Tuesday, November 17, 2009

November?! No Way!

But the calendar insists...sigh.

September and the Sierra already seem distant, especially since the infamous Oregon rains started in earnest. Worse yet I've gained some weight back already--the horror! For years I have planned to make my fortune by writing "The John Muir Trail Diet", an honest method to lose weight, increase muscular and cardio fitness, and increase appreciation for both the natural and built worlds. Two hundred plus miles of backpacking in mountainous terrain each year for a svelte, strong, flourishing you. Gaining part of the weight back after only a couple months is NOT SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN. Ten years ago it didn't happen, so presumably it's a fluke, an aberration in the data and the fit of my clothes. Harumph.

Maybe it's because I did not walk a thousand miles. In fact the walk covered just 425 miles; not an inconsiderable distance, but far short of my plan (such as it was) and hardly a warm up for a serious thru-hiker (e.g. one who walks the entire Pacific Crest Trail in one year).

For 300 miles or so I walked like a typical thru-hiker, rising early and walking long to cover twenty or more miles. I mentally catalogued beautiful places and intriguing side trips for future visits but walked on, dallying only occasionally to watch wildlife or take pictures.

The miles flew underfoot at twice the daily rate of any prior walk. One evening a month along, snug in camp as the sky blazed after a storm, I looked north to pick out where my previous camp had been.

It was way the heck out there; so many ridges, summits, and valleys in between. And the camp environs from two nights before--nearly 50 miles distant--was indistinguishable. Amazing.

Two days later in town to resupply, however, I couldn't keep images from the previous stretch straight; campsites, springs, mountains, wildlife, rain storms, they slid about and formed multiverse histories that didn't align with the order of images in my camera. Was Ebbett's pass the one with the great people and the fruit bowl for thru-hikers, or was that Carson? The coyote was the day after the cinnamon bear...wasn't it? I was "homesick" for places from just 48 hours earlier. My experience of any given place along the trail was so brief that calling it a visit seemed like overstatement--it felt more like a filmstrip.

Thankfully the next few weeks featured visits and day-hikes with family, a perfect pretext for a wholesale abandonment of discipline: if a spot looked nice, we'd plop down; if a side trail looked tempting, we'd take it; if there were rocks by the creek, we'd toss some in; if there was ice cream at the Tuolumne store--and when isn't there?--why sure!

Trail mileage plummeted but my enjoyment and sense of connection to these amazing places soared. And that, as they say, made all the difference. There was camping and supreme lake splashing w/niece Jen and Nicole and their irresistible daughter Sophie, a week of hiking, weasel chasing, and eating at the Whoa Nellie Deli with my wife Ann and daughter Meghan, and a choice tour of Mammoth trails and coffee shops with brother Blair.

For nearly a month I explored an area that would have taken a week at the earlier pace, from the Burger Barn in Bridgeport south to the Looney Bean in Mammoth Lakes, and from wonder-of-the-world contender Tenaya Lake east to the fabulous Whoa Nellie Deli (where people often marvel that one of the best meals they had ever eaten was at a Chevron station in the middle of nowhere. I took everyone who visited, and if you ever visit me in the Eastern Sierra I'll drag you too).

I returned home to visit in early September and never made it back to the Sierra. There were reasons, but they're not important now. Next time the hike goes deeper into September, and maybe the weight will stay off and I can write that book. Or maybe it'll have to be Cool Local Eateries of the Eastern Sierra--looks like more research...

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Had trouble uploading photos after computer changes, but finally figured it out. Lots of catching up to do, but at least I can begin. For the moment here are two images from the northern Sierra:

Distant thunderheads over the Carson range just south and east of Lake Tahoe

Round Top, looking south over Carson Pass

Midsummer in the Sierra...ahhh.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The company of trees

Trees in the morning--a whitebark pine over my bedsite.

Trees at midday--a western white pine anchors my lunch site on a granite knob in otherwise volcanic terrain.

Trees at evening--high in the canyon of the E. Fork Carson on my birthday.

This little aspen is having a tough time going vertical with the heavy snow loads in the Tahoe area.

But this big lodgpole above Carson Pass hasn't had it easy either. Near here I weathered an intense thunderstorm with flashfloods and big hail that churned a nearby lake into a froth and knocked unripe cones down by the gazillion.

