Monday, July 18, 2016

Rainy Harrison Lake

Thunder rumbles in the distance.  The intensity of the rain picks up.  I splash along the shoreline- my shoes are soaked anyway and I can only feel half of my frozen toes, but a little more wet won’t matter.  The lake water has risen to cover the gravely bank but I’m determined to get to the survey site before the storm rolls in.  I'm out here doing surveys for Glacier National Park's Citizen Science Program, and there is still a view of the steep, snow-speckled Glacier Park peaks that I hope harbor mountain goats.
Is this storm coming in or heading out?
Balancing my umbrella in my poncho, I pull out my binoculars and scan the cliffs.  Binoculars fog up, get wiped clean, fog up again, then get rain-soaked.  Goat-shaped rocks or rock-shaped goats?  Is that goat-snow patch moving?  Binocs are too blurry to tell.
Foggy binocs frustration.
I retreat back to the ranger cabin porch to wait it out.  What if the fog rolls in further?  What if the rain keeps pouring all night? I don't know why it matters so much.  I'm not getting paid.  If I can't survey, it's OK.  But still, I care.  I want to see if the goats are out there.  Curiosity, ah yes, you powerful modivator.
Waiting, watching, trying not to be cold.  How could we be this cold in July?
No sense in what- ifing.  There is only listening to the rain drops through the forest.  Watching the sparkle of light on wet forest.  Marveling at the wonder of found-shelter.  Soaking in the here-and-now.  Breathing it in.  There is only waiting and being present.

(Oh why is this stillness, this softness with the present moment so accessible out here, but sometimes hard to find inside buildings, inside cities?)

Slowly, very slowly, there is a brightness that appears in the distance.  Is it moving this way? 

Ah blue sky- what are you even?  A little patch.  But there nonetheless.
Blue skies.
I move down again to the water’s edge where I can make out the distant peaks.  Are you out there, mountain goats?  Through the binoculars, there is a possible goat-rock or it is a real goat? Are those legs- oh it’s moving!  It's a goat not a rock!  Out come the spotting scope and tripod, and oh there are four goats sure enough.
  One, two, three, F-O-U-R goats.
Their locations is recorded in my citizen science data sheet.  I watch them for a while longer.  They move the way goats do, across impossible cliffs, nimble.  Ah goats!

All it took was some waiting, some watching.  Without the spotting scope, without that break in the weather, I'd never have seen them.  How many things are like that?  Without knowing how to look, without waiting for a clear view, you'd never even know that four goats were up there.  I wonder how much more I'd see if I had this kind of patience in other situations.
Socked in with fog the next morning. But ah the stillness.

Trip Info

The Boundary Trail led 7.2 miles above the Middle Fork of the Flathead from Headquarters to the Harrison Lake Trail.  Then it was 4.8 miles to the Harrison Lake Campground, and 0.5 miles beyond to the goat site.
Along the Middle Fork of the Flathead.
Only saw two other people in two days, and there was no one else at the campsite.  No one.  On a weekend in July.  They say that Glacier National Park is crowded, but it’s not if you know where to go.  Just don't tell anyone about Harrison Lake.  Or tell them its a terribly overgrown trail.
Which is true.  Here we are fighting through the bushes.  The trail was only like this 75% of the time.
The Belton Bridge was not the place for solitude, certainly.  When returning to the trailhead, it was packed with people playing loud music and sunbathing in bikinis and whooping as they leapt into the water below.  What a shocking onslought of humanity to return to after such a quiet and restorative two days.  I strode by with my sun-umbrella, knee high gaiters, and long-sleeved shirt, feeling feral and free, determined to carry the peace and wildness with me in my heart as I venture back into the week.
Harrison Lake- let's keep it quiet.
Date Hiked: July 16-17, 2016
More about Glacier National Park's Citizen Science Program.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

CDT in Glacier: Pitamakin and Triple Divide Passes

For Day 1 between Two Medicine and Oldman Lake, click here.

