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.