I love junipers. One of the first big ones was just a couple miles up trail from the little aspen.

Many beatiful junipers grow in the crazy volcanic landscape between Carson and Ebbett's passes, south of Raymond Peak.

They are nice up close too.

You never know...

...what (or who) you're going to find along the road.

For instance, Samuel Clemens himself (and friend) kicking back outside a gas station convenience store on a hot July afternoon near Reno Nevada, listening to a latin/jazz guitar version of "What Child is This".


I felt a little silly snapping a picture at a gas station, but Clemens didn't seem to mind.

How to get a drink

A brief tutorial on the fine art of drinking water from a mountain spring.

First, scoop up some water. I use a small plastic bag, which works with very shallow sources--look for where water is slipping down an sloped rock and press the bag to the surface. It was sunny and hot this day, hence the trailside fashion that caused Brian's kids some embarrassment. That's Mr. Patrick Poppins if you please.

Hmmm, wonder if this has giardia...?

Clear, cold, and coming right out of the hill is good - Cheers!

Try not to let water run all over your face. The plastic bag is not always ideal as a cup, but Brian has respectfully zoomed out to conceal any evidence.

Not a bad life.

The Danish Blacksmith's Mountain

The blacksmith in this case being Peter Lassen, and the mountain Lassen Peak. Tangentially, Megowan means "son of the blacksmith", though some sources suggest this is not in Danish.

Done hiking the Klamaths (until another year), it is on to the southernmost major peak of the Cascades. Here are my brother-in-law Brian and his sons Matt and Kyle in front of Helen Lake, w/Lassen's summit behind. Matt and Kyle are very strong; I think they should have carried us, but it didn't work that way.

Bumpass Hell was much prettier than the name suggests, but you definitely don't want to repeat the mistake of Kendall VanHook Bumpass, who in the 1860's twice broke through crusts in this 16 acre hydrothermal hotbed to scald his leg, the 2nd time eventually requiring amputation. What with fumaroles steaming, springs boiling, and mudpots blurping it smelled a good deal of rotten eggs here. One boiling spring was coated with a slick of fool's gold, though in the light it looked black, not gold. Other boiling pools had a wonderful pale turquoise color, like this one:

The following day we climbed Lassen, a bit over 2000 feet of ascent on a scenic and generally well graded though exposed trail. From the summit plateau you could see Mt. Shasta far to the north, a final trailside view of the mountain I spent the last two and a half weeks skirting via the Klamath Mountains.

This lovely view is currently obscured by smoke from a complex of fires just to the north, and the summit trail is closed.

The black lava in the picture's middle ground is allegedly the most recently created rock in California, black dacite from the 1915-17 eruptions. Other quartz-speckled dacites near the summit are brown, gray, yellowish, and even a dusty plum. Even on these dry and inhospitable slopes there were occasional bright patches of flowers blooming post haste in the short growing season.

Lurking off the main trail in a maze of lava towers in the summit crater was this:

A crop circle, proof of aliens!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Cool Water

"All day I face the barren waste without the taste of water--Cool Water. Old Dan and I with throats burned dry and souls that cry for water--Cool Water."

OK, it hasn't been as bad as the cowboy song paints it, but "For three or four hours I didn't snack, along the track, because my pack had no water--Cool Water. The Fritos sat, no good to Pat, too much salt and fat, without water--Cool Water" just doesn't make the grade.

So where's the water coming from? So far it's been very different from past trips where lakes and streams have been the main sources. Since the trail stays near the ridge tops many water sources have been springs--he very beginnings of creeks and ultimately big rivers. I have drunk from headwaters of the Klamath, Scott, Salmon, Trinity, and Sacramento rivers, often just a few feet from where the water comes out of the ground--mmmm!

All springs are welcome, but few were more anticipated than this one below an abandoned lookout near Devils's Peak in far northern CA. I had hiked several miles since a 5:30am start w/out seeing any water I liked, and was facing a rapidly heating 4400 foot descent. Only minutes earlier I had encountered a rattlesnake which had further dried my throat, probably from jumping several thousand feet into the air. This tiny oasis under Doug firs was just the ticket. The trickle was quite small, taking minutes to fill a liter bottle, but eventually it could fill containers faster than I could drink, so all was well. I stayed here for quite some time listening to the birds, which are often one of the clues that water is near.

