Sunday, May 31, 2020

A trip to the middle of nowhere

Two weekends ago, my friend A asked me to go backpacking. I considered this. Technically, this would be social distancing--we could drive separately, we had our own tents, and we could hike six feet apart. It might be pushing the envelope a bit, but we have both been in the same tiny community for months, and it hardly was on the same scale as some of the large gatherings I have seen lately. So, we went.

We hiked up the Imnaha River into what I like t think of as the middle of nowhere. Rarely traveled except for the first few miles, this brings you into some truly wild country. And this spring is the greenest the old-timers have ever seen, bringing lush green vistas as we hiked.

The ticks weren't out, which was confusing. Maybe this is a low tick year?
This time of year I am never sure how far I can get, but after we set up our tents at the forks, a mere 6.5 miles up, we decided to day hike farther and see. It had been years since I had hiked this trail (the last time being a scary bear encounter that sent me hoofing it back to the trailhead). We crossed over an elaborate trail bridge of which I had no recollection. A trail crossed the river, and I gazed at it longingly--there is nothing I like better than to haunt these old ghost trails, to find a semblance of what they once were. But alas, the river was running high with snowmelt, and this would have to wait for another day.

We pressed on through some intermittent snowfields to a picturesque meadow with views of Red Mountain, and, in the distance, Hawkins Pass. Our turn-around spot was the trail junction to Boner Flat. Someone had stolen the sign long ago, but I remembered it as being obvious, Not so anymore--the cairn had tumbled and the trail was invisible. I gazed longingly up both trails, wishing we had more time. Alas, night was coming, so we retraced our steps for a decent 14 mile day.

Turn-around spot, but very hard to do.

Optimistically we had brought our 15 degree bags, and despite me dragging the dog into my tent, I still froze. Ruby's water was ice in the morning, reminding me it was still May, early for backpacking around these parts. Still, we packed up and were on trail by seven, and to the car by ten. We had seen only two other people the whole time.

I have unfinished business in the middle of nowhere. I still need to fill in a gap between Hawkins Pass and Boner Flat junction. It looks like this will be the summer for local mountains, and I'm OK with that. I've spent eight summers chasing the PCT, and it is time to stay home. Right now, the middle of nowhere seems like a good place to be.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Bob's Freedom Flight

When I moved in to this neighborhood, ten years ago, my neighbor Bob was always seen out in his yard. He mowed, he weed ate, he pruned trees, he painted. He would sometimes walk over with a disapproving look, stating that I had missed a spot in my own mowing. He would, to my chagrin, sneak over to spray my dandelions. Bob waged a never-ending war against dandelions, and my yard and my other neighbor, Mike's, were a cross for him to bear. Sometimes he invited us over, and showed us his leatherworking. Other times I brought him cookies or cake.

Slowly Bob became more forgetful, and developed COPD.  He doesn't really know us anymore.
These days he rarely ventures anywhere except in the companionship of his caretaker to get groceries. He is rarely in his yard, except to ride his beloved mower. This is one of his favorite things to do, and he loved mowing twice a week, whether the yard needed it or not. In a fit of generosity, he began to mow my yard. Attired in a button-down shirt, jeans, boots and a cowboy hat, he made his careful way up and down the yard. It was his one outing, although we were told that it took a lot out of him.

When I came home from backpacking this weekend, I heard the news. Bob had been mowing and had gone rogue. He started mowing other people's yards in the neighborhood, and then had ridden his mower several blocks to the drive-in restaurant to get a burger. This caused great concern to his caregiver and his grown children, who don't live here. As a result, Bob's mower keys were taken away. He could fall, I heard. It wasn't safe.

This made me really sad. Bob's car keys were taken away a couple of years ago, and now his favorite thing in the world to do is gone too. I know why this happened, but it still breaks my heart.

We aren't here for a long time. Get out while you can.

Sunday, May 17, 2020


I climbed up to the top of the moraine, taking a cross country route I had never hiked before. The mountains popped into view. Though I have been up here many times, it never gets old.

I'm a volunteer land steward for the Wallowa Land Trust, working on a piece of ground that was recently acquired from a private landowner, using in part funds donated from the community. Now it's time to see what's there, and a habitat survey is part of the project.

I'm not good at this, not really, although I can definitely tell wetlands from the Doug fir forest and the shrubby bits from the grasslands. There's a lot more to it, of course. There's a classification system, and other things I don't really get. I'm more interested in the big picture: this flat area we cross used to be the site of the rodeo grounds, for example. There's an old spring box. Many old roads cross the landscape but are growing in--if you didn't know what to look for, you would miss them.

My survey buddy
I like being part of taking care of a piece of ground. I don't really feel like I have much time for volunteering, but I hike there, and hikers are, unfortunately, notoriously cheap with their money and time. "My taxes should pay for trail maintenance," my neighbor says, "I'm not going to do it." I just sigh because he is right, but they don't, and there are no trail fairies as far as I know. Other community members will park on the other side of the fee sign ($30 for a year doesn't seem like a lot) and hike onto the trail that those fee dollars go toward maintaining. It's good to give back sometimes, so even though I would rather be backpacking this weekend, I'm out doing this survey. I run here all the time, and I want it to stay accessible to me and everyone else.

