Friday, August 29, 2014

If I had a dollar for every time...musings on women solo in wilderness

The women, I kind of get. As I hoisted my pack for a hike to Frances Lake, I thought about it. As women we are inadvertently taught that danger stalks us. Never mind that weirdos very rarely have the inclination to backpack, the images of missing girls haunt us. When a woman tells me, like she did a couple of weekends ago at the trailhead, that she could never backpack alone, it makes me feel sad. I feel like she is missing out. It's challenging, rewarding and empowering, and even if you try it once and just don't like being alone with your thoughts--which I actually think all people need to do instead of surrounding yourself with chatter all the time--at least you have tried it. In all of my decades of outdoor adventures, things have not come a very long way. I got these same comments in the late 1980s, descending into New Mexican canyons, climbing alpine ridges in the Olympics.

Sometimes I want to live without compromise. Hiking alone, running alone, kayaking alone, I can ease into the flow of my own pace. I don't have to wait for people or run to catch up or debate the merits of stopping early or turning around due to weather. "I can't believe you went out last week," a friend says, referring to the torrential rain that dumped a fire-season-ending event on the mountains, and I was out, hiking in it. If someone had been with me, there would have been either grim determination on the part of the one who wanted to go home, or reluctance to leave on someone else's. Let's stick it out! versus hell with this! and the constant tiptoe dance of are you okay with this? that women just aren't that great at, but guys have no problem with. Look, this pace isn't working for me, I'm going to go ahead. This isn't fun, I'm bailing. Not my style, buddy, see you next time. Women have a hard time with this. The feelings thing. Not wanting to offend, while guys just say it. I wish I had more guy companions, but once I got married they vanished. I don't want to think too much about this.

On my way back down from Frances Lake, after a beautiful solitary trip, I came upon four men gamely hiking upward. About fifteen years older than me, they said they couldn't carry the weight anymore (cringe. Another thing I kind of hate) and so were being packed in by mules. (Four of them. One mule load per guy. Really? "We can eat really good out here now." Can't you eat freeze dried for a couple of days? But I digress). One of them said, "You are by YOURSELF? I could NEVER DO THAT."

I always feel compelled to say something in this situation. Apologize? Say, "I really DO have friends"? "I'm packing pepper spray"? Does this sentiment really come from a place of caring, as one woman said on my private outdoors Facebook group, or is it, like another one posted, a belief that women are fragile creatures that need protecting? Instead I resorted to the old, "Well, I used to be a wilderness ranger, so I'm really comfortable in the woods."

You could see the change in expression. Relief and understanding. "Oh, okay," the man said before rushing to catch up with his friends. I continued on to the "safety" of the real world. I still don't understand it.

Looking down into Frances Lake, GASP! ALONE!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

What I Learned From Hiking 720 Miles of the PCT

Some questions are just unanswerable. On a long 23 mile day, we played Would You Rather...

Change gender every time you sneeze or be unable to tell the difference between a baby and a muffin?

Hike the PCT with George W. or Mitt Romney?

Have as your daughter, Lindsay Lohan or Miley Cyrus?

Other things are easier to answer. You don't hike this far on a long trail without learning some things about yourself. In a 12 hour day there is plenty of time to think and only so many Would You Rathers or Two Truths and a Lies that you can dream up. There's time to listen to the crunch of your feet, the wind in the trees, water off a cliff. Your mind kind of goes into a free flow. If you're lucky, you can pick out some polished stones.

  1. In the Sierras, I learned to choose companions wisely. With other people that have decades of friendship behind them, it can be lonelier than being alone. On long trails, it helps to know someone well, because sooner or later a decision will have to be made when all of you are hungry or tired or under the gun from a thunderstorm.
  2. In the Sierras, I also learned that I love hiking alone, but that I love having company at camp. It's tough to find companions who want to put up with this behavior. But it's also nice to find people who can hike your pace--harder than it sounds--to pause with on top of a pass, to  point out a lake far below.
  3. In the North Cascades, I learned that it's all about the people. I go to the mountains to get away from people, to be honest. My work days are swimming with them. I am constantly on the phone, on email, and in video conferences. But on long trails, things are different than they are on short ones. We leapfrogged with the same people over 200 miles, and we would look out for each other. We sat together on breaks and camped in some of the same places. The last week of our hike, we met an unforgettable hiker named Cherry Pie, whose aptitude for twenty mile days upped our game. 
  4. In the North Cascades, I learned how tough I could be. Torrential rain, hail, 60,000 feet of elevation gain and loss--I thrived on it. Hiking, I learned, was my thing, my reason to get up in the morning, my reason for putting in ten hour days at work so I could do it all over again.
  5. In the South Cascades, I learned that there is no way I can make it to a thirty year retirement. I'm not going to quit my job and become a professional wanderer, but I need to figure out a way to drink life in now, not just in chunks on the weekends.
  6. In the South Cascades, I learned that I can thrive on big miles, water carries, dry camps, and no showers. I really didn't want to go into town. I didn't want town food or showers or laundry. It just didn't seem necessary. (It might have after a month). For better or worse, being in the mountains just feels real. It's where all the insecurities, stress, and problems just melt away. I belong there. I really do.
A few other things I learned:

Toe tubes rock for blisters! Best invention ever.  
People think I'm a little kid with braids. Especially when I wear a hat too.
DEET really is the only thing that works.
Sierra Designs hiking skirts are awesome. Better than skorts, or god forbid, pants.
Skyscape tents stand up to 40 mph winds.
I might not be allergic to poison oak?

