Sunday, December 27, 2015

What it is like on the South Rim

True confession: I stopped at REI and bought a fleece sleeping bag liner. Even though I'm pretty sure I have one at home. Even though I feel desperately mummified in them. Panic packing is never a good thing. But...
Here on the rim it is about 8 degrees. Peering down the Bright Angel Trail, I can see snow and ice for a good long ways. Down at the river, the highs will range from 40 to a low of about 20. There is even a possibility of snow. So...
Packing for winter backpacking is so hard. If I did it more, and was a warmer person, it might be easier. But I am colder than most. Well...
In the end, I am packing a surfeit of clothes. I paid more attention to clothes than food. We will see how this strategy pays off.
The canyon rim is, surprisingly, packed with people. Most will not set foot below the rim. You can tell who will and who won't.
Will I have enough clothes? Will we make it to the north rim (snow reports range widely)? What have we forgotten, and what do we wish we had left behind? Soon, the truth will be known.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Carrying my fears in the Grand Canyon

There's a saying in outdoor adventuring: "You carry your fears." I have seen it in others: people so afraid of running out of food that they have to hang an extra bear bag AND use a bear canister for five days. Other people carry guns strapped to their waist for a day hike on a popular trail with five other hiking companions. Still others carry several changes of clothing and deodorant (maybe not a fear, but in my opinion certainly unnecessary). And others carry way more water than they could possibly drink.

I'm getting ready to backpack in the Grand Canyon for five days, and here is the fear I am carrying:

Look like a burglar, or be cold? You decide..
In 2013, we did this same trip (RTRTR). I shivered all night, sleepless, in a borrowed synthetic sleeping bag that was too big for me and had long since lost its insulating properties. I had insufficient camp shoes and one of my layers was rain pants, good for rain or wind but we had neither. Cold cut right through those babies. It was a great trip, but every night I would feel panic about the many long hours of cold to come.

It's not that I haven't camped in cold weather since, but a bad experience tends to stick with you. This is what makes you pack multiple toe tubes if you had debilitating blisters on one hike, even if you never got them again. Or buy several books for your Kindle if it broke during your last GC trip and you were left with a book you borrowed from your hiking buddy on how to be effective in the workplace for several 13 hour nights in the tent.

The current forecast for the Phantom Ranch area (we will camp above that on all of the nights but two) isn't too bad: high 40s for the day, low 30s for nights. This is a little bit warmer than last time. Still, I fear the cold. My duffel is stuffed with "maybes". There will be a Packing Palooza on the night of the 26th at the Maswik Lodge! Balaclava or hat? Both?! Mittens and gloves?! Or just mittens, which will quickly get too warm for hiking, but would be good at camp, while thin gloves are great for hiking? Heavy down jacket or light one? Fleece pants?! You can quickly fall down a well of indecision in winter.

We are sticking to the main corridors this time, South Kaibab--North Kaibab--Bright Angel. I know there are people who run this route in a few hours, but I have no interest in that. I need five days in the canyon, to breathe it in, to become peaceful after a really stressful season. No internet, no phone, just time. And a ton of warm clothes.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

My Parallel Life

If you're in a bad mood, get yourself to a ski town that has suffered from lack of winter for several years, and been terrorized by wildfires due to same. Plan to arrive on the day before the biggest snowstorm anyone has seen there in at least eight years. Wander the streets, helping push cars out of ditches. Instead of being mad about their predicament, everyone will laugh instead. Snow is magic in a ski town.

The view from a winter storm.
 Then go skiing. Because here, there are groomed trails. Yes, really!  Here you don't slog through feet of unconsolidated powder, hunting in vain for the elusive blue diamond. Here there are so many trails to choose from that you feel slightly manic.

I still like wandering through the woods though, so we veered off to ski by the river.

I was in town for a book signing (only my friends braved the storm) and a book club meeting (composed of women who obviously don't live in tiny houses). I used to live over the pass from this town, in a mountain valley where I almost stayed. One winter, a friend offered me a caretaking job there. "You'll have to fix fences and there's no running water," he said. "Also, to get there, you'll have to winch yourself across the Salmon River on a cable car." There's been many times I've regretted not doing this. Instead, I packed my car and drove on to an uncertain future.

