Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What's a good hiking climate like?

Underneath The Atmosphere

"I have been amazed by the amount of rainfall falling around here over the past two days, with a number of locations getting the equivalent of an entire September's rainfall in 48hr! Warm, humid, and tropical. At my home in north Seattle I had 1.1 inches the first day and 1.05 inches the second! The ground is saturated." — (Cliff Mass, Professor, Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, on Sunday, September 19, 2010.)

I used to think that western Washington was a good place to live. In many ways it is. When I started backpacking in 1980 everything was fresh and shiny. It was all new. I took whatever came along. And it was all great.

I even did a three-day trip into the Hoh rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula in February of 1981. It was interesting. Wet but interesting. And not that wet, really. I even wore jeans then.

"Throughout the winter season, rain falls frequently in the Hoh Rain Forest, contributing to the yearly total of 140 to 170 inches (or 12 to 14 feet!) of precipitation each year." (That's 3556 - 4318 mm) —

The only real problem I had was with mice, who were all over me the first night, but not so much the rain.

But I'm used to this area now, and have expectations. Maybe that's part of my problem. And the last three seasons have been horrible.

The first expectation is that summer begins on July 12, or if not, then the next day. What that means is that the rain stops for three months, sometimes more. It's common to have a 90-day summer drought here. You can't beat that during backpacking season.

I once left the state in June, because the gray and wet had made me crazy. I returned in August, and the next day there was a thunderstorm, the first rain in all that time. Greetings, pardner.

Incidentally that was also the only time I've heard the earth's electrical dynamo wind up for a kill. I was looking out the back window of my apartment when a loud buzzing noise moved through the yard, and then there was a huge bang across the street when a lightning bolt zapped the neighbors.

The second expectation you get from living here is that you can go hiking and backpacking most places by the end of May if not earlier, with the high country slowly melting out, but pretty fully available by the end of June.

Underneath The Atmosphere

Things aren't cooperating lately.

For the last three seasons it's been almost impossible to get out even into flat, open areas at moderate elevation before the end of July, and even then there may still be deep old snow in shaded places and on north slopes, so say mid-August for real backpacking.

This year too.

I went back and finished in late August a trip I tried in late July, glad that I'd been smart enough to give up on the first attempt. Because of the north facing slopes and their angle, it would have been suicide to keep going.

So, too bad.

I did some stuff when I could, and planned to fill in with September and even October hiking.

September is always nice. The days are shorter, but no one is out there any more, the bugs are down for the season, and only a few idiots with artillery are creeping through the shrubbery, but not in the national parks. All in all a decent time to make tracks.


Rain, rain, and more rain this year.

"Olympia has accumulated 4.1 inches of rain in just the past 4 days and 5.3 inches over the past 31 days. September normal at Olympia is 2.0 inches for the entire month." — Cliff Mass on Sunday, September 19, 2010.

Every low spot is knee deep in muddy water. The skies are gray, parting only for a few hours at a time to give hope to losers like me who still pray there's a chance to save the season. Or at least to get out and do something.

That last trip? Passable but bad.

The high temperature was 55 degrees (13 C). For several days it hung around 40 degrees (4 C). This was the end of August. Add gray skies, cold winds and fog, and you have a fine old time. Not to mention the weekend herds of off-road motorcyclists.

But if I can get two solid days of sun I'm going back out, to visit Jumbo Peak, which I missed last year. Not expecting it though.

All of which gets me wondering if there really is any genuinely good place to backpack. Is there a climate? An ideal climate?

Underneath The Atmosphere

Probably not.

Given all the options, cold is better than hot, and dry is better than wet, but it doesn't seem like there is a good balance anywhere.

Dry means no water, and usually means hot, and you find lots of nasty crawling things in hot, dry places. Cold tends to mean either late-season and dry, and too cold, or too-early the next season, and muddy.

Hot is hot.

Wet is like a creeping fungal disease that spreads — start getting wet and you can only get wetter — you never dry out on the trail while things remain wet.

So basically I'm fuddled. Thwarted, disappointed, confused, and annoyed. Yet another season has to be written off, and I can't afford to fly off to the Land of Everlasting Perfection even if I could find it on a map.

