Thursday, July 23, 2015

Why I joined AmeriCorps

 A few people have asked me what I've been doing out here in Montana.  The answer is that I'm serving in AmeriCorps at Montana State Parks.  This is why...

When I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) last year, I was happier than I had ever been.  I was surrounded by incredible beauty on a daily basis, and felt a sense of community and purpose in my life.   It was exactly what I’d been wanting to do for a long time.  I was living the dream.

After I got off the PCT last October, I felt lost.  I couldn’t go back to what I’d been doing before after tasting such happiness.

But I didn’t want to have to have my life revolve around scraping enough money to support a series of long distance hikes.  Being miserable while I was saving up for future hiking trips seemed unbalanced and unsustainable, like a sure path to depression.  What if something happened again, like my stress fracture, that prevented me from hiking?  I needed to find a way to make off-trail life fulfilling and meaningful.

Making a Difference
Seeking a new path, I traveled around last winter.  I visited Still Waters who was serving the homeless with the AmeriCorps program.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, AmeriCorps is like a domestic version of the Peace Corps.  Volunteers work all across the US on critical problems including homelessness, the environment, energy, and education.  She urged me to volunteer at the soup kitchen and shelter as I searched for jobs.  As I watched Still Waters listen to her clients and find ways to help them, I could see that making a difference was part of the answer for what I need to do next.  As I peeled mounds of sweet potatoes, I realized I didn’t need to change the world, I just needed to do a small part, to make a contribution. 

I thought about causes I believe in. I am most passionate about the environment, our trails and parks, and connecting people with nature.  Maybe not as critical a problem as homelessness, but it felt more personal and compelling to me, and like something that has served as a driving factor in my life.  It was also related to one of my childhood dreams.

Living the Dream
If I could make my dream of hiking the PCT a reality, then I could turn my bucket list and all my childhood dreams into a to-do-now list.  A childhood dream of mine was to be a park ranger.  I wanted to lead interpretive programs, answer the nature questions at the visitors center, and know every trail, plant, and bug in my park. 
It feels like I'm making a difference when I share my excitement about the natural world with these children.  Plus they call me "Ranger Joan."
I have found a way to make a difference in helping people connect with nature, and get to (sort of) be park ranger.  I’m serving with AmeriCorps in Montana State Parks. I support the state parks by leading and developing interpretive nature programs for children and adults, help with volunteers, and work on land improvement projects like invasive weeds and trail maintenance.
Working with the Montana Conservation Corps for National Trails Day.
This is only a temporary solution to the problem of what to do after the PCT.  But I love waking up everyday with a purpose.  I love helping people connect with the outdoors, nurturing children’s curiosity for the natural world, and caring for this park.  I have supported trail crews that maintain the trail network in the park.  Most importantly, I am part of a community of wonderful volunteers.
My AmeriCorps Team!
“Making a difference” used to sound really naive to me.  It was something I heard my undergrad students say, not someone in her mid-30’s with an advanced degree.  Sometimes I worry about how I am not building my retirement account, how I have abandoned my old career path, and how I struggle with the $4.80 an hour living allowance.  But serving with AmeriCorps and doing work that I love also seemed to me the only sensible response to the the overwhelming kindness and generosity that I received on the PCT.
Guess which one is me.
First graders mesmerized by a click beetle.
Responding to phone calls from park visitors about fawns too close to the trail is part of my job.
Am I as happy as I was on the PCT?  It’s hard to compare.  This is a different kind of happiness. It feels like I am closer to living a more sustainable and balanced life. 

If anyone out there is wondering what to do after a long-distance hike, I hope you seriously consider finding ways to give back.  Committing to serve in national service program like I did is just one possibility.  Volunteer at a local park, join a trail crew, find a cause you support, and get out there in the community and do something.
Plus, this is the view I get from "work."
Learn more about AmeriCorps
AmeriCorps website
Montana State Parks AmeriCorps

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Confessions of an introvert

I could tell you all sorts of reasons why I’m on this trail here alone...  How I am training for my next backpacking trip next month.  Because I see the Swan Range from where I live and I crave the sense of home that I get from knowing the mountains around me.  All true.  But really it's an inner drive for solitude. 
Climbing 4000 feet to the top of Columbia Mountain, the northernmost peak in the Swan Range.  Leaving behind civilization (i.e. the Flathead Valley).
Being new in town too, I get frustrated with myself that I can't always go on social hikes, organized hikes, where I'd meet other people.  How am I going to make friends out here?   Too much socializing makes me exhausted though.  Ah, the problem of being an introvert.
It's just me up here on the summit of Columbia Mountain.  And I won't see anyone else for the rest of the day either.  Which actually makes me happy.
“Is there some way I can change my personality.”  I asked a therapist many years ago, “Am I stuck being an INFJ for the rest of my life?”  At the time I was upset about other aspects of my personally.  "Do you really want to be another person who doesn’t feel like you do?" she responded.

