Saturday, May 30, 2015

On a mission

We don't have much of a spring here. It snows and is freezing and you are never without your puffy jacket and then boom! Seventy degrees. I often feel like I've missed a few weeks somewhere. Shouldn't there be a transition?

Unfortunately there is no good source of information to find out what's open, if you can cross the rivers yet, if the snowfields hide the trails. The Forest Service, bless their heart, just doesn't do a good job of posting information. Ask a local and a blank stare will ensue; most of them aren't avid hikers. There's a lot more lawn mowing going on here on weekends than there is backpacking. There are a few long distance trail runners, which if you saw these trails, you know it's a lot of fast walking with running intermixed. You can ask them, if you can catch them. But it's usually up to me to do my own scouting.

I knew that the hike to Ice Lake could be treacherous, buried in snow. I've had to turn back well below the last waterfall, foiled by waist deep snow. But I had a rare Friday off (from working many many hours) so I decided to try it. It's a 16 mile round trip, so I set off early, encountering a foursome of backpackers who optimistically declared they were going to Mirror Lake. Oh you poor things, I wanted to say. Mirror was surely shrouded deep in snow. But let them discover on their own--I think people have been way too reliant on being fed information these days. These trails, you cannot Google.

I climbed up the switchbacks feeling good. Birds chirped and long green grass was growing in profusion in last year's fire area. This time of year is just so full of possibility. The whole summer stretches out, seeming endless. It's easy to make grandiose plans thinking there is way more time available than there is.

Never seen this falls so big!
The moment of truth arrived as I hit the avalanche basin. Snow typically lingers in the trees above, but looking I saw none. My mind fizzed with excitement. I might really reach the lake.

In the last half mile, I trudged across several snowfields that could normally spell disaster--outsloped as they were, if the snow was icy or too soft, it could mean a painful slide or postholing hell. However, conditions were perfect. I kicked steps across and barely sunk in. And there it was, Ice Lake.

This is one of my favorite lakes, but in summer it's not a place to hang out too long. Because it's only eight miles from the trailhead, it's often crowded (to me more than one other camping party is crowded; but you can sometimes have 5 or more parties here. That's too many!). People trail run it. They climb the grey mountain (the Matterhorn). It's just too...easy. But this time of year? Yes!

As usual, day hiking leaves me with a little bit of dissatisfaction. I really want to stay, to sleep out and wake up in a pretty place. It means that both of my days off aren't wasted--because even though I know what this sounds like, just hanging around the house and doing chores on my day off? Not great. But I was on a scouting mission, so I had to go back down. I raced the storm down the switchbacks. Then it was time to eat all the food. Being a scout is a fine life. I wish I could do it full time.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Nature's Obstacle Course

Six Mile Meadow is in fact quite beautiful in spring.
 Randomly I ran into a friend at a party. "We're doing a John Muir Trail shakedown trip tomorrow," she said. "Want to come?"

I had my heart set on getting into Hells Canyon. The window is closing there--soon it will be too hot, abandoned to the rattlesnakes. The friends I had planned this trip with had bailed but I was going to go solo. Because let's face it, solo can be easier. It takes only 30 seconds to make a decision instead of a debate. You can go as far or as fast as you want to go. And besides they were going to Six Mile Meadow. I had been there many times. But on the other hand, friends! I changed my plans, hastily throwing out the warm weather gear and substituting a stove and wool hat.

Six Mile Meadow, as is expected, is six miles in, a fairly easy hike. I planned to meet the others there, since I had a goal in mind: Horseshoe Lake. I wanted to see how far I could get towards the lake, although I had no expectations of getting there. Last year at this time the lake was still encased in ice and the trail was buried in snow. I got to the meadow in just over two hours and wandered around looking for the perfect campsite. Then I grabbed my pack and headed over to the river.
Still a lot of snow in those hills.
The first obstacle, the multiple river crossings, went fine. There would be no wading--the river was high and deep. I crawled across a skinny log, looking ridiculous, because, safety first. As I headed up the trail, I found an obstacle course: 47 trees across the trail (yes, my trail crew days, I count them), forcing me to crawl under, over, and around. It was like an outdoors gym. A less determined person would have turned around. But I was determined.

\But where was the snow? It was nowhere to be found. I was amazed to break out onto the lake's shore.

The earliest the lake has been ice free? Locals say so.

You could camp here. If you have the patience to deal with the fallen trees.

