Saturday, May 28, 2016

Four hiking partners you need to have

People who know me know that I don't mind hiking alone. In fact, one of my favorite jobs on the fire line often involves hiking around by myself with a GPS and a map. However, I appreciate good hiking partners. They can make a rainy day more fun, scare bears away, and sometimes they even have good snacks.

Here are a few characters I think everyone should have listed in their phone:

1. Speedy Suzy.  Suzy hikes fast.  She hikes fast up steep inclines even if she's already gone for a 6 mile run that morning.  She's not super sympathetic if you're slower, and you might need to run to keep up, but ultimately you'll get fitter a lot sooner because of her pace. Plus, you'll quickly leave people a lot younger than you in the dust, which is always fun.

2. Photographer Fred.  If you're the kind of person who arrives at a waterfall amid a cloud of mosquitoes, takes a brief look, and turns around, you'll eventually appreciate Fred, as he will be sure to document the moment and send you the photos you wish you had taken. While waiting for him on a trail while he composes the perfect shot can be annoying, you will appreciate it later when you look great in those photos he tagged you in.

3. Laid Back Louise.  Louise is just out to have a good time. She goes with the flow, and if that means having to turn back due to snow or a bear in the area, she doesn't fret.  She goes with the safer option. Hanging off a cliff isn't for her, which helps you feel like less of a wimp if you're scared too. She's OK with moseying down a short trail or hanging out on a beach. She admits it when tired or just not into it. With Louise, you always have time to smell the roses (or pick the huckleberries).

4. Survivalist Steve. Steve believes there will actually be a zombie apocalypse someday. He keeps an arsenal in his house and a bugout bag ready to go. Whether you buy into this or not is your choice, but on the trail he is invaluable. Need a warming fire? He can build one by rubbing two sticks together. Forgot an important item? He's got two. He can splint a leg, tell you which berries to eat, and pick out the best route through a thick forest. Lost? Forget it, he doesn't get lost.

Is there a hiking partner I've missed? What about the ones NOT to hike with, BearBait Bob and Whiny Wilma for example? Are you like any of the people above? If so, you must be a great hiking companion!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Everyone Needs Spontaneous Outdoors Friends

If I had been on my own on Saturday, I probably wouldn't have driven up to see if I could get all the way to a trailhead.  Especially if I knew that it would involve backing down a winding mountain road after finding that there was too much snow.
A little too much snow to continue
I probably wouldn't have started hiking an alternate trail at 4:30 in the afternoon.
Bridge at the beginning of the trail
I would have been nervous when I saw the piles of bear poop.  I might have turned around when it started to rain heavily (but I doubt that, since I'm pretty stubborn about getting to my destination once I start).  I might not have thought that being pelted with hail was quite as funny.  But if I hadn't gone, I would have missed out on this lake:

Luckily, I didn't miss out, because of some adventurous friends who decided on a whim to see where the snow level was.  They didn't plan on hiking; didn't even bring backpacks.  But when I suggested the alternate trail, they were up for it.

Even though we were drenched, cold and muddy and didn't get back to the car until almost 7, we were all happy.  It wasn't at all what we had planned.  It would have been really easy, with the forecast calling for 90% chance of showers, to trudge to the gym and then spend the rest of the day inside.  But thanks to my adventure buddies, it wasn't that kind of day at all. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

the ski area in summer

The local ski area is anything but sleepy in the off-season.  In the summer, there are zip line tours, and you can ride a gondola to the top (and back down).  Downhill mountain bikers race down the trails.  Huckleberry pickers know where the good patches are on the mountain.  Runners and hikers regularly make their way to the top.

I decided to go check out the trail, since I hadn't been to the ski area since the day it closed in April.

I stopped to check out the view into town.  The views from here are often better in the summer, since winter has its share of inversions.

The lifts waited quietly for winter.  The main lift runs in June, taking hikers, sightseers, and mountain bikers to the summit.  The restaurant there is open for lunch.  No dogs allowed on the lift though!

After about an hour, I ran into solid snow.  I abandoned the trail here and headed straight up.

The summit was still wintry and a chilly wind blew. The peaks in the park looked remote and cold. It will be awhile before any fires happen up here.

I headed back down into summer.  A couple of mule deer looked at me curiously. No bears today.

There are more spectacular peaks and trails here, but this mountain is close by and it defines our town. You can go there after work, since it stays light until almost 10 right now.  You can go there every day of the year if you want, to run, hike, or ski.  You can watch how it changes: how the snow hides the trails, and what time the flowers start to come out.  It's always worth the trip.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Thirteen years later

I hike up a mountain that burned thirteen years ago.  The trail is steep, gaining 2700 feet of elevation in 2.5 miles, and whoever built it didn't believe in switchbacks.  It goes straight up.
View looking down to the valley
Before the fire, this ridge was forested, and the hike would have been shaded on a hot day.  Some of the tall trees still stand, but they have been dead for ten years, their trunks silver and waiting to fall like so many already have.

When a fire burns a forest, people often call it sad.  Those beautiful trees, they say.  And it's true, this mountain will not look the same in the lifetimes of the people who lived here thirteen years ago.  But nature seeks change.  The forest will burn, or succumb to disease and insects, or become so choked with undergrowth that animals can't move through it.  Nothing can stay the same.

This mountain is beautiful in a different way now.  Without the thick forest, you can see into the valley and across to the white peaks in the national park.  Wildflowers carpet the ridges.  Little trees are coming back, reaching enthusiastically toward the sun.  Even the dead trees are beautiful, standing in silent witness to the changing seasons.
Flowers along the trail. The peak is in the distance, with snow visible near the top.
News stories that show raging flames and blackened forests are only part of the story.  Reporters rarely come back.  If they did, they would see new life in places like this.  This mountain is alive with flowers and new growth.  It survived.
These steel poles are all that's left of a fire lookout that used to stand near the summit.  There is another lookout on the peak across the way.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Snow Day

It's basically summer in the valley, so D. and J. and I had to find some snow.

Not really! We weren't sure what we'd find as we started up the trail to Scalplock Lookout in Glacier Park.  I eyed the snowshoes attached to our packs skeptically, but it would be better to not need them than to turn around not having them.  You never know what nearly 7000 feet elevation will be like this time of year.

We climbed steadily through the forest.  It was a glorious day, but nobody else was on the trail.  When we made it to the snow at about 6500', it was solid enough to walk across.

The lookout was shuttered for the winter.  Staples still clung to the catwalk, a reminder of last summer, when it was wrapped in silver to protect it from the fires in the valley below.  In about 60 days, the person assigned to this lookout will be moving in, home for the season.  For now, the lookout slept, surrounded by a blanket of snow.

The snowshoes stayed on my pack.  We left the lookout to its dreams, and moved down through the snowfields and into the dry forest, back across the suspension bridge toward home.
A sign says One Hiker Only On Bridge
These are the moments I remember when it's deep into fire season: days with friends on the top of a mountain, a trail winding along a ridge, sunshine and laughter.