Archive for November, 2019

WE ALL OWN BEAUTY, NOT JUST A FEW

November 25, 2019

                                  

I had noted the temperature was actually getting warmer as I did the weekly hike up Spencer Butte with the Club.  No, it wasn’t just that I was working hard, but it was cold at the bottom, and it wasn’t nearly as cold a thousand feet higher.  We hike up to the top from the city, 3.2 miles gaining 1400 feet of elevation.  Slower hikers leave earlier; sometimes, I decide to leave early if I am rehabbing part of me, and other times I leave early so I can hike alone.  Often, I have a line of people behind my, liking my pace, but making me feel like the Pied Piper.  I don’t like such a situation, for I tend to walk faster, when I am already at cruising mode, and I get tired sooner.  Once I stopped suddenly on a hike to take a picture and got run into by the guy behind me.  I learned that backpacking through Alaska willows and other brush. Don’t crowd the person in front. They may have to suddenly stop, and they have sharp hiking poles. That can slip. Anyway, the summit of the Butte is finally reached after a series of rock steps, about 130 altogether, not counting the occasional smaller ones, and I looked down on a foggy, cold valley from the land of blue skies and sunshine.

Off to my northeast, the mill in Springfield had a plume of smoke rising in the sky then flattening out and spreading along an invisible barrier like a river.  I could see about fifteen miles of the smoke river, coming first towards me then moving away to the northwest.  

Wow, I thought, a classic inversion.  Warm air normally rises, and it normally keeps rising as the atmosphere usually gets colder with height. Valleys during winter collect heavier cold air as it sinks, and set up an inversion, where warm air rises through the cold air until it reaches the warm air above—not below—and stops rising. I first noted it in southeastern Arizona, back when I was commuting from Tucson to Las Cruces for graduate school.  Once, on a bike, I went through a thick fog bank going up to Mt. Lemmon, breaking out at about 4000 feet into bright sunshine and a dew point temperature, where water will condense into clouds, 30 degrees fewer than just a few hundred feet below.  Those who turned around in the fog missed a sunny day, which was about five minutes’ ride further up the mountain.  

My wife and I hiked through an inversion in the Grand Canyon in February 1989, when the whole canyon was full of clouds and bright sunshine up at Yaki Point.  We hiked down the South Kaibab, entered clouds, then broke out below into overcast conditions.  It was remarkable.  

Jan at Yaki Point, South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon. February 1989. Microspikes are on the toes of the boots.
Coconino Sandstone (the largest vertical layer visible), viewed from South Kaibab Trail

Back on Spencer Butte, I waited for others to come up and googled the University of Wyoming’s weather sounding page.  The closest weather balloon released was from Salem, about an hour north, and indeed showed a change in temperature of 0 C (32 F) at ground level and 10 C  (50 F) at 1500 m or 5000 feet.  Classic inversion, I noted, staring at the river. I told a few people about what we were seeing, but nobody seemed interested.  

Back then, I was still posting on Facebook, and I later posted the picture and the weather sounding as a textbook example of an inversion.  Here is another example, with a link to the actual weather at that hour.

Salem, Oregon sounding from 4 am 23 Nov 19. Notice the temperature C, third column from the left, gets warmer as one ascends, from roughly 33 to 46 degrees at 923 m or roughly 3000′ above sea level. Then the “normal” cooling with elevation gain begins. The 98% humidity at ground level suggests fog was occurring. The actual weather was indeed foggy.

Facebook is not the land of people’s liking textbook examples explaining physical phenomena.  I got exactly one comment, a nerd icon, which I didn’t even know such existed. It wasn’t the reason I left the platform, but it was one of the accelerants.  I haven’t missed the sniping, arguing, or ignorance since I left it.  Nope. I try to walk in beauty the way the Navajo Prayer says.

