Monthly Archives: July 2012

Unexpected adventures — on the trail and in life

After my big 7-mile trail run last week I decided to be good to myself and do a genuine taper before next week’s Great Alaskan Marathon Cruise. I did an easy 6 miles three days later, followed two days after that by a brisk 4 miles (during which I accidentally logged my fastest unofficial 5k ever). I then pronounced myself ready to run.

This, of course, freed up my schedule for another epic hike! It’s the peak of our short summer hiking season here in the Pacific Northwest. The snow is finally retreating and the riot of wildflowers is in its full glory. My hiking friend and I planned to do a 6-mile hike along a ridgetop at an elevation of approximately 5,200 feet. We took our time, stopping to photograph one glorious meadow after another. I could share dozens of photos, but I was especially pleased with this composition of tiger lilies and lupines:

The trail meandered through the meadows and then into a grove of sub-alpine firs. The scenery was sublime, idyllic.

As I came around a corner, I found myself 10 yards from and face to face with this!

 The fact that she was tagged and collared gave me no great comfort, especially when I saw the rest of the family approaching behind her. There were nine mountain goats in all, including three kids and their mothers, a couple of rowdy adolescents, and a very large ram. Look at the sharp horns and big hooves on these guys!

They do look all soft and cuddly, and in fact they aren’t generally dangerous. As far as I know, there has only been one fatal goring of a human by a mountain goat — but it happened right here in Olympic National Park a couple of years ago. So when my friend and I found ourselves staring straight into the eyes of mama goat, there was no hesitation on our part. We turned right around and began walking briskly back down the trail the way we had come.

They followed us. All the way back along the trail, for more than two miles they followed us.

They were ambling slowly and stopping to eat the avalanche lilies, but they more or less kept pace with us. I had been a little concerned about a section of trail requiring a steep uphill scramble (it had been very spooky coming down that ridge face on our outbound hike), but I was amazed how quickly we climbed it with nine mountain goats behind us! When we got all the way back to the parking lot, we could still see them silhouetted on the last ridgetop. People were coming out of the visitor’s center to see this rather unusual close approach of the goats.

I never felt directly threatened, as there was no aggressive behavior on their part. They were simply a family out for an afternoon wander through the meadows, just like my friend and I and other hikers. But they were in their home environment — we were the intruders — and it certainly made sense to be cautious!

You just never know what you might see out there on the trail. I’m really hoping for bears and maybe some near-shore whales next week in Alaska. I hope these “races” turn out to be one grand photo opportunity after another.

Just as I am finding unexpected adventures on the trail, I’m also finding unexpected adventures in my life. My “hiking friend” is becoming a bit more than a friend, and I’m very happy about that. I’ll tell you more in due time, but for now I’ll just say that life is indeed going on, and life is good.

I think Kurt would be glad to know that.

One step at a time…

Trail running on a real trail

I finally did it.

The stars, my knees, the weather, and my surprisingly busy schedule all aligned perfectly at last. Yesterday I completed a 7 mile trail run on an honest-to-goodness trail. No more running through a county park on well groomed, wide pathways. This was a narrow, often steep, winding trail through woods and clearcut meadows, zig-zigging up and down across ridgetops with alternating views of strait to the north and mountains to the south.

While the views were inspiring, I could only snatch quick glimpses of them because I had to keep my eyes sharply focused on the trail surface 5-15 feet ahead. There were lots of cobble-type rocks that demanded I set my feet down very mindfully. The trail was no more than two feet wide in most places, and bounded by either hillsides (up/down) or thick brush. In some areas, if I had wobbled just a little off trail center, I would have found myself knee deep in stinging nettles.

