Wednesday, October 29, 2014

the Redwoods in October

My cousin and I walked with giants. For four days, we would walk with them, some of the tallest living things on earth- the Coastal Redwoods of Northern California. 

We registered with the rangers and received our backcountry permits as a heavy rain blew in from the Pacific. Fortunately, we found a sheltered picnic area to organize our gear. Blowing rain and minimal visibility must not make for desired picnicking in Northern California for the place was empty. Lucky for us, too, because evidently, we had no shortage of gear to organize. Again, and I guess this question is always there when backpacking, how would all this gear, a picnic table's worth of stuff, fit into a 50 liter pack? But it did, and just before 4 pm, we walked into Redwood National Forest.

Before long, we came to our first stream crossing- Redwood Creek. 

Jenny walked upstream in search of a more shallow crossing, but alas, our calves were not to remain dry. 

As we hiked, the rain came down, and so did the sun. We meant to camp on the gravel bar of Redwood Creek, but after almost five miles of drizzle and an encroaching darkness, we decided to take cover under two good-sized Redwoods on the trail. They provided enough of an umbrella for a fairly dry dinner of wine, crab chowder, and a chocolate bar before we crawled into our sleeping bags for the night and hoped the tents withstood the rain.

They did. And so did we! Note my super cool, homemade, Oregon pot cozy (as if you could miss it). We ate warm and well all trip because of this.

At one point during the night, I quit believing it would ever stop raining, but by the time we finished breakfast the next morning, moved our tents to the gravel bar, and rehung the bear bags, the sopping trees were glistening with sunshine. I do believe my cousin and I glistened too. Although our spirits weren't dampened by the rain- there's no bad weather, only bad gear- they were warmed by the sun, and drying out with the things of the forest made us feel like things of the forest ourselves. Certainly, we were beginning to look like like forest things. Less than 24 hours in the woods, and already the dirt was thick.

Dirt and all, we hiked the remainder of Redwood Creek Trail that day to Tall Trees Grove, where the world's one-time tallest tree, The Libbey Tree, lives. Other, taller Redwoods have since been discovered, but their location is kept secret to avoid a parade of tourists (including backpackers!) from stampeding the fragile ecosystem in which they live. Things have not gone well for the park's most popular trees. When the ground around these giants is continually trampled upon it becomes compacted, and it's no longer able to hold enough water to sustain such a large tree. A price must be paid for this lack of water, and it's the tree that pays. The Libbey Tree is a prime example. At more than 367 feet tall, she was crowned the world's tallest tree in 1963 and was cause for celebration. Roads were built, paths were cut, and the ground was flattened. Thirty years later, her crown was gone. More importantly, so were her top 10 feet. First they withered, then they died. Her root system was no longer able to get the water it needed from the soil around her. Thankfully, the National Park Service seemed to not only learn, but heed this lesson, and these days the world's tallest trees remain mostly anonymous. In terms of Tall Trees Grove, currently only a certain number of cars are allowed access each day. Furthermore, the 45 minute drive that includes six miles along a bumpy, and often, muddy logging road only gets you to the trailhead. A 1.3 mile walk with decent elevation to the grove also awaits. Or, you can skip all that and hike eight miles along Redwood Creek like we did. Needless to say, with the average American walking less than a mile and a half a week (Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods), we didn't have to share Tall Trees Grove with very many folk. 

In his book Travels with Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck wrote, "The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable." 

I agree with Steinbeck, and knew when we were out there that my photos weren't coming anywhere close to capturing what I was seeing, experiencing, or feeling (words wouldn't either), but I'm going to post my pictures anyway. Although not great, I like them. My cousin's photos are pretty great though.

( Jenny)

Jenny and I quickly realized the importance of having some other object in the photo to help show the enormity of these trees. We were also surprised to learn we often needed a flash, a really high ISO, or a slow shutter speed (something I didn't have control of on my point and shoot) to combat the low light even on a sunny afternoon. Big trees = big shade.

One of these trees is the Libbey Tree, but I'm not telling which one. Just kidding- it's the one on the left. 

A few more from where we had lunch.

A pretty nice spot to spend the afternoon.

