Monday, September 26, 2016

what you bring to a potluck

I went to two potlucks last week. Sometimes I can look back on my life and think that they are measured in potlucks. As a seasonal park ranger, I lived sequestered in mountain compounds, with no TV/movie capability and years before the Internet came along. Potlucks were the main source of entertainment. We would all gather at weathered picnic tables, bearing our creations.

Potlucks were held for memorials, weddings, when people left the area, or just because. Later, when I moved to small communities in the middle of nowhere, potlucks continued. Once a friend arrived at a potluck and set her dish down only to note that she had arrived at the wrong potluck--hers was a little ways away down the lakeshore!

In a highly unscientific study, I maintain that you can tell a lot about a person by what they bring to a potluck. There's the person who does not plan ahead--the guy who shows up with a bag of chips. There's the foodie (I'm thinking of my friend The Freak of Nature) who always has something complex and delightful, needing ingredients not easily found. Two guys I know always bring the same dish--for decades--is there any correlation to the fact that they both like routine and are change resistant? And for the love of god, don't marry the guy who never brings anything to a potluck (Been there. Done that. Divorced it).

Over the years in this small town, some of the same people attend the same potlucks. You get to know what to expect from some. J always brings his "scalloped corn" dish, and people know he will bring it. They ask for it. Everyone knows that I will toggle between a dessert, usually cookies, and some kind of savory appetizer.

The conversation at potlucks is as varied as the food but over the years, it's tended to be focused on the outdoors. What hikes have you done lately? Where are you planning to go?

Potlucks have gotten more complicated with the advent of gluten free people (the ones who really suffer from gluten probably suffered in silence in the past). I'm reluctant to show up with bread or oatmeal cookies anymore. My new standby is a gluten free, vegan spicy ginger cookie.

I wouldn't call myself a picky eater, but potlucks for me can be a maze of future regrets. I generally stick to the salads. In Alaska, someone could be counted on to bring some form of salmon-smoked, baked, broiled, casseroled, always a good choice. The brownies that look so good might be, disappointingly, from a box. Dishes in a crockpot could contain dreaded jalapenos. You need to be cautious at potlucks.

Sometimes, though, like this week, you hit it just right. Steelhead, homemade bread, sweet potatoes, tabouli, salad, huckleberry cobbler. Two great potlucks in one week! It's an embarrassment of riches.

Do you go to potlucks? What is your signature dish?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Searching for Audrey Sutherland

I still remember hiking across a small island in the South Baranof Wilderness of southeast Alaska and finding a small hut made of driftwood. Someone had written its name on a piece of wood and tacked it up at the open door: "The Elves' Hut". As kayak rangers, one of our missions was to dismantle human-made structures like this, but the hut seemed to belong here, a charming, eccentric shelter decorated with shells and flotsam given from the sea.

This time there was a note, left by some paddlers to a woman named Audrey Sutherland. Sorry we missed you, it said. When I got back to town, I asked around about her. Turns out she was well known on the coast, migrating between Alaska and Hawaii like the whales. She always went solo, even as she grew older. Her motto was "Go simple, go solo, go now." As a younger woman, she wanted to explore the coast of Molokai, and so she swam it in jeans, towing her supplies. This was decades ago, long before social media and gear ambassadorships. She wrote books about her trips and a list of things that she thought all sixteen year olds should be able to do. One of them was:
  • Be happy and comfortable alone for ten days, ten miles from the nearest other person
In my seven years as a kayak ranger, I looked forward to finding Audrey. I wanted to meet a woman who did big things before women doing big things was common. As I paddled around the tip of unnamed islands, I wondered if I would see her in the distance. I wondered if I would stumble upon her camp. But if she was there, I missed her in the rain and fog.

I never got a chance to find Audrey. She died in her late 80s in 2015. If she met me, she would probably not approve. I live in a house. I mostly work at a desk. My adventures are pretty tame. I still think we would have lots to talk about. I still remember the bears passing behind my tent on a salmon stream in the old growth forest. I still remember pulling the kayak up on a beach so quiet I could hear the rain. And even though I don't stray too far from home these days, I still try to live by her motto: Go simple. Go solo. Go now.
Paddling North

Is there anyone who inspired you like Audrey has me? Did you ever meet this person?

