Saturday, December 26, 2020

Staycations are not my fave

My Covid bubble friend and I arrived late to the snowpark, at high noon. It was way too late to even attempt the entire ten mile Hass Owl loop. We knew this, but we kept skiing anyway. We were in the same boat--in the throes of a staycation. We both were winter travelers who couldn't travel. Skiing a long loop wasn't the Arizona Trail, but it was something.

I get about three weeks of vacation time a year. I realize this is pretty special, but temper this with no bonuses, no raises unless I get a new job (which means moving), and being at the whim of whatever administration is in power, plus I've labored almost 34 years year-round for this outfit and you can see that I fiercely hang on to those three weeks as a benefit.

If you don't use those three weeks, you lose them, and you may imagine what a great three week trip might look like. Whoa there, partner! With at least 20 projects working for 20 different people, there is no way I can ever take that much time off at once. So what I have typically done is break it up into 100 mile chunks on a trail. 

NOT THIS YEAR THOUGH! I saved my vacation time until now, hoping against hope for an Arizona Trail or Grand Canyon adventure. Though others are flying and staying in hotels, I couldn't bring myself to do it (I'm sure being on trail is fairly safe, and driving less dangerous--or is it? It would take days to get to Arizona). So the dreaded staycation loomed over the holidays.

It has quickly become apparent that I am no good at a staycation. For the past nine years I have worked remotely out of my house, and while this is a great thing, it means I have spent many, many hours staring at the same walls.  I'm good at self-entertainment--I wrote three essays and revised my novel--but I wanted to go somewhere. Anywhere but this house!

Ruby enjoys her booties about as much as I enjoy staying home!

Cross country skiing ten miles really isn't that heroic, even if you are breaking trail most of the way. But it's still something. We stopped and gazed over the landscape. We could see Idaho, even if it wasn't prudent to go there at the moment. 

This staycation has made me realize that I'm not great at an unstructured life. I've never not worked--with the exception of three months in 1988--and while I look forward to a time when work doesn't dominate my days, I need to get better at hanging around the home valley. Some people can putter around all day and feel content. I am not one of them. But maybe I can get there? 

Dragging butt, my friend and I coasted down the last hill to our cars. It was nearly dark and we still had an icy road to navigate. It was a far cry from a 20 mile day on the AZT, but we had achieved our goal of getting away from our houses. Staycations rule! Well..sort of. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Cabin on the edge of the world

 I had only hiked the old packer trail to Cayuse Flat once before. It doesn't really stand out as a stellar option. For one, in summer a forest road comes in from above, and so you can be faced with a collection of 4 wheelers and pickups as you ascend the last switchback. During hunting season, a camp is often located at the trailhead, essentially blocking access. The trail is basically gone as it heads uphill, too, leading to a frustrating climb through tall grass and rocks.

But in a dry and cold December, options were minimal so I decided to give this trail another chance, driving past Imnaha and up the Hat Point Road to the trailhead. It was immediately obvious that few people hike this trail. A set of old footprints punched through the  crusty snow, which was how I was able to follow the trail through the woods. Otherwise, it would have been possible to flounder while searching for it. Trees had fallen and not been cut and the snow was deep enough that I was glad I had put on my winter boots. 

The trail headed steeply upward until it reached an old fence. Here, icy snow obscured it, and provided some worrisome travel. I couldn't kick steps, so was forced to head uphill to avoid these patches.

The last time I hiked this trail we went straight uphill at the fence, but I was determined to find the old route. Pulling out my Gaia GPS, I saw that it headed further south, made a big curve and then switchbacked up to the road. Soon I stumbled on a set of rock cairns marking the way in tall grass. I love finding old remnants of trail this way.

Up on top, it was bitterly cold. Cayuse Flat is an immense ridgetop. There were views of Imnaha Canyon, and farther away, the Wallowas. I headed to the buildings. Unlocked but clean, the house would be a great place to stay. I later learned that this was the Cayuse Flat Cow Camp. A friend told me that her daughter and family lived there in the summer. There was no electricity and she cooked on the wood stove, using a nearby spring to keep food cold. They lived on wild game and sourdough bread. It sounds like a pretty idyllic life to me.

In winter you can't linger long, but I planned to come back with a sleeping bag as soon as conditions moderate. Hunters often stay in this cabin, but if I can pick the time before they can drive in, and after the snow melts some more, this looks like a good place to sit and contemplate the edge of the world.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The winter I became a cold weather wimp

 It really hasn't been that cold. The lowest temperatures have been single digits, but normally it has reached the twenties and sometimes thirties during the day. But somehow, I have become a wimp. I have felt very cold this winter. I have taken to wearing a hat all the time, even just going to the post office. I pulled out some vintage items from my closet, including a puffy jacket of extreme puffiness, the North Face guide jacket. I bought it in the nineties, before puffy jackets were less puffy. Wearing it, I look as though I have huge biceps. I also resurrected some huge pack boots. Around town, I appear to have just come from base camp.

