Friday, July 27, 2018

running in Duluth

I traipsed onto the plane, already hating people. There's nothing like flying, cramped in a tiny seat next to McDonald's food eaters who take forever to stow their luggage to make this happen. I fly way too much for work, and while I try to establish a Zen-like demeanor, it almost always crumbles under the reality. Why doesn't anyone take the stairs in airports? Why do they stand on the moving walkway? Why do they stay firmly planted in their seats when the plane arrives to the gate, only getting up to tug their luggage from the overhead bin when their row is on deck? Why do they walk so slowly in airports?

Grumpily, I arrived, after a $32 taxi ride, at a quirky inn in West Duluth. I had picked it not for its questionable reviews but because it claimed to be located near several trails. However, the desk clerk had a look of confusion when I asked about the Superior hiking trail. He had no idea (it is less than a half mile away!).

Fortunately, the trails were easy to find. I ventured out at five am to find a plethora. On day one, I chose the Western Waterfront Trail, a graveled path that wound along the St. Louis River, some fancy waterfront homes, a sewage treatment plant, and a campground. It was empty of people, and the holy grail, flat! I could run along at a decent pace and actually look around.

 I immediately became aware of the humidity. I can adjust much better to elevation change than to humidity. A sweaty mess, I chugged along for a few miles before returning to the inn to get ready for work.

 The next day I chose the Willard Munger trail. It is paved and 70 miles long! I ran a considerably shorter distance than that.Though I don't normally run on pavement, I sped along with a gratifying pace I haven't seen since my marathon days. I even passed a runner (full disclosure, he wasn't going very fast).  Road and gravel bikers love this trail. There was even a set of bike repair tools at the trailhead for people to use.

The start of the trail looks much less appealing than the rest of it--it passes over bridges and goes through the woods.

I returned to the Waterfront trail the next day for my run, but managed to squeeze in a short hike on the Superior Hiking Trail. My access began behind a zoo and I was immediately transfi xed by the surroundings.
I found a foot bathing spa!
I had forgotten how much I love to run. With recent aches and pains, I had dropped back my running to only a couple of times a week. Whether it was due to the flat trails, the humidity, or my new orthotics, I was blissfully pain free. I could be a runner again, I thought. I could even live here, and reinvent myself as a runner and a kayaker. 

Well, let's not get too crazy. But it was a great break from hotel gyms.
I love this trail!

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, California Section N (partial), Belden to Chester: Salty Pushes Us

As we contemplated the long, hot climb out of Belden, we wondered why nobody talked about the ascent out of the Feather River. It appeared to be just as arduous. We concluded: the first rule of the Feather River is that nobody talks about the Feather River. It must be a secret. And: the climb out of Belden wasn't all that bad, just a 12 mile ascent that, except for the first 3.5 miles, was mostly shaded. There was, however, copious poison oak.

The climb was broken up by stops at springs for water and some delicious rivers. One of the pitfalls of being a thru-hiker is that you have to push on without stopping to enjoy things like this, but Flash and I stopped for a mid-day spa at one creek and still managed to make 20.5 miles for the day.

We hiked past a site we dubbed Desperation Camp and found a beautiful meadow full of lupine to be our home for the night. A couple of thru hikers camped near us, but most stayed at the campsite on the mobile app. I'll never understand why people are so wedded to the app. We made a conscious decision not to look at it and use our maps instead. It turned out to be the right choice. With maps, you get a much better feel for where you are in the country. You aren't tied to electronics. Instead, you see the entire landscape.

That evening, a thru-hiker came by without a pack and with empty bottles. "I'm looking for water," he declared. Flash and I looked at each other. There was obviously no water in the future, not for at least seven miles. Sometimes I wonder how some of these people make it.

But, they are obviously hiking machines. Salty strolled by us the next day, having started three hours later than us the day before but only camping two miles shy of our location. Knowing it was "only" 25 miles to the end of our hike for the section, he somehow decided, unprompted by us, that he would stay with us and ensure we made it there today.

Halfway into our day we came upon the PCT midpoint. This is the place where thru-hikers either celebrate (only 1300 miles and some change to go!) or deflate (OMG, we've been on the trail for three months and we're only halfway!). I've hiked over 3/4 of the PCT, so it wasn't a halfway point for me, but it was fun to reach this milestone. I watched a trio of girls in short shorts and dresses, feeling a little sad. I wish I had known about the PCT in my twenties. It's not that I couldn't thru hike it now, but it just would be harder, not just physically but emotionally. It was good, though, to see strong young women on the trail.

