Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Challenge of Sky Lake

The Scout leader, hiking illegally with too large of a group of Boy Scouts, peered at us in a worried fashion as we sat by the water crossing, putting our hiking shoes back on.

"Sky Lake?" he said. "Well, it's a challenge, but you'll get there."

I always find it interesting when other people say these kinds of things in the outdoors. Once as a wilderness ranger, I breezily told a group that scrambling up a talus slope and down the other side to an off-trail lake was "easy." When I came upon the group the next day, I was met with glares. Not so easy, apparently.


I floated up the trail, overcome with the kind of high that only happens in the mountains. The sky was a perfect blue, far bluer than in town, we all agreed. The weather was perfect, a soft breeze and a few harmless clouds. The crowds were all stomping around the Lakes Basin instead of here. The company was good, two people who hiked my pace! Who liked to occasionally wander off trail! Who would leave camp and hike around! I was overwhelmed at my good fortune.

Looking down at Swamp Lake.

It didn't take much persuasion to get the group headed over the pass and down to the Granite Creek Basin, a place of such boundless open tundra and mystery that you could spend days just walking around it. A nameless lake twinkled below us. We were unable to resist climbing up to a plateau just in case another lake lurked up there, and to a little peephole in the ridge to look into another intriguing basin below.

Granite Creek basin.

A challenge indeed, but the challenge was not to just keep walking south, west, east, anywhere but back home.
Love this clear water.

Mystery lake, with no name. As it should be.

Sky Lake

Sunset over Sky.

A lucky miner lived here.

Another basin to explore, someday.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Resupply Madness

Yes, campers, it's that time of year again. Where I...

1. Advance on the Dollar Snatcher and DangerousWay to grab large quantities of hiking food for my resupply boxes;
2. Get irrationally angry that they are out of powdered Gatorade mix;
3. Sort items into ziplock bags;
4. Snack on items instead of putting them into ziplock bags;
5. Feel vaguely ill from snacking on items;
6. Agonize over amount and type of food;
7. Realize I bought way too many snacks, which now have to be dealt with;
8. Weigh resupply and realize I will be carrying 12 lbs of food;
9. Contemplate removing some food;
10. Cram it all in and tape up the box.

Fun times.

I didn't get a picture of the carnage, but it's a sad fact that it is very hard to eat healthily on a long trail with minimal resupply. Oh, probably some people can, the kind who plan ahead and dehydrate a year in advance. Not being one of those, my food tends to weigh heavily in the snack food arena. I have tuna, jerky, peanut butter, hummus and cheese for protein; tortillas, trail mix and fruit and nut bars for carbs and sports beans, sharkies and chocolate covered blueberries for climbing up passes. Dinners are mostly freeze-dried and breakfasts range from Carnation Instant Breakfast to a fruit and protein smoothie made by Pack it Gourmet (yummy and filling). Sadly, 104 miles have to be chocolate free as that resupply box will sit in a hot car for a week. I hope I survive, and apologize in advance for any crankiness that could occur.

It's really hard to know what you will like on a long trail. Things that sound good at home are repulsive after hiking day after day. You can't have repulsive, because you have to eat or you will bonk your way down the trail.  Last year I enthusiastically packed Goldfish crackers and protein bars, only to have those make me want to vomit by Day 10. All I could think about was stealing the Freak's yogurt covered pretzels.

Buying resupply snacks is always a furtive process. I slink around DangerousWay with boxes of not-that-great-for-you stuff, wondering if I will run into anyone I know. I shouldn't care, I guess, that they might think that I sit in the darkness consuming a huge bag of mini Snickers. But after years of shopping the perimeter, it's weird to come out with the sheer volume of snacks that I do at resupply time. I see other patrons laden with lettuce and nectarines and I bolt for the cashier with my fig newtons and gatorade mix. I've found that I perform the best with a high carb ratio and some simple sugars. Hiking fourteen miles a day sounds easy in theory, but string three weeks of it together with a backpack, and you might find it not so simple.

Anyway, into the mail these boxes go. Will it be the right stuff? Will it be enough? Too much? Only the trail will tell.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The thieves of Razz Lake (& pack review)

A clattering sound erupted outside my tent. My water bottle, moving around. Something was out there. What to do? "Hey!" I yelled. "Quit playing with my stuff!"