A decade prior, I had been hiking on the South Rim Trail in Big Bend National Park up to the overlook over the Chihuahua Desert.  I was alone, and as I hiked on the rim, I saw an area that looked like smoke, then steam, a quarter mile ahead of me.  I arrived at the area and saw water vapor condensing to form a cloud, right in front of me.  I was on top of a cliff, and the humid southerly wind from deep down in Mexico, had slammed against the cliff, forcing the air upward, where it cooled, since in summer the inversions are usually shallow and break.  Cool air condensed once it reached the dew point, which is higher in summer, and a cloud formed right in front of me.  This is orographic lift, and I was absolutely enthralled at the example I was seeing. 

Condensing water vapor, Big Bend NP, June 2007.

I was naive enough to think that The Weather Channel might be interested in a picture, so I sent one to them.  I didn’t hear anything, not surprisingly, but I was disappointed.

I get great pleasure out of seeing things in nature that are not only beautiful but enhanced because I’ve been fortunate enough to be brought up curious about the world.  A total solar eclipse is beautiful not only because of the color of the chromosphere or the thin strands of the corona, but because it is the resonance of three separate lunar cycles—the synodic, the anomalistic, and the draconic—which every 18 years and 10 1/3 days are almost exactly the same, so that the eclipses repeat every 18 years and change plus 1/3 of the way west around the world. I find that fact fascinating.  

On the Libyan cruise to the 2006 eclipse, an editor of Astronomy magazine discussed eclipses to the audience.  He didn’t mention the cycles, and I suggested afterward that perhaps people might like to know that.  “Nah,” he saiid, “that’s too nerdy.”  

That came from an astronomer.  

Just after the eclipse, Libyan desert 29 March 2006. The next eclipse in this family will occur in Mexico-US-Canada 8 April 2024

Normally, I don’t write about this sort of stuff, because most people aren’t interested.  I would simply say that 

In beauty I walk…

In beauty all day long may I walk.

Through the returning seasons, may I walk.

On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.

With dew about my feet, may I walk.

With beauty before me may I walk.

With beauty behind me may I walk.

With beauty below me may I walk.

With beauty above me may I walk.

With beauty all around me may I walk.

In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.

In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.

My words will be beautiful…

Rim of Four in One Cone, near McKenzie Pass, 6400′ elevation. There were many views of the major northern Oregon Cascade peaks that day, but the rim of snow all along the cone was my biggest memory. In photography, especially in relationships, and likely in life, the little things are often the big things.


THE SCENT

November 20, 2019

I was in the Anchorage airport late one night on my way home from my tenth trip to “The Great Land.” I stopped in the men’s room, and before I saw the pair, I immediately recognized the smell that to me characterizes one thing: “we’ve just come out of the bush.”  

I call it The Scent.  Capitalized.

The Scent is difficult to describe. It is not evident when I do trail work for a day or hike a 20 miler.  I sweat, I’m dirty, I come home and smell, but I don’t have The Scent. The first day out in the backcountry, I don’t have it. I smell clean. The Scent is days old sweat on clothes that have been worn far too long, unwashed, in places where there is usually a lot of dirt, rain, flowing water, skin that hasn’t been cleaned in several days, the combination’s often being mixed with woodsmoke from cedar, pine, birch or hardwood. Biologically, it is created by bacteria’s breaking down oils plus burned carbon, but I think some of it may be a special compound formed when hard work is performed in places where there are no signs, the rivers run free, people are few, and the sounds of traffic are ravens, eagles, hawks, hermit thrushes and flickers, marmots, wolves, and beaver tail slaps.  The Scent requires tens of thousands of paddle strokes, dozens of miles under a pack or paddle, bug bites, sunlight, rain or dew, a few cuts, walking through muck, tripping on a root, fording a river, reaching a difficult summit, watching sunrise over a lake with mist, warming or talking by a fire at night or on a cold rainy morning, kneeling on the ground pitching a tent, watching an eagle fly, or collecting wood from a downed jack pine.

The Scent is not the smell of a men’s locker room.  Nor is it the smell when one gets ill and doesn’t bathe for a few days.  Long spells in wild country appear to inoculate the nose to ignore The Scent.  But when I am on the last portage, the last mile of a trail, I can recognize a day tripper or a person who has just left the jumping off point. There is no trace of The Scent; they smell clean, soap and shampoo clean.  They haven’t worked enough yet.  Some of them will, and days later, they will be exiting  the way I am and have The Scent.

