Monday, July 30, 2012

Beating the Barge

As part of the celebration of my 25 Years in Seattle which officially starts in August, I have been writing about some experiences that I've had in the past 25 years that have been instrumental in shaping me as a person and how I experience my life in the Pacific Northwest.

The following describes my participation in the Ski to Sea Relay in Belllingham, May of 1989 (I think). Our team name was "The Lactic Asses" (my idea) and we were a group of bicycle messengers. I was the kayaker and so this is also a tribute to my old boat, a Mariner Sprite named the HMS Minnow ("if not for the courage of its fearless crew, the minnow would be lost").

 Beating the Barge

    I was the passenger in a truck that had my sea kayak securely fastened to the roof, and I was being driven by a friend and teammate to the start of the final segment of the 7-leg relay race from Mt Baker Ski Area to Bellingham Bay. When we were stopped near the beach by a traffic marshal, my friend rolled down his window to address him, “I’ve got to get this fast lady to the start line”. Hearing that simple statement was a small, yet potent boost for my confidence levels right before my race. I had been in kayak races previously, but none where other people were depending on me to either maintain or improve on our team standings. Since I was the one who had gathered this group of skiers, cyclists and canoeists together, I was the kayaker by default of owning a kayak, not by virtue of being fast or experienced. But after hearing my friend’s comment of “fast lady”, I was more assured that I was, indeed, the right person for the day’s contest.

     After the canoeists on my team made their way down the river to the mouth of the bay, they handed me the baton and I pushed off from the beach and began to paddle. Soon after, it was as though the bathtub I was paddling in had leaked all the water out, leaving me with a few rubber duckies (other kayakers) and some soap scum (mucky mud). There was a very low tide, so the tidal flats were nearly barren, with just puddles of water spaced irregularly. I got out of the boat and lifted it, clumsily, toward where there looked to be more water. Then I got in and paddled, using the blade of the paddle to push off of the bottom from where I felt like I was wedged and I moved the boat along. Soon, I ran out of water again and, tired from lifting the weight of the boat, began dragging my boat instead of picking it up. I dragged it from puddle to puddle, paddled as much as I could, then resorted back to dragging. I had a vision of my teammate who had started the race on the downhill ski leg, quickly realizing that instead of taking a ski-lift up to ski down the slopes, he had to first hoist his skis over his shoulder, then climb the ridge in his rigid ski boots before reaching the freedom of powder skiing. I was having a similar experience; I wanted to paddle freely in the open water, but first I had to be tested in an exercise of tenacity. How much punishment was I willing to take? How exhausted could I become and still be able to paddle? What risk was I willing to take to achieve my goal?  Finally, I reached open water and began to paddle as I had envisioned – smoothly, efficiently and with power, noting that there was someone not too far behind me in another kayak. There was also another type of boat in my field of view, which I became very interested in, as well. It was a huge barge that looked to be coming my way.

    The officials’ Zodiac boat was moving between kayaks like a bee flitting from flower to flower. They buzzed up to me and issued a challenge. The barge I had been seeing to my left was coming into the harbor and was not able to stop or change direction. They gave me two choices: stop and wait for the barge to pass, or keep going, trying to beat the barge. Then, they qualified the latter with, “if you decide to go and you’re on a collision course, we will have to tow you out of danger and you’ll be disqualified”. The image of my teammate climbing the ridge went through my mind like a video play-back and I knew I had to choose wisely and be victorious on this, the last stage of the relay race.

    I had recently learned a navigational technique which helped to predict if I was on a collision course with another boat. I used it to measure the angle between me and the barge and whether that angle increased or decreased with time, meaning if I was gaining or losing ground or staying the same. I had been practicing it for the past 30 minutes and it was time to put it to the test. I declared, “I’m going to beat the barge!” which led to raised eyebrows of those in the Zodiac, though they wished me good luck.

    If ever there was a time to paddle with a perfect, efficient stroke, now was it. I was paddling for my teammates, for my safety and, most importantly, for my ego. I needed this challenge to assess my abilities and how far I could push myself; I needed this victory for my confidence. Gaining confidence in this tough situation was also a gain for an obstacle at work or with a relationship or in another arena in my life. In this instance, the obstacle was the barge coming into the harbor and heading at a speed that I knew I could overcome. I was testing my speed and strength, but also my skill. Was I remembering the instructions properly, could I make a reliable assessment from the information I was given? It was like a pop quiz in school and we were just told to put our books away.