A few days later I came upon this idyllic spot in the Salmon Mountains, and lingered for hours soaking it up (and soaking my very mosquito-bitten feet). Some years ago a trail crew building a new section of the PCT had camped nearby for 3 months, and the rockwork specialists had taken special pains where the trail crossed their home creeklet, which originates in snowfields just above. This place will stay with me for a long time.

Another spring pops out just feet from the trail. Sometimes they are literally underfoot, though I feel better when the originated on the upslope side of the trail.

Here is a welcome sight, with spring written all over it...

...and sure enough, tiny but vigorous, cold, delicious, and decorated with monkeyflowers--what's not too like? With sources like this I do not treat or filter the water. It is interesting how different the waters can taste from the various rock formations.

Nearing the end of the Klamath Mountain section was a series of creeks draining the great granite mass of Castle Crags, sluicing down chutes and carving out bowls along the way. Very pretty but I was more cautious taking water out of these as they originated further upslope.

Wait a doggone minute, what is this doing here?
Ah, yes, well...after the Klamaths I was staying with the very hospitable trail angel JoAnn Michael in Weed CA and contemplating how I might sleep better through the frequent warm nights, during which mosquitoes conduct repeated raids on my tentless camp. Deciding that fetching my tent was in order and that a Greyhound bus ticket home was cheaper than mailing things, it was a pretty easy call--Ann and the kids, friends, Cirello's pizza, good coffee, such a life.
However there have also been issues with banking, plumbing, the woodwork business, garden, vehicles, and so on, reminding me that is not trivial to achieve escape velocity. Already it has taken a day longer than what appeared to be a generous schedule--but then again more time with family and home has its rewards.
Tomorrow I depart for Lassen.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

200 miles

The first segment of the trip--through various ranges of the Klamath Mountains (Siskiyou, Marble, Russian, Salmon, Scott, Eddy, Trinity Alps, Castle Crags)--is over. A day or so ago I crossed into the Sacramento River drainage, heading eastward back toward the southern Cascades. What a great area this has been! And a bit quirky.

On the horizon now is Lassen, just visible over the granite walls of Castle Crags,

and not far beyond start the Sierra, the original siren call for the trip. I'm eager to get there, though the trails will be more rugged and the pack heavier because of less frequent food resupplies. My body has been surviving so far, but the Sierra will be a big challenge. Fingers crossed.

I'm at the home of trail angel JoAnn Michael outside Weed, CA, with a phenomenal view of Shasta from the back yard. Tomorrow we drive to Old Station, flipping over (in trail-speak) a section better done in a cooler season. My brains were baked descending alongside Castle Crags, I'd like to avoid an immediate repeat.

A couple final images: paintbrush adorning an ultramafic outcropping,

and the final reward of a hiking day that ended much too late on windy saddle.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Walk with me

Sunset from Buckhorn Spring, northern end of Marble Mountains.

Penstemon - there are so many colors and varieties along the trail.

Suddenly aliens abduct me and deposit me in the Blue Ridge Mtns along the Appalachian Trail.

And then return me to a perfect mountainside with a snow-cold creeklet, pink heather, and Mt. Shasta in the distance.

The famed Hiker Hut, at Alderbrook Manor B&B in Etna, CA. An extremely welcome break after the first 100 trail miles. Etna is a great trail town, with an old fashioned soda fountain at the drugstore, tasty smoothies at the Wildwood cafe, killer sandwiches from and Ashland trained chef at the deli...hmm, a little food fixation perhaps?

Monday, July 6, 2009

100 Miles Along

Retrospective weather report from Etna, CA for Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) - man has it been hot! I was using my shiny chrome umbrella for shade by 6:30 in the morning, feeling as if I would need to apologize or at least explain should I meet someone. I even wore my white cotton kitchen gloves with the fingers cut off to protect the back of my hands. However, it was the first day on trail where I saw no one, 15 miles of solitary scenic walking.

