Thursday, August 30, 2007

Backpacker CDT Trip- Un-named lake to Big Hole Pass

It was freezing waking up on our last morning out. I was cold and there was definitely frost on the rainfly. We packed up and pretty much skipped breakfast so that we could get on the trail and head out of the woods. I think we were all dreaming of the hot springs and a good meal. The night before we had eaten some lentil curry, the worst meal of the trip, and my stomach was not thrilled with it. I was definitely looking forward to some real food.

We still had about 2 miles to the divide above Fourth of July Creek, but it was beautiful trail, much like what is common on the PCT. After the Divide, we were on a narrow ridge with the trail traversing a rather steep drop-off. There were rock retaining walls and good trail the whole way (sort of like in the Goat Rocks or North Cascades PCT sections). At the high elevation of the day we had a fabulous view into the Big Hole Valley and Aaron got a decent shot of me frowning into the camera.

We then began a huge descent from 9,000 ft to about 5,000. This was less of an ankle/knee killer than I had expected, but still a little hard on the joints. We took a couple of breaks to get water and have some snacks, but the trail was very different in character. It reflected the elevation change and their were more blowdowns, shrubs, and grasses and less of the super-straight tree groves found a bit higher up. We followed Big Sheep Creek for several miles and continued to descend into a valley where the trail seemed to get worse and worse. At the lowest elevation, we all met up and talked a bit about the plan for getting out to the road. Tom's car could only handle so much weight, so we needed to make two trips to accommodate all the people/gear. Aaron proposed that we try to hitch into Wisdom and then into Jackson so that Tom could go back for Jon. This was really no fun for anyone: us standing in the sun waiting for a ride, Jon sitting at the trailhead, and Tom driving the endless dirt road twice. Unfortunately, we had no make matters worse, the last 4 miles to the car were less than ideal. From the low point, we had to tackle a 1500 foot climb up the worst "jeep road" (impossible to drive a jeep on) I have ever seen. It truly was the most horrible hike of my life, so far, beating the 26-mile day up and over Mt. San Jacinto (current PCT record-holder) and most of Pennsylvania (AT record holder) . I have been forced to tears on much better trails. The road (I do love roads, after all!) just plain went straight up while following a creek drainage. I tried all the tricks in my arsenal (counting steps, only looking at the rock directly in front of my foot, yoga breathing, singing Lucinda Williams songs, etc) to make the climb easier, but it just took the spirit out of me. Once again, everyone was waiting for me and I was totally at my wits end. Note to whom it may concern: that is not a trail. It dishonors the name National Scenic Trail! Reroute the trail, anywhere else! Please.

After the road from hell, there was a nice newly created Real Trail to try to butter up angry hikers and placate them before they quit hiking for good. After reaching the Big Hole Pass Road we had a short .9 of mile walk to the car, which was slightly anti-climactic. Everyone tried to yogi a ride from a pickup driver at the pass, but he was headed for Idaho and we had to stick to the plan. Maybe it was the hitching and the car shuttles, and the general mellowness at the end of the hike, but I was disappointed that we didn't have a more celebratory mood. Luckily, about 20 minutes after Tom dropped us at the highway, we got our first hitch into Wisdom with a nice hippie guy with a canoe and a black lab. Then from Wisdom, we grabbed a soda and got the very first truck headed to Jackson to stop for us. It was a rancher who talked to us about managing three cattle herds and what actually goes into making "grass-fed, all natural" beef. He and Aaron could have probably talked about guns for about a hour longer, but we quickly made it to Jackson. It even came up in conversation that he knew one of our friends in Yosemite, what a small world! Thanks so much for the rides!

When we got back to the lodge, there was a decision made to get our truck that night, rather than in the morning, so we headed off with Tom to retrieve the Xterra. I had forgotten that this actually involved HIKING up to where we left the car, in the dark, without any warm clothes. It kind of sucked, but the truck was there. We didn't get back to the lodge until 10:00. They had stopped serving food at 9:00 and it was kind of a bummer, especially since Jon's wallet had been locked up in our car! I'm used to being really psyched to reach the end of the trail with my hiking partners and to going out for a feast! By the time I got back to the lodge, I was cold, hungry, and sore with no hopes of a feast besides the packets of Doritos behind the bar. But, even though the kitchen was closed, luckily the hot springs were open!

