Archive for September, 2018

SEVENTY BEFORE SEVENTY

September 28, 2018

“He is thirty-three years old. He’d like to think the next thirty-three years will be like the last ones.… Besides, he can count on the fingers of one hand the number of sixty-six year-olds he’s seen in the woods.” from Sam Cook

I stood on a large area of granite and quartz that I last visited 26 years ago, the summer I was a volunteer Wilderness Canoe Ranger in the Boundary Waters. I even remember calling this the “purple panty site,” finding a broken bottle of wine and a pair of purple panties at the base of the cliff. The old fire grate had been set on the granite, when rangers used to fly in and use air drills to fix the metal grate in place. There were now four small pieces of metal protruding from the rock marking its former location, the new grate set in soil a few yards away. We had picked up a literal boat load of trash from the 51 campsites we visited on West Basswood, using a boat with an 8 hp Yamaha motor to patrol the large area. The Fourth of July that cool, rainy summer, nobody was out here, and we camped half mile to the southeast of where I camped this year. We even were able to float the creek from Jackfish to Pipestone Bays, saving 8 miles of motoring and felt really good about doing it. That creek hasn’t been navigable for years and must be portaged around.

Twenty-six years ago, I could paddle all day long, pitch camp in an hour and break camp in the morning, including breakfast, in 40 minutes. I could hit shore, have my back pack on, the canoe on my head in a half minute and load the canoe at the other end in half that time. I wanted to see all that country, and I did pretty well at doing so, more than three hundred lakes and an equal number of nights spent out there.

This year, I was solo, like many times back then, but now needing two trips across the portage, not one, using more care to unload and load, but doing it wearing rubber boots, which allow me to stand in water to load and unload. I wore more clothing, too, not only because it was cold, but I get colder more easily. I stopped single carrying portages in my fifties, stopped wearing shorts in my sixties, My seventies may be when I lose the battle, for even as I age, and the gear gets lighter, I am going to eventually lose. Just not this year. I took my father in the woods when he was 78. Maybe someone will take me. Or maybe I’ll be extraordinarily lucky and go solo.

I like to think I’m more sensible. I wanted to go to places further up the lake, where I had camped the prior 5 years. They mean a lot to me. One is a place I take myself to mentally when the world seems too much. But I looked at the weather maps before I left, as well as watched the sky often when I left the jumping off point at Fall Lake. The forecast was for rain, cold, and wind, a difficult triad to deal with. My reality was a canoe with 8 inches of freeboard and real tippy, and after a few thousand miles in a canoe, I don’t use “tippy” lightly. If I paddled as far in as I wanted to go, I might face a headwind and rain on the return, and that was a significant possibility. The day I was to come out, I would be 70 before 70, days before years, and I felt damn lucky and blessed to just still be able to come out here. Retired Duluth Herald-Tribune columnist Sam Cook wrote the words above, and I’ve been coming out here since 1981, the year I turned 33. I am not as fast, not as strong, but far more experienced, use my gear more efficiently, and know very well that things can go south in a big hurry. I’ve never tipped over on a canoe trip, but I’ve literally been thrown out of a canoe on small rapids, and that was extremely sobering as to the power of moving water.

The solo canoe I rented had a sticker about safety, the sixth bullet point’s being “Never canoe alone,” which seemed odd on a solo canoe. I know what was meant, but I hike alone, and I have canoed alone many times. My wife isn’t coming out here with me any more, although she would love to if all the preparations and travel weren’t so difficult. I understand that. I’m going to reach a point where I can’t do this, but my goal is to be like the guy we saw lying back in his canoe floating down the Nina Moose River towards Lake Agnes, back in 2004. My wife said, “that’s you twenty years from now,” and while I laughed at the old guy back then, I kind of got a bee in my bonnet and turned the laughter into a 2024 goal. That guy was doing it right.

