Tag Archive 'hiking alone'

Oct 26 2012

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On the Calavale

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Taking a day off from writing as well as the hotel job, I grab my pack, load the dog in the car, and head for the hills. The sun is shining and temps are already in the 50s. I have a feeling that this might be my last shirtsleeves hike for a long, long time.

I park my car along the edge of a rough dirt road cutting through the Belvidere bog then tag an ATV trail skirting some flooded areas. A woman with a pack of huskies suddenly appears. They are followed by an old man leading a draft horse. After that five hunters come along on two ATVs dragging a dead bull moose. What next?

The rest of the hike is a solitary affair. I walk up the logging road to a stream crossing then follow the brook while recalling a similar outing years earlier. Back then I had gone on a walking meditation. I had traced the Calavale Brook to its source before turning around. On the way out, weakened by a daylong fast, I had stopped to nap on a flat rock next to the brook. When I awoke, I saw two brook trout swimming in the nearby pool.

Finding a pool similar to the one where I had napped years earlier, I stop to eat and rest. My dog Maika stands guard after lunch, half expecting another surprise encounter. I listen to the brook tumbling over a five-foot ledge to the shallow pool while jotting down a few stray thoughts in a field journal. The surrounding trees, mostly birches, have lost all their leaves already. Here in the Green Mountains, winter isn’t far away.

It’s hard to explain the primary benefit of an outing like this. A day alone in the woods has a leveling effect. Whenever my boots are wet and muddy, and I’m sweaty from a rigorous walk, I seem to be more receptive to wildness both without and within. Then I see the world in a way that’s not possible in the developed lowlands. It’s instructive to say the least.

Walking out is easy – downhill all the way. I soak my feet good while wading the flooded areas. Otherwise there’s no adventure. Matika keeps stopping to sniff clumps of hair and bits of bloody flesh that the dragged moose left behind. That’s amusing. But all too soon we are back to the car and driving home. Yeah, these daylong outings never seem to last quite long enough.

 

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Feb 18 2010

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Winter Hike

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Several inches of hard-packed snow lay beneath an inch of fluffy stuff, making conditions good for hiking, so I left my snowshoes behind when I went to Honey Hollow last week.  With a rucksack loaded full of essentials and my dog, Matika, at my side, I started up the narrow lane.  The lane was closed for winter but someone had groomed it for skiers or snowmobiles.  No matter.  I had it all to myself that chilly, overcast day.

Half a mile up the wintry lane, I left it for a trail leading down towards Preston Brook.  Matika and I followed the trail until it emptied into a small yard harboring an ancient wild apple tree.  There we picked up a set of deer tracks running parallel to the brook.  A light snow fell as man and dog disappeared into the woods.

I traced those deer tracks for a half hour or so, as my canine companion cavorted all over the place.  Happy dog, sniffing and running.  Man plodding along.  The brook murmured beneath the ice, peeking out occasionally from broken seams.  Patches of hemlock green adorned the otherwise naked forest.  The snow blanketing the ground muffled all sound.  I passed a fresh, rectangular hole drilled into a nearby dead tree, but no woodpecker came into sight.  No birds at all, in fact.  Intense quiet.

I unrolled my foam pad atop a snow-covered boulder next to the brook, and sat down on it.  Short lunch break at midday.  Matika ate a cup of kibble from a hole I dug in the snow then lined with plastic.  I nibbled an energy bar left over from a backpacking trip last summer, dreaming of warmer days.  Although shrouded by ice and snow, I recognized a deep pool in the brook about twenty yards downstream and imagined casting my line in there again as I have many times in the past.  Hmm…  Opening day of trout season still two months away…

Sometimes I come out here to ponder the mysteries of the universe.  Other times I come out just to sit quietly by the brook, letting its gentle murmur wash away all my thoughts.  The chill of my own sweat got to me, though, before either thought or no-thought could occur.  I packed up my rucksack and headed farther upstream.  The surrounding mountains were calling my name.