I scanned the weather forecast obsessively, wanting to get in one more backpacking trip. Even at a thousand feet by the river, it was predicted to only be forty degrees. Escalating to a high level of wimpiness, I decided that was too cold for enjoyment. I have camped in those temperatures before, but I didn't feel like doing it anymore. Angrily I unpacked my bag. It would have to be day trips from now on, until spring, or until I adapt.

Jerry mansplaining to Spruce and Frost how to skijor.

I'm not sure what is causing this wimpiness: thyroid? less body fat (I wish, but unlikely), but it has to stop. There are five more months of cold weather ahead. So I keep going outside, trying to adapt. Mostly this has taken the form of walking gingerly on ice or some skiing where I can find good snow. I gaze longingly at the dogs with their fur coats. Spruce is in love with the snow and rolls in it with enthusiasm. Dogs are lucky, though they suffer in the summer.


The other day we skied desperately through the trees trying to find powder. I wore long underwear, two fleece layers, a hat and mittens, and never removed any of those layers. We encountered many other townspeople following our tracks, hoping we had discovered the secret good spot. The kids couldn't ski at the downhill ski area yet, so they were being pulled by a car around and around the parking lot. You do what you have to do around here.

Kids being pulled by a car on skis.

 In search of somewhere new to go, I parked by the turn-off to Kinney Lake and ran up the dirt road. It is a short, steep run, hardly worth bothering, but it was good to try something different. The lake looks skateable, so this went on the list. Our little outside skating rink won't be open due to Covid, though it seems like it could have been managed, people didn't want to deal with it. Skating is hard because I'm not good enough to stay warm, so hand warmers it will be.

I'm hoping to lose my cold weather wimpiness soon. I love it when I walk outside on a thirty degree day and exclaim how hot it is. I have faith this will come. Until then, I'll be the one in the Puffy McPufferson jacket, big boots and a hat. 

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Climbing Tick Hill (Tamkaliks)

 It has been a very dry winter so far. To ski, we need to go high and even then you risk a face plant on exposed rocks. It's been cold, single digit cold, but the snow stubbornly does not come. My friends A and R debated where to go. We wanted to hike, but where?

I have to admit that I am feeling a little cooped up lately. I've cancelled five trips this year, and isolation is making me grumpy. I feel out of shape: in the past, the hikes where I amassed a hundred miles in five days are a thing of the past (at least this year). Where could we go?

The west and east forks would be too icy, as would the roads to the high trailheads. Rock Creek? I asked. Nope, we probably couldn't get there. We had been to the moraine often. Finally we settled on a place I had never been: Tick Hill.

There are reasons for this. For one, it is a half hour drive to get there, and I'm spoiled. And the other...well, the name. Ticks rank as one of my least favorite things on the planet. But it's not tick season now, and I was game to go anywhere I haven't been a hundred times this year of no travel. So, driving separately, we met up at the trailhead.

This is sacred ground, part of the Nez Perce Homeland. The place name is Tamkaliks, which means "from where you can see the mountains" (a lot better than Tick Hill). I felt very white and privileged as we took an old road and then ascended rocky switchbacks up to a gazebo and an ancestral cemetery, from which I could, indeed, see the mountains. There was no snow here, just a biting breeze to counteract the warm sun, a strange contrast in December. 

It was only a four mile loop, hardly worth the drive, but it served to satisfy our restless hearts for now. "The land remembered us," an elder said a few years ago when she and others came to harvest native foods from this valley. It's humbling to think that it was less than 150 years ago when Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce were forced from this place. Some hikes are more than just exercise, and put much of my superficial complaints into perspective. 

We reached the parking lot in less than an hour and a half, and the dog refused to load up. I didn't blame her. The sun made it feel like summer, and we weren't ready to go. 

These words are attributed to Chief Joseph (Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, if what is recorded is true, this loosely translates as Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain)

We were contented to let things remain as the Great Spirit Chief made them. They were not; and would change the mountains and rivers if they did not suit them.

Less than 150 years later, the last sentence is still true.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Exercise in November: it's weird

 Things I thought I'd never say:

"I forgot my mask."

"What time do you want to have Zoom Thanksgiving?"

"I didn't get picked in the adjustable dumbbell lottery."

"The gym is closed, so I did an aerobics video on Youtube."

"I have a five hour Microsoft Teams meeting today."

