Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Trail Pokers

Sissy sticks. Woods walkers. Dual canes. Dog attenuators. Pop props.

I don't care what you call 'em. I needs 'em.

Disdain. Utter. I used to have. No more. I never go anywhere without my geezer stilts now.

This started one weekend when I went out to St Helens, one of the trailless side canyons I used to explore. Used to explore in the sense of before all the roads and trails got washed away by two years of rains, and before the canyons got fully packed in solid by new alder and willow growth.

Funny thing about that. I didn't start hiking there until very late 1995, then hit it hard the next spring, and again and again for many seasons. And found good roads, good trails, and lots of land with no one there. Which is when I took to the canyons and went off trail, tramping, scrambling, hanging from a few trees and so on. That first year, 1995, was 15 years after the 1980 eruption, and the place was still barren.

There were pockets and patches that had been only ruffled by the blast, or singed around the edges, and there were plenty of large trees and cool quiet groves even under the mountain's right eyebrow but mostly it was sand, rock, and a little moss. And some willows and alders and weeds where there was water.

Great hiking.

Go up Ape Canyon and once past the log jam at its bottom you walked on smooth clean rock. The stream was the same: smooth and clean. Crystalline. Pure. Refreshingly cool but not cold. Sparkling.

It was easy to see where to go and why. The place was chock full of waterfalls, all out in the open. It was pleasant and calm and small and unique and no one ever, ever went there. It was a happy time.

Then around 2000 the water began showing signs of algae. Here and there.

Around 2002 the canyons began to bristle with short alders. First you don't see them, then they are two feet high, and the next season eight feet, and then you can't get through them after that. It's the way it went. By 2004 the little canyons I had happily explored and camped in, where no one else ever went, were rustling tangled thickets choked by leather leaves and no fun no more.

It was on one of these earlier, happier trips when I cut a hiking staff. This isn't something I normally do, but no one missed the sapling. Several hundred thousand others were willing to take its place. I used it to navigate upstream, to poke at rocks, to lean on, and generally to depend on. It was thick and heavy and flexible. All good qualities. Being green it didn't break or even come close. Its weight held it down, and it was stout enough to hang onto.

After leaving the canyon I picked up two old dry sticks, close in size to what people call trekking poles. Two of them worked better in the open, and being lighter were easier to swing. It was great. I happily tramped along for several miles before one broke, and then the other.

Right after getting home I bought a set of aluminum poles. Insanely fine. I can't imagine hiking anywhere without them any more.

New hikers maybe assume that they're needed, or required, and they never question whether to get a set. Older retrograde mossbacks occasionally ask about them skeptically. They won't believe you if you tell them how good a pair of pansy pins is. They really are. Especially for us older types.

You know. Or if you don't you've seen us. Limping. Wheezing. Grimacing in pain.

One day about 12 years back I hiked to Upper Lena Lake on the Olympic Peninsula. If you haven't been there then it might be worth it, though in western Washington there are maybe 18,957 other places as good as or better, even if you count on only the fingers of one hand. But I went there.

Lower Lena Lake comes suddenly. When you get there you stop and say to yourself "So this is it?" And then you look at the trail to Upper Lena Lake. Can't be far, you think. Have to work off more energy, you think. So you go for it. Not bad at all, really, but about five times farther than I thought. Could be just me, not paying attention to the map at all. My fault. Not bad though.

Fine little lake and all.

But then I had to go down. And it took what seemed like six or seven lifetimes. Partway down my right knee sort of decided to cease cooperating and instead shriek in pain just for the fun of it. That's partway down as in maybe one eighth of the way. And then it kept getting worse and worse and I ended up limping for around four days after.

And despite that it still took me roughly six years to catch onto the trekking poles.

And I still have knee problems if the knees don't get toughened by enough early season hiking. But regardless, now I have my sticks. And I use them. Always. I lean on them hard on downhills. With enough conditioning and strong enough arms and sturdy enough trekking poles I can make it down damn near any kind of pile, hill, knoll, hillock, hummock, heap, mountain, escarpment, or what have you.

And live to tell about it. Without moaning.

But that's only part of the story. I've come to love my sticks for other reasons. Because they do so many jobs.

I like the heavy ones, the two-part jobs that you can't buy anymore, mostly. The solid, non-shock-absorbing, unmuffled ones with the hair still left on. I like them tough. Weight isn't really an issue. Each pole is on the ground for about half the time anyway. Strength and durability matter more.

