IN THE WOODS, IN THE ELEMENTS


Last time out with the Crew, we met as usual at the Middle Fork Ranger Station near Oakridge.  On the drive out there, it rained hard, a cold rain, clouds backed up along the Cascades, meaning heavy snow up there, and when I reached the meeting point, light snow was falling.  

We caravanned 7 miles up to the trailhead, off Route 1919, where it was both snowing and raining harder.  We were right at water’s melting point as was the case the prior weekend, when I hiked the Middle Fork Trail. It’s interesting at the junction—the snow is prettier, and most of us in the woods would rather have it continue to snow than rain, for it takes more of it to make us wet.

Snowy morning at the trailhead; February 2021.

The Crew goes out rain or shine. We had a run of favorable weather until this past week, until  our job was to take apart another failed bridge.  I picked up a Pulaski and started down the steep muddy user trail we had made, knowing that precipitation would soon change to rain as I descended. It did, and the faint trail changed to mud as I discovered when I slid down the last 10 feet to the main trail below. We immediately crossed one passable but damaged bridge, hiked past a creek where we had removed the first failed bridge and continued a half-mile to the next bridge.

I guess it was raining while we worked. It was hard to notice, with the chain saw working, my pulling 100 pound planks up the hill and stacking them, grinding off the spikes with a grinder, sparks flying a foot or two in front of me.  But when I looked, my rain jacket and pants were soaked. Sometimes out there, I look down, and water pours off the hardhat, my first realization it is raining.  We stayed warm while we worked, took the bridge down by noon and in the rain hiked back out to the vehicles, up the tough, muddy, steep hill.  We packed out all the tools, and after everybody left, I had lunch up there, rain pouring on the car roof. No more snow.  I ate quickly, because I was rapidly cooling off, which on cold days is actually the most difficult part, because one is cooling off rapidly and becoming uncomfortable, even while one is resting. I then started the car, set the heat on high, and when I reached the main road, the Crew Leader was waiting for me, making sure I was OK. I apologized for not telling him I was eating.  Nice to know someone would look for me if anything happened. By that time, the heater was going full blast. I may not have noted the wetness while working, but I sure did notice it then.

I thought of some of the many times I have dealt with rain in the woods. When I was young at the Camp, I dreaded it, but in summer I never remember being too cold from rain, just wet, and I dried soon enough. The joys of youth.  Or the poor memory of old age.

It wasn’t until I spent 6 months in the Boundary Waters that I learned to deal with rain in the woods, the single best lesson I learned up there. I watched what others wore and did, and I copied them. I had good rain gear. No, it didn’t color match (nobody’s did), but it kept me dry.  I went out in early July to west Basswood, where we patrolled in the motorized zone with a small boat powered by an 8 hp Yamaha. Heading east on Fall Lake in 50 degree temperatures, pouring rain, sitting in the bow, my outer layers were soaked but I was fine. That whole 4-day trip was with on and off showers, and it was an effort to keep a pair of dry socks, but it worked. Dry socks for night are a must. Eventually I had to put on wet, cold socks in the morning. At least they were wool—it only felt awful for a few minutes– until they warmed up. 

I had about 40 days of rainy travel that summer, and I never remembered being miserable in rain as I had once been. I realized I could travel no matter what was falling, the only exceptions being wind, which made it impossible, and thunderstorms, outright dangerous.  There was favorable and unfavorable weather for doing things, not good and bad days. From then on, I was in good shape, with many memorable days of travel where I stayed warm, if not completely dry. I would never look at rainy weather the same way again. 

A few years later, my wife and I headed out on Lake One, knowing a big line of storms was heading our way, but our permit was for entering that day, and we needed to go.  We got a few miles in when it started to rain, and when I looked at the situation, I decided it was easier to set up camp early and wait out the rain while we still had dry gear.  The campsite wasn’t the most scenic, but I have fond memories of being dry in the tent while it rained hard outside. 

Tent bound with my journal, Lake Insula, 2007.

Just because one can travel in rain doesn’t mean one has to seek it out, either. 

The next year, same area, when we were reviewing campsites for an article in the Boundary Waters Journal, we had unfavorable weather on Lake Insula. We got hailed and sleeted on, and it looked like we wouldn’t be able to review all 47 campsites on the lake. The last full day was mostly sunny, however, so we paddled a slug of miles, checked out twenty different sites, discovering some shortcuts on the lake across peninsulas.  We got the information we needed.  The south end of Insula burned in 2011 due to the Pagami Creek Fire, so much of the information is now longer relevant.  Still, we have fond memories of the campsite trip and later stayed on a super 5-star site on the lake, hidden in a lovely bay.  Saw a moose there one night.

Lake Insula, September 2007.
Optimal late season gear. Looks like it even matched,
but that would be coincidental.

I’ve done plenty of memorable rainy hikes here in Oregon.  I led one up Heckletooth Mountain near Oakridge October 2017 the day an atmospheric river gave us a significant dumping.  It was wet, but we were going uphill and stayed warm, and the yellow leaves of the big leaf maples were so bright they appeared like sunshine.  None of us on the hike had any idea of what the colors up there would be like. I’ve been up Spencer Butte in snow and in freezing rain.  It got a bit dicey on top, but my wetness was more from sweating than rain. The snow on top was beautiful, even nicer when few were crazy enough to go up there.

Spencer Butte, 2019.

One of the ways I fall asleep at night is thinking of paddling out or back from Basswood Lake, just beating a storm to the campsite, where in the rain, or snow, or just before it rained, I pitch the tent, get everything under cover, put up the cook tent, where I have dinner with the weather roaring above me.  Then I wait for a lull and wash everything.  I may or may not fall asleep quickly thinking about it or out there, but in either case, I am in a good place. 

Mountain Kittentails, February 2021

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