Sunday, February 26, 2017

jumping the fence

Yesterday Ruby jumped the fence. She was off for a wild runabout, reappearing later without remorse. She was so excited when she returned that she could  barely breathe. She raced about in a state of delight (At least she came back). I'm sure she wanted to tell me all about her adventure, but also how much she missed me and wanted to come back. Oh, Ruby. That is a dilemma us fence jumpers have to live with all of our lives.

Good thing she's cute.

Obviously she can't be doing that. There's so much snow that it's easy for her to get out. We'll have to shovel.  But this started me thinking about fence jumping in general. Breaking out. Doing the unexpected, even if you "should" be doing something else. We did this on Friday. I worked longer days so Friday afternoon was free. Sort of.

I had deadlines. I should have been at work. But winter decided to reappear. The snow was the best I have ever seen it. It looked like December. Because of all the fluffiness, I was able to ski down slopes that I usually have to timidly walk down. It was not to be missed. Well worth jumping a fence or two.
I skied the next two days in a row. Snow like this comes only a few days in a lifetime. I dragged some friends on a windswept traverse one day, and the other day we sped silently through the woods, successfully navigating the Hill of Death with no falls. This winter is the one that never seems to end.

What makes some dogs fence jumpers? I don't know. The lure of the unknown must finally overcome safety and home. I get it, Ruby. I was a fence jumper when I was younger too.

Now I just ski. But there's freedom in that. With snow like this, I can go wherever I want. Sick of winter perhaps, the others have abandoned the trails. I haven't skied a groomed trail in years. Instead I hunt for passage through trees. Sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not.

Apparently, it's been a hard winter. At least that's what people are saying. It doesn't seem that way to me. We had a brief February thaw and people appeared in shorts. They took studded tires off. They were fooled. You don't turn your back on winter here. We have two months at least to go.

The thing about fence jumping is that sometimes you can't find your way back. That's why Ruby has to learn to stay home. That's why I don't pack up and go hike the Pacific Crest Trail in its entirety, in one season. Or go sequester myself in a waterless cabin and write novels for a year. Other people don't subscribe to this. "YOLO!" they exclaim. They all have tales of people who died too soon, reminders that life is short.

It is short. As we skied today, the blue diamonds we followed were put up by a man who left us way too soon. If he had known, would he have jumped the fence? Was there something he passed up, thinking he would have time later? It's impossible to say. The only thing I can think of is this: jump a few fences, don't miss the adventures that would break your heart not to miss. But come home to the people who stay behind, waiting for you.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Going back again

I've now lived in one place longer than anywhere I ever have as an adult (7.5 years). The rest of my life, from age 18 to just  a few years ago, consisted of floating across the country, trying a place out, and moving on. I lived in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, New Mexico, Washington, Michigan, California, Idaho,  Nevada, Oregon (twice), and Alaska. They were all pretty good (Well, Pennsylvania wasn't that great) but I felt like I wanted to see what else was out there.

I've gone back to some of those places and big surprise, it wasn't the same. Good, but not the same. Being a visitor is a lot different than being part of the fabric of a place.

I  spent a lot of time at the Bowery Guard Station when I was a wilderness ranger.
The Sierra! My home for two summers

Florida, still beautiful,  but (except for this beach) so crowded! So much more pavement! It was sad.

Idaho, also still beautiful! But probably too much of a winter for me anymore.

I found out last week that I'm going back to Alaska for work. Not moving, just for a week. Going back to a place I've lived, I've figured out, is always kind of strange. The friends have moved on. The rain is much more annoying than it ever was. The tourists, so many! Even the scenery has changed, wildfires changing the landscape, new trophy homes dotting the hillside. Nothing ever stays the same, and I haven't either. Talking on a conference call with my old co-worker, AM, about my project was weird. We used to be teammates on the ranger boat, toting guns in the field. I'm not that same person anymore.

a "Fort Wench" in Michigan
I could be sad about this, and think about all the years that have gone by, never to be reclaimed. More years are in the past now than will be in the future (at least I hope so. Who wants to be that old?) But instead the overwhelming feeling I have looking back is gratefulness that I lived in such spectacular places. Even though friends who wisely stayed in one place and got permanent jobs at 21 can retire way, way sooner than I ever can, I wouldn't trade with them, most days. I have made all the right choices, I think.