The second and third days of our Continental Divide Trail trip in Glacier, Renee and I went walking through a gorgeous painting.  How can the peaks jut up at these incomprehensible angles? How can this possibly be real?
Above Medicine Grizzly Lake.
Glacier feels so alive and vibrant.  Almost like I shouldn't be here. What is our impact having?  Rather than feeling at home like I do on other trails, here I am constantly aware that I am just passing through.  This place belongs to the wildlife, not us humans.  It is wild.
Carved by glaciers
This area is known for a high concentration of grizzlies.  We make lots of noise, and I scan the trail and hillsides, ever vigilant. My voice penetrates the quiet, cutting through the birdsong.  Does Renee think I'm excessively paranoid with all my shouting and reminders to be alert?  I think of all the quiet mornings we've spent hiking together on other trails across the country, sharing peaceful sunrises.  Being with her reminds me of how different my mental state is out here where I'm not at the top of the food chain.  A deep awareness of what I give up to be here.
Taking a break, we finally sit quietly and watch the lake ice melting before our eyes as wildflowers dance in the breeze.
Sitting for an hour doing mountain goat or loon surveys provides a quiet counterbalance, stillness, and a way to cope with being in Glacier.  It makes me feel like I can help out the wildlife, in the small way that scientific research does, by raising awareness and deepening human understanding- I still believe this can make the difference, can't it?  Surveys also focus our observations, and makes us look deeper.  So if there is no tangible broader impact, at least the surveys change us in small ways.  Sometimes that is enough.
Renee spots goats and sheep at Pitamakin Pass
Sitting still, tracing the binoculars and spotting scope across the landscape.  Otherwise the landscape, and these problems, are just too big for my tiny brain. 
Marveling at how fast the mountain goats run across snowfields at Triple Divide Pass.
A tiny newborn goat follows behind its mama.  How they can be so agile on impossibly angled slopes?  How can they survive the winters here?  How quickly they disappear around the corners, out of sight. 
Distant waterfalls
Further on down the trail, two CDT hikers greet me, "Hello Joan!"  I'm surprised they recognize me-- we just hiked together for part of one day on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014 near Sonora Pass (read about meeting them on here).  I remember being so inspired by them- how they were going off to hike the High Sierra Route, and how we had that sort of intense and real conversations that can happen out while backpacking.  But still, they must have had a good memory to remember my name!  I asked and they said, "Well you're wearing the same outfit too!"
Despite the new bear spray and binocular accessories, I've still got pretty much the same look.
We catch up on two year's worth of hiking and life.  (The Sierra High Route was incredible, they said.) It's old trail friend moments like this that make me want to do another long distance hike.  Oh how I've missed this feeling of instant connection, of being part of a community. 
Richness
The afternoon heats up as we descend into the burn area.  There is water all around, but there are times where it seems so far away.  Whenever we cross a stream, I soak my clothes and head and feet.  Not being adapted to these temperature extremes.
Water and green amid the burn
Whenever we pause, the mosquitoes descend upon us. At least one critter is glad we are here. I keep up my racket of announcing our presence into the wilderness.  We see no bears.
Even the burn has a beauty I wasn't expecting.  How life has recovered.
Bear grass and regrowth
A way across
At camp, we spend the evening talking to a couple who is finishing up their last section of the CDT.  Ah what stories they share.  A group of college buddies arrive later- obviously on their first camping trip.  They leave food out unattended while they go get water, so we all try to educate them about proper food safety and etiquette without being preachy.  It seems to come across well and they ask question after question about long distance hiking and how our packs can be so small.  This type of exchange is one reason I really like these shared food areas-- how wonderful to share and listen and educate, to inspire and learn from one another.
Evening at Red Eagle Lake Campsite
Route:
We hiked on the CDT in Glacier National Park on the Pitamakin Pass Trail from Oldman Lake to Altlantic Creek Campground.  Then, over Triple Divide Pass to Red Eagle Lake Campground.
Date hike: June 28-29, 2016

