Saturday, August 26, 2017

Icelandic Edgelands - Botanizing Wander

Iceland has been top of my wanderlust wish list for quite some time.  I've been pining after a backpacking trip to see the foreboding wilds there with increasingly intensity for the past several years.  And, while I am actually in Iceland today for a 17 hour layover, this is not the realisation of this long-held dream.

Being determined to not spend money while only here for such a short while, but also wanting to see something of the country, I planned to simply walk as far as I could walk in a certain amount of time and then turn around to make my connecting flight.  It was a great plan, I was excited about it.  Turns out the weather was not so excited about it.

We landed in minimal visibility, relatively strong winds, and a strong mist that, when met with the wind, renders you soaked in minutes, even when clad in waterproofs.

I was pretty disappointed honestly.  I love gloomy weather, but the combined elements of the compromised visibility, slick roads, and wind seemed to suggest that my roadside wander was perhaps not the best scheme for today.

While pouting a bit internally about this, I recalled two nature-related concepts.  First is the notion of edgelands - the transitional space between countryside and town, the limbo land between the urban and rural.  Although the term "edgelands" would not be coined until much later, in 1883 English nature writer Richard Jefferies wrote of this in-between zone in his Nature Near London.  In the preface to this work he articulate that:
 "it is usually supposed to be necessary to to far into the country to find wild birds and animals in sufficient numbers to be pleasantly studied.  Such was certainly my own impression till circumstances led me, for the convenience of access to London, to reside for awhile about twelve miles from town.  There my preconceived views on the subject were quite overthrown by the presence of as much bird-life as I had been accustomed to in distant fields and woods...Along the roads and lanes the quantity and variety of life in the hedges was truly astonishing..."
The area surrounding the Keflavik International Airport is similarly symptomatic of an edgeland as was the "nature near London".  Most of the major landmarks are a single hotel, a collection of tour buses, a car park, and a plethora of rental car lots.  However, should you be so desperate to see Icelandic nature as I was, you will see it abundantly.  What initially appears as a vacant moorland, becomes a forested wonderland in miniature.  As Jefferies wrote, "the quantity and variety of life...was truly astonishing."  The botanical specimens almost appear like a terrestrial coral reef, a nearly-missed, but undeniable variety of colour is painted there within.  Although there was no ocean for this coral reef, there were certainly waves of spray.  As mentioned earlier, today's weather was in a bitter mood, but it a created beauty all the same.  The wind blew the mist over the landscape, over me, in waves, almost like a sand storm.  The sound of it was both haunting and melodic.

The second nature-related concept that came to mind today for me was John Muir's affection for "botanizing".  He is most famous for the botanical studies he conducted in remote (especially Sierran) wilderness.  However, prior to his 1,000-mile walk to the gulf of the United States,  he engaged botanizing in exploits whenever and where ever he could - be they an urban or rural wander.  For example, during a short (5 hour) visit to Chicago, Muir turned the city tour into a pursuit of plants.  He wrote after the hunt:
"I did not find many plants in her tumultuous streets, only a few grassy plants of wheat, and two or three species of weeds, - amaranth, purslane, carpet-weed, etc., - the weeds, I suppose, for man to walk upon, the wheat to feed him. I saw some green algae, but no mosses...I wish I knew where I was going.  Doomed to be 'carried of the spirit into the wilderness', I suppose.  I wish I could be more moderate in my desires, but I cannot, and so there is no rest."
Although, here, Muir was rather disappointed in the variety of plants, the point is - he saw every place visited as a botanizing opportunity.  So, today, I tried to do the same.  I was more pleased with my findings that Muir was with his venture in Chicago.  In truth, I was in wonder of how much there was to be seen, bending down in the rain to capture as much of the nearly overlooked wilderness that lay at my feet.

Muir's urban botanizing only made him long for the wilds, propelled him to greater curiosity to see plant life in places even more remote, more distant.  I felt the same here in Iceland...but that for another visit, another day.

I returned to the airport completely drenched - waterproofs dripping and spectacles splattered with droplets, hair a windswept, wet mess.  My boots squeaked on the tiled floor, leaving water prints to mark my passage.  I got not a few confused (amused) glances.  I regret nothing.