Four days ago was really tough; I climbed out of Seiad Valley in 100 degree heat ascending 4850 feet over 15 miles, and the water stopped about halfway. There was supposed to be a good spring at the top under an outstanding triple trunked red fir, but no go...so a dry night, and 5 miles the next morning to get to water. After finding water I met a trail crew and ended up working with them for the afternoon and sharing a tasty pork loin dinner afterwards. Good deal!

Recap: I started June 29 near Long John Saddle in the Oregon Siskiyou Mtns, about 12 miles shy of the planned trailhead (the road was really rough), and have walked approximately 100 miles through the Siskiyous and the length of the Marble Mountain Wilderness in California. It has been a early season riot of flowers, springs and creeks, snowpatches...and mosquitoes.

Except for the trail crew holiday I have been walking 15-22 miles per day, and may scale that back a little. I have seen one rattlesnake, which added 5 feet of elevation gain to that day (in a single adrenaline powered jump), tons of butterflies, a robin that sung 24/7 (according to one sleep deprived trail crew worker), and a deer with a rack that would make a hunter's heart go pit-a-pat. No bear, though one couple I met had seen 9 in the past 3 weeks.

I have met several northbound PCT hikers who skipped the snowy Sierra, but just one who has walked all the way from Mexico; the unreal Eric D on his 7th PCT thru walk. He is averaging almost 40 miles per day, but taking off approximately one day in three--probably for alternating knee replacements and IV rehydration. I will not try to match this.

No pictures this time, the computer doesn't support it, hopefully soon. See ya!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Things We Carry

What exactly does one carry for 100 days on the trail?

At little as possible--you're cartin' this stuff on your back!

Then again...as much as it takes to be happy, and reasonably comfortable and safe. And therein lies the rub...literally: the shoulders, hips, neck, back, and soles of the feet all have opinions about weight, and those opinions get sharper as the day progresses. A skimpy little day pack hardly matters, but over 10 or 15lbs a pack starts to be noticeable. The difference between 20 and 30 is abrupt--at 20 (with a well fitted pack) it still feels like a pleasant stroll, but at 30 the word toil comes to mind. I used to carry 40-60lbs regularly (including food), and toil didn't begin to describe it!

I've spent a lot of effort trimming down my pack to make this trip possible. Sometimes this simply involves finding lighter gear with comparable functionality, but often it goes deeper. A pack offers a glimpse into one's closet of fears; decades ago I was stuck in the snow, so cold that my legs repeatedly went numb for two days. For years afterwards I carried a 7lb tent, heavy rain gear, and numerous warm layers of clothing--and still stressed out when the weather hinted rain.

To this day I carry a stouter shelter and more warm clothing than many long distance hikers, but I've learned a bit about staying warm and dry so it's much reduced. Here is my "stately pleasure dome" for this trip:

Warmth was much on my mind one winter night years ago when I joined an intrepid group for a night outdoors in the Cascades without tent or sleeping bag. The weather was dreadful, high winds with snow and freezing rain, so my partner and I dug a snow cave, the king of winter shelters. We were beautifully protected but nevertheless absolute popsicles despite roughly 20 layers of clothing, many times what I would realistically carry on a trip. Only one of our number had a decent night, in a crude shelter no less. His secret? Warm drinks every 90 minutes or so. While some long distance hikers forsake a stove and therefore warm food, I remember that night and carry a 3 ounce stove.

That scary snow experience resulted from a series of misjudgments and careless mistakes, which brings to mind a fellow hiker named Scott Williamson. He has hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail (henceforth PCT) nine or ten times. I expect to see him on the trail this year as he attempts a record walk, covering the nearly 2700 miles in 66 days, averaging 40 miles per day. When Scott was asked what his favorite piece of gear is, he replied "My brain. It's free and it's always helped me out of jams". Scott travels very light, probably less than 8lbs of gear total--yep, that's the pack and everything in it except for food and water. Amazing what you can do w/skill and experience.

I don't have as much of either, and no surprise my pack is heavier - about 13-14 lbs, but much nicer than the 30+lbs carried by the normal backpacker. A few points of comparison:

  • Scott's pack weighs well under a pound, basically a stuff sack with straps. Mine currently weighs 3lbs, but this is less than half of my favorite old pack...which Dana now uses to carry the pizza oven and Oreo double stuffs! I'm ready for a 1.5-2lb pack, but the current one will be great for this trip, with plenty of room for the bear canister I'll have to carry from Yosemite onward.