SO WHAT'S NEXT? I'm sure you're all waiting to hear! My plan A is to hike the PCT from Tolumne (maybe from the Valley, since I think I've done some of that section when I did the JMT) to Sierra City. I want to do a lot of it solo to see what I am capable of, but I also want to invite a few people along to meet me and do a few miles, especially if they can hike in my resupply, heh heh heh. It's 11 months away, so things can change, but I am excited about this idea. If I do it, that means I will have done almost 1000 miles on the PCT, and maybe will pick another trail (Colorado?) to play with.

That's it from the PCT, folks! I've done a couple of backpacking trips since then that I will write about soon! 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hiking the PCT, Oregon Border to Snoqualmie, Days 10-15: Never Trust A Lake Named Sheep

I rose blearily from the couch in our tiny condo at White Pass, feeling bummed out. The traffic on the road and the extreme heat had kept me awake all night. I could easily have done without the shower and convenience store food. However, I knew salvation awaited just down the trail. Two cute boy thru-hikers named Stumbles and Hobbit had told us that they had heard that the mosquitoes were gone after sixteen miles. However, they glumly brandished industrial size containers of Repel, just in case, the only size the store had.

As we ascended the well-worn path by a creepy lake named Leech, a lithe man with a small daypack and trekking poles galloped past. "Is this still the PCT?" he asked, and we said we thought so. (Days later we realized we had seen the mythical String Bean, enroute to a new supported record of the entire trail--53 days. Amazing.) At first the mosquito horde attacked with a vengeance, but thinned. The rumor had been right! Elated, I hiked on through a slight drizzle and some thunder to a lakeside campsite at exactly 16 miles.

We were set to cross many heavenly lakes the next day, and across Chinook Pass, teeming with clean dayhikers. It's true that when you have been in the backcountry your sense of smell changes, becomes sharper. Clouds of shampoo and soap wafted from the people who passed us. We didn't want to think about what they were smelling in return.

Nice tarn before Chinook Pass
Our idyllic night at Sheep Lake, though, turned into a nightmare, with howling winds that kept us up all night. I was gratified to know that my tent could stand up to 40 mph, but as we blearily packed up, we listed all the questionable mosquito-laden ponds named "Sheep Lake" that we had passed on this hike and decided: No more Sheeps for us.

Sheep Lake, looking all sweet and innocent.
My able companions, much more the planner types than I, had done the math and determined that the next day had to be long--about 23 miles-in order to set us up to camp near water on successive nights. Once again water was scarce, trickling out from piped springs and small ravines. Secretly I was excited about the 23 mile day, the longest I had ever backpacked (we did a couple of 22.5s last year). On this hike I had felt like I never came close to my capacity. Bring it, I thought, as we walked through some deep primeval forest, some clearcuts, and across some roads, culminating in a steep climb and a downward descent, during which MG and Flash saw something in the trees, but were unsure if it was a bear or a mountain lion. Oh well, it didn't attack us, so all was fine. Twenty-three miles felt great. I knew I could do more.

We woke at our unlovely spot along a road at Tacoma Pass, knowing that this was our last night on the trail. It had gone so fast! I had braced myself for an ugly day of massive clear-cuts, but it turned out to be a pleasant walk through blueberry laden bushes, past some old roads, and a few powerlines for good measure. We paused when we saw a sign for Stirrup Lake, only a half  mile away. Maybe we could camp there! How hard could it be? After pushing through dense vegetation for at least a mile, we indeed came out on the shores of a heavenly lake. Contemplating a night's stay here, we shivered as the cold wind blew. Thoughts of Sheep Lake went through our heads and we retreated, climbing to an anticlimatic "throw-down" site that once was an old road. So much for a last scenic campsite on the PCT! But that's the trail for you. It's never quite what you expect.

It was an easy 11  miles out, and we wandered through more blueberries, encountering another trail legend, Scott Williamson, who has yo-yoed* the trail and once held the unsupported fastest known time. He was going for it again, yet he took a few minutes to tell us that we were on the oldest part of the PCT, which in this state was known as the Cascade Crest Trail.

All too soon we saw the ski lifts of Snoqualmie Pass. Thirteen nights, fourteen days, and we were done. Flash and I had hiked all 507 miles of the Washington PCT. I would be home tonight instead of on the PCT. As much as I wanted to be there, I wanted to keep going, up through the North Cascades to Canada. Or go south, back through the mysterious poison oak, down through Oregon and the Sierras. Just never stop.

*yo-yo: Hike the entire trail and then turn around and hike back, all in one season.