Back in those days, we would drive over the pass on our days off in search of pizza. Sun Valley was a glittery place full of things we couldn't afford, and it hasn't changed all that much. It's also full of people who are constantly outside. It wouldn't be hard to find adventure buddies here.

Most of my friends from the mountain side have migrated over to the valley, where life is undeniably easier. It doesn't get to thirty below there, there are schools for the high school kids, an airport, more kindred souls. Maybe I would have too, if I had stayed. The beauty of pondering your parallel life is that you will never really know. Maybe I would have cursed the cable car. Maybe I would have wanted a hot shower. Maybe it would have all turned out fabulously and the life I am living now would have been my parallel life. You have to love the life you're in, or why bother? It's still something interesting to ponder.
They have bridges in the valley. We skied across this one.

What is your parallel life? Tell me in the comments!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Scared of Headstands and other Yoga Woes

When I first started doing yoga, years ago, I fretted. What was all this breathing carp*? Where was the cardio! Bring on the cardio!

I'm not as cardio obsessed anymore and I have come to realize I really need to do yoga. A horrible fall while trail running has haunted me for the past four years. Periodically one side of my body rebels and decides to hurt, and according to my physical therapist, I get out of alignment every so often. "Your kidneys and liver are really compressed," he said thoughtfully at my last appointment. And, possibly a lingering effect of the knee surgery after my last marathon, I've noticed a knee clunking if I bend it beyond a certain degree.

So yoga it is. I will never be "good" at it, though. Most hikers and runners are not all that flexible and I'm no exception. Leaning my forehead on the ground in a seated forward bend is an impossible dream. My heels are still not flat on the floor in downward dog.

And then there's the headstands. Most of the people in my class pop right up and stay there. Not me. I waver at the important step of kicking up. Once I am up, I just want to be back down. It feels scary and wrong. "I like headstands," one of the other yogis says cheerfully. "Not handstands though."


Even though I suspect I am the worst yogi my teacher has ever seen, I still dutifully trundle to class. I still can't quite get the breathing, and what does it mean to move my gut tube? I have no idea. But I keep trying, because I know after decades of pounding down the trail I need something that balances out. I hope that my knee will get stronger and my body finally will release all the problems it holds from the fall. Turns out, cardio isn't what I need to be doing all the time.

*Yes that is carp. Because it makes me laugh.

Do you do yoga? Can you do a headstand? What about a handstand?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Ice, Ice, Baby

Here I was hoping we would skip the ice season and go straight into full time snow. It appears I was wrong.

Apparently there never used to be an ice season here, but climate change is real. What happens is this: super cold temps. Snow. Then, big wind, warming and rain. The result is a hot mess (cold mess?). To get to the Hurricane Creek house requires 4WD, studded tires and nerves of steel. The trails are pock marked with frozen footprints, impossible for running and hiking. I drove carefully around to a bunch of trailheads before giving up. What this means is that I've shown my face in the gym more often than ever before, much to the owner's chagrin (we have a running joke where he pretends to be annoyed by the sight of me, saying things like, "and my day was going so well up to now.") Also, the bike trainer. I'm here to ask you, is there anything more boring? I've almost broken down and gotten a TV just because of the sheer desperation I feel while riding it with no entertainment.

The worst part of it is, the same dumb song keeps going through my head. It's a truly terrible rap "song" from the nineties. I can't remember anything but the chorus:

"Ice Ice Baby
Too cold too cold"....

After days of this, I could take it no longer and went out walking through crusty snow with a friend. She lives at the end of the road, and is able to walk right into the forest for miles and  miles. We talked about the idea of acceptance, which doesn't mean that you give up on trying to fix things, but that if a bad thing happens that has no fixing, your reaction can be to accept it and figure out how the rest of your life will be, or to sink into a miserable, negative existence. We have two friends, one of whose life will be forever limited from what it has been, and another who has been inexplicably struck with chronic fatigue, a mysterious and terrible illness. Both of them need to redefine their image of themselves and move on. I don't think I could deal with their setbacks with as much grace as they are.

I'm very fortunate, I thought.

So in the scheme of things, a little ice is not a lot to deal with. If only this darn song would get out of my head!!

The lake isn't frozen...yet.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

fog magic

It's creepily beautiful.
As a little girl, I was enamored of a book called Fog Magic. In it, a young girl named Greta found a whole world inside the fog. Once she passed a certain age (twelve?) she could no longer go inside that world but must grow up. 