This trip, I made it a point to canoe along shorelines I had often eschewed for the straight shot down the middle of the lake to get up on the border. Exploring a small bay this year, I encountered a pair of tundra swans and a raft of mergansers. I hadn’t noted tundra swans here before, and I saw five more the next day. They were magnificent white painted against the gray sky when they took off. Coming around a point on Newton Lake, I saw an otter come out of the water, head profiled against the background light, one of those moments where I was looking in the right place with the right frame of mind. That happens a lot when one stops eschewing stuff. The first morning’s sunrise was spectacular, even if the red sky in morning was warning this canoe man to stay in camp the next day. A leaf with a few drops of rainwater was worth a picture, as well as the nearby asters, the lovely end of summer flower.

Sunrise from the first campsite.

Leaf with water droplets

Asters

My camp had a path to the next campsite, unusual in this country, but the two sites were not visible from one another, which is the norm. On the windbound day, I walked laps between the two sites, noting the 3 inch depth of white pine needles and also noting, for the first time, how the adult bark starts to appear, from ground level up a meter or two, rather than immediately on the tree as it grows. I had a lot of time to think about the past thirty-seven years I have been coming up here, and how fortunate I have been to have seen the country far beyond where I can now physically go—or wish to go—for that matter. I know what’s out there; I have good trail and lake memory. My last Quetico trip, in Canada, was in 2005. I said goodby to Kawnipi Lake back then, occasionally hoping maybe I’d get another chance—but knowing that I will not.

The trip had all the challenges—wind, rain, cold, thunderstorms. I packed wet and I set up camp in a pouring rain. I didn’t talk to a soul for four days, and I had a day when I didn’t see a boat anywhere. I wasn’t sure if solo tripping would still appeal to me. It does. I looked at things without judgment, only interest.

Maybe 2024.

Wearing High Cascade Volunteer “Scorpions” hat. Pipestone Bay, 2018

Below, leaves on a trail

Leaves along the shoreline

MY LOST METER

September 12, 2018

Many years ago, I paddled out one September afternoon from Wolf Creek on Burntside Lake, headed into the Boundary Waters at Crab Lake, back when a mile portage seemed like a good idea.  I didn’t have a map for my entry, but I did have the next map north, where I expected to soon be within 2 miles.  Error in judgment.  After an hour and easily those two miles, none of the landmarks I saw was quite right for the map I thought I was now on.  I then “moved landmarks,” or made distant islands fit my map, but a half hour later it was obvious nothing fit, and I admitted defeat.  That was better judgment.  Far in the distance behind me, I could see where I had started, and that became my goal.  I returned to shore, put the canoe back on the car, drove into Ely, stopping at an outfitting store to take a look at a map where I had been.  I was miles from where I thought I was.  Better prepared, I headed out on the same lake the next day and had a good 4-day solo into the Burntside Unit.  

I’ve been significantly off course a few times since, which embarrassed me, because I consider myself as having good directional sense.  I do, but one or more minor mistakes can throw me a curve. On the Appalachian Trail, I was so fatigued one day that after I got up from a rest stop, I retraced a mile of my prior route.  When I saw a road that shouldn’t have been there—a road I had crossed a few hours earlier— I realized that the proper question was not “What is that road doing here?” but rather “What am I doing here?”

On Isle Royale, first boat out to the island in 2006, I realized I had a Lost Meter: it wasn’t in my pack, it was in my brain.  Hiking in the dark with a flashlight I hoped kept on working, I encountered a huge blowdown.  I went around it, and around it…, and continued, soon having a disquieting sense I was going back the way I had come.  I took out my compass, something I almost never have to do, confirmed that my basic direction was indeed southwest rather than the desired northeast, and turned around.  That disquieting sense was my Lost Meter’s kicking in.  The flashlight got me through the night until I reached Windigo, ten miles later.

I have seldom ignored my Lost Meter, the last time being on my first hike in Oregon, when I “moved the trail,” because if I had been where I thought I was, I shouldn’t have seen the Sun where it was.  I convinced myself the trail would soon turn in the direction I thought it should.  It didn’t.  The Sun didn’t move, either.  I arrived at another trailhead, clearly not where I had started, and started walking to town on an unfamiliar road.  The road refused to go north, only south, and the Lost Meter got so loud that I turned around, backtracked to the trailhead, and followed a river downstream back to the car.  I was embarrassed and tired, the error costing me at least 2 hours and six miles.  On my current hikes, I plan ahead, usually have a paper map, always carry a GPS with spare batteries, and the Gaia app on my phone to use if necessary.  If one has to move hills, mountains, islands, or the Sun to match a map, one needs to admit being lost and deal with matters accordingly.  

