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. 
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

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Early season in the Swan

All week I gaze across the valley at the Swan Range.  One spot in particular ended up being my favorite little getaway in Montana last year.  I ended up there repeatedly, watching spring turn to summer and then fall.  I’m itching to get back and see it this early in the season.  How much snow is still on the pass to get over there?  Only one way to find out.
Low elevation flowers are popping.
Trout lily.
The green colors are overwhelming after my winter in New Mexico.  Was Montana this in-your-face green last year?
A thousand shades of green.
Hiking over early season blowdowns.  This is why other people wear pants.
I’m surprised the snow level is so low.  I’d thought when I rounded to the east-facing slopes that the sun would have cleared them.  But no.  I hike past where the last pair of footprints.  The slopes get steeper.  What did I expect?

Angles that make my head spin.
Despite microspikes, I slip a few times.  A full backpack and heavy sleeping bag isn’t helping, but oh how I’d hoped to camp out here.

Around the corner, the pass appears.  I want to go further/ I don’t want to go further.  Carrying my full pack up here was stupid/ carrying my full pack up here felt good and is making me stronger.  I love the solitude/ what-if-I-fall-down-and-break-my-neck-and-die-out-here-alone.
Where I decide to turn around.  The lakes will still be there in a few more weeks.
On the way back down, a couple with small daypacks pause to ask me where snowline is.  They mention they’d done the other side trail last week but “It was far to Wolf Creek but there wasn’t snow.”

So, I take the trail out to Wolf Creek. Small streams flow with clear cold water.  So novel, after the cow slobber water in New Mexico.  Being away, even just for a few months, makes me appreciate these things all the more.
Flowering trees perfume the air. 
Wolf Creek is too high for me to ford, so I turn around a second time and head back to the trailhead.  This trout-lily gorgeous valley is an unexpected treat.  So much more exploring remains beyond these early season barriers.  I can hardly wait to see what this year will bring.
Approaching Wolf Creek

Date hiked: May 1

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Rainy day in Glacier

Not many friends hike in the rain.  But Jan is one of those rare hiking buddies that I can count on to have a blast with, no matter what the trail brings.
Jan by McDonald Falls
And today, we meet the rain.  It doesn’t matter.  Jan lights up the darkness of the stormy day with her laughter.
Jan makes me do my Mary Poppins pose. 
Rain makes me want to chase waterfalls and venture deep into cedar forests to find ferns and mosses.  It’s not the dramatic Glacier that is in all the instagram feeds, but we can find the beauty in little things.
From Lake McDonald Lodge parking area, the Avalanche Trail parallels the Going to the Sun Road up to Avalanche.  It’s a trail I’ve never done before due to proximity to traffic.  But this early in the season, with the road closed to cars and the bikers staying away in the rain, nature’s sounds prevail.
Sounds of birds.
The forest feels ancient and peaceful and timeless. It’s much more scenic then I’d imagined, but I think much of the charm is due to everything being so overwhelmingly green in the rain.
Green tunnel.
After 5.6 miles, we are at Avalanche trailhead so we turn around.  On the return trip, we take a detour on the Johns Loop over to McDonald Falls.  The water is spilling over the banks, the thundering sounds of the water are thrilling.  Jan runs out to the edge to take a video. 
Don't fall, Jan.
Clouds doing their swirling thing.
It’s not epic compared to other places in Glacier.  The only charismatic megafauna we spot is a black bear on the road on the way home.  But it’s a sweet day hike through some really majestic forest, and wonderful to see so much water and catch up with Jan in between her many adventures.

Looking down to Lake McDonald.
Date Hiked: April 24, 2016

Snyder Lake in Glacier

Jan is visiting me!  We've been on so many adventures- from the Arizona Trail to Utah to New Mexico, but this is her first time to Glacier National Park so I want to take her somewhere really cool!
This early in the season, much of the high country is closed, but there are a few jaw-dropping places that can still be accessed, given you have the right attitude.  Which of course Jan has in abundance- so we are off to Snyder Lake, which was my first hike in Glacier too.
Trying not to trample the wildflowers as we navigate early season blowdowns.
Lower elevations are waking up.  All the melting, dripping, dampness, and squishing mean the forest is coming alive.
Trilliums, equipped with Drip Tip Technology, know how to handle the wetness.
For hikers like me without waterproof boots, preventing cold feet is simple with BagTek (i.e. plastic bag vapor barriers, vaseline to prevent cracking, and tall gaiters to keep out the snow).
Budget solution for snow hiking in lightweight trail runners.
Ice bridges and a few tricky spots keep us engaged and challenged.
Sketchy transition from bridge to snowbank.
That feeling of being enveloped by towering mountains.
Blue skies open up as we reach Snyder Lake.  Waterfalls all around sail from cliffs.  Its incredibly peaceful, and there is no one else around.
Snyder Lake.
View of Lake McDonald far below.
I've forgotten how hiking across so much snow is tiring in this pleasantly exhausting way.  It was only about 9 miles round trip, but it was enough.  What a great day to spend with Jan-- thanks for coming to visit me in Montana!

More information
Snyder Lake Trail Information
Jan's blog here.

