Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Fire and Snow on Sacajawea Peak

I paused, three quarters of the way up Sacajawea Peak, at nearly 10,000 feet the highest point in the Wallowa Mountains. The mountain's shoulder was exposed to the darkening sky. A skinny trail snaked upwards, talus-covered and slippery. As I watched, fog rolled in like cotton, and snow began to spit from the clouds. I thought of the hour and a half descent waiting.

Going up is easy for me. Going down is not. Scree is  my nemesis. I could climb uphill all day. But descending wrapped in fog on a faint trail? Ball-bearing rocks under my feet? It was time to call it.

I don't really care about ascending to high points. I've never aspired to mountain climb. I'd rather hike to a lake, or along a river. I had wanted to climb Sac mainly to scout out the best way to a hidden lake called Hawk, and to see if there was a better way to another one called Deadman. Sometimes you have to get high to see the pieces of the puzzle.

As I descended, smoke rose through the trees below me. I'm camping in a basin that's still on fire, I thought, and laughed, because that isn't dangerous to me, not the way it was burning, not dangerous in the way the peak was. Most people would choose the talus over the fire.

Loose stones rolled under my shoes, causing me to slip and fall. This is not fun, I thought. Just get down.

I came to Thorp Creek Basin to see what had happened after the wildfire. Turns out it is still burning, flames moving through green pockets. It'll burn until the big snow. There are places that have been totally nuked, dead trees burned black, a carpet of golden needles, and other places where the fire skipped and hopped around without much reason. In the end, it'll be good for the basin. It was crowded like pre-brac54es teeth. This fire cleared things out. There will be more open spaces, more room for little trees to grow.

Climbing the peak was just an afterthought, because it was cold and I had time on my hands before it got dark. It's fall now, and the lazy days of reading and lake swimming are gone. Instead, in fall, I explore.

The basin was deserted. Light snow covered the peak the next morning as I packed up and hurried through the dead trees, trusting they would remain standing. Two people were camped at the river, and they looked upward at the sky. They were going to try to attempt the summit, they said, but if it was too slippery with new snow, or too cloudy, they would turn back.

"There's flames just ahead of you," I said. "Don't freak out." And I headed down the trail. Maybe most people would care that they didn't make the summit, would be planning a return. If I go back, I might try it again. Or I might climb it the easier way, from Ice Lake. Either way, I'm not holding on to the idea.

It rained for the next two days. Fresh snow showed up. The summit days might be over, but I bet the fire is still burning.
Looking into the basin. You can see the burned areas and maybe some smoke.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

How to Stay Dry While Backpacking in the Rain

1. Stay home.

Heh, heh.

Just kidding! So this weekend looks shifty, with a 40% chance of showers. In Alaska, a 40% chance meant a nice day. Here--not so much. It could go either way. I refresh weather.gov, click on the little patch of land where I want to go, and debate. Stay or go? In the end I will probably go, because SNOW is forecast by Monday. Snow! The horror!

Over the years I've tried, discarded, and tried again various ways of dealing with rain on backpacking trips. For day hikes, or long runs, or even kayak trips, this isn't an issue. But backpacking? It can ruin an entire trip if you get your essential stuff wet. Here are some tips I picked up along the way.

1. Trash compactor bag to line your backpack. The best thing ever. Yes, it means you can't pack as efficiently in all the corners, but it keeps everything amazingly dry.

2. Dry bag for your sleeping bag. Okay this might be overkill, but if you get your bag wet, you will at the least have a miserable night. I've had it happen, so I use either a compression sack lined with a regular trash bag or one of those super light dry sacks you can buy now--not the rubber ones you use for rafting. If you use a trash compactor bag you probably don't need this, but you pack your fears, and that's mine.

3. Pack rain covers--a mixed bag. I used to swear by these. Until I was in a big rainstorm on Muir Pass. The way most pack covers are constructed, they wrap around the bottom of your pack. And what happens? Water collects in the bottom and seeps into your bag! Some of them have drain holes, but..eh. Not always reliable. I'm not a fan anymore, but sometimes you don't want the outside of your pack drenched. I use mine, but with #1 and #2, it helps. However, this summer I did find that water seeped through and wet the outside of my trash compactor bag. So beware with pack covers. Some people wear the poncho/pack cover contraption; I choose not to, because I don't always want to wear a poncho. Plus, wind gusts.

