A small pond partially flooded out our trail for a bit, but so beautiful!

Adaptability Is Critical: Trip Report

Every day I checked the weather, usually more than once, and every day, it changed — sometimes it changed multiple times per day!  It was still three days until my trip would start and I couldn’t keep up with the changing forecasts.

Two weeks ago, my husband, dog and I backpacked in the Stanislaus National Forest.  It was warm and gorgeous.  But now, the weather was calling for cold temps and potentially rain and/or snow.

This was problematic in that I was taking a group of women from my Meetup.com group backpacking for two days and one night and it had been planned for weeks now.  I had seven other women coming with me – the trip had to happen!

I emailed the women and let them know what the weather conditions would be like.  I asked them to be sure their sleeping bag and pad were rated to handle freezing or near-freezing temperatures, and to remind them to bring rain gear.   Almost immediately, one woman changed their RSVP to “no”.  Perfect.  I don’t want people coming who don’t have the proper equipment or who wouldn’t be comfortable.  That would be bad for everyone.

The next day, another woman dropped out.  She had called the ranger station and was told the route I had planned was impossible due to massive amounts of snow, frozen lakes and blocked roads.

I knew this was a bunch of B.S. given that we had heard the same misinformation from rangers two weeks earlier and had actually come across almost no snow below 8,000 ft. and no frozen lakes anywhere.

Besides, I always have a Plan B for situations like this: hike in a different area! Specifically, if we really couldn’t go the route I wanted to go, we would just switch over to the same route I took two weeks ago.

My husband and dog on our Memorial Day trip to the same general area.
My husband and dog on our Memorial Day trip to the same general area.

I sent another email out to the women letting them know rangers frequently had outdated or erroneous information and, surprisingly, could not always be trusted to have the latest info.  I let them know I had a Plan B (and C and D) in any case, and asked them to simply be flexible and adaptable.  Adaptability is pretty much a requirement for backpacking.

Four of us arrived at the Pinecrest Lake campground on Friday afternoon.  We had agreed to share a car camping site so we could be ready to go, nice and early, Saturday morning.  The other two women, incidentally, were no-shows.  Such is often the case with any Meetup.com group.

On Saturday morning, we learned that one member of our group was too cold overnight.  Knowing it would be even colder on the trail, she was ready to call it quits and go home.  But, instead, we convinced her to stay by having her share my tent for extra warmth and adding a warm water bottle to her sleeping bag before she got in.  Problem solved (we hoped).

The four of us marched into the ranger station and told the ranger we wanted our trip to start at the Crabtree Trailhead.  We were given the same info: the roads are snowed in, the trail is covered in snow and the lakes are frozen (spoiler alert, most of their info was wrong).

Armed with the info I had from backpacking in the area two weeks previously, I politely and respectfully let the ranger know I thought he had outdated info.

He was not swayed but let us know we could certainly give it a try, and he would be appreciative of updated info about the conditions out there when we were done.  The only hitch: the road was actually gated about 2.5 miles from the trailhead.

We four ladies had a quick chat.  We all agreed we preferred to have a bit of an unknown adventure rather than go to the same trailhead I had just been to two weeks earlier.  LOVE these ladies! Everyone was willing to be flexible and adaptable.

We set off and parked on the side of the road where it was gated.  A new problem popped up — one of the women’s water bladder seemed to have a small leak and had soaked the bottom of her pack.  We ditched her bladder and she brought a 2-liter water bottle instead.  Problem solved.

We hiked the 2.5 miles on clear pavement to the eerily empty trailhead parking lot and campground.  The road had no downed trees, only tiny patches of snow and no other obstacles.  Could have been opened for vehicles probably weeks earlier.

We
We “hike” the road amongst the giant trees and swirling fog. Photo: Jessica Cortes

We hit the trail and found it clear but certainly damaged from the brutal winter storms California had suffered in the very recent past.  There were a few downed trees across the trail here and there, and areas where unexpected streams had wiped out small sections.  But nothing was difficult to get around.   Water was everywhere!  Not only were the creeks flowing crazy fast, but the seasonal streams were roaring and there were countless streams and waterfalls in places where there shouldn’t have been.  It was beautiful and nothing was too difficult to get across.  Plus, snow was basically non-existent.

