Saturday, March 30, 2019

Hiking El Toro Wilderness, Puerto Rico

I strolled out onto the tropical beach. Palm trees swayed in the tradewinds. I was going for a run barefoot, the surf as warm as bathwater. I still couldn't believe my good fortune. This, I thought, makes up for all the endless desk sitting, the conference calls, juggling twenty projects at at time with twenty bosses. I was in Puerto Rico for work.

Paradise. Seriously.
The only thing better would have been to be in PR for fun. But because I was there to help write a wilderness plan, I was able to hike in the El Toro wilderness, which felt like fun anyway. It's 2.5 miles one way to the top of the peak, and the first mile was effortless, though uphill. "This is easy!" I exclaimed. Then we hit mud. And more mud. The kind of mud where you think you are going to lose your shoes. Mud that has gullied out the trail, making you crawl up to the next step. A tropical rain fell, and I put on a rain jacket. Mistake! Better to just let it fall, you will dry out in minutes anyway.
Side note, it took us two hours to hike that 2.5 miles.
One of the many dogs that hang around as forest greeters.
We were in the dwarf forest, and it was obvious that the humidity pyramid plays a role here. The different levels of elevation and humidity determine how plants grow here. There's an orchid that's only a fingernail in size that only grows here, in this 10,000 acre wilderness. It grows on the lee side of the trees, because if it grew on the windward side, it would dry out too much.

My companion pointed out the damage from hurricanes Maria and Irma--landslides and topped off trees. The palms are flexible, she said, so they survive. The people I met were much the same. They had stories of riding out the hurricanes, but, "life goes on. You have to look ahead." Another story from a long-ago hurricane was that two people had to chain themselves to trees in order to survive.

Up in the clouds on El Toro peak.
But my impression was that the wilderness, and the people, are resilient. Everywhere I saw cheerful smiles and greetings, even to "gringos". People enjoy life here. The whole mood was so different than what I have experienced in the States as a whole--a kind of simmering anger and impatience. Here in PR, life still seems good.

Of course, as a privileged tourist, I didn't see it all. As we retraced our steps, my shoes full of mud, I knew that the one trail we hiked represented only a fraction of the wilderness. As does what I experienced here. All I know is, I was sad to leave. I will have to come back.

This sign says "end of trail". But it's not, not really. Another 4 mile trail connects here.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Idaho side of the Snake

I hurried along the rocky trail, trying to beat the sunset and failing. I'm not a big fan of night hiking. Some people love it, but it's kind of scary to do solo. The light from my headlamp revealed a long, flat bench far below. Kirkwood Ranch at last! Safe from mountain lions!

It had been years since I had backpacked on the Snake River National Recreation Trail in Hells Canyon, high time for a return. I had been stalking the weather, waiting for the perfect window, because to get there you must drive high on a winding road that could be treacherous if snowy. Luckily, the perfect time arrived.

It's about a five hour drive from my house to Pittsburg Landing, plenty of time to think about life choices, and when I arrived I knew I would have to beat feet to get there in daylight. The six miles only took two hours to complete, but it was dark, and I set up my tent in an empty campground, accompanied only by a herd of deer. Lights beamed out from the historic ranch house, occupied by caretakers who stay there a month at a time as volunteers. (That would be fun to do.)

Spring views along the trail
My next day's destination was to day hike to Pine Bar, a place almost mystical in that it has actual pine trees and a sandy beach by the river. It would be a 16 mile round trip, well within possibility.

The trail meandered upriver, climbing to Suicide Point (which I renamed Life is Good Point) and wandering over wide open fields which were once grazed and irrigated. History is everywhere in the canyon; you can see it in remnants of old plows slumbering in the tall grass and old buildings near the creeks.

These people were smart. They built their cabin into the side of the hill and used stone. There are still two bedframes inside this cabin.
"If the day temperature and the night temperature together equal one hundred, the new grass will be growing," Joe had told me. It was, he said, an old rancher's saying. It was just about there, though the canyon hasn't exploded into spring yet. The flowers were just barely starting, and there was frost at Kirkwood each night.

The loveliness of Pine Bar.
I sat for a long time at Pine Bar before making the trek back. Some Canadians drifted over to my campsite, moaning about the lack of shade. Just wait another month, Canadians!  It'll be much hotter! They and one other backpacking woman were the only people I would see in three days. We sat around and talked about gear. I recognized a kindred soul when one of them started listing off how many tents he had.

At Life is Good Point
If you are not pressed for time, the trail is about 30 miles long and ends, mostly, at Granite Creek. It is an out and back unless you plan ahead and have a jet boat drop you off so you can hike back to Pittsburg. Someday, I thought, someday I will do that. Someday I will have unlimited time. But for now I seize the day when I can.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Skating on a (Possibly) Frozen Lake

The lake froze! The lake froze! This is a big deal!

Okay,  maybe not for you. But since I don't live next to an ocean (and I miss that every day), Wallowa Lake is the next best thing. It's my swimming pool in summer (kind of a cold one), my view when I run along the moraine, and a good place to just hang out at any time. I've lived here for eleven winters, and the lake has frozen four times in its entirety.