Friday, September 16, 2016

On loneliness and solo adventures

It was late and I was racing the sun. It sets so early now, and the cold comes with it. I don't really want to admit it, but summer is on the way out.

As I climbed the steep access road to Mount Howard, I was having second thoughts. I had only decided to backpack up there a few minutes before. I threw stuff in a pack and headed out, knowing I could be night hiking, and not really welcoming the prospect (the best way is to take the tramway up, but they stop running at four. Not an option).

I struggled with the effort not to turn around. For years I had nobody to miss, and this made adventuring a lot easier. I thought of all the reasons I could have stayed home. I could turn myself into a day hiker, I thought. You can often cover more ground, and you don't have to miss anyone, or deal with camping alone if nobody else can go. But I knew that isn't who I am. I know that once I start coming home every night, I lose part of the adventurous person I am. This is not to disrespect people who like to be home every night. It's just not me.

Decision made, I gained the ridge. The nature trails were quiet, void of all the day tourists. The nearest person was perhaps ten miles away if at all. I headed over towards the shoulder of Easy Peak, where I have only ever been on snowshoes. A full moon rose over the perfect campsite. There was no water here, but I had filled up at a convenient spring at the top of Mount Howard. I had been tempted to camp near the lift, but due to people feeding them, a legion of aggressive squirrels run in packs there. Better to avoid that area at night.

 I sometimes get lonely on my solo adventures, but by now loneliness is an old companion, who slides in, puts an arm around my shoulders, and then moves on, replaced by the excitement of hiking new territory. Even though I love going back to familiar haunts, I am most excited by exploring. The next morning I waited for sun to hit the tent and got up at the decadent hour of six. I prowled around the shoulder of East Peak for awhile and listened to elk bugling in the valley below.
The people who own the tram want to develop a campground up here. While I understand how great this would be for a lift-serve camping crowd, I hope it never happens. I like it the way it is--wild, quiet, and yes, a touch lonely.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Dragging Friends up Mountains (or not)

I still remember how certain adventures were posed to me, from the other person's filter: It's an easy skin to the yurt. It's not technical. The course has only one hill. The course is downhill. It's  not going to be that cold. You don't need trekking poles. We'll be back before lunch.
Ha. Ha.

Alas, often these descriptions turned out to be utterly wrong, at least from my perspective. I've been stranded on mountains freezing, out of snacks, or terrified. Because of this, I have learned to carefully describe the outing I am taking friends on prior to embarking. I often have people want to join me on my PCT section hikes, and I have to say something like: "This isn't like regular backpacking. There's not a lot of camp lounging. We're going to hike 20 plus miles a day for a week. And we don't really linger anywhere." So far, I haven't brought anyone to tears, but several people have backed out of these excursions.

Expectations, I have found, are really important. I have friends who want to hike about four miles and then lie around camp the rest of the day. I have others who aren't satisfied unless you are crawling back to the car. 

This weekend I sat uneasily in the grass above Maxwell Lake, wondering if my friends were going to kill me. I thought I had described the hike fairly well. It's short but the last mile is relatively brutal. When you are lucky enough to live where I do, and I can go on hikes like this every week, it seems normal. Because look where you can end up:

Happily, my friends steamed up the hill with no problems. Life was good. We hung out on a big rock, soaking up some September sun and eating dried mangos and the cupcakes I packed up for K's birthday. The next day, one of them was heard to say she would rather be doing homework (she's 15) than hiking the steep road we were walking the dogs on, but you can't win them all.
I've heard long distance hikes described in this way: The first third is physical. The second third is mental. The final third is spiritual. I think many adventures can be described this way. First you are puffing up a mountain, wondering why the heck you didn't stay on the couch with the dark chocolate peanut butter cups. The next part of it, you are tired, or hungry, or wondering where the &*^%! the darn lake is, and it's a mental struggle to find your determination. The last part, you learn why you are out there--solitude, silence, the company of friends.

How do you describe adventures to friends? Have you ever experienced meltdowns (yours or someone else's) due to bad descriptions of these adventures?

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The time I walked 22 miles for a party

For decades a loose skein of people has been meeting at a campground over Labor Day. Children have been born, grown up, and moved away. People have passed away, and new partners have replaced old ones. I don't have a lot of traditions in my life, a result of having moved so often and having jobs that prevented me from commitments. It's kind of nice to be part of this one.