Anyways, I am sitting damp, waterproofs and hat draped over a luggage cart to dry, and have hours more to wait for my flight.  This is mostly just a letter of gratitude to nature writers who keep inspiring readers to go out and walk and see, to risk being ridiculous.  So, cheers to you Jefferies & Muir - thank you for pushing me out for a botanizing opportunity of the Icelandic edgelands... an experience, in the end, only made better by the dismal weather.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Thousand Island Lake

Keeping time, time, time in a sort of Runic rhyme...
- E.A. Poe

I am one who is nearly always fixated on time, tortured by time, anxious by time.  I am wired to plan out my time wisely, in order to use it efficiently, and hence am ever worried about not using it to its maximum capacity.  I don't wish to be this way, but there it is.  When hiking, this often results in a focus on mileage and getting the greatest distance in the amount of time I have out on any trail.  I hunger for the trail when I'm not on it, so my default is to get as far along it as I can when I do carve out the time to be away from routine, and out on my feet in the wood and alpine environment.  Distance and time are so often intertwined for me.

This focus on "as much distance in this amount of time" is not always something "bad" but it is not always something "good" either.  I think the trill and challenge of distance has its merits, but so much of our culture today is rooted in "more" and "faster", that we would all do well to intentionally seek "less" and "slower" and, more importantly, "stillness" every so often.

Fortunately for me, my trail companion for this Sierra venture was in a similar state of mind - seeking stillness, searching for present-mindedness, and wanting to absorb place rather than to push pace.  What follows is the basic architecture of what we did, but more importantly, the gifts that came as a result of letting time simply be, rather than be driven by time.

Day 1: 13 August 2017 -  Acclimation @ Sherwin Creek 

It's a 5-6 hour drive from "home" to the Mammoth area for us, and, after picking up our permit at the Mammoth Visitor Center, we drove on to acclimate at the campground at Sherwin Creek for the evening.  After finding our allotted camp spot, close to the creek, we took a wander along the road for about an hour.  We eventually found ourselves going the direction of the setting sun.  The sky was veiled in the smoke of a distant wildfire - nothing menacing to us, no trace of that which makes it hard to breathe, but the haze transformed the sun into something alien which awakened a sense of having stumbled into Mordor.

Day 2: 14 August 2017 - Hike into Thousand Island Lake
We arose early - awake before the sky was.  We drove the 40 minutes from the campground at Sherwin Creek, and were on the "High Trail" (which is part of the Pacific Crest Trail, starting at 8,340 ft) to Thousand Island Lake by 0700.

We took our time getting to Thousand Island Lake (9,840 ft) - stopping to consider the view regularly, unhurried in our pace.  It was nice knowing we'd started so early in the morning and had all day to get the 8.75 miles hiked.  It allowed you the permission to get side tracked and to pause.  So often when I'm on a hike I'm so fixed on getting to the trail's end or the summit as quickly as possible, that I end up missing engagement with the landscape itself.

This was my fourth trip to Thousand Island Lake, but was my walking companion's first time...and also her first Sierra trek.  I think that I often get drawn to the trap of continually wanting to see something I've never-seen previous, that I forget that something re-visited is almost always newly-seen.  For one, seeing my friend react to the land re-awokened the wonder of the wilderness there.  Not that I didn't find it beautiful, but observing her first view nudged me to reconsider the landscape as if for the first time.  In addition, the snowpack this year was far more significant than any of my other visits, and although we were hiking it in late summer, it felt like we'd entered a Spring Time theme park.  I've never seen so many wildflowers so late in the season, and in the Eastern Sierra - the supposedly "dry side" of the range.

The hike in on the high trail isn't devastatingly difficult, but it is still a climb, with that disheartening, sadistic trail design which takes you up and up, only to then noticeably drop you in elevation, to then, again, re-ascend and exceed it where you had been just a mile before.  However, when you catch the first intimate reveal of Banner Peak (12,936 ft) as you reach the outlet of Thousand Island Lake...nothing else seems to matter.  You'd gladly ascend to descend and descend to ascend all day long in a continuous loop to drink that sight in for even a second.

Should you go on this hike someday (and I hope you do),  I encourage you to pause at this stream.  Soak in the first view of the peak before pushing on to the lake itself, which offers an even more stunning vista.  There is so much richness in the hint of greater things to come.  Most often, we miss that opportunity, don't notice the light that peaks under the door before we walk through it.  The rumor, the hint, the suggestion is such a beautiful gift, and we so rarely hold it in our hands, nor clutch it to our hearts.  So: pause a moment here if you can.  Actually -- I demand it of you.

Thousand Island Lake is named for the many small, rocky island that accent its surface.  It is 2.5 miles by 0.7 miles, at its longest and widest points.  It resides in the Inyo National Forest, protected within the Ansel Adams Wilderness.  The latter was originally protected under the 1964 Wilderness Act as the "Minaret Wilderness", but was renamed in honor of the famous photographer Ansel Adams in 1984.  It is fitting that this area be named in honor of man who made is legacy photography wild landscapes - it is truly a challenge to take a poor photograph of the scenery here.