This was a tough and challenging workout for me. The net ascent was probably about 600 feet from parking lot to highest ridgetop, but my GPS watch was bouncing around a bit with an erratic satellite signal in the thick trees, so I am not sure of the exact altitudes. With all the little ups, downs, and hiccups my watch recorded 1,200+ feet of ascent and the same amount of descent. I was wearing my hydration pack with a few ounces of water, and I definitely felt the 1.5 pounds on my back. Coming right away from the parking lot, the trail is steep uphill. I didn’t have time to settle into my stride before I got anaerobic and was gasping for breath. I was forced to walk a bit and recover before I could settle into a steady pace.

I was surprised (and a bit humbled) by how slow that steady pace turned out to be. I’d already learned that I’m two minutes slower per mile on the county park trails than I am on a paved trail. Well, my pace on this more challenging trail turned out to be two minutes slower than that. I was out there running 14 minute miles and still feeling like this Amazon woman doing this heroic feat of adventure running!

Well, the fact is that I was the only female out there and the only runner.

I AM SLOW, HAPPY AND HEROIC!

My friend was with me on his mountain bike, riding ahead of me and periodically turning back or stopping to make sure I was still upright and achieving forward motion. His actions reminded me of when I’d go on family hikes as a child with our collie Chief. That wonderful dog usually logged 2-3 times as many miles as the rest of us with his constant running between the first and last hiker. Just as Chief was my protector and hero, I felt safe out there on the trail knowing my friend was close by. We saw two or three hikers and three other guys on bikes. Despite my dire fantasies, we did not see any bears.

I figure this 7 mile trail run was a pretty good simulation of the 7 mile trail run out of Ketchikan, which will be the last of the four races on the Great Alaskan Marathon Cruise. Well, almost a simulation… I figure I’ll already be pretty tired by the start of that race, after running three races totaling 19.2 miles over the prior four days. I know now that I’ll be seriously slow — factor in photo stops and I’ll be lucky to finish at a 15 minute pace!! But I also know that I’ll be able to rise to the occasion and do it.

Even if I have to do it one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.

This morning my knees are no more cranky than usual, but I am definitely getting sore muscles in my hips, legs, ankles, and feet. I had a vigorous workout but overall I feel rather great about it. And I’m even more excited about heading off to Alaska very soon!

Revisiting Lake Angeles

I always enjoy going back to places and revisiting them at different times of the day or year. I’m intrigued by how the same place can be so different and yet still be obviously the same place.

I tend to move my favorite green chair and ottoman from room to room as I learn how a house wants me to inhabit it. My favorite chair is the same/different place in each of the rooms in each of the houses I have owned since I bought it.

When I run, I run on trails (both paved and unpaved) that become very familiar through repeated visits. This little rise, that turn and the way it reveals a different view, this bunch of tree roots, that meadow, those rolling hills all become etched in my memory until I could run them in my dreams. I no longer have to look at my watch to know how far I’ve run; the trail tells me where I am. Yet even a very familiar trail can be a different place if run in the other direction or at various times of the day or year.

Now that I am beginning to do a lot of hiking, I feel a bit of a dilemma about placemaking along hiking trails. Some trails, like Hurricane Hill and Sol Duc Falls, are old favorites that I want to return to again and again. At the same time, I feel the call of new trails not yet seen. Which shall I do today? How should I choose from among so many potential new favorite places?

I am indeed fortunate to have too many options so near where I live.

The first mile of the trail up to Lake Angeles, to the place where the log bridge crosses the stream, has become a frequently visited new “friend” of a trail. The two mile round trip is an easy hour’s hike with an elevation gain of just under 1,000 feet.

Beyond the log bridge the trail is not so familiar. Back in May I wrote about my first visit to Lake Angeles, which is at the 3.4 mile point up that same trail. That hike was a rugged trek through deep snow, and reached an underwhelming end at an iced-over, fogged-in lake.

This past weekend I went to Lake Angeles again. This time it was sunny and warm, and the snow was completely gone. What I saw there was breathtaking. I was dumbstruck. This is what was lurking behind the fog of that first visit:

Those are waterfalls, multiple 100+ foot waterfalls, coming down those cliffs on the far side. It looks like one of those impossibly beautiful and probably fake places that show up on motivational posters. But it is real. And it is right here, not very far from my house.