For sure, it was COLD!  Not miserably so, but just just cold enough to make layering problematic.  We would wear extra layers, but then the sun would decide to come out and we would quickly overheat.  We would remove layers, but then the sun would disappear or the biting wind would pick up.  Layers back on. The going was sometimes fast, sometimes slow as we found safe ways across crazy creeks or made our way around fallen trees.  Every one of us was a trooper and we enjoyed the remote feeling of it all — as if we were exploring uncharted areas.

We made it to Camp Lake, which we had been told was frozen solid.  Nope.  Wrong again.  The lake was completely thawed and there was very little snow anywhere.  Just water.  Water everywhere!  We found a dry campsite on the cliffs overlooking the lake and setup camp.

Aptly named Camp Lake where we made camp for the night.
Aptly named Camp Lake where we made camp for the night.

Being still early in the afternoon, three of us decided to ditch our heavy packs and do an out-and-back hike to Bear Lake — another 1.5 miles past Camp Lake.  The fourth woman decided to take advantage of the early quitting time and take a luxurious nap — smart woman!

The three of us set out and quickly started running into much larger patches of snow ranging from just a few inches deep and a few feet in length to depths of five feet spanning a few dozen feet.  The snow was hard packed and slippery, which made staying on the trail impossible at times.  But some other hikers had been out there and there were footprints to follow much of the time.

More problematic than the snow was the water.  The creek had completely swollen over its banks and had essentially flooded out the entire valley we hiked through.  The meadows were covered in water trying to flow to a legit stream or creek.  There were waterfalls coming off the cliffs into the valley, not into any kind of water way.  Tiny, unmapped ponds sometimes swallowed up our trail.

This is our trail...and also a seasonal creek.
This was our trail…and also a seasonal creek.

In many places, the water had smartly found the path of least resistance – our trail.  At times, the trail was under three feet of water and it was difficult to tell what was trail and what was a seasonal stream criss-crossing our trail. On more than one occasion, we had to use GPS to figure out where we were in relation to the trail.  But, eventually, we made it. It was all very doable and not too difficult.

Bear Lake was frozen! The rangers got one thing right.  The edges were clear of ice, but the majority of the lake was still solid.  For the life of us, we couldn’t figure out why.  We had only gone up maybe two-hundred feet in elevation since Camp Lake.  Bear Lake had full exposure to the sun for most of the day.  Why was it still so frozen when Camp Lake, roughly the same size and less exposed, was fully melted?

The rangers got this part right - Bear Lake was frozen!
The rangers got this part right – Bear Lake was frozen!

We enjoyed the stark beauty and the contrast between the lush greens of spring and the bright whites of winter.  After some time, we trudged back to Camp Lake, getting temporarily “lost” and breaking out the GPS more often than I care to admit.  That three mile out-and-back, sans packs, was more taxing than the six miles we had done to get to Camp Lake!

Back at our campsite, we cooked our dinners, made a fire (which was difficult since most everything was damp) and relaxed before bed.  As night fell, the temps dropped significantly.  For two of us, bedtime came early just to escape the cold!

Taylor and I soak up the warmth of our fire. Photo: Jessica Cortes
Taylor and I soak up the warmth of our fire. Photo: Jessica Cortes

When I went to change into my wool base layer (my PJs), I found that I had made an egregious mistake.  Back at the Pinecrest Lake car camping campground, I had two identical, orange ditty sacks — one held my car camping clothes from the overnight at Pinecrest Lake and the other held my base layers, gloves, warm hat and sleeping socks for backpacking.  Apparently, I had put the wrong ditty sack in my backpack and left the correct one in the car back at the trailhead!