I hadn't thought about that book in years, until a dense, freezing fog descended upon my town for days. This is sometimes the hardest weather to deal with. It's damp and icy and miserable. On the positive side, it can be quite beautiful. Trees and bushes get frosted with white, and every so often the dense curtain lifts to reveal what is hiding beneath.

I lingered in my cabin, talking myself out of running. It was eight degrees, but felt much colder than that. Did I have to? Couldn't I just ride the bike trainer? But then a mysterious sight appeared. No, it wasn't another world in the fog. It was three runners, making their way carefully down my street.

Few people run here, and I know most of them. I didn't recognize this intrepid bunch, but the outcome was clear: if they were out there running, I had to also! I couldn't let some Thanksgiving out of towners show me up.

I actually ran in a down skirt over tights. I felt slightly ridiculous but it was warm.
Putting on all the layers, I drove carefully to the closed campground, where I had seen a packed down vehicle track. Donning my microspikes, I was off. And as I ran the loops, I found an unknown gate to some roads I had never seen before. I ran slowly along a route I had never run. Was this route here all along, these cabins, this road? Or had I stepped into an alternate fog world?Hmm....

How do you endure the fog? Do you go out in it? Maybe you live someplace where fog never happens.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Talk to me in April

Dear winter,
Hi. In the past few years we had forgotten what you were like. Maybe below zero temperatures in November was a bit much, but you've gotten our attention. I'm kind of a fan right now, but may not be in April if you are still here. For now, bring on the snow. (except when I need to drive two hours to the airport.) Your friend, monkeybars.

Last year, I skied a grand total of ten times. I've already gone four times this year. Winter has arrived and taken us all by surprise. There's already avalanches in the backcountry. Lakes have frozen. We can ski in places we never even set foot last year. Like the state park:

Skiing by water is the best
I really kind of love closed campgrounds. I don't know why.

We did some laps up at Salt Creek on Thanksgiving and saw nobody else.

Today I snowshoed a loop around our little skating lake. The woods are always quiet here. I'd be really sad to live in a place where you saw people all the time.

Looks like some shoveling needs to happen!
The snow had turned strange. With every step I took, giant plates shattered. It sounded like I was walking through broken glass. Every animal in a mile radius scattered. 

 Living here, you have to embrace winter. I have to admit, my season is summer. Not a sultry or sun-baked one but the alpine summer we get here, where you have to pull on a puffy in most evenings, a short-lived cool breeze but warm enough to swim kind of summer. I'm not as much of a winter lover as Flash, who hopes there is snow on the trails until June. But a sunny, snowy winter that will change our drought and keep the fires away? That I can get behind.

Ice chips! Yum.
Are you having a winter yet? Want to come here and play in ours?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Backcountry Skating

The dogs tested the ice for us.
 When I lived in Alaska, we often loaded up our day packs with skates and hiked up to backcountry lakes. Because it rarely snowed in the lower elevations, we could trudge easily to our target, which was usually snow-free and frozen in a perfect sheet. Wind is the enemy of smooth ice, and there were times when an entire lake had frozen just perfectly, smoother than if a Zamboni had passed over it.

The lakes where I live now are mostly a day-long slog through avalanche terrain, and the snow falls quickly, forming deep, unskateable blankets. Our only option often is the city ice rink, which takes about thirty seconds to cross and is dominated by kids with hockey pucks. It was closed most of last winter due to the thawing of the sun. It's a good option, but I am more about the woods than the town.

Yesterday as we were snowshoeing past a small pond called Papoose Lake, we noticed it was frozen, with only a skim of snow on its surface. Around here you must seize the day, so today we brought our skates, a thermos of cocoa, and the hope that it would all work out.

Our own private lake.
Skating on a frozen lake that makes you feel like you've gotten away with something. Sometimes you can look far down through the layers of clear ice and see strands of aquatic vegetation, rocks, the bottom. There are times when the expansion and contraction of frozen water sounds like thunder, rolling across the lake. The lake is alive in the way a city rink never can be.

The air temperature was in the teens, but it's the kind of winter day when you can find a patch of sun and feel completely, blissfully warm. Reluctantly we left the lake to its own devices. Pretty soon it will be covered in deeper snow.