Part of the lake, closest to the outlet, was closed to camping for restoration purposes, so we moved along the trail, eyeing the landscape for potential camping spots.  We found one slightly uphill from the lake, slightly shielded by a few small lodgepole (?) pines.  As the afternoon progressed, more hikers arrived.  The wilderness ideal, of course, is to have the place to yourself.  But, of course, the more spectacular the view and more ideal the time-of-year (weather wise) you hike, the more likely you are to have numerous neighbors.

There is a strange, instant sort of intimacy with Nature Neighbors.  There is a deeper transparency with the neighbor who pitches their tent next to yours versus those who live in a house or apartment next to yours in an urban or suburban environment.  Tent "walls" are the thinnest of fabric.  Even at a distance, you catch wisps of conversation and, depending on how profound the silence of the area, can even hear your neighbor turn in their sleeping bag in the middle of the night.  You watch your neighbor cook their meals - become acquainted with their culinary preferences, even if you aren't "trying" to watch them, watching happens all the same (in sight, in sound, in smell).  You grow to know their routine, even if you are only neighbors for a single evening.  In many ways, you've seen them in a more raw, natural state than many who have known them for years: trail-worn, dirty, and hair askew from sleeping-bag sleep.  As a result, you grow to believe you know something of their character, spin a narrative of their life story based on the fragmented observations you make of them during your residency in their geographical proximity.  This is especially true for those who have routine bits that are wildly different from your own.  On this trip I saw one man playing bangos to the sun's set (having packed them in for miles to apparently do so?), practicing Tai Chi to the sun's rise.  Such oddities make you think "only in the backwoods...".  However, this sentiment is followed immediately with a deeper conviction that "only here do I feel truly 'home' " - after all: odd, raw, and trail-worn is your tribe.

Day 3: 15 August 2017 - Day Hike to Garnet Lake
We had a relaxed morning.  We were to spend a second night at Thousand Island Lake, and do a day hike, rather than move on with full pack to a new location.  This allowed us to remove ourselves from the concern of what time it was, because we literally had no mileage goal in mind.

So, after breakfast, since the weather was bright, cool but not cold, we laid back down in the tent and let the breeze lull us into napping and chatting.  We both realized how hard it is for us to allow ourselves to do this - to simply be and relax.  In our typical routine, mostly driven by computer work and internet access, we perhaps do enjoyable things, but they are intentional, productive things (or at least Netflix-binging / media time-wasting things).  But they aren't really just "being" things.  It was strangely challenging, but wonderful to stifle the bubbling anxiety of "I only have so much time out here and I need to go see things! I need to get moving!" Where does that even come from? Who teaches us this?

At 1000 we went for a day hike on a portion of the John  Muir Trail which crosses at the outlet of Thousand Island Lake.  We hit Emerald, Ruby, and Garnet Lake along the way.  These lakes were likely named by Theodore Agnew - a miner who settled in the area in 1877.  Clearly he had a somewhat one-track mind set on precious stones...

Emerald Lake
Ruby Lake

Garnet Lake

At 1400 we walked back to Thousand Island, getting there around 1530 or so (I think our day hike, round trip, was somewhere just under 5 miles...and we made many pauses along the route).  Just as we were winding along the narrow footpath that skirts Thousand Island to get to our camp site we saw a hawk (I wish I could say which kind, but I am an "aspiring birder" at the moment, and haven't quite arrived at identification confidence) fly over with trout in talons.  He seemed to be doing a victory lap, when he let out a screech of chagrin.  In swoops a bald eagle, hot on the chase of the hawk with a free meal.  My walking companion and I had recently seen the movie Dunkirk and we couldn't help but compare the aerial battle we were now observing with the one we'd seen in theatres.  The hawk was smaller, so was able to make sharper turns to evade the eagle.  But the eagle had a longer wing span, and was in general much more powerful.  The dive & evade game went on for several minutes until the hawk dropped the trout and the eagle then waved off.  We then became aware that we weren't the only two watching this heart-racing spectacle - other hikers down trail from us gave a whooping cheer.  At this point the tables turned - the hawk, now enraged at losing his dinner, chased after the eagle.  This continued until they went towards the ridge-line and out of sight.  It was one of the more amazing things we two had seen in the wilderness, and we talked of it often after.  How many heart-racing stories do we miss by forgetting to look up?

We then sat on our "porch", the slightly-sloping granite outcropping just in front of our tent site).  From about 1600-1900 a slew of other hikers arrived, most seemed to be JMTers.  And it was at this point in our day that we met the incredible Clara.

