Wednesday, February 15, 2017

To Sky

Locals call it “ISKY” and pronounce it like it rhymes with “I fly." As if “sky” is a verb. To sky.

The paved road to Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park leads up to the top of the mesa. From this high point, the vastness of the canyons is awe-inspiring. The mesa is wedged between two great western rivers, the Green and the Colorado. Most visitors remain high on the overlooks. Yet, a half dozen trails plunge over the edge intercepting the White Rim Road, which winds 100 miles on a shelf between mesa top and canyon bottom. Popular with jeeps much of the year, one major access point to the White Rim Road is still closed due to snow. Do other hikers read “Road Closed” signs as “Welcome Hikers in Search of Quiet”? It’s my choice as a first solo overnight backpacking trip this season.
View from the rim.
Driving to the trailhead, the parking area for Mesa Arch is full of cars. Photographers stand around shoulder to shoulder to shoot the sunrise through the iconic arch scene featured on countless postcards and posters.

In contrast, only a few sets of footprints stretch out ahead of me on the Lathrop Trail. 
Snow along the mesa top amidst native grasses.
Soon enough the trail reaches the edge and appears to drop off into the abyss. Heights that make my head-spin until I look away and angle my wide-brimmed hat down low so that only the trail directly in front of me is visible. The calming mantra that I use to deal with fear of heights, “Left-right, don’t look down, left-right, don’t look down.”
Lathrop Trail pours over sheer Wingate cliff.
Time to just keep following the trail, soaring over the edge rather than contemplate falling. The trail itself is smartly constructed, steep but never sketchy.
Not as bad as it first appears.
I say my silent thanks to the NPS, trail builders and maintenance crews for keeping this trail feeling safe through such impossible terrain. Despite not having backpacked for two months, the weight of two days water and winter gear settles comfortably against my spine as the body remembers how to stay balanced and strong yet gentle on a steep descent. Perhaps the Washington PCT section K wasn’t as long ago as my head thinks it was.
Soon enough, it’s time to look back and marvel at the tops of the cliffs and the power of legs, and feel the joy of being alive and small in a place of towering sandstone.
Past the White Rim Road, the Lathrop becomes a jeep road on its path down to the Colorado River. Pools of water harbor caddisfly larvae, hidden in their self-made tubes of sand and stone.
Caddisfly larvae
A sign says cottonwood populations are in decline along the Colorado River due to invasive tamarisk and upstream dams. Apparently these gorgeous old trees aren’t being replaced by new seedlings. The NPS planted small cottonwoods protected by fencing and put up a sign to ask visitors to water them. Hopefully this will work because I can’t imagine a future without these gorgeous trees along the river corridor.
I startle a flock of birds and they fill the air with a sudden burst of energy.
Back up along the White Rim Road, the openness of this landscape invites exploration. Yet rambling is restricted by the sensitive nature of the cryptobiotic soil crust. Soil here is literally alive, the tendrils of cyanobacterial life holding the dirt in place and creating favorable conditions for moss, lichen, and plant life. So I resist the urge to tromp around freely unless sandy wash or rock present corridors through the crypto. Fortunately, continuous stretches of smooth flat White Rim outcrops form an alternative to the jeep road.
Air still and silent except for the echo of footfall on rocks, as I leap across cracks and crevices.
The cattle tank I get, but an ironing board? What use would smartly-pressed clothes have out here?
My permit for the “at-large” backpacking zone requires camping 1 mile from the road. A distance that at first seems reasonable until I reach the edge of the cliff and find I’m still only 0.7 miles as the crow flies from the road. Around the edge of the bend, my White Rim rock path meets a sandstone butte and the cliff falls away into the sky and vastness. I stop.
Looking for a camp
A raven swoops down so close that I duck. Then she circles back down below the rim between spires and jumbled boulders. I wait to see if she will come back, wondering if I should perhaps find a different place to be for the night, but she keeps circling down below me on currents. I stay.

Colors change as they do each evening. From this spot, feelings of awe wash over me. Pulling out topo maps, I can connect a few dots in the vast landscape of spires, mesas, and layers of canyon. The La Sals peek out behind taller cliffs, their warm pink snowy glow melting my heart. An overlook that I visited the previous evening with a new friend is just across the river. Anchors of familiarity providing comfort.
To connect the dots.
Colors that seem like the first time I’ve ever really seen them. Maybe it’s being alone with the expansiveness of these canyons. But maybe it’s finally not feeling lonely, because of these growing connection to these landscapes and the people I’ve me here. Maybe it’s falling for this place, as I seem to do every time I move.
To camp.
Temperatures plummit as the sun drops. By 6 PM, I am zipped up snug into sleeping bag. Watching stars come into focus, satellites traveling their arching paths, marveling at the quiet and absence of light pollution. Feeling supported by the ground and open to the sky.

The Lathrop Trail in Canyonlands National Park is 6.8 miles to the White Rim Road and 10.8 miles to the Colorado River. Backcountry permits are required for all overnight camping. Carry all your own water. Even if fresh surface water is present, leave this precious resource for the caddisfly larvae and other wildlife. January provided cool temperatures with bits of snow at higher elevations and complete solitude (no other people seen on this trip).

