Wednesday, October 27, 2021

It's OK to have a meltdown in Hells Canyon

 I was on my last nerve as we thrashed through a poison ivy forest and approached yet another muddy, wet footed crossing of Temperance Creek. We had been descending for six hours and the Snake River was nowhere in sight. Darkness would be falling soon, and I hadn't brought enough snacks. Whose idea was this, anyway?

Oh right. It was mine. It was October after all, and the high mountains were cold and snowy. Yet, I couldn't quite give up the idea of backpacking. The weather was an uneasy mix, but surely in Hells Canyon it would be warmer. The only friend who would possibly be up for this, Tinkerbell, was dubious but agreed to go. We mapped out a route that neither of us had been on and hoped for the best. You just never know with the canyon.

And here we were, finding out. The first five miles had been chilly and steep, going from 7000 feet to about 3,500. The trail was brushy but visible, and we made good time to the site of the Wisnor Place, an old homestead destroyed by fire a few years ago. Two outfitters, the only people we would see, were cheerfully trying to cut an enormous ponderosa pine from the trail so that hunters could get to their wall tent.

"There's LOTS of poison ivy," they said, "As tall as our horses."

We exchanged frightened glances. After thus bench, camping became non-existent, as the trail narrowed into a steep gorge. It was either stay here and play it safe, or continue into the unknown. 

But what is life without adventure, so we pressed on. The trail deteriorated until we were slogging in mud. Poison ivy as tall as my head lined both sides, impossible to avoid. We crossed the creek twenty times, our shoes irretrievably soaked. Finally near dusk, we stumbled onto the beach at the Snake River.

We were at the Temperance Creek Ranch, one of the historic old working ranches, now converted into a set of cabins where hunters could take a jet boat to and stay. The owner, one of the outfitters, greeted us and said we could camp in the trees nearby. Cooking dinner by headlamp, I folded my diseased clothes into a bag and hoped for the best.

When you drop six thousand feet into Hells Canyon, you really shouldn't get up early the next day and hike all of the way out, but a weather system was coming in, so that is what we did. A light rain fell as we navigated the poison ivy forest, this time bashing through without as much care. Tinkerbell had wisely brought waterproof socks, which she changed into at the Wisnor Place, but I had not had the foresight and endured freezing feet as we ascended.

The rain turned to hail, because of course it did, and we dove into the meager protection of stunted trees to find gloves and an extra layer. Wind whipped through the canyon. Snow fell. All we could do was keep climbing.

At the trailhead we stripped off our wet clothes and put on dry ones with numb fingers. I blasted the heater as we drove away from the storm. That was really hard, we agreed.

Tinkerbell munched thoughtfully on a Snickers. "It's OK to have a meltdown in Hells Canyon," she said. I thought back to all of my terrifying, frustrating, difficult, magical hikes in this canyon. She was right.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

On the beaten path

 As I approached the trailhead, a woman with a pack on walked down from the permit kiosk and accosted me. No hello, just "are you hiking alone?" Since it was obvious that I was, I said yes.

"Do you want company?" She asked.

I was taken aback. It's one thing to overtake people on the trail and start hiking with them. I've done that before and enjoyed it. But not knowing this woman's destination, her pace, or really anything made me wary. 

"I like hiking solo," I said and she gave me a thumbs up. I headed off, but fretted over the next 13 miles. Maybe she was afraid of bears. Maybe I could have made a friend. But then again, instincts.

Oh well. It was October and I was on a mission. Usually I stay off the beaten path, a well-known loop that takes you through some stunning alpine lakes. However, with the first dusting of snow, the tourists had retreated and I hoped for the best. 

My expectations were met as I hiked steeply through forest and into the alpine basin. Frost lingered in the high meadows and the bushes were red and gold. Best of all, nobody was around. I happily set up my tent at a lake I haven't visited for years. Clad in a puffy and hat, I stared out at a peaceful fall evening. Life was good!

I had the luxury of two nights out, so lingered the next morning to enjoy a protein drink, not leaving camp until the unheard of hour of 8. A few leftover snowbanks covered the trail north of the pass, but I easily made it down to an eerily deserted lakes basin. It was tempting to stay, but it was so early that I decided to press on. Two fishermen appeared, exclaiming that I was a strong hiker after hearing my itinerary.

Well, not really, but maybe compared to their five miles a day. I dropped into a meadow by the river to discover where everyone was. Five groups were camped there. While everyone was spread out, I didn't relish that much togetherness. Plus it was only 2 in the afternoon. I quickly calculated: there weren't many campsites between here and the trailhead but I did know of one place. It would make the day a 16 miler, not an undoable feat.

As I expected, nobody was at the junction site, but suddenly a group appeared. They proudly explained their route. The beaten path, plus an extra side trip up to Poopy Lake *my name. "There's a guidebook that recommends this," they explained.