Which, in retrospect, was kind of a funny thing to say, but it was three in the morning and I was the only one at Razz Lake, reached by a grueling slog on a user-created footpath almost nine hundred feet above a tamer lake. There was silence outside and I sunk uneasily back into my quilt, dozing fitfully until about five when I unzipped the tent and looked around.

There was only the peaceful reflection of sunlit crags above the lake. My water bottle and flip flops rested innocently outside. But my bandanna...was GONE. Nowhere to be seen. The night had been deathly still, not even the whisper of a breeze. Somewhere in this lonely basin, a chipmunk..or a deer...or a mountain lion..or a bear..was sporting a pink bandanna.

The previous night I had met up with my husband and a co-worker where they were camped a few lakes and one pass away. It has reached the magical time of year, so short and sweet, when you can actually swim in the lakes and not sprint for shore. A nearly full moon lit up the night. The next day we did a tent hand off and I headed out for one more night solo. The temperature on the pass felt like eighty at 9 am. Last year at this time the Freak of Nature and I were at Mirror Lake below the pass and it was shrouded in snow. Now it was completely clear. This has been a strange year all around.

At Razz Lake the white granite slabs slanted down to the water. I hiked up to a magical upper basin, infinity pools and marble rocks dotting an enchanted landscape. This is the way to go, I thought. Work like a fiend all week and leave Thursday afternoon.

Yep. Everyone takes this photo.

The price to pay would be a thirteen mile hike out. I passed a trail runner going the other way, no doubt completing the seventeen mile loop from where I had started two days ago. He would be done in such a short time, but he wouldn't have had time to jump in the lake and lie steaming on a granite slab. As much as I love trail running, I felt like the lucky one. Even without a bandanna.

So--Pack review. When I was deciding to buy a Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus FS, there weren't many reviews of it. I had seen people carrying them, and it looked like a good compromise between a UL rucksack with no suspension and a heavier pack. And it is light--freakishly light, less than two pounds. So here is what is awesome and what is not:

I love: how light it is. It appears sturdy and well-made. I've carried it now for about fifty miles and while that's not a lot, it has been enough to tell it will hold up. Love the mesh pocket in front. I can put wet gear in there or stuff I need to grab immediately. You can get waist pockets too, if you're like me and want stuff you can grab on the run. I like how there's a big hole for the hydration bladder, unlike some packs where you have to take off the sippy part to fit it through.

What I don't love: It hugs close to your back. Which means that it rides well, but at the expense of a really sweaty back. And on this trip, something disturbing happened. The combination of a sweaty shirt and a close-riding pack means only one thing. Friction! And that's not good, campers! I ended up with some sore places on my back where the pack rubbed. I don't know why this didn't happen in the other two trips, but it could be because it was so much hotter, or maybe my shirt was thinner material. Either way--it could be a dealbreaker! I'd love to hear if this happened to anyone else who has one.

The verdict is, I am not taking it on my section hike. I'd love to, but this pack is really for those who have their UL gear dialed in. It's not for 8 days of food and for people like me who want flip flops for crossing streams and a Kindle to read at night, and a tent to myself so I can sleep. It works best I think for loads of twenty pounds or less.

I still love the pack, and maybe someday when there is a bombproof UL shelter and/or I can learn to sleep when people roll over on their Thermarests or snore, I will carry it more often. Until then it will be a good overnight pack if I can figure out the friction thing.

The home of the bandanna thieves

on the pass with the imaginatively named Upper and Mirror Lakes in the distance.