We thought Salty would leave us here, but he clung like a burr, apparently making it his mission to make sure we made it to the road. And the miles did go by quickly as we talked about his bear encounters, the Sierra, and German politics. Salty is an anomaly, a city person who loves the wilderness. He wants to do the Continental Divide trail next. Also, he enjoys camping alone and hiking alone. I liked that about him. The PCT can seem crowded with bros at times.

Salty with his couscous concoction.

We (except Salty) limped along for the final few miles. "Can't the PCT throw us a bone?" I whined, as I navigated a rocky section. The final stretch was a steep uphill--of course. Having completed 25  miles, close to my record of 26, we broke out on the highway and the end of our section.

Flash remains my favorite hiking partner to date and it is sad to think we won't hike any more PCT sections. I will likely be doing my final 400 miles solo. But that's good too--on these kinds of hikes, it's often better to be able to make your own choices.
Four hundred miles left. I'm not sure what to think! That would only be two to three weeks if I could do it continuously. However, the miles are spread out over two states and some can't be done in the summer. Right now my hopeful plan is to finish up the 150 miles I have left in Oregon this fall and do the rest next spring and summer. It will be strange to finish something I've spent seven years doing.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, California Section M, Sierra City to Belden: The worst six miles on the PCT (and a whole lot of good ones)

Waking early in Sierra City, we resigned ourselves to a late start on the big climb back into the mountains. Rushing the store the minute it opened, we found a disorganized mess in the resupply area. Boxes were piled everywhere, with no accountability. Staring at the unappetizing Kind bars I had optimistically packed, I wondered if somebody else's box had better stuff.

But of course, the store accepts the boxes for free, so there was not much to complain about. We struck out on the road walk back to the trailhead. California tourists zipped merrily by, not caring about our uphill slog. Gaining the trailhead at the alpine start of 1000, we steeled ourselves for the hot climb ahead. However, it proved to be gently graded and tree-lined, much less worse than we thought. A rocky section that traversed along ridgelines slowed us down, and I watched the thru-hikers with envy. After three months of walking, they danced along the rough terrain, unlike us graceless section hikers.

Though this section of the PCT passes close to many lakes, it teased us by staying just out of reach. We could look, but it wasn't worth the steep and long descents to reach them. Plus, many of the lakes in this lake management basin were off limits to camping. We weren't sure why. They looked deserted and appealing.

However, after eleven miles a lake opportunity presented itself, a camping spot we couldn't pass up. It was early in the day, but seize the lakes when you can. We went for a swim and enjoyed the view.

The next couple of days stayed high on ridgelines, providing great views. Until they didn't, and we dove way down into the Middle Fork of the Feather River. I had planned this trip so that we could swim in its mythical deep holes, but after 23 miles we couldn't take it any further, so we camped on an old road instead. Sadly, I looked at the river as we descended into the canyon and again as we took on the seven mile climb out--again, a well-graded and forested climb.


Sierra Buttes, with haze from a distant fire
Our camp that night was not great--a dustbowl shared by many other hikers. PCT camping etiquette is not the same as regular backpacking. In normal life, if you see someone camped at a site, no matter how sweet, you move on, letting them have privacy. In PCT life, someone bounds into your site and commences setting up, often only feet from you. It's hard to understand, but after you've walked multiple 25 mile days, you sort of get it. Hunting for a campsite at those times seems almost beyond capability. Plus, an astonishing number of thru-hikers have never backpacked a day in their lives before taking on the PCT. I am not a fan of the crowded camping experience, but I have learned to expect it. If we wanted to camp away from others, Flash and I learned, we had to make our own sites.

We had heard about the descent into Belden for years. Billed as a torturous, steep ordeal, complete with resplendent poison oak, I had been worrying about it for quite a while. I'd much rather climb a mountain than climb down one. But as we approached the canyon, I relaxed. So far it had been great. How bad could it be?

With those famous last words, I soon regretted my optimism. Short, steep pitches, endless switchbacks, and dense heat greeted us. We could see the river, and some associated techno music, but never seemed to get there. Poison oak grew merrily along the edges, discouraging any stops. Sunk in misery, my feet hurting, I trudged around yet another switchback. Then I screeched to a halt.

A striped object lay in the trail. A rattle filled the air. A rattlesnake!

We stood in the trail, nobody willing to concede. Whenever I advanced toward the snake, it lifted its head and rattled. The slopes were too steep and brushy to go around. I threw a few rocks, but soon ran out. Would I be stuck on this trail forever?

