Monday, July 27, 2015

Would you camp here?

As I descended to my campsite by the lake, I met campers who'd stayed there the previous night.
Descending to Lake Ellen Wilson Campsite, where I had a permit to camp.
“We watched a grizzly bear all night and this morning on the far shore,” they said, “But it never came to the campsite.”

“But you should be more worried about the mountain goats.  They harassed us all night.”

What would you have done?
Mountain Goats are neat... especially when they are this far away.
I turned around and hiked back out to my car and drove home.  I didn’t want to have goats rustling around my campsite all night long, stealing my hiking poles and shoes to get at my salt.  I didn’t want to be alone in a valley with a grizzly bear.

I like to give animals their space. When I'm not constrained by having to camp in a permited site, I always find campsites that are far from any signs of animals, and if I see lots of scat, I'll just keep hiking. Even if it's something completely harmless like deer. It's my way of being respectful.

The thing that is so tough for me is that some animals in Glacier are acclimatized to humans. I feel much more comfortable around wild-acting animals. Shoot even the begging ground squirrels make me uncomfortable, how they lung at you, how they remind me that we humans are having such a huge impact on these animals. How we've encroached on their land and the few spaces they have left, we come and fed them and disrespect their wildness.

I guess I should have done more research about where to camp.  I'm trying to figure out how to be in Montana.
Mountain goat on the trail.
This hike was in Glacier National Park:
Starting at Lake McDonald Lodge, I hiked up the Gunsight Pass trail past Sperry Chalet to Lake Ellen Wilson.  And retraced my steps back. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Most Beautiful Place

"What’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?"
My reply: “Right here.”
 Doesn't get any better than this.  Poia Lake in Glacier National Park.
I'm an overnight backpacking trip.  How could I be surrounded by epic beauty as a weekend backpacker?
View of Kennedy Lake.
I am walking through incredible mountain scenery, U-shaped valleys, seeing glaciers and rock spires and hillsides of wildflowers. I make a connection with my hiking buddy that's meaningful and wonderful.  I have a sense of being immersed in the wild. 
Blanketflower sunrise over Poia Lake.
Having a best-ever conversations about life as we watch the evening hail storm from the shelter of our tarps.
 My favorite things are botany and hiking.  So this is pretty much the ultimate of both.
And I will be back at work tomorrow.  But it is work where I feel like I am contributing.  At this moment, I have a glimpse of what it is like to feel that balance I've been seeking.
Taking time out of hiking to do a mountain goat survey for the Citizen Science Program at Glacier.
View of Kennedy Lake.
I used to think that nothing could be better than backpacking long distance trails.  This trip is evidence that I can get into even more beautiful country, and have just as quality of an experience, with more life balance, as weekend backpacker.  I just had to take a new path in life.  Sure I still have my doubts about finding a permanent position.  I still wonder if I am "wasting" my PhD.  But I think in time I will figure that out too.
High point of the trip.  Red Gap Pass.
My first sight of a glacier.  They are melting and won't be around much longer.
On the descent to the trailhead, I ask, "Do those dark clouds look like smoke?"  But no one around knows if its really a fire.  How can the smoke build so quickly?  It looks close to my car.
The start of the Reynolds Fire.
Back at the trailhead, we learn its a fire,  the start of the Reynolds Creek Fire.  It grew to thousands of acres in the time it took us to emerge out of the backcountry, and grew to over 4000 acres a few days later.  Change, it happens fast.  You don't know what will happen next, but change is inevitable.

Don’t put things off.  Live your dream right now.  Make this weekend the best weekend ever.
Detour around the Reynold's Fire on the drive home.
This trip:
From the Many Glacier in Glacier National Park, we took the Red Gap Pass Trail and camped at Poia Lake, then went over Red Gap Pass and back through the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail to Many Glacier.  Backcountry permits were required.

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.