"Thanks so much for the hand sanitizer!"

"What kind of bidet do you have?"

My friend A and I were complaining talking about the difficulty of this time of year. The big snows haven't come, ice coats the trails, making running a hazard, and our usual winter escapes (for me, a long distance trail, for her, Mexico) are unavailable, at least if you are a person with a modicum of responsibility. So this icy, cold time (with no gym either) has forced me to change up my workouts.

The moraine has become the go-to for just about everybody. It is only an 800 foot climb to the top in a mile, but it is a huff and puff to run it. Once you are up there, though, you can run to the elk fence, which is typically snow-free this time of year. Or you can take it from the other, less-used side and run (or flounder, if the snow is deeper) on cow paths where there is hardly every anyone else. I have become very familiar with the moraine. I'm glad it is available.

In desperation, I did indeed look up a Youtube HIIT workout. I picked one for "bad knees', because I didn't want to leap around and possibly hurt something. To my surprise, it was actually a pretty good workout. Things have changed since the 90s!

I'm also spending more time on my bike trainer. I don't want to sign up for a virtual class, so I grimly pedal away in supreme boredom, trying to watch movies on my phone. The time inches by, punctuated by a dog or two showing up to see what I am doing. Why not ride outside, you ask? The answer: ice, and fear. 

For weightlifting, I've resorted to a makeshift routine of pull-ups (excruciating), and some dumbbell work with the coffee table as a bench. This is marginally successful unless I fall over a dog. It turns out that a tiny house is not really a good venue for exercising in.

Like everything else, it's weird. Usually at this time I am hiking in the California desert or in the Grand Canyon. I've hunkered in, which led to a frantic house reorganization, I am so tired of looking at the same four walls that moving furniture around has been entertaining. The bar is low.

Idaho is over there, but can't go!

However, I feel lucky that I am well enough to exercise, though a knee occasionally hurts. I wonder about my endurance, since I'm not doing multi-hour hikes for weeks at a time, but what can you do? I am waiting it out. The snow is coming, we must believe.

are you doing anything different for exercise these days?

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Ski Fit

In the 90s, when I worked in southern Oregon, our workplace was blessed with a gym. Not a fancy gym, but it boasted a weight machine, two treadmills, and one of those old school Nordic track ski machines. Myself and two old guys--who really weren't that old, now that I am approaching their ages--were the only people to take advantage of the gym. Jim insisted on the oldies station, so that was what we listened to. He took one treadmill and I took the other, and Dave manned the ski machine. We made fun of him for it, but he insisted it was a good workout. Now I am thinking he was right.

It's the same every year. Even though I know it's coming, the first big snow brings a scramble. Where is the maxiglide? The musher's secret for Ruby's paws? What do I even wear to ski? At the same time, the depressing seasonal reality sets in: you can be fit, but ski fit is something completely different.

Outings are completely different now; friends that used to go skiing don't want to go anymore.  "After the pandemic," they say, or they say nothing at all. I've learned through this who my true friends are. It is going to be mostly a solo winter, but a few friends in my Covid bubble still hang in there.

A and I push our way through the perfect kind of snow. Some people dream of groomed trails; we like breaking it through fresh powder. We spy wolf tracks in the deep snow. Strangely, nobody else is out. We take the road up, and even though I run it in the summer, it is harder on skis. A feels the same way. "I'm so out of shape," she says, even though she isn't. It's just ski fit.

We check out the pond. It looks frozen enough to skate on, but we don't have the nerve to test it. I want to go further--I always want to go further--but A wants to go back, and so we head down the steep trails toward the ski area. Typically I scream down these in fear, but today in the powder, they are manageable. 

The next day I go out solo and break a longer trail. Any tracks are gone, polished by the wind, so I navigate by memory. There's a long climb, longer than I remember from running this route in summer. Did I really run up this steep hill? I guess so. I only feel confident about my route when I see the trail sign and start heading back toward the pond. A hunter has postholed in on an old ski track here, ruining it, but there is plenty of room to safely descend the big hill. I arrive wind-blown at the ski area, where a few die-hards are skinning up. 

The next week, an odd storm will blow in, bringing 60 degrees and 80 mile an hour wind gusts. This hardens the snow into a gnarly crust, no good for skiing or snowshoeing. I try, get annoyed, and retreat. A friend texts: "Are you backpacking in Arizona this December?" No, I say. Even though I see friends traveling all over the place, it doesn't seem responsible right now. She isn't going either. "I hate this in between," she writes. I do too. The trails are icy, nowhere to run, the gym is closed, we wait for snow.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Fear of Cold

 A big storm was coming, several feet of snow in the mountains, and I wanted one long hike before it arrived. The snow was predicted to fall all day, but not intensify before four. Could I hike 13 miles and several thousand feet before then? Yes, I could.