I retreated back to my site, feeling old school and missing the days when people figured loops out on their own. But who am I to judge? They were having a good time. They were so happy that I couldn't bring myself to tell them that their next day's hike, only five miles away, would bring them to a lake that had snow in the campsites. There should still be a few things to discover, even on a beaten path.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Happy out here

 I trudged toward Aneroid Lake, a destination chosen due to the trailhead proximity to my house (I name it here because it is well known and there are durable campsites). This would be another leave-work-early-get-up-early trip, less than 24 hours in the wilderness, but better than nothing. Because it was a weekday, nobody was coming with me. That was fine: I planned to hike as fast as I could, so that I could get there in time to visit another, higher lake. 

A few dejected hunters passed me going down, but I saw nobody on the entire trail. I had the campsites to myself, so of course I picked the best one: up in the rocks, with a view of the lake. Camp chores done, I bolted for the higher lake. This one is off trail, but only a few miles away. Once, I saw a wolf there.

As I trekked through the basin before the second climb, a hiker came from the other direction. He paused to ask me if the trail he had seen up above would pose a problem for his friend, who was coming down without a map. I reassured him that it was a dead end trail to a sign, and it would be easy to figure out. After twelve years of running around in these mountains, I know them pretty well.

We fell into a conversation. He was from Poland, and had retired eight years ago. "The best eight years of my life!" he boomed.  "I just live simply and don't buy anything."

Good advice, I said. I really don't buy much anyway. 

Then he said:  "I'm really only happy out here. Being home is all right, but..." 

I can relate. It's not that I'm unhappy at home. I'm content. But being out in the wilderness for days on end, not just for a little bit, is where I am the happiest. We parted, saying we would see each other at the lake, and I headed for my destination.

The small lake was windswept and cold. It wasn't a place to linger. I went back down to Aneroid to see if my friend who is a caretaker of the private cabins was around. The cabin was all shuttered up. It was time to admit: winter was here.

It's been a hard summer, but a good one for wilderness. I've re-learned what I've always known: do it all while you can. For me, that doesn't mean leaving my job security to live in a van, but it does mean to wander my beloved mountains as long as I can still do it. 

The Polish hiker and friend were nowhere to be seen, and the next morning I got up in the frost to quickly pack up and return to society. I rolled in to a meeting still in my hiking clothes (luckily on videoconference, it's harder to tell). I had thought this was the last overnight trip: it was October, after all. But I found myself checking the weather. Maybe it would hold out. Maybe I could still escape while I still could.

do you talk to people on the trail? What kind of wisdom have people imparted?

(probably the weirdest encounter was with a man carrying two duffel bags. He said they were full of Clif Bars, and he wanted to make sure he got an arm workout while he was backpacking.)

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

It all comes back to...

 There is a saying among professional recreation planners that "it all comes back to poop." We obsess over it, and there are reasons for this. Most people don't poop correctly in the woods, and we get to bury the evidence, or have to deal with it at campsites (yes, people will poop right at a campsite. I don't get it either). Despite the prohibition on having structures in wilderness, some managers have capitulated and installed them, because with increasing use, there is just no other way to manage it. But then you have to deal with what to do about the outhouse situation. Do you bury the hole when it's full and move the outhouse? Fly it out? Make a composting toilet, throw some lime in a bucket and tell people to use it, and hope for the best? These are all options being tried with varying degrees of success. There are also places where you have to poop in a blue bag and carry it for miles to your final destination. This is not a particularly fun experience.

So, it really all does come down to poop. When I told J I was going to camp at a certain lake, he frowned. "You're going to that poopy place?" he asked. He's not wrong. This lake has seen overwhelmingly increased use, due to both front desk recommendations plus the fact that it is a relatively easy, 2500 foot, 8 mile stroll. I have seen all sorts of beginner types on this trail. It makes me sad, because I used to be able to go there and only see a few people, but in the past decade it's been discovered. It's good that people are enjoying it, but for the love of Pete, walk a half mile to poop.

Is that enough about poop? I think so. Despite the fear of TP flowers, I wanted to go to the lake. I can't go in summer, not unless I want to be part of a train of people. Fall seemed like it would be OK, and it was a Wednesday. Leaving work at noon, I hurried up the trail, happily encountering only a couple of groups headed out. I asked one of them if it was crowded. "Um, you'll find a spot," he said.

This wasn't a glowing recommendation, but I pressed on regardless. In just under three hours I reached the lake and surveyed the scene. The lake's popularity is well deserved. It is stunning, especially in fall.

I saw five groups, which seemed like a lot for a weekday, but I was able to find a private spot. Just in time, too, because a vicious storm blew in. I dove in my tent, realizing that I am out of practice for rainy weather camping, but also glad that I had a free-standing tent with the wild gusts of wind that came down from the high peaks. Fortunately the storm was short-lived, and I went for a post-dinner wander.

Soon I discovered an odd cache of gear. In the bushes there was a large, heavy sleeping pad, a water bladder, some clothes, and a big tarp. The items looked like they had been there at least a year. I pondered what to do. I didn't have enough room in my pack to haul this stuff out. In the end, I left it and told the Forest Service. This would remain a mystery.

Night falls really early now, and I retreated to my tent. In the morning I would hastily pack up and hike rapidly to the trailhead to make it to work. Everyone was still in their tents when I left. And believe it or not, I saw no poop. Things might be looking up.