Time for another Plan B.  For my torso, I slept in my t-shirt, fleece pullover and down puffy jacket.  For my legs, all I had were my thin hiking pants, so I added my rain pants.  Lord knows rain gear NEVER breathes as well as the manufactures would have you believe. Wearing rain gear when cold is a classic trick to beat the freezing temps.  I felt stuffed into my sleeping bag, but I was warm and cozy as the temps plummeted.

We woke up to dark, ominous looking skies and below freezing temps.  We all quickly agreed to forgo making breakfast in favor of packing up and heading out; we were too cold to sit still and eat!

My PJ's for the night as well as my clothes for hiking through hail.
My PJ’s for the night as well as my clothes for hiking through hail.

As we were packing, the hail started.  All we could do was be thankful it wasn’t rain and enjoy the special beauty it brought the forest.  The bright greens of the mosses and grasses were accentuated by the fog and lack of sun.  The tree tops were shrouded in a dense and drifting fog.  The hail tapped the ground, sounding more like rain on a tin roof.  It was cold and our plans were changing again, but we were energized by the unique beauty and feeling of adventure.

Our hike back to the cars was fast and it hailed on-and-off (but mostly on) for 2.5 hours.  I ripped my Frogg Togg rain gear climbing through downed trees and scooting my way across a river on a wet, slippery fallen tree, but we four ladies loved every moment of it (for the most part).

A hail
A hail “downpour” on the hike out.

Back at the cars, we changed into warm, dry clothes and shoes and got the car heaters going full blast.  A stop for burgers at a pub finished off the trip perfectly.

I don’t mean to imply that park rangers aren’t trustworthy – you should probably always listen to them.  But my experience two weeks earlier let me know they don’t always have the correct info. On this trip, they got one thing right: Bear Lake was frozen!  But we had alternate plans and a group of people willing to go with the flow.  Adaptability is the name of the game here.

You can, and should, plan your trips out as best you can.  But you must always be willing to be flexible.  Missing a piece of equipment? Improvise.  Need extra clothes? Wear everything you’ve got!  Worried about the trail conditions? Have a GPS app ready on your phone and know how to use a map and compass.

Don’t be rigid.  Don’t count on everything going according to plan.  In fact, it most likely won’t, and that’s OK!  It’s not a real adventure if everything goes perfectly and nothing unexpected ever happens.

Wherever you go, no matter what the weather, always bring your own sunshine. – Anthony J. D’Angelo

 

 

 

 

 

Stopping for a poo break in the Boundary Waters of MN

Everybody Poops: Digestion in the Outdoors

In my last post I discussed making your own backpacking food, so it makes logical sense to post about what to do with that food when it comes out!

If you are going to backpack, you’ll need to get over any squeamishness you may have about bodily functions.  They happen and they are hard to hide on the trail.  There are definite, clear-cut rules regarding how the process of elimination should be handled, and then there are personal choices.  I’ll try to cover both.

Peeing is pretty simple, especially if you are male.  There are things to consider, however, regardless of your genitalia.  You should never pee near a water source. Although specific park rules and regulations may vary somewhat, be sure you are at least 200 ft. (about 70 adult steps) away from any water source when you pee.  This protects the water and the organisms and animals that live in it.  Remember – you filter or treat water to drink and you don’t want people peeing in your drinking water!  So don’t pee in someone else’s.  By the way, the 200-foot rule also applies to poop (and bathing and washing dishes or clothes).


Women and peeing

There is much discussion as to how this is best handled.  Most women remove their packs, find something to hide behind, pop-a-squat and let loose.  Me? I rarely take my pack off because I want the extra challenge of doing the squat (and standing back up) with my heavy pack on. Or perhaps I’m just lazy.

Some brave women use a device designed to let a woman pee like a man.  That is: standing up and through the fly.  There are a surprising number of products on the market to make this happen, and women who use them debate as to which is better. I tried the pStyle, and it was not pretty.

I tried. But I failed to pee with this without embarrassing (hilarious) results!