4. Set up your tent under a tree and move it to the spot you want. I know, basic, right? But I struggled for years frantically setting up the tent with rain pouring in. If you carry a free-standing tent, you can pitch it under cover and then happily carry it to where the campsite is. If you feel like carrying the weight, pitching a tarp over your tent rules! You can get out, stretch luxuriously, and smugly change into your hiking clothes with a dry tent next to you. Be sure you know how to set up a tarp--it is a lost art.
collegetimes.com. One tip: be the happy guy! Nobody likes a whiner!

5. Sleep with wet clothes under your sleeping pad. Strangely enough, this actually works. They might not dry all the way, but they do dry some, better than if you try to hang them in your tent (hello, smelly, drippy socks) or put them in your bag (dampness seeps into your bag).

6. Tents don't always have to be in their stuff sacks. When I pack up a wet tent, I stuff it in the mesh pocket outside of the backpack. If I didn't have a mesh pocket, I would strap it on the outside, to avoid getting everything else wet because...

7. I feel a yard sale coming on! The first chance you get, when the sun comes out, throw everything onto the (hopefully dry) bushes. I don't tend to hang around camp waiting for things to dry. I hike on and wait for that opportune moment. Getting stuff dry the next day before it rains again is essential. Try the trekking pole method of drying socks--stick the pole  in the ground and stick the socks on the poles. You can drape underwear over branches--just don't hike on and forget it!

8. Sleep socks/long underwear I keep in with my sleeping bag. That way I know I always have a dry set of clothes to change into.

9. Don't go too crazy on the dry stuff sacks--it makes your pack too hard to pack efficiently. But you do want your electronics (camera, phone if you carry one, GPS etc) to stay dry. You really don't need to invest in fancy pants bags. Ziplocks work fine. For your bear bag--you can line it with a garbage bag or use a dry sack like I do. Don't sleep with your food. Don't. Sleep. With. Your. Food. I know, I know, some of you ALWAYS sleep with it and no bear has gotten it. I worked in the Sierras prior to the bear canister rule. I remember the rocks stacked outside our tents as bears prowled outside. I remember the charges! Don't sleep with your food!

10. If all else fails, embrace the brutality. Your shoes are going to be wet. Your socks are going to be soaked. Keep your sleeping bag and your sleep clothes dry and you will be fine. There's a whole array of rain gear out there--don't be cheap. Someone may chime in and talk about umbrellas. People love their umbrellas. Hey--maybe I will take one this weekend.

Any other tips out there?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

paddler's box

Years ago, when I was a different person: We paddled through air thick enough to taste, the combined smell of kelp and salt mixing with low-lying fog until it was a musky soup. There were five of us in long fiberglass kayaks, following Eric the instructor on a compass bearing. Town had been swallowed by fog and we drifted in the wide sea.

a rare sunny day in Alaska
As we moved like ghosts, the only sound the dip of our paddles and the distant clang of the Eastern Channel buoy, Eric showed us the paddler's box. The box isn't a real one; it's an imaginary set of lines where you keep your body as you paddle. You can always tell who has learned this and who has not. In the paddler's box, you flow in an unceasing rhythm; no flailing arms. You are part of your boat.

There are some things you can't forget, and I have never forgotten the paddler's box. I miss the sea and the little islands, the otters and the whales, the limitless possibilities of escape from a rain-soaked island and all of my bad choices. Paddling in Alaska kept me sane. I don't need to escape now, but I still kayak, though it is limited now to the lake. It's better than nothing, I tell myself, as I launch on a pane of glass, unspoiled by later motorboats.

People don't stir that early here, except for the ranchers, who are off doing important rancher things, no time for self-indulgent exercise in a pink boat. It's nearly as good as the Gulf, not quite, but I will take it. I circumnavigate the whole lake, past the summer homes, past the invisible line where I swim when it is warmer. It takes about two hours, and I don't wear a dry suit, don't carry a beacon.

Eric shot himself on one of those fall days when the rain seems interminable and the waves kept us on the beach. Like all tragedies, it lacks definition, cannot be placed in a neat box. The rest of us kept kayaking, wondering, remembering his lessons.

It is a day far from the rainy isolation of Alaska as I round the shore for home. It's familiar, and I still struggle with the familiar=boring. I suspect I always will, though I've learned to appreciate learned surroundings more, the longer I stay here.

Friday, September 19, 2014

1700 miles of sagebrush

Truths of a road trip:

1. You probably shouldn't stop to pick up the dude who runs out of gas outside of Lovelock, Nevada after tailgating and zooming around you at 90 mph earlier (I didn't stop)

2. Gum and grapes are essential to keep you awake.

3. When you are in the most desolate part of Nevada, the only radio station you will get plays Christian rock or Rush Limbaugh.

