Thursday, May 29, 2014

that kind of trail

I found out this week that someone I knew in Alaska was found dead on a trail.

I know this trail. It is the steepest one around, climbing up the side of a mountain where the snowboarders and skiers dodge avalanches. A man I thought loved me decided he didn't on this trail. Another time I climbed this trail with someone I knew I would leave. From "Picnic Rock," you could see your whole world: ocean, mountains, your past, your future. It was that kind of trail.

I hiked up it a hundred times and each time I vowed never to go back, that my knees hated the descent. We had to park illegally at the strange restaurant and wonder about bears and cling to icy slopes where people had hung ropes to hang on to and microspikes were never enough. Then we had to get to the place where we broke out of the trees and the wind blasted us as we climbed impossibly high to the place where we had to decide if we were woman enough to climb the Arrowhead or not. Usually not. But the trail was a badge of honor, something we all did even though it was ridiculous. A man disappeared on this trail and was never found. It was that kind of trail.

The man who died this weekend was someone I knew, but only kind of, someone I saw every day for years, and talked to sometimes at work, but didn't really hang out with. Just the kind of person you expect to be there, part of the landscape. He was 52 years old and out for a day hike. He was the kind of person who hiked mountains all the time. I'm sure the details will come out, probably a heart that failed him, because who knows what ticks in you like a bomb?

I know every inch of that trail and even though it's been five years, I can close my eyes and remember it. There's the deep forest where you can run just a little, before it steepens up. There's the first place where ice always lingered. There's the wooden steps leading to Picnic Rock. You can even, though I never did this, bail off the edge and do a big bushwhack down to other trails, if you don't mind the devils club and the bears and the descent. It was never my favorite trail, but it was a trail I went on when I needed strength. If you could make it to the top, you could  pretty much do anything. It was that kind of trail.

None of us will ever know what happened to G. last Sunday as he climbed the trail. Maybe solo, he had less of a chance; someone with him, he might have made it. Maybe not. He had walked that way hundreds of times. He should have had years ahead of him; most of us think that we do. I know none of us who knew him, even slightly, will think of that trail the same way again, the same way we thought differently about one of the other trails when someone decided to hang himself from a bridge and my friends found him, cutting the rope too late. This mountain trail holds all of our memories tight. It's that kind of trail.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

on top of the world

This week, I traveled for work. Again. I can't really think of much good to say about where I went, so I won't say anything, except that: how can people live in cities? An hour and a half to drive 30 miles?  Horrible. I got back yesterday, and so today meant that an escape to the mountains was necessary.

We took the gondola up to the top of Mount Howard, which is a cheating way to ascend to high elevation. But we worked for our snow, slogging to the top of Easy Peak twice. I walked over to East Peak too, just because it was there. 

Still plenty of snow up here!

Aneroid Lake is still frozen.
I hardly ever take the gondola up because it is so expensive, but I always forget how it feels up there, as if we are on top of the world. You can see everything--frozen lakes, far-off avalanches, distant cirques where nobody goes. When we got back, the tourists in shorts stared in confusion. And our paragliding friends were on the sunny patio. Do you ever wish you could take a moment and freeze it, stay in it forever? Today was one of those days.
East Peak

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Cold. So Cold.

Neoprene swim socks.
Neoprene gloves.
Neoprene swim cap.

I eye the lake. My intrepid companion, clad only in a shortie, sits nearby. How bad could it be, we reason. We might be pushing swim season just a hair, but surely we could stay in for thirty minutes...couldn't we?

Wallowa Lake is a glacially fed lake around which our lives sometimes revolve. In winter, it sometimes freezes over enough for skating. In summer, we swim, because we have no other place to go, the lone motel with a pool refusing us entry unless we rent a room. I've come to swimming late, a one-time victim of plantar fasciitis, and I have to admit that swimming is...boring. You stare at the bottom of the pool, thinking random thoughts and trying to pass the unsuspecting swimmers in the next lane for enjoyment.  Swimming is not as interesting as hiking, or running, or biking. You don't get anywhere.

Unless you don't have anywhere to swim, suddenly, and you miss it. There's something about floating weightlessly, everything aligning to send you through the upper envelope of water in  a way that really shouldn't be possible. That's why we swim in the lake, even though it's never warm, even though now, in May, it's borderline crazy.

We wade in. "It's not that bad!" we say. Until it is. My companion swims rapidly with her head out of the water, in a modified breaststroke she has perfected because of her fear of putting her head in and seeing fish. I can't keep up unless I swim the way I know how, head full in the water, and the chill makes me gasp. I flip on my back, I dogpaddle, and try again. We make for the buoy, which seems miles away. We get there.