 

Like the box recommended, I first tried it in the safety of my own home. Easy enough.  No problem.  I peed standing up and it all went into the toilet!  I was an expert after just one try …

… or so I thought.  On day 2 of my John Muir Trail trip, I was hiking with two male strangers quite a bit older than myself.  I had to pee really badly, but we kept meandering through open meadows with nowhere to hide.  So I finally used my pStyle.  I ducked behind a skinny tree for some semblance of privacy, unzipped my fly and attempted to replicate my one use of the device at home.

Things seemed to be going OK for about 4 seconds.  Pee was funneling down the pStyle like it was supposed to.  Suddenly, I felt that signature, unwelcome warmth down both legs.  Uh oh! I had only been getting some of my pee into the pStyle!  The rest was flowing down my legs.  Flowing.  Did I mention both legs?  My hiking pants were soaked.  My legs were wet.  I stopped, mid-stream, and resorted back to the tried-and-true squat to finish, no longer caring if my new friends saw me peeing.

Then I did what any self-respecting woman stuck in the wilderness with two strange men would do: I stepped out from behind my tree and announced that I had pissed all over myself.  Oddly enough, they seemed unfazed and we continued on our way. I washed my pants that night and ditched the pStyle in a trash can at Tuolumne Meadows.  I wasn’t going to carry that extra couple of ounces all the way to the top of Mt. Whitney!  I don’t blame the pStyle, and neither should you.  Practice, practice, practice.

My terrible sister catches a photo of me doing the deed.

Wiping is another issue women must decide on.  Some women do a little post-pee ‘twerking’ move to drip off as much as they can, and that’s it.  Others carry a pee rag.  Yes, a pee rag.  This is actually what I do.  Liteload makes these nifty 12″x12″ compressed towels that open up and expand with water. They’re disposable, but durable.  I wet one slightly to decompress it and use it throughout the day to lightly dab myself.  Some women hang their pee rag on their packs to let the UV rays kill the germs and keep it sanitized (which is a legit method but is just a little too “in your face” for me).  I just fold my pee rag in on itself after each use and keep it in my pocket.  I wash it at the end of each day.  On longer trips, I break open a new Liteload towel every few days.

 


Pooping, for both sexes, gets a tad more complicated.  You can’t hide the fact that you are going to poop. Go ahead and try, and good luck to you.  You know what’s up when you see a fellow backpacker wander off into the woods, alone, with a bag of “supplies”.  They are going to poop and everyone knows it.  So get over any worries about privacy real fast.  It ain’t gonna happen.

Pooping in the wilderness is a joy.  Haven’t done it?  Just wait – you’ll see.  The views are frequently incredible and the birds chirping while you squat and do the deed make it sublime.  In case you didn’t know (and why would you?), science says that squatting to poop creates a better, more nature angle in your colon, making elimination easier and more “complete” (Be sure to watch this Squatty Potty commercial for proof!).  Also, your entire digestive system is working like a champ because of all that walking and healthy food (assuming you made it yourself).

My husband is a meanie!

All poop must be buried and you’ll need a tool for digging the hole.  Some people use thick sticks, but what if none are available?  Instead of buying a special pooping shovel (called a “cat trowel” or “cat-hole trowel”), just buy a tent stake designed for snow camping.  They are super lightweight, incredibly cheap and take up very little space. Plus, they just work well.

 

Make sure you dig the hole at least 6 to 8 inches deep.  Make it deeper or wider as needed (only you know how big your hole needs to be).  Your waste should be truly buried when you are done.  In most places, your hole must also be big enough to accommodate your toilet paper, so keep that in mind when digging.

In some wilderness areas, TP must be packed out.  No burying it.  There are several reasons why, but it’s important enough that I pack out my TP on ALL trips, even if it isn’t required, because it’s just the right thing to do.  Where do you put your used TP? In a zip-lock bag.  And then put that bag into another bag.  Want to be super environmentally conscience? Wipe with what the good earth provides – leaves, sticks, stones.