We all got into the springs and soaked which did wonders for my outlook on life. Jon brought Aaron and I a much-needed beer and we did manage to toast our accomplishment. I think we (Team Bitterroot) did a great job. Not many other teams were assigned 60 miles with a 3-mile road walk to start! Special thanks to Jon who had to do all the GPS and camera duties himself. He did a great job and his account of the trip (along with his other adventures) can be found on his blog, My Life & Travels. After the soak, we had a couple beers at the bar and reunited with the missing link: Skot (who had been put to work chopping vegetables for dinner that night). He was off to Missoula in the morning and we heard he had performed some ceremonial rites at Miner's Creek to express his frustration with Backpacker. It was good to see him again, and I wish him the best of luck and nothing but happy trails.

Besides making new friends and helping map the trail, one of best things about coming to Montana was discovering the Jackson Hot Springs Lodge. This is truly one of what we call "the last outposts" (the Big Island, Taos)...kind of in the vein of David Milch's Deadwood and John From Cincinnati (please don't cancel it!!!). It's what Jackson Hole was before it was ruined. Though the Big Hole Valley is haunted by the Nez Perce/U.S. Army battle, it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I will definitely be back.

I've very glad that I did this project. It was a bit weird at times, but Aaron and I have gained so much from our hikes on the long trails (not the least, each other!!) and we have benefited from the maps, trail work, and general kindness of so many people including trail angels, volunteer trail crews and land managers that this is the least we can do to give back. Not long ago, I was telling my co-workers (who don't really get the backpacking thing) about the unique relationships you form on the trail. There are people I consider friends that I have hiked with. But, in contrast, there is really no one that I have backpacked with that I don't consider a friend for life. So, thanks to the team, the lodge, the forest service, and the firefighters. Thanks even to Backpacker Magazine. This was a great trip.

Backpacker CDT Trip- Little Joe Lake to un-named lake

In the cold morning, we motivated quickly so that we could all warm up a bit. Down the trail a ways we ran into three hikers (two thru-hikers and one section hiker) and stopped to chat with them. Jim from Livingston, MT mentioned he was low on food, so Aaron lightened our packs and gave him some of our dehydrated food and couscous. They said that they were hanging in there, but they did not seem overjoyed about the trail in Montana. The section we were doing was unusual, in that the trail was good and the route was scenic. We felt lucky to be on one of the best sections and it made the first day well worth it. After climbing up past Lena Lake, we made our way to the Slag-a-Melt Lakes and took a break. There was a quiet, calm deer that checked us out and we got a few nice pictures of her. The climb above Slag-a-Melt was very nice and we made our way up to another saddle with awesome views. We continued into a bowl with huge peaks on either side and a short traverse around a really steep section. Then, we regained all the altitude we had lost, climbed again, and reached the Divide. There was a little marker showing the MT/ID border, which we had been walking along for the entire section. Then, the trail descended and began yet another ascent to another saddle. The grade was good, but there was still a lot of climbing. At the saddle, I thought we were one place, but we were not as far along as I had thought. This happens when you go up and down multiple times and there are no signs to identify things. I guess I should have paid more attention to the GPS/map conversations. Anyway, we stopped at an un-named lake because we had very few options for water in the last 14 miles to the car.

The lake was right up against a steep scree slope and was partially dried up. We had to walk across the lakebed to get to the nicer camping area, it reminded me of hiking Mauna Loa, and the guys explored the swimming possibilities. Tom voted yea (of course!), Jon, nay (too sea-monkey-ish) on the water quality. This was a nice peaceful camp and for the first time in the trip I felt like we all had a chance to talk a little bit. We were even able to perform a tricky Therm-a-rest repair with the kit I always carry and Tom's expertise. Believe it or not, Tom actually was the chemist behind the glue in the repair kit! Tom regaled us with his stories from the gear-researching/developing trenches and Tom and Aaron discussed and tried to come up with a required reading list for Jon's outdoor education. (They should have just asked the librarian!) A nice night, if only we had carried a little extra for a nightcap.

