Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Non-Race Report... The Weekend I DIDN'T Do Garden City

Oh, what a glorious non-race weekend it was! I was so incredibly glad that I got to use my fitness and training and apply it towards an activity that was decidedly un-stressful: backpacking!

Here's my report, in the style of a race report:

We had originally talked about leaving on Friday afternoon after work, heading up to Holland Lake to car-camp for the night, then packing up and backpacking in to Upper Holland Lake on Saturday morning. Well, Jenny had to work til 6 or 7, Kristina had to run home and get her dog, we still needed to get some last-minute things, and it was starting to seem a little stressful (oh no!). Then it started raining. Which, to me, was a clear message from the Universe: Don't go camping tonight.

So we decided to all sleep in our nice warm beds on Friday night, then pack up our nice dry gear on Saturday morning, drive to the trailhead, and start hiking all nice and fresh and dry and non-stressed. Good call.

First Leg:
We hit the trail at about 10:30 am. It was quite chilly at the trailhead, and we all had on our fleeces over top of long-sleeve polypro and t-shirts. Jenny outfitted her dog Lucky with his own backpack (containing the dog food and her lunch), and Kristina donned her dog Maggie with a matching pack (containing the dog bed and some food). Jenny's other dog Dallas lucked out and was the only one in our 6-member party who didn't have to carry anything. So she officially got to be our Lead Scout.

The trail was flat for about 1/4 mile, but then started its climb. By the third switchback or so we were stripping off layers. The trail winded across the face of the mountain for a while, giving us great views of Holland Lake and the Mission Mountains to the south, then headed into a deep canyon where we were blessed with the roar of a rushing river and glimpses of lush vegetation surrounding us.

The trail criss-crossed the creek a few times as it wound on up the mountain, and in a few spots passed by some spectacular swimming holes. But alas, swimming was not a part of this endurance adventure... it wasn't THAT warm!

Eventually we reached the lake and wandered around for a bit looking for the perfect campsite. We found a nice big spot on the northern end of the lake, and decided it looked like a great place to spend some time.

We dropped our packs and began pulling out gear. Tents went up in a flash, we set up our beds and unloaded our gear, and then, all set up, sat down for a snack.

And got cold.

As long as we were moving, the low-60's temperatures were great. But being still damp from sweat and inactive, it was just not tolerable to sit around. And it was only a little after 2pm, so we decided to go for a "day hike" up to Gordon Pass, about 2.5 miles up from the lake.

But in order to leave our camp unattended, we had to hang our food. Bears are abundant in the area, and we'd even seen fresh bear tracks on the south side of the lake. So to keep them out of trouble, and to make sure we'd have dinner when we got back, we knew we had to get our food out of their reach.

The recommendations are to have your food at least 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet away from the trunk of a tree. Well, that's all fine and easy to do if you're in a forest with great big trees with great big sturdy branches. But we were in an area with smaller trees, most of which were subalpine firs, which have smaller-diameter branches that swoop to the ground. They're beautiful trees, but not so hot for hanging food. And so we decided to deploy a method that I used to use when working in Glacier:
1. climb up Tree A, wrap the rope around the trunk about 15 feet up, and tie it off
2. climb down the tree
3. find a rock, tie your rope around it, and pitch it over a branch that's about 15 feet up in Tree B, about 10-12 feet away from Tree A
4. wrap the rope around Tree B
5. now you have a rope stretched between two trees; pull the rope down enough so that you can tie your food bag onto it about 4-5 feet away from Tree A
6. tug on the loose end of the rope to hoist the bag into the air
7. tie off the loose end on a nearby branch, log, etc

Sounds simple, right? Yeah, not so much. Read this for an idea of how the process REALLY goes.

So, we finally got our food hung, packed our day packs with water, snacks, jacket, cameras, etc, and set off for the pass around 4:00.

Second Leg:
This round was much faster than the first! With only about 10 lbs instead of 45-50, we were able to hike faster and enjoyed the lightness that we felt. The trail went uphill, but at a nice easy grade. We were able to walk pretty quickly and still have good conversation.