What about biodegradable TP, you ask? In areas where TP must be packed out, that goes for biodegradable TP as well.  No exceptions.  Don’t be the selfish ass-hat who breaks the rules.  Despite all those participation trophies, you’re not special.

Make sure you have hand sanitizer and please – for the love of God, PLEASE – use it every time you go to the bathroom.  Most stomach illnesses on the trail are due to poor hygiene among hikers.  Gross.  Giardia sucks.  Don’t spread giardia.  Read my post on backpacking equipment for a nifty, homemade sanitizer hack.

In some heavily-protected areas, you have to pack your actual poop out, not just your TP!  These areas are rare and usually you are given a special WAG (waste and gel) bag to put your poop in.  Don’t think about this too much (it’s gross).  And it’s rare, so moving on …

Here’s another tip: don’t burn your used TP!  This happened to me once. A woman was running out of room in her zip-lock bag for TP, so she just started burning it on the group’s fire, without telling anyone first!  Don’t do that.  TP “embers” can also drift and start wildfires.

So there you have it! Everything you never wanted to know about pooping and peeing in the wilderness. Life skills, people. Life skills.

Next up: I’ll cover more Leave No Trace principles.

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. – William Butler Yeats

St. John, USVI

New Project: Launching ‘Roars Outdoors’

If you’ve read the “about me” section of this blog, you know I’m not a professional guide, nor do I have any special training when it comes to backpacking.  I started this blog because I felt there was a need for useful, everyday advice for people new to the hobby.  Plus, it’s fun for me and I look forward to helping the backpacking community grow!

What I didn’t realize was that writing this blog would, in part, unleash within me a pent-up passion for the Great Outdoors that is powerful and intense.  This blog, combined with other factors in my life, led me to make the decision that I no longer want to work my normal 9-5 desk job.  I have struggled to find passion in every career I’ve had – and there have been many – but I’ve always felt that pull to do something different, and something more meaningful to me.

Boundary Waters Backpacking
An idyllic spot canoe packing in the Boundary Waters wilderness of MN.

I ignored that pull time-and-time again, and waffled in various unfulfilling careers and jobs that made me money but did nothing for my psyche.  I am tired.  Tired of trying to be someone I’m not and tired of trying to conform to what, I believed, was expected of me.

And so I launched Roars Outdoors.  Roars Outdoors is my new blog and the platform I will use to reinvent myself and launch a new career(s) – and you all are invited to watch!

As fellow adventurers, I’m sure some of you have also felt that pull toward something … different.  Something outdoorsy and adventurous and dynamic.  But, let’s face it: these types of career moves can be really tough, so tough in fact that we often declare them “impossible”.  Not to mention, the older you are, the harder it gets.

I’m turning 39-years-old next month, May 2017.  I have a husband, a young stepson and a mortgage.  I work full-time and bring in almost half of my household’s money.  The idea that I could drop everything that I know and embark on an entirely new path … that I could reinvent my entire professional being and completely re-jigger my life … seems next to impossible.  But I’m not getting any younger and my creative juices are flowing like crazy!

St. John, USVI
It’s hard not to be exuberant in the Caribbean!

I truly have no idea what I’m doing or exactly how I will get there.  I’m not even entirely sure it will work – but I’m more than willing to try.  I want to become a life coach, a part-time wilderness guide and a writer.  My hope is that these three endeavors will, eventually, sustain me spiritually as well as financially.  It’s going to be tough.  I’m going to have many ups and downs.  But I know I can do it if I work hard and continue to fuel the passion I have right now.

I invite you to join me.  I invite you to watch as I build and reconstruct the new “me”.  I also invite (and plead for!) your encouragement and support as I struggle, learn and grow.  I’ll share how the process affects not only me, but those around me.  I’ll be open about what steps I’m taking, what works and what doesn’t.  And I’ll provide outdoorsy inspiration to those of you pondering similar pathways for your own life.  Please follow along in three ways:

I appreciate your support and hope I can inspire some of you to take that leap and do something different, or to embrace the more creative side of yourself and tackle that project you’ve always told yourself that you’ll tackle someday!  If nothing else, I hope you get outside more and enjoy that “nature effect” we all know and love.  And if none of that is up your alley, fear not!  I’ll keep posting in Beginning Backpacker as well.

