Friday, December 10, 2010

Last Minute

Last Tuesday I hurt my back at work. I was laid up for the rest of the week on the couch playing video games. It gave me a a lot of time to think, just sitting around like that with nothing to do. I thought about my truck and how I would fix it. I thought about the lease on my house, it will be up in a couple months and I need to find an apartment. I think about how nice it is to get away from work for a little bit. One day while searching through Netflix I find a National Geographic documentary on the Appalachian Trail. I've seen it before, and I loved it. It made fantasize about the time when I will through-hike the trail. When I will take the journey. I watch it again.

I have been toying with the idea of thru-hiking ever since I learned of its existence. I read a book by Chris Townsend. He has hiked the Triple Crown. I read that he has hiked thousands of miles, and I am instantly swept up in the romance and sheer adventure of such an undertaking. I resolve then that someday, when the time is right, I will hike thousands of miles.

I am laying on the couch watching the documentary. I learn that most hikers going northbound depart from Georgia in March and April. "Interesting" I think, because my lease is up in February. All of the sudden it hits me. My lease is going to be up, and I don't have to find an apartment right away. I have no kids, no wife, no one else that I am responsible for. I don't need to spend a year planning. I could hike the AT this April!

My mind is made up. I am doing it, and Iv'e thought of little else since I made that decision. In fact, the AT has possessed me. I have the bug you might say.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Soloist: Stevens Lake Overnighter

View from my camp

Sometimes I just want to go. I get the itch to be outside. I can’t stop thinking about it. I feel possessed. That’s how I was feeling a couple weeks ago as I watched the days become shorter and the nights grow colder and the summer slipping away too soon again. At work my racing mind bounced from one locale to the next, obsessing over possible plans for the weekend, and wondering who will go with me…

 Steve and Luke were both feeling under the weather, and I didn’t even bother asking anyone else because I know what the answer will be… The answer is always the same; it’s only the excuses that change. A man can only hear the word “no” so many times before he stops asking the question.

So I head out unaccompanied into the Bitterroot Mountains on the Idaho/Montana boarder.  I climb 2’000 feet in 3 miles mostly through the dense timber of a shadowy evergreen forest.  The trail splits and forks and shortcuts switchbacks, and since I didn’t bring a map I mark my rout by digging big directional arrows in the dirt trail with my boot heal. I didn’t bring a watch, either and worried that I wouldn’t make it to Stevens Lakes before dark I put my camera away and push hard.

I am greeted by the sounds of laughter at Upper Stevens Lake as I break into a clearing and discover several tents in various locations on the north side of the lake.  Wondering why so many people are camped so close together I push on… After all, isn’t that one of the reasons we backpack, to get away from… everyone… everything? The trail around the lake is steep and narrow and soon my convertibles are soaked from the dew covered greenery that overwhelms the vanishing trail.

Alas I reach the small lake and am greeted with… silence. I am the only one it seems who bothered to go the extra mile for solitude and am rewarded by my efforts.  Alone I set up camp and build a fire, but everywhere I look are signs of civilization and I can’t help but feeling screwed out of a true wilderness experience. My camp is littered with aluminum cans, bottles, and miscellaneous trash. Not far from my camp I find an uncovered cat hole filled with toilet paper and tampons…

But I clean it all up, and after the sun goes down I sit around my smoldering fire staring at a billion stars and wanting to say something… But no one is there for me to talk to, so I put the fire out and go to bed.

The next morning is beautiful and after taking a few dozen shots of the awakening lake, I head out. I am walking along a sand beach covered in deadfalls and I spot someone. It is a woman sitting alone at the water’s edge, her face buried in a book... I wonder what she looks like... I wonder if she is alone like me... I wonder what she is reading... I want her to look up from her book and see me so I can smile and wave to her... I want to go talk to her…

 I take a photo and walk away.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Rocka Rolla: Dawson Pass Loop Day 2 - Glacier National Park

Not long after we left the moose behind, it started raining.  The forecast actually looked really good, calling for a chance of rain Thursday but partly cloudy Saturday and Sunday with highs in the 70’s.  Despite all the times the weather forecast has been wrong, I believed it like a fool, and packed accordingly.  So you can imagine the look on my face a couple hours earlier at the Ranger station when I stood bemused while the Ranger was contacted by radio and informed right in front of us that an arctic storm blowing across Canada would hit the park that night and last for two damn days.  Here it was early August and Glacier Park was expecting 2 inches of snow…

 So when the rain started, all I had for protection was a pack cover and a rain jacket, which usually would be fine in a regular rain storm… But it rained hard and never stopped.  By the time we got to camp at No Name Lake I was soaked. My feet were soaked through waterproof boots, my whole upper body was soaked through a waterproof jacket, and my pants were so wet I could wring them out like a dish rag. I’ll be honest; it made me rethink the quality of my gear.  The really crappy part was that because fires are illegal in most of Glacier Parks backcountry, we didn't build one. We sat in the rain and made dinner, and the first time the rain broke, we hurriedly pitched our tents.

Finally the rain did let up and we all went down to the water and did some fishing. The dreary overcast sky was darkening with the coming of twilight, and as we fished at the waters edge a thunderclap exploded in the sky overhead.  It boomed like a howitzer and the violent crash of rolling thunder stampeded from the mountain side onto our beach and shook the ground beneath our feet. And there it remained, unwavering, beating against our courage and filling our bones with dread. Our eyes were fixed on a massive sheer cliff towering over our beach like Point du Hoc, and with eyes wide open we could see stones and boulders violently tumbling down its doom lit face and smashing into the rocks below.  It was a sight to behold, the raw power of nature. Jesse looked at me and for the second time today asked, “Should we be standing here?”
Luke fly-fishing No Name Lake

It rained all night and the next morning.  At breakfast we discussed our course of action. Luke and I were so sick of the rain. We have been rained on every backpacking trip since April. It seemed we couldn't escape it and we were both feeling like we just wanted to be dry. But Jesse came to the rescue with words of wisdom that really got moral turned back around, “Overcoming adversity like this is what makes you a better and stronger man, we need to finish what we started.” Of course he was right, and a half hour later we were packed up and heading west toward the continental divide.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bear Bait: Dawson Pass Loop Day 1 - Glacier National Park

Within 30 minutes of walking we ran into a group of hikers going the opposite way, who warned us of a black bear ahead of us on the trail

I kind of slowed down, and was intently scanning the forest in front of me looking for it, trying to make sure that we wouldn't surprise each other. The woods were thick with spruce, and pine, and fir, and even aspen, and all I could see were a thousand shades of green and brown.  Two Medicine Lake, I knew, was maybe a couple hundred feet from my left shoulder, but I couldn't even see it through the trees. I couldn't see squat. I felt like the point-man on a U.S.  Special Forces team in some southeast Asian jungle, trying spot the enemy first before I stumbled into an ambush.