She came over to our area for a look at the view, and we first bonded over the shared frustration of seeing some other hikers pitch their tents in areas that were clearly demarcated as "no camping" zones for restoration purposes.  Me being the natural Inquisitor that I am (*pushes-glasses-up-brim-of-nose*) I asked her a bit about herself. Clara wears many hats.  She leads excursions with the Sierra Club and another organisation called "Mountaineering Connections".  When we asked her how she got into mountaineering, she replied with a laugh"I got into it the wrong way." 

After a spinal injury, which, according to her doctors, meant she'd never be able to backpack again, Clara sold all her gear.  Three years later, feeling stronger than she'd ever hoped to feel again, but still without the doctor's approval, she chanced a mountaineering outing to summit January.  The conditions were, as to be expected in high winter, very snowy, but the group she went with all made it to the summit.  However, Clara was not experienced in any mountaineering skills at this juncture, as she said "I had no idea what I was doing", and this group was more of a social gathering, not so much a instructional occasion, which made it also a bit of a "every man for himself" situation.  Since Clara was recovering from an injury and also learning as she went with mountaineering (using a borrowed ice ax), she was quickly left behind.  She ended up pitching forward, sliding down headfirst, thinking "this is how I'm going to die".  Somehow she managed to swing the borrowed ice ax backwards, stopping her sliding, and then inching her way down the rest of the mountain.  Some time later (either right after this near-death experience or by recounting it elsewhere) a Polish man who led mountaineering outings approached her and asked if she'd like to co-lead outings with him, saying "you have what it takes."  So, now, that is just what she does.

Clara also hiked the JMT in 2014, completed the entire trail in (wait for it) 11 days!!!  That year it rained buckets, but instead of calling it quits, Clara pushed on.  She spoke of her constantly-wet boots being the biggest challenge, which gave her a foot fungus.  As a result, she hiked 75 miles of the trail, and several passes, in $5 Walmart aqua socks, with her orthotics pressed inside for extra support.  When discussing the conditions being as bad as they were, but pushing on regardless, she simply said "what can you do?"  Further to her "make-it-work" spirit, she related she had fashioned herself a garbage-bag skirt and poncho, and also created a pack cover from a "for sale" sign under the shelter of a bus stop hut, with the use of her pocket Swiss Army knife.  Thus, she hiked a significant portion of the 200+ mile of the JMT clad in garbage bags and aqua socks, all in the pouring rain.  When she departed she made us promise to find her for an outing in the future, and hugged us farewell rather than giving us a wave or shake-of-hand.  I hope she writes her life as a book sometime to benefit the rest of the world...or lets me write it for her.

Day 4: 16 August 2017 - Hike Back to Agnew Meadows
Our last morning, so I got up to see the sunrise with my friend (who also rallied the previous morning while I lay snuggled in the warmth of my sleeping bag...a wimp).  The first light in the Sierra is my favorite part of the day, especially if you should be so fortunate to witness alpenglow.  That first light is much like a growing child, to turn your back on it for even a moment means to miss a stage of change.  It alters with a smooth silkiness, but with a deceptive rapidity.  One moment it is a Toddler Suggestion of Sun, and the next it is a Grown Adult Day Light.  

The wind was calm, allowing for a perfect mirror-reflection of Banner Peak - one of my more favorite Sierra scenes: water so smooth it could be the sky.  

As the sun rose higher, the wind awakened, and its "morning breath" at first creates only whisper ripples on the lake's surface, changing the mirror reflection into an impressionistic rendering of the peak.

Next, the song birds begin to take flight, stretching their wings from the night's slumber.  They are followed by a handful of ducks engaging in their morning swim and fish surfacing, creating ever-expanding circles on the lake's surface.  It is lovely, and hard to let go of, but impossible to hold back from its evolution, impossible to hold on to.  As the sun slowly bleeds down the rest of the peak and the ridge surrounding the lake, igniting the tents in sunshine, the campers rise as well.

We packed up, and headed down the trail around 0900, getting to the car by 1330 or so. We, again, took our time, soaking in the last bits of trail views and that necessary disconnect from the restless routine of life at "home"... but, really, we feel that where we were then was our most authentic sense of "home".  The mountain wilderness, for us both, is where we feel most at grounded, most ourselves...our best selves.  For me personally, it is where I get the closest to not thinking, or at east not over thinking.  My thoughts somehow fuse with my body's movements, walking becomes cognition, and my foot's contact with the trail's tread becomes silent conversation.  I feel whole, and wholesome  - as if all my pieces are in their right place, and flows in perfect synchronization.  I miss such wild places even before I'm out of them - homesickness begins before I depart from home.

It is never 'enough' time, but it is always time that reminds me that there is 'enough' in less, in stillness, in slowness, in wilderness.

"Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself.  And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second's encounter with God and with eternity." (Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist)

  • Yosemite Place Names by Peter Browning