Dreaming of Backpacking and Mountain Climbing

*Photo taken in the woods of Nelson, NH.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was brushing my teeth, I had a sudden attack of desire for backpacking. I closed my eyes for a few moments, imagining myself in the Adirondacks (one of my favorite places in the world) and I could smell the gorgeous alpine air. It reminded me how very much I value the beauty of slipping away from the rest of society, letting go of all the electronics and lights and noises, and just fall into the rhythm of walking a trail in the woods. If you hike, maybe you know what I mean. It’s almost a meditative experience once you get yourself adjusted with the pack settled just so, your shoes are tied right, and your belly is fueled with food. Your feet find their own way through the ruts, roots, and rocks. Thoughts come and go, the bugs whizz past your ears, birds sing across the spaces between the trees…you connect back with the primordial self which knows how to be in nature, no matter where you live in the world. Backpacking brings your body back into the rhythms of the sun, the long hours of travel by foot, the awareness of life in every inch of the world around you.

Michael and I walked so many trails in the Adirondacks, but one of our favorites is Avalanche Pass, where you get to enjoy the fun of scrambling over boulders, running across bridges, and climbing short ladders. It’s an absolute blast, like a playground in the woods. The water along the trail is the color of jewels, and the mountains rise upward on either side of the lake, their rocky ribs bared by erosion, too steep for any life to cling long. Taking this trail leads to many of the High Peaks most popular to climb, and it also leads directly to Lake Colden, where a lot of hikers tend to camp. If you hike Avalanche Pass, you can hike over Mount Colden as a day hike from this trail, but it’s also a good way to get to Algonquin, Wright Peak, Mount Marshall, Cliff Mountain…it’s a long list. Somehow on that same trip we also hiked up to Indian Head, where you get a gorgeous view of Gothics (one of the 46 High Peaks) and get to enjoy the top of the waterfall. To see the bottom, I don’t know what one must do, but I wasn’t willing to do it. The falls disappears over a steep cliff edge I was unwilling to scale, even in my braver state of climbing ability. We also hiked Little Marcy (I have yet to hike Marcy itself, as we didn’t want to deal with the crowds—it’s the most popular peak there because it’s the highest in the state), and during that same trip we got ourselves up and over Haystack. With packs. Zowie, but that was a feat! One of my favorite spots of all, though, was stopping at Panther Gorge, where a delicious roaring river lulled us to sleep, and only one quiet couple had hiked out that far into the wilderness.

This summer I have every intention of getting back to the Adirondacks for more hiking, especially since last summer got eaten up by work on our house in Olean. I had high hopes for hitting several peaks in one trip (pun totally intended), and had a route all planned out to hit some of the mountains in the more northerly area of the High Peaks. We’ve been back on the East Coast for long enough now that we can hopefully handle the blast of humidity which kept us from the summit of Monadnock last summer. Now that the nymph of spring is starting to knock on Old Man Winter’s door, I definitely am also getting revved up to hike up Monadnock again. I wrote a blog post about our failed attempt to climb it last summer, and both Michael and I were taken aback by this. We had hiked much higher mountains out in Nevada and California, and it was humbling to come home to the East Coast and be unable to summit a peak not even 4,000 feet high. It was especially frustrating for me, since I was out hiking every other day in Nevada, and one of my favorite hikes was out at Jack’s Valley Conservancy, where a 6,500-foot peak was one of my regular weekly hikes. I only hiked to the summit a few times while there, but I certainly hiked up a good 2/3 of the slope regularly—a demanding hike made up mostly of loose sand. It was not easy to get up that peak, and yet Monadnock pummeled me. Well, I have been forcing myself uphill quite a bit since coming back east, and I fully plan to reach the top of Monadnock again as soon as weather breaks enough to allow it. Right now the trails are probably sheer ice, and I have no doubt the wind up there is brutal. Generally, Monadnock is fairly windy at the summit, and even on a day when it’s nice at the base of the mountain you’ll be chilly at the top. This time I plan to douse myself with bug spray, unlike my last hike. Black flies ate me alive, and we were swarmed by mosquitoes. Regardless, I am going.