Monday, February 6, 2017

Moving adjustments

My eyes have trouble adapting to this new place. The verticalness of the rocks and seeing-forever views make my head spin. The palate of the landscape is shockingly red. How can there be this much red?
Where even the trees sometimes glow red
As it happens, I arrive on a snowy day and the sky is mostly grey. The dullness of the light makes the red rocks covered in snow seem less imposing, if that could be possible. I feel not so much overwhelmed by their massive size, but by the details that I don’t understand. What does each layer mean? Why are they shaped like this? Why are these ones all rounded and those ones more angular? None of this seemed important when I’ve visited here before. But now this is my new home and I have become responsible for this information.
Arriving the first day to my new home for the next few months
While the rocks appear to dominate, eyes soon learn to focus on the rustle of dead leaves quivering in the wind. If I were back in Montana or Georgia, I’d be able to recognize the plants by their bare twigs. The shriveled grey foliage would mean something and I’d be able to anticipate the rhythm of spring’s emergence. But here the unfamiliar shapes make my head spin too with the overwhelming amount of unknowns.

Trails take me to the cliffs above town, and I climb each of them one day to compare and triangulate. Map and compass reveal a geography of place, as I try to make sense of my new home. The house where I am staying is a tiny speck. The La Sals seem even more massive and give me that “I NEED to go there” feeling of longing. The formations spread out as I try to make out each one, find where it is and make sense of all the inbetween.

Then there is the news and changing political climate. At staff meeting, we are handed out copies of the Hatch Act and told not to discuss politics. Two days after I land an interview for an exciting summer job, the federal hiring freeze is announced. I walk around overwhelmed with nervousness, worried I will stay something wrong.
Sometimes the rocks turn sherbert
By the time the clouds roll out, I’ve been able to found a place of green refuge. Or at least it will become green, suggest the dried up tan, grey, and brown sticks and dried up leaves. Here lurk tiny hints of the familiar. My eyes are drawn to the humped ivory shapes of scale, a type of insect related to the aphids I used to study, clinging to twigs. Something familiar, exquisite, specks that feel like friends.
Tiny, beautiful scale (insects that looks like white blobs)
I meet someone who wants to be my friend. Those are even the words, “Let’s be friends!” So I let down my guard and confide and laugh. Only then do I realize how much energy it takes to feel such uncertainty and fear.

We drive around the morning after another fresh snowfall taking in the awe of it all. Exclaiming, “We live here!” Almost in disbelief. A hawk soars and then lands in a tree nearby. The clouds hang low in the canyons.
Animal tracks criss-cross the fresh snow, revealing life and activity that is hidden. My camera is full of photos of all the unfamiliar plants. How much of this will remain strange over the next few months, and how much will become like an old friend, familiar and well-loved?

Friday, January 6, 2017

When mud is in the name

I really like hiking in places that are close to home. Mud Springs (in southwest Colorado) doesn’t look like much when you get to the trailhead. But the parking lot is big and the road there is paved so I can get there in my little car while the high country is covered in snow.
View from the parking area makes it look flat and boring.
The map is intriguing though. It has these areas that are shaded in that say “Free travel play areas”. Which sounded pretty exciting. Like maybe there would be rope swings.

Those of you familiar with ATVs and rock crawlers probably know where this is going. But as an ever-hopeful hiker that sometimes takes thing too literally and tends to not know a lot about motorized things, I made a beeline to find out what the "play areas" would hold.
Trailhead map
"Free Travel Play Areas"
A road begins from the trailhead. Muddy this time of year. Mud is in the name though, right? At least it’s honest.
Walking in the snowy part of the road
Turning down the muddy trail. Can't avoid it now.
Views into McElmo Canyon and far away to Mesa Verde.

After crossing the canyon, climbing up to the rim with a nice view of Sleeping Ute Mountain.

I head off trail and find some graffiti from 1923. Which makes it a historic inscription.
A cool tree. No rope swing here either though.
The mud is so slippery it’s hard to stay upright. Feet seem to slide in all directions, except forward. Each step is a challenge. Maybe this sliding around is really playing in the mud. Which is alright.
Techniques for hiking in mud vary. One main thing is not tiptoeing around the edges— that just widens the trail. Better to plow right into the middle of things. Embrace it. Become one with it.
When I finally get near one of the "play areas" there is some of this. And also a lot of ATV tracks. Still, it's nice to just wander around and see what there is to find.
Did I cover all the ground? This helped me keep track. Sort of fun.
More information
BLM's Mud Springs

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Snyder Ridge Jungle Gym

Found some trip reports I never got around to posting from last year...

Tired of the crowds in Glacier National Park and looking to add some gymnastics to your hiking experience?  Try the Snyder Ridge Fire Trail in early season.