 I know the bear isn't my enemy, but  frankly I didn't want to surprise the hell out of it and get attacked by the damn thing. I kept thinking about that poor hiker in Kentucky last June who was almost eaten by a black bear. If he hadn't been rescued by another group of hikers he would have been dinner. But I had some companions with me, so I wasn't too worried.

We were being loud. We sang some Tom Petty. We clapped our hands. We called out “hey bear” and “coming through bear”, or even the occasional enticement “people steaks” and “Special tonight, leg-of-Larson, come and get it”. It was pretty amusing coming up with funny little quips to yell into the woods to ward off bears…  And in this particular instant it didn't even work.

I had just about given up. I thought the bear must be gone and I wasn't going to see it.  I glanced to my left and my eyes locked with the eyes of a bear that was standing about 15 feet just off the trail in front of me. He was staring right at me, watching me coming, and I didn't see him until I was nearly right on top of him. The instant I saw him, I was startled, which in turn startled the bear, who jumped just as a person would when you scare the crap out of them, did a lightning  fast 180 degree turn, and took off into the woods. He got about 30 feet before he ran into some huckleberry bushes and sat down for lunch.

He was big and black and the light gleaming off his manicured coat looked like something a rich woman would have worn back in the day. He paid no attention to us at all, just sat there eating like we weren't even there.  I took some pics, and soon we were on our way again. I couldn't help but wonder how the outcome might have been different if it was a 500 pound grizzly instead of a 150 pound black bear (that’s what it looked like to me). Not that 150 pounds is small. I remember Luke remarking that it was just the size of a big dog.  Well 150 pounds is a huge dog (and coincidentally also the size of the bear that mauled that dude in Kentucky).  I remember my old dog Bruener (who I compare all big dogs too), he was about 110 and scared the holy crap out of everybody, and could have killed just about anyone if he wanted to. Seeing the bear up close like that was surreal, but it wasn't scary. I realized 5 minutes after we left him that I didn't even reach for the bear spray I had on my hip.

About 15 minutes later we had another encounter that truly did scare me.  Jesse was up front, and somehow spotted a bull moose off the trail to our left about 60 feet or so into the woods. I t was by far the biggest animal I have ever seen in the wild. His rack was 5 feet long from end-to-end it looked like a damn school bus. I know that I’m exaggerating, but I was kind of freaked. It just stood there holding its ground staring. It’s like it was sizing us up. I remarked to the guys, “That thing is gigantic and it’s staring right at us” and Jesse goes, “Yeah, should we be standing here? Let’s go!” I took a couple heart pounding (it was so huge) pictures and we boogied.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Gear Review: Big Agnes Fairview 1

In the wind on Heart Lake, Montana

I was looking for a good lightweight solo tent that wasn't going to break the bank, and when I found this baby on REI Outlet for $150.0, I snatched it up. I admit I was hesitant at first because of the price, and the fact that I hadn't heard anything about it, but I trusted in the Big Agnes name, and pulled the trigger.

There is nothing fancy about this tent, it's just simple and functional. The cross-pole design is so easy to pitch you could probably do it with your eyes closed. I am 5'8" and broad shouldered, and this tent was very roomy for me. I had plenty of clearance on both sides and head-to-toe. I could sit up easy without touching my head on the top, and the inside pockets were perfect for my headlamp and bear spray. Unlike other solo tents I've seen, it's not like you're sleeping in a coffin. It actually feels like a tent.

It rained on me every night on a trip in Montana's Lolo National Forest, and not an ounce of water got in. It most certainly is waterproof. I was somewhat concerned about moisture on the inside due to the lack of mesh, but found it dry every morning. The very top of the inner wall is all mesh, and combined with the vents on the rainfly, it really circulates air well. Speaking of the rainfly, the vestibule is quite small, but should be just enough to cover your gear.

I also dealt with fairly high winds (30-40mph) camped on shore at a high mountain lake, and had zero problems. I didn't even guy it out all the way, and it held fast all night. In the morning my hiking companion's Kelty Crestone looked like it took a beating, but the Fairview was still taut and sturdy.

The bottom line is that I really love this tent. The only drawback with this tent (like almost all freestanding tents) is the weight, at 3lbs 8oz. If you're thinking ultra-light it is way too heavy. In fact, this tent is straight-up heavy. If ultra-light isn't your deal, and you would rather sleep soundly at night with the knowledge that you're protected from the elements, then I would highly recommend this tent. 

**UPDATE** 12/7/11

A lot of people have been reading this review so I wanted to throw out a quick update.

I have had this sucker for two hiking seasons now and my opinion of it hasn't changed at all. I LOVE it! Every time I take it backpacking I am constantly reminded of how awesome this tent is. The pitch is so tight and it's roomy. I still have had ZERO problems with condensation or leaking. Now, since I first wrote this review my preferences have shifted to more of an "ultralight" style so at 3 pounds it is on the heavy side. But if you are doing overnights and weekends and weight doesn't bother you, this thing is perfect. 

Without the rainfly on Cabin Lake, Montana

The vestibule is small, but still enough for one persons stuff. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Got No Time

You should see my calendar. If I lived by the schedule of events marked on it, then I surely would not be feeling the way I am today. Every weekend is booked with some kind of backpacking adventure. Hells Canyon, Horseshoe Basin, Mount Bonaparte, Salmo-Priest Wilderness... I really had July mapped out. 

I could have never anticipated that work would be so crazy! A river of work pouring in every day since May, and I feel like I might drown in it. I'm grateful for my job, but tired of the 10 hour days, and the 6 day weeks.