There's nobody out here, just us and the wind and an approaching storm. I volunteered yesterday too, giving a writing workshop. I donated my portion of the cost to the foundation that held it. Not because I am a wonderful person, but because I had help along the way to becoming a published author, and I want to help others. Volunteering is a way to feel better in a world that doesn't feel all that great right now.

Being a volunteer land steward when I used to get paid to do this kind of work is kind of strange, but it connects me to this place. Connections seem frayed right now, our county divided down party lines. I want all the help I can get. This place, and saving it for the community, we can agree on. That, at least, is something.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

we made it through the winter after all

When I lived in Southeast Alaska, there was a month we spoke about with dread. "November," we said in tones of doom. November was the month when darkness really set in, when it could, and often did, rain for thirty days non-stop. November made you question your life choices.

We don't have anything half as bad as that where I live now, but it's no secret that our winters are long. By the time May rolls around it can still be snowing and even the skiers are over it. I am too--I love summer, at least alpine summer. If I lived in a hot, steamy place (been there, done that) I'd dislike summer as well.

But it's good here. The only trouble is that, for backpacking and hiking, the season still balances on an edge. The high country is still snowy--you can troop about three miles on a trail before you are into deep snow. The canyon window is closing, at least for me. Head-high poison ivy and rattlesnakes, no thanks.

So even though car camping isn't my favorite thing, I agreed to go. At least I would be camping. And it would be good to escape town. Despite stay at home orders, I am seeing car after car of Idaho and Washington people, and this is causing a backlash in our town, and it makes me angry too. So it sounded good to get away from people.
Spruce's first camping trip! He was a Very Good Boy. (And slept in the tent!)
We drove up the Divide, choosing a site hunters had camped at before, complete with a fallen-over outhouse (I didn't use it). That afternoon I ran on dirt roads with snow still on them, seeing only a few locals who had hoped to get through the snow (they couldn't). That night elk walked through the campsite.

I never have campfires when backpacking, but it was still really wet here, with snow around, so we had a small fire.
The next day we walked cross-country, taking cow paths and ghost roads to make a big loop through flower-studded meadows: lomatium, lilies, phlox and my favorite, the tiny blue-eyed Mary. Though we walked for two hours, the GPS told us we had only gone three miles. Such is cross-country travel.

Walking the ridgelines
Arriving in town, we noticed tourists wandering the streets. "Aren't any gift shops open?" a family asked. The lake, we had been told, was packed. It may end up being like this all summer: the need to seek out places nobody else goes, to walk ridges instead of trails. It won't be the summer I planned, but it will be summer nonetheless.  We made it through winter after all.

Sunset from camp

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Picky Campsite Finder

I trudged along the Bench trail, seeking a campsite. I had worked until late afternoon, leaping into the car at the exact moment a conference call ended, and even though it is a local trail, the gravel road took some time to travel. It was three-thirty by the time I started up the 2,000 foot climb. I had calculated I had just about enough time to reach the saddle, descend the rocky 2,000 feet down to the bench and set up camp before dark.

Alas, my plan was foiled. Despite reaching the saddle in record time, as I approached my planned campsite, the Grassy Knoll, I was dismayed to see two hunters sitting in front of tents. Rats! The main trail  headed down the canyon and I knew from prior experience that the creek was armored with brush and tall grass; campsites would be difficult to find. A few miles farther down, a nice ponderosa grove would work, but this would require a sketchy crossing of Log Creek, not something I wanted to handle at dusk. The high trail it would be.

Even at the worst of times, the high trail, which runs like a belt through Hells Canyon's midsection, is stunning. Jagged points run out to viewpoints that sometimes can show the Snake River, but most often only show the folds of the canyon. Even though its true name is the high trail, most of us call it the bench, because that is what it seems like--a bench as you drop down through the layers of the canyon.

Not my best look, but the scenery was pretty good.
However, campsites on the trail are limited. Most plateaus are sloping. I didn't have the will to night hike several more miles to a known campsite in the pines, and besides, more hunters were probably posted up there. I came upon a likely candidate, but then looked back to see the hunters' tents in full view. Although a half mile away, I knew they were armed with binoculars. No thanks.

As I passed through the draws and hiked out onto the plateaus, a familiar feeling of frustration arose. I am known as someone picky about my campsites. This has both bemused and annoyed hiking partners. You're just going to sleep, what's the big deal! But to me it is a big deal. If I had to pick which I liked best about backpacking, camping or hiking, I would choose hiking, but I also love sitting at my camp at sunset, taking in the view. Even though I awake at dawn, I like those moments looking out the tent flaps. I have a checklist: View, flat area, and not to feel weird.

Let me explain. There have been a few times, notably the Squirrel Prairie Incident, where I have hiked to an expected campsite and just got a strange feeling. At Squirrel Prairie, actually not too far from where I was now, I had hiked for hours to camp. But as I got ready to set up my tent, a feeling of foreboding came over me. I tried to resist it, but soon it became too much to ignore. Sighing, I packed up and headed out to find a different site.

I don't know why I get that weird feeling, but it seems best to respect it. By the same token, when I find the perfect site, I know it too. After walking back and forth and dithering for a bit, I finally settled on a spot overlooking the rest of the canyon. I could hear Saddle Creek running below me, and nobody else was around. It was perfect. Just the way I like it.