Icy winds reminded me that it was still spring, summer a few weeks off. I sprinted down the trail to arrive at the meadow just as my friends showed up. We sat in the meadow in the sun eating Fritos (don't judge). That night the meadow frosted and our tents were thick with dew. The sun didn't clear the ridge early enough so we stuffed wet gear in our packs and set off to deal with the 25 fallen trees on this stretch of trail. We leapt across small streams, sloshed through mud, and crawled under fallen logs. Trails here will never be easy. Wilderness rules dictate that no chainsaws will be used. But Congress allocates less and less money every year. The three seasonal workers that the agency can afford to hire for 70 days each can't keep up. Maybe like in the canyon, these trails will disappear too. I wish more people who used trails would spend a weekend a year helping to clear them instead of complaining.

My friends and I peered up the Ice Lake trail, trying to judge the snow depth. "Maybe next weekend?" I ask. We talk about calling in sick today and going for it. "I have Fig Newtons," one of us says. In the end we are responsible and head down the trail. There are plenty more days to come, at least as far as we know.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Guys! GUYS!!! The rain? It's following me across the country! Help!

I lived for seven years in a place where it rained nearly every day, 110 inches a year. Like anything else, I got used to it, forgetting somehow that there was anything but rain. When I first moved there, I used to go out for a run swathed in rain gear, but by the last year I was running in just a T and shorts. When I camped out, I was an expert at tarp setting and dry suit wearing. The darkness and cloudy days affected me more than I knew, and I was glad, in the end, to escape.

I've lost the desire to march in downpours for hours on end, and camping in it? No. Don't wanna. But since the deluge has not let up, I've had to embrace the brutality. And it's not all that bad. (Just please go away soon. Like by this weekend. Because I have a backpacking trip planned).


But nobody likes a Whiny McWhinerson, so some good things about the weather on my cross country travels the past few weeks...

Nobody wants to brave the muddy North Country Trail!

Waterfalls are huge!

and even bigger the more it rains...

A four mile slog, gaining 4000 feet in elevation with no views....well...

At least I have Girl Scout cookies!

When I left Sitka, a few fellow escapees and I told ourselves we wouldn't become soft. We wouldn't carry umbrellas. We would always stand in the rain in cotton sweatshirts talking instead of screaming and running inside! We would never have hairstyles that we had to blow dry! We would do our long runs even in horizontal rain and we would always go camping!

Well, I still do most of those things. But it took seven years of rain to really appreciate the sun. I will never take it for granted again.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Going down the road feeling bad

image from here

You know you've been traveling too much when:

1. The late night guy at the Holiday Inn Express says, "Everyone else here thought you weren't going to make it tonight, but I told them you would, you always do!" at midnight.

2. You know exactly where the healthy sandwiches, the good places to sit without crowds, and the quiet bathrooms are at SLC, SEA, DTW and PHX.

3. You start thinking uncharitable (but funny) thoughts about how other people are dressed, such as the following:

  • "The zoo called, they're missing a zebra."
  • "I'm sorry, but leggings without a shirt to cover your butt is not a good look on anyone."
  • "The 1980s wants their acid washed jeans back."
  • "What. Is. That."
  • "No. Just, no."
4.  You have two hours to drive to the airport and you know exactly where the landmarks are, how long it will take you, and where the escapee goats will be on the road.

5. You have 4 oz toiletries permanently packed in ziplock bags in your bathroom cabinet

6. You have discovered multiple uses for the shower cap in hotel rooms. E.g. It fits over some tupperware containers in the fridge when you can't find the lid!

7. You never need to buy soap because you swipe it from hotels.

8.  You wake up and aren't sure what town you are in.

9.  You start evaluating the people charging the plane gate by how hard it would be to sit next to them for four hours, with them in the middle seat. The guy with the McDonald's food? For the love of Pete, no! The person with the aggressive cologne? No! Okay, there's a quiet skinny one, bring it!

10. You arrive home and realize you have 22 days until you have to travel again, and you think: that's a really long time!

Some years I barely travel. This year has been travelpalooza. I really like being someplace but the travel is not very fun. Was it ever? I don't know. Maybe in the days of empty airplanes and before all the security screeniings, and when you could still find great hotels for under $100. 

But it's the price I pay for having adventures. What's next? I am going to Sonora, California, for actual FIELD WORK. Yes! I will be looking at the Rim Fire restoration project. So I started looking at the map and thinking, Well....Fresno is not that far from Sequoia National Park, where I used to work, so maybe I could go early and rent a car....and stay in a tent cabin..and day hike..and...

And so it begins. I bring a lot of this travel on myself, so I have only myself to blame. There will only be unanswered questions, such as: why do people stand on the moving walkway? Why don't more people use stairs? Why do the pilots take all of the Holiday Inn cookies? Why am I the only one in the hotel fitness center? And so on. Because, staying home is nice, but so is seeing the world.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

No grizzlies on Grizzly Ridge

 I've been traveling so much that I haven't been doing any scouting in my backyard. Which is bad. I have no idea what trails are snow free, what lakes are still frozen, where I can get to.