Backpacker CDT Trip- Hamby Road to Little Joe Lake

We left from camp with another uncertain section to hike (about 4 miles), but it turned out that the trail was easy to follow and no problem to navigate. There was a steep descent to Miner's Creek Trailhead, and some of the switchbacks could use some work, but all in all I was expecting much worse. We got down the hill, and got some water in Miner's Creek where we officially began the second section (according to the book) of our hike. This section was reputed to much more scenic and the trail was supposed to be well-constructed. After a short break, we headed up to climb to the top of the pass.

The trail was beautiful, with lush greenery from the snow runoff and the trail was easy to follow and wide enough in places for two to walk together. The climb was a good grade up to the Rock Island Lakes, and then the trail steepened. Up until this point, I felt pretty good despite doing this hike literally off the couch. Work, the Las Vegas summer temps, travel to presentations, and stress over tenure, has seriously cut into our hiking time and in this section I could feel it. Everyone had to wait for me, yes I was the slow girl in the group. How Aaron is able to bust out the miles (remember Half Dome And Long's Peak?), I will never understand. He is a hiking machine. Oh, well at least I made it up the hill.

Over the saddle was Little Lake, and the views were worthy of a John Denver song. This is more like it! Yes, the CDT in all it's glory. We continued down along a good trail traversing the slopes and working our way through the valleys. Tom saw a bear, but as he was in the lead, it was scared away and long gone by the time the rest of us caught up. Gorgeous views, and Jon got lots of great pictures. Check them out. We stopped a bit early in the afternoon, slightly under our target of 12 miles, but there was a nice lake and we were all tuckered out from the climb. We made camp and as we were cooking dinner and messing around, Jon and Tom spotted another bear across the lake. I think it was less than interested in us, and went on to other pursuits, but we practiced good bear/food etiquette nonetheless. After I had crashed for the night I heard whispers and the sound of digital cameras going off. It turns out a herd of elk had come through the area, waded into the lake, and made their way up the steep ridge we had hiked down. Amazing! The wildlife has been awesome on this trip: deer, bear, elk, marmots, grouse...very cool.

Backpacker CDT Trip- Skinner Meadow to Hamby Road

Day Two had an auspicious start because when I woke up, I did not hear the tapping of raindrops on the tent and that meant that I did not have to break camp and hike out in rain. Yippee! We had some tea and some oatmeal for breakfast and the team seemed to be in good spirits. (Aaron was serenading us!) We packed up and hit the road looking for the place where the CDT branches off into the woods and becomes a trail again. The walk was pretty good, in forest finally, and we actually we able to walk along together and chat as a group. It was totally interesting to talk to two guys who were bad-ass mountaineers, because they have a different perspective on hiking than long-distance hikers. They seem a bit more goal-oriented (duh, they need to get to the summit!) and they definitely hike with a sense of purpose (kind of like a race or a bad weather day on the long trails when we skip all breaks because it's too miserable to stop). Thru-hikers (even me, when I am in hiking shape) can hike pretty fast, but they are always open for random conversations with someone going the other way, detours, or for a long lunch and siesta. So, it was cool to see the different styles.

We had a couple of creek crossings during the morning (but we didn't have to actually ford since there were log bridges and rocks to hop across). We also had a bunch of trail/jeep road intersections, but the combo of GPS, good maps, and my trusty guidebook all combined to make the decisions easy enough. On one of the jeep roads, we were cruising along making good time when Tom spotted a guy on an ATV ahead. Apparently this guy was not fond of us treehugging types and as he sped by he said, "Oh good as least the wolves will have something to eat!" I was pissed at the guy, but as Jon said, "you don't mess with a guy carrying a gun wearing camo on a back road in Montana." Indeed.