Some years we get an icebox in December and the surface stays frozen for months. In the best winter of all for ice, 2017, we skied and skated on the lake most days. Most winters, it's disappointingly cold but not enough to make the ice.

I had given up on this year. It's been really snowy but not that cold (when I say that, the temperatures have been in the single digits, but not below zero, which is what the lake seems to need). Until one day when I was driving by after a run and I noticed something odd. No open water! This was in March, which is exceedingly strange. I raced home to get my skates.

One thing you should know is that I am a terrible ice skater. I was better in Alaska, where our lovely Swan Lake reliably froze and I was able to skate often. (My friend L got fed up with trying and left her skates on the ice with a note saying they were free.)  I honestly don't know why I keep doing something that I am so bad at, but there's something about gliding over glass, knowing that you are above three hundred or more feet of water...I don't know. It's spellbinding, really.

There wasn't anyone at the lake when I returned with my skates, and I wasn't quite sure how completely frozen the lake was. Something my friend R always said flashed through my head: "If you die in a stupid way, I'm not coming to your funeral." Okay then.

I inched out onto the ice and put on my skates. Some slush greeted me, and I knew this was from the snow skiff melting, but it was still worth avoiding that area. I made my way to a clear patch. And it wasn't pretty, but I was skating on a frozen lake. Though I was still terrible at it, I couldn't help but think that this was the culmination of a pretty perfect winter. I am actually sad to see it go.

Friday, March 8, 2019

How to run happily in winter*

*Are you serious? A better title from me would be: how to run sullenly in winter while postholing through deep snow while the dog disappears somewhere, or how to skitter along on microspikes on sheer ice where a fall would be catastrophic. Or even, how to run on a treadmill without. anything to look at except people going in and out of the bank across the street from the gym.

So no tips here. The reality is that where I live, winter running is rarely enjoyable. I tend to ski a lot more and run less. But since I can't seem to give running up entirely, I've learned to endure.

What makes it worth it are the times when everything aligns. If I hear that the snowmobile club has groomed the canal road, I race out there. It's a grueling climb to the good part, but definitely worth it.

Perfect groomed corduroy.
In winter I also allow myself to slow down. I don't worry about pace, just total time. I even let myself take pictures (the old me would be horrified by this).

The lake is trying to freeze!  I can't complain about this running backdrop.
This year for some unexplained reason the state park decided to plow some little paths, which makes for interesting short loops. I also love running through the deserted campground.

Cute little paths!

They plow the camping parking spots, but I don't think anyone would happily camp here.

The other little park I run in has largely been off limits except for skis, and so have the trails. The snowshoe army just has not been able to keep up.  Sometimes this winter I have headed out optimistically only to flounder in deep snow. Honestly it isn't worth the slow pace--I could walk just a as fast--so I beat it out to the road. The roads are icy and treacherous, but at least they are plowed. On one sad occasion, I went to a road I thought I could run only to find it icy beyond belief. I then went to the state park. A big nope. Onward to the campground. I felt slightly ridiculous, hunting all over the county for a place to run.
The views are nice,  though.
I know a couple of people whose only activity is running, and I feel sorry for them this time of year. I can say that as a person who used to be that way. Branching out to skiing and snowshoeing has allowed me a lot more fun in winter.  But I'll never give up running completely. There's always those perfect moments on trail, crunchy snow underfoot, mountains overhead.

Friday, March 1, 2019


I know I keep talking about this, but we are buried! I've never seen so much snow in our little village. And it's not stopping. Even the dedicated skiers are starting to grumble, except for a couple who say they want to be able to ski through June. No, please no.

Things that make Februburied stick out from all the past Februarys:

I've never skied so many days in a winter!

 We have gone on trails that I would never ski in less snowy times. The dogs peer plaintively over the snow-blown paths. They are dwarfed by the mounds of snow.

Running has been tough. The trails can't get beaten down enough, so it's either the treadmill or the icy pavement. Neither seems like a good idea, so I just keep skiing.

We headed up the Hurricane Creek trail, where nobody had been. Usually, people are convinced they can drive there, and try it. They end up stuck, and walking to our house to get help. Nobody has even tried it this year, which left the trail for us. But spooked by potential avalanches, we didn't stay too long.

Ruby demonstrating the paths she must stick to.
Alas, my faithful skinny skis are at the end of life. They have barely any scales left. They were free, so I can't argue too much with the need to go shopping. They lasted me ten years, and who knows how long they were used before that.

Also, I am out of firewood, a situation that has not happened ever. I had to do the Firewood Buy of Shame. It still seems like I should be burly enough to cut my own wood, but we estimated wrong this year.

One thing doesn't change. I am still a dork. Witness in the picture below.

I didn't realize I had two pairs of sunglasses until I saw this picture. I ran into a friend and skied a ways with him and he SAID NOTHING.  He probably wondered what that was all about.

Currently, we are at 125% of normal for our snowpack. I am worrying about my June PCT hike in the Sierra at this point, but it is too soon to tell for sure. And the snow keeps coming. Wherever you are, I hope you are enjoying the winter as much as I am.