My days always start the same, the alarm goes off at 4:15am and I awake absolutely shocked that it's time to go to work already. I can't believe it! Snooze is my best friend and my worst enemy until about 4:30 when I finally crawl out of bed. I brush my teeth and tell myself that I will go to bed at 7 tonight, and get 9 hours of sleep....At 4:40 in the damn morning I am already looking forward to going to bed. 

I haul ass to work and clock in at 5:00. I am an expert in making it to work right on time. Before I do anything I make coffee. I need it. I want it. I cant possible make it through the day without it. I am an addict. 

And the next 10 hours is relatively uneventful. I day dream all day long while my body moves like an automaton going through the motions of work. I feel like a zombie. I have to pee because I've drunk 3 cups of coffee and a bottle of water by 7. I wash my hands and stare at myself in the mirror. Those lines at the corners of my eyes are getting deep. The wrinkles on my forehead are worse. The gray in my beard is spreading like an invasive species, threatening to outnumber and overrun the native blacks and browns and reds that are fighting so gallantly. 

Break-time and I fall asleep on a chair with my close-fisted left hand jammed rudely into my left cheek. I dream I am laying on a bed near the checkout lane of a grocery store. I am trying to sleep but the people in line are being noisy as they poke fun at me...

Enough about work. I did manage to make it out on 4th of July weekend. My Uncle Steve and I gallivanting over in Montana at Lolo National Forrest. We saw lots of cool stuff. Pristine rivers and streams, and lakes so clear you could see the bottom. 

We saw mountains big and small, some covered in trees, and others jutting slabs of bare gray granite.

We saw tracks from deer and elk and moose and cougar and bear. We saw wildflowers everywhere, some even seemingly growing from solid rock... We saw a couple other backpackers. 

We saw a deer that was so unafraid of us that it made me afraid. A large doe crept down the mountainside and into our camp. She sniffed and prowled and moseyed around our camp for nearly a half an hour, and I guessed she must have been fed by humans in the past. She didn't care if I walked right passed her, or told her to go away. Finally we decided it was enough and chased her off yelling loud and doing our best to sound fierce. It made me sad because it showed first hand how human feeding can change a wild animal. If it were a bear, then this story could have ended very differently, and almost surely would have resulted in the bears death at the hands of Forest Rangers. 

We spent three days out there in the wilderness, which isn't very long actually. John Muir, the great conservationist and mountaineer, said that to have a true wilderness experience one must spend at least 2 weeks in the wild... I don't know how I could ever get two weeks off. I often fantasize about the long trails; The John Muir Trail, The Wonderland Trail, The Kettle Crest, and even the PCT and CDT... They are just dreams now, but one day I hope to make them happen... For now it's zombie time.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


The next time I go to Mount St. Helens, I have to climb to the top. After all, every person I told about my trip last week responded with the same question, “Are you climbing to the top?” It seems, even, that some people can’t think of any reason to go to Mt Saint Helens other than to climb to the top; which is exactly why I planned a trip to the remote northern edge of Mount St. Helens National Monument, because I knew no one would be there.

The plan for this trip, revised a dozen times, and finalized the night before we left, went like this. There were 2 groups of three backpackers. Group A, consisting of my brother Kelly, Jason, and myself, would enter at the extreme north side of the park and backpack roughly 11 miles through cascading waterfalls and rushing mountain streams, over the 5,200 foot peak of Tumwater Mountain, to a sandy-beached mountain lake called “Deadman”, where we would meet with Group B, Luke and the two Steve’s. They were coming in from the northeastern end of the park at a place called “Ryan Lake”. They would backpack up the Goat Mountain Trail, summit the mountain, and meet us at Deadmans Lake 5.5 miles in.

We made the 6 hour drive late in the afternoon on Thursday. After dodging a few elk along White Pass we arrived at our trailhead at about 1 am. Well, technically it wasn’t our trailhead. The week before, due to the higher than normal volume of rain, there was a rockslide that completely buried a section of the road in dirt and huge granite boulders. We knew about the rockslide in advance so we parked the car and hiked in the dark about a half mile to the actual trailhead and pitched our tents. We awoke in the morning blanketed in fog and as we broke camp and sipped coffee we talked about how great our day was going to be. Before we started out we were surprised to realize when the fog lifted that we had camped about 20 feet from a giant cliff that dropped perhaps 100 feet or so into a beautiful tree filled valley below. I suppose that’s why they say you shouldn’t hike in the dark.

The trail skirted the mountain side going up and down over numerous mountain streams running hard from the Spring thaw. Water was everywhere. It poured from the mountain and even seemed to leak from solid rock. Green was everywhere! The forest floor was covered in small green plants and ferns, and moss and lichen hung from rocks and trees. To me it seemed ancient and pre-historic, and reminded me of the rainforest on the Olympic Coast and of the inland rainforest of the Salmo-Priest wilderness.

We passed a cave and several small waterfalls. We saw spider webs rigged like nets on the hillside to catch falling insects, and everywhere we looked we saw slugs. What took the cake however, was the massive 150’ Leona falls. This enormous waterfall drops majestically from above onto a huge moss covered rock below creating an unforgettable scene, and just like the movie “Last of the Mohicans” our trail went around behind the falls into a huge limestone cavern. It was an amazing experience.

The trail now began to descend into a valley where we came across an ancient goliath standing near the trail. I’m no botanist and I don’t know the species, but I can tell you it definitely was not a cedar. The tree was one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. When I put my hand on it I felt like that tree had stood watch over those woods for hundreds of years… And it probably did.

Water was everywhere, and the sound of its flow filled our ears, from the gentle melody of a meandering stream to the violent cacophony of water breaking over rock. I remember standing on the trail looking down into a lush green canyon at a surging stream cascading over rocks and under deadfalls and I was overcome with the realization that I was witnessing beauty in its purest and realist form, and I felt blessed to be there and be a part of it…

After fording a couple streams we began to do some serious climbing. Straight up the trail went as we switched-backed our way to the top of Tumwater Mountain. The green gave way to gray and brown as the temperature got colder and the air became thinner as we climbed higher and higher. The pitch was steep and we just had to put our heads down and drive-on. We knew we were getting close to the top. At about 4,500’ we took a breather and in high spirits talked about how good of time we were making… It was 1 o’clock.