I became a convert to GPS technology on Obsidian Loop, solo in early July with the trail buried under feet of snow. My sense told me to go downhill, the arrow on the GPS pointed elsewhere to a ridge above me.  I went up, and life became a lot easier.  GPS arrows can’t be moved without physical motion on the holder’s part.

*                                 *                                 *

My healing knee survived the first of three days’ hiking in the Mt. Hood Wilderness, 2100 feet elevation gain on a 12 mile out-and-back to McNeil Point.  I was in front and told to stop at some ponds, the leader saying, “We wandered through there last time I was here and weren’t sure where we were.”  When I reached the ponds, there were two trails, one going towards a pond, which I assumed was a user trail, not the main trail we wanted to be on.  I went a little further on the other and stopped, since on Club hikes we stop at trail junctions, to keep people together. A few minutes later, I saw the leader below me on the user trail.  It was not a big deal, really.  We could see each other.  But the Lost Meter sounded just a little, as I realized I might need to be in charge of navigation this trip.  This was an area I felt that one should not have had trouble negotiating.  

We got off to a inauspicious start the next day when the leader said the trailhead had changed from the last time she was there. This bothered me, because trailheads usually don’t change, so I started going through my mind what I knew about her navigational skills. She’s experienced, but three weeks prior, on a hike where I shuttled the car, since I couldn’t hike, she failed to find a lake in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness, looking below her when the contours clearly showed it was above her. Last winter, she took a group into Fawn Lake on a snowshoe.  Nobody had a GPS, and they never found the lake.  That’s a problem.  I am a good navigator, and I wouldn’t go without a GPS.  She’s seen a lot, but I ask questions when my Lost Meter goes off.  A claim that a trailhead was moved moves the needle on my Lost Meter.  Or a trail’s being moved: a leader on a snowshoe hike complained that the trail had been moved, when he was frankly lost and took the whole group on a mile bushwhack in snow. I was glad to have missed that one.  I didn’t miss the snowshoe in heavy, deep snow to the top of Willamette Pass Ski Area.  After one too many “around the next bend,” I said “one more.”  When we went around it, and nothing changed, we turned around.  Later, we discovered we had 3/4 mile still to go.  In heavy snow.

Trails can change, and part of the Castle Rock Trail actually was moved a year ago by mountain bikers. I knew it had, because my trail memory and the GPS showed me where it used to be. Somewhat a Doubting Thomas, I walked on the unfamiliar trail, watching the GPS carefully, until I was convinced we were going  to where we had planned. I wrote Oregon trail guide author Bill Sullivan about the change, got a thanks and a free book of one of the nearly two dozen he has written. 

Anyway, we started on the Umbrella Falls trail, a familiar landmark to the leader, but not somewhere where we were supposed to go.  I was new here and didn’t know better, so I made myself the sweep, last on the hike. I quickly didn’t like what I was seeing on the GPS.  We should have been going east northeast, not north.  I called out to her whether we were going in the right direction.  She assured me we were, and we arrived at Umbrella Falls a short time later.  

This was neither our destination nor part of the hike.  It was pretty, but we didn’t want to be there.  A comment was made that perhaps this falls was unnamed, “moving landmarks.”  No way.  Smaller waterfalls in the state are named, and the trail sign said, “Umbrella Falls.”  We were at a falls.  We were not where we wanted to be, and another look at the map showed we hadn’t driven far enough on Highway 35 to the trailhead. 

My Time on Trail meter is also listed below, along with my Danger Meter.  Know where you are going, keep an eye on the sky, the trail, the clock, the altitude, and if at any time things don’t make sense, stop until they do, or turn around to the last place where they did.  It’s only a hike, and it is not worth risking one’s life to do it. 

LOST METER  (“Something changed since the last time I was here,” Frequent use of the verb “to hope.”)