When we finally reach shore, I am amazed to see that only ten minutes have passed. We later learn that the water temperature is 46 degrees. We suspect we are the first swimmers of the season. We sit aimlessly in the seventy degree sun, postponing return to our computers. We feel cold. We feel alive.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How to stop being afraid of bears


Hello?  Do you even READ this blog? If I knew the answer I wouldn't have been lying in a tent last night wondering about the sound of rockfall and if it meant a bear was sneaking up on me.***

**People! People! You are taking this statement all wrong! People are emailing me saying they do read the blog. That's lovely, thanks, but what I meant was, if you've read this blog for very long you wouldn't be looking in it for answers of how to stop being afraid of bears. I have an irrational fear of them, just like some people fear fish! (True story). Got it? Okay, good. Keep reading!

But let's backtrack. Last weekend, it snowed. For the work week, magically it decided to be seventy degrees. So unfair. I decided to hike a few miles after work and camp in one of my favorite places, Deadman Meadow. It's on the Hurricane Creek trail, just minutes from my house, and it's my favorite running trail. Of course, it's steep and rocky just like all the other trails, with a high possibility of face planting. You have to cross a creek on a skinny tree clinging for dear life to another tree. But there are places where the trail magically flattens, you get a view of big mountains, and you might be able to increase the pace to a blazing ten minute mile. But I've never camped in the meadow. It's only a two mile walk and it felt sort of like..cheating.

When I got to the meadow it was in shadow, but there was still light lingering on the high peaks. I decided to explore a little bit up by the falls. I knew that a few intrepid souls had climbed up from there to Deadman Lake, but I also knew it was a climb of epic proportions, not to be undertaken at 6::30 in the evening.

You  know those places you pass through all the time and you think you know everything about? This was such a place. As I poked around in the avalanche debris I found a trail, sketching its way up the sandy hillside, marked curiously by pieces of a white towel. A mystery! I was intrigued and couldn't resist climbing to a great height, from which I looked across at a steep rock face with water pouring over it. Probably lucky for me, my route was stopped by snow, because it would  have been extremely hard to turn around otherwise.

The full moon lit up the river and the sand. It was a beautiful, peaceful night, although I wished I could stop thinking about bears. I've probably spent a thousand nights camping, maybe more. Entire years of my life. In all that time, I've been charged by one bear. (I did work for someone who was mauled by a grizzly as a child. Something that gives you pause.) I'll probably always think about bears, although not enough to make me stop going.

Two things: there is always more to know about people and places than you could possibly imagine. And there will always be bears or lighting or possible
heartbreak; how you choose to deal with them is up to you.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Work Travel Diaries--Quilcene

Even though I know that I will never return to the rain forest to live, there is something magical about it that feels like home. There's the dense vegetation, more shades of green than you can possibly name, slowly covering everything. There's the houses tucked away down winding dirt lanes, places you think people could not possibly live in, but somehow do. There's the salty smell of ocean and the unshed weight of rain. I kind of love it, all of it.

This van is growing a forest.

Being in Quilcene, on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, felt like a vacation, sort of. The first thing I did was ask the innkeeper where I could run. "When I used to run, I ran down the Linger Longer road to the marina," she said, and of course with a name like that, how could I not go?

Tidal flats!

It's always the same when I run near the ocean. Sea level! This is so easy! Hills are nothing! Look how fast I'm running! Then: Gah! Humidity! Despite the air's clammy touch, I loved running here, the trees in flowery bloom, seeing strangeness like a woman in a lycra dress and fishnets mowing a lawn. After all these years in the outdoors I have a trail sense, and one road just looked like it would contain a trail. And it did:

Please don't let there be poison oak in here.
All sorts of tiny paths led away from this trail, mysteries I did not have time to solve. Alas, work beckoned, because I was here for work. I didn't have time to stay, and part of me didn't want to. I wanted to keep its magic. I'm sure living in such a tiny place, smaller even than where I live, would be difficult. The few people I saw didn't look too enthused. I never saw another runner, or a walker. What's up with that, Quilcene?

I'm sure small salty towns will always draw me in, even if I love alpine meadows and mountains more. Just standing and looking at the water made me want to get in a kayak and paddle away.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Bear Encounter!

In my travels I have seen many, many bears. Black bears in the Sierras and the Olympics. Grizzlies in the Tetons. Coastal brown bears in Alaska. I've seen them swimming in the ocean, sliding down snow patches, walking past my camp, and eating sedges in estuaries like a herd of cows. The number of bears I've seen over the years is easily one hundred or more.

On Friday, I hiked happily up the Imnaha River trail, not thinking about bears My pack was light, and I needed an escape. Because nobody else seems to scout, I had no idea how far I could make it. One mile, two? Nobody had been farther than Blue Hole, a sweet summer swimming spot that today, was neither a hole or blue, spring snowmelt turning the water into a churning brown chaos. The only footprints in the snow patches were mine, with the exception of a fresh mountain lion track.