A few days of evil at a time are part of the deal. I can suffer with the best of them and keep on slogging, but when a whole season goes down the toilet, and again, and again, then I don't know what to think.

Especially since I may be somewhere else next year, doing something different, in a place where backpacking just isn't possible in any real sense.

Bleh. Not your problem.


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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fevered Fuzzy Delusions

What's vinyl and looks demented?

Fevered Fuzzy Delusions

There is a certain structure to being sick. It is a process, a journey, a transformation.

First you feel odd but push on. To be sick is inconvenient, and you don't have time to waste, or patience to spare. You have a life, things to do, plans, a schedule.

Later you feel less odd and more pained. Reality becomes fuzzy, and you are not so sure you still understand exactly the point of it, or how to navigate around obstacles like furniture. Still, things aren't unpleasant enough to cause more than a slowdown. You decide you can ignore the throbbing.

Then there is that stage when it becomes clear you are no longer in charge, and possibly not human. You are going through something, the way a small animal goes through a large one after lunch. No matter where you are, it's too hot, too stuffy, too drippy, and you can't get comfortable. You hope it's over by morning.

The next day, of course, is when you realize that there are two possible outcomes. A painful, endless continued semi-existence barely worthy of the word, or a painful, lingering death, that will first reduce you to a whimpering puddle of intensely aching slime inside your bed clothes, and then will get much, much worse before it gets better (i.e., you finally die in your sleep, except that you can't sleep because of the pain).

Fevered Fuzzy Delusions

You think about things. Work left undone. Things yet to do. How life once seemed worth the living of it. What you could have done with yourself if only you'd been paying attention, and changed direction when you could. Your eyeballs hurt. Your skin hurts. Every joint hurts. You are too exhausted to do anything but hurt.

And the next day you don't need to think anymore because, though it might be possible to do so, it really doesn't matter by now. You no longer think about getting better so you can once again go out the front door and have a nice walk in the sunshine. If you could think about that, you wouldn't be able to remember how it feels. You might get a flickering image of it, like perceiving a faint faded sepia trace on a piece of yellowed paper that used to be a photograph. But you wouldn't care. Doings like that are part of another universe now, another universe that is a strange, quaint, and wholly improbable place of no interest to you.

Because life itself is pain, and even your pains have pains. And they are all fighting with each other, for the honor of putting an end to you.

Now you do only two things. One is to intermittently regain consciousness, and you have no control over this. The other is to open one eye whenever you happen to regain consciousness.

If you open that eye and see darkness, then it is night, and you have made it through another day. If you open that eye and see light, then it is day, and you have made it through another night. Either way you realize you are still alive, and you would curse your fate if you could, and your entire world is aches wrapped around pains simmering in fevers.

It is exactly times like this that you realize how lucky you are to have a pet, if you have the right pet.

Fevered Fuzzy Delusions

You don't want to stagger out of your bed after a week lost in the screaming wilds of agony to find that your small furry friend, alone in its cage, has eaten itself in a desperate attempt to defeat starvation while you were out of your mind.

So you don't want a pocket pet.

You don't want to be lying in bed, barely able to stand the agony of breathing, to have some galumphing, 180-decibel, 75-pound, arfing beast come and jump on you, slobber on your face, and be happy that you feel great too.

What you do want is a cat.

Given a large bowl of dry food and a reasonable amount of water, a cat can remain satisfied, sleek, and plump for weeks before it even considers a gentle, tentative nibble on an unguarded part of your body, and even then, if it decides it has to devour you to survive, it will do so while you are asleep, so you won't know. Cats are tactful.

If a cat is bored, it sleeps. When a cat awakes it goes for a quick nip of food, a sip of water, and then resumes its normal catatonic state. (Where did you think that word came from?)

While dogs are like loud, stupid drinking buddies vomiting all over you, cats are like lovers. They provide discreet comfort, are circumspect, self-effacing, quiet, and clean, and they truly appreciate your affection. They know when to disappear, and somehow they always reappear just when a person needs a bit of reassurance and unconditional acceptance.

Cats are, however, not universally available, and they have their own quirks.