Would I really want to be an extrovert, given the choice?  Not that I have a choice.  Why is it so hard to admit that I want to backpack solo?  Can't I just accept this need for solitude?  Celebrate it, perhaps?

Thus, I am out here, for another solo backpacking trip, along the Swan Crest/ Alpine Trail in northwestern Montana.  I could have gone backpacking with someone else.  But no, I need this.
Entering a vibrant world.
Alone, the rhythm of my breath synchs to the pace of my footsteps.  Settling into my all day pace—the one that I can sustain the entire day.  I breathe a sign of relief.
Watching this.
I don’t know how people think surrounded by people.  I want uninterrupted chunks of time to be with the questions that burn in me.  To let the thoughts rattle around in by brain until they wear themselves out, so my mind can grow quiet.
Reflections in still waters.
Only then can I really see these mountains.  I feel immersed, heightened senses, a connection with this landscape.  When I’m up here alone, I understand.  I find meaning.
Possibilities.  Things start to make more sense.
This is the sleep that is most restorative.  How come sleep is better out in the woods than it ever is in town?
Recharged, I can go back to start another week.  To make connections with people, to dive into the projects that I believe in, to work on collaborations that I find so fulfilling. 

Hopefully next week, I'll have the energy to go backpacking with friends.  Cause it really is more fun with to share the outdoors with people.  In a different sort of way.
Waking up refreshed.
Watching clouds licking the mountaintops as the storm rolls in.  Change is coming.  It always does.
Information and hiking details
This was an out and back along the northern part of the Swan Range.  Starting from Columbia Mountain, joining the Alpine Trail #7, going all the way to where I left off previously, then going back to camp at Lamoose Lake, then returning back the way I came. 

Here is a description for climbing Columbia Mountain.

I love my new map which shows this hike-- the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex-Northern Half, by Cairn.  Makes for really good bedtime reading/dreaming.
Leaving you with one final wildflower.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Backpacking in Glacier National Park... for science!

This two night backpacking trip was no ordinary trip.  The binoculars I carried weighed over a pound, and we stopped at each lake for an entire hour to make observations.  Why where we carrying more and hiking less?  We were doing citizen science!
Packing in binoculars.
This was my second time volunteering for Glacier National Park’s Citizen Science Program doing common loon surveys, and my first time doing a mountain goat survey.  Citizen science is where data collection for research projects is outsourced to the public.  While my background is in scientific research, I was participating on my days off as a volunteer because I wanted to learn more about birds and wildlife, and get more involved in the community.
A beautiful place to survey for an hour.
A few weeks ago, I attended a training to learn how to conduct the surveys at the Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center.  I learned that research on common loons is important because they are like the canary in the coal mine.  Loons need undisturbed and isolated lakes to thrive, and are sensitive to human disturbances and pollution.
Morning stillness.
As a citizen scientists in Glacier, you choose your survey site from the 45 monitored priority lakes in the park.  I signed up to survey backcountry lakes in the Belly River region in the far northwestern corner of the Park that no one had visited this year.  Our route took us along the start of the Pacific Northwest Trail, a 1,200 mile trail from Montana to Washington.
What a gorgeous trail!
Engaging in loon and mountain goat surveys felt fulfilling because I was contributing to something greater than myself.  I also gained a depth of appreciation for Glacier’s natural history.
Immersed in the richness of Glacier.
Through the narrow focus of my borrowed binoculars, I scanned lakes for loons.  Watching and waiting, my mind stilled.  Peace, ah!
Any loons here?
As I traced the ridges and slopes with my binoculars looking for mountain goats, I realized I’d never seen mountains or studied rock formation with quite this intensity. 

