Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Occasional Definitions: Beer

An alcoholic beverage made from barley, water, yeast and hops. Most hikers crave it, but since there is no dehydrated form, few hikers carry it. Beer cannot be burned in backpacking stoves and must be metabolized by the body. Though useless for cooking, it often causes joy. Beer can lead to mental and physiological changes that range from pleasant and fuzzy emotions to complete and even catastrophic muscle relaxation. Should be taken orally.

From Fire In Your Hand
Dave @ Twitter

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Now Devil, Formerly Saint Helens

  • Name: Loowit Trail.
  • Location: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in southwest Washington State.
  • Length: About 33 miles, but longer with detours.
  • Attractions: One active volcano, old and young forests, deserts, waterfalls, big views.
  • Best seasons: Mid July through mid October.
  • Permits: Fee required for trailhead parking but wide open otherwise.
  • Info: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and Mount St. Helens VolcanoCams

I just finished a more or less annual pilgrimage to Mt. St. Helens, barely.

I like to hike around it. The distance is short but there is a lot to see, and the terrain is varied. There are places where you can go from cool forest to desert in 50 feet. My kind of desert. Shade and water on demand.

After getting inspired in 2000 by seeing two guys running around the mountain in one day I came back the following June and hiked it in one day, with a repeat in October. It was tough as a day hike. You can't do that any more.

Early morning, approaching the mountain.

As a backpacking trip, the 33-mile journey was short in miles, but interesting, and tough in parts. It was a good three day stomp. You can't do that any more.

This trail got beat up. First came the winter of 2006-2007, when severe November and December rains nearly ripped away whole counties. Mt. Rainier got something like 18 inches of rain in 12 hours, or vice versa. (A lot, anyway.) St. Helens got its share. Roads died, trails vanished, mountainsides headed for the sea.

Then came the following winter. Slightly less rain, but only slightly. More flooding, more washing out, more washing away.

Blast zone from Windy Pass.

The Loowit Trail around St. Helens hasn't seen maintenance for at least two years now. There are canyons that used to be ravines, ravines that used to be shallow gullies, gullies where there used to be flat ground. Hiking around St. Helens today is a death trip. For a competent, experienced, strong, and resourceful backpacker, I'd recommend allowing a week for the trip. If you live, and if you also finish in less time, OK, but give yourself time. The big problem is the staying alive part.

This trip is no longer an adventure. It is an ordeal.

But some things haven't changed.

There is dust. Lots of dust. Everywhere. Soon after rain, or early in the year, the soil has moisture. This cuts some of the dust, but is more like a safety margin. A bit of damp in the soil holds it together. Once dry this stuff becomes like talc. Talc with boulders.

If there is soil moisture you can ease up or down the side wall of a ravine or canyon, but not when things go dry. Just look at one of these places and things let go, dumping hundreds of pounds of powder and rock.

A step up from dust is sand. There is sand everywhere. Nice to walk on when damp, but it gets into everything. Dust and sand coat your whole body and everything you carry. It's in the water, in your socks, in your food, under your eyelids. Everywhere.

Cinder cone from the blast zone.

Except for short pieces of trail, mostly in the forested sections, the ground is rough, and much worse where there is no trail. You'll be walking over cobbles or through boulders for long stretches. In some places the earth is like lumpy concrete, unyielding and hard, with cutting edges. In other places it's sand lumpy with stones.

There is little shade, little protection from either sun or wind. It is a windy place. At times it can knock you down. It chokes you with dust.

Water is rare. Strangely, the best watered piece of the mountain is the north, the place that got blasted the hardest, where everything got wiped away. There is nothing there, even after 29 years, other than sand, dust, rocks, the odd shrub, and a few stems of grass. But several springs feed willow thickets, and Loowit Creek, tumbling out of the crater over Loowit Falls, is a permanent stream. The rest of the mountain dries as the season advances, except for an almost hidden spring on the southeast side, and the South Fork of the Toutle River on the northwest side. Both of them are dependable but hard to reach.

At the right time, especially if you are quiet and unobtrusive, you can see elk, sometimes hundreds. Other large critters are scarce. You might see a coyotes out in the open, but probably not. They never stay to talk.

The wind brushes away most bugs, and the land is barren and open and mostly shut of them anyway.

Heather? Dunno, but it's purdy.

