A Typical Day For These Two Dirtbags

John and I have been running off with our backpacks and our Toyota 4Runner for quite a few winters now, traveling around western US and once down into Baja, Mexico. We enjoy the simplicity of living outside, out of our truck, without WI-FI or cell service, just books and each other for company. But there is a question we hear so often from our parents and family and some of our friends.

“What exactly do you do out there?”

This post is for them.

We wake with the sun, no matter how early or cold. Sunrise over a southern Utah canyon should not be missed. It’s always good to find a lovely lookout for breakfast, enjoy the views while shivering from the cold late October weather.

With bellies full and caffeine fuelled, we head off hiking, scrambling, crawling and clambering down into the belly of a canyon in search of Ancestral Puebloan ruins, pictographs and petroglyphs, sites 800+ years old.

Our day of hiking and scrambling is broken by long pauses on slabs of rocks, drinking in the sun’s heat and the canyon views, the sandstone cliffs, listening to the song of canyon wrens. Some days we come across mule deer grazing, or spot a few desert bighorn sheep on a cliff. Maybe a rattlesnake will force us to detour into the willow thickets.

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And after a full sunrise to sunset hike we settle down for a quick rice and beans dinner, peppermint tea and a good book, enjoying the stars and Milky Way, wishing upon shooting stars, though what more could we ask from life? With bellies full of good food, hearts full of awe and wonder, good books, cozy sleeping bags and one another, this simple life is all we truly need or want.

Sleep comes early after a full day’s adventure so we are well-rested by the time the next day’s sun reappears.

We rise and repeat.

And it is really as simple and quiet as that.

And We’re Off

It’s been a cold but wonderful week and delightful to be living again simply and near to the wilds.

It’s only been a week on the road but what a week. Our first night found us at the Liard River hot springs beneath a near full moon. Late night winter visits are my favourite time to soak here, to peer up into the trees and up at the stars without any more light for guidance but what the moon has to offer.

We scrambled up an unnamed canyon in Muncho Lake Provincial Park. Each time we are driving the Alaska Highway we choose one or two canyons to explore. without a topo map we scrambled up towards the alpine without knowing what we’ll find or how long we’ll be. we just go with loaded packs and hearts filled with adventure.

We sauntered into the alpine and into the mountains alongside caribou and stone sheep Stone Mountain Provincial Park as well, a place I never tire of hiking in.

 

Along the way south, to stretch our legs, to refuel we were woofed at by a grizzly bear and discovered the most delicious cinnamon buns in Fort Nelson.

This is how we prefer to spend our time, outside.

Next up, further south.

Lupus Is A Bully

“My spirit is broken.”

This is what I told my specialist the other day.

Some might say that’s dramatic, especially since I appear to have such an awesome life.

It’s true. I have a great life. I get to spend the majority of my time not working, playing outside instead. I paddle, hike, ski. I go on multi-week and multi-month backcountry trips. I have more time than most to saunter about in wild places.

And I have John in my life.

But having a lovely life doesn’t negate the struggles I face daily in coping with an autoimmune illness. I can have a good life and still struggle with depression. That doesn’t make me ungrateful though plenty have said that is the case.

I am well aware that when it comes to autoimmune illnesses I have it pretty good. It could be a lot worse. But losing the ability to do what I love most, to lose abilities I once held dear is jarring. It requires a whole rethink of how I see myself. It means finding joy in new things. It means mourning the loss of what was my identity.

If a person talks about struggles they risk being labeled a downer. A complainer. Ungrateful.

But it is just that fear of speaking of struggles that isolates us. And isolation leads to loneliness and the path beyond becomes darker. It leads into a realm that is even more forbidden a topic to discuss.

Instead of telling people to buck up, pull up your big girl panties, how about just listening. I post stories about lupus not for sympathy but because adventuring in the backcountry with an autoimmune illness means what was once easy will no longer be. It is isn’t possible to move through life without lupus influencing my day to day life so how can I possibly never speak of how she bullies?

2019 NWT Paddling Trip Recap

This summer we traveled into one of Canada’s newest national parks, Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve. It is a wilderness not accessible by road and because of this some have questioned its value as a national park due to its lack of accessibility.

It’s true. It’s a tough place to reach. Not many will see this place or travel in it but it is a remarkable wild place, home to muskoxen, moose, black and grizzly bear, wolf, wolverine and so many birds.

It deserves protection regardless of whether it is accessible to people or not.

Our 12-week paddling trip was shortened to just six weeks due to several factors, mostly thanks to lupus kicking my ass and the lakes on the Barrens still being frozen in mid-July, both of which are very effective in stalling the forward momentum of a canoe.

The fatigue that accompanies lupus and the persistent ache of joints made this trip, already challenging enough, only tougher. Exhaustion trailed me all summer. It is a frustrating, maddening symptom of lupus. This is not your normal, just paddled 12 hours and now I’m tired kind of exhaustion. This is a tiredness indescribable. When it hits, there is not enough coffee or energy drink to combat it. When it overwhelms I tend to simply plop over and pass out, wherever I happen to be.

Not wanting to push on and risk a full-on flare, which can take months to settle down again, we cut our trip short.