A hundred feet later we ran into fog, and not long after that we noticed snow on the forest floor. We were nearing Tumwater Lake, which is really just a pond that sits in the shadow of the peak near the summit. As we rounded a bend our trail disappeared into snow, and in front of us, as far as we could see, was snow. At this point I really wanted to stay on track. I wanted Jason and Kelly’s first time backpacking to be nothing short of totally amazing. So, we continued on, using map and compass, and Jason’s GPS, to keep track of our location. We came to a snow-covered clearing and I immediately realized that I was looking at Tumwater Lake, still frozen, and covered with snow. I was counting on this to be our water source. We hadn’t seen water in a couple miles and aside from a couple swallows in Jason’s bottle, we were dry.

At this point I considered turning back, but stubbornly I suggested that we should go on, and that we could pick the trail back up on the other side of the mountain. It was slow going in the snow. Although some of it was packed hard enough to walk on, some of it wasn’t, and as a result Kelly and I kept falling through the snow, sometimes up to our waist. We were skirting a hillside and the going was slow and grueling. I kept thinking that over the next ridge, the snow would be gone, so we kept inching forward. We all started to become fatigued. My mouth was parched. My lips were dry and cracking. I desperately wanted a drink of water, and although we were surrounded by snow, I did not want to stop our progress to boil any. I was exerting myself much more now than the hike up. I started feeling sick and clumsy, but stupidly I kept moving forward. I knew that If I was feeling this bad, Kelly and Jason might be too since they have never even been backpacking before and I was in better hiking shape. Jason announced it was 3 pm. We had spent nearly 3 hours trudging through snow.

I had a topographic map in my hand, and I stumbled in the snow and sunk to my groin. 5 minutes later I realized that my map was gone. Finally we stopped and huddled up. I knew we had to turn back. I kept thinking of the Donner Party snowbound in the Sierra Nevada’s eating each other to survive. I was just telling Kelly the day before that in survival situations the skinny person always dies first. I told Jason that he might be on the menu if we stay out here any longer, but I was still torn with this desire not to let Kelly and Jason down. I told them to wait while I climbed to the top of the next ridge and looked on the other side. I got about a quarter of the way and thought “what the hell am I doing?”

We turned around and followed our old footprints to the frozen lake, where we took our packs off, had a snack, and rested. I used a stick to poke a hole through the slushy ice on the lake and we all filled our water containers. After a brief respite we made our way back to the trail and a flat spot on the mountainside where we made camp on the only dry spot in a field of snow. We were all wet from being in the snow so long. Kelly and Jason both had leakage into their boots that soaked their socks and turned their toes blue. We ate dinner, but despite our best efforts, could not get a fire going. No sooner did we retire into our tents for bed did it start raining. I laid there in my sleeping bag going over the last part of the day in my mind. I should have never led us into that snow. A lesson I will never forget.

It rained all night, and it was pouring buckets while broke camp the next morning. Everything was soaked; our packs, our clothes, our tents, everything. We decided to skip breakfast and power-hike down the mountain, and power-hike we did. We came down in less than half the time it took us to go up, and by 11am we were sitting in the Mount Adams Café drinking coffee and hot cocoa.

It turns out Group B with Luke and the 2 Steve’s had a similar experience. They ran into snow and lost the trail at around 5,000 feet on Goat Ridge, and camped on the ridge next to a snow field. All in all it was a great trip. It didn’t end the way I would have liked, but I had fun and learned a lot, and everyone got home ok.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Gear Review: The North Face Venture Parka

The North Face Venture Parka is basically a lightweight, breathable, rain jacket. I could have sworn that when I bought it, the advertisement I read claimed it was both water and windproof, but after some research for writing this review I can't find any support for the windproof claim. 

Hard shell
It rained for three days straight on this trip
This parka is really sharp looking and yet very durable. I've used it day hiking, backpacking, car camping, and even around town in bad weather. It's one of those pieces of gear that just looks and fits really nice, so it's perfect for almost any occasion.

I like how long the cut is, which is the reason it's called a parka and not a jacket. Mine is an XL and at 5'8" it reaches down to the mid-thigh level. However, I usually cinch it at the bottom so it's closer to my waist. This ability to adjust the length with a drawstring really comes in handy, especially if you're backpacking.

Like I mentioned previously, I've worn this parka a ton, from day trips to multi-day backpacking trips where it's rained every day. When I first purchased it, I had not doubt of it's waterproofness. I was rained on 4 days straight in Olympic National Park, and stayed reasonably dry. The problem is that when you do get moisture under the parka, it's hard to tell whether it's rain seeping through, or just sweat. I am not quite sold on the breathability of this, or any water proof item. The fact is that if you hiking in hard rain for hours at a time, your core will warm, you will sweat, and your layers underneath will get damp. Obviously it is breathable, but in a limited fashion. Almost like a pair of boots. You can spend big money on waterproof, supposedly breathable boots, but it won't stop your feet from sweating, and your socks from getting damp. It's the same with this parka. Of course the armpit zippers really help in that department. When I don this parka usually the first thing I do is unzip the armpits. That way I can have some airflow to help it breath and keep me cool.

The waterproofness is questionable too. Not that I've ever been soaked wearing this jacket, but I have noticed a decrees in performance over the years. Whether that is from washing, heavy use, or both, I'm not sure. Now, after nearly 5 years of use, I will it coat with a waterproofing spray before I use it in adverse weather, where I am expecting lost of rain. But most of the time it has kept me relatively dry, and usually I am wearing a quick-drying layer underneath, so when the parka comes off my shirt will dry pretty fast.

Probably my favorite thing about this jacket is how light and compressible it is. The North Face's web site lists the average weight at 15.5oz and that seems accurate, although truth be told, I've never weighed it. It is super compressible though. You can roll up into a baseball size ball, or just throw in the top of your pack (like I do), and you wont even notice it's there.

Overall a good buy, especially if you don't want to fork over the dough for some of the really expensive hard shells. As long as you take care of it, this The North Face Venture Parka will keep you protected for years.
Rain jacket
Upper Priest Lake, Idaho

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The West is the Best - Shipwreck Coast III

… We rolled out of our tents on day three and were greeted by another cloudy day. I knew it had been raining off and on because I was occasionally woken by the pattering of rain drops against my tent in the night. For now it was dry, and after the tide receded some, we were off.