On a clear day you can see the massive Mt. Rainier hulking to the north, the blunt Mt. Adams squatting to the east, and the poking, vertical needle of Mt. Hood to the southeast.

This has always been a tough place to hike, but now I'm afraid I'm going to stop going there. No hiking around the mountain any more. The Loowit Trail needs two seasons of serious trail work to bring it back. It's too dangerous to bother any more.

Today I'm glad for two things. First, that I decided to hike clockwise this year. I usually go the other way, but wouldn't have made it through the toughest parts. Second, I'm glad to be alive. I should have slid off the mountain at Toutle River, and died. I left skin and blood there but kept my life. More than fair.

Johnston Ridge Observatory on the north side was my start and finish. On the map I've included, point 1 is the Muddy River canyon. It isn't a hazard yet, but might be one some day. You can walk upslope of the waterfall and get around it.

Point 2 though, nearby, is the canyon of Shoestring Creek.

Shoestring always was large, and hard, and dirty, but now it's all but impassable. It is roughly 100 feet deep and 300 across. There was a trail once, difficult and dirty, but it vanished long ago. I must have needed at least an hour to get through, and felt lucky. The only way in was a slump in the canyon wall where loose soil and stones reclined at a less than vertical pitch. I fell only once, got a couple bruises. On the far side snow and shallow tributary gullies made an exit easier. This canyon runs from the top of the mountain to nearly its bottom like a blockade, and there is no detour route.

You see another ravine or two after that, and then go into large rocks, and then into forest. The forest is nice. Quiet, sheltered, secluded.

Canyon crossing, sans trail.

Too soon you see a large basalt boulder field (point 3). This comes sweeping down the mountain and there is no way to go but over it. It can be fun, or tedious. The rocks are stable, but they all have edges, and walking is a matter of keeping your balance while stepping through.

There are three major boulder fields, but right in the middle you get a break. Swift Creek spills down the mountain and there are trees, and it's a good place to camp.

The south side of the mountain is dry open forest on the east, thinning to grass on the west. There are several small ravines, where there never used to be much in the way of obstacles, but it isn't bad going. Early in the season there is snow wherever there are trees, and in the bottom of every gully, ravine, and canyon. A good thing. I don't know how a person could negotiate some of these later in the season, not any more, when their bottoms aren't filled in and smoothed out by snow.

For some reason the Monument's web site warns of the ravine near Butte Camp trail (point 4), but it isn't bad. Nuisance level. Point 5 is worse, but not by much, at least with snow in it.

Point 6 (all these areas, even if they contain streams, seem to lack names) is a real booger. See the photo. See the trail. See the trail shooting off into empty space. In 2001 when I first day hiked this trail the ravine had been freshly deepened by winter rain, and the bottom 20 or so feet was nearly vertical (OK, only about a 60 degree slope), but I was able to kick steps into the soil both going in and coming out. Now this has eroded into a huge canyon a couple hundred feet deep and requires a long detour down slope, at least a half mile each way, maybe more, off trail. But the forest down there is nice, and good for camping, if you bring water. Overall, a time-eating but almost pleasant detour.

Plain below crater.

Point 7 is a wide but shallow canyon. By the time you get here you are sick of dust and climbing through holes, let alone wondering if you can finish. But it's too late to turn around, so you slog.

Right into the killer. Point 8 is the South Fork of the Toutle River. Once upon a time this was a refuge, a little paradise. You looked forward to it. The river is pleasant, eight to 10 feet across, and clean. Its south side is forested, cool, and clean. The north side used to be a long switchback trail, ankle deep with fine dust, that wound its way up several hundred feet to a wide plain.

Not now.

Coming from the south you leave canyon 7 and see rich grass dotted with white snags, still standing since they died in 1980. Then comes forest, but below, toward the bottom, the trail is overgrown with alder, vine maple, and thorn shrubs. The trail used to end with a dusty ramp trail leading to Toutle River. You tiptoed across and continued on the far side. Simple, easy, clean. Lovely.

Now it's different.

Those heavy winter rains scoured out the river bed by about 50 feet. Straight down. Like a professional trenching job with straight, precise, vertical walls. No way down except by gravity. No way out. You come to the end of the trail, go down that old ramp, and where the river bed used to be is air and a ribbon of foam at the bottom of the drop.