We stopped for a nice long break at an old cabin where there was a pretty meadow. Aaron had made his own homemade beef jerky and it was definitely a hit. What a savings from buying the commercial packages! We also brought cheddar cheese and Triscuits which are always yummy (thanks Southwalker for teaching me this valuable lesson in the Whites). Tom turned the team onto his favorite- smoked gouda...(fancy pants!) but I didn't get to try it. It sounded rather delish, so I'm making a note for next time.

After lunch it was a quick hop, skip, and a jump to our destination for the night, Hamby Creek/Hamby Road. Tom really liked camping by water (sounds like a certain couple we knew on the AT: Hello Chick and Weird!) so this place fit the bill with a nice creek to soak the tired feet in. Unfortunately, it was near a jeep road, but there wasn't much we could do. Aaron made the most amazing dehydrated minestrone with Chris Zinda's garden-fresh zucchini and Parmesan cheese. It was awesome! Aaron you rock at dehydrating- maybe you can give Mary Jane's Farm a little competition. Tom wasn't big on cooking, but Jon showed off his JetBoil stove, which I have coveted since I worked at REI and all the good-looking Wisconsin climber guys would come in and buy them with their little climbing hardware thingys and Powerbars. I am going to get one. It is like a more evolved Pocket Rocket!

My new boots were bruising my ankles, so by this point, I was beginning to experience some of the familiar pains of backpacking. I soaked the feet and tried to elevate them to reduce the swelling, but I figured it was the price I had to pay for wearing brand new boots to a 60-mile hike. A good second day covering about 12 miles.

Backpacker CDT Trip- Goldstone Pass to Skinner Meadows

Well, you all know how much I LOVE mornings, but I was actually kind of excited to get out and start hiking. Our $10.00 camping fee included the hot springs and the lodge generously offered campers a $5 breakfast with the usual bagels, fruit, juice and cereal. We stuffed some food in our mouths, double-checked to make sure Skot had not had a change of heart, and loaded my truck with the gear. Why is Aaron constantly tying things to the top of cars? He has a real talent for that!

It is a good thing that we had some enthusiasm, motivation (and at least on my part) blissful ignorance, because the start of the hike was a little rough. We parked on the questionable 4WD road below the pass and decided to hoof it up to the start of the official trail. Oh, yes Cory had to walk a road- for almost 3 freaking miles, uphill! You can imagine my mood. I hate walking on roads ever since the AT out of Damascus, VA and I tried to keep a happy face, but I am sure it was pretty obvious that I thought it was a lame start. There were some decent views, and the road did actually get rather gnarly, so in the end there wasn't a whole lot we could have done to avoid the road walk.

Finally, mid-morning we made it to Goldstone Pass. It is extremely handy to have a nice guy with a GPS hiking with you because he can make relevant announcements like, "this is the official Continental Divide" or show you nifty little maps on the screen that alleviate a lot of arguing over which way to orient the map. He can also provide tips like, "We are on crack and walking completely the wrong way!" I liked it. Though I am sure that Jon was annoyed with the team's incessant questions along the way, a variation on, "are we there yet????"

After arriving at the nondescript pass, and snapping a couple pictures, we headed into the woods where we promptly hit a cliff-like ridge and huge drop-off with a view of a distant lake. No time like the present to jump right into our navigational duties, so Tom planted his hiking staff and made his way down this super-treacherous scree field. That is what mountaineers do. I, on the other hand stood there looking around for a trail, like a real trail (you know switchbacks and stuff), until it was obvious that everyone would abandon me if I didn't move it. So, I started down the hill and actually had no real problem, despite my normal clumsiness and tendency to twist my ankle.

After the lovely descent, we were on our own to find a route to Cowbone Lake. It really wasn't that hard to find, seeing how we had a general direction to walk, but it was an exercise in group dynamics to see how four people make decisions on where a non-existent trail is. We found the lake pretty fast and Jon, being the over-achiever that he is, ran a 1/2 mile back along the lake to try and map the "true" route for the project. Reminded me of Grizzly on the AT!