Once out of the bush, I notice The Scent immediately.   My wife and I weren’t able to shower once after we came off the water after a week out on Lake Insula in the Boundary Waters, with a lot of time under pack and paddle, near eagles, ravens, a wolf, nobody else for six days, a bit of rain, lots of flowing water, all the requirements. The outfitter changed out a propane tank, but something was wrong with the heating element, and he was really sorry, but there was no hot water.  We ended up driving five hours without a shower.  The next year we used a different outfitter. The Scent is that way: it is the smell of wild country and is foreign to cities, highways, crowds and buildings.

Lake Insula, 2007, before the fire. Le beau pays of Sig Olson

Walk through a trail town sometime, and by smell and sight, you can spot three different groups of people: those who are getting ready to go into the woods, on whom their clothes look normal and they aren’t self-conscious.  The Scent is absent. The second group has just showered and put on clean clothes, looks scrubbed and are self-conscious and maybe a bit bewildered by being back in a strange world. No Scent on them. The third group has just come out of the woods and one can smell them yards away—or when opening the door to a men’s room. When I come out of the woods, I know I have The Scent, and I try not to get too close to others.

These two men were in the third group. They were self-conscious about The Scent, both wanted a shower, and they were trying clean up in a men’s room, knowing that they had several hours ahead of them on the redeye back to the Lower. Nobody wants to get on a plane carrying The Scent.  It belongs in wild country.

As I washed my hands and turned from the sink, I accidentally brushed the pack one still wore.  People in the backcountry for many days feel at one with their pack.  I know thru-hikers on the AT and PCT feel that way, and when I section-hiked the AT, I discovered one day that getting ready to move meant I automatically put the pack on, like a shirt.  I didn’t feel right without it.  Anyway, the young man apologized. He probably forgot he had the pack on.

“Been there a lot,” I replied.  While I’m shy, I know well both the country and the work required to produce The Scent. These young men were kindred spirits.  “Where did you guys go?” I asked. I knew I wouldn’t hear “Anchorage” but the Chugach, not “Juneau” but the Chilkoot, not “Homer” but the Kenai, not “Fairbanks” but Denali. 

We started to talk.  They were young, at least 35 years younger than I, and this was their first trip to Alaska, where they spent 2 weeks, first in Denali and then the Kenai.  They had wanted to do this trip now, while they could, because their lives were going to be busy in the coming years.  They did it.  They had The Scent to prove it.

Good for them, I said.  I mentioned my then 5 trips to the Brooks Range, Up North even by Alaska standards: Arrigetch Peaks, twice in the Kongakut drainage, and a backpack/paddle on the Noatak. I didn’t say much more, because they were busy trying to get clean, but I suspected that when I used an Up North name, a lot of communication took place. There is a magic to certain words in the North Country for those who make it part of their lives. My last trip in the Brooks was where my guide and I got hauled up to the south end of Atigun Pass on the Dalton.  We had stopped in Coldfoot for a break, and a lady who was a volunteer at the Visitor’s Center asked me whether I was going north or south, for the Dalton only goes those directions.  I pointed west.  She laughed.  She knew.

We bushwhacked in to the Gates from the Dalton was about all I said, but perhaps my tone of voice unsaid told them the rest of the story. I used a few words like “Oolah” and “griz”, “tussocks” and “Boreal.”  We had climbed over a thousand foot divide, camping at what seemed like the top of the world, then traveled for 3 days in the rain in and by rivers, past Oolah Lake and more rivers, finally hiking six miles in flooded tussock country to Summit Lake.  We saw a griz. I finally got to see Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain—the Gates of the Arctic that Bob Marshall named.  They had that look in their eyes—maybe I should call it The Look—which others have seen from me. It’s a far away gaze of longing, of thinking about wild country, of rivers that run free and few people in the Lower have ever heard of, like Aichilik, Nigu, Itchilik, Alatna, Hulahula, or Kobuk.  It’s mountains and remote valleys, wild country, open horizons, where the Sun in summer travels in a circle above the treeless tundra.  It’s slogging through tussocks, rivers, swamps, and in bear, caribou, Dall sheep, wolverine, and moose country.  It’s hiking on residual ice, or aufeis, and bugs in June, blueberries and crowberries in July, rain, autumn colors and the return of night in August.  It’s the most difficult country to hike that I have encountered, also the most beautiful.  It is a country that kicks one’s butt, until finally one accepts it with the simple words, “It’s Alaska.” Everybody up here who has worn The Scent understands that.

