Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Women on the peaks

As I type this, the temperature outside hovers at eighteen degrees. I know this because I just shuffled outside in my robe and Acorn boots to gather what little kindling I could find, since I haven't had the time or the daylight to split more recently. I know that the robe and the boots aren't a good look, but the world is dark outside, lit only by a few pale stars. Winter truly is upon us. As if I didn't know it, my late afternoon bike ride yesterday. up the Hill of Death and along the lakeshore drive was an endurance ride, my feet and hands slowly numbing due to the early loss of sun. "You have to get your bike ride done by noon," J helpfully suggested when I returned, a chunk of ice.

It has been sort of a long time coming. September was a wild one, full of snow and rain, but our October has been a fall of dreams--warm, sunny, with the yellow of larches, perhaps my favorite tree, shining on the mountains. It was a perfect time to try the peak that has always eluded me.

Pretty views from Dug Saddle.

Oh pretty mountains, I already miss you.

To be honest, Dug Peak, which isn't that big of a mountain, always seemed a bit out of reach. I don't like slippery, shifting talus, and I've never been much of a peak bagger. There's only a goat trail. Lakes are my thing. I don't  mind a little exposure, but I definitely don't like picking my way down from someplace high in uncertain footing. But there it was, only five minutes to the trailhead and it was the last nice day of the year. It was time to go.

The first two miles before the turnoff to the peak are on a "trail". This trail has been eroded due to its location and terrain, and consists of those little slidey pebbles that I love so. It also climbs relentlessly, and I slowly puffed my way to the smaller path that goes to the peak itself. Not a system trail, it was carved out by people walking, taking the most direct route. Basically you stay on an ascending ridgeline and just keep climbing.

I overtook a man in Five Fingers who wasn't sure about the exposure and continued upward. I could see the outlines of two other hikers ahead and fumed to myself. It isn't unusual to have a hike to yourself here, and I was hoping for that. But as I crested the last rocky spire, I was delighted to find two of my favorite mountain climbing women in residence.

I can't describe how great it is to see other women out in the wilderness. It shouldn't be unusual, but it still is. One of the women here had just started doing long peak hikes this past year and she loves it. A convert to the mountains is always refreshing. We sat on the narrow spine and realized how lucky we were to be here.

Legore Lake, the highest lake in Oregon, is over there somewhere.

I really wish I had kept a log of all the miles I've traveled in the wilderness this year. It's probably at least a thousand. I think?

Get out there while you can! I'm off to chop kindling, though not in my robe.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Falling off the wagon (again) sure looks like me. Hmm.

Like Brett Favre, I announce periodically that I am quitting. I will never fight fire again, I say. It's not the same, it's changed, all of the reasons are stirred and trotted out each winter. I even wrote an article that was syndicated around the country. You can read it here.

I really thought I meant it at the time, but you know how addictions are. They pop up when you think you've kicked it and there you are, back on the fireline again.

 We were setting the woods on fire to reduce fuel loads but honestly I didn't care why. It was just something to drag a steel canister of diesel and unleaded through the woods again. All of the other times I've done this added up in my head: the prairies of Florida in particular, me and Roger and Jen, a trio that I always thought could never be separated.

In the years since, I've gotten older and the boys have gotten younger. I trotted at a frenetic pace trying to keep them in sight. When you burn strips like these, you spread out parallel in deep woods, laying down lines of fire that you hope will gather strength from each other and burn together. You want to be able to keep the pace.

My pack was too heavy, heavier than my backpacks are now. My boots were all wrong, the old style logger kind, and they skittered uselessly on the steep, rocky soil. I bashed through trees and rocks and cliffs. For a moment, I wondered if this was that day. You know, the day when you can't keep up, when it all catches up with you and you realize you are never going to be young again.

I wasn't the oldest person on the mountain, or the slowest, so there was that. We crisscrossed the unit several times lighting it off. Some of it burned. Some of it didn't. I hadn't remembered how much I missed the whole spectacle of it all.

Any work type or athletic type thing you said you would give up, but just couldn't?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Running on Cannon Beach

I don't write about running very often. I've done it for so many decades that it doesn't seem remarkable, and I don't race anymore. Often it is just a means to an end, a chance to cram some exercise into a busy day. But sometimes everything aligns and I remember why I still run.
Look, rainforesty things.

So, still furloughed, I seized the opportunity to drag take my husband to the coast. I admit to wanting it all--I want to live in a place where the mountains touch the sea, where there are plenty of alpine lakes nearby and there is little rain. I know no such place exists, but luckily I live in a state where you can get to the ocean from the mountains in a day.

Though I wanted to hike, I also wanted to run on the beach. Cannon Beach looks like a snarly nightmare in summer, packed with tourists, but in October it was perfect. The tide went way, way out. Because it was at sea level I felt fast. A man carrying a bowl of cereal (?) said, "Looking strong!" (Nobody says that at home). Cute dogs danced along behind me. There were nice rocks to look at. How lovely it would be to have beach running as an option. When you run on the beach, it's flat. You don't have to watch out for rocks. Or bears. Or mountain lions. You can go as far as you want, or at least until you run out of beach.