What's next, you ask? I have a plan I am super excited about for next summer! I'll write about it in my gear fails and successes post, coming soon!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Oregon Border-Snoqualmie, Days 6-10

We were sitting having second breakfast when a thru-hiker breezed by. Unlike some of the others, this one stayed to talk. His trail name was Handy Andy, and he planned to finish in Canada in ten days. We had to laugh. Ten days! There were still over three hundred miles to go, and we had allotted 15 for just this 250 mile stretch!

Beautiful Mount Adams!
We arrived back at the trailhead from Trout Lake carrying enough food to make it to White Pass, 66 miles away. The day began with a climb through burned forest, the silver snags beautiful and weathered, immense fields of lupine perfuming the air. All day we climbed around the side of Mount Adams with its enormous glaciers. This was an alpine day, full of big views, a milky, somewhat threatening river crossing, and a new group name. "You are the Three Fair Maidens," Oakdale announced as he hiked past. Well, two of us weren't that young anymore, but we would take it.
A helpful sign. Water was still scarce on this leg.
The first inkling of disaster came as southbound hikers approached us with anguished faces and a plethora of rain gear,including hoods cinched tight. As we were sweating freely, we looked at each other in confusion. There were no clouds in the sky! Why the rain gear......

Oh. About that time, the mosquito horde attacked. Flash and MG were better off, having opted for long pants and long sleeved shirts. I walked at high speed, frantically spraying "Natrapel" as I went. It made no dent in the buzzing insects. You are only supposed to use Natrapel once a day, but I figured I'd worry about cancer later. The bugs were unrelenting. If anything could drive me off the trail, mosquitoes would definitely be it.

Hunkered in our own rain gear, we sat at a beautiful campsite with a lovely waterfall (and ten Boy Scouts). Despite the hordes of both boys and bugs, I couldn't deny that the trail was pulling me in once again. There was no place I would rather be.

This river does not look like it, but was incredibly scary. And cold!

We did our first 20 mile day the next day, and after that entered into a magical place. The Goat Rocks Wilderness! There were goats! And rocks! And Mount Rainier! And Mount Adams! And little streams and flowers and gorgeousness! We walked the famous Knife Edge, where a fall would be fatal, under stunning blue sky. And we found the most incredible campsite ever.

Darn that smudge on my lens! All of my Goat Rocks pictures are ruined. But I included this one, so you can see just how great it is. Go there. Now.

"Are you a thru-hiker? Want some candy?" a woman exclaimed. I could only figure that I was starting to look like I had hiked 2,000 miles instead of 200. We saw more people in the Goat Rocks than we had all trip so far. It made sense.

I don't think I've ever had a more beautiful campsite.

We were now closing in on White Pass. Resupply! Pizza! Showers! Still, those amenities could not compete with the scenery. As we approached the ski area, the mosquitoes gathered their strength for another attack. Practically running, we pounded down the switchbacks. As we trudged up the highway towards salvation, we realized: we still didn't know what poison oak looked like.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Oregon Border to Snoqualmie Pass, Days 1-5: The Dry Cascades

"These were four days of my life I won't get back," Flash said. We sat in Trout Lake, Washington, and contemplated the first days of our PCT hike in silent agreement. For example: How do you know you are on the PCT? Because you cross a logging road every few miles. Also, you have to carry water. And: it's about 100 degrees.

The Cascades are dry? Who knew? After crossing the Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia, trying not to get taken out by the RVs hurtling full speed towards us, we started a long climb, burdened with 4 liters of water. Which, by the way, weighs a lot if you are also carrying five days of food.

"What does poison oak look like?" Map Girl wondered. As I traversed the brushy trail in a skirt, I had to wonder also. Despite having gotten a poison oak rash before, I wasn't sure. We would ask the first southbounder we saw, we decided. Except we kept forgetting, because there were so many other things to figure out.

The southern Cascades were dry. Bone dry. We rushed toward water at Panther and Trout Creeks for salvation, filling up for long water hauls and dry campsites. We walked under powerlines and clear cuts. You had to look hard to find the beauty, though it existed in small doses.

Our second night, having walked 21 miles, we were peacefully lying in our tents at hiker midnight (9 pm), surrounded by thru-hikers doing the same, in a campground by a road.  A car drove by, horn honking, and fishtailed back to us. "HEY!" the driver yelled. "Anyone want to get stoned?" Nobody did. Of four campsites, three were next to roads. Logging trucks thundered by. This was the PCT?

But after the stoner, things got better. We hiked into the Indian Heaven Wilderness, a little slice of paradise with sweet gem-like lakes. Things were looking up, even though we were forced to camp at the aptly named Mosquito Creek.

Mount Adams!
82 miles to Trout Lake and we finished them in four days, ready to regroup for what lay ahead. TL was a place to linger, and I could feel myself slipping into the vortex of the place. But it was time to move on. Mountains were waiting. I could feel myself slipping back into the trail life, one of the few places I feel completely happy.

As we hoisted our heavy packs at the trailhead, we realized: we still didn't know what poison oak looked like.

To be continued....