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.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The highest lake in Oregon

Legore Lake is one of those places you only go when you've forgotten how truly awful the trail was to get there. Gaining four thousand feet in as many miles, it climbs straight up. There's a boulder field to negotiate. But that's not the hard part. What makes this trail a challenge are the eroded pebbles that lurk, just waiting to slip you up. On the way out, I fell three times. T fell once, but she slid off the trail and had to self arrest. That's what it's like getting to the highest lake in Oregon.

This picture doesn't really show the true terror and pitch of the trail, but it does show the Pebbles of Doom.
But you know, it's there, so you have to go. Right?
The trail was used by a miner. This is the remains of one of his cabins. A beautiful view but an arduous approach! People were tougher back then.

You have to commit to the boulder field. Yes, you are going  way up there. The first time I ever hiked up here I encountered two runners. Running this trail? Ha ha ha. No.

And follow a goat trail above the basin:

And finally you are there. A bighorn sheep stood at one of the highest points above the lake, looking down. I liked to think that it was reflectively gazing at the beautiful lake, but it was probably thinking, why are people at my lake?

The lake was super low, a result of both the drought and the fact that huge helicopters dipped out of it for weeks. Kind of sad to see. But the sun was warm, nobody else was around, and another trip on the trail had been survived without serious injury. I won't go back for a few years. Maybe.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Going off trail in Big Sheep country

I used to do a lot of off trail hiking. In the Florida swamp, we often climbed trees to figure out where we were, since it was pancake flat and everything looked the same. In Alaska, we carried aerial photos to find our way in a place with no trails. (If you have ever navigated by aerial photo, you get it. It's not easy!) And as a wilderness ranger I went off trail all the time, following drainages and climbing over saddles to get to hidden lakes. I got pretty good at the off trail stuff.

But one thing I'm just not good at is getting through dense downfall. Some people, like J, are graceful at climbing over downed trees and navigating through snarled thickets. I trailed along in his wake on an exploratory adventure, feeling like an elephant crashing through the woods.

His idea of a good time is finding a long-gone ghost trail on an ancient map and trying to follow it. I had some misgivings, based on past adventures, but in the end I put pants in my day pack (because sometimes, you just have to wear them when the brush gets thick) and hoped for the best. We were heading up the South Fork of Big Sheep, where a trail once went into the basin. For the first two miles we could find the trail pretty well, but after that it vanished in a wet meadow. An elk bugled somewhere near us. There was nobody in sight.

I felt a little grumpy, always a sign I need food. After eating, my enthusiasm came back. We decided to climb to the top of the ridge and see if there was a way to descend to the Tenderfoot Trail. I've only been on Mount Nebo once, and if there is a wild heart to this wilderness, this place is it. Rarely traveled, it is a place of magic.

We negotiated the talus, finding game trails to take us to the top. I learned long ago: follow the deer trails. They pick the easiest way to go.

"Foot prints!" J said in disgust as we descended toward the Tenderfoot trail. Still, we didn't see anyone until our last hour of hiking. A hunter lay out in a meadow, napping in the sun. I'm not fond of the out of county assault that begins in the fall, but it was nice to see someone appreciating the warmth of the October sun like we were.

We came to the parking lot to find several pickups, hunters for sure. Yet we had only seen one person all day. You can spread out here. That's one reason I like it.

I don't go off trail alone that much anymore, not because I'm not capable, but because it's better with someone else to help unravel the puzzle. I was remembering all of my off trail adventures when I noticed J racing down the road to the car. "There's BEER in the car!" he said. I didn't care about the beer, but there were chips in the car! I picked up my pace. It had been a good day.

Do you hike off trail?