I also have a pair of three-section poles and can't rely on them as much. It's in the essential nature of the beast. The lowest section is slimmer, so much slimmer that it has to be extended far out or it can't be locked in place. Which makes the whole pole whippier and weaker since the thinnest section is extended the most.

Two-section poles don't have that problem so much.

Two-section poles also have one less joint, which helps. Less to go wrong, less to fiddle with, fewer parts to wear out and cause problems.

But that's only part of the story. The rest is what you can really do with trekking poles, besides leaning on them. Here are some things:

I use them as a clothes line to dry socks during lunch breaks. Or to hang a shirt on after rinsing it.

At night I use the poles as gigantic tent stakes. Only since I use a hammock, they become hammock stakes. You can sink one of those suckers 18" or so (46 cm). They extend, too, so you can get one way up or way down, or hang it from a loop in the hammock fly it you want the fly to hang straight down.

I pry things. Rocks, out of curiosity, to see who is living there. Logs, if I have to move one. Other stuff as needed.

I use trekking poles to dig holes. Holes have lots of handy uses on the trail.

I swat flies. No, seriously. You can sometimes hit flies on your legs that your hand can never get near. For some reason flies don't see the pole coming. And it is actually pretty easy to hit one with a pole.

Along with that, poles are good for brushing away mosquitoes. They're harder to swat, but the pole can brush them off your legs, or scare horseflies away. Sometimes you get a fly, or a fly and it whole family, and you carry them with you for miles. They circle endlessly and if you let down your guard they bite. Swing your trekking poles though and you have a fighting chance. Swing high in front with one pole while swinging high in back with the other, and keep alternating.

And trekking poles are good to scratch with. Can't minimize that benefit. Everybody has an itch now and then.

For those times when I carry a tarp and sleep on the ground the trekking poles form the skeleton of my shelter. I also have a sort of long kilt made of bug netting. The idea was to wear it to cover my body from the neck down while wearing a regular bug net over my head. So far I haven't had to go that far, but I have used a trekking pole to support this while I sat and had lunch on the trail, inside it.

For those times when you have a critter that needs poking, the trekking pole is a lot nicer than your fingers. Mostly this is a theoretical issue, but I did have a rattlesnake slither across the trail in front of me once. May happen again. And then there was that wood rat that came around at dusk one day, and wouldn't leave. A few light taps from a stick would have gotten his thinking straightened out.

Trekking poles work to support your pack when you set it down, either to help keep it upright or to set the pack on top of, if the ground is yukky.

But more often I use my poles for balance. Crossing streams comes to mind. Sometimes it's on a log bridge. The best ones are wide and flat. Out here, in western Washington, we get them up to five or six feet thick. Even then though, you might be 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 m) over a wet stream or a dry stream bed. Dragging the bottom ends of the poles along the sides of the log helps to stay in touch. For smaller or slipperier logs, slamming the carbide tips into the log is reassuring.

And let's not forget wading. Face up stream, angle from your entry point down stream as you cross, and end up on the other side and a few feet down stream. And while you are doing that, place your trekking poles firmly into the stream bed. That way you have four points of contact and can lean as far up stream as you need to.

For narrow streams or wet spots, lean across, plant your poles on the far side, and vault. This is where stout, two-section poles really shine.

The same goes for snow. Sort of. Late season snow doesn't flow, but it can be treacherous. Trekking poles are like spindly ice axes. If you can't dig your feet into the surface of the snow you can plant your poles and then place each foot on the uphill side of the corresponding pole to keep your feet under you.

Like snow and unlike water, rocks are solid. But they move too. Poles are excellent for keeping your balance on the jumbled rocks of a lava field, though you do have to pay attention not to get them caught between rocks and bent. I've gotten the tips of two poles snapped off so far, once in a stream bed and once on a wooden foot bridge.

And then there is weed whacking. This will keep you happy. See a big devil's club leering at you from trail side? Give it a big fast swing and chop it in half with your ninja trekking pole. The same goes for overgrown trails. If it's four feet high and all weeds, hack at them to reveal the groove of trail worn into the shaded soil underneath.

Let's not forget using one pole in my left hand held tight against the other one stuck into the ground as a camera platform. An informal monopod. I like panoramas. Sometimes I also use the two of them as two legs of a tripod, with my body being the third leg. Either way helps a huge amount.

And no doubt there are lots of uses for trekking poles that I simply haven't been clever enough to figure out just yet. I guess I need some more experiences out there, encountering new things. Maybe in a week or so, while the sun is still shining and the weather is warm.

Have to think about that one.