At some point early in the afternoon, I gave up my aimless wandering and returned to the lane.  Then it was an easy walk out, crisscrossing the tracks of animals just as restless as me.  The snow flurries, which had stopped at midday, started up again.  I reached my car much faster than expected.  And I ran the car heater full blast during the long drive home.

It was good to get out and stretch my legs, but I’m really looking forward to spring.  Hungrier for it now than I’ve been in years.  Not sure why.

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Oct 20 2009

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Spiritual, Earthy and Wild

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There are three words that make me especially uncomfortable:  spiritual, earthy, wild.  I use them all the time, in one context or another, but always with just a touch of apprehension.  All three words are loaded – fraught with meanings given them by thousands of naturalists before me.  Might as well add the word “naturalist” to the list.  I can’t even think about myself that way without feeling like something of a fraud.  I notice plants, watch wildlife, and read the landscape while wandering through the woods, but I’m no naturalist.  Not really.

What is spirituality?  These days many people call themselves spiritual instead of religious, thereby distancing themselves from organized religions while still asserting a belief in some kind of intangible reality.  Often such people claim a spiritual connection to the earth, though it’s never clear what this means.  No doubt it means different things to different people.  Yet the word “spiritual” implies the otherworldly, the ethereal, or a force transcending the physical.  How can a skeptic like me believe that such a realm actually exists?  There is no irrefutable proof one way or the other.

Someone says “earthy” to me and a groovy, long-haired dude and his girlfriend come to mind, both wearing clothes made with natural fibers.  I catch a whiff of patchouli every time I hear the word.  That and body odor.  Is that the Grateful Dead I hear playing in the background?  Why do I feel this sudden urge to dance barefoot while beating on a tambourine?  No, I’m not that earthy.  I’ve been known to hang upside down and naked from a tree branch overhanging a brook, splashing water into my face all the while, but most people would consider that kind of behavior strange, not earthy.  Especially if there are no drugs or alcohol involved.

As for wildness, well, we all know how vague that word is.  It means a thousand different things: unrestrained, untamed, out of control, or uncultivated to name only a few.  The word “wild” is as hard to pin down as words like “truth” or “love.”   My dog is utterly tame, yet there’s some wildness in her.  Same goes for me, or am I only deluding myself?  I obey traffic laws when I drive, file my taxes annually, and know how to behave myself in a social setting so how wild can I be?  How wild is the wilderness area in which I roam when it takes an act of congress to keep it from being developed?  How wild is wildlife when it’s being managed by biologists and bureaucrats?  How wild is a gun-toting, motorcycle barbarian when he’s wearing gang tattoos?  How wild can sex be when it’s only for fun?  The wild, it seems, has been turned inside out.

Whenever I hike alone, deep into wilderness for days on end, I feel more spiritual, earthy and wild.  That is, I feel a growing bond to the physical world, as well as to something reaching beyond the senses.  I shed the trappings of social convention like an old skin, and commune with a wilder society consisting of plants, animals, rocks, forest duff, water and wind.  In the wild, mud is no stranger to me.  Blood-sucking insects aren’t either.  In wilderness, the endless cycle of life and death is everywhere around me, so I can’t help but wonder what keeps it going.  Nature?  I can’t use that word any more without genuflecting.  I am astounded by the natural world.  I am rendered mute by the real.  It is so far beyond any civilized understanding that there’s no sense talking about it at all.

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Aug 05 2009

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Taking Chances

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Over dinner last night, Judy used the “f” word.  She asked me point blank how I intended to ford the bigger streams during my upcoming trek, considering all the rain that has fallen this summer.  I was hoping to avoid this conversation but there it landed in my lap, between a bite of hamburger and two swigs of beer.  My wife recently googled “100 Mile Wilderness,” so there was no point trying to make light of the matter.  The sin of omission: I was caught in the lie that I didn’t tell.

Fording and dread.  That’s the name of a great essay by Jim Harrison, which is more about steeling oneself for action than the actual mechanics of river crossing.  “Where is the best place in a river to get across?” Harrison asks, and here we have the perfect metaphor for all the obstacles that we face in life – perfect because it underscores risk and good judgment as well as resolve.  And yes, fording does involve risk.  Anyone can see that.