Like the day before I was worried about Stevie. What was left of his plastic red parka he had wrapped around his head and wore like a turban. I found my gaze constantly drawn toward the sea as I scanned the horizon for a clue to the incoming weather. I could see so far west that I spotted all the rain clouds before they reached us. Rain clouds over the ocean are quite a bit different then ones you see in town. They are so dark and ominous, and with nothing blocking your vision of the all encompassing sky they almost seem like massive black bombers soaring high above the sea searching for landfall so they could dump their deadly payloads. We could see them coming from miles out, and when we could, we sheltered under giant deadfalls or behind huge boulders to escape the rain.

This day would be opposite of the one before. It didn’t rain nearly as much, and most of the route we had beautiful sand beaches to walk on. It was like a walk-in-the-park compared to what we had already gone through. I had my camera out the whole way and was taking pictures like crazy. I took over 600 in all.

We found some Halloween vampire fangs just sitting on the beach. “How the hell could these have got here?” I wondered. Think about it for a second. We were basically in the middle of nowhere. The closest town or road was 10 miles or more as the crow flies. It is highly unlikely that someone brought them backpacking and dropped them. The only possible explanation is that they washed up on the beach, but from where? Somewhere south on the Pacific coast perhaps? One of the Pacific islands maybe? I guess it’s possible that someone went swimming shitfaced on Halloween dressed as a vampire and lost their fake teeth, which floated across the Pacific and wound up on the Olympic coast, which happens to be where the most famous vampire movie ever made is based. Either that or someone lost them from a boat, but then you have to ask yourself, “Why would someone be wearing fake vampire teeth on a boat?”

I was really looking forward to a place called "Wedding Rocks" where I knew some centuries old petroglyph's existed. I had heard they were hard to find, but I didn't realize how hard. I searched for about 15 minutes and found a couple drawings etched into some rocks, one of which looked like it might be fake. I guess I'll need an expert to inspect my photos and tell me.

We ended the days trek at a place called Cape Alava, the western most point in the contiguous United States. It was beautiful, and crawling with the other backpackers, enough to play a game of beach baseball. I have never seen so many backpackers in one place before. Usually when we go backpacking we see maybe one or two other small groups, but on this beach there were twenty or thirty people.
As the sun crept closer to the western horizon the scene from our camp became picturesque. So I yanked out my camera and fired away. I got by-far the best shots I’ve ever taken. When I got home and uploaded them to my laptop I was in shock that I actually took them.

After the sun went down and we sat around the fire eating freeze-dried dinners and reminiscing about the adventures of the last couple days, I spotted movement in the trees near our camp. I flicked on my head-lamp and after scanning the woods for a minute saw a huge raccoon sitting anxiously on a tree branch totally scoping our camp and watching us eat. These little pirates are what the park service is so worried about, and why all backpackers are forced to carry large, obtrusive bear canisters, so I was a bit worried that he was going to slip into camp and ransack are stuff in the night. I was hopeful though that since we ran a tight ship in camp the raccoons would bother some of the other backpackers on the beach, who, no doubt, had much worse camp discipline then we. Either way, when morning came our camp was untouched.

The last 3.5 miles to the Ozette Lake Ranger Station was actually overland and through woods. I was grateful to be hiking through more familiar territory with trees and shrubs and streams and everything green. The woods on the coast are thick and wet, so thick in fact that the park service had actually built a boardwalk the entire 3 or so miles from Ozette Lake to Cape Alava. We marveled at the time it must have taken, and the sheer difficulty of the job.

As we walked out through the lush coastal rainforest it felt so different from the past few days; it was quiet, calm, and peaceful, and it gave me time to reflect on how lucky I was. As we pulled out of the parking lot, my thoughts were on Memorial Day weekend and Upper Priest Lake.

PS – It’s funny how writing works for me. The first two chapters of this story were virtually written in my mind before I even touched the keyboard. This last part however, was so hard I had to force my way through, and the result I feel is a lesser quality of writing.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Gear Review: The North Face Orion 20

I was looking for a sleeping bag comparable to the weight and compressibility of down, but with the ability to retain insulation when wet. Living in the Pacific Northwest (or NorthWet as some call it) I was worried about buying an expensive down bag and getting it wet, so I felt like synthetic would be a better choice for a climate known for rain. I found this sleeping bag on, which was the bag of choice in their March 2008 Perfect System: Northwest, and I purchased it from REI soon after.

Sleeping Bag
In action at Cabin Lake, MT
The North Face Orion is a 20 degree mummy bag with Climashield Neo insulation. I had never heard of Climashield before I found this bag and it's actually some really impressive stuff, at least according to Climashield and the U.S. military. I learned that Climashield, like Primaloft, was developed for the military for an alternative to down, which wasn't preforming well in the field. In fact Climashield is still the insulation of choice for the U.S military according to this article here. Now I can't confirm any claims about it being the "most compressible, warmest, softest, most durable, water resistant and hypoallergenic insulation", but I can say that it works pretty darn well.

This bag has it all. It's light and packs down really small. As a matter of fact it compresses smaller then my hiking partners Big Agnes Lost Ranger 15 down bag. It actually leaves enough space in my backpack's sleeping-bag compartment, that I can put other items in with it. At 2 pounds 5 ounces it's not the lightest sleeping bag on the market. There are plenty of lighter 20 degree down bags, but some of them are outrageously expensive compared to $179.0 of the Orion.

The bag is very warm. I would say it's close to the EN rating of 23 degrees. Lately my girlfriend has been using it, and she sleeps warm in it as well. But I have to admit that I have had several chilly nights in this bag. It is rated at 20 degrees, and I have used it down to that temperature, but I was chilly. Not cold mind you, just chilly. Now when I know the temps will be particularly cold, I bring a Sea to Summit silk sleeping bag liner.

The bag is a pretty snug fit for my wide frame, but I've gotten used to it over the years and sleep pretty comfortably. The zipper sometimes snags. Mostly at night when I'm fiddling with it in the dark half-asleep. As long as I'm being careful, I usually don't have a problem.

For the price, this bag is perfect. It's light and compacts very small, and will keep you warm during the vast majority of your 3-season nights. The best part about it is that if you always hike in the rain, like I do, you can rest assured that the insulating qualities wont be ruined if it gets wet.

Sleeping bag
Airing out in the morning.