Oolah Lake

Normally, I don’t talk much to strangers, but if I’ve been out in the bush for a while, I find myself pretty talkative.  These guys were me when I was a young man.  Then, my dreams took me every year to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, “le beau pays” of Sig Olson, to get into the backcountry, away from people, civilization, only me, the wild lakes and rivers, loons, beaver, otter, eagle, moose, bear, and wolf.  I went into the country scrubbed and clean, explored it and came out with The Scent.  Eventually, I knew that area as well as my home town. Maybe better. I sure loved it more. Always will.

It was much later that I discovered Alaska. Oh, I did the Chilkoot Trail in ’84 and ’87, paddling the Yukon as far as Carmacks; I paddled the Nahanni in the Northwest Territory in between those two trips. I didn’t camp above the Arctic Circle until 20 years later.  By then, I knew if I didn’t start to make my dreams come true, I never would. First on the list was the Arrigetch Peaks in the Gates, spending four nights at the base of the mountains, close enough to hike up and place the palm of my hand on the granite.  We tried to get back into Aquarius Valley, but the rain made it too slick and unsafe to see the whole thing.  We got to the glacier that is the headwaters of Arrigetch Creek. On the eight mile hike back to the Alatna River, there had been so much rain that we had to detour upstream a mile to finally cross in fast water that was mid-thigh in depth, then walk a mile back down to move forward a net ten yards.  

Base of the Arrigetch Peaks

Afterward, I said that if there were a guarantee I could see Aquarius, I would go back. But there was too much else up there.  I never did. I returned to Fairbanks with The Scent, took a quick shower and the redeye to Seattle.

The next year, I came back to see ANWR, and we did a loop hike from the Kongakut River that got us into Drain Creek, bordered by mountains called Bathtub Ridge, with a mountain to the east called “The Plug.”  This was the ANWR I was looking for, with huge vistas, miles of tussocks full of caribou, and a braided river.  We went in early June to beat the bug hatch and camped at the base of a cliff that was a salt lick for Dall Sheep. I remember being up at 1 am watching them in bright sunlight, high on the rocks above, moving on the near vertical face more easily than I could move in tussocks. 

Dall Sheep on a salt lick.

I thought once to ANWR would be enough, but that Christmas I got a letter from the guide saying he planned a special ANWR trip to the Aichilik River.  I went into the garage, smelled my pack, which had some residual of The Scent, and decided I had to do that one, of course, because, well, I had to.  I knew there was a longing in my eyes. I could see Dall Sheep and Caribou, another braided river and maybe a griz, so I went.  

We landed on semi-flooded tundra and my boots were soaked for the next 11 days, temperatures most of the time hovering at freezing. I packed four pairs of wool socks, kept one pair for night, which meant after three days my dressing began with cold wet socks. It mostly rained or rain-plus— hail, graupel, or sleet. We crossed and recrossed the Aichilk, walking on ice by caribou, as we headed south into the Brooks Range.  One day, we sat down on the tundra for lunch near the entry into the mountains and had caribou walk close enough to touch, between us  and the river.  That afternoon, we hiked underneath rock faces where Dall Sheep stared down from us from thirty feet up.  I had a wolverine run right by my tent one morning and a caribou calf do the same one evening. The last day, in sunshine, we saw a griz rolling on ice and  then hiked over a mountain rather than take a chance on a valley with a rain-swollen stream. 