Monday, July 15, 2013


As we hiked toward Aneroid Lake, Indigo and Little Bear raced back and forth between us. They darted through meadows and into streams. Even at the lake they didn't want to rest. Indigo swam laps in the lake and Little Bear just pranced around being Little Bear. Not for the first time I thought about how dogs don't have a governor that tells them to conserve energy, slow down, beware of the bonk. They just go until they drop, trusting that they will be okay.
That same weekend two other things happened that made me muse about governors. As I headed out of the lake in the early morning, everyone else still asleep in their tents, a group of trail runners, all kitted out in fancy tri type gear, passed me enroute to Pete's Point, a high spot overlooking one of my most favorite off-trail lakes. I had been there the day before, hiking fast to avoid thunderstorms. As a day run, it was long and rocky and steep. I watched the lone woman's perfect brunette ponytail bob out of sight. I envied her, for just a moment. A really hard run! Pain and suffering! Um...No.
The next day I was talking with a friend about my upcoming PCT hike. I allowed as how we COULD hike twenty mile days, but were only going to average 14. He looked at me with confusion. "If you CAN do it, why wouldn't you?"
I fumbled around in a quagmire of explanation. Taking in the views! Swimming in lakes! Not running ourselves to exhaustion every day!  Too many years on trail crew beating up my body! I want to do this when I'm 80! He just shook his head. "I like to go as fast as I can, all the time," he said.
Governors. We all have them. They are fed by what has gone before and what we currently battle. On a sleepless night I pondered where I fall in the spectrum. I have friends for whom a short hike is more than enough. Others who will casually run to the summit of  Chief Joseph Mountain and back. I probably lean more toward that camp. I embrace the slog, try to make every outdoors (and gym, sadly) encounter count. I need to feel my heart beating and my breath in my lungs. But I don't feel the need to push past exhaustion every single time.
This weekend I hiked to four lakes, putting in twelve miles. At each lake I stopped for a few minutes to just be. For me this is worth more than any GPS calculation of speed and elevation.
Jewett Lake. Pete's Point is above it.
At least I tell myself that. A part of me really wants to be like my friends who revel in the hardest slogs possible (you know who you are). I admire their athleticism and their drive. At the same time, I know that I go to the mountains for something else, something that is missing in the other parts of my life. Solitude. Peace. Immersion. I don't want to just pass through the country. I want to be the country.
Though everyone has their tragedies, life itself has knocked me flat enough times that I need something else in the mountains. I don't want to suffer--too much. I have enough to live up to in regular life.


Dollar Lake, as windswept and lonely as always. Does anyone ever really go here?

This basin is just one of my favorite places ever.


Dollar, ready for its closeup.

Love, love, love this pass. So much.
Other people have governors that run in higher gear. They have their own reasons. Like a woman named Anish, who is going after the unsupported PCT record, hiking in the forty-something mile-per-day zone each day. If you look at her Facebook page, she appears to be loving it. That just sounds horrible to me. Impressive, but horrible.

Nobody's way is better. I probably couldn't successfully live with someone who had a way different governor, but I think it's good that people are still out there, whatever their motivation. I worry about the future of the wilderness; it is so much different in the world than when I first started going out there. The more people who love it, whether by running through it or just hanging out with their feet in the water--or somewhere in between, like me--the better.

So. Awesome. I could hang out here forever.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

one month until the PCT!

Where has the time gone? So, am I ready? I'll be honest: NOT AT ALL, GUYS! I feel like a hot mess of disorganization. I don't even know what pack I'm bringing! I don't know how many breakfasts I need to put in the resupplies! I don't even have the resupply boxes. All I know is, on August tenth I put my Cascadias on the trail!

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to have a work meeting on White Pass, where the PCT passes right through. Exciting! I hiked up as far as I could and honestly? I felt a chill just imagining the fact that this trail runs all the way to the Mexican border. Do we live in a great country or what? I also realized two other things:

1. There's a lot of snow still. At 5,000 feet! Which is good. Maybe a fire won't close the trail, one of my biggest worries.
2. The mosquitoes are fierce. My plant-based repellent could not stand up to the task and I resorted to running down the trail shrieking. But they're out now, right? Which means they won't be in August?

I hiked towards Canada and towards Mexico on two separate days. Here's a lake I found.
I was trying to get a picture of Mount Rainier through these trees, but the light wasn't great. But the trees are pretty cool--really different than our trees over here on the dry side.
So, I've made a list. I'm not a big list-maker as I prefer to wing it, but that has resulted in spectacular fails in the past (See Stuck in Thunderstorm Without a Rain Fly for reference). I have gear lists, food lists, to-do lists, and lists of lists. It makes me feel a bit more organized even if I keep skipping off into the backcountry instead of actually accomplishing anything on the lists.

We also received our first trail magic without even getting on the trail! (Trail magic is when people, often complete strangers, provide things like rides, water caches, random food, or places to stay). A friend said we could stay at her house the day before the hike for our big pack explosion and resupply extravaganza. (To be honest, I asked her, but she could have said no.) Yay for trail magic!

All right. I am off to trim my insoles and put them in my shoes. Then I can cross something off my LIST!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Beautiful World

Every July 6th I post a remembrance on this blog. I want to remember my friend Roger who died fighting a fire on this date, nineteen years ago now. I don't want his memory to slip away like water. Even if you didn't know him, never heard of the fire that took his life, it's worth pausing for a moment to think about those people who march into the wilderness, or just into the woods with pulaskis and shovels and hoses.