One should be able to answer the following questions unequivocally yes:

  1. Do I have a clear idea of the mileage I am attempting to within 10%?  
  2. Do I know exactly where I am now?  Does the altitude match?
  3. Can I truly say that no landmarks are out of place?
  4. Assuming one has walked the trail before, are landmarks on the trail familiar?
  5. Are trail junctions where they should be?
  6. Do I have a GPS?
  7. Do the maps and the GPS agree?

DANGER  METER (“Come on, you can do it,” Frequent use of “hope”)

  1. Am I lost?  BE HONEST.
  2. Is part of me saying “I don’t like this” or “This isn’t safe.”?  Is somebody saying, “Come on, you can do it?” 
  3. Are there problems with the trail, like blowdowns, unexpected snow, stream crossings?  If an out and back, and in glacier country, will a stream be crossable in the afternoon on the return?  Glacier meltwater increases in the afternoon.
  4. If with a group, is anybody uncomfortable with the situation?  Have you asked?  Really asked by saying, “If you are at all uncomfortable, please speak up.” ?  Has somebody mentioned a significant medical condition?
  5. Is anybody lagging behind or doesn’t look good?
  6. Is the environment safe for somebody to say NO? Yes, this is repeated, because nobody wants to be a wet blanket or a Killjoy.  Except me.
  7. Does the sky bother you?  Have you looked? Storms don’t suddenly occur.  There are warnings, even if only an hour or two.
  8. What are the consequences to a river, snowfield, or scree crossing in front of you if someone falls?
  9. What is the current windchill?
  10. What time is sunset, and if applicable, the next high tide?
  11. Any sign of recent bear or mountain lion scat?
  12. Are you hearing or saying, “Let’s go a little bit longer,” without “little bit” being defined? “Around the next curve=little bit.” Use “we go 5 more minutes by the clock before turning back.” And stick to it.

TIME ON TRAIL METER  “Oh, I didn’t realize how late it was.”

  1. Did you start late?  How late?
  2. What time do you expect to return (1 p.m., 3, p.m., 5 p.m., 7 p.m., 9 p.m.)? 
  3. Was there unexpected traffic or other problems driving to the trailhead?
  4. Is everybody getting ready quickly, or does somebody seem to be constantly fixing or adjusting something?
  5. Does anybody appear to lag, especially early, or is taking long breaks?
  6. Are you where you want to be at this time?  If not, what are your plans?
  7. When, where, and how long do you plan to have lunch? 
  8. Are there unusual requests, like napping, long meditation, frequent breaks?

 

IMG_7732.JPG

A turnaround point on an out and back exploration.  It is worth learning to say STOP, I’m not going further.  The trail will be there another day.  And so will you.  Ruby Mountains, Nevada; August 2016.

NINE LESSONS

September 7, 2018

I didn’t think I would ever financially support a Republican candidate in my lifetime, but life is full of surprises.  The husband of my wife’s best friend is a sheriff’s deputy in a rural county and ran for Justice of the Peace.  He was a great candidate, knowing the vast land, larger than many states, the people, and the law, but the first and most important requirement, my wife told him, was he had to run as a Republican in that county. 

He did in 2014, but made the decision too late to get on the ballot, so ran as a write-in candidate and still got 30% of the vote.  But he lost.  That is Lesson #1 for the Democrats this fall: please stop rejoicing about the “almosts.” A year ago, doing better than expected was encouraging.  But the winner still voted to repeal the ACA.  The situation is dire enough that nothing less than winning matters.  

Our friend stayed in his day job, did well, and bided his time.  Four years passed, 2018 arrived, and he filed to run against the incumbent, who had a lot of problems, including a rumored federal investigation into corruption.  Lesson #2: don’t underestimate the power of incumbency; Lesson #3R: only results from the investigation may matter, not the fact there is an investigation. (Lesson #3D: any investigation matters, and if the result isn’t guilty, there needs to be another investigation.)

My wife’s best friend became a skilled, creative campaign manager, making a great video of her husband’s telling why he was qualified for JP, and what the position entailed, which was educational.  She got the message out every possible way, even by a horse-drawn float at the county fair.  Her husband looked right for the job, which shouldn’t matter but does, he was available for questions and was a straight shooter, figuratively and literally.