Grizzly Ridge is on off the Hat Point Road and is one of a set of parallel ridges that march out above Hells Canyon. I'd been on several of the others, but not this one. I was delighted to find an old cabin. I love finding these. I just wonder what the people who lived here thought and dreamed about, and what they saw. People were tougher then. They were okay with occasionally being uncomfortable.
Cute old buildings. I want to live here!

There were no grizzlies on the ridge. They were shot out years ago. If the ranchers had their way, wolves would be too. I remember the extra bite each adventure had in Alaska, knowing that big bears were out there. You had this heightened sense of awareness that you forget about in most parts of the lower 48. I can't say I long for that feeling again, even though I know that there are pieces missing--this isn't true wilderness.

There were, however, cows. I'm not a fan. Leave it at that. Also? I'm kind of scared of them. I know. I run solo where there are wolves and mountain lions. Toss a cow in my path and I freak out. I stopped in my tracks. The cows stared balefully back.

Last year on Windy Ridge we saw a cinnamon-colored bear and watched it for awhile, wondering if it was a grizzly (It wasn't). I have friends who swear a grizzly stumbled through their yard a few falls ago. I guess it is possible. Wolverines have been seen, creeping back into their historic range. As the trails disappear, as people stay inside, this landscape may become wilder yet.

Looking back to the Wallowas
J swooped back on his bike--this is a perfect mountain bike route, long and flattish with a few rollercoasters to keep it interesting. He had herded the cows a few miles up the trail. We were the only two people in the world, it seemed like. Where was everybody else? At home with their phones? At the gym? I hoped at least a few people were out.

 On a long hike, your mind goes in random loops. You'd think you would come up with wonderful insights, but usually I end up pondering things like, do cows get cold? What are some good names for nail polish? I happen to think it's good for the mind to unspool. That's why I never listen to music when I run or hike. Your mind needs to breathe!

We didn't see any bears, only a herd of elk. In its own way, Hells Canyon is just as spectacular as the Grand, but the experience is completely different. The Forest Service doesn't have the money or support to draw the tourists or maintain the trails. Hardly anyone wants to drop in; they don't want to route find or carry water or deal with snakes and ivy. This is a big, empty place. 

It's a national recreation area and yet hardly anyone recreates here, except on the river. Hunters, mostly. Years ago the first brave wolf swam over from the Idaho side. Maybe the grizzlies will be next. 

A fence to somewhere

Monday, May 4, 2015

Burning with the Boys

Sometimes I get to visit the life I used to have. The fire crew wanted help with burning 540 acres in the forest, and I tagged along. Once, I used to be a burn boss, in charge of setting thousands of acres ablaze for habitat renewal purposes. Others, younger than myself, are now in those positions. I've let most of that life go and for the most part, I'm happy with that. I'd love to have the 20 year retirement plan, and I miss the excitement and the loose knot of people who moved in a migration across the country. If I start getting wistful, it's good for me to go visit that country again. It reminds me of why I've made the choices I've made and how I can't really go back.

Bearing the world's best brownies, I gathered with the crew to get our briefing. I quickly noted how much has changed over the few years I've been out. Hardly anyone wears the high heeled logger boots anymore, choosing the mountaineer/hiking boot option. The end of an era, I thought. Everyone had their radios tucked into their (fancy) lumbar packs instead of strapped onto a chest bra. And everyone was. well, young.

I felt like someone was going to ask, "Who is the Grandma?" but nobody did. And even though I have years on these guys, I didn't want to be in charge of anything. Just give me a torch, I thought, and point where to walk. I have enough responsibility in my job.

We split up  into two groups and headed around the unit with our drip torches, walking in parallel lines about twenty feet apart. The idea was to create a blackline near the unit boundaries so that the helicopter could light the interior safely. We were right on the line with spring green-up, so parts of the unit burned well and others did not. We tried, making several passes, fighting our way through brush, up hills and down. How did I ever do this for days on end, I wondered. I could keep up easily, but now I prefer my workouts on my own terms.

I miss my fire years, but they are all tangled up in being young with no ties, able to jump on a bus or a plane with only an hours' notice. I don't have that kind of life anymore. I want to hike and swim in  lakes and travel, and unfortunately there are drawbacks to every choice. People often say "You live a blessed life" or, "you are so lucky". What they don't see is what I have to do to make my life happen. There is no such thing as luck. You make your own. I sit at a desk. I struggle to get any writing done with a full time job. I have to work out extra hard because I don't get to exercise at my job. I'm not lucky, just determined.

I've never really wanted to let fire go, but I am getting better at it. One of these days I won't want to go on the line anymore. "Can I have that in writing?" J asks. He rolls his eyes. But it's getting closer to the truth.