Back on the gravel bar that night, we talked about how our setting reminded us both very much of Alaska in terms of look and feel. And the more we looked, the more we felt. The more we felt, the more we talked. Soon we were discussing the likelihood of a bear joining our tiny expedition. Never a good thing when camped on a river miles from the car, with no one else around. Spotting a big cat print right next to my tent earlier in the day likely didn't help things. However, the two of us kept our heads from wandering too far, and ultimately, had a great night's sleep. We were both woken sometime in the night to the magical sound of an elk bugling, and Jenny also heard an owl. I listened to a sad, soulful-sounding animal, a bird, I assume, calling out repeatedly to the night. Nothing ever answered its call, and eventually, it moved on or stopped. I'll never know.

The next day, we hiked out to the car for the second leg of the trip. But first, we had to climb a tree. Sometime, probably during the rainstorm Friday night, a Redwood fell across the out and back trail blocking our path. Here's a picture of me standing on its double trunk as I attempted to scramble over it. 

Five hiking miles later, plus a four mile drive (just long enough for the body to stiffen), we commenced our walk to the beach- seven miles through old growth Redwoods and Fern Canyon to camp at the foot of the Pacific Ocean. 

We started strong, excited to reach the beach. A couple of miles later, a hummus lunch under the big trees provided even more fuel. But by mile 5, I was beat. I needed a lift, and boy, if Fern Canyon didn't provide one. A sweet little canyon with ferns growing from its vertical walls, my cousin and I entered with glee. The creek, with its fallen trees, boulders, and many water crossings, was fun to navigate. I half expected an Indiana Jones movie to be filming, and wished briefly for a crumpled fedora and shoulder bag instead of my grungy backpack and bandana. 

Fern Canyon

We paused for a nip of Goldschlager, and a toast to the canyon and waves crashing in the distance.

Perhaps hard to believe from the picture below, but I only had one nip. Ok, maybe two. 
Sometimes we are reminded that we truly are our parents' children.  (picture by Jenny)

A mile later, we were at the beach. Well, kind of. We were at the parking lot for the beach. The actual beach still lay a good half mile of dune grass in front of us. The campground, on the other hand, was a mile and a half down the dirt road on which we stood. A decision was required. We could take the road and shave off a half mile, or we could walk the extra bit of distance out to the beach, avoid the road, and hike the last two miles of a 12 mile day in the sand with 30 pounds on our backs. My cousin wanted the road; I intended to finish on the beach. Walking roadside was not in my plans. I looked out at the dunes once more. "Forget it," I said, and we walked that last mile and a half down the road with zero regrets. You want a secret to life? Know when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em. 

Plus, Gold Bluffs was waiting. 

And with a much more manageable walk to the beach too.

Not that we were up for much walking.

Recovery was quick though, and soon we had set up camp. We felt luxurious with bear boxes, toilets, and potable water less than a quarter mile away.

Just before sunset, I walked out to the beach to thank the trees, the mule deer I saw laying in the sun after the rain, Fern Canyon, this most amazing spot on the ocean beach, the sun, the rain, the warm breeze coming off the Pacific. In short, everything. Nothing new and nothing big. Just a little prayer for the natural world, I suppose.

I would have ended this post with that, but the next day on our hike back to the cars, a bird flew overhead. Distance and the need for a high ISO made for a poor picture, but here is my best shot of a barred owl, our trail magic for the day, on our last morning in the Redwoods. We watched until it took off, and then we took off too. Not that we wanted to.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A stop for gas

Driving south, I stopped for gas in Wolf Creek, Oregon- a small town with small town folk. Born and raised in a small town myself, I'm drawn to places with tiny populations and life-sized secrets. Places where everyone knows everyone and beliefs run deep. The kind of town where you go to the coffee shop instead of the newspaper if you want the real story. Who knows if this is true for Wolf Creek, but I imagine it's something similar.

In any case, I was in and out of Wolf Creek in ten minutes, but what an entertaining ten minutes they were. The gas attendant asked what the roof rack was for on my car, and thought a kayak a pretty cool answer. A dusty driver with a dusty dog- you know the kind, small, snippy, and fully in charge- kicked up a cloud of dirt as they swung into the parking lot. When we met inside the store a few minutes later, she apologized to me. I had to ask what for. "For pulling in so fast," she answered. The cashier, who had been out on the porch chatting and drinking Coke when I entered, came inside as a small line formed at the register. She rung up my water and the guy behind me asked if Big Al still worked there. "Yeah, he's still here," she quipped, "but he don't work much." Surely, small towns lack for certain things. Humor isn't one of them. 