Also, I could think about the mountain goats apart from my annoyance at them for following me on my trip a few weeks ago.  Where do mountain goats like to hang out? What are they doing?  What are they eating?  Why?
Can you see any mountain goats up there?
In camp, we met a few backpackers setting out to thru hike the Pacific Northwest Trail.  Instead of feeling jealous of them and longing to keep following the trail to somewhere else, I felt happy with my choice to spend this time in northwestern Montana, even if I only have time for weekend trips.  I want to know how this place changes over time, and I want to see it with depth.
Side trip past Mokowanis Lake to Pyramid Falls.
When we got back to the Research Learning Center, I heard about what was seen on other surveys around the Park, and it made me think about the people that came before and monitored this same lake before and after me.  I felt like I’m part of something bigger than myself. 

While I didn’t “achieve” as many miles on this trip as I might have if I wasn’t doing surveys, taking time to volunteer as a citizen scientist helped me connect to this region more deeply. 

For more information and to get involved

Check out Citizen Science at Glacier National Park

Learn more about the Loon Project in Glacier

For our two-night backpacking trip we started at the Chief Mountain Customs Trailhead and did an out-and-back past Cosley Lake and Glenns Lake, to Mokowanis Lake (details here).  Note that permits are required for backpacking in Glacier National Park, and we did meet a backcountry ranger who checked our permits.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Highline in Glacier National Park

Even at this early hour, the trailhead at the Loop in Glacier National Park is filling up fast.  The Loop-Highline is one of the most popular dayhikes in the park, so I’m hoping to do it before all the summer crowds get here. 
Paintbrush in the burn area along the Granite Park Trail.
White bog orchid, the first I've seen.
It’s quiet for the first few miles heading up the Granite Park Trail.  The wildflowers are splendid and colorful.  Above Granite Park Chalet, Eli stops and says he can’t believe how few people there are here—we are out of sight of anyone in front of us or behind us.  For a moment, it is all ours.  Pausing, breathing in the beauty of it all.  That moment gets etched memory, what it feels like to be surrounded by these Glacier mountains.  To really feel the vastness.  They say you never forget seeing these mountains for the first time.
That moment.  I want it to last forever.  It feels expansive.  Then it is over. 
Then more people pass in the other direction.  Bright and clean hikers that smile and say hello.
Wildflower-lined trail.
The closer we get to Logan Pass, the more people we see.  It is mentally so different hiking around so many people.  The scenery is dramatic, but I sort of shut down and have trouble being here in the moment.  When I look at the peaks, all I can do is dream of going further into the backcountry.  I wonder what this place looks like in the early morning hours.  I have trouble comprehending theses peaks in the starkness of this noon light.  How far does it take to get away from all these people?  I catch myself living in the future, and try to draw myself back to what is in front of me.
Look at this!  Right here!
Eli explains about how little snow there is for this time of year.  It's alarming how some of the small creeks are already dry.  Other hikers passing by remark at how the wildflowers that are out now should be blooming for another month at least.  I feel grateful to be around people who can explain what a scary, hot, dry year this is, otherwise I don't know if I'd realize the full extent of it.

Theoretically, I am glad all these people are out here.  So many of them are actually getting out of their cars, getting away from the trailheads, and hiking.  Here, we are a community of hikers.  From all over the country and all over the world.  All of them here marveling at this shared beauty, connecting with this place so that they will treasure it and care about it, and it will fill their dreams when they go back home.  Seeing all these hikers, I feel there is hope for us all.
Garden Wall on the Highline Trail.
Back at Logan Pass, my brain registers that I am in one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been, yet in the midst of the fumes of cars in the parking lot and standing amid the people, I can’t “see” it.  But with so many people coming and going, it makes for easy hitchhiking, and we get a ride in a few minutes with a nice family from Utah, back down to my car.  That people take a chance in giving strangers a ride makes me happy once again with the state of humanity.

Information on this route:
We parked at the Loop and headed up the Granite Park Trail towards the Granite Park Chalet, where we took the Highline Trail to Logan Pass. This allowed us to climb uphill more, and do the lower elevations in the relative cool of morning.  Others may prefer going downhill, and start at Logan Pass.  Next week the shuttles should be running, so you won't need to hitch like we did.