We hiked too, of course. I dragged took my husband up to the breathless heights of 1500 feet. Once the fog gave in and melted away we had beautiful views. At times like this I think. I could totally live here. Get a little cottage by the beach and write books and kayak. Sometimes I get a little sad about not being able to try out different lives but still be able to go back to my old one.

Surfers at Indian Beach.

I guess stand-up paddle board surfing is a thing?
It was good to get my ocean and beach running fix. Also, rockfish tacos, a 10 year old's soccer game in Portland, and a stop at Trader Joe's to get the two things I am completely addicted to: Rosemary artisan bread and dark chocolate peanut butter cups. I could live on those two items, I swear.

The ocean for me is the second half of my heart. The mountains are the first. It's too bad that I can't have them both in the same place (without endless rain) but I'll take a visit now and then. It's true that perhaps if I lived on the beach, running there would be old hat. So, maybe once a year or two is the best way to go. See you later, ocean.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Bold Spirit

As the week of unexpected furlough rolled on, I found myself desperate to have an adventure. I had gone for a nice run on the moraine, I had ridden my bike..but now it was time to venture into the unknown. Specifically, into the southern end of Hells Canyon, near the dam. I had never gone here before because it seemed ridiculous to drive two hours to backpack, and because there is a dearth of information on the trails in this area. The meager information I could  find in my guidebook terrifyingly stated "A thick rush of vegetation, including an explosion of poison ivy, may deny access. Often continuation of the tour requires recent trail maintenance or a bold spirit."

Well. I knew there hadn't been recent trail maintenance--the sequestration took care of that. A bold spirit? I wasn't so sure, but I packed a GPS just to be on the safe side. And a hefty dose of Technu.

I was bound for Spring Creek, aiming to hike up onto the benches there, but aside from that I had no plan. On Google Earth I could still see parts of a trail, which is unusual in the canyon these days. I decided to wing it and hope for the best.

The drive was lovely:


And included some slightly creepy houses, in the middle of nowhere and definitely off the grid.

So there's a tower behind this one. Maybe not off the grid.

The first 3 miles cruised along the Hells Canyon reservoir, where the Snake River is disappointingly corralled into a sluggish flow. It was easy going and warm though, and I made good time to the mouth of McGraw Creek, where, my guidebook informed me, a waterspout had obliterated the trail that once ran up the creek. I pondered this. A waterspout? On land? But there was no denying something big had happened here.

I was encouraged to find a decent trail climbing the south side of the Spring Creek draw. It was easy to lose in the teasel, but I always picked it up again. Fortunately the thick rush of vegetation never materialized, and I was able to sidestep the short poison ivy.

In fall the ivy turns a lovely orange and red shade. Makes it easier to avoid...

The views on the bench, two hours in, were amazing.

Four? Four what? Miles? from where to where?

I was getting a little concerned,  but finally found some water.

Pretty, pretty pine grove.

I had planned to stop much earlier but found myself hiking all the way to McGraw Creek, where there is a private cabin and lots of bear poop. As I approached, a bobcat ran away.

Looking down into McGraw Creek.

I camped near the creek and was greatly tempted to bushwhack down it the next day, but decided not to tempt fate and retraced my steps.

My spirit was apparently bold enough.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Where is Everybody?

I trudged up towards Freezeout Saddle, again. This was the third time this year, and each time I had vowed not to undertake the 2,300 foot climb, punctuated with switchbacks to the sky. But here I was. Why? Because there is a lure to the canyon in fall that I can't ignore. It's summer's last gasp, sweetly warm on my shoulders. Freezing at night. But still pretty perfect.

A dusting of snow frosted the summit ridge, but I dropped back into summer, 2,000 feet below. My original intent was to strike out for the Snake River, or at least as far as the poison ivy would let me. But when I got to the bench, I hesitated. It was freakishly warm. Warm enough to stay high.

I love the bench. Three thousand feet above the river, the trail cinches up the canyon's midsection like a belt. There are long fingered precipices that jut out into open space, perfect for camping if you don't mind a half mile trek for water. There are sudden draws of ponderosa trees, vanilla-scented and tall. It's pretty much perfect on the bench.

The thing for me about solo camping is that it is really great, until it isn't. I start thinking about the (probably) tall tale of the woman who vanished here --leaving "ONLY HER SHOE". I think about mountain lions in the grass and bears. Even though I  have probably camped for five hundred nights alone, I still think about these things.

But not enough to stop me from going. I found my own personal precipice after wandering pickily for ten miles. I sat and watched the shadows fill the canyon. There was nobody around. Not a soul. I didn't see anyone for over twenty-four hours. It was as if the world had ended and nobody had let me know.