Back at my car, the gas attendant poked out from behind a pump and said, "Lisa, your receipt for the gas is in your side mirror." Amazed that he not only looked at, but remembered my name from my credit card, I thanked him and was gone. Miles down the road, though, I was still thinking about Wolf Creek- the kind of town you'd never spend a day in, but one in which you might wake up to find you've spent a lifetime. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

My Mantra: an homage to Discovery's Naked and Afraid

The mark of summer's end, the Monday of Labor Day weekend, and most people were driving out of the woods. I was driving into them. For miles, my road trailed asphalt until the blacktop gave way to gravel, and finally, to water. Someone once said, "Of all the paths you take in life, make sure some of them are dirt." I would suggest making sure some of them are water too, for magic lives along the trail, certainly, but it is in the lakes, the shimmering rivers, the vast oceans that connect us all where magic is born. 

Setting out in my kayak, I hoped for some magic. I was about to spend four days on a lake mostly alone. Before this trip, I'd never loaded a kayak, or any boat, with the intention of having everything I'd need for a multi-day stay in the woods. The next four days would bring magic and more, and prove once again that luck loves the unprepared. Mixed in with the fun and excitement of a new adventure was moment after moment of learning opportunity. Killer winds, big waves, wet clothes, poor packing, black and blues (including one along my ankle that is still there), thoughts of capsizing, capsizing, loud booms just before 3 am one night (Gun shots? Cannons? Pirates planning to plunder my freeze dried raspberries and granola?), and a relentless Steller's Jay who seemed to want my measly stash of food more than I did most days made for an adventure that, at times, exceeded everything I anticipated. However, I would not be beaten. You see, I had a mantra. One I developed while sitting in the setting sun watching the warm shirt in which I planned to sleep hang from the makeshift clothesline dripping droplets of golden water after yet another mishap in the kayak. Predicting a cold night ahead, I told myself, "But, I'm not naked, I'm not afraid, and I don't have maggots coming out of my butt." The rest is negligible when you look at it that way, isn't it?

In the future, when having a bad day yourself, give that mantra a try. I bet you'll find that it really puts things in perspective. 

Satire aside, the trip was incredible. Despite, and because of, my many errors, the four days on Timothy Lake were some of the best of the summer. See why.

My launching point. Shores and more await. 

A novice to boat-in camping, and specifically, kayak camping, I questioned how all those bags of gear would fit into my 13'9" boat. The two hatches that seemed decently sized at home suddenly became much smaller, and I began to consider what I was willing to leave behind.

Nothing, apparently.  With a few items bungeed on deck and more tucked between my legs, I headed to the northern side of the lake. From the water, I spotted what seemed a stellar spot to camp. With only one way to know for sure, I went ashore.

The site, in addition to having space for my boat, an established fire pit, and a lack of neighbors, also had a room with a 180° lakefront view.

Seemed worth parking the luxury liner, for sure.
After setting up camp, I took an evening paddle just before sunset that chilled my feet, but set my spirit ablaze. The day birds were gone with the sun and the nighthawks had not yet woken to the night. The moment was mine. Across the lake, the developed campground began to flicker, but the fires were few. Summer was ending. Still, the flickering light woven with the musty scent of the lake served as a beacon to something wilder, more native. An instinct, primal, ancient, and mostly dormant, awakened, and for a moment, I felt as wild as the night. A great horned owl alerted the darkening world to her presence- with the night comes a changing of the guard- and I found myself smiling one of those deep smiles that you feel in your legs, your stomach, in your soul- the kind of smile that says you are exactly where you ought to be.
The next morning, fog hung heavy and seagulls called from the clouds. Fish jumped and I made tea. From the water's edge, I watched the fog lift. Watching fog is like scaling back a painting stroke by stroke to see what lies beneath, to find that the canvas is never fully blank.

When the fog lifted and the morning's canvas was revealed, Mt. Jefferson peeked from the south and a congregation of Mergansers skimmed the lake in search of an aquatic breakfast of algae and snails. 