4. At some point you will think, I really should have stopped for gas back in Lovelock.

5. When you really have to pee, there will only be this sign: Prison area. No Stopping.

I recently went on a work road trip to Reno and Winnemucca. In fact, I drove the lovely stretch of road between Reno and Winnemucca four times. Good times! Though a work road trip is not the same as a recreational one, there are some similarities. For example, the idea of a road trip is fun until about 100 miles down the road when the reality of it hits. Also, despite your best efforts, you will end up eating food that isn't great for you.

I should know; for a decade I drove between Idaho, California and Florida every six months as a traveling seasonal worker. It was enough to make me swear off road trips forever. Give  me an airplane anytime. But for this trip, I decided to drive, thinking I would a) have time to hike; and b) could stop into a hot springs place on the way back. Neither happened--work got in the way, like I should have known it would.

There's a curious state that occurs a few hundred miles into a solo road trip, at least for me. It's almost like a dream state, where you are awake but not, on autopilot, kind of like mile 20 of a marathon. It's the road trip zone. You pass by all the exits, wondering; what really is at Nightingale hot springs, no services? and, oh, Jordan Valley, I had a boyfriend from here, I wonder what happened to him?  And, shudder, McDermitt, how do people survive? For me the years blur and I'm back to being twenty, enroute to another national park.

I look at the other people driving and wonder about their lives. So many little satellites circling the nation's arteries. There's somebody with a sign saying, Going to Stanford. So glad I'm not just going to college! There's somebody with skis and a bunch of bikes. Where are they going with both snow and trails? Oh look, firefighters. I used to do that.

Road trips aren't my favorite thing. I tend to avoid them--it's too much sitting and not very interesting. But it's also another way to get down to the essential thoughts, spend some time alone with yourself, wrestle with old love stories, sing loudly and badly, and eat Oreos.  Everyone should take a solo road trip once in their life. Just make sure you stop at the hot springs. Don't let work get in the way.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

feeding the dragon

The man lifting weights in street clothes peered at me as I grimly worked through another set (in case I haven't mentioned enough times, I really hate lifting weights. But upper body strength is important! Go do a pushup! Back? Okay. I'll go on...)

"Are you training for an event?" he asked. "Because I saw you running at the lake, and then once when I was in here you were on the elliptical for a LONG TIME."

In a small town, people know what you do with your time. I notice too, and what I've found to be true is that the happiest people are those who have a "Thing." This is something they love to do, but doesn't cross the line into obsession (see: Ex- Husband, also Guns). It's the thing that makes them jump up and down (powder snow, skiing) and brings them a level of contentment that I haven't found in people without Things. It doesn't have to be athletic, although I think it helps to move. Your Thing could be knitting. It doesn't matter. People are just more interesting when they have a sparkle.

"You look really good, you can tell when a person spends time in the outdoors," someone else said to me this week. I've found that to be true too. I envy the wrinkle-free faces of my more sedentary counterparts, but I wouldn't trade my days under a big sky for theirs.

That being said, it's fall here, and Type II fun is more frequent. * Soon my main Thing, long distance hiking, will go away for the season, and nothing really replaces it in my heart. So I've pushed the season a little, trudging through torrential rain, and, this week, ignoring an instinct. Let me explain.

I have to work, as I've bemoaned here in the past, so I feverishly worked as many hours as I could possibly arrange so that I could leave at one pm on Thursday and race back in time to check work email on Friday morning. My destination, Chimney Lake, a much-loved piece of water only five miles up the trail. There can't be that many people staying overnight on a Thursday, I reasoned, and was bolstered by the report some Crocs-wearing backpackers ("we're trendsetters! In ten years everyone is going to be backpacking in Crocs!") gave out: "Oh, there's one group at the lake."

One group, no problem! SIX groups, big problem!  I grumpily checked all the hidey-holes I knew of, only to find tents occupying all the good real estate. I don't know what's up with the Wallowas, but all of us locals have noticed way, way more people here this year. I gloomily contemplated squatting in one of the beat-out horse sites far below the lake, but that didn't sound appealing. Over the pass two miles away lay a sweet lake named Hobo, in the alpine, with very few trees to block the wind (foreshadowing here). I would go on, I thought, but felt uneasy. Something just didn't seem right about this decision.

However, Hobo was just as sweet and sparkly as ever, with nobody around. I even got in a (chilly) swim. I set up my wind-phobic (more foreshadowing) tent and prepared for a nice starry night.