    I heard a noise, a guttural sound that I didn’t recognize, and I was slightly alarmed. I knew that I had left my closest competitor behind, when he decided to wait for the barge to pass, but it took me by surprise to realize that the sound was emanating from my own body. I was grunting, pushing myself not just with my arms and torso, but from somewhere deep inside me. With every stroke, my legs would tense against the boat’s braces and my butt would attempt to move forward to provide power as each of my paddle blades dipped into the water and was pulled against the resistance of the water. The cold salt water dripped down from the blade, along the shaft and to my bare hands, making them feel sticky against the paddle and causing a squeak with each stroke of the paddle as my hands ground against salt and fiberglass. I could almost feel new calluses forming on my palms. The salty taste that reached my mouth was more from the water droplets in the windy bay than from sweat due to effort.

    I took another measurement and I was relieved that the angle between me and the barge was increasing, meaning I was gaining on the barge. But, not wanting to feel overconfident before actually succeeding, I kept pushing myself to paddle at the edge of my ability. In another few minutes, I had cleared the line from the barge’s bow and was free; I was not only out of danger, but I had met my challenge successfully and had advanced on several of my closest competitors. All I had to do now was hold on to my form and stave off exhaustion to make it to the finish line. I couldn’t feel my arms – was it because they were so salty that they felt numb? No, it was that I forgot I had arms; I had become part of the kayak, of the paddle, propelled along on the water like a fish, a dolphin, an Orca. I was moving but I wasn’t aware of the actual motions taking place. I didn’t have to think about keeping my arms straight and twisting from my waist, using my back muscles, or of my legs, shifting and pushing against the braces below deck. I had become my boat, sleek and fast.  And then I saw my teammates on the dock at the finish line in the harbor. They were jumping and whooping. I would find out later that they had seen the drama unfolding through binoculars. I landed on shore and fell out of my boat. My knees didn’t seem to work and my shoulders ached but I made it back to the water somehow and dunked my body in a victory bath.

    I never did find out how we placed in our category or what our overall time was or even what my race time was. For me, that was not the point; I had accomplished something greater than winning a race or setting a record. I had achieved the level of confidence necessary to overcome any obstacle thrown at me, whether it be on the water, in a classroom or in another type of life’s many contests. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Flower Walk


I promised a hike with a meadow full of Jeffrey Shooting Stars, a virtual carpet of pink, the likes of which I hadn't seen since cycling near Glacier National Park last June. 

But what I ended up delivering to the 10 Mountaineers who entrusted me with their Sunday, was a beautiful and colorful variety of flowers in Bean Creek Basin.

Elephant's Head and Paintbrush

Jeffrey Shooting Star

Magenta Paintbrush

Yellow Salsify

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Arch Rock and Airplane Meadows

Saturday's hike had been listed as a "Hike with Dogs", meaning you either liked dogs or had one of you own, hopefully both. I love dogs and don't have one of my own, so I just love up other peoples' dogs instead. While at one point I had as many as 8 people and 4 dogs signed up, the hike was a total of 6 people, no dogs. A group of six is a nice, manageable size, especially for a long haul like this one. The out-and-back distance to Airplane Meadows was in the neighborhood of 14 miles, though without much elevation gain.

At the foggy trailhead northwest of the town of Greenwater, David predicted we would have sun by 11AM and a few miles into the hike, I spotted a blue hole directly above the group. Unfortunately, the hole didn't follow us and we had a mixture of fog and sun. We were making good time when we found the side trail to visit Arch Rock. Since I had never been there before, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Was there an arch? Would it be obvious? After we followed a meandering trail uphill, with patches of snow to confuse us and sticks that seemed to be placed deliberately across the trail, we arrived at a ledge and what I saw beyond made me gasp. In the fog, it looked like we had stumbled across ruins – a huge slab of rock towered beyond the cliff and seemed to have a winged creature (very gargoyle-esque) toward the front.
Arch Rock

We made our way along the cliff's edge to get a better view of the rock. On the way, the clouds parted enough to see Mt Rainier in the other direction. Up to that point, we had been making good time, traveling at a steady moderate pace on the PCT as it gained elevation gradually, but the rock and the view threw us off our pace and would contribute to a very late return time to our cars. We still wanted to see Airplane Meadows so we lunched just off the trail and headed south once more.