Our burn wasn't that exciting, not like the ones I used to supervise in the Glades, where they would rip through the prairies faster than we could run. Those were the days, and they won't come again. But you can't live in the past and be happy. I put up my drip torch and headed back home to my life. Let the young guys live in this one. Everyone is where they are supposed to be.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Grand Canyon was in a bad mood

I sat in my cabin at the Bright Angel Lodge debating whether to risk backpacking into the canyon. Rain and snow I could handle, even though my dreams of soaking up the sun at Granite Rapids seemed to be evaporating. But a forty mile an hour wind? Seriously, why was the wind following me around the country? The forecast had looked so benign when I had packed for my work week in Sedona, and I had brought the Skyscape, a non-freestanding tent that is not good in wind. Well, I thought. I was here. How bad could it be?

A moody day in the canyon.
I had pulled together an ambitious itinerary, stitching together a route that I hoped would keep me clear of the crowds. Hermit Trailhead to Granite Rapids, then back to Boucher River, and out the Boucher trail, a fabled route of much steepness. The rangers tried to talk me out of it, saying that 30 miles in 3 days was too much. Too much? No way, I scoffed. I had just been doing twenty milers in California! Dude, please.

At six in the morning, I rode the shuttle to the trailhead, accompanied by two other hikers, who were heading for Monument and who asked me my name. My first impulse was to say my trail name, so I did. I guess I'm still on the PCT in spirit...

Flowering yuccas!
The Hermit, once a cruiser trail, has now been unmaintained for years. The going was slow as I picked my way through boulders. I skidded on tiny ball-bearing pebbles. As I was passing under a rock fall, the Canyon struck back. A huge rock rolled off the trail and onto my ankle.

Disaster! I hobbled around a bit. Should I hike back up the trail or continue? The shame of a helicopter rescue flashed through my mind. Never! Well, I can walk on it, I reasoned. Might as well keep going! This approach, while probably not the wisest, has served me well over the years and kept me relatively doctor free.

The rain and wind materialized as I hiked over to Granite Rapids. Fifty mile gusts lashed my belongings, throwing sand into the tent. It was clear: I'd have to trudge the mile and a half back to Monument and camp with All The People. You know the ones: Old schoolers, with all the gear, the loud talking, the little ziplock bags of toilet paper, headlamps blazing when it is perfectly light out. The snoring! (I know, this sounds really judgmental. At least they are out there! But guys! Why do you take so long in the communal toilet? What can possibly....oh never mind.

It wasn't too bad, though. Everyone seemed a bit subdued by the weather, trooping around in rain gear. "Hi, Monkey Bars!" the hikers chorused, and we talked for awhile until rain forced us into our respective tents.

Stealth camping proved successful and I backtracked towards Hermit Creek the next day under passing clouds. The people I saw there would be the last I'd see for an entire day.

The lovely Tonto.
I love the Tonto, its broad expanse, the flirting glimpse of river. All of the hikers were happily in the main corridor, not here, and I arrived at the majestic Boucher Canyon at ten, after hiking ten miles, way too early to stop, I thought. I looked up at the impassive cliffs. I had heard that this trail was the hardest of all of the south side trails. Brutal, some said. Easy to lose. Lowering packs on ropes. How bad could it be?

I decided to put a dent in the trail anyway and headed up. In most of my travels trails never live up to the hype other people give them. They are never as scary or as hard. But it didn't take long to discover that this trail definitely lived up to the hype. It was a route in places, marked by a few cairns, hand over hand climbing, boulder choked gullies.  I had to stop and consult the landscape to see where the trail went next. This was not a place to traverse cross country. You would never be found again. In the old days, Mr. Boucher used to bring a string of mules down the "trail." It was hard to imagine. Finally I found a small campsite and settled in for the night.

View from campsite.
I wondered if I should have gone further but after 14 miles I was ready to sit on a rock and enjoy the view. The next day though I broke out on a plateau below Yuma Point with the campsites of my dreams, looking over the canyon. I could have just gone an hour further and camped in paradise. Darn you. GC, I thought. Break my heart every time. Always leave me wanting more.

Lovely windy plateau.
But there were shuttles to catch and things to do, and I had to go. All too soon I dragged myself to Hermits Rest. I stood there for a moment looking into the canyon. Sometimes you have a picture in your head of how a trip will be. I had thought of placid sandy beach at the river, hours to contemplate life, a moderately challenging hike up the Boucher with a sweet campsite. None of those things happened. It was a different trip, but a good one.Even in a bad mood, the Grand Canyon was still a great place to be.

I was pretty happy to see the end of the Boucher!
Next time, I told the Boucher. I won't hike all the way down. Just to Yuma Point, to those great campsites perched on the rim. I'll loiter. I'll lounge. I'll hang out. The canyon seemed to chuckle. You, hang out? Dude, please.