To solace myself until I can get into the mountains to conquer more peaks or backpack an escape from society, I have been hiking in our “back yard.” Yesterday Michael and I took a trail behind our house, following a sort of road whacked out of the trees and brush down the hill. In the spring it will probably be a marsh with all the water running off the hill to the watershed below, but right now it’s all locked up in ice. I slapped on my snowshoes and Michael bravely let the dogs run off leash in the woods while we picked through the tree branches grown over the trail. The other day I had taken this trail until I encountered a road block and had to turn back: a giant tree had broken about 12 feet up its trunk and fell right across the trail. It seemed too difficult to get under, over, or around it, so I didn’t think it would be easy to discover what lay beyond that point. But Michael brought along a hatchet and hacked away a few of the branches to make a sort of tunnel beneath the fallen tree. We got only a short way before the trail pretty much petered out entirely, but we sallied forth into the woods anyway, following the trail of one of the waterways through the woods. Eventually we turned back without ever getting the reward of a view or any very interesting trees or boulders, but I had a grin on my face the whole time. The sun was out, the dogs were thrilled, and my husband was with me in the woods. It doesn’t get much better than that.

When we returned to our house, we even got out my new bow and practiced shooting. I’ve never shot a bow before, even though I’ve wanted one for years. For a newbie, I was proud of myself. I actually hit two out of five targets. We didn’t shoot long, though, because the snow kept eating my arrows. That led to buying a cheap target block so I would have something bigger to hit, and I will be less likely to lose them in the woods. Still, it was fun, and I’m excited to get out there and do it again. Today in Southern New Hampshire we had some new snow fall, so maybe I can get out with my snowshoes again, too. If you’ve never tried it, I highly recommend it. I was able to hike up and down slopes with no trouble—but my snowshoes have claws (I’m totally making that term up because I have no idea what they really are) on the bottom, and they dig right into the snow and ice. Even though the snow was mostly iced over, my snowshoes didn’t care. My intention was to use the snowshoes as a means to keep hiking in winter, and when we’ve had enough snow to keep me off the road, I was able to do that. Mission accomplished. Now that we’re deep into February, I’m getting that itch for spring. It’s always this time of year when I get tired of piling on the layers of clothing to go outdoors, tired of shoveling, tired of having to clean off my car, tired of the short days. This may very well send me into a lifestyle as a snow bird far earlier than retirement age, but for the moment I plan to enjoy the snow if I must live in the North.

As always, I hope you are snuggled up somewhere warm and have the contentment of being able to enjoy nature in some way. Find the wild places in your neighborhood. Scout out the places where you can watch birds, fish, chipmunks, or deer. Almost every town has a park, even if you live in a massive city. Take the subway there if you must, but do it. Give yourself the gift of green or natural places at least once a week if you can. It refuels your mind and spirit in a way nothing else can. Allow yourself to drink in the filtered light from beneath a tree, find where the flowers grow in a botanical garden, or enjoy a community vegetable garden in a greenhouse. In winter, get out to parks and watch the cardinals or crows, listen for the return of the blue jays and robins. I learned from watching the stunning series Blue Planet II that peregrine falcons have made their homes in New York City, and actually delight in the canyon-like spaces between the skyscrapers. What fun to look up and see one of those magnificent birds soaring like a bullet between the buildings! And the added bonus is that they eat rats and mice, the perfect street food. Maybe if you live in the city, you could see them from a rooftop or bridge. I imagine that would be a treat. Wherever you are, there nature will be, right under your nose. Find it. Explore it. Enjoy it. The world will turn whether or not you notice, but your life may be the better for you taking the time to breathe, see, and appreciate even the littlest things, like the way the snow sparkles when the sun shines.




Prepping for Backpacking, White Water Rafting, and Whiteface Mountain Fun

*Photo taken from the summit of Whiteface Mountain, overlooking Lake Placid in the Adirondacks of New York.

Right this minute, as I begin to write to you, Michael and I are driving up a winding highway toward the Adirondacks of New York State. It’s one of our favorite places in the world, and we haven’t been there in a couple of years. Our plan is to first spend some time with family, starting with a white water rafting trip, and then later we hope to get out and backpack. I have no idea how that will go, since we packed late into the night yesterday, to the point that I couldn’t see straight, which may mean I didn’t pack very well. Usually we keep our packs full of the things we typically need to have with us on a trip to the woods, and most of the time I don’t change my supplies much other than what I pack to eat. This time, our packs had been rearranged to be packed into a small container in the truck, so now I don’t know if I actually remembered everything I need. Want to help me make sure I have everything? Allow me to introduce my gear (and then I will share the first leg of our trip).

