Wednesday, August 30, 2017

why you should spend twenty-four hours outside

Sometimes it's easy to talk myself out of an overnight backpacking trip. All of the work, for just twenty-four hours? Wouldn't it just be easier to day hike instead? Who wants to drive anyway? It hardly seems worth it.

But I'm always glad when I do it. Staying out overnight forces me to slow down, unlike day hikes, where I march in, tag the lake, and march back out, only to discover the same home chores and schedule awaiting me. I read books. I swim. The only things I have to do are filter water and set up the tent. There's no internet (I don't get why people want cell service from their tent. Why? Don't you go out there to get away from all that?) and no dishes to do (still going stoveless!)

Santiam Lake was only five miles from the trailhead, a two hour hike mostly through forest.   I stretched it out by stopping at Duffy Lake to let the dog swim. She has recently taken up swimming and it is really cute to watch. Duffy's shoreline burned in 2003, but it is still a peaceful place, and nobody was around. Briefly I contemplated camping here, but it was early, so I headed on a sandy and slightly inclined trail to Santiam Lake.

A little smoke, but not bad.
Maybe the eternal fires of Oregon have scared people away, but I was able to find an enormous campsite all to myself, with a hazy view of Three Fingered Jack. Though I am used to walking all day, getting to camp early had its charm. Ruby and I swam, read a book (well, I did),  and explored the lake perimeter. She was on high alert all day, and only reluctantly came into the tent. To sleep on my feet, which wasn't the most comfortable. She is a true wilderness dog.

The morning dawned unbelievably beautiful, with a tendril of smoke over the mountain. I had hoped to read in my tent before getting up, but Ruby was having none of that. It was time to get going! So we headed out to the trailhead. Even though it was only 24 hours, it was enough to push the reset button. I highly recommend it.

The next day, I wasn't quite so fortunate with my day hike. I climbed up a steep trail to the site of a former fire lookout in the Pyramids, only to have my view completely smoked in. I hear this is a spectacular view on any other day.

This fire lookout must have felt a little cramped for its occupant.
Since then smoke has settled in thickly and more closures have occurred, making just about everywhere off limits. I'm glad I was able to get out. For the first time ever, I look forward to rain.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Trapped by fire, but open to possibilities

Of course, not really trapped, not like the people across the road who had to evacuate. But trapped because almost all the trails are closed and the air quality is listed as "hazardous." As such, the choices are to drive 50 miles over the pass for cleaner air or to venture out on the one trail system near the house which is still open, taking chances on future lung problems. The gym is packed, people I haven't seen all summer in there taking up room on the machines.

This summer, largely, needs a do-over, but you do what you can. The dogs and I haunt the only trail system that remains open near town. I get to know this trail really well. Right now, cone collectors are out there, gathering pine cones into large bundles (for wreaths?). People have been camping out there all summer in open defiance of the 14 day camping rule. I get to know their camps and which ones to avoid. I wonder what they do all day out there in the piney woods. There's no water, and it is dusty and hot. My feet acquire a patina of brown that requires scrubbing to remove. But I kind of love these trails. I can run right to them on another trail connector. They're easy and flat. No staring at my shoes to prevent face plants. I will miss them when I leave in another month.

And where am I going? I don't know. I used to love the uncertainty of an unplanned life, but now, not so much.

Without going into it too much and risking ire over politics, the job situation as dictated by the current administration means we have to leave our lovely mountain town for a few years. I can't even think about it or it will break my heart. So instead I think about new trails to explore. You are never really trapped, it seems.

With that in mind I find a lake that looks to be out of the fire closure. It's only a five mile hike, putting it into day hike territory, but I really want to camp. What to do after only a five mile day? I have fallen into the PCT trap of walking all day. Will I get too restless?

But still. Being in a rut makes for a boring person. I'll give it a try. I'll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Cascade Locks to Olallie Lake: the wrong way

It was sometime on my second day, the day of the push to Timberline Lodge, when I became aware of a simple fact: hiking southbound on this section was way harder than going north. A simple look at the elevation profile would have revealed this, but I hike a lot with others who study these profiles and can rattle off ominous predictions of the day ahead: "we have a thousand foot climb at the end of the day!" I always kind of laugh at this, because what are we going to do, sit on the trail and cry? No, we are going to take what the trail gives us.

However, at this point, climbing up from the Sandy River, I did feel like sitting in the trail and crying. The hike up from Cascade Locks had been steep enough the night before. I had raced the sunset, finally setting up my tent in the creepy, stick-crunching woods as darkness fell. Then there was more climbing as the trail left the Gorge completely, heading for Timberline Lodge (the word "timberline" might have been a clue).