A dismal rain seeped through the trees as I climbed through the uninspiring first few miles of the hike to Aneroid Lake. There's no good way to say it, this is frankly a slog, with only partial views, but mostly rocks, a fairly unhealthy forest, and no break in the climb. Several fallen trees draped the trail, victims of the intense winds we had gotten a few days before. If it gets really windy, I'm turning around, I thought.

The rain turned to snow after three miles, and I had yet to shed a layer, unusual on this steep hike. I was wearing a rain jacket, a wool top and, yes, pants. Snow is always better than rain, but I worried it would start to fall so heavily that I would flounder in my trail running shoes. If the snow starts to stick, I'm turning around, I thought.

At the bridge that marks 4.2 miles, the snow was sticking, but I knew that after this point, the trail slowly begins to level out after a final climb. To get this far and not at least get some views seemed sort of criminal, so I pressed on. If the snow starts to get deep, I'm turning around, I thought.

The reward of the climb is a stroll through tawny meadows and views of the higher peaks of the Northern Blues. There were no footprints in the skiff of snow that was fast collecting. I was the only one on trail. 

Because I didn't stop, I reached the lake before noon. Gone was the crush of campers; the lake was still. Fog kissed the surface; there were no real views today. Stopping to eat an protein bar, my fingers quickly succumbed to the cold. It was, after all, only about 20 degrees. I couldn't sit and admire the lake; winter was coming. 

There is a private inholding at this lake and for a brief moment I fantasized about spending the winter in one of the cabins. I've always wanted this--extreme isolation for a distinct period of time. But not today; I had to get down the trail.

And none too soon, because snow had already filled in my tracks. As I hiked fast to get warm, the fear of cold crept in. Even though I carried all the gear I needed to survive, I thought of all the hikers who have disappeared in cold places. I get cold easily and this is why winter will always feel a little alien.

About a mile and a half down the trail, a woman appeared, hiking toward the lake. A kindred soul! "I figured I was the only one crazy enough to be hiking up here in this weather," she said. After she left I regretted I hadn't gotten her name. There are so few people who like to do the kind of hiking I do.

As I descended, the snow turned back to rain. My mittens were soggy and useless, but I wasn't cold any longer. Looking back, all I could see was white. The season of cold is here. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

so long, Ice Lake

I pulled up my work Outlook calendar. Could it be? No meetings? Gleefully I blocked out the whole day. I don't take days off very often, but because I had to forego most of my vacation time this year due to, you know, a pandemic, and it was a rare 65 degree day in November, I knew I had to do it.

I had a conversation with S, who is the wilderness manager (a position I used to supervise). We discussed the tragedy that was Ice Lake and the further tragedy of the Lakes Basin. But what do you do, we agreed. Do you accept that these areas are concentrated use, sacrifice areas? If you put in a permit system or restrictions, people start spreading to lesser used, quieter spots. It is a dilemma that I have never been able to resolve in my entire career of recreation management. This lake sees particularly egregious behavior: parts of it are one long impacted campsite; people poop indiscriminately, pitch tents right next to the lake, holler and scream. Definitely not a wilderness experience.
No tents today!

But there's November, when it is safe to go to Ice Lake again. In the summer, I have happened upon 100 tents at this lake. The shock and horror of this, when a few years ago you might see two to three parties, is hard to overstate. In some years the snow starts in August and my chance to go there is lost, but not this year.

I saw no other people as I ascended the rocky switchbacks. It is about 8 miles and 4000' elevation gain to get to this lake; not very far, but too far for some: there is some kind of rescue here every year. Today, though, there was only sunshine and aspen leaves falling. 

Snow lay in scattered patches once I passed Adams Basin, and at the lake, a strong wind did not encourage loitering. It seemed as though the lake was breathing a sigh of relief--seven months to rest from the human onslaught.

Obligatory dog selfie

As I headed back down, a dog barked above me. I checked the trail--there were no other footprints in the snow besides mine and my own dog's. There had been only one car in the parking lot, a vehicle I recognized as the caretaker of the private cabins on the other trail. Feeling a bit spooked, I hurried down the trail. 

I'm always a little sad when winter comes and these lakes are lost to me, but they need a break. I don't know what the answer is; it's good that people can go out and enjoy the wilderness, but the wilderness can't handle all of them. A long winter helps. I'll be back in June (or July, depending on how much it snows).

Monday, November 2, 2020

Eureka Bar, again

I added up the many times I've been to Eureka Bar, on the Snake River, in the last ten years. There was the time I took two friends to show them the confluence. The January night where I built a campfire, something I rarely do. The day trip where the access road scared two other friends so much that they refused to ever go back. The times I have been there measure in the dozens, but it never really gets old.