I observed it carefully and when I looked up I saw the bear. A very large cinnamon color, it gazed right back. That moment of mutual recognition is always the same. A dozen thoughts windmill through my head. Pepper spray, talk loudly, wave trekking poles, wow a bear, cool, wow a bear, yikes! I waited for the bear to run away like they usually do. This one didn't. It took a few steps toward me.

This is not supposed to happen, I thought. I waved my poles with renewed vigor, thinking how utterly alone I was. There had been one car back at the campground, miles away. How long before my body would be discovered? I had left a flight plan at home, but my husband would just think I was enjoying the woods too much to come home right away the next day. It's strange though: when confronted with my worst fear, a calm sets in, the same calm when a bear charged us at a remote lake in Alaska.

What was going to happen? I was deeply aware that this was not a good situation. The bear finally slowly ambled off the trail and I hiked on by. When I looked up, there it was on the rocks above me, paralleling my course. Competing emotions ran through my mind. I really wanted to go farther. But the bear! It didn't act like normal bears, and now, in spring, is when they are really, really hungry. Unsure of what to do, I kept hiking.

When I reached my destination, I sat and looked around. It was beautiful: snowy peaks in the distance, a wide grassy bench, the silver and brown river. I really wanted to stay. At the same time I knew if I did, sleep would never come. I would think about that bear and wonder if it was going to follow me into camp.

I looked at the time. 5:30. If I hiked fast I could be back out to the car by 8. With a sense of defeat, I munched on cold pizza and hoisted my pack on my back. Braver people than I would have stayed, and I felt somewhat silly giving in to my fear. But hiking back past the bear gauntlet, I felt a presence. I knew the bear was still around there somewhere.

All was not lost. I arrived back at my car to find a sports drink in snow and a note from some friends telling me where they were camping. That night I slept next to people and dogs and a river, and I felt safe.

I know that I pass by bears and lions and who knows what else all the time, and I don't see them. It's irrational that because I saw a bear that didn't act like 99% of the other bears that things would have gone wrong. But solo, it's easy to talk yourself into things, like hiking out of the woods.
Looking upriver. My husband asked if I got a picture of the bear. Um. No.

(This was night #11 in the backcountry. I am going to count it! Darn it, I hiked 12 miles with my backpack. It's got to count).

In backcountry fears, bears rank #1 for me. Other friends fear lightning and wolves, and one friend, who makes herself go in, fears fish. Do you have a backcountry fear? How do you get past it?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Alaska Travel Zen

I've done some flying lately with more to come. Two trips in April, two in May, two in June and one in July SO FAR. Most of the time it seems to go smoothly, until it doesn't. You know, when your 6:00 am flight gets cancelled at midnight and you are on hold to the airline for an hour, and then they tell you it will be two days before you can leave because all the flights are full. TWO DAYS?! I don't have two days! I have to fly again in five days and I haven't made that reservation yet and I have huge work deadlines and....

Okay. It's time to take a big bite of a calm-down sandwich.

Time to recapture the Alaska Travel Zen.

In Alaska, we were always getting stuck. Stuck at high lakes, the floatplane circling overhead, Mark's voice on the radio: "Sorry, can't land. Have a good night!" Stuck sleeping on a rock because we had already paddled our kayaks to a pick-up spot and it was too far to paddle back. Stuck in Anchorage instead of Wrangell, flying back to Seattle when we had just come from there, overflying Sitka at the last minute. Stuck for days on a rainy coast with gale winds. Stuck, talking on the satellite phone trying to describe miles of rough country to our co-workers who had to leave their lake and hike down to salt water to be picked up by boat instead. Stuck, one glorious time, at a cabin with a hot springs and a box of wine a camper had left behind.

Stuck out at Rust Lake, circa 2004

You just had to get over yourself. The weather didn't care if you had important plans. The pilot wasn't going to land in squirrely winds and you didn't want him to anyway. If you had to fly to Juneau instead to take a commercial flight back, you just had to figure out all your dry bags and your rifle in order to board that plane with all the tourists. If you couldn't calm the heck down, you might die. Someone did, someone I didn't know but who worked on the same forest, hurrying to escape the unforgiving wet cold, slipping as he ran towards the helicopter on the side of a mountain.

Once when we were stuck out and foraging for Chicken of the Woods mushrooms to eat, the men in the party agitated for hiking out. I had to talk them down. We only had a map of the lake where we were, not the many miles we would have to cover. It was worth waiting it out, and we did. Sometimes this process took days.

A couple of months after this, this plane vanished with four people on board. It was never found.

You got used to it. It kind of made you a better person.

It's a little harder here. Life has sped up since I left Alaska. There we were subject to the tides and the wind and the rain. You couldn't bully your way in. You just had to wait until the place let you pass. There were plenty of stories of people who had not learned that lesson. Here I forget that. It's good to remember.

Travel! People with alleged carry-ons trying to stuff them in overhead bins! No exercise! Stuffy planes! People who should have learned how to line up in kindergarten, but apparently didn't! Delta Airlines! How do you reach your travel zen point?