  • Scott's sleeping pad weighs less than 6 ounces, mine still weighs nearly 20. I haven't learned to sleep on a 1/4" foam mat, and don't really plan to. Back in the day my pad weighed over 2lbs.

  • Scott carries no insulating clothing to speak of, I have a 10oz insulated coat, 5 oz windshell, 2oz liner gloves and balaclava. A few years back it was a 21oz jacket and 20+oz. goretex parka.

  • Scott carries an ~8oz flat tarp for shelter, I carry a 15oz shaped tarp which will handle an arctic gale. Not so long ago it was the 7lb tent mentioned above.

And on it goes. This gear represents a set of tools that I feel confident I can stay safe and comfortable with today. As the trip progresses perhaps it will shrink, but we shall see. Many people go out each year w/gear and experience that don't match even the most optimistic scenarios, and that is plain wrong--it is shifting the risk to other hikers and the rescue community. While anyone can get in over their head, it's essential to cultivate personal responsibility.

Clothing is an area where experienced hikers can often prune weight. During the day I'll wear light colored synthetic pants and long sleeved shirt, sun hat, and boots or running shoes. The pants zip off to become shorts for warm weather, but the long sleeve shirt stays on to control sunburn, as I've already had one round of skin cancer. In a handy outside pocket of the pack I have the 5oz windbreaker (amazingly useful), light gloves, and a 5oz spun-bonded raincoat, very waterproof and breathable (and only ~$20!). Carefully double bagged to stay dry in the pack (important!) is the insulated jacket, balaclava (warm hat that covers neck), and spare socks, along with running tights and a featherweight synthetic t-shirt to wear at night to keep the sleeping bag clean. Like this...

This is close to twice the clothing of the hard core ultralighters. It probably doesn't sound like enough, but it's possible to be very comfortable with this kit. You do have to come to terms w/more dirt than is normal at home, but that doesn't mean being Pig-Pen. Not for too long, anyhow; some stretches of trail are so dusty it's unavoidable for some period, but in general frequent washings allow you to live happily with yourself and your trail companions.

One gear area that drives me crazy is first aid/repair/emergency. It has so many little things to debate the necessity of, and so much conflicting advice. Some hikers shun complexity and carry only duct tape, a needle, and hand sanitizer. Some barely stop short of a medevac helicopter. I'm in the middle, able to clean and dress wounds, manage pain, infection, allergic reaction and diahrrea, start a fire under adverse conditions, signal for help, and improvise repairs to more extensive gear or body damage.

This nominally adds up to 4 or 5 ounces, but in reality almost everything in the pack could play a role in emergencies. The aluminum pack stays could providing splinting for broken bones, the sleeping bag warmth to manage shock or hypothermia, dental floss for sewing, articles of clothing for padding or slings and so on. Multiple Use is important to assembling a light pack.

Another excellent example is the humble and ubiquitous backpacking ukelele: in addition to the soothing alpha-wave-inducing music, it is useful as a mosquito-swatter, a paddle (for either boating or spanking, as appropriate), a pillow--koa is among the most comfortable and compliant of pillow woods--and of course for self defense, driving off whackos by playing Tiptoe in the Tulips, or Paul Anka tunes.

I am reluctantly leaving behind a few favorite things in order to lighten my pack for the abundant miles: my faithful little Leica binoculars, one of my all-time favorite purchases and something I carry every day in my shoulder bag; the nifty fabric contraption that turns my sleeping pad into a chair, so comfy for sitting around camp - but with the long days I won't have that much time in camp; and an ice axe...true, I haven't carried one for years, but they are so cool! If I had left 3 weeks ago as originally planned I would have needed one, but that's an extra TWO POUNDS. Good thing for all these delays.

Things I won't do without include toothbrush and floss, washcloth, mirror (part of the compass, also good for emergency signalling), camera, cellphone (roadend use checking in w/Ann) and substantial quantities of chocolate.