Date hiked: April 23, 2016

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

About that dream you have...

That thing that you always wanted to do… do it!
Yes, that’s really me in my NPS park ranger uniform.  Because, I DID IT!
We are not taught to live this way.  It’s easy to get caught in the trap of living for tomorrow.  Putting off our dreams until we retire.  Staying in jobs that make us feel stuck.  Instead of taking a leap and making our dreams happen right now. 

We make excuses. We think we have to do the job we went to school for, and then got a PhD for.  The ego gets involved and it's easy to start believing the size of our paychecks matters. Until we think that we didn’t have a choice anymore. 

But you do have a choice.  You can do that thing you always wanted to do.  You can ignore the “what ifs” and stop making excuses.  You can carefully plan your escape, step by step.  Then you can work to make it a reality, even if it takes a while.
My first step was serving as an AmeriCorps member in Montana State Parks.  Next, I volunteered (nearly) full-time as a VIP at a national monument.
 It won’t be what you expect. It will be frustrating, terrifying, and stretch your limits.
Sometimes I thought, “Did I spend all those years getting a PhD just so I could take out the trash and clean bathrooms?”
Sometimes I thought, “What am I doing shoveling snow and not even getting paid?
But I was genuinely happy working outside in one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been.  I got to help other people enjoy the trail.  Which is, basically, the one thing that I believe in the most— helping get people outside and enjoy nature.  When you are doing the thing you feel is your mission in life, you find that deep satisfaction within.  The little stuff, like the size of your paycheck and your status, don't really matter as much as you thought.
Plus, I got paid in sunsets.
When you finally get to do that thing you’ve always wanted to do, it will feel like you have a smile warming your heart all the time.  It will be so much more than anything you imagine.
The smile sort of says it all.
It may turn out to be only sort of what you expected.  You may think, "What have I done!?”  But then it’s also the coolest thing.  It feels so incredibly right that you can’t imagine why you waited so long.  You wake up every morning and think, WOW, I’m living the dream.

If you are out there, wondering if you should take the leap and make a change in your life.... DO IT!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Three Months of Two Miles

There is just this one two-mile long trail at the park where I lived this winter.  So I’d walk, run, or rove it at least once, usually twice, and sometimes three times a day during the week.

Did it ever get boring?
Was there ever a day when the sunset was just the same as it always was, pretty-boring-dull-colors-anyway, should-have-just-stayed-in-bed?
Did I ever regret putting on my trail runners and heading out into the cold/ wind/ snow/ stillness after a tiring day?
Do you really need to bother seeing the elk when you can see their scat?
Could I have just waited until the next day to see the newest blossoms opening up?
Did it matter that I finally got to glimpse the gray fox up top, silhouetted against the sunset? (Sorry you can't see him over there-- you just had to be there, I guess.)
Hopefully, you get my point.  Which is: the trail outside your backdoor is equally important as the exotic, once-in-a-lifetime trails farther afield, if not more so.  There is something life-affirming about getting to know the place where you live, wherever it is.  A daily walk brings you in tune with your neighborhood wonders, with the changing seasons, with the changing hours.
The tinajas filled up with water.  And eventually it all evaporated away and nothing was left but cracked dust.
Full moon evening.
That one day they did a controlled burn, and the smokey sunset was all yellow.
During the 15-minutes of the March snowstorm.
Now, granted this is one phenomenal, two mile trail.  No doubt about it.  But still, this was the first time I’ve had such limited options in terms of where I could exercise in the evenings.  No other routes (except the flat road) and no off-trailing allowed.  Yet, the experience of the same trail, day after day, was extremely rewarding.

Don’t put off walking everyday just because you think that next month, or next year, or *someday* you will be somewhere prettier or more worthwhile.  Maybe the backyard ramble will teach you lessons that you thought were only possible on a long-trail.

Here are tips to help you make it a regular practice to explore your close-to-home routes:

   - Make it less “tedious” by changing up your routine- vary your pace, route, and time of day. 

This moment happens so fleetingly.  Can you experience this moment from a different spot on the trail everyday?
   - Bring friends and family. 
Going with Mom made me see how big these dropoffs and steps can seem.
   - Carry a pack, or not.  Load up your pack with 5 lbs, or 40 lbs. 
   - Race to do it in 30 minutes.  See if you can draw it out to 2 hours— no really, try harder to slow the heck down.
  - Change your perspective, change your focus.  Try looking at everything close up, or only in the distance.

Don't forget to look down.
And up.
Don't forget to look back over there too.
   - Pretend you are a geologist, a birder, a botanist, or someone who knows about lichen or grasses.  Notice everything you can about that one aspect of nature.  Make up silly fake-scientific names for all the plants/ geological formations/ birds you don’t know.
Neapolitan ice cream unconformity.
   - Try not bringing your camera on the day of the brightest, electric red sunset.  Force yourself to memorize the colors rather than focus on taking photos.  (Yes, this will make you cry since you won’t be able to post it on instagram— get over it.)
It was sort of like this, only imagine more glitter.
Whatever you do, GET OUT THERE. 

How do you keep your backyard, after-work trails interesting?