First, I checked my pack to make sure it was intact. This is just smart. Nothing could be more frustrating than getting your pack all set to go, you drive to wherever you plan to hike, and then you pull your pack out of the trunk to discover a torn strap, a massive hole in the side, or a broken zipper you didn’t notice. Yeah, that would stink. I also spent hours packing our food, which is the next biggest task for me. If I don’t have the right fuel, I have a tough time with my energy level. When hiking up mountains, I need a lot of protein, especially in the morning. My intention was to have eggs and oat bran for breakfast, but the eggs didn’t work out as planned. I now have oat bran with dates and pecans, and I dearly hope it will be good enough. If not, I may switch meals so the higher protein meal of chicken and rice with zucchini may become my breakfast. Or I might pilfer a package of tuna from the lunch snack and eat it for breakfast instead. Who cares which meal you eat in the morning? As long as it gets me to the mountaintop, I certainly don’t. We have bins of freeze-dried food that I use to create my own meals because I refuse to eat the pre-packaged meals you mix with hot water. Most of the time those meals have too much sugar, salt, and empty calories I eat and then still feel hungry. No, thank you. Of course, they are also very expensive. At about seven bucks a meal, I might as well be paying to eat out without the benefit of someone else cooking and cleaning.

With the food packed in the bear canister, I moved on to the clothes and bedding. When Michael and I hike together, we usually split the gear so that he has the heavier pack with the food, and I carry the bedding. Michael is a large person, so he can handle a lot more weight than I can. Thus, I carry the bedding for both of us. At camp every night, after we put up the tent together, I go into the tent and set up the beds while Michael preps dinner. It works fairly well as a system, which is reversed in the morning. Typically we carry a pair of inflatable sleep mats that are insulated. My former sleeping mat decided to stop holding air, so we have to pick up a new one en route. We also carry a down-alternative throw, a silk liner which holds our sleep mats together, and sometimes a down blanket for the underside if it looks like it will be cold. It will probably be unbearably hot, as New York State has been in the 90s for the last few days, so we probably won’t need the extra blanket. Lastly, I use inflatable pillows. All of these items were checked and jammed into a compression bag. The clothes I bring are the same no matter how long we go camping: cargo camp pants that convert to capris (with plenty of pockets), cotton tee, two pairs of cotton wick-away socks, one pair of wool socks, one long-sleeved shirt, a pair of leggings, a hoodie, a knit hat, a pair of gloves, a bandanna, a waterproof hooded jacket and rain pants, a pair of flip-flops, and my fabulous Adidas Swift-R hiking shoes (I never go hiking without them—having waterproof sneakers is a must). No matter how warm or cold it gets, in summer this supply of clothes is plenty.

After the soft stuff got packed, I made sure my head lamp had batteries, my lighter worked, and that we had a cook kit. Michael usually does the check on the cook kit and medical supplies, and then we make sure we have all the proper tent parts (especially tent stakes, which are so easy to miss when packing) and that the tent is in good shape. After years and years of camping, Michael and I both appreciate the importance of making sure everything is in good order before hitting the trail. It’s such a horrible moment when you get out in the woods and go to unpack for your first camp, only to discover you foolishly forgot something you really need, or that an item is broken. Taking those few minutes to look over all the supplies is worth it. As an aside, I will mention one item I have discovered to be incredibly useful for carrying snacks and keeping toiletries away from the food in the bear can: Op bags. If you haven’t heard of these, I suggest an internet search. Op bags were originally created for military use, and they are heavy duty plastic zip bags which are waterproof and prevent animals from catching the scent of whatever is inside. We tested the bags with our dogs to see if they really worked; we stuck a raw steak in the bag and put it on the kitchen floor while the dogs were in another room, then brought the dogs in to see if they would notice it. At our house if anything falls on the floor, the dogs know it’s theirs. In came the dogs, they sniffed the bag, and then they ignored it as if it contained nothing of interest. If they could smell the steak, trust me—they would have chewed through the bag in a heartbeat. Now I use Op bags to carry snacks and toiletries in my pack. If dogs can’t smell it, bears won’t smell it, either.

In the morning, the day hot as blazes with a blast of 90-100-degree heat for the week, we hit the road for Wilmington, where we planned to meet with some of Michael’s family for a few days of fun before we hit the trail. The drive to the Adirondacks is about seven hours from Olean, and it still makes me laugh that such a trip used to feel really long before we went out West. Now this drive seems like a quick jaunt. When we arrive at the large camp house rented by Michael’s family, it’s a nice little spot in the woods with plenty of space for six to sleep comfortably, cook meals in the stocked kitchen, and have some outdoor fun. Our first night there we took it easy, since the next morning we needed to be up at the crack of dawn to get out on the river for the rafting trip. Thankfully, Michael’s brother and sister-in-law had found a rafting company and booked the trip. In the morning, we dragged ourselves out of bed (I got absolutely no sleep in the heat and on the mushy bed—ugh) and drove an hour and a half to arrive at the headquarters for North Creek Rafting Company.