My former co-worker AM in a survival suit, looking over Dry Pass.
Ever go back to a place you lived? Was it different?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Cabin Fever

It's inevitable. I can pretend to be as zen about staying in one place as much as I want, but the need for travel crops up about this time of year. It's not the dead of winter, but it's not spring either. You have to climb a little higher for snow, but the usual spring escapes are too snowy this year. Unbelievably, even the canyon is a dicey prospect, and I can usually backpack there in January.

I have to admit: it doesn't feel that great. I feel under-exercised, over-sugared, and a little boring. Here is where I need to say that there's no need to remind me of how good I have it. I am well aware of this. It's just that travel to mountains or desert or forest--I'm not picky--for more than a couple of hours feeds my soul. I have to come to feel like I need that time to recharge, and I'm only getting it in small doses. I feel like when doctors check you for things like Vitamin D, there should be an adventure level check too.

OK that's silly. But anyway. Cabin fever! I have to remind myself:  if I could hike and camp all the time, would I even appreciate it as much? I wondered about this as I slogged up a closed road, feet sinking deep in a stew of slush and ice, on yet another too-short excursion. Probably not. Each trip I manage to take feels like a delightful game of hooky, each moment precious. I'm not picky--each excursion is good, because I don't have unlimited choices.

I hiked up through rain, crossing that invisible line where it turned to snow (I love that magical line). The dog raced around, overcome with joy.
A rainy, sloppy day but great views!
I've had my dog for six months now and she keeps reminding me of a better way to live my life. Instead of looking forward to distant adventures, Ruby is excited every day. Hey! It's morning! Hi!!! What are we doing?! Food? Yay! Look, it's the labs from down the road, I need to whine at them! Run in the rain on a slippery road? Sure! Nothing going on? Ok, I'll chew on this toy and nap. Or snuggle with the cat:

I know people aren't dogs. We need to go to work, and pay the bills, and worry about stuff. But it's a good reminder to me to live in the moment. I can pace and look at maps all I want, but that won't make summer come any faster or get me freedom from work (seven years and 350 days!) any sooner. I'll make it through cabin fever just fine.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Embracing the Dry, or, Hunting up an Elusive Grand Canyon Permit

"Dammit," I snarled. Once again, there was an unwelcome email from the Grand Canyon Backcountry office, informing me that my permit request was denied. It cheerfully went on to remind me that I should have applied three months ago, and that late March was one of the most popular months to hike. It warned ominously that there could be a slim possibility of getting a walk-in permit, but that it could take up to three days of haunting the Backcountry office to secure one.

Dear Park Service, why must you have such an archaic system? You still have to use a fax, for Pete's sake. You have no idea of what use areas have vacancies, save for the corridor campgrounds, and only new hikers really want those. Your request could be denied for one campsite in the middle of your trip; you never really know. The poor rangers take up to three weeks to process the request, and by the time they write you back, other places have filled up. You can't do it over the phone, either. 

This graph from is depressing. Probably better not to look at it. 
The NPS has a pretty tight lock on numbers too. For most use areas, some of which are really big, they only allow two parties per night. So even if there are two groups of one person each, that's it (I guess that's why the canyon is so much cleaner than other places though). 

I've been sending in requests since January, and finally I resorted to a shameful email plea to the rangers. I may or may not have promised brownies. The ranger who responded said that there was an area with openings, so I faxed in that request, knowing that it could easily fill up before they got to it.

Success after ten requests! However, there was a mistake--the rangers had given me a 17 mile day instead of the more sane number of miles I had requested (while 17 miles on the PCT is a short day, the Grand Canyon not so much). The Backcountry office phone rings busy most of the time, but the hiking gods were with me and I got a real person, who talked me through some choices (if it is their mistake, they can change your permit on the phone). I ended up with an itinerary close to what I had asked for (in a perfect world I'd go to Hermit Rapids, but that was snatched up back in November, I'm guessing).
2015 camp in Monument, which had a small trickle of water at the time.
This means a dry camp for two nights, but I'm not afraid of dry camps. I used to be before I hiked the California desert of the PCT. I have to laugh when I recall one day in our John Muir Trail thru hike when we grew unaccountably nervous about six miles without water. Since then I've hiked many waterless miles, including one 32 mile stretch. Dry camping is totally manageable.Yes, you can't wash up, and yes, you will probably end up with too much water because you will be afraid that you don't have enough. The reward is usually a scenic camp lacking condensation, bugs, and too many other people. Dry camps are also better for wildlife, since they avoid water when people are camped there.