Monday, July 11, 2016

CDT in Glacier: Oldman Lake

A three night backpacking trip with Renee along the Continental Divide Trail in Glacier National Park. 
Among the many reasons I love hiking with Renee is that we share a passion for maps.
In preparation for Renee’s first trip in grizzly country, we went over proper use of bear spray the night before with some demo practice spray.  Hands-on demos are best for figuring out how close bears need to be before using the spray and how the spray acts in wind.  Learning how to put the safety cap on and off, and seeing just how easy it is for the spray to go off unintentionally, helps prevent accidentally spraying oneself or one’s hiking buddy.
Grizzly habitat.
During our four days, we completed five mountain goat and two loon surveys for Glacier National Park's Citizen Science Program.  Renee used her hiking umbrella so she could look for mountain goats into the sun using the spotting scope and stay cool for the hour-long survey.
More uses for the umbrella.
Our first survey yielded no goats, but a few miles down the trail, I spotted four goats way up on the hillside.
A sheep moth visits us as we are conducting our bighorn sheep and mountain goat survey.
I wasn’t sure if there would be trees for my hammock on this trip.  In Glacier, you have to camp within the designated sites.  Renee was generous in bringing both her tents so I could try them out.
Two tents, no hammock
Sleeping on the ground was awkward at first but it was enjoyable working on my ground-dwelling skills.  In the middle of the night, a powerful storm rolled through, but I stayed dry.
Using Renee's technique of using an umbrella inside the tent for protection from horizontal rain.
Oldman Lake was one of the prettiest campsites I've been to in Glacier.  Though perhaps that is something that I say at every campsite.
Oldman Lake
Route: 
From the Two Medicine North Shore Trailhead, the Pitamakan Pass Trail climbs 6.4 miles to Oldman Lake Campground.  Backcountry permits are required.

Day hiked: June 27, 2016

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Broken Leg Anniversary

Celebrating two years since my stress fracture with a solo backpacking trip up Broken Leg Mountain in the Swan Range of northwestern Montana.
This is as high as I climbed.  Because it’s OK to turn around and not risk injury to reach the summit.
The stress fracture turned out to be a turning point in my life, shaping my PCT experience and my time beyond.  It is something that I think about everyday.
No longer following any footprints that came before.  Must make my own way forward.
Still wearing the same hiking shoe style and microspikes that I was when I got the stress fracture.  Sometimes I wonder how much has changed in two years.  Certainly not my gear.  But how about the things that matter?
Because of those heartbreaking ten weeks that it took to heal from my injury in 2014, I learned I couldn’t continue to have hiking be my sole source of happiness.  Happiness couldn’t be dependent on anything external.  Instead I found that joy that bubbles up from inside.
The sweet scent of wildflowers.
Something also clicked inside me after the stress fracture that made me want to find out what it means to give back.  At the time, the pain and disappointment were consuming and overwhelming.  Thankfully, I was surrounded by supportive friends that made all the difference.  I joined AmeriCorps in 2015 and signed up for another term this year.  Serving in AmeriCorps doesn't even begin to repay the generosity that had been shown to me, but it's a start.  And it shows me how I want to be in the world. From that desire to give back, I ended up finding my new passion that I hope can turn into the what-I-do-with-my-life.
When I look out into the distance to twinkling of small town lights, it makes me wonder about my place within the larger community.  From my hammock hung beside wildflower meadow, overlooking sunset sky.  What am I doing out here by myself?  What am I doing with this one precious but seeminly brief life I have?
Entering the world of parks, I also had to let go of the labels that I thought defined me and were so important in my old world— Dr., scientist, evolutionary biologist.  My old identity shattered when I left the ivory tower.  Disarmed may be the best descriptor.  I started fresh, humbled.  I could no longer wrap protective layers of labels around myself.  It turned out to be a good way of being.
Wrapped in my hoodie, surrounded by down, within the hammock.  And yet, there is not much at all between me and the world here.  Wind gusts in.  The ticks find their way in.  I feel part of it all here.
I used to think that life was about finding that one singular thing that you were good at, and then pursuing that one thing to an extraordinary degree of specialization until expertise was achieved.  Now I see that a rich life can take on multiple trajectories.  A rich life involves growth.  Growth can happen quickly by starting fresh.  Switching from one track to another involves so much letting go (as painful as that can be for those that like to cling and resist change.)
Glaciers left those lines in the rock.  Glaciers carved that valley.  Sometimes, it helps to sit still and think about all the things that used to be here, but are gone now- the layers of rocks that got scraped away, the miles and miles of glaciers that moved through here.  And how smooth and beautiful that which remains is.  (Does the smooth rock miss the glaciers?  Does it miss being hidden beneith other layers of rock?)
Changing light of sunset.
Two years later, I can celebrate the anniversary of my stress fracture by appreciating the changes that came as a result.  Now life outside long trails has never seemed brighter.

