Saturday, March 27, 2021

Dumb stuff I've done in the woods

 People often ask my advice about hiking trails. They want to know where they should go, what the conditions are, what they should take. I might be forgiven for thinking I'm some kind of expert or something. 

But behind every expert is a long list of lessons learned, things they could have done better. As I hiked back out of a trail today with wet boots after a water mishap, I reflected on some of the missteps in my outdoor life. Let's begin! In the (in some cases, not so distant) past, I:

Forgot an important item, such as microspikes, insect repellant, bear spray, etc, that was essential to that day's success. Once I forgot my whole backpack! Luckily, I was close enough to my house that I could go back and grab it.

Ran out of water, once shamefully asking a fire lookout for some (I would never do this now, instead I would suffer, but it was a long time ago).

Ran out of food.

Didn't bring rain gear. Needed rain gear.

Went running during a tornado watch.

Got temporarily misplaced and had to look for the trail.

Caught my hair on fire.

Neglected to set new tent up before the backpacking trip, leading to an hour's worth of flailing at the campsite trying to figure it out.

Didn't make enough noise and surprised a bear.

Attempted to hike in snow wearing sandals.

Got my vehicle stuck driving ill-advised roads to trailheads.

Had my brakes go out going down a winding, narrow logging road coming back from a trail.

Jumped off a rock into poison oak.

Refused to pack air mattress to save weight; campsite was rocky.

Climbed up places without thinking about how scary it would be to climb down them.

Fell through thin ice when trying to step off the shoreline of an allegedly frozen lake.

Wore shorts; encountered stinging nettles and devils club.

Changed into pants at campsite and climbed to a viewpoint to watch the sunset, leaving shorts out to dry; looked down and saw a mountain goat making off with the shorts.

Ignored tide charts and attempted to cross a bay that was rapidly filling with water; had to sprint back to the other side.

Let go of kayak while getting in it and had to run along the river bank trying to grab it.

If the people who asked me for advice only knew! But what's important is that you learn from your mistakes, right?

Anybody else have any silly things they've done in the woods?







Saturday, March 20, 2021

Retirement: Social media vs. reality

 I've been retired almost three months, and if you were to peruse my Facebook account, you might think all I do is hike all day, every day, and that every day is pretty perfect. But that would be wrong. 

Here is a pretty picture of a lake I hiked to recently:


What you don't see: the first mile and a half was as icy as a skating rink. I slid even with spikes on. I giggled inwardly as I caught up to and passed some young guys in their 20s, but then double timed it to stay ahead of them. I carried my snowshoes nine miles and didn't need them. Not having eaten, I ate chocolate like a wild dingo at the lake and then discovered it was 500 calories. On the way back I heard a loud noise in the woods and yelled Hey Bear loudly as I slid down the trail.

Last week I didn't post much on Facebook. That's because I was crankily perched in front of my computer, completing a helicopter manager refresher in Microsoft Teams so that I can stay current and still go on fire assignments. The cats walked across the keyboard, attempting to send messages in the chat. My camera refused to turn off for awhile after I stopped talking (the horror!) A glitch locked me out of the meeting for an hour.  Meanwhile, it was sunny and in the 50s outside.

Other days, I wake up and don't feel like gathering all my cold weather gear and driving a long way to a trailhead. Hiking with friends is still logistically complicated; often we take separate cars due to covid, leaving cell service and hoping everyone will make it to the trailhead. Some days I just drag myself to the gym in the middle of the day, joining the ranks of people who seem too young to be retired, and either are remote workers or have trust funds. It's not very exciting, so gym pictures rarely make the cut. 

When I was still working, I fiercely envied retired people. I imagined their lives to be carefree. Time, I thought, would slow down. Well, nope. It's great not to be working, but there are still plenty of bills to pay. Days seem to hurtle by even faster than ever. And if you were considered an expert in your field, you are suddenly not relevant. It's a lot to process.

So, for every trail photo you see on social media, there are exciting nights devoted to reading books (Nomadland: read it) and eating cookies. It's not bad, but it's not perfect either. It's just life.


I hope my snowshoes enjoyed riding in my pack for 9 miles

Thursday, March 11, 2021

The season of indecision

 Here in the mountains, it's not really winter, but not quite spring. We're used to packing all sorts of things no matter the season (I've been snowed on in July and August, and seen 60 degrees in February), but this time of year is particularly difficult.

B. and I hesitated at the trailhead. Snowshoes or microspikes? The snow looked packed down at the start, but you never knew what it would be like fifteen hundred feet higher.  We strapped the snowshoes on our packs, pretty sure we wouldn't need them, but not willing to turn around or post hole. I once carried snowshoes up a trail 5 miles and 5000 feet in elevation gain, only to not need them and carry them all the way back down. On the other hand, I've followed tracks where someone, snowshoe-less, had miserably fallen in for miles.

Ski pants or leggings? Take the hand warmers or not? Bear spray? Just kidding, always bear spray. As we hike up the hills, we take off layers, switch out wool hats for baseball caps, remove gloves; then when we arrive at the frozen lake, put it all back on. The sun peeks out from behind a cloud and we get warm again, then the wind blows across the ice and we shiver. 

Most people I know just take it all. Rain jacket, even though it's not supposed to snow at all, because then it probably will. Trekking poles, on trails where they're not needed in summer, because of ice. Matches, even on a 4 mile trail, because there are so many stories about hikers lost in blizzards. Both gloves and mittens, because cold hands are the worst. And snowshoes, even though, as I suspected, we carried them all the way to the lake and back. Once there, though, we spotted the lone hiker ahead of us, and saw that he had done the same thing.

Even with all the layering and unlayering, superfluous gear, and uncertainty, I love hiking this time of year. The mountains are covered in snow, there are less people and bears around, and there is a hint of warmth in the wind. Spring isn't here, but it's right around the corner.




Thursday, March 4, 2021

wandering in the fire lookout graveyard

 Anyone who has been reading here for awhile knows that I really like, ok might be a little obsessed with, fire lookouts. There's something about these historic buildings, very few of them staffed anymore, standing abandoned on lonely mountains, that makes me want to spend time there. I've even gotten to stay overnight in a few of them, and have filled in for the regular lookout people on their days off.  If a fire lookout is on a hiking trail, I always want to go there.

Sadly, many of these old buildings have fallen down or been removed over the years. Hiking to a former lookout site isn't quite as fun, but it's still interesting. There are hundreds of these sites in my local mountains. In the lookout heyday, people stationed throughout the forest would have been able to see the lights of their fellow lookouts in the distance, and share recipes on a phone line strung for miles on the trees.

Looking around, we can usually find traces of the towers and cabins that once graced the tops of the peaks. Concrete footings, nails, and pieces of glass are common, as are old, rusted cans and outhouse pits. On a couple of mountains I've found old bedframes, too unwieldly or remote to have been carried down. Old trails that led to water springs or other routes off the hills can still be found. It's easy to imagine the solitary man or woman who once lived up here, carrying drinking water and chopping firewood, stopping to gaze at the horizon to look for smoke.

Old bed frames at a former lookout site

Long after the buildings have fallen down and the trails fade into obscurity, the spectacular views still remain. Visiting enough of these sites, you can usually find where the lookout once stood by assessing the terrain. I wish all the lookouts were still there, but I know that's impossible, with harsh winter weather and lack of funding for upkeep. When I go there, I can still dream of what it must have been like to stay up here, in a little house in the sky.

There once was a fire lookout here. It must have been really terrible to look at this view every day.