As we wound up the canyon, we began to see signs of higher elevations-- most notably some whitebark pines, which only grow in subalpine areas. I love seeing these trees, as they're signs that good views abound!

At the pass we ran into two gentlemen who had been backpacking since Tuesday, and were spending their last night there. They took our picture at the wilderness boundary sign. We also had Kristina pose for a "Baby on Board" shot, as she's 4.5 months pregnant! Then we wandered around looking at the views for a while. It was surprising warm at the pass-- the sun was shining, the wind was calm, and it was warmer than where we'd come from!

But alas, our bellies were urging us to make haste for camp, and so we soon scampered back down to the lake, yakking and cackling all the way (note: we did NOT see any bears or other wild critters... they could've heard us coming for MILES!)

This tranisition was between camp and hiking again. Let's just say we took our time :) As it had rained most of the night and was pretty cool in the morning, none of us were extremely motivated to leave our toasty sleeping bags and step out into the dampness.

But finally I'd had all the laying in the tent I could stand, so I got up, retrieved our goods from the tree, and began boiling water for coffee and breakfast. The other gals got up shortly thereafter, and we all huddled around the stove drinking coffee and eating oatmeal and chatting. Dallas took a morning swim... brr! That dog LOVES the water.

Eventually we made our way towards the tents to start packing up. We shook off as much rainwater as we could, stuffed our bags full again, and finally hit the trail at the early hour of 11am.

Third Leg:
From Upper Holland Lake, we hit a trail that took us through a series of switchbacks for about a mile as we wound up, up, up the mountain. We stopped for a few photos along the way, but mostly kept chugging up, enjoying the chance to get warm (I, obviously, was plenty warm, and stripped down to my tank top, despite the 50 degree weather-- I don't wearing sweaty shirts!)

After a while the trail mellowed out, and we followed a winding path through subalpine forests and rocky outcrops. Kristina and Jenny, who are both bird biologists, were excited to hear and see some white-winged crossbills. These birds, I learned, are rather nomadic in nature. They typically stay in larger flocks and travel around to find the best food sources. They may breed at varying times of the year, depending on the resources available, rather than just in the springtime like most birds. Cool.

After birdwatching for a bit, we rounded the corner and headed down to Sapphire Lake. Again, Dallas raced ahead to make sure she could get a good swim in (see photo). The rest of us, deeming 50 degrees and cloudy inappropriate weather for swimming, opted to just find a good spot for lunch. As we were dining, the clouds rolled in a little more, and it started graupling on us (graupling? yes. see #8 here) Brr, chilly. 50 was a high estimate, I think. Good thing our lunch consisted mostly of sausage, cheese, crackers, nuts, and dried fruit-- get some fat in us to stay warm!

We didn't tarry too long at the lake, as it just wasn't all that pleasant. Again, we were thankful to get to hike uphill for a while to get warmed back up. Soon, however, we came to The Notch-- a place where the trail shoots through a notch in the mountainside. All of the sudden, we left the cloudy, precipitous backcountry, and found ourselves on a south-facing slope speckled with sun and overlooking the Swan valley. La-ahhh!

The trail stayed high for a few minutes, and then started its plunge down the face of the mountain. It was steep and winding for several miles, and by the end we were really looking forward to not having to walk downhill anymore-- especially with packs on. But no one got cranky, or had to stop, and we reached the car in good spirits. The sun was shining on us, and we enjoyed losing our loads.

We ran into the fellows we'd seen at the top of the pass the day before, and they offered us their last beer-- a tall can of Coors. Yes, banquet beer! Since Kristina was pregnant, and Jenny was driving, I took one for the team and accepted the gift graciously. They got their just rewards, though, in the form of chocolate milkshakes at the Ice Cream Place in Seeley Lake on the way home.

So all in all it was a terrific weekend. Great to spend time with friends. Awesome scenery and by-golly-we'll-take-it weather. Fun laughs, good exercise, and no stress. Just what we all needed.

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