Fevered Fuzzy Delusions

Like, for example, the way a cat may come by to help you greet the new day. Cats are always alert somehow, and when the cat knows that you are awake in the morning it may well drop in to help you readjust to daylight, sounds, sensations, and to regain your bearings within the the world of the living.

You have to watch out for this.

The cat may only, if you are lying on your side, stick its nose into your ear and purr. This of course sounds exceedingly cheery and agreeable, lovably cute, even. It of course is not. Unless you really do want to be deafened in one ear by something unpleasantly fuzzy and wet which feels like it is attempting to get at your brain through the side door.

Yes, and speaking of doors we have the other thing.

Say that you are not on your side but are on your back, and Kitty hops up there on your chest all thrilled and delighted to see you awake once again (and therefore available to haul down some chow for Kitty). And then, the next you know, Kitty is doing that thing that cats inexplicably do, and has actually turned away from you, so you are facing Kitty's secondary weapons area (not the one with the teeth -- the other one).

Of course you learn how to deal with this. A quick puff of air directed right at the bullseye gets Kitty to give a smart hop and throws Kitty's aim off, saving you once again, but you may learn this trick only after you learn why you need to learn it. And it is not an easy way to learn, though your lesson will last a lifetime.

Say Kitty is on your chest, facing your toes, and in order to maintain environmental equilibrium, must release a small but highly caustic jet of digestively-processed gases. Well sir, it takes very little of this to gain one's attention quite promptly, and how it works might be like this.

You are there, and Kitty is in position only inches away, as noted. And then critically, you are also breathing. If you weren't you'd only need to fear for your eyesight and a minor loss of eyebrows and facial skin. But if you are breathing when Kitty out-jets you will, by reflex, inhale a quick gasp. Just once, ever in your life, and you will never forget it.

And even if you could think about it later you would never think up a way to wash out your lungs, if it ever happened again, which it won't. A small but quick phhhht!, a gasp, and there you are, both lungs bathed in it, and no way to clean them or trade them in on a fresh pair or anything.

Fevered Fuzzy Delusions

So you learn, if Kitty ever, ever again turns the artillery toward you, to hold your breath, pucker, and give Kitty a short, sharp blast of air in the butt.

But what if you can't have a pet at all?

I would suggest getting a sister. Luckily, I have one. Even more luckily, she's the smart one.

She recently sent me a "CAT-IN-A-CAN". In order to defeat the possibility of stress-inducing uncertainty, I'll jump right to the point. This is a cat in a can, inflatable, and reusable. Even the can is reusable and resealable. It says so on the side.

On the other side it says "INGREDIENTS: Expandable Calico Cat." And "APPROVED BY: The Inflatable Pet Association." And, in a final hug of reassurance: "Easy And Convenient Storage." Given how difficult it is to get the average cat into a can half the size of a coffee mug, I hereby proclaim this a triumph.

The only time I've ever known my sister to be wrong about anything is when she wrote the note that accompanied my very own plastic pal. "Everyone needs a pet," she said. "This one can stay alone when you're hiking. It doesn't eat much."

Fevered Fuzzy Delusions

Well, of course I wouldn't expect it to eat, and although I could puff it up and stick it in the kitchen window to watch with bated (i.e., no) breath for my return every time I went backpacking, it strikes me that CAT-IN-A-CAN could come along.

TBear is getting a bit scruffy and smells bad, doesn't deflate, and is hefty for his size, all things considered. Not so great any more to have as my snuggle buddy.

Squeaky Frog was OK, and it was fun to sit around in the dusk and talk, squeezing him every time I needed to hear someone whistle in agreement with my more subtle arguments, but he was a sort of rubber after all, eventually experienced stress fatigue, and his hand fell off. No more squeaking then, plus he couldn't salute properly after that either, so I set him on fire and turned him loose on the river.

CAT-IN-A-CAN seems promising. I could carry CAT-IN-A-CAN in a pocket by day, and set it up, inflated, by night to guard against snuffling, night-creeping mousies and such. Very light, washable, brightly colored, but sadly without a squeaky hole. Maybe I could learn a bit of ventriloquism. That might do it. CAT-IN-A-CAN will never know it's me, I think.