The trail continues up to the top of that ridge, another 2,000 feet higher than the lake. My friend and I were tempted to start up that trail, but there is still a lot of snow up there. We’ll save that part for another day later this summer… and an early morning start for what will be a major adventure.

Meanwhile (despite the fact that I mostly blog about hiking these days) most of my energy is still focused on running, ramping up the distances and building my comfort level with running on rocky, root-filled ground. My excitement is building as the Alaska marathon cruise approaches. I’m still not completely comfortable with running two days in a row, but I figure my Alaska trail “race” experience will not be all that tough on my knees, what with the frequent stops for photo ops and all…

Those trails will take me to places I’ll most likely only see once in my life, so I’ll only get one shot at placemaking. I want to have enduring memories of the “where” and not just the “how fast.”

I shall be slow, happy, and present. Every step of the way.

Weird weather

As I write this on a Friday afternoon, thunder is rolling around me. It’s been doing this now for more than 15 hours.

What’s the big deal, you ask? What’s so special about a thunderstorm on a summer day?

Well, we just don’t get weather like that around here. In the past 15 hours western Washington has seen and heard more thunder and lightning than we’ve had in many years (some reports have claimed 30+ years), and some of the most intense thunderstorm activity I’ve ever seen in my life.

Situated as we are, perched between several thousand miles of cold north Pacific water and steep mountains, we seldom get warm enough for long enough periods of time to develop strong thunderstorms. Hence the famous Pacific Northwest drizzle — lots of moisture but little energy.

While the rest of the US and many parts of the world have had record high temperatures and severe weather events over the past several months, the Pacific Northwest has remained stubbornly cool, even below our normal temperatures. Yesterday’s high of 79 was the highest of the year so far, whereas in a typical year we’d have had several days in the 80s or even higher by now. This string of thunderstorms is due to a highly unusual, strong, persistent, low-altitude low pressure system that has decided to park and hang out for a while.

Last night I saw several lightning strikes within two blocks of my house. I have large windows and a skylight, which provided a front-row view and actually caused me to duck a few times!

I had big plans for a trail run today through a remote area that is mostly clearcut with just a few big trees remaining (a friend was going to accompany me on bicycle). That does not seem like a very good idea right now.

It’s just one more kink in my training schedule. Try as I might, I can’t seem to get those long trail runs done. My typical “long” run is about 6-7 miles right now, and when I run on trails I have to run shorter. My knees have been just a little cranky and I’ve had to decide that shorter, less frequent runs will do for now. Still, I’m enjoying the running that I am doing, and on a good day it’s been delightful to run along the waterfront and take in the summertime views.

When I’m not running, I’m hiking. Due to our cool, wet spring the snow is lingering late in the mountains. My hikes continue to be stymied by four-foot deep snowbanks that seem to come every few yards, one after another so that one is always climbing up, clambering across, and climbing down. The payoff, however, is between the snowbanks. Sprouting right under the snow and literally blooming as soon as they are snow-free, there are thousands of avalanche lilies.

They will only bloom for a couple of weeks in a given location, and then they’ll be gone until next year. When I see avalanche lilies, I stop worrying or thinking about anything else. I just stop and be with them. This is my life, and it is a good one.

I shall be slow and happy wherever I go, but especially so in places like this one.

I’ll do that trail run tomorrow… maybe. These storms are forecast to continue through the weekend! 🙂

The wild life

With my Alaska marathon cruise now only three weeks away, my running continues to be a good day / bad day sort of thing. I don’t want to push too hard with my training and injure myself to the point that I can’t run at all in Alaska, so I have backed way off the ambitious training plan I’d created for myself. I’m now letting my knees be my guide as to whether and how far I run on any given day. I’m confident that I haven’t lost much, if any, speed and strength. If I really want to, I can put it all out there on the trail. I’m also aware that I won’t have many opportunities in my life to experience those trails in Alaska. Any ambitions that I might have had regarding pace will be completely forgotten when I see bears, caribou, or who knows what else along the trail.