My formula is typically to allow one liter per five miles of hiking, unless unusual circumstances prevail (really hot, really hard climbing). If you don't take a stove, and you don't drink coffee, you use much less water at camp. You will want one to two liters at camp depending on when you get there. I have passed up some nice dry camps because it was only one in the afternoon and it meant too much sitting and drinking up all the water I had. Generally I like to arrive at a dry camp about six or later, thus minimizing this. If I have two liters at camp, one for the evening and morning rituals, and the next to get me to water, I feel like I'm doing pretty well. If you leave camp in the morning, when it's still cool, this means you will drink less. 
A great dry camp in the Castle Crags (CA)
There are people who hike through the canyon in one day, but I'm not one of those people. Not because I couldn't, but because there is just something magical about spending at least one night below the rim. In the past four years, I've been back five times (If you really want a permit, December is pretty easy to get). 

So if you really want to go and you are lucky enough to be able to plan ahead, the best thing is to put your request in at the right time: four months ahead (if you want a permit in March, you can apply on November 1). Steer clear of the main camps. Trust me on this, unless you want a loud family waking you up at 4 am, eating breakfast loudly and preparing to hike to the rim. Embrace the dry camps! You might never go back.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


Though it is far too early for spring, our frozen lake has broken up. I am unreasonably sad about this. A strange rain event has brought awful frozen slush and the inability to get out of my driveway. The city plowed for awhile and gave up (I'm sure they didn't give up. But it kind of seems like it).

If you don't have a 4WD, you aren't getting to the gym!

By mistake, I invented a new sport. Rainshoeing! Rainshoeing happens when it's raining, but you can't stand to stay inside. You put on rain gear and bring your snowshoes, wandering around the county until you find a trail that isn't too icy. You slog through slush, crust, and finally get high enough that you reach the place where it is snowing. Sound fun? It actually is. In a weird way.

Nobody else was crazy enough to try it so I was free to imagine that I was setting all sorts of rainshoeing personal records. Fastest known time! Youngest woman! Oldest woman! The possibilities were endless.

I doubt rainshoeing is going to catch on, though. When I went to the little gym today, there were an unprecedented four other people in there, more than I have seen in months. Everyone looked a little despondent. Luckily, it began to snow, and possibly rainshoeing is a thing of the past.

It's probably like Snowshoe Ballet, which I once attempted, my companions watching dubiously, not inclined to participate (try it sometime, it's quite strenuous).  I'm probably the only person participating. But that's OK. That way I have all the records.

Ever invented a sport? 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Posing awkwardly on a frozen lake

all photos by Talia Jean Galvin--Talia Jean Photography (find out more here)
There are some people who look flawless all the time, even when in the backcountry. I still recall the day when, as a young seasonal wilderness ranger, I was booking it up a pass. Covered in ashes from digging trash out of fire pits, on day four of wearing the same uniform, and having forgotten a comb and substituting a fork, it was not my finest hour. A perky backpacker with perfect braids and, unbelievably, a white shirt, hove into view. Despite having been out for a few days herself, she looked like she had just stepped out of an REI catalog. Who are those people?
So when it came time to take my author photo for my newest book (out sometime this fall or early 2018..latest news here) naturally I knew that a studio portrait was not going to happen. I enlisted my photographer friend Talia Jean Galvin (of Talia Jean Photography) to go out to the frozen lake. And because I find taking pictures of myself silly, I had to do a few silly things:

Stare pensively...
Walk artfully away...
The obligatory leap

In all seriousness--the lake ice is now 8" thick!
The skiing has been incredible.

I know I keep banging on about winter, but I have never lived through one like this, except perhaps as a child, when we all know the snow was deeper. We are getting another 18" tonight. People's roofs are collapsing, which is sad, and those who hate winter are being driven over the edge. The skiers among us are beside themselves. There are a lot of "Bronec coughs*" going around, keeping people from work.

I see a few smug posts from people in southern climes, talking about seventy degrees, but I am honestly not tempted. This is what winter should be like.

The point of this post? If you find yourself on a frozen lake with a photographer, do silly things. And enjoy winter. You never know when or if there will be a next one.