I was expecting to be on the Arizona Trail about now, or at least in the Grand Canyon, but we all know how that worked out. Covid is surging in our little town right now, and it feels irresponsible to travel, though a little annoying when everyone else seems to be. So I didn't have the desert canyons, but I did have Hells Canyon.

The road in off the pavement is only 13 miles, but it takes an hour to drive. It plunges precipitously down into the canyon, but the real nail-biter is the possibility of meeting another vehicle headed out. Please no horse trailers, I chanted to myself as I drove. Backing up on the narrow, exposed road requires a lot of fortitude. Fortunately, the whole area was deserted, despite the 60 degree temperatures.

There were only a few fishermen lurking about as I hiked down the trail. The poison ivy was dormant, with only the berries to indicate the true danger. As usual, I refused to wear pants and hoped for the best. 
It is a short, easy hike to the confluence, where the Imnaha meets the Snake, but I made it harder by indecisively hiking between potential campsites. The beach I usually choose was being taken over by willow and was in the shade already at two pm, so I ruled that out. The high bench basked in the sun, but wasn't close to the water. Finally I plunked down at a sandy spot near some boulders. 

The hunter moon rose big and bright over the unsettled water of the Snake. You can almost see the history here: the mute walls of the stamp mill and the mining tailings, the faces of the doomed Nez Perce. This is a magical place. It will never stop being so, no matter how many times I visit.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

What I did last summer

 Last weekend, before the severe cold snap with single digits and snow arrived, I hiked the two dogs up the access road to Mount Howard. This route is my fitness barometer---if I feel terrible slogging up the 4000 feet of elevation, then I know I need more exercise, less brownies, and more sleep. If I bound right up there, then I am doing all right. This time I felt somewhere in between. We easily gained the summit to a piercing breeze, too cold to stop and snack. With a perfunctory glance at the mountains, it was time to head down. 

A thick blanket of snow lay over the high mountain lakes, and I felt sad for the passing of another summer. Though 2020 has been awful and people have suffered. my enforced Covid stay at home summer meant that I hiked to places in my home range that I never thought I would reach. Without work travel twice a month, I was able to spend more time camping and less time in airports. The lure of the long distance trails was strong, but I didn't want to become part of the vacationing problem, at least until I could figure out how to do it safely. So I have only been out of the county once since February. This has been less hard than I imagined it would be.

This weekend, with the intense cold, I didn't venture too far into the mountains. I went for my first run, though not my last, in full-on winter gear: warm tights, a buff, and mittens. It felt invigorating and good, but I know by February I'll be sort of over it. 

I need a new winter sport, just like I took up paddleboarding last summer. It can't be something to do with speed. Just something to make staying at home through the cold winter months a bit more palatable. Suggestions?

Spruce is living his best life.

Sunday, October 18, 2020


 As I headed up the Hill of Death, I was aware of two things: carrying five liters of water was still totally doable, and my winter boots were no longer waterproof.

I was enroute to the ski hut to do some maintenance, and I figured I might as well stay the night. Even though I would be staying in the hut, it still seemed to count as a backpacking trip, since I was carrying all of my stuff. It would be...backpacking glamping.

In winter, the trail is fairly obvious. It splits into two routes, the winter and the summer trails. In winter, the summer trail is sometimes scoured clean by the high winds that always blast this mountain. In contrast, the winter trail winds through deep woods and is always full of snow. Either way, it is a slog, though considerably easier without snowshoes (or skis, but I am not a good enough skier to descend the Hill of Death, so I don't try).

In summer, the trail is a little more obscured, and I congratulated myself when I found the crux move, an unmarked turn off the ridge, a short climb across a two-track road, and then another climb to the next ridge. This was followed by a traverse across a steep slope, the place where the winds will get you if you aren't careful. Today, though, it wasn't bad.

Today the climb seemed easy, even with the water weight. In winter, there is snow to melt, but not now. Except there was. A thin blanket of snow lay on the roof edge, and Spruce quickly jumped into it. Avoiding his area, I scraped some snow into a couple of pots for melting. 

The hut had held up well over the summer, and the only work I needed to do was split wood. That is a task that I find oddly satisfying, so I didn't mind that previous visitors hadn't replenished the supply. I ate a wrap and stoked the fire as a strong wind buffeted the hut. This wouldn't have been a good night for tent camping.

This wouldn't be considered glamping for very many people, but it was luxurious to not have the typical camp chores (filter water! Set up tent!) and to be warm with a fire in the stove. The dogs, despite having a whole cabin and not a measly tent, settled comfortably on my sleeping pad, refusing to share. 