P.S. If you get an inflatable cat, don't lick it. They taste even worse than real cats.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sleeping Giant

Sleeping Giant

From October 12, 2008, one of my Volcanocam favorites.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Getting Squeaky In The Woods

Getting Squeaky In The Woods

Camping With Suds

Use number 2: "Peppermint is nature's own unsurpassed fragrant Deodorant!"

Use number 6: "Dilute for ideal After Shave, Body Rub, Foot Bath, Douche."

Use number 10: "1/4 oz in qt H2O is Pest Spray! Dash, no rash Diaper-Soap!"

And the list goes on. There are 18 entries in all.

I personally haven't attempted anything involving diapers, or even remotely douche-like, due partly to anatomical limitations perhaps, but I do love this stuff.

And what, you may say, do I, Love? Emanuel Bronner's Peppermint Liquid Soap.

I heard about this shortly after moving to Lotus Land (Western Washington State) in 1979, and soon after that I bought some, and kept it in mind for a long time even when I wasn't using it, which was mostly. In the old days the labels were a bit freakier but it was all in keeping with my friends of the time.

The labels are still freaky in a slightly more refined and corporate way but after so much time they've really become only the identifying mark that I reach for. I no longer attempt to understand these labels, or anything. They are just words on paper, assuring me that I've got my hands on the right stuff.

Too bad this soap is expensive. At home I use Ivory bar soap to shampoo and bathe with (it's nice to have gotten away from the hard water of the Great Plains where this does not work for shampoo), I use an ordinary liquid detergent for dishes (I have roughly two of everything: two forks, two knives, two plates and so on, so cleanup is easy), and I use another ordinary powdered detergent for laundry.

A couple of years back I tried Dr. Bronner's soap for tooth brushing. Since then I've heard that a lot of the ingredients in "ordinary" toothpaste are nasty. Some people swallow the stuff every now and then, but it isn't certified in any way to be taken internally. Which means that the ingredients can be pretty much anything, and so this "ordinary" toothpaste is not good to swallow, and maybe not even to use.

As it happens, a lot of other "ordinary" products, most of which I never use, have nasty things in them. Lipstick users "eat" on average two tubes of the stuff per year just by applying it. Various air "fresheners" contain carcinogens. And, as they say, on and on.

But this soap is pretty good for tooth brushing. It's essentially a combination of organic, pure, basically food-grade oils and such, treated with potassium hydroxide to turn the ingredients into liquid soap.

The only problem is that you need to learn restraint. Two or three drops on the bristles of a toothbrush are about right. Less doesn't do the job, and more is unpleasant.

Really unpleasant. You foam up badly, the suds come out of your mouth, your nose, and any other available orifice, and the soap generally removes exactly everything from your mouth except actual teeth, tongue, and mucus membranes. And that is unpleasant for a good long while, but not so if you use less.

This is ideal for backpacking. The soap, not the excess.

Getting Squeaky In The Woods

I take a small bottle of Elmer's Glue (seriously), dump out the contents, and clean the bottle. Then I fill it with Dr. Bronner's soap. The Elmer's Glue bottle has a handy screw-open, screw-closed top that dispenses dropwise, and when you close it it stays closed, mostly.

Somehow the bottle always seems to be coated with a film of soap, so I carry it in a plastic bag.Either it gets a film of soap or it's wet, or both, and you really don't want that in your pack or even in one of its pockets.

OK teeth: done.

This soap is good for other things, especially while backpacking.

Like washing hands, which I almost never do with soap, but it's there if you need it.

Washing clothes, which I do sometimes, though the tiny bottle contains only about two fluid ounces (60 ml). Usually a water rinse of clothing is good for three or four days, and only then do clothes need to be nuked. Without clothes washing my small bottle of soap is good for about two weeks on the trail.

It's primo for shampooing though. Even on a cold morning you can wet your hair, rub wet hands over your face and neck, shoot about a half teaspoon of soap onto the palm of your hand (2 - 3 ml) scrub up, hit your face with the leftover suds, rinse, and repeat if needed. Then you start the day fresh. Fresh enough.

On a warm day with lots of water around you can have a full bath. A backpacker's bath anyway. I do my head, armpits and crotch, and just rinse the rest. If I'm really dirty, it's really warm, and there is really a lot of water around I'll soap all over and rinse. This doesn't take much extra soap, but everything has to come together to make this worthwhile. It's amazing what being cleanish can do for a person's mood.