The snow had diamonds in it.
Not a bad view.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Going to the Bar

This is a "beach" in Southeast Alaska. Not a bar. No, I don't really get it either.
Hiking to the bar.
I see Idaho!
I never really was into going to the bars--the ones where you drink. It was all pretty boring and sedentary. If I could dance, it was all right, but an entire evening centering around the consumption of alcohol seemed weird. I'd rather save my calories for chocolate, and there was always some guy without his shirt who really should have left it on. Now that I'm older, I am even more adverse to bars.

But there is one bar I like visiting. When I lived in Alaska, we called them beaches--the decidedly un-beachy, rocky sides of the land that touched the ocean. If a fisherman left his wife at home, he would say he left her "on the beach." On rivers, these areas are called bars.

The Snake River is full of bars--Salmon Bar, Dug Bar, Pine Bar. And Eureka Bar, which is a last chance left-over fall spot, the one you go to when everything else is shut down by snow. I kind of love Eureka Bar, even with the poison ivy dance to get there.
This is poison ivy in winter. Do not touch.
The only other people on the trail were the steelhead fishermen, mostly solo and standing in the Imnaha River. None of them were backpackers. I had Eureka Bar all to myself.

I love this picture.
This time of year, it gets dark at five. That is a long time in a tent. It can be luxurious, though. Just you and a sleeping bag, and a book to read. You don't have to do anything but that. Some people can't handle it, but I like it. I normally feel like I *should* be doing something in real life, and it's hard to relax. (It helps to bring a bigger tent).

The confluence. If you look closely you will see a jet boat on the river.

 There's something about sleeping next to a river that makes all your worries seem insignificant. I recommend you try it.
An after dinner stroll (dinner was at 4!)

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Running at Fields Springs

I crested the summit of the Rattlesnake and began to drive down. It's a twenty-five mile an hour (or less) highway that curves its way down to the Grande Ronde and back up, semi-terrifying at the best of times, and the main route to the airport, the eye doctor, and other amenities I don't have in my town, 95 miles away. Usually I am just ready to get it over with and get home. This time, I decided to turn in to the little state park and go for a run.

The Rattlesnake. Picture taken from

I don't really like to stop when I drive somewhere, because after spending all of my twenties in a seasonal migration across the country, mostly driving it alone, California to South Florida and back again every six months, I have come to dislike driving intensely. I like to just get the driving over with. But a run was on the agenda, and I had heard there were trails in the park, so why not?

I carried my stuff to the bathroom and changed. The map was a little baffling and some parents with a little child asked me which trail they should go on. I couldn't give good advice. I decided to just follow one trail and see where it ended up.

I don't write about running very much because there isn't that much to say. I've been running since I was 14 and that is a very long time. My running has evolved from slow runs in high school in the woods, to fast competitive races, to marathons, back to slow runs in the woods. I like it that way. Maybe it's because my professional life is full of high expectations and deadlines and time crunches, but I don't want my time off to feel that way too.

I chose what felt like the main trail, up toward Puffer Butte. Puff I did, because it took a rapid rise i in elevation. Despite this, I was entranced. I had almost forgotten there were trails without rocks, trails with soft needles to run on, trails without barbed wire fences to crawl under, trails where you can run a normal speed. Breaking out into the open, I had such a great view I had to stop and take pictures.

"Is  this trail a loop trail?" I asked a couple of people who were up there, but they didn't know either. I descended down through the forest until I got to a closed road. Supposedly there was a way back to the start from here, but what the heck, I would run back up to the butte. So I did. It was just as pretty going the other way.

I arrived back at the car feeling like I had gotten away with something. My run was done and I hadn't even had to pick my way through talus fields or snowdrifts. I'll be back, Fields Springs. There are many more Rattlesnake trips in my future.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Meanwhile, outside

  "I could never live as isolated again as you do," my co-worker says. I try not to laugh. Where I live is as far from being isolated as I can imagine. There's always something going on.

Every work day, from six in the morning until about four thirty, I sit happily typing at a laptop near a window facing the street. (I do get up and walk around. And go exercise. But still, there is a lot of sitting. Or standing). In the five years I've done this, I have had lots of time to observe what goes on outside. My street is a easy way to get to the little state park trails and to the lake. So I see people on their way to places.