Finally the snake slithered off the trail and Flash and I scampered across. Several more switchbacks and we were inexplicably walking through...a rave.

What is a rave, you ask? Drunk people, techno music, river floaty toys, and tents crammed together in a small space. Feeling like strangers in  a strange land, we dubiously walked past to the tranquility of a trail angel's house. Asking only a donation, she allows four people at a time to stay at her little cottage, and with the rules of no alcohol, smoking or drugs, eliminates 90% of PCT hikers. We shared our cottage with a German hiker named Salty.
The "town" caretaker
Having hiked 31 and 26 mile days, Salty retreated to his room, vowing not to start the climb out of Belden until 9. We were pretty sure this was a mistake. The climb out was reputed to be difficult, almost 5000 feet with just as much poison oak. We resolved to start by 6, even though the vortex of a quiet cottage, showers, and loaner clothes to wear proved difficult to escape. (Later, having spotted us in our long, homemade-looking dresses, another hiker said he thought a cult was in town. Flash and I preferred to refer to ourselves as sister wives).

We had hiked about 130 miles in a short amount of time, and once again I wondered why I opted for this. Flash revealed that she was done with PCT style  hiking and was ready to go back to regular backpacking. I sort of thought I was too--once I finished the PCT.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, California Section N, I-80 to Sierra City: Walking through a flower garden

As Flash and I set our feet onto the first of 177 miles of the last section I have to complete in Northern California, I had several goals: to have fun. To erase the memory of my last section, where I felt like I could have made better decisions and gone on to finish it even if I had had to stitch together a series of day hikes. And to hike only about 17 miles a day. Two of those goals were met.

It became immediately apparent that we were in the forefront of "the herd", the bubble of northbound hikers intent on making it to Canada. Any time I catch myself thinking I am a somewhat fast hiker, all I need to do is drop myself into a group of people who have been hiking for three months straight. Tanned and dirty individuals blew past us without pausing.

Plenty of water!
While most said hello, it was clear that the majority were suffering from the "northern california blues." This is a common syndrome seen in thru-hikers who realize that after three months they aren't even halfway, and that they aren't even out of their first state yet (California is 1700 miles long).

We,  however, suffered no such phenomenon.

The views on this section (38.5 miles) were stunning. We wove through fields of flowers and gazed out at expansive scenery.  We had hit it just right for no mosquitoes and hordes of wildflowers.We easily covered fifteen miles, stopping beside a seasonal creek. To add to our delight, all the "seasonal" creeks were running, meaning we rarely had to hike with more than a liter and a half of water at all times.

The scenery the next day was raised the bar even more. Both Flash and I are early risers, and we get ready about the same time. So we enjoyed the magic hours between five and ten, hiking in the relative cool of the day.

A spring after my own heart.
As we hiked, we realized that if we beat feet, we could make it to Sierra City that evening in order to retrieve our food resupply boxes from the store. This seemed entirely possible even if  it meant a  23.5 mile day. Our goal was to beat the heat on the large climb out of Sierra City. The trail seemed promising, until it didn't.

Nice trail gave way to annoying rocks, but on we raced. We had until eight, our maps promised us. Until we didn't. Reaching the road, we limped along the pavement until a kind couple stopped for us and gave us a ride into "town" (which mainly consisted of a few buildings). Demoralized to learn that the store closed at five, we collapsed at the only free place to camp, on what had been promised to be the "church lawn." A church it was, but lawn was only a suggestion, as it was hard-packed, slanted dirt strangely festooned with broken glass.

Resigning myself to the fate of being closely surrounded by other tents, I sat and brushed my hair. An Australian hiker commented, "it's nice to see a lady brushing her hair."

"There's some things I can't give up," I replied, to which he said, "There's some things you shouldn't give up."

While comments like this on what "ladies" are doing are sort of wrong on many levels, it was still sort of charming, and much better than the American male twenty somethings, who mainly ignored us. We weren't young enough to be their girlfriends yet we weren't their moms. This being true, they didn't know how to address us. I've noticed this phenomenon in younger men on trail: they seem to lack the social skills that previous generations had. Perhaps this has always been the case when confronted with middle-aged women who don't fit the usual mold.

 An injured hiker limped around insisting she could hike out the next day. Others, like us, awaited the store opening, at the horrible hour of nine. It would be hot on our climb out. We had seen other hikers struggling back on the road from town, unable to obtain a hitch. All we could do was wait for the morning and what it would bring.