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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.

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Looking forward

While I have spent much of the last two weeks looking back and remembering, I have at the same time been looking forward. I think that for me June may always be a time of looking backward and forward. A time to reflect on what and whom I have lost, what I have left behind… and a time to anticipate where I am going and who I am becoming.

I tried to remember to give myself some time off to rest and recover after the half marathon two weeks ago… but with sunrise just after 5:00 AM and sunset after 9:00 PM this time of year, who could possibly waste a moment of this rare, precious Pacific Northwest sunlight? This time of year, even on days when it rains, there are usually a few lovely hours to get out and do something active.

So I’ve gone straight back into my routine of running, hiking, and biking at every opportunity. I’ve actually ramped up on the running, as my Alaska cruise with the staged marathon is coming up in less than six weeks! To prepare for that trip, I have introduced three new things into my weekly running schedule:

  1. I’ve increased my weekly runs from three times to four: two back-to-back days, one rest day, and two more back-to-back days. This simulates the running schedule for the staged marathon.
  2. I’m now running on trails — real trails, not paved surfaces going by the name “trail.” My trail running shoes are finally getting to do what they are designed to do!
  3. Because the trail races in Alaska will have minimal aid station support, I bought a hydration pack and I’m learning to run with a significant quantity of water on my back.

So far I have only tackled one of our many local unpaved trails, but it’s a good place to start. It’s in a county park with many loop trails so I can experiment with different conditions all within a small area. I can run up and down hills, through meadows, on soft level surfaces, or in places where I have to pick my way through rocks, roots, and/or several inches of freshly-laid wood chips. I’ve actually tried to run this park several times in the past and been daunted by the hills and the uneven ground. Now I seem to be taking it quite literally in stride. But who wouldn’t want to run through places that look like this?

Or like this place where I lost myself in a glorious self-as-deer fantasy?

This kind of running is just plain fun. It’s play! In a way it’s more difficult than running on pavement. I have to slow down and pay attention to where and how my feet fall. But it’s possible to fall into a sort of bounding meditation. I am slow and happy out there!

I’m doing the trail running every other time, and very slowly increasing the distance. On my non-trail days, I’m focusing on consistency of pace and learning to carry and sip water with a minimum of fuss.

I was trying to decide what I wanted to do for my next half marathon sometime this autumn. I could run Victoria again, or I could search around for something new… preferably in a place I’ve never run before! I found this very interesting race in southern Oregon. I liked it for a couple of reasons — it’s quite near some of my family members, and it’s all downhill! Or nearly so. Oh yes, and it ends at a harvest and brew festival featuring over 30 different microbreweries. What could be better than a downhill beer run with family to cheer me at the finish? It finally dawned on me that since the races are two weeks apart, I could use the Rogue Run as my last long “training” run before Victoria. In other words, take my time, enjoy the scenery, relish the microbrews at the finish, and then taper for an all-out go on Victoria’s perfectly flat course. How cool is that?

Definitely something to look forward to!!

On non-running days (and sometimes also on running days!) I am taking some amazing, wonderful hikes. A few weeks ago during an extreme low tide I was scrambling around on rocks getting up close and personal with tidepool life. I took so many photos I had a hard time choosing just one, but this should give you an idea. I believe this guy is a short-spined sea star.

Yesterday, after a fun 6 mile run I wanted just a bit more, so I hiked 6 miles along the Elwha River, upriver from the two large dams that are being removed (I wrote about the hiking the lower lakebed here). The Elwha was running high and raging due to rapid melt from an above-normal winter snowpack, but the trail along the river was idyllic.

 

At a place called Goblin’s Gate (or is it Goblin Gates? I have two maps that disagree!), all that water gets forced through a narrow gap, perhaps 30 feet across.

Further upriver are the sites of several 100+ year old homesteads that are now part of Olympic National Park. The park service has chosen to maintain some of the original cabins and orchards as historical landmarks. This cabin was built in 1900 — wouldn’t you love to spend a night here?

It’s wonderful to have so many good things going on — long summer days with friends, being active here and now, and looking forward to greater adventures to follow. I may not blog as regularly as I intended when I quit my job back in February… but there is simply so much to DO!!!!

I know, I know (to quote myself)! — “How did I ever have time to work?”       🙂

Downstream transitions

My last post earlier today was completely focused on running, which is appropriate because with my local half marathon less than three weeks away, I am primarily focused on being ready for that race. This will be my sixth half marathon, and it will be the first one for which I have actually managed to stay with a training plan, get all the planned long runs in on schedule, and (I hope!) will feel ready, rested, and able on race day. My new post-corporate status has helped make that possible, but it’s also because I haven’t ever given up. Over the last three and a half years I have kept at this running thing, making the plans and honoring them, adjusting them when life circumstances required, learning to listen to my body, when to push and when to back off. One step at a time, one foot in front of the other, I have kept on moving.