Others have called this a “poorly maintained trail through a wooded ridge with limited views” which is true. But where else can you have the trail all to yourself in Glacier (at least without a ford)?
A series of single blowdowns of varying heights provide a warm up on the climb to the ridge. 
First you have to find the trailhead.  You won’t see the sign from the road unless you look deep in the shadows. There is no parking area, just a turnoff on the other side of the road and the sign hiding in the trees.
A few triples. You can almost get a rhythm going if you get a running start.
All quiet going through massive groves of old-growth cedar.
Rest at the view-through-the-trees once you gain the ridge
Along the top, extensive areas of forest along the ridge were upturned. The trail here is completely covered by a huge tangled jungle gym of stacked-up downed-trees. I suspect it was recent, since there was no sign anyone had been this way- no footprints, no broken branches.  Maybe sometime it will get cleared?
The forest is an endless abyss of disorienting branches that attack with their stabbing and jabbing and snagging. 
Then a clear part. It's enough to get your hopes up that maybe it won't be so hard the entire way.
Then more of this.
After a while, when you give up on thinking of this as a walk and give into the reality, try imagining you are still a kid, climbing up and over and around and through the tangled trees and pretend you are having fun. Work on balance beam moves. 
Some trees are so big that have to launch yourself up to get up on top of them.
More excitement: Climb to the top of the heap of broken up trees, and scan the area as far as you can see for some sign of where the trail might go.  Did you forget which way you were going when you were climbing up and over and through, trying not to plummet into the sea of sticks and needles? 
Navigating the playground is not a walk in the park.  Over seven miles of gymnastics is exhausting.  Especially when you get turned around and end up going the wrong direction for an hour.

Did that just happen?  An entire hour of not once checking map, compass or Gaia GPS?  Not once looking up to see the mountain peaks on the wrong side? Not even looking at the cell phone!

When’s the last time *anything* has been that engaging?
Close up view of beetle galleries.
The state of exhaustion is reached. The idea of turning around and hiking through that mess again seems completely crazy. 

It’s OK to bail.  The Lincoln Creek Trail intersects the Snyder Ridge Trail and leads 1.7 miles down to the Sun road.  It’s a well-maintained trail, another world.  Near the trailhead, there are even people! Hitchhiking in Glaicer is easy.  Much easier than doing this as an out and back. 

THANK YOU to the sweet young couple from Bigfork for the ride back to my car!

For more information
Snyder Ridge Fire Trail

Date hiked: 5/2/2016

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

View of the Swan

The park where I lived while I was in Montana the past two years was perched on a mountain on one side of a long narrow valley. Past the expanse of development, the mountains on the opposite side stand tall above the valley floor. The Swan Range.
View across the valley of the Swan Range from the park
The park I was at is noted for the scenic overlook of this valley. On the first interpretive hike I led (about wildflowers), when we got to the overlook, one of the visitors pointed across to the mountain and asked, "What is the name of that peak over there?"

I had to reply, "I don't know but I'll find out."

And while it made me frustrated that she couldn’t she just ask about flowers, that question got me motivated. I actually went kind of overboard. Not only did I end up learning the names of all the peaks (which no one ever asked once I’d learned them), but I took it a step further and hiked many of the peaks and the length of the mountain range she pointed to, the Swan, in my two seasons in Montana.
First trip to the Swan in May of 2015. I was hooked from the start.
Last trip to the Swan in August of 2016.
What was really special about my Swan trips was seeing the seasons change, the snow melt, the flowers come out and then whither and go to seed. And seeing this change from year to year.
Early season
The Swan became that place that I could go when I was tired, sad, happy, or full of energy. It was reliable and served all purposes. Within 30 minutes of leaving work, I could be climbing and that was all that mattered. And I think that’s why I often didn’t write about many of my trips there. They were all mine.
View from my campsite on one of my solo trips that didn't make the blog
While it’s not as classically scenic as Glacier, I never tired of being able to see across the valley back to where I lived. Knowing geography of local area is important.  Maybe more important to me than scenery. A sense of place gives that inner calm.
Another sunrise over the Swan from the park that I called home for two years.
Watching the sunrise over the Swan every morning also served as a link between my days on and my days off. No matter what my day held in store, I tried to hold the view of the sunrise in my heart. Knowing that I had hiked those mountains the previous weekend, or would hike them in just a few days. Remembering that could carry me through anything.
Looking back across the valley from the Swan range.
Last summer, I started watching the moon rise above the Swan too. And we put on a full moon hike at the park and invited everyone to come out to watch the moon rise with us. It turned out to be our most successful program at the park. I was so excited that I could describe all the peaks and point out where the moon would appear.
Watching the moon rise with more people that I ever dreamed would join us
Explaining where the moon rise would happen (as viewed from the park's overlook)
Hello moon. Right where I knew you would be.
Rising more.
Watching the moon come up between 6 Mile Mountain (that I’d climbed) and Big Hawk (where I’d been swimming last year) filled me with such joy.
View from the summit of 6 Mile Mountain.
Having those connections, especially in remembering that very first hike I’d led, where I hadn’t known any of this, makes me smile. I had no idea where that question would take me!
Summit of Mt. Aenes.
In thinking about moving, I wonder what new places will speak to me, and where my trips will lead. How do you find new places that make you want to know their every peak and valley? What modivates you to get out on your days off?

For more about my hikes in the Swan, links here.