Of the several new elements of my current training, I believe the culprit that is bothering my knees is the hydration pack on my back. I did fine when I tested it with just a few ounces of water, but when I bumped it up to 20 ounces my knees were very unhappy the next day. I’m now running shorter distances and leaving the hydration pack at home. Bingo — knees are much better!

I don’t really think I’ll need to carry a lot of water in Alaska, as the 10-mile race does have one aid station. So I may be fine running with just those few ounces of water… oh, and my camera too!

Because I’ve become accustomed to lots of exercise, I decided to augment my abbreviated running plan with as much hiking as possible. Although it seems strange, my persnickety knees actually feel better after an uphill hike. It’s like they get kinked one way while running, and the hiking kinks them in some other way and it all comes out better and stronger in the end.

Or so I’m telling myself, as I’m enjoying some amazing early summer hikes into the mountains. I’ve had the opportunity to see lots of wildlife as well as the flowers that bloom almost immediately after the snow melts.

I like to say that Olympic National Park is practically in my back yard. Here is some local wildlife that I saw right outside my window! Here are two baby raccoons that are about half the size of my cats (who were going crazy next to me when I took this photo).

Life gets a little wilder out along the trail. One day I encountered a group of half a dozen Olympic marmots who were intently rooting in the dirt, grunting and growling like kids squabbling over pizza. Other hikers and I theorized that someone had made an unauthorized pit stop along the trail, creating a small “salt lick” that was irresistable to these guys. I don’t have a good photo of the crew in action, but here is another marmot that I saw near that spot a couple days later:

Also near that same area, I spotted a bird I’d never seen before — I got to add the Horned Lark to my life list. This guy was strolling (they do walk rather than hop) through the tall grass and singing his little heart out:

At the top of the hill, my friend and I stopped for a snack. He was eating nuts, and it didn’t take long for a pair of chipmunks to find us. We didn’t feed them, but they certainly tried to convince us that we should. These guys were fearless, running right into my friend’s hands, up his back, and even briefly on top of his head! I believe this is a yellow-pine chipmunk:

The approach to this hilltop is through a sub-alpine meadow at an elevation of 5,500+ feet. The wildflowers are just beginning, but this patch of glacier lilies was wonderful (no, I don’t know what the small white ones are):

The trail I was hiking meets another trail that I have wanted to do for several years. I actually ended my dissertation with a photo of that trail meandering through the meadow from the trailhead and a promise to myself that I would hike it soon. That day finally came. I went less than a quarter mile before meeting deep snow in the trees and having to turn around, but soon I’ll return to follow it all the way down to the Elwha River. Wouldn’t you dream of hiking here too?

I’ve just given you a teaser of the mountains with that last photo. Here is a bit more, for context:

I’ve saved the sweetest wildlife story for last. Returning down the hill, my friend and I saw a family of deer… a doe and her very young fawn along with two adolescent deer. The fawn couldn’t have been more than a day or two old; he or she was still wobbly on its legs. The family drew a crowd of hikers, and the fawn was briefly separated from the others when they crossed the trail. This sweet, brave little guy stood there all alone, while we all wondered if mom was going to go off and leave him!!

Finally he bleated, a soft mewing sound like a kitten. Mom, who was up the hill on the other side of the trail, heard him and turned around. She stood waiting while he darted across the trail and clambered up the hill. I captured the reunion and the happy ending to this story:

All’s well that ends well!

I feel like wildlife sometimes myself. My life, too, can seem a little wild and unpredictable. Sometimes I think I lose my way, lose sight of the trail or whatever overly-ambitious goals I may set for myself. But in the end, one step at a time — whether I run, walk, or meander slowly through the meadow — I’m going to get to wherever I need to go.