That being said, I am not a big fan of sitting in lawn chairs by campfires and making small talk. I'd rather be doing something. But I think being unable to relax is somewhat of an annoying trait. While I don't like to sit for prolonged periods (I do enough of that at work), I didn't want to show up at the party and fidget. I roll my eyes when people tell me they can't sit still. Of course they can. If I got in a good hike, I reckoned, I would be able to socialize for awhile. It's just like Ruby, the puppy--get her tired enough and she is a happy dog.

I parked my car at the Lick Creek Trailhead with foreboding. I've hiked this trail once, and as I began on the trail, I realized why I didn't hike it more often. It climbs steeply to the Imnaha Divide and  then dives down to the river, several thousand feet below. Though there are beautiful views, the rolling rocks under my feet demanded my attention. I also realized I had miscalculated the distance--it was 11 miles, not 9. Oh well.

The river trail was in a state of disrepair. I forced my way through scratchy bushes and large rocks, until I was so hangry I had to stop at Blue Hole to finish my veggie quinoa breakfast burrito. In warmer times, people swim here, but the only company I had was a chipmunk.

At the campground, the usual suspects were gathered around a fire. My PCT hike was so mild, with sweet, flat terrain, that this hike made me more tired than the eleven miles should have. I happily sat in a chair and munched on salmon.

Ruby had her first campout, and she quickly learned to enjoy the tent experience. She decided sleeping in between J and me was the way to go. There's nothing like a snuggly, back-sleeping puppy!

The next day, I lazily contemplated getting a ride back to my car, but the group was immersed in a round of disc golf, and I could see it was going to be awhile. I would hike it. There were no other takers. As I approached the Imnaha Divide, thunder rumbled from serious looking clouds. We have had no lightning storms this summer--a rarity--but it didn't take long for me to remember being afraid on a high ridge. I double-timed it, beating the storm.

 This corner of the Wallowas is largely the haunt of hunters, rarely visited by the Portland crowds. There aren't any lakes or epic views. It does feel a lot more like wilderness, though. I rounded out the hike by only seeing a few bow hunters and some people looking in vain for the elusive Imnaha Falls (I'm not sure these actually exist). Though I will always gravitate to the alpine, I appreciate forgotten corners like this.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Crater Lake to Elk Lake

As we hid in the woods, waiting for the serial killer to pass by, we made a plan. One of us would grab Triscuit's bug spray and aim for the eyes. The other would make a run for it. Hopefully that would be enough.

Finally the clicking of trekking poles alerted us and we watched, holding our breaths, as the strange man hiked on by, not spotting us. We decided to give him a ten minute head start before hiking on.

Probably he was just a socially awkward man, we had decided, but there was something about him that gave us both a creepy vibe as we passed and said hello. He said nothing, didn't even smile, just staring at us with what could be interpreted as hostility. So, better to let him pass us, we thought.

As we swung our backpacks onto our shoulders, I thought about how angry I was that we had to even consider hiding. The world shouldn't be like this for women, but it is.

Besides Serial (his trail name, we decided), Triscuit and I enjoyed a near perfect week on the PCT. First we hiked the rim trail around Crater Lake, and despite dodging tourists and construction, the views did not disappoint.

After that we curved around Mount Thielsen, which reminded me of the day fifteen years before when I had climbed that peak. It looks impossible from below, and I had done it solo, meeting a nice guy named John on top, and keeping in touch with him for years. This spring he shot himself, proving that you just never know what lies beneath.

My sadness faded as we marched through the easiest terrain I have ever hiked in my 1400 miles of PCT walking to date. Twenty mile days were nearly effortless, marred only by our respective shoe problems. (Dear Brooks, why did you change the Cascadias?) After the shortest and most expensive shower of my life at Shelter Cove ($1.50 for three minutes), we came into the lake country. In July, this is well known as being mosquito hell, but for us, it was heaven. I managed to swim in a couple of lakes that we passed.

The trail was the quietest I have ever experienced, with only a few thru-hikers about, ones that probably will not make it to Canada at this rate. We hiked alone for hours. Although views were sometimes scarce, I found the deep woods comforting and sweet. This would not rank high for beauty, but this in many ways was one of my favorite PCT section hikes to date.