Coming from the south it's easy to begin a detour. You hike down stream until the walls of rubble along the river subside enough to allow crossing. But on the north side there is no way out. There is a bench, almost flat, with easy walking, but it dead ends at a landslide chute. I decided to go over that, but it looked too spooky to try once I got to it.

And this is where I failed the intelligence test.

Loowit Falls.

Option A (the right choice) was to ease up, backtrack, hike farther down stream, and walk up the mountainside through brush and forest.

Option B (the death option) was to continue a vertical scramble up the barren earth wall of the canyon (another 200 to 300 vertical feet) and burrow into the forest up there. So I picked option B. Right. This is where I should have died.

The slope began loose, sandy and gravelly, possible to stand in. Like soft snow. I kicked steps into it. Then it turned hard -- bare mineral soil with a 45 degree slant. I used my trekking poles for balance, but could barely kick toeholds. It was exhausting. I made missteps. I should have fallen but somehow I didn't.

Up above I reached a field of small boulders stuck in the slope and tried scrambling from one to another. Until one after another gave way and rolled to their deaths. I should have too.

That was too scary so I went back to standing up and using trekking poles, making about two steps a minute, each one sure to be my last, but somehow that didn't happen. At the top a bull-sized boulder let me crawl onto its back, and stayed put. A lunge took me over the edge onto grass.

Another hour threading through conifers, shrubs, fallen trees, thorns, and willow thickets took me to the plain above the canyon. Stupid but safe, alive for now.

Points 9 through 12 on the map are all passable ravines or canyons, but not at all pleasant. Not a fun challenge by this point. Point 12 is the valley of Studebaker Creek. It's deep and broad, and is one of the largest canyons on the mountain but is relatively easy. For now. No telling about next year.

Another minor canyon appears after a while, on the east side Studebaker Ridge (point 13), and it's hard and awkward but not dangerous. Past several more small gullies and ravines, and you're out onto the rocky, sandy plain of the blast zone, under the mountain's maw. Walking here is only tedious and dirty. Any place not covered by stones (egg size, fist size, grapefruit size, soccer ball size, beach ball size) is deep sand and gravel. More slogging.

There is a flat valley with a nameless stream. It descends from a waterfall on the crater's edge. The stream is normally small but negotiating its banks takes planning. More tedium. Tedium level 14.

Next is Loowit Creek (15). It roars but doesn't bite, though you need to wade it. It's warm.

Greenery on the east side.

Its banks, though, are tougher. Both the outer and inner banks are awkward and steep. You have to hunt for a route. Sometimes the banks are too soft and crumbly, sometimes too concrete hard. Bad either way. You never know which it'll be.

Once past Loowit Creek you go east, then north, then west and end at the Johnston Ridge Observatory. The walking is not easy but not dangerous, only a test of will. Your aching, dirty, beat up body versus fatigue, tedium, and dust-caked sweat. There is a boggy stretch thick with willows and more sand and more dust, but it's only annoying in a sloppy way.

Yeah, so OK, I was stupid enough to go back this year even though last year was ugly. I should have known. And I should have died. But given that this place is a strange beast with features you're unlikely to find elsewhere, parts of it are worthwhile.

Recommended: the Smith Creek valley. I've spent a lot of time there. It's on the northeast side of the mountain, and though chewed up is still fun. Access is easy enough, you get a good view of the cinder cone and the valley as you drop into it, and there are enough streams there to keep you fascinated. No one hikes this valley though a few bicyclists ride through.

Lava Canyon, on the far eastern end of this valley, is an amazing place, like a natural Disneyland, with waterfalls, cliffs, chutes of roaring foam, forest, and a pillar of solid rock standing in the middle of it all, accessible by trail. You can hang your toes over the edge and look straight down at Muddy River (a crystalline stream). The bad news here is more trail damage.

You probably don't want to try the Loowit Trail now. Maybe 2011 or later, if the Forest Service does a bunch of work. Even Lava Canyon is impassable, unless you are very, very bold. So for now it's the north half of the mountain or the Smith Creek valley, rewarding in their own ways.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Bearable Lightness Of Shades

Are you still looking for the ultimate in post-mydriatic and dental procedure protective eyewear?

Or could you use some really light sunglasses? You can now have both.

While having an eye exam several years ago I realized that I'd found the perfect sunglasses. This was when I was redoing my whole approach to backpacking and getting wicked light.

I already had a pair of clip-on sunglasses. Those are great. They're polarized, so they cut reflections and glare, and let me see into pools of water. I like that. I always want to know what's in there, breathing water and watching me back. Can't hurt.

