Rarely Is It About The Summit

One of our first hikes in New Mexico was unexpected. We intended only to hike the four miles to an alpine lake but once we realized the trail continued to the summit of New Mexico’s tallest peak, well, there was no question whether we would continue. I had packed a ridiculous amount of food and water for our hike anyhow so we were, happily, unexpectedly, well prepared. We had parked at the ski valley and walked the steep road to the lake trailhead so it allowed up to hike, from the summit, the long way down the alpine ridge. What had begun as a eight-mile hike, by the end of the day was closer to 16 miles with almost 4000 feet in elevation gain to 13,000+feet.

Reaching the summit, however, was only a blip in a lovely, full of adventure day.

Picas ran around in the rocky hillside and we caught a weasel, already in his white winter plumage, hunting near a frozen alpine lake.

And on the rocky alpine slopes near the summit large flocks of grey-crowned rosy finches and ravens were hopping about, gobbling up moths. So many moths. The birds flitted all around us, so fixated on their prey.

And then there were all the bighorn sheep, females with young as well as a bachelor band. One one hillside we came across two full-curl rams standing together, starring down two other full-curl rams. We hoped we might see some rutting action, always a remarkable sight and sound. They stood starring at one another for quite some time then one male stepped forward. The opposing male advanced. We thought, “This is it. Shit’s gonna go down.”

The two groups approached. And then began licking each other’s muzzles. And after a few moments of that, they trotted off together down the ridge. And that was that.

We only inadvertently ended up on the summit. It wasn’t our destination. We only intended to go wandering for the day, to let whatever happen propel us forward or back. It was seeing the finches above us that had us climbing upwards. We hoped to spot some buntings or horned larks. That was when we spotted the first group of sheep.

From what locals told us after this hike is normally ridiculously busy in the summer. Apparently, us seeing only six other people the entire day is a rare lucky day. I suppose it helped that we went hiking during the first winter cold snap and the winds were fierce and cold. Extra puffy jackets, mittens and toques were definitely necessary.

As much as we love canyon country, mountains are where we are happiest, even if the altitude starts to kick our ass. The high altitude only means our frolicking about in glee is at a bit slower a pace.

Reprieve

After a really crummy summer – health-wise – I seem to have gone into remission from lupus. No inflammation. Not even a twinge of arthritic pain in a knuckle. Even my blood work was perfect before we left home for this road trip. This is a first in six years.

I am ecstatic of course. Before becoming ill I was a morning person, going out for 20-30 kilometre trail runs with my malamute before work. Then lupus came along and put an end to all that joyous freedom.

I have forgotten how magnificent it is to wake in the morning and not feel pain. My hands flex into fists again. My knees lift me out of bed without trouble and carry me down the trails. I am again leaping out of bed as soon as the sun is rising, crawling out of the warmth of my sleeping bag to stand out in the cold above a canyon and watch yellow light fall across the land.

While on the road I have been keeping in touch with two friends each battling far worse autoimmune illnesses than me. It is nice to speak with others who understand what autoimmune illness does to your body, your mind, your spirit. This illness is difficult to explain to people who cannot feel our joint pain or understand the full weight of fatigue – fatigue that is much more crushing than your “I’m jet lagged” tiredness or your “oh, I couldn’t sleep last night” fatigue.

The sun I’ve been frolicking about in these past few weeks have been divine. And I am most definitely grateful for where I am – physically in the desert and in my health.

Southern Utah In Late October

Oh, Utah, you always exceed expectations.

This was our four visit to Utah and still she amazes us.

Below is a brief recap of some of the wonder and joys and discomfort we experienced during the three weeks we traveled in southern Utah.

  • Sleeping in late when camping at temperatures falling as low as 9F/-15C
  • Squirmed our way through a few slot canyons and scrambled through many other canyons
  • Watched a couple of female desert bighorn sheep trot across the P-J forest
  • Skirted around a sun-bathing on slick rock rattlesnake
  • Spooked a jackrabbit in rabbitbrush
  • Hiked past a herd of female mule deer and startled one great big buck
  • Watched the sun rise and set almost every day
  • Was serenaded by canyon wrens and nuthatches
  • Found Ancestral Puebloan ruins, petroglyphs and pictographs
  • Read books by headlamp
  • Ate a lot of oatmeal breakfasts, Luna bars and trail mix for lunch and dinners of rice and beans
  • Wished upon a shooting star; marvelled at many more
  • Found free showers
  • Ate lots of cookies while sitting on rocks
  • Drank litres of tea
  • Found frozen waterfalls
  • And we met a dog that purrs. And no. That is not a typo. A dog that purrs!

All in all it’s been a good few weeks.

#thesimplelife

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’ve been backpackers for more than 20 years as well in Canada). 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 best to find a lovely lookout for breakfast, to enjoy the views while shivering from the cold late October mornings.

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, followed by peppermint tea and a good book, enjoying the stars and Milky Way, wishing upon shooting stars, though what more could we hope 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.

And so 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.

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