Cowbone Lake is well-named. I was shocked to find actual cow bones scattered all along the lake shore. Apparently a herd of cattle fell through the ice many years ago and the bones you see today are from this unlucky herd. I think the place was haunted. At the lake we met Larry- a CDT thru-hiker. He had that thru-hiker glint in his eye (maybe from hungriness, loneliness or from that weird distance you get when you are psychologically and physically removed from civilization for months at a time). He was using the Jonathan Ley maps and taking the shortcuts, like the bushwhack to Jahnke Lake. This seems to cut out some of the ubiquitous road-walking and probably keeps the thru-hikers sane. Larry was not phased in the least by the trek down the ridge, in fact he said most of the CDT was like that.

We left the lake and continued on. In the afternoon we passed, about 7 ATV'ers (and their dust), another alpine lake, a smattering of old miner's cabins, and encountered yet another boring road walk. The major bummer about the road walk was that we were actually, literally, walking right back to the car. About a mile from the actual vehicle, we veered into the road we drove up on and walked that for a mile or so, and then camped in a pull-out next to a cow-field. Yes, folks it's just all part of the trip! You never know what you're going to get on a long hike, but I'd say this is not the sexy trail section they should use to advertise the CDT!

Our first night camping. Well, we might have had wonderful conversation about the meaning of life, or found world peace, but it started raining and it's hard to do that when everyone is zipped up to their ears in their bivys and tents. The rain was a good thing for the fire, though, so it was a bit of a mixed blessing. I spent the whole night praying that a rogue ATV/redneck rig wouldn't run me over. Too traumatized from Strange Piece of Paradise, I guess.

Backpacker CDT Trip- Jackson, MT

In 2001 while working for Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, I first observed the amazing feats that a few dedicated volunteers could accomplish with masterful planning and efficient project management. I'll never forget how in one weekend VOC somehow met their goal of planting 1,000 trees, fed hundreds of hungry volunteers, and kept the whole project going despite a rain storm and windy weather. I was hooked back then and to this day consider myself a pretty big cheerleader for volunteering. With this rosy attitude, we took off on Saturday morning to drive 12 hours and 841 miles to Montana for the Backpacker Magazine CDT project.

My first impressions were a bit on the surreal side. Granted, we arrived at 1:30 am to a dark valley full of smoke and a town that seemed to consist of a neon-lit bar, some tractors and a mercantile store from about 50 years ago. It was pretty easy to identify the Jackson Hot Springs Lodge , being the focal point of the whole town and we were able to camp in the back yard and have a quick Moose Drool beer, before calling it a night.

In the morning, we met up with the first of our teammates, Skot Phrea from Texas. Skot had arrived in the area from the Kerrville Folk Festival and been hanging around a while. By the time we met him, his charisma had already made him a legend at the lodge. You meet lots of characters on the road less traveled and Skot was definitely one memorable guy. He was well read, possessed exhaustive knowledge of music, and seemed to be able to make new friends or run into old ones with remarkable ease. It was good to meet Skot because he shared our initial concerns that Backpacker had only sent the team one set of maps (is that a best practice?) and that our contact was mysteriously hard to follow up with. It is true that in the application Backpacker insinuated that this trip was a chance to get "loaded up with some free gear", but we were focused on an excuse to get out of Vegas and we never expected much. Really though, better communication would have been helpful. The first morning we sat with Skot on the lodge porch and tried to determine if we had just wasted a heckuva lot of gas to drive somewhere that was burning to a crisp. Aaron and I took matters into our own hands and made a trip into Wisdom, MT to the local diner Fetty's and the command center for the fire, where we were cleared to hike by the Forest Service. (Who, unfortunately, didn't really have much of a clue about our team or the trip. I guess they had bigger things on their minds like raging forest fires!) All that remained to do, was to meet up with the other two members of the team.