And the polarized lenses interact with sunlight and reflections and make the world a little sparkly and shimmery at times. I'm not sure quite how this happens but it can be fun on a boring day.

But these sunglasses aren't perfect. The little clipper thingies always end up scratching my expensive lenses where they touch. And the clip-on lenses get scratched too. It's awkward to take them off because they themselves pick up scratches even if I keep them in a soft cloth. And taking them off means that I can lose the suckers, or break them. They break. Breaking isn't good.

OK, done with that subject.

Besides the clip-ons I had a couple pair of giant goggle-like things. These are all plastic, all transparent, all tinted, and will fit over glasses. You can wear them with or without your own glasses underneath. This is good. I think some models come with polarized lenses too, which is a plus. You've probably seen geezers wearing these around. Geezers take to them the way kids go after candy.

But they're big and heavy, they can break, they get scratched, they're relatively expensive, and it isn't harder to lose them than anything else.

I wear glasses all the time. That's another reason I don't own a gun. Without the glasses I couldn't even shoot at anything that moves, because it's all a blur out there, so why bother? I can't wear contact lenses, don't want pre$cription sungla$$es, and am not likely to get my eyeballs carved by laser beams.

So I can't wear a $2 pair of dark glasses unless I want to stick them on over my real glasses and scratch the snot out of them and look enormously entertaining.

Looking goofy isn't too big a problem. I've got that pretty well nailed anyway. The real problem is finding cheap, light sun protection that works, and doesn't destroy my prescription lenses.

So back to paragraph three: While having an eye exam several years ago I realized that I'd found the perfect sunglasses. This was when I was redoing my whole approach to backpacking.

I hate these exams. They are the ones where you get the eye drops that burn like crazy, and then after a few minutes your pupils get so big that people start backing away, if not turning to run for their lives. Well that part is kind of cool, but by the time your eyes are that dilated you can't see what's going on anyway. You have to go over the surveillance tapes after the police arrive.

But it's kind fun except for the burning eyes.

Right, so there I was with these buggy eyes and then my eye doctor handed me a roll of dark plastic in a paper sleeve. Rollens. Damn. I was so much in love, like instantly. Like totally.

Rollens is a single piece of flexible plastic. It's a springy plastic sheet, fairly sturdy, but completely flexible, transparent, and tinted. It's a piece cut out in the shape of my big goggles -- at least the front part. If you unroll it and hold it flat on a table it looks like goggles without the pieces that go around the side of your head and over your ears.

It doesn't look too weird until you put it on.

Then, if you don't wear glasses it still looks pretty much OK, even sexy on some people. At least I think so.

If you do wear glasses, you put this on, and the springiness and curl of the plastic holds it in place on your head, but then you put your glasses on over it and get a second chance to scare the bejeebers out of everyone.

But for an ultralighter everything is fine. We're all about weight and utility, and Rollens is great. I've laid one of these down on a table, all rolled up, and pounded it with my fist to demonstrate how good they are. No problem. A slight crease is all, and it didn't matter.

They get scratched but who cares? They don't contact the lenses of your real glasses, and even if you just wear the Rollens without any glasses, they stay on your face because of the inherent springiness of the material.

Rollens offers 100% ultraviolet protection, the design is full-coverage (almost no light leaks in around the edges), it doesn't break, and you can't tear it, it's small, it's cheap. And of course it's light.

I can't tell you how light one of these is because the postal scale where I live doesn't even twitch when I drop one of these onto it. So that's less than a tenth of an ounce each (3 g). Rollens doesn't register. At all.

The bad part is that you can't really buy these, sort of. I bought a box of 50 at 50 cents each, shipping included, from the maker. That was a good enough deal. But they sell only in bulk. On the other hand this is roughly a lifetime supply. I hardly ever use sunglasses anyway, but it's no problem bringing one of these, and a spare too, just in case.

Highly recommended. By me.

Colors: amber, gray, and clear. Clear won't work for sunglasses (Duh!) but you still have the UV protection. The gray is a good dark shade and makes a huge difference. Don't know about amber.

I have a whole bag full of empty plastic 35mm canisters. I use one of these to carry my Rollens. The canister is a little too short but if I was fussy I could trim the Rollens down with a scissors (you can do that, no problem). I roll them up really tight and fit two into one canister. Small package. Stows easily.