But as I slogged upward, the coolness of the forest and the gradual opening of the alpine landscape made me forget the slow pace I was putting down. And there were so many northbound hikers, farther along in their PCT quest than they should have been due to all the fire closures and skipping the Sierra. I wouldn't have wanted such an army at my heels, and it was fun to see them approach. Some just raced on past, but others stopped to say a few words. I met one man on a beautiful plateau above Indian Springs camp. He told me he had seen two stretchers being wheeled out from the falls area that I was headed toward (This turned out to be two 19 year old girls who had inexplicably fallen that day. Very sad). We talked about the two women who had drowned this year in Yosemite. Then we parted, never to meet again.

 One truth about this section: you don't need to bring sunscreen. This was the green tunnel, occasionally teasing me with glimpses of Mount Hood. It was pleasantly meditative to walk this way, the miles ticking under my feet. I added up big days: 21, 24, 24. Sometimes I feel like I am made for this, to just walk and walk and walk. If I had known about this trail in my twenties, I would have hiked it all in one summer.

As I walked along a forested ridge, an animal running toward me froze in the trail and wheeled around to run in the opposite direction. I loped along behind, trying to figure it out. I had initially thought it was a fox, but the tail and the face were wrong. Finally I figured it out: it was a young mountain lion! Mountain lions have their kittens anywhere from April to July, and this was a little one. I sat on a rock to let it get ahead, hoping that mom had also left the area.

Timothy Lake=paradise.
After magical and warm Timothy Lake, perfect for swimming, the forest changed to a dryer type, more and more pines showing up, only the Warm Springs river and a few iffy springs available for water collecting. The trail had obviously dipped onto the dry side of the Cascades.
As is always the case, as soon as I am fully immersed in the trail, hiking 24 mile days by 5:30, it is time to leave. Which is all right. I wasn't all that envious of the northbound hikers I saw. When I can only go out for a little bit, it's worth more to me. I don't get picky about where I go, and it doesn't get old. That's not to say I wouldn't love a full summer to hike. If you get this currently, be grateful!

With the completion of this section, I have walked all but 150 miles through Oregon. If the fires recede, I may be able to finish this year.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

playing with helicopters: a firefighting story

"When were you born?" I ask Justin. We sit and watch helicopters lift off from the cracked tarmac of the Prospect airport. In the distance a pyrocumulus cloud, courtesy of the Spruce fire, billows. The fire was 150 acres when I arrived a couple of days ago. Now it is pushing 5000 acres.

That is a fire in the distance.
"1996," Justin says. I roll my eyes. How is that even possible? I eye the lunch the caterers have given us at fire camp. The vegetarian lunch, usually a safe refuge from mystery meat contained in the regular ones, contains a hunk of lettuce. No bread, no cheese, just a hunk of lettuce.

On the radios we are listening to, voices rise in crescendo. A firefighter we have nicknamed "Old Yeller" screams to the helicopter. "You're one rotor width away from the drop!" We laugh, knowing he means rotor length, seeing as helicopter rotors are pretty narrow. On another radio, the Australian pilot is getting fed up, unable to reach his ground contact.

"Dude. You've got to talk to me," he finally snaps. On our air to ground channel, the Air Attack--the guy supervising the helicopter activity in an airplane--calls us. I answer. Obviously forgetting what he wanted, Air Attack says, "Hey. How's it going?"

We laugh. It's been a busy day at the helibase. I am here for a week, helping with helicopter dispatch. We do a little bit of everything--send them to missions, answer the panicked calls from the line wanting air support, help Air Attack sort out what to do, even talk to locals who drive up wanting to know what is going on. At the end of the day we add up the costs for air support. They inevitably come out to more than two years of my salary--for just one day. Fortunes are spent on helicopters. I wonder if the public realizes this.

We keep track of where helicopters are by writing on the windows.

We sleep in our cars in a long row. Kyle and I are the only people who drag ourselves out to run each morning, armed with headlamps. He shows me a trail that drops down to some waterfalls. I find that running every day, something I don't do at home, is indeed possible if I keep it to short distances. Where we are camped is too far to go for showers or even food. We make do. It is the Blanket Fire diet--no breakfast or dinner, just snack all day on the provided lunches. The pigs living at the house nearby are the lucky recipients of our cast-offs.

At the end of the week, I sign my papers promising the demob lady I will stop at the weed wash, and head home. Part of me wants to stay. Leave while it's still fun, I tell myself.

We sat and watched lightning strike this ridge and seconds later this big column of smoke appeared!
As I leave fire camp I realize that more and more of the people there are Justin's age, and most of my friends from back in my firefighting days are long retired. You can't really go back to the past, as much as you might want to. Those golden days won't ever come back again. But at least I lived them. That's something.