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Backpacking Friends

Backpacking Friends

For my 50th birthday this year I decided to return to a favorite Washington backpacking destination of mine – the Wilderness Area of the Olympic National Parks Coast.  I invited any who would come with me for a week long excursion from Rialto Beach near LaPush, Washington, to the Ozette River or Ozette Lake.  I didn’t have many takers.

I have hiked the Washington Coast area between the Hoh River and the Point of the Arches several times over the years.  I was born in Port Angeles, Washington, while my parents were living among the Makah Indians of Neah Bay, Washington.  My mother has told me more than once that my umbilical cord was never completely severed from the Peninsula.  She may be on to something there.

I have found myself returning to the Washington coastal areas around Queets, Forks, LaPush, Neah Bay, Clallam Bay, Port Angeles, and Sequim during important turning points in my life.  For instance, before I got married, I took my two best friends on a hike out to the Point of the Arches and Cape Alava.  In the middle of celebrating my 50th birthday on this past hike, I remembered that it was on my 40th birthday that I traversed the same portion of the coast.  So, there you have it.

When I lived in North Dakota for five years, it was not the beautiful mountain ranges or the snow topped dormant volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest that I missed.  No.  It was the ocean.  I missed the surf and the smell of salt water.  While the North Coast of Lake Superior above Duluth may fool the eyes into thinking for a moment that one is traveling HWY 101 on the Oregon coast, it only takes one breath for a person to realize that the massive expanse of water before them is not salty.  It simply cannot replace the ocean even as beautiful as Lake Superior is in the fall season.

Standing Rocks

Standing Rocks

Call it a spiritual connection or a mystical one, I occasionally feel a very strong pull toward the beaches and its waves.  Even in the cold wet wind, I could spend hours walking a beach or, better yet, searching through tidal pools for their colorful life forms.  Perhaps some little old Makah grandma spoke some mystical chant over me as a babe, I don’t know.  I only know I love all things about the sea.  Even its food.

A key to hiking or backpacking the Washington coast, or any coastal area for that matter, is to coordinate the tide schedule.  Get that wrong and a fun trip down the beach and around a headland could become a nightmare.  Many an unwary beach comber or day hiker has been caught unawares at how fast a northern tide can come in and how high it can move up the beach.  A tidal difference between low and high tide of 6′ – 8′ is nothing.

Throw in a storm surge or an extra high tide and the trouble only exponentiates.  I know.  I’ve waited out a couple tides on little tiny pieces of a beach or hillside waiting for the tide to recede enough to continue down the beach to my planned camp site.  I have only been caught during the day.  I cannot imagine what would happen to anyone needing to wait over night or until the next morning.

So, not only is it important to get good low tides to hike up and down the beach, but it is also important to make sure the timing of the tide coincides with when you plan on traveling.  Get a tide too early, and get started too late or get up too late, and you will find yourself scrambling to make the tide before it comes all the way in and blocks your route.  Get a tide to late in the day and you limit the amount of time you actually have to walk or hike the beach.

Starfish Cluster

Starfish Cluster

The biggest challenges in the tide changes are the headlands.  These rocky, sometimes mountainous, stubs of land that stick out into the surf pose an interesting challenge.  Should the backpacker or hiker get there at low tide, they may be rounded at ocean level.  This often means scurrying over rocks and boulders, navigating seaweed slick rocks, and getting around tidal pools.  Take your time and go carefully, and it will be a fun adventure.  Hurry and you may slip and fall and injure your pride and tender body parts.

Fortunately, the Park Service has provided ropes and ladders for many of these headlands.  This makes getting over the headlands possible at high tide.  However, these can be a challenge themselves.  The hillsides are often slick with mud and clay.  The ropes, while sturdy, are often wet and muddy.  So, navigating these ropes and ladders takes some care and a little skill, especially with a backpack.

When many first-timers think “beach hike”, they immediately assume walking long, firm sandy beaches.  However, nothing could be farther from reality.  The seascape along the Washington coast is forever changing and is very rugged.  Prepare to have your feet and legs tested as you trounce through loose sand, bounce along from boulder to boulder, slip and slide on slimy rocks, shimmy along logs, fjord creeks and rivers, and shuffle along gravelly beaches.  This is besides the times you must use rope and rope ladders to get over headlands or spend time walking above the beach in the forest.  It is nature’s veritable obstacle course for the backpacker and hiker.

Rock Island in Mist

Rock Island in Mist

The weather itself can be its own challenge.  Despite what any weather person on the local cable or TV channels will tell you, it will most certainly be the opposite.  Late July, August and September are the only reliable months for some guarantee of drier weather.  However, one must always keep in mind that this is the Washington coast after all.  It is also the home of North America’s rain forest where precipitation is measured from 110″ – 200″ per year.