Airplane Meadows

False Hellebore
At about the 7 mile mark, we came to a meadow with Hellebore and its wavy leaves, plus green grass, green trees as far as we could see. And then there was the airplane, or what was left of it and a little view of Rainier over the trees. Oh, and the bugs – they kept us from stopping for too long. Back on the trail, we cruised downhill, seeing areas in sun that we had only seen before in the fog. And we learned that our fellow hiker, Leigh, had only moved to the area 7 days prior but had obviously already made good choices about with whom to hike and where to go.

We came across a group of people, their dog, horses and mules and learned that they were the Backcountry Horsemen and take it upon themselves to maintain sections of the PCT. They do great work, but there's a price to pay: the trail was turned into a mud bog as it left the PCT and returned to Government Meadows at the end of FR 70. Soon the mud bogs gave way to trees dripping with lichen and moss-covered bark and we knew we were close to our cars. We estimate the hike was closer to 15 miles, due to the side-trail.

After the hike, I sent my dog treats home withe Joel for his pup, Capone, whom he didn't think could have made the trek. Trip participants were David W, Joel M, Leigh C, John P, Tom Y and me. Woof!

Full photos here:
Arch Rock / Airplane Meadows

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Trip Fit for a Queen

Bastille Day was upon us and, though Suzanne was not addressing us in French and Nicole had not packed a bottle of French vin in her pack (though she certainly could have, considering what other items she had packed away), we were at least ascending to a place amongst royalty: Royal Basin in the Olympic National Park. As we hiked up along Royal Creek, the air was quite humid, as though we already were donning our impermeables, with perspiration dripping from our brows.

After lunch in an open, rocky meadow, we began to get glimpses of the surrounding peaks and the wildflowers were more prolific. A few more water crossings over creeks, streams and small torrents of melting snow and we had arrived in the lower basin. We headed for the group camp just past the lake, a few of us noting the lake entry spots for a later visit and set up tents, filtered water and changed into reasonable shoes.
Royal Lk and silly boy swimmers

Tim and I re-visited the lake and, after christening myself in the cool yet very comfortable water, I dubbed the lake "The Queen's Bath". I had to share my bath, however, first with Tim, then with three boys who had donned swim trunks and goggles and were making their swim look like work, chugging around the lakeshore.

While we frolicked in the water, Linda, Denise, Jay, Nicole and Suzanne headed up toward the Upper Basin, quickly finding snow but also friendly marmots and waterfalls. I met up with them as they made their way down and, once they left, had a private photo shoot with a resident marmot. I think he was trying to ask for a referral to a dentist.
returning from the upper basin

Back at camp, we all cooked our respective dinners. Some, like me, chose minimalist approaches, using ziploc bags and hot water. Others, like Nicole, who had bought ears of corn en route to the trailhead, were shooting flames 3 feet into the air, boiling a cauldron of water and feasting like a queen. Good thing there was a composting toilet not far from our camp!

our visitor at camp
The morning found many of us awake and wandering around the meadows, trying to spot more wildlife than just the deer who had been stalking our camp. Although it was clear when we first woke, the fog rolled in from the lower end of the valley like smoke from a campfire far below. We kept hoping it would burn off or dissipate, but it soon became thick and unmoving and brought with it some moisture. Hiking down the trail, I lingered, falling to the back of the group, soaking in all the shades of green and admiring the flowers.

Royal Lake in the still morning

Friday, July 13, 2012

Oh, the places I have been!

... And have fallen behind in blogging about. Luckily, I have photos that keep me from forgetting places, people and details, so I can still recount trips somewhat accurately.
Ming matches Rhodies

I've been very busy on the trails lately, trying to recover from a nasty cold and regain my fitness. It started out with a hike through the wild Rhodies on the Tubal Cain Mine trail in the Olympics on June 24. This is the area where a bunch of excellent hikes start, including the Upper Dungeness River, Royal Basin and Marmot Pass – you just can't go wrong.