Feeling hungry myself, I, too, found breakfast. As I boiled water for the granola, I noticed I had a visitor, and a bold visitor at that. My brave, yet uninvited guest showed no fear in dive bombing my food bag, bowl of cereal, or whatever else caught its eye. I would not eat in peace for the remainder of the trip. At every meal for the next three days, my unwanted company would stalk and continually try to outsmart me in an attempt to steal my food. Persistent and relentless, it forced me to keep my bear bag hung day and night. Not for bears, mind you. No, it wasn't a 600 pound, sharp-toothed wild animal that kept my bear bag in the trees, but this, a little 4 ounce featherball, that would gladly have taken my thumb off if it meant getting a chunk of cheddar cheese too. I mean, look at that face. That is the face of war. 
I was to have more visitors that day, but these were expected, and likely a lot nicer than the Jay. For example, they probably wouldn't steal my food. My visitors, long time family friends from Vermont, were coming by foot and by boat, and I couldn't wait. I hooked a bright blue life jacket to a log in the water in front of my camp to serve as a marker for those coming by water, and hung a towel to a tree for those on foot. Unfortunately, my towel was green.
I have smart and observant friends though. The markers didn't go unnoticed, and we longtime/onetime Vermonters were reunited on Mt. Hood. We hoped to spend the afternoon the way we always used to in Vermont- swimming, boating, and being together by the water, but just before they arrived, a wind kicked up from the west. Whitecaps leapt across the lake, and the wind seemed to blow directly across the water and into my site. Instead of bathing suits, we wore jackets. Instead of paddles, hiking shoes. Still, it was a great afternoon. Too bad I don't have any pictures to prove it.

Later in the day, and after my friends left, two things happened- the wind died down some, and I realized I came out here partly to become familiar with my new kayak. So, in the water the boat and I went- quite literally, as it turned out. Before capsizing, however, I had another wonderful evening paddle. The stretch of shore from Meditation Point on was mine without a neighbor in sight but for an eagle perched high in the trees and mergansers on the rocks. The wind blew warm and the sky turned pink. 

When the wind began to pick up again, I paddled back to camp. Knowing I had a rocky beach landing with more rocks and logs lurking under the water, I didn't want to come in too fast and crash my new boat (some of you may remember the snowmobile incident). I tried to compensate for the wind with balance and precision. I must have over-compensated, though, because the next thing I knew, I was coming up for air, flipping the boat over, and pulling it to shore. My first wet exit.   

With the shirt I planned to sleep in hanging in the last of the day's sun with no hope of drying in time, the wind blowing cold into my campsite, and the Steller's Jay casing my bland and uninspiring dinner, I chided myself for packing so poorly. Then I thought of Naked and Afraid, maggots, starvation and fear, and I came up with my mantra. For I wasn't naked, I wasn't afraid, and I certainly didn't have maggots anywhere near my butt. Life was good! 

The following day was windy, but beautiful. I pushed off from shore and headed out for a good, long paddle. My boat, an Eddyline Samba, lived up to her name. She danced with the waves, and if I timed it right, surfed them. Mt. Hood provided the perfect backdrop.

After playing in the waves and the wind for awhile, I felt confident heading back to camp. I believed I knew my boat and understood her rhythms, and I wasn't the least bit concerned about over-compensating. Perhaps I should have been.

Clothes in the dryer after a second wet exit. These low profile boats are tricky!

On the last day, the wind seemed to be blowing harder than ever, and by the looks of it, I would be taking waves broadside. I loaded my kayak the best I could in terms of weight and balance, but mostly I just hoped for the best. As I set out for the car, the first wave came over the deck. I was sorry I'd forgotten the bilge pump at home. When the second wave came over, I hoped I loaded the boat properly, the way the books said. With the third wave, I promised myself that if I got back to the car with all of my gear intact, next summer I would load the boat on the very first nice day, take it out on the lake and practice rolling. I wasn't scared for my life or anything like that, but I was a little concerned about my brand new boat and all of my beautiful backpacking gear being swamped at the bottom of a very deep lake. But like I said, luck loves the unprepared. Plus, there's magic in these waters.