The advice that I give to all my fellow travelers is simply this:  “You will get wet at some point.”  Whether it is from crossing a stream, stepping in a tide pool, getting caught unexpectedly by a wave or rain, one should simply expect to experience some portion if not all of their body being wet.  For this reason, I pack everything I want to remain dry in gallon zip-lock bags.  Air mattresses, sleeping bags and larger items are wrapped in garbage bags.

A rain proof backpack cover is helpful.  Wearing wool is necessary because it is better to be wet and warm than wet and cold.  Finally, a large tarp or plastic sheeting is handy if one does not mind the extra weight to provide cover to get out of the rain or extra shielding for the tent.  Most places along the coast a fire can be used to dry out gear.  However, on the north part of the coast between Yellow Banks and Cape Alava no fires of any kind are allowed.  Just remember to bring fireproof fire starter to build fires with wet wood.

Small Crab

Small Crab

The Park Service requires all backpackers to have hard-sided bear proof containers.  This is not so much to keep bears out, though that is important, as it is too confound the raccoons that plague the camp sites near the major trail heads.  Personally, I have had more gear and food stolen and ruined by the small critters than the large ones.  Seagulls will destroy anything to get at food left where they can eye it.  Mice, chipmunks and squirrels have eaten holes through backpacks and knapsacks to get a a goody or power bar.  All of this I speak from personal experience.  So, put all your food in a hard sided, tight lidded container and hang it!

Proper preparation can make hiking and backpacking the Washington coast an enjoyable experience.  It is well worth the hard work and effort to get away from the heavily used trail heads.  Get a few miles up or down the beach during the off season and one won’t see a soul for days.  The beauty and solitude is refreshing to the soul.

I have often claimed that nature is God’s biggest Cathedral.  As much as humankind has spent countless hours and untold riches to build the Creator cathedrals and temples to honor him, none can compare to the natural wonders of the world.  I have often said that I feel more close to God in the out-of-doors wild places than I do in the sanctuaries built by human hands.  Is it any wonder that humankind had a much more reverent and awe outlook upon the divine when it more closely dwelt in and among nature?  Our sterilized and concrete world has only removed us from what inspires the human soul to look up and wonder in awe.

When wandering the wild places of creation, I am often reminded of the old hymn’s words that sang, “…were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering too small, love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”  I think Isaac Watts wrote that in the out of doors.  He was not sitting in some darkened office and cloistered away in a cubicle.  He was looking upon and considering the expanse of nature in all its beauty and thinking, “There must be a God and he must be bigger than all of this!

Oceanside Stream

Oceanside Stream

I have found myself on several occasions caught breathless in the beauty of the ocean and seascapes.  After a stormy day before and night, when one wakes up to a crystal clear blue sky reflecting off the gently rolling waves along the shore, there is nothing that compares.  I remember waking up one night late to step out of my tent because “nature called” only to be captured by the site of nature before me.  Hung low on the horizon, like the setting sun before it, rested the moon that created a shining road of light across the hundreds of miles of oceans right up to the beach in front of me.  And sprayed in vast array in the sky above and around the moon were sparkling lights of planets and stars in the thousands, if not millions, with the Milky Way gathering them all into an eternal trail of heavenly light.

I stood there for a good 20 minutes in the chilly, cold night air.  I sensed something sacred in what I witnessed.  Moving too quickly would have seemed as sacrilegious as getting up in the middle of Sunday worship to loudly excuse oneself to leave.  I have often said that people move too quickly through nature.  Like irreligious folks who just want the songs and sermons to be done so they can go about the more important duties of their life, when it comes to observing and spending time in creation, many people simply scan, sniff and move on.  One might as well have a drive-through Eucharist.

One of the advantages of being an aging backpacker is that you are forced to take it slow.  When I was younger, I was guilty of just wanting to eat up the miles of trail to get to a destination, which usually had a lake with trout in it.  While I took time even then to stop and admire creation, I did not do it with the same intention that I do so today.  Perhaps it is the idea that “this backpack trip may be my last one”.  My knees are not holding up well.  Sleeping on the ground, even with a good backpack mattress, is harsher on my body than it used to be in years gone by.

Island at Sunset

Island at Sunset

I would like to think that it is because I simply realize I have the time.  I am not in such a hurry.  I have learned the great value of pacing myself in whatever I do in life.  I have become more observant of my surroundings.  I have learned to live in the moment with joy and less anxiety.  I have learned to breath.  This is more than just a “stop and smell the roses” philosophy of life.  It is the idea that revelation and life are all around me if I will only take the time to get out and see it.