First, about dawn, there is Intrepid Bike Rider, who perseveres through most of the winter. He always rides the same route--to the head of the lake and back. I feel that thirty degrees and below is just too cold to ride my bike, but he doesn't.

Next, there's Dog Walker Lady, who slowly, slowly walks past. Though her pace is glacial, she is out there on days that make me afraid, those sheets of ice days. The office workers stream by on their wellness half hour, bound for the park. There are occasional runners, not many, enough that I know them by gait. Once in awhile, a horse and rider clops by.

Sometimes the regulars disappear and I only hear of their fate later. The guy with Parkinsons, who rode his bike up and down the street several times, ended up passing on. I don't know why Slow Jogger Lady no longer uses my street--is she no longer in town? The old guy who used to creep up and down the street for hours--vanished. The guy in a cowboy hat and boots who used to stride to the grocery store and back every day--gone too. I can only imagine what has become of them.

I notice what happens on my street and so do my neighbors. They report to me if they see a strange car in my driveway. I text them when I am gone on a fire assignment to see if they can close my windows against rain. The kid across the street brings me a comic he has drawn and I send him home with homemade cookies. The other teleworker and I keep each other informed of solicitors: "there's a guy selling meat out of a van coming your way!" "Beware, Jehovah's witnesses enroute!"

Isolated? I don't think so. I know isolated, I have been there. Islands accessible by air and boat, a town of fifty souls on the loneliest highway. I just have to look out my window to know that this isn't it.

What's the most isolated place you've ever lived? Did you like it?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Into the wind

Rain rain gear? I debated as I hurried toward the Ice Lake junction. The forecast was truly awful, or great if you enjoy fifty-mile-an-hour winds and 70% chance of rain and snow. But it was my day off, and I wasn't going to waste it sitting at home. 

A steady sprinkle burst from the threatening clouds overhead. It's always hard to know the tipping point between donning rain gear and not. Too soon, and it's a steambath. Too late, and it's hypothermia time. I decided to stick it out, which was the right choice. The blustery wind acted as a blow dryer set on the cold temperature, keeping me fairly dry.

I clumped along in hiking boots, worn because I anticipated snowdrifts. In fact, I wasn't even sure I would be able to make it to the lake, seeing as the last few days had called for over a foot of snow. I had forgotten how heavy boots can be, and I tried to pick up the pace to compensate.

A soggy but lovely trail!
I caught two guys on the switchbacks. I knew I would, because the sound of music had wafted from external speakers on one of their packs for awhile. (Please, please do not do this.)"Are you climbing the Matterhorn?" they chirped. Lugging backpacks festooned with crampons and ice axes, they obviously planned on it. (Although it was a bit too early for that mountaineering gear, I decided not to tell them.)

"Just a day hike to the lake," I said. I always am unsure about whether to dash people's dreams. It was obviously way too windy to climb the Matterhorn. They had never been here before, and they would have to figure it out for themselves. "It's pretty windy," I said diplomatically before speeding on. 

As I made the final push to the lake, the full brunt of the wind caught me. The situation was brutal. If I had carried a tent, I would have turned right around and marched back out of there. Whitecaps boiled the surface of the lake. It was not a place to linger.

As I turned around, A came running gracefully up in shorts. Shorts! "I thought that was you," he said. We discussed how hammered the trails are getting. There are trails that cut the switchbacks that are as wide and deep as the real trails. (Don't do this. The trail has switchbacks for a reason.) People are discovering these mountains, but not always doing the right thing. Cutting a trail might save them two minutes, but it erodes the whole mountainside. 

A ran on and I descended without my anticipated break at the lake. This turned a 16 mile hike into a non-stop five and a half hour march, but sometimes it just works out that way. I arrived back at the trailhead glad I had overcome inertia and "bad" weather. The forecast calls for high mountain snow and pretty soon it will be June, or later, before I can get to Ice Lake. I'll take all the chances I have left.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The last good day (sort of)

I gazed at the forecast in horror. "This is the last good day!" I exclaimed. "It's going to snow! I should backpack! No, I should kayak! No.." I stopped, recognizing the mounting hysteria that used to overcome all of us when we lived in the rain forest and received, unexpectedly, one sunny day out of 30 rainy ones. Time to take a big bite of a calm down sandwich! But...