Gear Review: Asolo Fugitive GTX

Iv'e spent a crazy amount of money on backpacking gear, and after 6 months of regular use I have to say that these boots have been one of my best investments so far. I tried on several pairs of various brands in the store and these Asolo Fugitives were by far the most comfortable.

Since then I have used the boots on a weekly, sometimes daily basis and I love them. They fit great and are comfortable on my feet, especially after I discovered the perfect "sock system" to wear with them, which is simply mid-weight Lorpin merinos with Smartwool liners.

One of the reasons I bought this style of boot was that I wanted something lighter and more breathable. Last summer I wore full-grain leather Vasques and my feet were hot and sweaty all the time. With the Fugitives, my feet feel good. My socks aren't wet when I take the boots off. The sweat factor on my feet are reduced. I don't think I'll ever go back to a full-grain upper again.

Case in point: I recently returned from a 4 day trek on the Olympic coast. My hiking partners who all wore full-grain leather boots were rotating out socks on lunch breaks. I wore the same socks the entire trip. They weren't even damp at the end of the day, which tells me that the boots are letting my feet breath.

The comfortability factor is high as well. Again on the same previously mentioned trip, my hiking partners complained of foot soreness. My feet felt good the entire time, and while my hiking partners chalked it up to "good feet", I am inclined to think that it was my lighter boots.

I can also attest to the waterproofness. I have hiked through swamps, marsh, tide-pools, and small streams, and have not had water penetrate the boot interior yet. As a matter of fact, one trip in early Spring left our boots all covered in mud. At the house afterwards we attached a pressurized nozzle to a garden hose and blasted our boots to get the caked mud off. My boots did not leak at all, even after spraying with high pressure from a foot away.

The only drawback I would say, is the tread. It doesn't seam to grip that great. Other then that, these boots rock, and are well worth the dough I payed for them.
*** UPDATE*** 1/13/12
After having these boots for a couple years now I regret to say that my feelings have changed regarding these boots. Both boots leak (albeit very little) and the tread on the soles are getting worse. Slipping is still a constant problem. The only other big change in my review would be that after I upped my daily mileage closer to 10, I suffer extreme foot pain with these boots. In fact, I quit wearing them backpacking because of this reason. They just aren't comfortable enough for longer miles. In fact I quit wearing boots all together and have moved to shoes, though I still wear these for day hikes in the winter time, which I think they are best suited for.
This shot doesn't do this drop off justice. These boots are best suited for shorter hikes in winter-like conditions.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Testing... 123

Did I tell you guys I landed a really sweet gig as a Gear Tester for Cocona Fabrics a few weeks ago?

So I ran across an add in Backpacker Magazine from a fabrics company called Cocona, who make fabric using the fiber of a coconut. They were looking for backpackers, skiers, mountain bikers, and the like to test their new line of functional outdoor clothing. So I figured "what the hell" and applied... This was probably in February.

A couple weeks ago I get a letter from Cocona saying I got the job! Well, it's not really a job... What happens is they send me gear that I have to test when I'm in the outdoors. I have to fill out a "test form" for each test I perform with the "test-garment" and keep a blog (which they have created for me on their website) detailing the adventures I am having with their gear and how it's holding up. All I get in return, is the gear, which is all mine to keep... Which is also pretty cool IMO.

So today I got my first package from them, and I am just so darn excited! Anyways, here is their website if anyone wants to check them out.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Shipwreck Coast II - The Harder They Fall

Spirits were high Friday morning as we awoke to the songs of sea birds and the ever present breathing of the mighty Pacific. We set out expecting an easier road, one devoid of ankle-spraining rocks and sock-soaking tide pools, but it was not to be. The terrain only worsened. As we continued north the already narrow strip of beach was replaced by vertical cliffs and huge boulders that forced us further out the rocky sea bed, now exposed because of the low tide.

A half-hour into our walk the gray overcast sky above opened up and started to rain. We were prepared of course. The winter months spent with weekly visits to REI produced a wealth of rain gear for me, Luke, and Uncle Steve. Stevie on the other hand wasn’t as well prepared. His rain gear consisted of a cheap plastic red poncho, and a black garbage bag for his pack cover. I was worried about his rain gear leading up to the trip. Any time I brought it up however, brought a confident “I’m not worried about the rain” reply. Now, as the rain pelted us from above I was worried about Stevie. “I should have brought an extra rain jacket just in case,” I told myself. Stevie though is from a hardy breed. Mixed Cherokee and Irish, he is one of the toughest men I’ve ever known, and true to form he never even flinched at the downpour, or showed the slightest bit of concern for himself.

The rain didn’t let up, and an hour later the rocks we had to walk across were slicker then a freshly waxed gym floor. We had to move carefully or risk spraining an ankle, or falling and breaking a bone. Despite our caution we all fell down periodically. It was amazing that none of us were hurt. We walked for hours this way; plodding along, eyes darting left and right searching for the best place to step, gingerly testing each surface with our toes before committing our full weight. Our heads were down most of the day as sightseeing gave way to path finding.

It’s said that an average hiker walks 2 miles per hour over flat ground. We were probably doing half that speed or less. As morning became afternoon we searched for a place to get out of the rain, take our packs off for a while, and have some lunch. Our only respite a small cave near a headland covered in rocks and tide pools. Only three of us would fit in the cave at a time, so we rotated.

I wanted to move. I was worried about Stevie. Under his poncho his clothes were already wet, and I could see spots of moisture on his sleeping bag. Hypothermia is the biggest killer of humans in the wild, and even though we were far from that point, I couldn’t help but feel like we needed urgently to get Stevie out of the rain before his gear was soaked, and the only way to do that was to find our camp, set up our tents, and build a fire.

After a short snack we were back at it, now however, I was on a mission. The map said our camp was close. On a large beach a couple miles ahead at a place called “Yellow Banks”, after the yellow colored cliffs on the beach head. Luke and I, rounding a small cape, came in sight of our beach, and one of the most glorious sights of our trip. The beach, to me, looked like it was straight out of King Kong or The Lost World. It was sand, mostly, with the usual piles of large deadfalls scattered about. What made this beach different were two things. First the waves were much higher than we had previously seen. They came roaring into the small bay creating tunnels like the ones you see in the surfer movies, and then exploded like a bomb when they hit the beach. The second thing was this beach had high cliffs surrounded by thick jungle. The coastal forest of the Olympic peninsula is a rainforest after all, and at the Yellow Banks is where it really lived up to that billing. The word that best comes to mind to describe the scene is “savage.”