Which brings in another use.

Every morning while backpacking I have to do something within minutes after getting out of bed. A couple drops of this soap applied to a wet finger, combined with a half-liter of water let me get in there and scrub and rinse away all the unpleasant residue so I can hike all day without having an itchy tail. And the peppermint oil is tingly.

You get used to the tingly part. It means that you're clean.

Clean good. Dirty bad. See?

With peppermint oil in your soap you can figure out right away if you're clean without having to sniff or inspect any inconvenient-to-reach body parts. Or anything. So that's good.

And I wear glasses.

My sister just had a couple of plastic bags implanted in her eyes, under the corneas, to cure of lifetime of extreme nearsightedness, but she doesn't have astigmatism. I do. So I'm still stuck at the glasses stage. Have glasses, have to clean glasses - no way around it. Dr. Bronner's soap to the rescue.

Ordinarily I wouldn't do this because soap leaves a residue, but with this soap, hardly. Pretty amazing. At home I use liquid detergent which removes everything you want removed and rinses away entirely, but on the trail the soap is fine, and lots better than walking around with fingerprint smears and dried sweat and dust and bugs all over my lenses. So that works too.

Another tip. I didn't think of this but someone once mentioned that she carried a small square of fleece to use as a washcloth. Stroke of genius. Now I can't stand to be without mine.

Use it while bathing, or in place of bathing, for "sponge" baths. Hang it on the pack during the day so it dries, and when it's dirty enough to gag you it takes only a few precious drops of Dr. Bronner's soap and a bit of water to bring it back up to spec. The fleece (some really thick stuff) is scratchy and takes off dead skin and dirt if you scrub with it but is still easy to get clean and dries quickly.

In a pinch (daily) this also serves as a towel, and it's only about eight inches (20 cm) square. Almost weightless.


"Peppermint Liquid Soap. The peppermint essential oil tingles the body and clears the mind. Because therapeutically peppermint oil is a mild stimulant it increases vitality and clarity. All oils and essential oils are certified organic to the National Organic Standards Program. Packaged in 100% post-consumer recycled plastic bottles. Ingredients: Water, organic coconut oil, potassium hydroxide, organic olive oil, mentha arvensis, organic hemp oil, organic jojoba oil, organic peppermint oil, citric acid, tocopherol." (

Dr. Bronner website

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Tiny Knives

Tiny Knives

I'm always open to finding new things I can use while backpacking.

Knives are near the bottom of the list, but, being a guy, I'm still fascinated by them. I have one that I convinced my mother to buy for me when I was 10. It cost 50 cents and though it isn't the best knife ever made I carried it for decades because it is small and because you never know when a knife might be handy, and it has been.

If you carry a knife you find lots of uses for it. If you don't carry one you wish you did.

Surprisingly for many, backpacking is a pursuit that doesn't demand having a knife, not if you do it right.

A sharp edge can be handy for cutting string, lopping off stray threads, trimming the loose edge off a stick-on bandage, or other incidental tasks, but generally a person shouldn't have a use for one on the trail.

You carry it for the time when something to cut with can be critical, but it doesn't take much to cut small things.

So even a single-edge razor blade could to the trick.

Anyway, back to the point.

For several years I've carrying something that Carol "Brawny" Wellman once posted about, a little thing made by Stanley, the tool people. It's a miniature plastic utility knife. Takes replaceable blades, though I've never found any. Anyway, it came with a spare, and I can sharpen the two of them as needed. The blade slides in and out, and locks.

The knife is light. I don't know if they still make it. I found mine at Office Depot.

It's fine, but a couple of days back I was looking for sewing machine needles and saw a package of cutters sold by Singer. You get four for under $3 and they're cute.

The blades are the snap-off kind, so you don't need to sharpen them, but I bet you could. Normally, you'd use the tip of the blade until it dulls, and then snap off that part and begin using the next segment.

I don't need another backpacking blade solution but I bought a package anyway.

Because you never know when a sharp edge will be handy.


See tabs at the top for definitions and books.
Have extra info to add?
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Me? Recently nominated for this year's Doofus Awards. (Next year's too.)