The drive up to the trailhead answered our question of whether we were going to see the Rhodies in bloom or not. And two of us, Ming and I, had dressed for the occasion, wearing purple so as to match the flowers.We took the side trip to see the old B-17 that had crashed there in 1952 and had lunch under the cover of trees during a shower.

On Saturday, June 30, I helped a fellow hiker earn his wings as a trip leader for the Mountaineers. It was not an easy feat to be hike leader on that trip, either, as there was a group of four non-members (invited by a member) who acted as though they were on a Meetup hike and were nearly independent of our group. Plus, despite two reminders from the hike leader-to-be Garrett, two of that group defied his requests and wore tennis shoes and cotton. The forecast was for rain and possible thunderstorms, oh joy!
Beargrass on Bandera Mt

Luckily, the weather held and we summitted Bandera Mt with a view to nearby peaks, enjoyed some flowers and made it back down before the rain started to fall. Although it would have been nice to drive home the point of wearing appropriate clothing and footwear (while watching the two people shiver), we considered ourselves lucky to have avoided any bad situations.

A few days later, on the 4th of July, a notoriously poor weather day for the area for as long as I can remember living here, we were blessed with blue skies and warm temps while hiking to Myrtle Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. We were a group of 8 Mountaineers, whittled down from 12 by colds (still going around, no doubt). I made sure to score a spot in Nicole's truck so I could "woof, woof" as we sped up the Middle Fork Snoqulamie Rd. No need for that, as she drove at 40mph on her own accord. We waited for the other car to catch up while we wandered around the river's edge, then all headed up the trail.
waterfall on Dingford Crk trail

first swim of the season

The trail starts in 2nd growth, with rough spots of rocks and roots, then crests a ridge, enters the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and moves through old growth. A beautiful trail, made even more fun with several creek crossings, most of which were easy. The lingering snow reported by a group 2 weeks prior had melted and so when we arrived at the lake, I was ready for a swim. There was still a segment of frozen lake, but I tested the shallow water and declared, "I'm going in!". Everyone readied their cameras, Terry produced a small towel and I had my first swim of the season in the books. Nicole, my co-leader, followed my lead and cemented the idea that Mountaineers hike leaders are fun people (or maybe crazy people, depending on your perspective).

On the following Sunday, we were again 8 people and Nicole was leading us to Malcolm Mt. On Wednesday, she had said to me, "I'll swim in lakes with you, if you climb peaks with me". I agreed and we set out up the trail, but first we read a sign put up by the Forest (no)Service that said the Medra Pass trail was impassable 2.7 miles up and was dated exactly one year ago, 7.8.11. Since it was a loop, we decided we should come upon the impassable part early on, so we headed up counter-clockwise toward Medra Pass, trying to think what obstacle we couldn't overcome. It was bad enough that it was already in the upper 80s at just 9AM. What other difficulties were we going to have to face?
Mt Stuart from Medra Pass

I wish I hadn't asked that, as soon it was a game of Trail – No – Trail: we would find a trail and follow it over scree and steep rock, then it would peter out in the woods. Then, we would stick to the ridgetop where we could navigate better, but come across a dense patch of brush. I wondered what types of animals had made each of these trails, though the goat trails were obvious and our boots were no match for the sure-footedness of those cloven hooves. Along the way, however, there were a lot of beautiful and sometimes rare flowers to ease our pain. When we finally found a trail that might-could-possibly lead us to Malcolm Mt's summit, many of us were so low on water that to extend ourselves any further would surely mean running out of water before reaching a creek down below.
Tweedy's Lewisia

Nicole was very generous in denying herself the summit to save her group from suffering, but I think it was the best thing for her to do. When we did finally make it to water, we all dunked body parts and clothing and celebrated as though we had been in the desert for 40 days. Once back at the cars, I pulled out some cold beer and juice from my cooler and Terry handed out wipes while we celebrated some more. The total distance was 12 miles, with nearly 4,000 feet of gain in 92-degree heat.