More detailed description here

I was told this trail would be difficult for someone with a fear of heights, but I thought the trail was incredibly wide and felt very safe.  Guess it's all relative.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Second solo

Back to the same trailhead that I’d taken my first solo backpacking trip in Montana two weeks ago.  Starting out disappointed that I haven’t pushed myself harder to go somewhere new, but making peace with my decision to take baby steps in backpacking where grizzly bears are rare but present.  The Jewel Basin not only has fewer bear, but also starting off with a 3000 foot climb will allow me to relax and tune into my surroundings.  My goals are (1) to find somewhere special to watch the Summer Solstice sunset, and (2) not die.
So much snow has melted in just two weeks.  Crater Notch is almost unrecognizable.
Climbing the Crater Notch Trail, I start to relax, the fears recede.  I remember another advantage to visiting the same trail repeatedly—I can observe the sequence of wildflowers that have bloomed and gone to seed over time and at different elevations.  My understanding of Montana plant ecology grows.  Ah yes, this is why I backpack—for botany, to look at plants!  And of course to see deeply, to gain insight.
This orchid may not look like much, but I am excited to spot it.  I think it's a bog orchid but need to confirm the ID.  (Too much wind had to hold it still.)
Blueberries already!
At the pass, I cross over into the slopes that had been covered in snow just two weeks ago.  The landscape has transformed from white to lush green.  This is how spring happens in high elevations here- quickly, the plants emerging even through the snow to get a head start and then this explosion.  Spring is a verb as much as a noun.
Receding snow, exploding spring.
On the way to Big Hawk Lake, a solo backpacker heading in the opposite direction stops to talk.  When C. starts describing water sources up ahead, I want to jump for joy.  A real backpacker conversation!  The kind I took for granted on the PCT but have missed out here.  Instantly, I feel a bond, so the questions stream out of me.  Where are you from?  What other trails are there around here that you like?  Have you had any trouble being a solo backpacker?   If we were on the PCT, it would be socially acceptable for me to say hey let’s take off our packs, sit here a while together and have a snack together.  We would pick each others brains about trails, share our life stories and become friends.  I have to remind myself that the social norms on the long trails don’t apply here.  Usually I’m the one trying to assess if other people I meet on the trail are creepy, but in this case I’m the one that might be acting sketchy by wanting to be so friendly to someone I just met.  I hike on, missing the social aspects of being on a long trail. 
Rocks and scree south of Alpine Lake.
The views open up in new directions at the Wheeler Creek junction.  I’m at the edge of my map and C. told me the trail just goes down after this, so I have lunch at the pond before turning around.

The side trail to Big Hawk Lake is thick with tall brush and mosquitoes swarm me at the lakes, just like C. warned.  After a swim, I turn around again to return to Alpine Lake, which has the best likelihood for the sunset I’m looking for.  As I scramble over rocks looking for sheltered, well-spaced trees, I pause to watch a mountain goat and her baby.  I head off in the other direction away from them.  Only a while later do I round a bend and come right smack face to face with them.  Sorry, I’d forgotten to be loud.

Retreating down the trail, I run into a couple heading towards the lake to camp.  They are not discouraged about the mountain goat hanging around the campsite.  I’m still wary of mountain goats so I bushwhack to the far side of the lake, which also happens to give me a prime spot for sunset viewing.   On the rocks, I watch the mountain goats hanging around the other campers, and hear them yelling.  Glad it’s not me over there.
Hanging the bear bag on a high branch.
I struggle to stay awake until sunset (long after hiker midnight so far north), but I'm determined to celebrate the longest day of the year.  Finally, there are colors reflecting in the lake, and everything is beautiful and peaceful and my heart leaps with happiness. 
Happy Solstice from Alpine Lake.
I sleep soundly, snug in my hammock, listening to birds.
The next morning, I take the long way back to the trailhead.
Birch Lake looked completely different than it had a when I went there in early June.
Sharing the view from the Mt. Aeneas Trail of the Picnic Lakes with a furry friend.
Aptly named Switchbacks Trail, descends to the road, and then a short but dusty roadwalk gets me back to where I started.
Even though I started at the same trailhead this week, I’ve gone further than I had previously.  More important, I’ve gotten to welcome summer to the high country here in Montana.  Going solo this second time was easier--I could relax.  As much as I miss the social aspects of the long trails, being a weekend backpacker really has some advantages, especially in being able to see the changes over the season.  I can appreciate this better having had both experiences.

Trail info:
Alpine Lake Trail #7
Crater Notch Trail
Switchbacks Trail
Mount Aeneas Trail

Monday, June 15, 2015

Dayhike to Wildcat Lake

I am further north than I was for last weekend's solo overnight trip, at the Strawberry Lake trailhead in the Jewel Basin of northwestern Montana.  I venture north and south along the Alpine Trail #7 for as far as I can get until the snowy traverses keep me from getting any further.
Still snow up here.
I’ve got everything I need to stay overnight at Wildcat Lake, and yet, I end up going back to my car and driving home at the end of the day.  Physically, I want to keep hiking.  But I’m tired of thinking about grizzly bears.  I’m tired of shouting around corners.  All the noise stresses me out.  Some people say to just not worry about it.  But I’m not there yet. 
Wildcat Lake.
When I get home, I resolve to spend time doing more research about grizzlies, and reaching out to people I can trust about solo backpacking in Montana.