I like to hike alone, deep in the forest.  I’m getting older, more brittle, less sure on my feet.  I fell down a month ago and my side still aches from it.  My physician recently gave me a clean bill of health, but all bets are off when one is trekking a muddy, rock-strewn path with a sixty-pound pack.  I’ll be taking chances when I hike the 100 Mile Wilderness.  It may be a foolish undertaking, but I’d be even more of a fool if I denied the risks involved.

The other day, when I picked up my patched hiking pants, the tailor asked me if I was worried about bears.  I laughed at that.  The chances of being attacked by a bear are roughly the same as being struck by lightning.  But hikers slip and fall in the mud all the time.  Broken bones are common on the trail.  Gaining wisdom isn’t about avoiding risk, but knowing where the risks are.

I use trekking poles nowadays, whenever I hike more than twenty miles.  I carry a large first aid kit, food, water and enough gear to get by for days wherever I land, in whatever weather.  I know my limits when it comes to climbing mountains or fording streams, and am not too proud to abort.  More importantly, I know how to assess risk.  “Just do it” is a credo for children and fools.

Judy knows what I’m up against, and I don’t insult her intelligence by denying it.  Yes, it has been a very wet summer and those streams will be running high.  Maybe I’ll get across them, maybe I won’t.  According to my map, there’s a logging road running parallel to the trail for the last 15 miles.  I’ll drop down to that if I have to.  One must be prepared to fail.  In real life, contrary to the movies, it happens all the time.  The trick is to not let it defeat you.

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Jul 14 2008

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On Disappearing

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Every once in a while, someone comes at me with the dramatic tale of some starry-eyed pilgrim dying in the Alaskan wilderness. Few things upset me more.

In 1992, a bush pilot dropped me on a gravel airstrip near the Endicott River Wilderness, about forty miles northwest of Juneau. I set up camp next to the river and stayed there for two weeks, completely cut off from the rest of humanity, learning the hard way what it takes to keep body and soul together in a truly wild place. It was the best two weeks of my life.  It was a truly life-changing experience.  But it left me with a profound intolerance for the kind of stupidity that so often passes for backcountry adventure.

Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild is a prime example of that kind of stupidity. In that book, Krakauer writes about a young man named McCandless who wandered into the Alaskan wilderness and died there. Many people are fascinated by the story. Some find the affair tragically romantic; others get a big kick out of survival dramas regardless of the hero’s fate. Others, I suspect, use such tales to justify their own risk-taking or lack thereof. When I read Krakauer’s book, I saw only a woefully unprepared backcountry traveler with no real plan.

I spent a year and a half preparing for my venture into the Alaskan wild. I had skills. I had 125 pounds of food, clothing and equipment. I was as careful as anyone can be while I was out there and still came close to becoming food for the ravens.  The wilderness is a dangerous place.

Right before I went into the wild, I read in the Juneau newspaper about some guy who had disappeared up Eagle Creek two weeks earlier. Only the remains of his camp were found. When I asked several native Alaskans what they thought of this, I got the same response: “People disappear in the bush all the time.” And that’s that. There’s a steady stream of starry-eyed pilgrims coming up from the Lower Forty-Eight.  They slip into the Alaskan backcountry and some of them are never heard from again.

Lord knows I’ve taken more than my share of risks. I’ve been traveling alone into deep woods for decades. I’ve had many close calls. As a result, I’ve learned to treat the wild with great respect. First and foremost, I carry with me the tools I need to get out there and back in one piece.  And I know how to use them.

I can’t with good conscience recommend going it alone, but with a track record like mine, I can’t discourage it, either. All I can say is this: Be as prepared as you can possibly be before stepping into backcountry by yourself. Use your head. Don’t disappear. There’s nothing the least bit romantic about a premature and unnecessary death.  The bush is littered with the carcasses of fools.

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