Until the wind came. It howled down from the saddle at about forty miles an hour. My tent flapped in a way that was about to drive me insane, so I collapsed it and cowboy camped, but even then, the wind was unrelenting. I looked at my watch. I could lie here sleepless, or just hike. It was four in the morning. I would hike. In the dark. With a headlamp.

There's something about hiking by headlamp and slice of moon that is both disturbing and wonderful. You can imagine creatures lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce as you follow a circle of light. Once you do it, you realize how little there is to fear.

I arrived at the trailhead at just after seven. There was plenty of time to get back to work, to slog through another day of bureaucracy. These tiny adventures feed the dragon, for now. Pretty soon it won't be enough and changes will come. Until then, Gym Guy will see me training for the event called life.

What is your Thing? Do you have more than one? 

*Type II fun: An adventure that contains  elements of misery that might not seem as fun at the time.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The young girls

Two young women drifted over like butterflies to sit with us at the pub. Their skin glowed and their arms chimed with the music of many bracelets. Their hair flowed long down their backs. One was headed for six weeks to work for a packer in the Wind Rivers. The other, to a heliski company. They had no real plans beyond that. They were gloriously adrift, like I used to be.

"Well, they probably look up to you," J said later. But I don't know. I probably look like an older lady who has never, could never, have experienced drives across country, road atlas on the passenger seat, chasing fire or wilderness, a new job every season. It's not so much that I miss that old life, the taking off and leaving, constant, constant, but the possibility, the endless years ahead of me, that I miss. It's strange to form the fabric of a new life, a settled life, while still trying to be wild.

Do other people feel this way? I don't know. This is why I left at three in the afternoon on a Thursday and hiked up to Maxwell Lake for the night, waking up with ice on my sleeping bag. This is why I hiked in torrential rain because it was the weekend and the other choice was to stay home. This is why I run, bike, take trips. I'm trying to hold on.

This weekend, four of us hiked towards Echo Lake, a three thousand foot climb over three miles, and we met up with other women doing a day hike. Why is it only the women out here, we wondered? But it is, all women of a certain age, the men at home puttering. Echo was beautiful and remote, nobody else venturing up the eroded "trail." We scrambled up the goat trail and down to Billy Jones lake, a place where perhaps two hundred people a year venture. Maybe not even that.

When is it enough? I don't know the answer. My friend and I sat drinking a glass of wine and we agreed: if something happened to us tomorrow, we've had rich lives and we would be okay to go. I don't know if you can get any better than that. I watch the young women leave the county and hope the same for them, when they get to be my age, countless, impossible decades from now.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Running down a dream

I've never been the  kind of person who needs motivation, like a race to train for. Most days I want to run, or hike, or kayak, or ride my bike.(the exception being the gym. I drag myself there.) In the beginning of 2014, though, I decided I needed a Big Thing to do, and that was spend fifty nights in the backcountry, preferably in wilderness, arriving there by human power. 

Fifty nights doesn't sound like a lot until you start to do the math. Or when you have a full-time job. Or when you live in a place with abundant snow. Despite being "gone all the time", as a friend said recently, I'm only at #36. Still, I have until the end of January 2015. Totally doable, right?

Well. Not much keeps me out of the woods. Not music festivals, rodeos, parties, even (sorry) my husband (though I do rush back home to see him). Until now. THIS:


 I have a four week old kitten, abandoned by its mom. I've been bottle-feeding him and he is pretty cute. How can I leave him?

Luckily, everyone loves Puffin and I've been able to sneak away, to places like this:
Jewett Lake!

Still, the fifty nights is in danger of not happening. I'm okay with that. Along the way it became less about the adventure than about the number. Sort of like my marathon training days, when I faced a 22 mile run in horizontal rain. You have to really want it, and I'm more the type of person who likes to wake up and decide what sounds good that day. Warm and sunny? Let's swim in the lake! No tourists? Let's trail run! Awful wind and snow? Okay, the gym it is. I think this approach has helped me stay interested in exercise.

I may still get to fifty. I have a trip planned to Big Bend National Park with friends I met at the Grand Canyon last December. There will be overnights here and there until the snow shuts us down. I'm okay with forty, though, or forty-five. Big Things are good, but it's okay to make them Smaller Things.

The other day I was sleepily heading out of Six Mile Meadow at six am, bound and determined to get to the trailhead in two hours despite the rocky tread. A trail runner I often see hove into view, enroute to an 18 miler. "Where have you been?" she asked. I thought for a minute. Then it came to me. "Everywhere."

And that's how I feel about this summer, guys! I may not get to fifty, but I've been everywhere that matters.