"Well, I'd better go to the field," J said. "Considering that it's the last good day." Cursing the day I ever took an office job, I checked my workload. I could do it! Although the mountains were calling, it was time to get out on the water.

When I lived in Alaska, kayaking was an extension of myself. I paddled almost every day, most often with Laura, other times solo. Here, with only one lake to choose from, I've fallen out of the practice.

But you never really forget. I launched my boat into the lake under the watchful supervision of a couple of picnickers. This time of year, the lake is deserted. I can paddle right down the center without fear of being flattened by water-skiers. Gone are the swimmers, the fishermen, the party pontoons.  The summer houses are shuttered. It's just me.
Finally a use for the Xtra Tufs. I'm actually standing in the water in this picture.

A storm's a-coming.

Lovely cottonwoods at the far end of the lake.

I raced back to work after the circumnavigation. Did I miss anything? Nope! Sometimes you just have to get out on the last good day.

The geography of water.  Begin promotional pitch: Speaking of which, my book is on sale. If you like my writing, you may want to pick this one up. It's a novel set in Southeast Alaska. You can get it here. Or ask your local bookstore to order it. End promotional pitch.

What would YOU do on the last good day? (And I know there are plenty of good days to come, just not warm ones. For awhile)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Lost and Found in Maine

After two years in the Maine woods, Inchworm has been found.

In July of 2013, she vanished without a single clue, and there are many things that remain a mystery. Why was she a half mile off the trail? How did searchers not find her? Was she really found in her tent and sleeping bag, like some rumors have suggested?

It's possible we will never know what really happened. Did she follow a path she thought was the trail (haven't we all done this?), did she get hypothermia (we have all come close); did she have a medical problem once she realized she was lost? Was she trying to make her way to a different road due to weather or another problem? She was unlike traditional thru-hikers in that her husband would generally meet her every few days at a road with food or supplies. Many thru hikers (she was doing the trail in long sections) are pretty good at being on the trail, but not so great once they wander off of it.

In my decades of outdoor adventures, I've had the following experiences:

  • Stalked by a mountain lion at night
  • Charged by a coastal grizzly with cubs
  • Caught in 12 foot seas in a kayak 
  • Slid down a mountain, not on purpose (not the whole mountain)
  • Caught in a flash flood (luckily there was an escape route)
  • Run out of water in the desert
  • Almost stepped on a rattlesnake

And there's probably more. But I have never been lost. Turned around a little bit, yes. But never truly lost, to the point where panic sets in. If Inchworm really did get lost, and it's hard to believe that anything else could have happened (how else do you end up half a mile from a major trail?) then I can only imagine what thoughts went through her head. Why wasn't she able to find the trail again? Did she have a stroke or a heart attack? Will we ever know?

Here's the thing, though. Gerry was 66. She was doing it. Her death is a tragedy for sure. But she wasn't on the couch, 100 pounds overweight. She wasn't saying she was too old to do it, or too scared to go alone, or all the other reasons she could have given for not doing it. Yes, if she had stayed home or taken someone with her, she would probably still be alive. Maybe. Who really knows? There are little earthquakes all over the world every day. 

Keep doing it, you guys, Take a compass and a map, or a GPS, or a Spot Beacon. Don't get so caught up in ultralight that you don't have the equipment you need to survive. But keep doing whatever you dream.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

You don't know a place unless you camp there

Someday, dear blog readers, my hiking tales will be replaced by running and skiing, when the El Nino hits. Today, however, is not that day.

Last week I day hiked to Echo Lake, a 16 mile round trip, to discover two inches of sparkly snow. I instantly regretted not bringing a tent as I picked my way down the trail. D, a local photographer, was trudging up, laden with an enormous pack and camera gear. We stopped mid-trail to discuss. He has been everywhere, and that day was bound for Billy Jones Lake, a goat-trail ascent above Echo Lake. Not even I have had the fortitude to lug a backpack past Echo. "Well," he said. "you can't really know a place until you camp there."

Echo Lake
True that. And even then, you discover more each time you sleep somewhere in the mountains. This weekend I decided I was bound for the Lakes Basin, a place I have been many times, to search for the elusive Pocket Lake. I've heard tales of people being cliffed out trying to find this lake, but I was sure I wanted to go. Also, I have come up with a new goal: to visit all 70 named lakes in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. I've been to 41, so I have a ways to go.