It was a three way race, and one of the other candidates was member of a certain religious group.  Lesson #4: that’s a problem in the rural West. I’ll leave it there.

We had a chance to win:  Lesson #5: You don’t really know what will happen.  Do not, under any circumstances, become overconfident:  2016s happen, and we had no idea what the voters would do.  Or how many would not vote at all.  

The days before the primary, the candidate’s wife called many, trying to get out the vote.  One of the county election commissioners thanked her for calling people and informing them.  The commissioner herself hadn’t been doing that. Lesson #6: don’t assume the electorate will show up. Primary elections are arguably the most important elections of all.  In this particular one, the Republican winner was going to be the JP.  The general election was a formality. The primary is a hurdle that has to be crossed.  Fail to get by the primary, if you are Eric Cantor, majority leader in the House, or Joe Crowley, headed for a possible speakership in November, your career is over.  Lee Bight, one Republican who believed in global warming and attendant climate change, was ousted by Trey Gowdy in a primary, the Gowdy who kept investigating Hillary Clinton. See Lesson #3D above.

The primary turnout in Arizona this year was 30%.  And that was a record.  Seventy per cent of the electorate, for whatever reason, didn’t vote. In the county where our race occurred, turnout was 25%.  A quarter.  In 2016, 81% of Republicans voted, 74% of Democrats. There’s your 77,000 votes in three states. In 2014, 21% of millennials voted.  In California, 8.2% of 18-24 year-olds voted, and the youth, who were 14.5% of the voting population, cast 4% of the ballots.  If the millennials continue to be relative no-shows in elections, they are going to be dictated to by the conservatives in my generation.  Just sayin.’  The problem we have in the Senate, where the Affordable Care Act narrowly survived, if one can call what has happened to it survival, where we have two conservative supreme court justices so far in this term (and a possibility of as many as three more), where Republican-leaning judges for federal courts have been approved in record numbers, can be directly laid to poor turnout in elections.  I am beyond angry at those who didn’t vote in 2014.  Lesson #7: Not voting because nothing ever changes is wrong.  Things can change for the worse, and the country has seen that in spades since the last election.  Or am I the only one who hasn’t slept well since then? 

A single vote does matter:  Florida in 2000, Virginia in 2017 (a tie occurred), and some House race virtually every year. If perfection is desired in a candidate, move to Mars.

What happened to our candidate was predictable, although we didn’t predict it: the results of the investigation into the incumbent would come after the election, enough of the certain religious group voters turned out, and there were too many no-shows.  He lost, finishing again with 30%.  

I was upset, not at the campaign, which I thought was wonderfully run, in the spirit of America, or at least the America I once knew and served, but at the selfishness of those who can’t be bothered to vote, the religious turnout for someone whose qualification is the right religion but nothing else, and how people in power can delay investigations until a convenient time, read “after the election.”  

Lesson #8:  gerrymandering and a profound war on voting rights were aided by state legislatures, the Supreme Court AND by those too busy to vote, still stuck in the mindset that both parties are the same AND by those who threw their vote to a fringe candidate who ran only for their ego and had NO chance of winning. The single best weapon is convincing every possible person on one’s side to vote. What swung Alabama a year ago was the black vote, black women in particular, who increased their turnout from 25 to 30%.  That still is paltry, but it mattered.  There were six thousand people who didn’t vote in the primary for JP3. True, it’s better sometimes that some of them vote.  We will never know what would happen if they all showed up and voted, but in this race, like every other race in the country, would at least be truly decided by the people, not a few.  It’s a different world when everybody votes, and I think a lot fairer one, too, usually. 

Ayanna Pressley (and yes, spell check, better allow the second “s”) had no chance to win, but the voters turned out and she won by 18%.  There might have been a different JP in that county come November, despite Lessons #3R and #4. Arguably, the JP is going to affect one’s life in that district far more than a single representative.  

In the low moments after I failed big time in my career change nearly two decades ago, I always knew the answer to, “If only I had resigned and gone back to school.” I knew the answer, and besides, one career of mine suffered but another one did well.  My wife’s best friend will never have to say, “If only I had…”  That might be Lesson #9.