A strange warm front blew through in the night, bringing rain and snow to the mountains above. Whenever I am at this hut, I start to daydream about living up here. I think about the route I would take far down to the stream, to carry up enough water to survive. How I'd carve out a running route through the trees. It's fun to think about.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Puppy Wrangling

 I nervously headed up the trail with two excited dogs. I had done day hikes and runs with Spruce, but always overnight there had been another responsible adult along. There are a lot of things to worry about with dogs. Will they encounter a bear? Will they bother other hikers? Will they tear the tent?

Speaking of tents, this was also the maiden voyage of my new tent. I had divested myself of a couple of tents earlier, so it wasn't as though I had too many tents anymore--ahem, four--but none of them would reasonably fit me and two dogs. Because the tent had to be light, I had plunked down a lot of money for a really nice one. Yes, I bought a tent for my dogs.

Happily, there were no hunter vehicles parked at the trailhead, so I abandoned my Mount Howard plan A and headed up McCully Basin. This hike is much better for a run than for a backpacking trip; it drearily climbs through the trees with no views. Even when you break out into the top of the basin, you have to trudge fairly high to get outstanding scenery. I admit to being a little spoiled. 

But for a quick overnight hike, commencing as soon as I could reasonably dash away from my Zoom workshop (3 pm), it would have to do. The trail was empty and cold, reminding me that even to be able to do this in October was a gift. Many times, a September snow dump shuts the mountains down.

A wall tent was pitched near the water crossing, but no hunters appeared. Climbing higher, I found a spot that would work; it was only about seven miles but  I knew that  night was coming

The dogs ran around chasing each other, entranced with the spot even if I wasn't. I stared grimly at the wet, dirty messes that emerged from the nearby creek. Well, tents were made to be used, weren't they?

Both dogs ran into the tent, not realizing that they would be trapped in there for almost twelve hours. This is what shuts down backpacking more than anything, the sheer boredom of sitting in a tent for what feels like forever. I will have to reluctantly return to day hikes.

An old hand, Ruby quickly settled at my feet and fell asleep.  Not so the puppy. His large ears perked up, he listened intently (pro tip: if you put the rain fly on, dogs can't see out and are usually much more content). Soon, though, Spruce lay by my side and didn't stir until the morning.

You can't sleep in with dogs in the tent. Once I woke up, they were ready to go. We climbed toward the pass, wanting to get a glimpse of sunrise. I could see down into Silver Basin and over toward the wild Nebo country. It seemed like we were the only creatures left on the planet.

On the way out, the dogs stayed behind me, unlike their happy bounding on the way in. I figured that, like me, they were reluctant to go home. They wouldn't mind staying in the mountains forever.

Back in the yard, not very happy.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Searching for Skinnydip Lake

 I hadn't been in ten years, but I remembered. The unnamed lake lay a short distance from the beaten path, but it might as well have been miles distant. The rangers had named it Skinnydip, and it was perfect; surrounded by alabaster rocks, the small lake was a tiny teardrop of perfect blue.

I was determined to find it again. I had avoided the Lakes Basin all summer due to the horrifyingly sheer amount of humanity that had descended upon it. The use is definitely not as much as, say, the areas near Seattle, or in national parks, but it is still so much higher than it has ever been. Not really wanting to camp near a bunch of other people, I went elsewhere.

I headed cross country toward the lake I thought was Skinnydip. Before me the route showed what everyone else was missing: slabs of warm white granite, expansive views, and no people. Before long I came to the lake. But something was wrong--this was not the lake I remembered. It was a scenic spot, and would make a good campsite, but I still wanted to find the other one.

Besides, this lake wasn't good for swimming. It probably had been, earlier in the summer, but now it was silty, with a thin skim of algae. It was October, freakishly warm, and I was determined to swim in a lake. Checking the map, I noticed another lake about a mile away. That had to be Skinnydip!

Following the map, I headed toward the lake through mild terrain, contouring around a rocky cliff. My heart sank. The lake lay well below me, protected by steep rock walls. What to do? I had two options. Backtrack a fair piece and hike up the drainage, or attempt to skid down the cliff. If you know me, you know which route I picked.

Having survived the downclimb, I arrived at a fairytale place. Alas, however, the lake, without an inlet, was in the same state as the last one. There would be no skinnydipping here. Still, I thought about staying. I wandered down to the water. A mountain lion track was pressed into the damp sand. 

Still, that was not a huge barrier. I walked up the granite slabs, looking for a potential campsite. Then I stopped in my tracks. Two backpacks lay abandoned on the rocks. Where were the people? I surveyed my surroundings. Nobody was lingering by the lake or hunting up a campsite. 