Truly, I had not thought about the rafting trip prior to leaving for the Adirondacks. I never really expected to go on a white water rafting adventure of any kind, mostly because such things are fairly expensive, but also because it seemed kind of dangerous. I don’t know what I thought of rafting, but I was honestly surprised by how much fun we had. Once we got ourselves outfitted with helmets, life vests, and oars, and then had our ears filled with the safety procedures, we took a short ride on their bus to the river’s edge. There, we carried our raft to the water after receiving our instructions about rafting jargon and more safety procedures from our guide. As we lifted the raft and shuffled down to the river’s edge, I began to worry about the water and getting dumped off the side of the boat. I mean, the way these rafts work, we were instructed to sit on the outside edge, nothing to hold onto when we hit rough waters, no straps to hold you in place, only a foot stuck beneath the center of a squashy seat was supposed to keep us all in the boat. This seemed dubious at best, but by the time we were shuffling toward the water I was not about to chicken out and throw in the towel.

Instead, I dutifully hauled the boat down to the water with the rest of the family, waded into the water to my knees, and climbed into the boat like a good little camper. Immediately we floated right into the rapids on the Indian River, so we got a quick lesson on listening to the guide’s instructions for how to paddle the oars and even lean into the center of the boat to avoid being dumped into the water. We all listened so well she questioned whether or not we were newbies, since she was surprised by how well we managed ourselves. When we explained our familiarity with canoe trips, she understood immediately why we seemed so well-versed in handling the oars. As we made our way through the rapids of the first leg of the trip, I found myself joyfully whooping every time we hit the rough water. Once an adrenaline junkie, always an adrenaline junkie. I mean, I like canoeing, but white water rafting might be my new favorite thing. It helped that we had an experienced guide who had been rafting since she was four, and had learned how to read the river from her father. Her experience combined with our ability to adapt our previous boating skills made the trip a lot of fun for all of us. As part of the day, the rafting company incorporated several stops to rest, to swim if people wanted, and a quick lunch they provided for us. The only negative about the trip was our own foolish decision to skimp on applying more sunscreen about halfway through the trip. We had bright, hot sun shining on us all day, and they did try to warn us that our knees would probably burn…none of us reapplied the sunscreen and we all got burned knees. Oh, well. Totally worth it.

Floating down the Indian River to the Hudson is apparently a year-round thing, though I can’t imagine it would be fun to raft in the winter. Being in the midst of a heat wave, the water which occasionally jumped over the side of the raft cooled us gorgeously, and we appreciated the stops which allowed us to either swim or soak our feet. In all, the trip surprised me. If it becomes my new favorite thing, I may need to figure out how to do it more often. After the rafting, we all went to dinner in Lake Placid. Sitting outside allowed us to enjoy the live music playing across the street, and we all discussed our surprise about how much fun the rafting was for all of us. Something about the trip down the river seemed to bond us differently, a good outcome indeed. Our final day for family time revolved around a trip to Whiteface Mountain, a trip I wanted to take since I have successfully faced my terror of heights. It was on Whiteface many years ago that I cringed fearfully on a bench near the elevator while my children and parents went exploring. My phobia of the exposed height of the mountain gripped me so badly I couldn’t even watch as my children romped near the edge of the rocks on the mountaintop. The short climb to the top of the mountain was also impossible for me, but not this time. Since working on my terror, this climb I was first up the mountain and I leaped up the rocks with glee, not the least bit afraid. Wonder of wonders! This was a big milestone, and I am so glad we went so I could enjoy the beautiful view this time.

The remainder of our week is a mystery now. Michael got a terrible burn on the rafting trip, and his legs are looking very bad. It may not be possible to hit the trail on this trip if he’s still in pain tomorrow, but we shall see. If he can’t backpack, I may just take myself up one of the high peaks so I can add it to my growing list of high peaks I’ve climbed. Now that fear is no longer an issue, I feel like conquering mountains is just what I do now that I can. It’s so satisfying to hit the summit, especially for those tough climbs. My hope is to hike Big Slide, a peak that has some scary ladders I might have to climb to get to the summit. If I can conquer my fear of ladders, I believe my fear of heights will finally be well in hand. That would be fabulous. See you on the other side, friends. I hope each and every one of you had a beautiful holiday if you are from the States. We enjoyed a delightful show of fireworks over Mirror Lake in Lake Placid last night, a perfect way to end our night, and a perfect place to end my weekly trip with you. My lovelies, please do get out there and see something beautiful this weekend. Life is too short to waste it in front of a screen.