If you want to try Rollens without ordering a bunch, you could check around at offices of nearby optometrists or ophthalmologists. If you already do business at one they might toss you a couple for free.

Check it out.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Occasional Trails: Where Even The Snakes Are Good

  • Name: Ozark Highlands National Recreation Trail
  • Location: Northwest Arkansas
  • Length: 165 miles
  • Attractions: Broad vistas, plentiful streams, rich forests, hundreds of waterfalls
  • Best seasons: October to early June
  • Permits: None required, but registration is encouraged
  • Info: Ozark Highlands Trail Association
"Most snakes are good snakes," says the Ozark Highlands Trail Association. "We have an abundant supply of snakes in the forest, including rattlesnakes, copperheads and water moccasins. Generally speaking, unless you are playing with a snake, or happen to sit down right on top of one, you will never have any problems with snakes."

Which is nice. Nothing like snakebutt to mess up your day.

How about bears? Eh? "Most of the black bears are quite small - less than a hundred pounds - and are afraid of humans." So the bears are easy too. OK, we get it.

Sounds pretty good: "One of the nicest things about the OHT, is the fact that it is still relatively undiscovered - even on a prime spring weekend you will seldom see other hikers." The Ozark Highlands Trail Association says a lot of things like that about their trail.

If you're wondering what there is to do besides chilling with snakes and scaring bears, well, you can do lots of other things. Like counting stream crossings. There should be 60 of these.

Eyeballing waterfalls. Too many to count though. Up in the hundreds. Check.

Rocks. They have rocks. Sandstone bluffs, giant boulders, all kinds of fun rocks. Plus vistas, scenic ones, scenic because the mountains don't get in the way.

See these "mountain" things are really the eroded remains of a vast ancient plateau that's been weathering for 300 million years or so. What that means for you, the backpacker, is that when you get to a lookout and want to see something, you can see it. The tops are all the same height, and flat. Handy. You can see 40 miles.

The bad part is that geography runs north and south and the trail goes east and west. Lots of ups and downs, so you pay attention, but then you notice all kinds of things.

Like, in the spring, flowering dogwoods, redbuds, and wildflowers. Upland oak and hickory forests all the time. Fall colors (in the fall, of course). Critters: white-tailed deer, black bear, elk, coyotes, bobcats, wild turkey, grouse, squirrels, chipmunks, birds, birds, birds, and armadillos.

Right. Armadillos.

Did you notice that the preferred hiking season excludes July, August, and September? When water is scarce, the bugs are revved up, and the snakes get a bit edgy too, in the heat, you know.

So, while winter could squeeze out some snow, and dip below zero on the odd January day, it isn't normally bad for backpacking, with days at 40 to 60 degrees and freezing but not deadly nights. No bugs then, either.

Sounds great. Where did this trail come from?

The Ozark National Forest started work in the 1970s, but budget issues soon developed. Work stopped. Then up stepped volunteer Tim Ernst of Fayetteville, Arkansas. He founded the Ozark Highlands Trail Association, and they finished the trail in 1984. So far their members have put in more than 350,000 volunteer hours on building and maintenance.

Ernst: "The layout of the trail is good because hikers did it. That's why I say this is a handcrafted trail. We built the trail that we wanted, the way we wanted it."

In keeping with the trail's low profile, it "has a lot of wilderness character. There are no bridges, there aren't campsites everywhere. You can hike this trail from end to end and see only a couple of buildings," Ernst says.

The regular USGS maps don't show this trail. The Forest Service, barely. Ernst, besides his other work, wrote the "Ozark Highlands Trail Guide" (see the web site), rich with all kinds of information.

Despite obscurity, the area is not isolated. There are many side trails, over 50 road crossings, and nine public campgrounds. Two post offices, but no close towns so resupply is limited.

The future? What about that?

Several attached loop trails up to 20 miles each, and joining with Missouri's Ozark Trail. This will create the longest hiking trail in the central United States, the thousand mile Trans-Ozarks Trail.

Want to hike yet? Go for the record and beat Steve Kirk and Greg Eason? In March 2004 they hiked all 165 miles of the Ozark Highlands Trail in 65 hours, 35 minutes, and 35 seconds. All you have to do is beat them by one second. Just one second. Think about that.

But you might miss some scenery on the way, so maybe not, then. Up to you. Nice place either way.