While Luke hung back to wait for the two Steve’s, I scouted on ahead to try and locate our camp. Immediately I noticed the sky was filled with huge birds, five or six at a time flying and circling overhead. The Bald Eagle was the easy one to pick out, but there were others, at least one, and perhaps two. I am not a bird guy so it was hard to tell the species, but I think now there were the Peregrine Falcon, and maybe the Osprey or some type of hawk. Anyways, they were magnificent, and much of the time spent at Yellow Banks I watched and took pictures.

Eventually after much recon, and almost stumbling over a large seal carcass with exposed ribs, rotted flesh and bulging eyes, I discovered a nearly vertical mud trail ascending a 15 foot embankment with a rope hanging down. I grabbed the rope and hauled myself up and found a camp. It was far from ideal, but we made it work. Uncle Steve had a fire going in no time despite the utter lack of anything dry. Not long after the rain stopped, and we proceeded with the business of pitching our tents and trying to find a water source, which we found in a beautiful saddle tucked away between two steep hills…

Later that night, just before dark, Stevie decided to try his luck at Army Ranger. Grabbing the rope that led to camp he tried to repel down the embankment… Now Stevie has taken some classic tumbles in his day. I have personally witnessed Stevie take some falls that would maim and injure a normal man, and pop right up. This has to take the cake. Steve jumps backwards with rope in his hands, and the steak that the rope is tied to comes out of the ground. Head over heels backwards down the hill he goes. When he hits the bottom he rolls over rocks and deadfalls, and then jumps right up as if nothing happened. He is so lucky he wasn’t hurt. Of course, once I realized he wasn’t hurt, I laughed my ass off.

to be continued...

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Shipwreck Coast

Part I – The End of the World

I don’t know how to write such a long trip report as the one I am currently filing. I figure it would be best to break it up into parts so that the reader isn’t intimidated or bored by its length. As I post each “part” of the story I will also upload the corresponding pictures into my photo album…

The Olympic coast is called the “Shipwreck Coast” for good reason; over 180 wrecks have been documented there. With such a powerful tide, and the numerous offshore rocks and islands, it’s easy to see why. The tide seems at a never-ending war with the rocks, and the sea stacks, and the islands, and the cliffs, which are battered by the relentless waves day and night. But they stubbornly hold their ground. Despite the constant barrage, they endure, and though it may seem like a stalemate, we know that the waves are slowly winning, and over time the rocks will fall and the cliffs will crumble... It is the sound of this endless war that dominates the coast.

The coastal cannonade echoed down the shore, over Rialto Beach, and into the parking lot where we lucky four, me, Luke, his dad Steve (henceforth called Uncle Steve) and Steve Keller (henceforth called Stevie) prepared for our journey. As I watched our shuttle driver John Nelson (brother of Willie Nelson) speed away, one of my long time best friends Stevie walked up after a peek at the beach and announced, “It looks like the end of the world out there boys.” We had to raise our voices to be heard over the thunderous waves. I walked up over the hill that separated the parking lot from the beach to see for myself. The first thing I noticed was the sea. Huge and mighty and limitless, the high tide crashed against the beach and against the islands just offshore. To my left was the regal James Island standing guard over the Quileute village of La Push, where werewolves supposedly live. The other thing I noticed immediately was the trees. Apparently the Olympic coast isn’t just a graveyard for ships, as deadfalls are stacked like cordwood by the hundreds along its beaches.

We started out on foot headed north from Rialto beach. Our plan for the first day was to go 8.8 miles to our first camp at Cedar Creek. Along the way we would negotiate five points that would be impassable at high tide. The tide turned out not to be too much of a problem for us. With a custom correct map and a tide chart we could accurately predict when the tide would be low enough, and any time limits we had for passing certain points along our route. The problem was that none of us brought any type of instrument to tell the time. But even telling time was relatively simple. Using the tide chart we knew what times corresponded with the changing levels of the tide. So by physically watching the tide change in conjunction with the chart, and backed by the position and movement of the sun through the sky, we could tell the time fairly accurately, and that is exactly how we did it the entire trip.

Rialto beach is covered in sand and gravel, and trees. The deadfalls were huge and we wondered where they all came from. Some of them looked like they were 10 or 20 feet in diameter. We speculated that they could be Sequoias carried north from California a long time ago. Now I think they were giant Western Red Cedars that have fallen down on the beach from years and years of erosion. Of course, I’m no expert, that is just my guess based off of what it looked like to me, because the trees that were still standing on the forest edge were huge too, and some looked on the verge of falling over.

We started passing large sea stacks at the water’s edge. The incredible thing about these sea stacks is that these giant rocks sometimes have trees growing out of them. I don’t know how the roots take hold, but they do. Eventually we made our way to Hole in the Wall, where we were introduced to the treacherous terrain that would make this trek really difficult at times. Miles and miles of rock, covered by slime and seaweed and who-knows what else, that slowed our progress at every turn.

Crossing over these rocks at low tide, we discovered dozens of tide pools, in which we found some interesting and colorful sea life, like green sea urchins and purple starfish. Crab was the most common. I don’t know what kind they were but we saw them almost the whole way. I was surprised to see the beach was also littered with all sorts of manmade objects that must have washed ashore. We saw tires, and gas cans, and shoes, and Styrofoam containers, and fishing nets, and water bottles, and probably hundreds of buoys, which someone had tied to the roots of deadfalls in some places. It was actually quite bizarre to see so many signs of humans in a place so removed from civilization.

That first day was long and hard, but beautiful. We had eyes on the sea the whole day. Only once did we have to take an overland route because of an impassible headland. By the time we got to Cedar Creek we were all in need of a meal and good night sleep. The camp, it turned out, was the sweetest camp this side of heaven. Nestled on a hill overlooking a beautiful sand beach, it was picturesque, and we all agreed as far as camping goes, it didn’t get much better. After we made camp and had dinner, we sat on some fallen trees on the beach and watched our first sunset. They would only get better.

We all dozed off in our tents to the rhythmic sound of the waves, and dreams of an easy tomorrow… But we were mistaken. Tomorrow had its own plans, and we weren’t consulted about them.

