I noticed the cold for the first time this season when I got out of the car at Patjens Lake Trailhead. I had al- ready noted how dark the morning was when I left town, a predictable astronomical phenomenon for this time of year. Less predictable was when I would note the day each year, usually in August, when one felt the first tinge of autumn. I was doing a straightforward hike, a seven-mile loop into the Mount Washington Wilderness with a few hundred feet of elevation gain, scouting the trail in preparation for an upcoming one-day logout by the joint Scorpion-Salamander Scorpomander crews. I was expecting to find between 75 and 150 logs needing removal. Knowing the location and size of the logs would help the crews plan the day, as they worked the loop from opposite directions.

I had my rain jacket on when I drove in but had removed it before starting, knowing I would warm up as I moved. Af- ter all, it was I who told people at the onset of a hike, “If you’re warm now, you’ve got too much on.” People listened po- litely, nobody took anything off, and the hike proceeded, with my being the only one cold. It was only uncomfortable for ten minutes.

I learned this approach of starting a hike cold 38 years earlier on the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska. The second morning of that backpack, ten miles up the trail, it was cold, and the leader suggested I remove my shirt, because we were going to be carrying packs uphill all day, over Chilkoot Pass into Canada. When we stopped to rest, sweaty, we could put on a dry shirt and be warmer, until we started again. I was a ‘layer minimalist’ for years afterward, until my body changed.

Twenty years ago, I stopped wearing shorts when I canoe tripped in Minnesota in September; five years later, I stopped bringing shorts altogether. On winter trips, my fingers now are cold for the first mile in the morning and for the first mile right after lunch, too. Along with losing hair, vision, memory, and hearing, I’m losing degrees. The world changes; my body is no exception.

Now standing near the kiosk at the trailhead, pack on, ready to go, I stopped. Admit it, I said to myself. You’re cold.

I shook my head, dropped the pack, retrieved my jacket and put it back on. I don’t have to be cold right now. If I get too warm, I’ll deal with it. I then shouldered the pack and began hiking. My, it felt comfortable. Sure enough, a half mile into the burned area, when I needed to stop to measure the diameter and location of a downed log, I removed my jacket and stuffed it back in the pack. I was warm the rest of the hike, noting 79 logs for removal, in addition to the 13 smaller ones I removed as I went.

Those who are naturally comfortable in certain situations or subjects often have difficulty understanding others who don’t share or have such comfort or skill, whether it be interacting with strangers or dealing with the ambient temperature. But that day at Patjens, I finally understood and could admit that layers are for putting on and taking off, and it really doesn’t matter when one does what, so long as one is comfortable.

See you on the trail.

The above appeared in the Obsidian Bulletin November 2022. I was “commissioned” to write something after I followed up to a favorable comment about “Lunch Time,” which appeared in Cascade Chronicles (below). Readers of my blog will know of my strong belief that opportunities come disguised in many forms. As a Navy veteran, I have always liked the motto, “Fortune Favors Boldness,” the Cruiser-Destroyer Squadron motto.

Lunch time

Thirty years ago, when I was a summer volunteer wilderness ranger in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, I was so hungry that I downed a large Hershey Bar mid-morning out on the trail or water. In the interim, I have become a little healthier in my food choice, but I still like a mid-morning snack and may often be seen wolfing down a protein bar, either at rest, while hiking, or even sawing. Around 11:00, I start thinking “lunch is within an hour, I hope.” Sometimes it is earlier; sometimes we want to finish a log and it is later. Either way, I have a half hour where I can eat, often lying down, which I probably shouldn’t do but do anyway, and gaze at whatever is to be gazed at. 

There is much to see; I’ve spotted hawks, woodpeckers, nesting holes, squirrels, aircraft, the Moon, interesting tree shapes, and spider webs, the latter’s crisscrossing the forest at all sorts of angles and elevations. I listen to conversations around me for my mouth is too full to talk as I rapidly scarf down the modest five course lunch I made the night before.

Unlike group hikes, where we look for waterfalls to sit by or mountain tops with views, on a work day, lunch is where we are. On the Erma Bell log out, I was ahead of the rest of the crew when I was called on the radio asking for my position. I wasn’t exactly certain, and I wasn’t going to give a smart aleck answer like “near the county line,” which I once told dispatch at noon when we were working Hand Lake Trail (it was true). I said I was a few hundred yards ahead and would eat where I was. I had plenty of work ahead of me, but food is food, and I sat in the shade, watching ants, marveling at the deep blueness of the sky, and enjoying the quiet.

Lunch in winter is finding a sunny spot or a dry area under a big tree. I remember to bring a warm hat in my pack, because hard hats aren’t good insulators. I also keep lunch breaks shorter, because I cool off so rapidly. Summers, of course, I look for shade, which sometimes disappears, because I didn’t plan on the Earth’s rotation. I’m an amateur astronomer and should have factored that in, but when I am working the trail, I think of other things. Working the Middle Fork Trail several months ago, I sat on a thick pile of moss, my back against a log. It was so comfortable, but I realized that must be a one and done spot. My feet were in danger of kicking the moss, and it takes time for it to grow back. I worked in the same area several more times, but I never ate lunch there again, often on the bridge we were building, feet hanging over the edge, rushing water below.

We had a particularly good lunch spot working Rebel Creek, where we could sit on the trail, lean against the bank, let our legs drop over the edge, the creek far below, and I stared at one particular fir where it began far below and ended far above me. I bet I could find that same tree again. This past week, I led a crew to brush out Lowder Mountain Trail, and I timed it so we could have lunch on top, overlooking the Cascades as well as Karl and Ruth Lakes. The choice of lunch spot impressed a newcomer. Made my day.

Nobody formally calls an end to lunch. With varying degrees of stiffness, we get up, make needed adjustments to our gear, and move on. More work awaits us.

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