Back at the lodge, we spent a few hours talking to the lodge employees and speculating about the guys we had only briefly e-mailed with. Occasionally, we looked anxiously down the main drag to see if a Honda station wagon was approaching. Early in the afternoon, Tom and Jon arrived from the West Coast and we were all in the same place for the first time. Due to the spotty communication, failure of Backpacker to facilitate regular updates, and some general apathy, our team was probably not destined to win the Most Successfully Bonded CDT Team award. In fact, the atmosphere at the lodge was rather tense and uncomfortable. Skot was concerned about whether Backpacker was coming through on what he perceived to be their "end of the deal". Aaron and I were obsessing about the maps. And Tom and Jon were probably wondering what the heck they had gotten themselves into. My memory of the first hour of our team's illustrious start centers around a little table with a small pile of Sharkies, some maps, and four stressed out/road-weary people with not a lot to say to each other. Jon, probably the smartest one of us, kept himself occupied with his gear and combated the tension with a smart-ass comment here and there, ostensibly to keep the mood a bit lighter.

Nonetheless, the show must go on. And after Skot decided that he had better things to do than go hike in smoke without the promised new socks, we regrouped as a team of four and started planning the car shuttle. We scoped out the roads to Big Hole Pass and caravaned down some endless dirt roads to leave the car off the trail (near the sign above). Mostly, the drive took us through the ranch land below the Divide, we swerved past a cow or ten, and then ascended slightly to the rolling forested ridge of the Divide. The car parked, we headed into Wisdom and stopped for dinner.

Dinner was at the Antlers (Note: I think that was the name.) where we were waited on by what had to be one of the sweetest women in the entire world. This is a woman that had the patience to process 108 separate charge cards so that the firefighters in town could each have their own check. She is a saint. We ordered burgers, salads, sandwiches, and sodas and with the comforting effects of food, finally got a chance to converse as human beings. We got to know more about Tom, a seasoned Cascades mountaineer and former gear developer from Tacoma, Washington who was quiet and smart and shared many of our liberal political views. Jon, when he wasn't devouring one of his many menu choices (he's a graduate student that burns a LOT of calories being somewhat more motivated that the rest of us mere mortals), told us about his work with the Corvallis, OR Mountain Rescue Unit he volunteers with, his recent move out west, and his work and studies in geophysics at Oregon State. Things were finally starting to come together.

After dinner, we headed back to the lodge and had a couple beers at the bar. Jackson locals were truly amazing. There was the flirty-cute bartender with a penchant for cheesy country songs, a cowboy poet whose ranch brand was "FU", and Inga the stoic Scandinavian proprietress of the place. Skot was there carrying on conversations that varied from Townes Van Zandt, to recipes, to quoting the Bible. Jon, Tom, and Aaron and I soaked up the atmosphere and chatted a bit before leaving Mr. Phrea at the bar to crawl into our tents to sleep.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

Cables of Half Dome
Originally uploaded by zenhikers
When it is 99 degrees at 9:26 pm in Las Vegas, it is hard to believe that the summer is coming to an end. But at UNLV, the students are being oriented and the library is preparing for Fall semester.

I just returned from my vacation in Twain Harte, CA where I visited for a week with family in a big old cabin with a wonderful porch. Porches truly are the key to happiness! On this porch we played endless games of cribbage (a game of low cunning, math, and luck!), drank lovely Zinfindel and some surprisingly tasty Miller product called Chill, and talked the hours of the night away to the sounds of each others' iPods.

On Tuesday, I went to Yosemite with my husband's sister and her husband where we hiked the John Muir Trail up to Half Dome. Everyone has their personal limit and I would venture a guess that not a few hikers have discovered theirs at the Half Dome cables. What a terrifying sight to behold. The 17-mile round trip ended with a bear-sighting at the Happy Isles concession stand and a welcome bag of Doritos on the car trip home.

Family vacations are no fun without kids, and these two really made the week. I got to lie in the hammock with my imaginative niece and talk about life and later watch my nephew conquer the local half-pipe on his skateboard. Great fun and memories.

Vacations also equal eating, so here are the highlights: homemade sausage at the local diner (Sportsman's Grill), a cute casual place in Murphys called Fire Wood (burritos and wood-fired pizza), and the most wonderful Chocolate Peanut Butter pie ever from The Rock Pub.

The pictures are uploaded, the muscles are no longer sore from the hike, and we are back in the desert where sleeping with the windows open is no longer an option. If nothing else summer vacations remind us of the years past and keep us looking forward to what's around the corner.