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

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Around Twin Lakes in the Jewel Basin

Only a week has gone by, yet so much snow has melted that the Camp Misery parking lot in northwestern Montana’s Jewel Basin is now completely clear.  Eli and I take the Windy Gap Trail up the valley though glacier lily slopes.  Then around the bend to a different world of scree fields, and through the gap into the snow-country.  Maybe we will reach Twin Lakes, maybe not. This type of hike is about exploring, not reaching any destination.  To see how far you can go in all directions, to push the limits of terrain and skill.
Into the snow.
All the melting has changed the terrain and hiking conditions.  Slushier snow, more tree-well holes, and deeper suncups makes for unstable footing.  There are a few tumbles and the exhilaration of falling.  It was much easier hiking the previous week on the superhighways of firm, continuous snow.  The thing that’s the same is the challenge of navigation without being able to see the trail.
Where's the trail?
Why are we up here when we could stay in the wildflower country down below where it is lush and easy and feet won’t go numb from cold?  The feeling that these snowy landscapes give me that permeates my being and provides an intangible answer.  The feeling of being small amid the vastness.  I live for moments like this.  The awe.  I need nothing more.
Simply awesome.
Our hike takes the shape of a many-pointed star.  We try each of the trails radiating out from Windy Gap— an out and back to Twin Lakes (the only lake we end up reaching), then off in either direction along the Alpine Trail as far as we dare. 
Down to Twin Lakes.
The mirrored reflection in Twin Lakes is broken by bubbles caused by decomposing organic matter.
I like exploring like this.  Your understanding of the topography and terrain deeps when you head out in many directions instead of sticking to the linear, unidirectional path.

“Let’s go this way, I think we can make it around that knob.”  Then after kickstepping halfway up the slope, “I’m too scared, let’s turn around.”

Eli makes the call to turn around at other points—when bushwhacking steeply downhill towards the end of the day proves too exhausting.  Again, when the cornices above us look dangerous.  I like that we turn around when we do.  We make it to the top of a huge snowfield on the way to Wildcat Lake and the view is breathtaking. 
What are we doing here?
I thing I love about the star shaped hike is that there is no autopilot hiking—you are confronted at every moment with questions of what am I doing here and where I am going.  You keep wondering why, why, why am I here.  By looking at these questions from all the directions, perhaps I can come closer to an answer.

For more information on the Jewel Basin of northwestern Montana:
Jewel Basin Hiking Area
Jewel Basin map
Where are you going?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Solo in the Jewel

What the heck am I doing up here solo?
View from Crater Notch into the Jewel Basin and Hungry Horse Reservoir, Montana.
This is the point in the hike where I’d normally turn around.  The pass is steep and snow-covered.  I’ve already done my 3000 feet elevation climb workout to get here.  But this is not terrain I traverse on my own.  Turning around when I could easily fall down the slope and break a bone is what I do, right?  I’m at peace with being a scaredy-cat.

But something flips in my brain.  Possibly it’s the endorphins talking.  Or perhaps I’m just getting used to doing things that scare me.  My experience of Montana is in being in a state outside my comfort zone. 

Today I decide that snowy slopes are within my skillset.  Slowly I start down the snowfield.  Cross-step, kick-step.  The rhythm is familiar.  I remember I’m not always the turn-around type.  Sometimes I’m the keep-moving-forward-through-the fear type.  Cross-step, don’t look down, cross-step.  A flood of memories come back of last year on the PCT over the High Sierra passes.  This is baby stuff compared to Glen Pass.  I can do this.

I zone out/ concentrate on being in the moment.  Reading the terrain, microspikes firm against snow.  On a long clear incline, I sit and glassade down, gaining speed.  Snow friction against bare legs (when my skirt rides up) hurts but the rush is worth it.  So I climb the hill again and try it a second time, this time with sitpad sled.  Now if only I had an ice ax for steering (and safety) I could go even faster.  Haha.  Don’t get too carried away.
The trail is buried under several feet of snow and there are no blazes to mark the way.  Again, I relax and I can “see” where the trail goes just by asking, “If I were building a trail here, where would I put it?”  Map and compass skills and reading the landscape get me to the signed trail junction.  (Marking my route using my iphone’s Gaia GPS app, just to be on the safe side.) 
Trail junction sign above the snow.
Less than a mile of skirting-treewells, and the lake is exactly where I’d expect it to be too.  Years spent developing my route-finding skills are paying off.  (Don’t ever let anyone telling you that you have a bad sense of direction make you think that you can’t learn to navigate.  You CAN.)
Squaw Lake.
The sound of a waterfall in the distance beckons.  I pick my way over the snow, see the snowmelt rushing over the cliff. 
How many people get to see this waterfall flowing so strong? 
I circle back cross country to the pass, then up the pass, look back to see how far I’d come.   Somehow, I have not been swallowed by tree wells, fallen to my death, or ambush by grizzly bears.  Not this time.
Not such a scaredy-cat after all.
For more information: 
Jewel Basin Map

The route: 
Parked at the Echo Broken Leg Trail #544 trailhead, and took it to the Crater Notch Trail #187 to the Alpine Trail #7 to Squaw Lake.