Roger's smile lit up  wherever he was.

Most of the time we hikers bitch and complain about walking through burned areas. Hot. Fallen trees. Not pretty. Rarely do most of us think about who has been there before us. Because I used to be a firefighter, I still do. I have my stories of terror and fatigue, though I rarely trot them out. I doubt very many people in this town even know I used to walk the line.

Just a few days ago, nineteen firefighters were trapped in similar circumstances to Roger's fire. Even though this time I knew none of them, everything from that day in 1994 and the days following it came rushing back. I felt as though I was back there, looking at a typewritten list and seeing the name of my dead friend. Wondering what he went through on that mountain. Standing in our old shared trailer, unable to comprehend that he was never coming back. A wound I thought was scabbed over broke open again.

I don't want to maximize my loss; there were others who knew Roger far longer than the paltry four years that we lived together and fought fire together, lay on creepers under swamp buggies together, all the things that friends do together. But it felt like a blow to the heart to hear about history repeating itself. It was all too familiar--the tributes, the processional return of the bodies, the subtle blame placed on those who are not here to defend themselves.

So I went away, to the only place that works. I had never been to the south side of the Wallowas. It was tooooo faaar. So easy to stay up north where there's plenty to see. But I had time and J wanted to go, and so we went. And I don't think it is out of the realm of possibility that wilderness can heal your heart.

I hiked up the lovely Main Eagle trail. Though it is one of the most popular, I saw few people.

 A dog guarded our tent.

I was surprised how different the south end is from the north. Walking through this valley, I felt like I was in the Sierras.
I hurried up to mile 4 before I knew I had to turn around. Those out and backs are the hardest of all! I wanted to keep going.

In the end there is this: It is a beautiful world. When people leave us, it leaves grooves on our hearts that never really go away. A mountain can't cure us, a river can't save us. Roger was so young when he died, and there is so much he never got to see. It's easy to rage at the wind, the decisions that were made, the whole ridiculous idea of putting people on a fireline in the first place, an idea I am more and more sure is fruitless and insane.

But, it's a beautiful world and you can't live wrapped in sorrow and rage without turning to a bitter kernel. So, I hike. I hope. I remember, and I believe. I try to live my life in the best way possible, not wasting a minute, to honor those who don't get that opportunity.

Miss you, buddy, always.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Breathless at Ice Lake

 I trudged up the switchbacks towards Ice Lake, feeling the bonk trifecta: not enough food, too much heat, hauling weight atelevation. Usually this hike is easy for me, a mere eight miles and something like 2,500 feet to climb, and I have done this as a simple day hike. Today I was hauling a backpack and nothing was going right. I worried: I work hard so that today will not be that day. You know, the day when you realize you can't do what you have done before. Was today that day?

I paused in the basin where I had been turned back a month ago. All the snow had vanished. The trees were still there, though, many-limbed behemoths that I had to crawl over and under, trees that will never be cut this season due to sequestration.

When I gulped down an entire half liter of Gatorade and an uncountable amount of Oreos at my one break, I knew I had not adequately fueled and hydrated on this unseasonably warm day. Feeling better and relieved, I charged up the remaining two miles to the lake, finding it still partially frozen. Today was definitely not that day.
 Crossing a shaky set of logs across the raging outlet, I was happy to find a campsite among the snowbanks. This is pack #2, which performed admirably. After the first mile, where it felt like a monkey hanging on my shoulders, it stopped bothering me. It was difficult to load it up to 30 pounds--I guess I am used to minimalist backpacking--but I stuffed in three days of food and a bunch of luxuries I don't ever bring-- a pillow (!) clothes to wear at camp (!), extra tent stakes, bear spray (I will bring this sometimes, but not always. I was glad I did when I saw a cinnamon-colored bear) and a groundcloth.
 This lake, I feel, is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
 Even a surprise thunderstorm rolling through at two in the morning didn't bother me too much. Even though there was a lightning struck tree near my camp.
 I spent a lot of time watching the ice break up on the lake. Which is more fascinating than you might imagine.
 Who needs anything else?

This is why I do it: the grim winter runs, the weight lifting, the relentless pursuit of fitness. Two days later I would be running down a trail and a woman I know slightly would see me, and say, "I always see you out here doing something like this. You are an awesome athlete."

Well, not really. I only need to open my Google Reader to know that there are plenty of women more talented than I. You work with what you have. Sometimes you are breathless. Still you push on. Your Ice Lake is around the corner.