Hiking and (to a lesser extent because I’m still wobbly) biking have been wonderful cross training experiences, and I really do feel the difference in my strength especially when running hills. But hiking is a slow, immersive, meditative experience that I’m really coming to enjoy for itself.

Over this past weekend I had the great privilege of hiking the former Lake Aldwell. Not far from my town an incredible, unprecedented transition is taking place. Two century-old dams are being removed from the Elwha River. It is the largest dam removal project ever undertaken in the US, if not the world, and it’s been in the planning/approval/funding process for more than 20 years. The intention is to restore the historic salmon runs (according to folklore, in the old days you could walk across the river on the backs of the 100-pound salmon) and to return the Elwha, much of which runs through Olympic National Park, to its wild river state. Scientists of every stripe have come here to plan and oversee the process of removing the two dams, draining their lakes while managing the 100-year silt accumulation, letting the river find new channels through the lake bed, and watching new vegetation reclaim the area (while keeping the invasive species out).

The removal of Elwha Dam, the lower of the two dams, began last September and was completed a month or so ago. I saw photos of the lake bed shortly after the dam was removed and really wanted to go there, but I wasn’t excited about sinking into mud so I’ve waited until now.

What I saw was otherworldly and wonderful. The river has indeed found its channel, and it is a meandering one that cuts through layers of silt, sand, and gravel. The most striking feature of the landscape is the tree trunks. These are the remains of gigantic old-growth Western Red Cedars that were cut and salvaged just before the lake filled. The stumps range from 4 to 12+ feet high depending on where they sit relative to the silt/sand/gravel beds. They apparently were burned at the time, but because this is a virtually indestructible wood, much of the mass is still there… after being cut, burned, and submerged for 100 years! Most of these stumps are ten or more feet across, and they are everywhere. The lake bed is a “moonscape,” eerily desert-like, but teeming with signs of life.

See those notches in the stump? Those are proof that it was cut more than a century ago, using old logging techniques that I am unable to describe to you (but you can probably google it).

While it may look desolate, I’m happy to report that life is definitely returning to the former Lake Aldwell. My hiking friend and I marveled at the large number of tracks left deeply and precisely imprinted in the fine silt on the west bank. We saw lots of elk (or possibly mountain goat) prints, but what really caught our attention were these prints:

We can’t decide whether these are coyote or cougar prints. Based on their large size (compare the shoe prints) and roundness (not elongated/oval) we think they are cougar, but my field guide book tells me you wouldn’t see claws on cougar tracks. However, my field guide may not take into account how thick and gooey the mud was when those tracks were made. If I were a cougar I might have extended my claws to keep from sinking too deep. What do you think?

After we hiked about half the length of Lake Aldwell, we drove up to the upper dam (Glines Canyon Dam). This dam is still intact, but Lake Mills is being drained at a rate of about one foot a day. The reason for this slow trickle is to prevent a wall of silt from rushing downstream to the fragile, recovering downstream riverbed. It will be nearly another year before the upper Elwha runs free. I couldn’t photograph Lake Mills because construction barriers have been put in place… but I could peek through.

Back here in town, another transition is being envisioned. You may recall that one of my goals for post-corporate life was to become involved in local community building initiatives. Well, I have found my place, at least for now, with the Transition Towns movement. This is an initiative that began in the UK and is focused on creative local response to environmental and economic threats. Transition initiatives emerge within communities in a grassroots fashion in response to this question:

“For all those aspects of life that our community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (in response to peak oil), drastically reduce carbon emissions (in response to climate change) and greatly strengthen our local economy (in response to economic instability)?”

I’ve become a core member of a Transition Initiating Group, and we’re in the process of figuring out how to address this downshifting question in a way that uniquely fits our local small town — geographically isolated, with a dying/dead logging industry, millions of acres of protected wilderness, seasonal tourism, a short growing season, but LOTS of water. Our demographics range from Libertarian to Green, from Microsoft millionaire to retirees who are barely scraping by on Social Security. I don’t believe Sasquatch exists, but I know for a fact that there are homeless veterans living back there in the woods, and they do not want to be bothered by outsiders. All of these people, these voices, need to be brought into the conversation about the future that we are trying to initiate.

So it’s an interesting project, but it’s giving me exactly what I hoped to find. I’m meeting and working with people who may have widely differing perspectives but share a desire to thrive in the face of whatever future challenges we may or may not face. Whether or not you “believe” in whatever predictions one or another scientific model may make, isn’t it prudent to be prepared in case this or that worst-case scenario might happen? And even if it never happens, isn’t it a great thing to sit around a table with thoughtful people, sharing a meal and talking about one’s hopes and dreams for the future?

I think so.

It took vision and perseverence to make the Elwha River run free, and I want to lend my vision and perseverence to making my small town a freer, happier, more neighborly place to be.

Wouldn’t you?