It was actually pretty great. Sometimes people grind me down and I need to escape. People don't get why I don't just day hike. That isn't enough. It takes time and a big, empty canyon.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Destination Fixation

It was October 2nd, but unseasonable storms had raked the mountains, dropping a buttload of snow. Bonny Lakes looked more like December as I slogged up to their shores in my snowshoes at a blistering 1.5 miles an hour.

Really? This is October?
I had been suffering from convenient snow amnesia when I thought I could make it to my destination, Dollar Lake, and back by four. In summer I can make it to Bonny Lakes, four miles or so, in an hour and a half, and up and over the pass to Dollar in another hour. Twelve miles in snowshoes was not going to happen today.

I stood dolefully below the pass, knowing that the prudent course of action was to turn around. It might shock you to know that I actually did.

This fall winter has also come early to the North Cascades. Three PCT thru-hikers in two separate incidents had to be pulled out of the wilderness by Coast Guard helicopter. Another finally hiked out to safety on her own after holing up in her tent for seven days. Even as this was all happening other hikers headed out into the snow, determined to make it to Canada.

It's a hard thing to shake, this destination fixation. It's hard to let go of an idea or a dream. I know this much: wilderness has a bite.

I stomped back down the trail to discover two hikers with a baby. They were wearing tennis shoes. They had turned around because they didn't have sunglasses for the baby (is that a thing? I'm pretty sure I survived without them as a baby). Our reasons are all different for not reaching our destination. Some of us are much more graceful about it than others.

On the other hand, a little destination fixation can be a good thing. It's the spur to keep you moving when you get tired, or lazy. The trick lies in knowing that balance.

Still, Bonny Lakes, frozen with a light skim of ice, was good enough for today. I'm chipping away at my destination fixation a little bit at a time.
7,800 feet. Frozen Lake.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Surviving Deadman Lake

I've seen it on the map. Talked to a handful of people who have been there. Tellingly, none of them really could describe the route. Information was sketchy. One guy told a bone-chilling tale of having to bivy unexpectedly when caught by darkness in the cliffs. There's really only one way you can go, others said. Unless you take a rope.

Regardless, I was determined. Really, how hard could it be? The lake was only a mile and a half from the trail. It did climb over 2,400 feet, but still... "I'll be back in four hours," I said breezily.

Fresh snow iced the mountains and big clouds billowed like sheets left on the line. It was the first day I had seen sunshine in a long while. The aspens were turning a delicate shade of yellow. I took the first three miles on the trail fast, passing nobody.

 Deadman Lake's outlet tumbles over rocky cliffs, dives into small pools carved out by water and time, and finally ends up surrendering to Hurricane Creek far below. It is a place of avalanches. It is forbiddingly steep.

Unsure of how close I could stay to the creek, I erred on the side of caution and traveled far to the right. Too far. I was stuck in a cliff band with no way out. This was the end, I thought.

And there was snow. Slippery snow that covered the rocks, snow that made me slide and fall. This was September? You gave it your best shot, I told myself. No harm in turning back.

I started picking my way down the mountain in full retreat, when I noticed a possible route around the cliffs and onto a snowy plateau. I'll just go up here a short ways, I thought. See what happens.

You can probably guess what happened next. Sheer stubbornness propelled me forward, up crumbly cliffs and ice-covered rocks and knee-deep snow. I slogged onward, afraid to look at my watch and unwilling to turn back. Clawing my way up a final cliff, I finally saw my Holy Grail:

A wintery wind made me dig in my pack for a hat and mittens. Snow pelted my face. Snow packed inside my boots. The lake's surface was ruffled with whitecaps. It looked like nobody had been here, ever. It was totally worth it.

I'll spare you the heart-clenching trip down, the moment of panic at being cliffed out, again, and having to climb back up. Wondering, for just one second, if I had made a crucial mistake. In the end, it all worked out. Now I can be one of those who have visited this fabled lake. I can sigh mysteriously and give a murky description of the route.

On the way out I passed a hopeful set of backpackers, clad in tennis shoes. "We're going to climb the Matterhorn!" they chorused.

"Well..." I was reluctant to tell them they wouldn't make it. Who am I to shatter dreams? Somebody could have told me that getting to Deadman Lake would be a horrific snowy slog. Would I have listened? Probably not.

"Good luck," I ended up saying. My four hour tour ended up taking eight hours. J was loading up a pack to come find me, and the words "Search and Rescue" were mentioned. I cringed in horror. Maybe this hike wasn't the smartest to do solo. Maybe I should have waited for summer, when the route might be clearer. There are times when my enthusiasm for adventure lures me into situations where prudent people might turn around. But it's always been worth it.

It's been snowing for days now, up near Deadman Lake. I don't think anyone else will make it there this year. In fact, probably less than ten people go there on any given year. Maybe less than that. I'm happy about that. I'm happy that there are places this wild, this hard to get to.