Training with Ticks: Coeur d'Alene National Recreation Trail


This was supposed to be a training hike for the Olympic coast. Test our gear, test our legs, no problem, in and out. The original plan was to take two vehicles, and leave one at the most northern trailhead of the Ceour D Alene National Recreation Trail, come in from the south and hike its entire 14 mile length, with an overnight in between at Jordan camp. This was not to be however, as a Forrest Ranger explained to me the day before we left, "All the trail heads are snowed in, 'cept one!"

Okay, new plan, no problem. We would do it the old fashion way, in and out. The place is beautiful, an hour away from Spokane, and deep in the Idaho panhandle. Wildlife viewing was plentiful right from the start. How lucky can we be? Two Bald Eagles perched on leafless trees less than 50 feet from the road. Five minutes later a couple of young bull elk fraternizing in the middle of the street. I exited the truck to take some shots with the Nikon, and as I crept in closer all I could think about were all the stupid tourists that get mauled by buffalo in Yellowstone every year and wind up on “When Animals Attack!” on TBS. I think I need a more powerful zoom lens because the 18-55 mm doesn’t cut the mustard for the wildlife shots.
We hit the trail around 10am, and after a quarter-mile dropped down into a gorgeous river valley. Spring was still in its infancy at these headwaters and the colors were those of the cold, but I could imagine that when the flowers bloom, and the leaves of the sleeping trees awaken, and the sounds of birds and bugs join in the rushing rivers song, then it is an even more beautiful place. 

 Another quarter-mile on the valley floor and we began to climb, probably the steepest of the trip. Finally we reached a hilltop at the base of the mountain that provided our best view so far. The meandering Coeur d’ Alene swerved determinedly through a plane of dull yellow brush, and around towering dark-brown rock formations full of mysterious caves and crevices. The riverside was a sheer rock cliff, dropping down perhaps 150 feet to the river below, whose currents caused a never ending cycle of waves crashing against its base. It was a spectacular view.

We were spoiled by the views for the next 4 or 5 miles, as the trail wound around the mountain sides dipping into saddles and forcing us to make several stream crossings. These streams, I imagine, are nearing full strength as the snows melt from the mountain tops. With such a mild winter, I wonder how far into the summer they will last…?

Jordan camp came too soon. It turned out to be an actual campground, but this early in the season it was deserted. Well, it wasn't totally deserted. The April residents of Jordan camp are ticks. Steve found one first crawling on his neck. Luke found one on his pants heading for his crotch. All-in-all between Steve, Luke, Michael, and me, we found around 25 ticks on our bodies by trips end. Most were picked up on the trail, some in the camp. Only two were actually “attached”, one on my shoulder, and one in Luke’s belly button. Luckily I had my trusty first aid kit that my mom bought me for Christmas, and I promptly removed them with tweezers.

The act of tick removal, high up on a cliff overlooking the river, started the funniest moment of the trip. Please, picture this scene in your mind’s eye. We were all standing around, shirts off, pants down, inspecting our bodies for ticks. My Uncle Steve mentioned that he “loathed” ticks and described them as the most “vile” of all creatures. He then got the quote of the day after I pulled a squirming tick from his right butt cheek, “Death is too good for a tick,” he said. This launched the talk into a competition over who could think of the most creative way to torture a tick. Not surprisingly Steve won the contest with this delightful technique. “You pin the tick to a board and pull its legs off, then prick your finger and let a drop of blood fall just a quarter-inch away.” The creative names we gave the ticks were funnier still; hitchhiker, squatter, freeloader, socialist, etc.

When all was said-and-done it was a great “training” hike. Luke unfortunately though got sick. He came down with some type of flu, exhibiting a fever, chills, upset stomach, and aches and pains in his legs and feet. I tried to give him some drugs but he refused, citing his infamous philosophy, “embrace the pain." He busted his ass for seven long hard miles, in what he described as one of the hardest experiences of his life, never once complaining or asking for help. He soldiered on.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Swamp Frog Symphony: Liberty Lake Loop

I wen't on a hike last Saturday with Roby up at Liberty Lake. I brought my new REI Flash 30 pack, and of course my camera. 5 minutes into the hike we come to the marsh at the end of the lake. I know when it's just around the bend because the frogs are always going crazy. A frog symphony if you will, and yet I cannot ever seem to spot a single performer.

I peruse the waters edge squinty-eyed and diligent in my quest, and even though there must be hundreds of the little Kermits croaking the day away mere feet from myself, I can't find a one. But the early Spring scenery is a breath of fresh air from the cold gray winter, and momentarily inspired I pull my camera from its case and line up the perfect shot. Well, maybe not perfect. This Saturday happens to be the prettiest day we've had for weeks. The rains have taken a break, and the sun has resumed its rightful place as king of the sky and provider of beautiful Spring days. As such the trail is busy today. I don't have time to take the perfect shot because the two cute college girls in Gonzaga shirts and North Face soft shells are closing in fast, and behind them an army of Boy Scouts are on the march. Quickly, but carefully, I find the shot I want, and when I press the shutter button all the way down I get a flashing message in bold red letters reading, "No SD Card Inserted". Damn. So much for that plan.

Of course, this happens to be the day that Roby and I notice a dozen other "perfect" shots. A woman on horseback crossing Liberty Creek, the last vestiges of ice holding on to the bottom of a fallen fir tree, a mushroom so gargantuan that people have actually signed it, a huge stump of burlwood that looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie. I took a couple shots with the phone but it's not the same. The only one that turned out okay was Roby wringing out his socks after I led him through a swamp and his feet got soaked. I couldn't help but cracking up laughing the entire time. I felt bad, but it was just so damn funny!

Next week is our big trip to the Olympic coast. I am beside myself with excitement. I have been
obsessing about backpacking since the Fall and am anxious to finally hit the trail. I have found someone to shuttle us for $150.00 big ones. His name is Willie Nelson, and yes, he looks just like Willie Nelson the country singer. Luke's knee is feeling better, which is really good news. This weekend we are going backpacking at the headwaters of the Coeur d' Alene River to test out Luke's knee, and some of our new gear. If he can do this 14 miles he can do 23 on the coast. I am keeping my fingers crossed.