Caribou on ice

Dall sheep

A year later, I backpacked the upper Noatak and kayaked a couple hundred miles downstream to Lake Matcherak. I saw another wolverine and we saw a dozen grizzlies, including a sow, two cubs and a yearling that walked right through our camp and another that we had to encourage to turn around on the shore of Matcherak.  I flew back to Bettles with others in a float plane loaded with gear, flying past the Arrigetch in clear weather.  It was fabulous, except the poor pilot had a planeload of The Scent.

Boreal Mountain, part of the Gates of the Arctic

I thought I had seen all I wanted to up there, except I still haven’t.  Probably never will.  I wanted to see the Sheenjek Drainage in ANWR, but things happen and I never got around to doing it.  When I write about this, I know I have the look in my eyes those young men had. I can still see the Noatak far upstream from where I stood one day, when we climbed a mountain and stood on the summit in the wind, astounded by the beauty of the country. 

I didn’t tell the pair to follow their dreams, as I have tried to follow mine.  They were already dreaming. They had The Look.  They didn’t know how they were going to get up here again, where they would go, or what they would do, but they were going to do it.  

They will see the Brooks Range, ANWR and deal with all the issues Alaska throws at those who go into the bush.  They will come out of the country with The Scent, of course, not mixed with woodsmoke, because they will have been north of the treeline, where darkness doesn’t exist in summer.  Their speech will be peppered with Up North words, and they will again take the redeye to Seattle then the Bay Area, where they live, thrilled to have done the trip, already planning the next one.  They will have adventures the way I did, and look back later with fondness at their good fortune, as I have.

Maybe they will travel together, alone, or have company—spouses, children, other friends— who will discover these wild places and carry The Scent.  Maybe some day they will meet a traveler outside the bush with The Scent, ask where that person came from, and share some of their memories of the back and beyond. 

If for some reason they never go back, they went once, saw it, came out with The Scent, and that mattered.

Caribou without telephoto.

ON AND OFF BUTTONS

November 1, 2019

The chain saw was wedged in the bottom of the 40 inch diameter log.  DAMN!  This had to have been the fourth or fifth time we had to deal with a wedged saw today, and it was now late afternoon.  

Our crew of three—the fourth had to leave early to get back to town by 5—looked at the log, which was mostly cut through, but obviously not completely. I hadn’t been impressed by the top bind, but the sawyer thought there was some.  If the top part of a fallen log is compressed, such as being in the middle of two parts that are supported, so there is a slight sag, the wood on top will tend to compress and grab or bind a saw, keeping it from moving.  If the saw is deep enough in the log, we can pound a plastic wedge into the cut or kerf, allowing the saw more freedom to move. If the log is under tension, a cut will tend to open and release the tension. When the kerf was opening up earlier in the cutting, a rather than narrowing, it suggested bottom bind, not a top one, but I didn’t say anything. I wish I had, for I might have been able to prevent a wedged saw.

I’m relatively new out there, now past the “Stay (the &%$) out of the way!!” instructions, so I tend to be quiet.  That is a mistake in the woods, just as it is in the cockpit or an operating room.  People don’t like criticism or comments.  The culture isn’t what it ought to be.

The sawyer, I later learned, had an on button but no off button.  She was a dynamo, one of those I learned who would be happy to still be out here at 8 pm cutting. I didn’t feel the same way.  In addition to my pack, I was carrying a Pulaski, my hand saw, gloves, a pair of loppers, plastic blue diamonds to place on trees for markers of winter trails, nails, and a hammer.  I was tired, and it made me more cranky and prone to mistakes.  We were cutting out a mile or two of trail, not a lot, but we had several hundred yards to go to the road and then a 2 mile walk back to the vehicles. Then we had to drive another 90 miles home.  I doubt the other two in the crew had made that calculation.  I had been refining it the whole day. It is useful to me to know where I am time wise  and trail wise in the wilderness. It is not considered a virtue by most of the people whom I am around, but I tend to arrive at where I want to be about when I expect to, without surprises, and I like that.