That was the last straw. Too creepy! I headed downhill toward the beaten path.

The beaten path wasn't too bad though.

I remembered how much I loved the Lakes Basin. It gets so much use because it is wilderness lite: it is only 8 miles to the first lake, the grade is pretty easy, and it is impossible to get lost. But there's a reason why everyone goes there: it is stunning. I resolved to go back more often. 

I finally got to swim, too (though skinnydipping in the main basin is out of the question). I went below someone's camp, because there was a sandy beach and besides, their camp wasn't legal anyway (too close to the water). Apparently the campers were unaware of my presence, despite the loud splash. I was sitting on the bank, (clothed), with my "swimsuit" drying on a branch. A voice intoned overhead: "Someone left a BRA here!" Giggling, I grabbed my stuff and headed back to camp. Mission accomplished.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Hiking in Pants

 It was A's 50th birthday and she was not happy. She had planned a vacation that wasn't happening due to Covid, and even a party was off limits (nobody felt OK about being indoors. I personally have not been in anyone's house except for my parents' since February). The weather was unsettled too, so her plan of having her pilot friend fly her across the mountains wasn't happening either.

"You don't want to...backpack, do you?" I tentatively inquired. The sullen clouds didn't promise a warm evening. Any rational soul would politely say no. "I want to wake up in the mountains!" she replied, and so we packed at the speed of light.

Due to work meetings, I couldn't leave until late afternoon. This negated any attempt at the washboarded Lostine Canyon road, which takes forever to drive due to the teeth-clenching, car tire destroying surface. We settled on Bonny Lakes, fairly close in (and I am naming this lake because it is well known and not a secret; durable campsites exist). 

A chilly breeze at the trailhead sent me reluctantly to pants. I hate wearing hiking pants, but it was too warm for leggings and not quite warm enough for a hiking skirt--that fall in-between time that makes you pack a ton of layers. Due to the 40% chance of rain in the forecast, I had upped my wet weather game, everything wrapped in dry bags and ziplock bags. A had brought hand warmers. We were set, and off we went.

It's only four miles to the lakes, and a pretty easy hike. It is often done as a day hike, but you work with what you have. When darkness falls at 7, it is a good choice. We made it to the upper lake in under two hours and set up in time to watch a feeble attempt at a sunset. Elk bugled from a short distance away. The night was quiet and still. Also? I was glad I had brought pants.

Water was frozen in Ruby's bowl in the morning, another sign that we are pushing the season. Another unmistakeable sign was the snow falling on us. While it wasn't accumulating, it was enough to get us moving; we had decided to tack on a day hike over the pass to a small tarn. Stashing our packs, we set out over the pass and into the teeth of a brutal wind.

The wind gusts made it difficult to remain upright, and after some appreciative gazing at the view, we quickly retreated. The hike out went quickly and we arrived at the parking lot to see two men and  a boy getting ready to head in, unfortunately clad in cotton sweatshirts. "Tonight is going to be the worst night!" they exclaimed cheerfully. 

I guess I've become sort of a fair weather backpacker, because I knew I wouldn't be heading out into the snow and wind. But these were the kind of tourists I don't mind. With a warning not to ascend the pass until the wind decreased, we went our separate ways. I wasn't sad to be heading back to a warm house, but I'm not ready to give up on hiking yet. Even if it has to be in pants.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Echoes of Summer

 I collapsed in a heap at the shores of Echo Lake. How had a simple eight mile hike taken so much out of me? True, the last three miles are straight up, gaining  2300 feet in what the guidebook calls optimistically a "steep, eroded trail", but it had taken me two hours to gain those three miles. Was I finally getting slower? Was age finally catching up?

I couldn't deny that the hike was worth it. I've only been up here a handful of times, mostly because I have to wait long enough for the three miserable miles to recede into memory. This lake is only snow free for about two months, and sure enough some snow still hung on from last winter, and probably the winter before that. It feels like a long way from anywhere.

Motivation has been a little hard to come by these days. Not to get out in the wilderness, but for exercise in general. I've never lacked it, so it's puzzling why I don't feel like running or riding my bike. And today motivation failed me as well. My intent had been to set up a camp and climb the goat trail to Billy Jones Lake, and then pick a cross country route to the fabled Granite Lake, a place to where only three people I know of have been (and one is gone from us, I miss you, Ken). But because of my slothful pace, it was almost two pm. With the sun setting at seven, I knew that it would not be smart to embark on an unknown route this late. It was likely I could do it, but I didn't want to race the darkness. Granite Lake would have to wait for another year.