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious. – Albert Einstein

Women in Backpacking, Part VI: But, I’m a Man!

If you are of the male persuasion and follow my blog, you may have ignored my Women in Backpacking series. Or perhaps you read the posts and thought to yourself, “Hmmmm – what can I do to help the situation?” If so, then Bravo! If you have not read the five-part series, I encourage you to do so now.

Today I want to focus on how men can be a part of the solution. That’s not to say you are part of the problem, because, for the most part, you are not.  Many of us women have been conditioned over time to fear strange men, especially if we are all alone in an isolated place.  That’s not YOUR fault, but the fault of society, our culture, poor parenting, prior experiences, the one-in-a-million really bad guy and more.  No matter how you slice it, though, many women fear striking out into the wilderness alone because they might run into, well … you.  After all, how many female rapists and serial killers have you heard of?

Stanislaus national forest
A lone male hiker. Also my husband!

There are things you can do (or not do) to help ease your female fellow backpackers’ fears. I’m not suggesting your run up to the nearest solo female and explain that you aren’t a rapist, because there are subtle ways to show the women you run into that you are who you are: a kind, like-minded compadre out in the wilderness for the same exact reasons as women are.  Some helpful tips:

  1. Do not hit on her! At all. Ever. She doesn’t want that and it will creep her out. This might seem self-explanatory, but it’s not.
  2. Do not compliment her appearance. This will also creep her out. You certainly may compliment her gear choices, though!
  3. Don’t be overly pushy about trying to make camp with her for the night. You yourself might be feeling a bit lonely or apprehensive about backpacking solo, but be sensitive to her feelings.
  4. If you are going to be setting up camp in the same area, make sure you place your tent as far from hers as you can to give her space and privacy. If you get there after her, ask her if she minds you setting up camp there. Just asking first shows a level of respect and politeness.
  5. Try to gauge her feelings and read her cues. Does she basically say hello and then move on to making camp and cooking dinner? She is probably not interested in companionship. Or is she chatty and conversational? Then she might be more willing to hang out for a bit around the fire or eat a meal together.
  6. Watch your body language! Don’t be a close-talker. Do not touch her in any way, even if that’s just the kind of guy you are. Even a simple pat on the back from a stranger can be off-putting to many people.
  7. Do not tell her you are hoping to find a woman out on the trails! I know that male backpackers often times would like to date female backpackers – and vice versa – but this is neither the time nor the place.
  8. Don’t ask overly personal questions, like, “Do you have a boyfriend?” Again … creepy.
  9. Do not take pictures of her. Also falls into the “creepy” category.
  10. If you are with a group of men, all of the above pertains to each of you individually, and as a group.
Arroyo Seco River
Forming groups in the wild.

Women account for over 50 percent of backpackers now, and we are entering the wilderness solo more often than ever before. A modicum of extra sensitivity and empathy for how your fellow female backpackers might perceive you would go a long way towards alleviating those fears! The problem of women mistrusting strange men is often due to misconceptions and myths, but sometimes reality, too.  A perception problem is a problem, nonetheless.  The good news is that it can be increasingly combatted by men being cognizant of their actions and how they might come across AND by women checking their overblown fears at the door.  My favorite encounters with other backpackers while out solo have primarily been with men – men who either naturally or purposely made me feel safe in their presence.

Next Up: My Big Announcement!

The old school of thought would have you believe that you’d be a fool to take on nature without arming yourself with every conceivable measure of safety and comfort under the sun. But that isn’t what being in nature is all about. Rather, it’s about feeling free, unbounded, shedding the distractions and barriers of our civilization—not bringing them with us.” – Ryel Kestenbaum