Spotted coral root along the Crater Notch Trail.  Cause no blog post is complete without flowers.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Finding balance in the Jewel

When I had to get off the PCT last year with a stress fracture, I was confronted with a painful truth—I lacked balance in my life.  Nothing felt as good as being on trail.  Post-backpacking depression is a huge issue in the long-distance hiking community.  It’s so common to chase trail after trail and have a life that revolves around getting the next long-trail fix.  But because I was forced by my injury to stay off trail and heal for 10 weeks, I could see how tying my identity and basing my happiness in just one thing was a recipe for disaster. I resolved to seek ways to find fulfillment when off-trail, and to build a more sustainable life.

Desire for balance (as well as other things that I'll describe later) led me here, to Montana.  In the month and a half since I’ve arrived, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, and I haven’t done a single backpacking trip.  I’ve been focused on getting up to speed with my work, on getting settled.  I resolved to go out this weekend.

Everyone I’ve met in Montana raves about the Jewel Basin.  I look out across the Flathead Valley at it several times a day, wondering what all the fuss is about.  It’s much earlier in the season to go there, but the snow is melting faster this season.  A couple of people say that it’s possible to get up there, maybe.
Eli and I head up the steep winding FS road to the Camp Misery Trailhead.  We park where snow blocks the road, and hike up the snow-covered road to the trailhead.

It’s the most stunning country I’ve seen since the High Sierra in California.  Maybe even prettier.  I stare in disbelief.  How could it possibly be this incredible?  How can this beauty be less than an hour away from where I live?  I am overwhelmed with gratitude for being here.  So thankful to Eli for offering to go with me up here because I hadn’t the courage to venture up here alone.
Glacier lilies.
 Up snow-covered trails, then over the pass to the sunny, snow-free side of the mountain. 
Views of the Flathead Valley.

Glacier lily and spring beauty country.
More views.  I don’t have words to describe it.  I feel small and insignificant and loose myself in the grander.  Fears and worries melt away.  I breathe in, I breathe out.  This is all that matters, this moment.  Peace.
Impossibly beautiful.
Then climbing higher into more snow.  Finally, arriving at Birch Lake.  Wow, so much thick snow.  A different world of ice and frozen country, and yet there is melting too, cracks.  Doubt we can go further to the next lake though, but let's go see the other side.  Yes, let's circle around the lake.
Birch Lake.
Birch Lake, another angle.
Around the other side of Birch Lake.
Cross-country travel around the lake is not easy.  Dodging tree wells, navigating around snowy traverses.  Eli seems to float over the snow, sliding down the steep parts while I try to control my way down.
At the edge.  Don't fall in!
Eventually, I catch on, and soon I am sliding, gliding, glissading.  Time to play.  Then, my feet give out from under me and I’m in free fall, then my self-arrest instincts kick in and I am stopping myself.  Fear of falling replaced by OH WOW THAT WAS FUN.  It’s OK to let go.  Mindset shifts. 
Bursts of wildflowers.
We run into a large group of people on the way back to the car.  The wild feel of the place, the illusion of solitude, it all cracks.

Eli and I decide to try for a lower elevation trailhead to find a place to camp.  I’d been starting longingly at the well-spaced trees for my hammock near the ice-covered lake, but up in that highcountry, Eli found nowhere suitable for his tent. 

We get to the Echo Broken Leg trailhead, and follow it into a different world of lushness and wildflowers.
Meadow rue.
An hour up the trail, and still no campsites. Next, into a logging area that smells like dead trees.  Then, lightening, thunder, and torrential rain.  Waterlogged, it is clear that Eli has had enough, and I don’t want to be down here either. 
Where are the campsites?
Let’s go home.  Are you sure?  Yep.  We retreat.

Back at home, I gather up soaking wet clothes and head to the laundromat. There is just enough time to do a load but not enough time for them to dry before they close.  So, my trailer transforms into a long-distance hiker hotel room, wet laundry and gear hanging from every surface, and despite the washing, hiker aroma filling the air.  It smells like long-distance hiking, like sharing a hotel room with a bunch of happy new backpacking buddies and laughing so hard my belly aches--all fond memories associated with the PCT and AZT.  The scent of happiness and home.

I curl up in my down top quilt in my little bunkbed and watch the city lights far below twinkling.  And that deep inner peace fills me, and I know in my heart that I am tasting that balance.  Because I can be here in my little trailer home, and not out in the backcountry, and realize it’s exactly where I want to be.  Here in Montana, I have found a place where I can have adventures and be in epic scenery that feels like the most beautiful place in the world, and also be close to my work.  If there is anywhere I can discover balance, it is right here. 

I didn’t need to go backpacking today to find happiness, I’ve got it right here, just like this.  Maybe next week I’ll go backpacking.  Maybe.
For more information:
Jewel Basin Hiking Area
Jewel Basin map
Birch Lake Trail