Despite the challenges, oh, what an adventure we had. We spoke only with a half dozen people in six weeks but had the constant company of arctic terns. We wandered among herds of muskoxen, shared beaches with black and grizzly bears, found shorebird nests and lived and traveled across a remote landscape for six wild weeks.

Those Magical Places

When John and I need to sit in the woods alone, to flee from the crowds, to contemplate our life, to make a big decision, this is where we come.

The small lake is a joy to paddle early in the morning and evening, when the beavers are busy working on their lodge, repairing a dam, chopping down trees.

The mountains in the distance are a long hike but are home to caribou and grizzly.

Our campsite is tucked beneath pine trees with a family of grey jays and kingfishers to keep us company.

This place has such a feeling of calm and peace. Even when it’s storming or snowing this place makes us happy.

The Grizzly On The Big Salmon River

The experts say never to run from a bear, running provokes a chase instinct in bears.

This is true, which we discovered along the Big Salmon River, a small winding tributary of the Yukon River. It is a fun, swift and narrow river with a few sweepers but little else to really worry about.

This hard fast rule for bear encounters, don’t run, is fine when on foot but what are paddlers to do on a swift river? We paddled around a corner to meet a young grizzly just hauling himself out of the river. The river pushed us past him, nearly under his now and instantly the bear took off along the bank, running after us.

We feel confident in traveling bear country. We’ve read the literature on bear safety. In twenty years we have met many grizzlies. In some summers we have met more than a dozen girzzlies in the backcountry. Usually they run from us, some watch us, others ignore us. A few have bluffed charged. This was the first to chase us. And it was at this moment we discovered we didn’t know what the protocol was to stop a charge. Is it the same as a bluff charge, hold your ground? John and I were both hesitant to stop paddling, a grizzly at our heels.

So we kept on paddling.

And the grizzly kept on following.

Three times the grizzly entered the water, began swimming towards us. We yelled at him, slapped paddles on the water. Each time the grizzly returned to shore and continued his pursuit on land. We paddled on until losing sight of the grizzly.

And we kept on paddling.

At the time of our meeting, we had been scanning the shore for a place to camp. Now we had no intention of camping any time soon. When we finally did camp, three hours later, we were hesitant, jumpy. A three-hour paddle for us is no distance for a grizzly to travel.

We did not sleep well that evening.

Aside from this one exciting moment, the Big Salmon River was a beautiful and peaceful trip, with quiet lakes, sandy beaches and forests filled with cloudberries.

Choices

So many people say things like, “I wish I was rich like you so I could take a summer off from work.” Or, “You’re so lucky to be able to go traveling.”
Neither of these statements are true.
Too many people fail to realize that John and I are not rich, we’re not lucky. We just make different choices than most. We do not own anything more than a few bins of gear and boxes of books. We live in a cabin without running water. I am nearly forty and have not yet bought a piece of furniture. I paid less for my station wagon than friends have paid for their mountain bikes. I do not need to attach my identity to a career or possessions.
For John and I, we deem time more precious than material things.
We choose to spend time outside instead of working towards owning things. This is how we afford to play outside. It’s about choices. It’s as simple as that so please stop assuming we’re privileged because neither of us have had the pleasure of knowing what that would be like. We work for our time, by working jobs and in the choices we make. I choose time to hike in the mountains than going to work so I can afford a luxury vehicle or buy a house that looks just like every one else’s beige home.

Into The Mountains

I need wild places to wander into, wilderness where I can meet a porcupine, snow buntings, moose, coyote. I live a simple life so I can have these moments in the wild.

Spring has sprung early in southern Yukon. We scrambled up and across a ridge today which normally is still snow covered at Easter, three weeks later. And not only did we have few snowy patches to contend with, we found prairie crocuses just about ready to bloom. We definitely enjoyed the unseasonably warm +10C weather with an all day mountain adventure.

Our hike began and ended bushwhacking through spruce and poplar forest. I love wandering through a naked poplar forest, though I’m not entirely sure why. Their arms stretching up to the blue sky is just pretty. We spooked a snowshoe hare from its nest tucked beneath brush and found a porcupine den. There is no trail where we were hiking which usually means we will see plenty of wildlife and/or signs of them. This hike was no different.

The scramble into the alpine was tough, steep but worth the effort. We saw a few spruce grouse, half a dozen willow ptarmigan and lots of Dall sheep poop. And, near the summit we detoured to a ridge following lynx tracks. Near the end of our day we also spotted a moose and a coyote. It was a great ending to a sublime day in the mountains.

“Of all the things I wondered about on this land, I wondered the hardest about the seduction of certain geographies that feel like home – not by story or blood but merely by their forms and colours. How our perceptions are our only internal map of the world, how there are places that claim you and the places that warn you away. How you can fall in love with the light.” Ellen Meloy

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Napping

Long distance, remote adventures are tough. They are made immensely more challenging when living with an autoimmune illness.

People express their bafflement that I can tackle a multi-month paddling trip and still claim to struggle with lupus but there are many ways I have learned over the years to cope with my illness.

One of the most effective strategies is my ability to nap wherever I happen to be if I feel inclined. And outdoor adventures allow me to partake in one whenever I want and for as long as I want (something that work places tend to frown upon).

Since lupus sauntered into my life napping has become one of my favourite pastimes.

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