and I have much more to learn. I'm drawn into eddies and over rocks and into the twirl of the wind. 

The enchanted poison ivy garden.

I'm still a  hiker, but I can appreciate rivers, especially big ones, that have flowed practically forever and will probably flow after we are all gone. There's something healing about a river too, and it is hard to get to the  pull-out and know that you are done, at least for now.

 It was one hundred degrees and a world away from the mountains on the river. I almost didn't go, but I'm glad I did. Sometimes you just need to run away from home. A river is a good place to go.

Friday, June 7, 2013

what's happening across town

Across town, the kindest person I have ever known is leaving us. I know that it is unselfish to hope that it happens quickly, but in my heart I still expect him to rally the way he did last year, enough so that it was impossible to tell he was even sick. I don't want him to leave and it doesn't make sense. He skied almost every day this winter, skinning up from the parking lot with people decades younger. Surely, I thought, he would beat this.

When I went to see him today, even with not eating for days and the morphine, all of it, he smiled when he saw me and put his arm around me. "Hi!" he said. "I didn't see you there." All I could do was hold his hand for a minute and think how terribly unfair this all is. It's difficult to explain but this man is good down to his bones. You feel it sink into yours and even though this statement is tossed around a lot, he really makes me want to be a better person. He balances out some of the bitter in the world with his sweetness. The world needs him to stay.

We gather at the house and stare up at the mountains. What we don't say is this: How can this be happening. How can this be happening.

I think he is ready to go but the rest of us want to hold on, like a thread that is stretched beyond its limit. It's not even for us. It's because of his enthusiasm for life. I never saw him when he wasn't peaceful and smiling.

It's hard to comprehend how someone who was skiing a couple of months ago is facing the end now. You want to believe that as outdoors people, as athletes after a fashion, that you are putting time in the bank. You aren't the Pepsi swilling, corn-dog eating couch sitting people, and I realize this sounds judgmental and wrong, but I am in a place where I can't help it. The world is so profoundly unfair that it takes my breath away.

I stare at a pile of gear for a river trip this weekend and can't pack. I can barely move. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful day and I know I have just said goodbye.

All you can do is walk it off and so I did, climbing on the hardest trail there is until the snow turned me back. After all it's a beautiful world and you only get so much time in it, some of us less than others. I want to be able to accept this with grace, but right now I can't imagine a world without him in it.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

on turning around

My snowshoes slid on the snowfield, useless on this type of traverse. Maybe I can kick in steps, I thought. I tried, barely penetrating the soft upper layer. Or, maybe not.

The first seven miles, climbing from 5,000 feet to nearly 7,000, were snow-free, strange to see in early June. But here, just above the last basin, the snow was a thick, impermeable blanket. Part ice, part postholey slush, but angled in such a way that it was impossible to get purchase. I was still a mile and a half from Ice Lake, and the last mile, flinging myself over a snarl of downed trees, gingerly inching over snow, had taken an hour. Going up is always easier than going down, I knew.

The high country, still in snow.

I stood there with my backpack. Ahead of me, more steep snowfields. Below, a straight shot off the cliffs. So many things could go wrong here. I was alone. There had been no other backpackers at the trailhead. I sighed. I had to turn around.

I picked my way down this cliff, avoiding the trail on the way back. No snow--unbelievable.

A big waterfall cascades off this cliff.


I'm getting better at turning back, but it is not a graceful process for me. I stared dejectedly at the waterfall that signaled the lake basin. I had worked feverishly at the computer to get this time off, packed in a hurry, balanced all the life things that could make this trip happen. But I've been on enough search and rescue missions to know that this was the tipping point. Some of the people we carried out of the wilderness were just victims of bad luck, but most had ignored that tickle in their brain that warned them to go back.

I hoisted my pack and picked my way down to the lower basin. There would be no Ice Lake on this trip. Instead, I watched mountain goats tiptoe across Sac's red cinder face. I bushwhacked down to where the lower falls dropped abruptly off the cliff. I should know by now that the lake isn't going anywhere, that there will be other weekends, but sometimes it feels like a drumbeat in my head. How many more years am I going to be able to climb like this? A long time, I hope, but you never know. Sometimes I want to see it all, do it all at once.

Very small white dots are mountain goats, about mid-picture.

Still, a night out is better than anything else. I settled in and fired up my Pocket Rocket to make dinner, setting my bandanna on fire as I attempted to use it as a potholder. Obviously I need a better solution.

Temperatures hovered in the forties and I snuggled warmly into my sleeping quilt. It is from Katabatic Gear and I am the first to admit it is freakishly expensive. However, for a very cold sleeper trying to become a lightweight backpacker, it may be my new solution. There are cords that attach to your sleeping pad so when you toss and turn as I inevitably do, you stay in your quilt. Bonus--no more sliding off my sleeping pad like I do in a mummy bag. I think I'm sold.

The days are long now and I was hiking out by 5:30. I love hiking like this in the morning, when nobody else is around. (Actually, nobody was camping at all in the this section of the wilderness--where are the people?). By the river, an elk stopped to stare at me. I looked back at the snowy peaks. I'll get there soon.