My backpacking mentor reminds me to build on what I do know, and gave guidance on mental aspects (thanks Stacy).   Yet, I still have questions like how do you look at a bear long enough to tell if it’s a black bear or a grizzly bear but yet not look it in the eye.  Also puzzling is whether to camp where lots of other people are present since grizzlies tend to avoid people, or to camp where there are few people where bears are less likely to be attracted by food smells and be further from habituated bears. 

My supervisor lends me an education video called “Staying Safe in Bear Country."  She shows me the skulls of grizzly and black bears, and talks about differences in their evolution.  Also in preparation for an educational program, she shows me key differences between the skulls of carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores.  I run my fingers over the carnassial teeth and sagittal crest of the wolf skull, and study the orientation of the eye sockets in the deer.
Nothing like some comparative anatomy to put things in perspective.
A lifelong reluctance to studying mammals is replaced by curiosity.  Just because I have focused my life on studying botany and entomology doesn’t mean I cannot start now.  This attitude adjustment is a huge start.  

I knew moving to Montana would bring my backpacking skills to new levels, I just didn’t expect it to be this tough.  Sifting through and digesting the advice I’ve been getting about hiking solo in grizzly country takes time.  I have to be patient with myself, take the long view.   It will be worth it.
Lupine and the long view.
For more information on these trails in the Jewel Basin:
Strawberry Lake Trail
Alpine Trail

Monday, June 8, 2015

First solo overnight in Montana

My first solo backpacking trip in Montana.  I’m standing at the top of the pass about to drop down to the lake to camp.  Last chance to turn around.  Last cell service.   I think I'm ready for this, but then the flood of emotions washes over me.  My resolve waivers.
View from Crater Notch.
I get out my phone and dial.  My voice is shaky, “What am I doing out here?  Are grizzly bears going to eat me?” 

“No, you’ll just get mauled.”

I find this immensely reassuring.  Still Waters always knows the right thing to say.

I find it tough being scared of bears.  I’ve encountered plenty of black bears, have hundreds (thousands?) of solo miles under my belt.  I thought I got past this long ago.  But things were different in Yosemite, in the Smokies.  This is Montana.  These are grizzly bears, a whole different beast.   Signs and guidebooks say “never hike alone in grizzly country” and all the hikers I see carry bear spray.
Twisted beargrass.
The biggest thing for me are the mental aspects.  I have doubts about whether I can trust what my instincts and gut reactions will be when I do see a grizzly for the first time.  But then I remember how I reacted when I saw my first mountain lion, my first problem bear in Denali--I know I handled those well.  I mentally practice what I will do when I see a bear here.  

I choose this trip deliberately since a friend says this is a safer place to go solo, I scouted it last week and saw no signs of bears, bear spray is on my hipbelt, I make a ton of noise, I stay aware, and plan not to travel at dusk or dawn.

I’ve mitigated all the risks except the one--I am solo.
It's just me out here.
Is that a good choice?  I’ve been weighing this the entire two months I’ve been in Montana, and this is the first solo backpacking trip I’ve taken even though I’ve been itching to get out since day one.  What tipped me over the edge was that I finally had to weight the costs of NOT backpacking solo.  Staying home due to fear.  The guidebooks don’t mention that part.  They don’t give advice to those of us who who crave the feeling of being out here alone.
Sunset over In-Thlam-Keh Lake in the Jewel Basin.
I cross over the pass, glassade down the steep snow slope.  It’s a whole different world on this side of the mountain, thick snow, a few deer tracks, bird song, but it is otherwise quiet.  Instead of fear, I feel a heightened awareness that I get when I'm solo.  Senses sharpen.  I explore, I watch, I soak it all in.  I am at peace.
I hang my food up higher than I imagine I could ever throw the bear rope.
I find a spot that feels safe, and tuck my hammock into the trees.  I am surprised that I sleep so soundly.

Yes, this is worth it.
More info on the Jewel Basin of Northwestern Montana:
Jewel Basin Hiking Area
Jewel Basin map