I suppose one does not need to go into the wild places of nature to experience this.  Some may find it in the middle of the busy city.  Others may find it in music or writing.  Still others may find it in beautiful deep relationships.  Each one of us has a place where we discover “deep calling to deep”.  Mine just happens to be on the wild reaches of the wet Washington Coast.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2011)

Lone Starfish

Lone Starfish

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This past backpacking trip up around Granite Mountain revealed not only how old I am getting, but also how old my equipment is getting on in years.  My legs did not handle the steep climbs like they once did in bygone days.  The second day of my trip entailed about 10+ miles and 3,000 feet in elevation.  I could barely walk the next morning.  It took a while to work out the soreness and return to a normal gate.  One that did not look like I was wearing leg braces anyway.

I discovered that some of my gear was beginning to show its years. The frameless, lightweight backpack I intended on taking had several broken snaps, buckles and belts.  I ended up feeding it to the dumpster.  It was not even worth donating to Goodwill.  My Coleman Peak-1 stove is close to 30 years old and, while it runs like new, it is definitely getting heavier as I’m getting along in years.  Some of my carry-bags had tears and holes, my hiking boots that I got over a decade ago are well ventilated; perhaps too well ventilated when the hiking trip is a wet one like this last one.  Oh well, it is all a part of “roughing it”, right?

My hiking buddy, Dan Tourangeau, on the other hand has kept up on all the newest gear. He’s got all the newest light-weight gear, which is becoming more important with our age.  He also has a lead on me in years by more than a decade.  So, I feel I must allow him such creaturely comforts.  Someday, I’ll be there too.  Hopefully with light-weight gear too.

I must admit a bit of enviousness at my buddy’s gear. He does travel in style.  While we were heading into Hyas Lake above Rosalyn, Washington, we ran into a young family packing out.  Dad had a very heavy and laden pack while carrying an infant in a frontal carrier.  A little girl of about 4 or 5 walked along with her mother who sported her own pack.  They looked like they had had a good time and were heading out of the woods to return home.

Tuck Lake, Washington, September 2010

Tuck Lake, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

At first, we stepped aside for the young family to pass by. But then Dan, who does not know a stranger, noticed the young mother’s backpack and exclaimed, “Hey, we’re twins!

Not understanding what he was referring to, she gave my buddy a worried side-ways glance.

Wanting to reassure her, Dan explained, “We have the same backpack!

A look of relief swept over the young woman’s face and she looked over at her husband.  Forgotten by Dan was the fact that his backpack was completely covered by a pack cover to keep the rain off.  I tried to point that out to him and moved to lift the side of it.

Dan, you’re pack is covered,” I explained.

Oh, that’s right,” he offered to the woman.  “I guess it would help if you could see my backpack.”

We all chuckled at his gaff.  The woman recognized the color of the backpack and said, “It looks like we do have the same backpack.”

At this, her husband then interjected, “That means you have a woman’s backpack.

Dan looked up at him.  “Huh?!

The husband explained, “Well, it looks like you have the Venus backpack.  Those are made for woman.  The Mars backpacks are the ones made for men.”

At this point I was thinking to myself that I have obviously not been shopping for gear for a very, very long time if they now have backpacks that go with the book, “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.”  I have obviously been out of the loop!

Dan attempted to dismiss the idea that he had a backpack made for women.  “How come the guy in the store fitting me for it never said anything!?

Then Dan countered with a bit of humor, “That’s OK.  My masculinity is still intact.  I am alright with a woman’s backpack,” he asserted.

The husband came back by stating, “Well, they are slightly shaped different because a woman’s back is not shaped the same as a man.  Maybe the woman’s form just fit you better.”

I smiled a huge grin and looked over at Dan.  Obviously the husband of this young family had a great sense of humor.  I was liking him.  Dan looked a little deflated but was not to be undone by the encounter.

That’s alright,” Dan continued.  “I’m in touch with my feminine side.  I can handle it.  It doesn’t bother me at all.”

Good grief,” I inserted.  “Unbelievable…”

We all were chuckling and started to say our goodbyes when the young daughter with the mother asked, “What are you guys talking about, Mommy?”

The young mom looked down at her daughter and said, “We’re talking about how that man has the same backpack as Mommy.”  That seemed to answer the girl’s question.  I couldn’t help but let out another snort and chuckle.

Outdoor backpack

Image via Wikipedia

That’s just great, Dan,” I told him.  “You have a woman’s backpack.”

Hey,” Dan defended himself.  “It’s working great for me.  So I can’t complain.

Well,” I said.  “That explains the urge I have had to help you in the rough spots of the trail and over the streams.  I thought it was just because of your age, but here it turns out to be because you have a woman’s backpack.”

I snickered.

Dan was silent.  Yes-sir-ee, having new gear and fancy backpacks sure helps on those long trips up the sides of mountains.  It offers a great deal of comic relief as you work yourself into near catastrophic muscle failure.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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