I was the only crew member who had been previously been on this trail, both in winter snowshoeing and in summer trying to place diamond markers.  I had been so upset about  missing markers in winter that I said someone ought to be out here putting therm in, and “someone” turned out to be me.

In June, I walked the trail.  That is not easy, since winter trails do not need to be cleared the way all year trails do.  A couple of feet of snow will cover a lot of plants and many downed logs, so only the big logs or logs over the trail have to be taken out.  The trail does have to be wide enough to be seen in winter, and that was a big problem with Nickerson Loop. I had been stopped on another person’s snowshoe trip at a brushy field with no clear path. In June, there was still no clear path, just a lot more brush to walk through, but I worked my way through it from both ends and placed a few diamonds.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was better.

With the chain saw crew, I had a chance to get the trail open for people to travel the loop.  We had cleared some brush and cut out about a half dozen logs earlier, the saw’s being stuck several other times.  I was later told the sawyer was relatively new, and I realized the bar of her saw, the metal semi-elliptical protrusion on it, was not long enough for the logs we would be cutting;  I knew beforehand and had mentioned that we would have at least a 36 inch diameter log to cut out. 

Anyway, the saw was stuck, and without another chain saw to free it up, we had a problem.  The so-called “walk of shame” is when a sawyer leaves the bar in the log, removes the motor and comes back later with another bar and chain to cut the first bar out.  I had some wedges used to keep the kerf open, and I put one below the saw and tried to pound it in, hoping I could move something enough to free the saw.  No luck.  We started with a hand saw in the cut to try to open it a little.  No luck.

The sawyer then took a handsaw and began sawing the log for a second cut.  This log was 40 inches in diameter—a meter—and handsaws are good up to 6 inches, 8 on a good day. I told her that wasn’t going to work.  She had a Katana 650 one person hand saw back at the car (650 mm), and the other crew member asked me how far it was.  I figured two miles, and then to myself multiplied that by 2 (round trip) and divided by 3 (walking speed, maybe) to get the round trip time in hours, and realized he might not be back here until 4:30 or 5.  He stayed.

So for lack of anything better to do, I took my hand saw to the kerf above the bound saw and started cutting.  The wood was obviously hard, but I went at it for a few minutes, trying to make sawdust while ignoring how much wood was below the saw, and then heard a noise—a slight crack.  

Hope.

I cut a little more vigorously and heard a louder crack.  The log was talking to us.  I gave the saw to another crew member, since he was stronger and I was tired, and within thirty seconds of his sawing, there was a large crack, the log started to fall, and the chain saw was free.  

Dodged that bullet.

We still had a couple more logs I knew about, because I had scouted the trail ahead of us, and after losing it, and cussing the people who didn’t replace diamonds (that would be me in part), found it again, and led the group to the next cut.  In addition to diamonds, I was using strips of pink ribbon that I could tie to plants.  Pink or orange ribbon has helped me find trails many times.

There was a pair of logs to be cut out that the other two dealt with while I put diamonds on both sides of a tree.  Then there were some logs that would be cut on a regular hiking trail, but I leave alone since snow will cover them, at least if we get a normal snow year.  They were cut anyway.  More time on trail.  I had said several times to the crew who was opening up the trail that this was a winter trail.  The bottom didn’t have to be perfect; people just needed room to pass through it.

I got home well after 6 and considered myself lucky.

I respect people with no off buttons, but I am not one of them, and I don’t think that is a particularly healthy lifestyle.  I could be wrong.  But I am correct when I say it is not good for me.  That kind of behavior reminds me of medicine, some of my mentors and partners, who appeared to be able to work without sleeping, eating, and perhaps even toilets for all I knew.  I just knew I couldn’t do that.  It was a reason I first left my group and then left medicine.  I’m hoping I don’t have to leave trail work for the same reason.  This isn’t trying to fix people, it is keeping trails open and is a volunteer duty.


The author (left) cutting out a log at Potato Hill Sno-Park, near Santiam Pass, Oregon.
Trimming branches at Little Nash Sno-Park,