My backpacking companions all had other plans, though TNT said they might meet me there. Happily I strode up the trail, bound for Mirror Lake. This is the most popular lake in the wilderness, and I was sure there would be other people there. But when I arrived, it was to silence. I've never been to the lake when I was the only one, except right as the snow melted. Today it was seventy degrees. In October! Where was everyone?

I didn't have time to  ponder. Pocket Lake or bust! Clutching a map and a GPS, I followed the ambiguous directions I had been given. Okay, there was Lake Creek, a simple rock hop across. There was the big meadow with the campsite in it. There was the pond, though it appeared on the south side of the faint path, not the north. And where was the faint path? It disappeared, and I felt momentarily afraid, because going off trail is a leap of faith in yourself and your ability. Never mind, there was the boulder field. Now all I had to do was climb up...and up...and up, over shifting rocks and decomposed granite. It was the mother of all boulder fields, and there were moments when I thought about turning back. Also, about what would happen if a boulder rolled on me. It took an hour to traverse three quarters of a mile. But then I was there, at a secret lake totally surrounded by forbidding cliffs.


Looking down from Pocket Lake. The boulder field looms below...

I couldn't stay long because night would be falling, so I picked my way through an eternity of steep boulders, wandered through the woods to find the meadow again, and arrived back at Mirror Lake where...there were no people. I was, it seemed, the only person in the Lakes Basin.


The stars shone with a brilliance you never see anywhere else but in the mountains, and a shelf of smoke crept in from an unseen fire. For a moment I imagined I was in a post apocalyptic world, where I was the only person left alive.

I didn't see another person for 24 hours, and when I got back the the trailhead, the mystery deepened. A bunch of Subarus were parked there. Subaru drivers are Mirror Lake people! Where were they? Obviously, I had passed through some mysterious curtain into another, alternate universe.

Monday, October 12, 2015

forty miles, two days

Back in the day, when I worked at park service visitor centers, people would always come up to ask if something was "worth it." "Is it worth it to hike to the bristlecone pines? Is it worth it to take the tour?" I never knew how to answer them. Of course it's worth it, I wanted to say, but they would look at their watches and say they only had one day to see the entire park. They had to make this day count!

I only worked 35 hours this past week and it was amazing how much time I had to do real things.
Resolutely I closed my email and grabbed my backpack. These days I keep it in a packed state so I can just go. My goal was to get over the other side of the Wallowas, that fabled southern side I rarely visit because it is a day's hike over the passes to get there. (Or a long drive, but who wants to drive three hours to backpack?) The downside of this approach is that, well, it's a long approach. You trudge up, then down, then over a pass, then way, way down into the East Eagle drainage, then you search for awhile for the turnoff to Hidden Lake, which is indeed hidden. After you puzzle for quite some time, give up and just head to the creek and find the remnants of a trail, then you trudge uphill for most of the 2000 feet you have just lost until you reach the lake.

I threw down my pack in the growing dusk. It had taken me seven hours to go perhaps 17 miles. The lake felt like a wild, unknown place, despite the fire rings scattered on its shore. Five elk ran out and into the lake, splashing and drinking. A group of ducks flew over, their wings a loud buzz in the silent woods. It was worth the effort.

The next day I picked my way down from the lake and up another pass to get to familiar country. Two guys were  heading up the pass and had missed the turnoff to Hidden Lake. I told them the landmarks as best I could. They also told me a dog had gone missing on Eagle Cap the day before. Had it fallen, been cliffed out, grabbed by a mountain lion? I tend to feel very comfortable in these mountains. It was a good reminder of what can happen.

Horton Pass
On the pass

Upper Lake

I continued through the lakes basin, encountering a few people in shorts. Shorts! In October! It was a strange time warp. I had been planning to camp out another night but before I knew it I had walked into the Hurricane Creek drainage, only a few miles from home. Might as well keep walking. At the trailhead, my car was not there. It turns out that when you tell someone you won't be out until the next morning, they believe you. No matter, it was only a three mile road walk. When you have already walked twenty miles, what's three more?
The Matterhorn
My computer glared at me from its room. I knew all sorts of work waited, and I would have to work extra to make up for playing hooky. But it was worth it.