Ruby views the Matterhorn.

As I set up camp, I thought about how lucky I was this year. Unlike last year, when a huge snow dump closed the mountains to hiking in September, we've had mild weather through the month. A determined wind reminded me that winter is on the way, though. This year, I have been dreading it. Though it is a #firstworldproblem, I most likely don't have my mid-winter escape to the Grand Canyon, or a spring Arizona Trail hike, to look forward to. The months ahead look a little bleak. This wouldn't be so if we got good, consistent snow, but with climate change, we get cold and ice for months before a good base sets in. Those are the months where I will sit and wonder why I didn't go for Granite Lake.

Another perfect campsite

But, you have to save things for another year. Instead, I lay on a big flat rock reading a predictable romantic comedy (I can't really read serious things right now). The sun was almost warm enough to pretend it was the beginning of summer, warm golden months to come. 

Ice in Granite Meadow 

But I'll get through winter, I always do. Without a winter escape, I'll have to come up with something else. I already sort of feel like writing again, which I haven't during Covid times. 

Gaining the trailhead the next morning, I realized that I had been wrong. Because the unmaintained trail has swerved over time to bypass downed trees, it is actually longer. A mile longer! So my pace wasn't as dreadful as I had imagined. Irrationally happy about that, I bounded to my car, leaving the mountains until next time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Hunting for Lake Elusive

 It was another day of terrible air quality. I lurched around the house with a headache; without air conditioning and the inability to have windows open, the air inside wasn't much better. My state was burning. I had to escape. 

Clearing a few hours on my work calendar, I headed to the mountains (the trailhead is only six miles away, so I wasn't becoming part of the problem). My goal was to find the elusive Unit Lake, one of the few named lakes remaining on my list. 

The smoke was thick as Ruby and I climbed the dusty trail. A few horses passed by, kicking up rocks and dust. Annoyed, I thought about turning back. But at three miles in, a wind kicked in, and traces of sun began to appear. Things were looking up. Plus, the trail was almost empty, finally the tourists clearing out. Soon, the snow will fall, so I had to take advantage of the still-warm weather.

The river was low enough to hop on rocks, and I climbed the final three miles to Horseshoe Lake. There was only one other group there, and I found the perfect campsite on a rock outcrop far from them. The lake was the perfect temperature for swimming and the smoke had cleared to reveal a pale blue sky. It felt good to breathe again.

It was time to hunt for Unit Lake. I had forgotten the guidebook, but I had my map and Gaia GPS, so I headed confidently in the direction I assumed was right. It quickly became clear that even though this lake was only a half mile from the trail, it would be no easy stroll. I crashed through the woods until darkness caused me to retreat. Unit Lake 1, Monkey Bars zero.

The next morning I headed back, convinced that I would find the lake. I climbed up through a rocky cliff, crawling over downed trees. My phone battery drained rapidly (does anyone else have this issue with Gaia GPS?) and my map was nearly useless in the deep forest. I was about to give up when I saw the glimmer of water through the trees. Somehow I had climbed too far above the lake, but there it was. 

Good enough, I thought. It was time to embark on the nine mile trip back to the trailhead, and climbing down to the lake would add considerable time to the journey. Sometimes you just have to call it. 

Does this count as visiting the lake? Probably not. Probably I need to go back. The goal of visiting all the named lakes in the wilderness is arbitrary and I can make up my own rules. I have only heard of one person who has been to all of the lakes and he didn't go down to a few that he deemed too dangerous. So maybe this counts. 

I arrived at the trailhead, enveloped in a thick cloud of smoke. I was back in the land of smoke. It's supposed to rain on Friday. I hope it does.

Sunday, September 6, 2020


Growing up, whenever I saw someone running, I knew who it was. There were that few of us. There was K, who loped around the neighborhood in shorts with, inexplicably, nylons. There was B, an older man with a distinctive shuffle. A few others. Then there was my family. 

We were an athletic family. We backpacked before it was fashionable, canoed, hiked, and of course ran. A day without some form of exercise was unthinkable. To this I owe my motivation today. 

I went to my hometown recently. There are lots of runners now. We wouldn't stand out anymore. But I think back to the many icy, wind battered, snowy miles we covered and we weren't doing it for Strava or the Gram. Nobody knew our pace or how far we went. I like it that way. 

My parents are private people so I won't say more than this. I feel deeply ashamed of complaining that I can't always do what I want this summer because I have to work, or it's smoky, or there's a pandemic. What I am seeing from them is courage in the face of adversity. I can only hope that someday I am half as brave.

Yoga class at dawn

Now, running is harder than it used to be. Stuff hurts. I am not fast. But I can still do it. I'm grateful for every step.