Date hiked: May 30-31, 2016
Trail hiked: Echo Broken Leg Trail #544 in Flathead National Forest

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Overnight at Elizabeth Lake

I joined a loon and mountain goat survey trip to Elizabeth Lake in Glacier National Park. 

From the Chief Mountain Trailhead, we followed the Belly River Trail 9.7 to Elizabeth Lake Campground.
Along the Belly River.
Further up along the Belly River.
I think this is spotted saxifrage.
Cooling off at Dawn Mist Falls.
After setting up our campsite at the foot of the lake, we started up the trail towards Helen Lake.  We didn’t get far.  A bear other campers warned us about was in the path.  It didn’t seem concerned about us, just kept right on foraging.  We started retreating, hoping it would move on.  It had other ideas. 

As we were backing up, we had an even more exciting wildlife encounter— a FROG hopped by.  WOW!  We all immediately pulled out our cameras and knelt down around the jewel of an amphibian, forgetting all about the bear.   There are only a few types of amphibians in Glacier, and we wanted to submit our observation to iNaturalist.
This is a photo of the cool frog, which leapt away quickly but you might see in the bottom right hand corner if you squint.  It would have been irresponsible to take a photo of the bear. 
It was decided to abandon the plan for the survey at Helen in favor of giving the bear space.  It was a tough call since no one else has surveyed loons at Helen this season. 
Spotting distant mountain goats and bighorn sheep at Elizabeth Lake.
As we were surveying, we watched as the bear made its way down the trail towards Helen Lake.  I’m glad that bear got to have a peaceful evening to do it’s bear-things without being harassed by hikers.

Loons called back and forth during the night and early morning.  How many of them were there?  Are they nesting?  We have no idea.

The next morning, we ate breakfast and watched shadows creeping across the mountains. 

One more black bear and plenty of tracks on the return trip to the trailhead.

More information

Date hiked: June 6 - 7

Belly River Trail details

Glacier National Park's Citizen Science Program

Glacier National Park Backcountry Camping permits

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Quartz Loop in Glacier

 Up pops the loon, out of the depths, right near us.  So close the black and white pattern is sparkling like magic.  It’s amazing how far they swim underwater, and how long they hold their breath.  How can we be the only ones at this lake?  It feels like we are the only humans around for miles.
Just watching.
D. and I stay still, observing the loon swimming and diving.  We’ve already completed our hour-long survey for Glacier’s Citizen Science Program, where we’ve taken notes on its behavior in our data sheet.  We’ve stopped recording our notes, this is bonus time.  Time to be peaceful.
Through the binoculars.
Time looses all meaning.  That peace that comes only when the mind stills.  Moments like this don’t come often, with our busy lives. 
Stillness.
Watching the weather changing.
It starts to rain, so we retreat to our shelters for the evening.  The loons call back and forth between the two neighboring lakes.  What are they saying to one another?  To me, it is the sound of wilderness itself.  Unspoiled, precious, free.  I keep listening, the sweetness of rain pattering on the tarp.
Hiking out through the snow that the storm brought
I think about how backpacking used to be about trying to get somewhere.  Or to get in shape.  Or to burn through miles.  I like how doing these surveys allow me to concentrate on watching, being patient and curious.  In a place this spectacular, this wild, it's a good way to be. 
Crazy double trillium bonus
More information

Date hiked: May 8-9, 2016

Route: Quartz Lake loop, camping at Upper Quartz

Glacier National Park Citizen Science Program