One good friend asked if I would bring a gun, but it's too heavy for a wimpy not-quite-ultralight (that would be under 10lbs for gear) backpacker. Besides, you folks out there in civilization need a gun more than I. However, if I happen upon a frozen mountain man with a .50 caliber Hawken, I will re-evaluate this decision carefully.

I'm up in the air about an mp3 player. I generally find hiking w/music distracting, like being stuck in a movie soundtrack, but it might be fun to listen to audiobooks or learn new tunes, and occasionally Led Zeppelin would be just the thing to get past a tough stretch. Probably not though.

This is probably more than you wanted to know, so I'll stop before discussing toilet paper...or the lack thereof.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Thousand Mile Summer...

...is a book by Colin Fletcher that fired my imagination decades ago. A thousand miles--now that's a hike. It's dwarfed in comparison to doing the entire Pacific Crest Trail in one season (or the Continental Divide Trail, Appalachian Trail, and others), but it's always had a nice ring to me.

Late each winter I get cabin fever and start dreaming of long walks in the mountains. Since having knee surgeries I have also been researching the ultra-light backpacking methods commonly used by long distance walkers. As I was studying (and worrying about one still-cranky knee and the approaching soccer reffing season) I realized that it's not getting easier to do a hike of this magnitude.

Hey, I don't claim to be quick.

Other hiking acquaintances have had to scale back or quit backpacking for various reasons, and the increasing scope of woodworking commissions as I get ever larger bandsaws will compete for time. These factors converged on the idea of doing a thousand mile Tour de Sierra this summer, visiting areas long on my wish list and capped with a grand 500 mile trek the length of the range.

Research led to an entire community involved in long distance hiking (not just hikers--the subject of a future post), many of whom generously shared their information and experience, and gradually the idea of a single continuous journey took hold. Starting in Oregon sounded cool, and by chance the trail distance from the border to the south end of the Sierra is...you guessed it...a thousand miles.

This link shows a map of the Pacific Crest Trail; I plan to walk south from the Oregon border past Mt Shasta, Mt. Lassen, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, and Mammoth Lakes to roughly 50 miles past Mt. Whitney--north-south-wise about halfway between Fresno and Bakersfield.

I'm planning just over 100 days to the journey, winding up in early October. This was partly to permit a slow, knee-preserving pace, and partly to experience the full course of summer in the mountains; early season's lingering snowpack and abundant springs, the ensuing explosion of flowers (and mosquitoes...), high summer's warm days and thundershowers, the transition to vibrant colors and falling leaves as the days rapidly shorten, and fall storms warning of winter's hard edge.

Often over the years at work, as I tried to keep a hundred balls in the air (so it seemed), I imagined the smooth passage of days and nights in the Sierra; sun, clouds, moon, water, rock, trees, flowers, fish, pikas, ouzels...sometimes it was hard to feel they really existed. This summer I'm checking it out...in detail.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Eagle has landed

The overload alarm on the rented Home Depot truck stopped when the truck was put into drive--thank God! After all, it was only 3100 lbs, less than 5% over limit. Surely this vehicle was designed with a substantial margin of safety? A short drive at a very timid speed brought me to the drive in front of the shop:

A friend noted that the front wheels of the truck looked a bit splayed out, but it must have been a trick of perspective.

Getting it down on the ground was too dicey for pictures, but went alright and the truck groaned with relief.

Next we set to disassembly with cordless drivers. The crate was very sturdy indeed, held together with hundreds of screws; many many hundreds, and multiple recharges of the drivers. This took a while.

A long while.

Once uncrated it had to be lifted off the pallet, another process too gripping for picture taking. We wrapped a sling around the gooseneck and hoisted the saw with the forklift - it swung to a crazy angle but then stayed put, and we scrambled to drop the pallet, which was quite a snug fit with long bolts. The pallet must have weighed 250 lbs, I nearly killed myself moving it.

Once off the pallet the saw was short enough to fit in the shop, but moving it was now even more unnerving--it has a very narrow base for the forklift to engage. We strapped it to the mast of the forklift and did everything was slow motion...or at least as close as this neophyte fork lift operator could make it. Finally--with numerous retries--it was just right.

Whew, was I relieved! It needs new tires and 3 phase power, and with the upcoming hike won't get those for a few months, but it's exciting all the same. That's a bandsaw!